‘Seinfeld’ Was at Its Most Complex and Impressive with Its Staggering “Backwards Episode”
Structurally Sound is a recurring feature where each week we examine a different structurally unusual, rule-breaking anomaly of an episode from a comedy series.
Sitcoms are all about regularity. They’re built to be churned out ad infinitum. The name itself — short for “situational comedies” — even refers to the broad premises that make up these shows and are designed to be milked until they’re dried up. While this can inevitably lead to a lot of similar, Mad Libs-esque episodes of these series, that still doesn’t mean that every once and a while a very different, game-changing entry can’t be made. Even as far and convention-breaking as sitcoms have come, they still ultimately submit to a formula and a status quo. That’s why it feels so special — important even, at times — when these atypical anomalies are produced. They’re something that beg the question, “Did you see that!?” and demand conversation.
Seinfeld, a show that needs no introduction, is a series that feels like a logical choice to begin with. It was a sitcom that reached such heights of popularity during its lifespan (and even now) but was still marching to its own tune (a hip bass theme) while frequently attempting ambitious experiments. In Seinfeld’s case the bulk of these experiments came in the form of story and subject matter, broaching new ground in terms of what comedies could cover, but “The Betrayal” is an example of them knocking it out of the park in terms of structure.
“The Betrayal” — or as it’s more colloquially known, “The Backwards Episode” — is a dazzling accomplishment that sees the entire half hour playing out backwards, right down to the series’ production company’s logo from the end credits starting off the installment. For a show that is so concerned about the craft and the art of writing, this episode more so than any other is focused on the construction of its comedy. In spite of this though, the episode at no point depends on the fact that it’s being told backwards. The episode is certainly aided by this fact — and much of the comedy is designed around it — but the fact that the Seinfeld DVDs allow you to watch the episode in chronological order and it still functions, as well as being a very funny episode of Seinfeld in its own right, is evidence of it not needing the “gimmick” to survive.
It wasn’t beyond Seinfeld to reference pop culture or broadly riff on a widely popular unifier, with fodder such as Oliver Stone’s JFK and the OJ Simpson trial being prime examples, but Harold Pinter’s play, The Betrayal, is a pretty deep cut. Choosing to do an episode that’s a tribute to the text is a testament to not only the series’ audacity and ingenuity, but also their ability to do anything that they wanted.
What’s even more significant here is that Seinfeld became known as a show that would pick apart society, political correctness, and the human condition in general. The show became incredibly astute at this by its final season, so the idea of extrapolating their scrutinizing view to a Pinter play (which were also known for their dissections of society and how we respond accordingly — The Betrayal in particular is a treatise on family, relationships, and love, perverting them all in a manner not unusual for Seinfeld) makes perfect sense. In that regard, this atypical structure is not just being done gratuitously, but rather the natural evolution of where the show’s themes were headed. There’s a reason that it’s Pinter who was chosen here, rather than say, Mamet. Let’s not forget that this is the same show that did an episode that was essentially a parable for Leoncavallo’s opera, I Pagliacci.
Seinfeld had been no stranger to having episodes turn into conversation pieces, but this episode in particular managed to make a significant dent. For instance, Roseanne Barr, who was leading one of the other top sitcoms of the time, Roseanne, responded to the episode by saying, “They think they’re doing Samuel Beckett instead of a sitcom.” Obviously “The Betrayal” felt different and wasn’t the norm. Again though, you don’t need to get the literary references for this episode to work. The fact that it’s presented in reverse is an impressive feat even if there was no allusion going on. The installment takes a meticulous amount of time to reveal the full picture, arguably being as complicated as other ambitious endeavors that Seinfeld took on, like “The Parking Garage” and “The Chinese Restaurant.” There’s something truly special where a show that was so often playfully joked about being about “nothing,” could be about such a thing while simultaneously referencing a playwright and unraveling in reverse. It’s astounding that “nothing” can be so complex.
