Tortoise Tuesday: Orienting in “Babylon Berlin”
As a PTL project, I’ve finally started properly studying German, and by that I mean watching Babylon Berlin. I’m a diligent student, so I’ve already made it through most of the third and final season. The show, which follows detectives investigating political conspiracies and crimes in late 1920s Germany, gives a fascinating (and, as far as I can tell, fairly accurate) view of the Weimar Republic, but it’s also an excellent example of orienting evidence—in this case, physical evidence in the detectives’ investigations.
Just like in a good paper, pieces of evidence that will be important later in the show are introduced early on, left alone until a point in the structure where they become relevant, and then fully analyzed to demonstrate their relationship to the overarching thesis (or plot). Early in season three, for example, I knew there had to be a reason for the huge bottle of insulin a diabetic character keeps on hand. Sure enough, in the climactic episode, the main characters narrowly escape a hypoglycemic coma after the villain injects them both with a lethal dose of insulin. (The fact that this is one of the series’ more realistic plot twists says a lot about the show.) That the bottle was introduced—oriented—and defined in an early episode makes it easy for the viewer to understand its role when it reappears later. It also avoids the necessity of orienting and defining at the same time that the piece of evidence is actually being used (analyzed, in a writing context), which could come across as clumsy and poorly planned. Instead, the bottle is already in the back of the viewer’s mind, and when its purpose in the show becomes clear, everything falls neatly into place.
When I’m reading other students’ essays at the Writing Center, people sometimes say they’re concerned that orienting a source but not fully unpacking it until later in the paper might lead their reader to think they’re just doing a bad job of analyzing the material. Actually, I find it very helpful as a reader when sources are briefly introduced and key terms are succinctly defined at the start of a paper, so I have some idea of the analysis that’s coming. It would have seemed (even more?) ridiculous if the bad guy in Babylon Berlin had whipped out a bottle of insulin with no previous orienting, as if the show’s writers had thought of this plot development while they were writing but then hadn’t bothered to go back to earlier episodes and adequately set up their plot (thesis). Just setting up the sources that you’re planning to use and trusting your reader to understand that you’ll come back to them later is orienting enough, and it usually won’t kill you.
— Ro van Wingerden, ’21