How Ryan Murphy Uses Pronouns to Build a Character
What Makes Great Writing #022 - Featuring Ryan Murphy and his Netflix show: The Watch
Saying that Ryan Murphy has a lot of power in the entertainment industry is like saying the ocean is pretty big.
Accurate, but nowhere near reaching the scope of the phenomenon.
The Watcher, released on Netflix earlier this month, was only one of Ryan’s four releases in October. Combined with Dahmer, Mr. Harrigan’s Phone, and a new season of American Horror Story, his productions have already soared past the 1 billion hours watched mark.
Ryan’s wide consumer reach is only a hint of his behind-the-scenes pull. Every single leading woman in The Watcher agreed to star simply because Ryan asked.
After his gore-splattered entries in the horror genre (in Scream Queens a character’s head is ripped off with a chainsaw), you would expect a Ryan Murphy miniseries about a haunted house in New Jersey to be jam-packed with twisted costumes, in-your-face demons, and other graphic nightmare fuel.
Instead, Murphy and his co-writers Ian Brennan, Reilly Smith, and Todd Kubrak serve up a subtle, character-driven suspense. Today, we’ll study a few lines of dialogue from the show’s leading man: Dean Brannock.
Analyzing television writing is tricky. Cameras characterize scenes with a lens choice, shot type, or angle. Actors — with a wince, a wink, or nod — can convey a world of emotion.
Still, cinematography without great writing is just a pretty picture.
Performance without good dialog is humans making weird faces.
Let’s take a look at four moments when Dean is struggling to balance the pressures he’s facing, pressures that serve as a swift undercurrent to the show’s main plot. We begin with this conversation, only minutes into the pilot episode. Dean and his wife Nora are trying to decide whether they will buy a big house.
Realtor: So, what do you think?
Dean: Yeah, I love it.
Dean, to Nora: I love you.
Nora, embarrassed: Oh, honey.
Dean: I want to make an offer.
Realtor: Really? That easy?
Ignore the parallel structure and anaphora (3 sentences of similar length, all with “I love” at the beginning). Look instead to the characterization of Dean through dialogue.
Money affects every relationship in Dean’s life. With his daughter Ellie, it serves as a form of control (“This is MY house, so…”). At his job, it serves as a form of status (“Whenever I make partner…”).
In his relationship with Nora, it’s how he attempts to show love. This is clear in Dean’s pronoun choice.
He says “I love the house” in response to the realtor. Normal.
He says “I love you” to Nora. Normal.
He says “I want to make an offer” to the realtor.
Not normal. Fairly damning, in fact.
“We” are not making the offer. Not the husband and wife. Only the husband. Only Dean. Dean the breadwinner, the decision maker, the alpha.
It will soon be revealed that Nora wanted to escape New York City. Dean offers her safety in his chest-thumping, prideful sort of way: buying a house they can’t afford.
We discover this in the very next scene between Dean and his financial planner.
Dean: Come on, Steve. This is America, right? Everybody buys a house they can't afford.
Steve: You know the problem?
Steve: The bankruptcy.
Dean: That was ten years ago!
Steve: Dean, there's only so much I can do. The fact is, with your current income, you guys just don't qualify for a jumbo loan this size.
Dean: What if it wasn't a jumbo loan? Just... What if we did a big down payment? Just... All our savings. Pulled all of our stocks, cashed them in. Our IRA... And just pulled everything. Took the tax hit and put it into the house. Then it's not a jumbo loan, right?
Steve: I mean...
Steve: Maybe, maybe. But you're taking on a lot of risk.
Dean: You gotta see this house, Steve. It's by a lake. ( chuckles ) Okay? There's no traffic. People don't even lock their doors. It's safe, man.
Steve: Come on, Dean. shit can happen anywhere. It's branding.
Dean: I don't care. I want my kids to have their own rooms. I want them to have a yard that's big enough for them to play in. The schools are better.
I'll do whatever it takes to get this house.
Bobby Cannavale, the actor who plays Dean, said this was actually the most horrific scene of the whole show. We all cringe with him, knowing that Mr. Brannock is walking into a financial buzzsaw.
A clumsy writer may have revealed the bankruptcy through an on-the-nose conversation with Nora and Dean:
Nora: “Can we afford this house?
Dean: “Why, yes, darling.”
Nora: “But what about the bankruptcy?”
Dean: “We’re past that, dear.”
Ryan Murphy knows couples who can’t communicate don’t talk like that. So, we introduce a financial planner to educate us, the audience, about Dean’s past.
Our main character is conscious of his risky decision. (Note how he repeats the word “just” before his suggestions to pull every dime of his assets). It doesn’t matter. This conversation can only end one way. For Dean to walk back his offer, to admit to his wife that he (not they) can’t really afford the house, is unthinkable.
In the meantime, Dean trips into a diacope (repetition of a word, with additional information between) with “pulled all of our stocks…pulled everything.”
This is a consequence of great writing: Dean’s motivation is crystal clear at this point. He is a relatable character, only 6 minutes into the show.
Dean is willing to leave his family with no spare cash.
That’s why it’s confusing when, a few scenes later, he and Nora have this exchange:
Nora (discussing furniture): “Oh, and I found a Jeanneret chair on 1stDibs!”
Dean: No, no, no. We agreed, right? We don’t spend any more money until we redo the kitchen and the basement, okay? No Jeanneret, no Target, none of it.
Again, let’s go to the pronouns.
For the first time, Dean has swapped “I” for “we.” A plural pronoun. Although “he” made the offer, THEY are now cash poor… or supposedly cash poor. If “everything” went into the house, how are they renovating the kitchen and basement? A riddle for us viewers to consider.
Rhetoric-wise, we have three rules of three showing up here in Dean’s response:
First a epizeuxis (repeating the same word 3 times): “No, no, no”
Then the repetition of “we” 3 times
Before finishing with a tricolon (three phrases or clauses with similar structure): “No Jeanneret. No Target. None of it.”
Nora backs down, and in the same scene, the two swap these words:
Dean: “Are we happy, Mrs. Brannock?”
Nora: “I think we are, Mr. Brannock.”
Once more, Dean’s pronoun is suspicious. Surely he doesn’t need to ask anyone else if he is happy. What he means is: Are YOU happy, Nora? In that subtle way that well-meaning husbands with control issues do, he’s asking: “Have I made you happy?”
This moment is the safest and happiest the couple will ever feel in the series.
From here, threatening letters, past sins, hints of infidelity, angry neighbors, money mistakes, cults, and various other secrets all come rushing from Pandora’s box in a wave of horror.
None of it hits nearly as hard without the clues left in the show’s opening episode. This, if nothing else, is why Murphy deserves all the credit he gets.
Much love as always <3
-Todd B from Tennessee