Right from “The Betrayal’s” opening moments, it’s kind of amazing that the episode lays everything out on the table immediately. You’re only a few minutes in when you’re thrown into the episode’s climax, yet in spite of knowing exactly where all of this is going none of the suspense is lost in the process. The episode is still deeply engaging even though you have all of the beats that lead to the dissolution of Sue Ellen Mischke’s wedding right from the start.
Impressively, even if you ignore the backwards structure and treat this as a “normal” episode, “The Betrayal” still shatters typical sitcom conventions and becomes anomalistic by the fact that the entry spans over eleven years of time in a mere twenty-two minutes. Even without the ambitious structural diversion, the episode is still playing with the sitcom audience’s typical perceptions of time and how this show operates. 99% of Seinfeld episodes span a handful of days from these characters’ lives, so all of a sudden covering years is of course jarring. It’s like the reverse of a bottle episode where time and space are completely indulged.
While the ambitious leap in format would be enough to keep “The Betrayal” busy, the episode is even more chaotic due to the sheer amount that it takes on. Basically every scene has some mention of the many running jokes that the episode is juggling, whether it’s George’s avoidance of using the bathroom while in India, his refusal to take off the Timberlands he’s wearing, Elaine’s propensity for getting soused and steamrolled, or Kramer’s ongoing hunt to gain more wishes and not drop dead. Nearly no piece of dialogue goes to waste in this crazy balancing act, and rather than these constant callbacks feeling gratuitous or unearned, new angles are found on these runners each time. Slightly more of their context is revealed with each passing reference causing the jokes to land harder accordingly.
This backwards structure might feel like it limits the show in terms of the comedy that it’s allowed to make, but “The Betrayal” manages to offer up a beautiful mixing of comedic sensibilities as a result of this structure. The format allows the series to perfectly execute cerebral humor, such as Jerry saying “Bless you” to Elaine only for the episode to cut to the next scene, three seconds earlier, where Elaine’s sneezing. Brilliant physical comedy is also achieved too though, such as Kramer’s regenerating lollipop prop, which might be justification for the episode in itself. At other points jokes are punctuated by the utter randomness of the way that they’ve been assembled together due to this non-linear structure, like when Kramer is pelted with a snowball in the face only to follow this up by profusely thanking FDR for the gesture. That’s a sort of joke that would be impossible for the show to make at any other time.
The most extravagant examples of the episode’s use of cutting back in time to pull off a punchline come in “The Betrayal’s” final flashbacks. The first is to two years prior, where we see that a not-yet-deceased Susan Biddle Ross is the one that gave George the expression, “You can stuff your sorries in a sack,” which he’s been spouting all episode. The final flashback takes place an unbelievable eleven years earlier when Jerry was first moving into his trademark apartment. Here he off the cuff tells his new neighbor, Kramer, “What’s mine is yours!” and ends up setting off the colossal cause and effect relationship that’s haunted him through the entire series in the process. Much of “The Betrayal” is about cause and effect and the consequences of actions, even if they take forever to register, with this being the ultimate example; a careless action that’s ended up informing the entire dynamic of the series.
This is all punctuated by the episode’s “cold open” at the end with Elaine saying, “Yeah, right. Like I’m going to India.” This, at its surface level, is not even a joke, but the statement is now immensely funny due to us not only knowing that she does go to India, but winds up ruining the wedding in the process. It’s an amazing feat that’s pulled off here where normal lines are injected with humor because of the structural device that consumes the episode.
Seinfeld gracefully chose to bow out of the game after nine seasons, but with this episode, one of their final entries, it’s interesting to think of what other stylistic leaps the show might have taken if it carried on. A take on something like Rashomon certainly doesn’t feel out of the show’s grasp. It’s easy to simplify “The Betrayal” into merely “The Backwards Episode,” but it’s not until you really dig into it that the full scope of its complexity is revealed.