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Narrative Structure in "All My Children": (Lack of) Resolution

by Jeremy Butler

Almost by definition, serials cannot have total resolution. If they did, there would be no reason to tune in the next day. Climaxes don’t generate resolutions. They just create new enigmas. In characteristic fashion, the December 6th All My Children episode is dealing with the repercussions of a resolved storyline. For months, the program focused on a mysterious series of murders. Then, the mystery was solved: it was Jonathan that killed three people and what caused him to do so was a tumor pressing on his brain. Surgeons successfully removed the tumor—thereby both curing him and bringing the storyline to a conclusion. Or did they? Zach, the son of one of the murder victims, has turned to alcohol to ease the pain and he vows to kill Jonathan. Will he do so and/or will he get his life back in order? And is Jonathan truly cured, or is he just faking it? The attack on Kendall that begins the December 6th episode raises questions about Jonathan’s rehabilitation. As is always the case in serials, the resolution of one storyline opens up new questions, new enigmas. 

Even death is not a certainty—as was illustrated by Bobby Ewing’s return to Dallas after “dying” in front of Pam’s eyes. (Apparently it was just a dream of Pam’s—a dream that lasted an entire TV season!) And Jonathan, on All My Children, managed to return to the narrative after having been shot and having had a bomb he created explode, which caused a mining cave to collapse on top of him. Furthermore, many serial characters have returned from (presumed) death two and three times—as did James Stenbeck (Anthony Herrera) on As the World Turns. So even death is not a permanent resolution on the soap opera. 

On the extremely rare occasions when a serial storyline does achieve relative narrative closure—say, a couple marries and leaves the program— it is still of little consequence to the enigma structure of the program because of the abundance of other enigmas. The sixth season of ER ends with major character Carol (Julianna Margulies) joining Doug (George Clooney) in Seattle—the conclusion of a very rocky relationship spanning several years. (Since both actors left the show, there would be no further developments in their relationship.) But ER hardly missed them and had no lack of ongoing enigmas in the following seasons. With numerous protagonists, someone is certain to be lacking or desiring someone or something at any point in time on television serials. The one imperative of the serial is that the story must continue. 

In terms of individual episodes, the serial ends as it begins: in the middle of the action. The All My Children episode that begins in medias res in the child-custody storyline ends in the midst of the same storyline —with very little narrative development between start and finish. In the last shot of the day, Babe watches J.R. leave the boathouse, then grins at her success in turning the tables on him and Del. “Gotcha!” she says triumphantly to herself, concluding the day’s episode. Her exclamation contains an implied tease: Will she trick J.R. and regain custody of their son? Tune in tomorrow to (perhaps) find out.

Narrative Structure in "All My Children": Part 3

TV narrative structure -- the serial.

from All My Children (2005)
Creator: ABC
Distributor: ABC
Posted by Jeremy Butler