Mixed Emotions: “The Betrayal” (i.e. The Backwards Seinfeld Episode)
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 21, 2008
“Still don’t know what that means…”
Without a doubt, “The Betrayal” is one of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes, a top tenner for certain. It’s got plenty of hilarious Frustrated George moments, especially as he calls out for reparations from Jerry in the form of sex with Elaine (“That doesn’t punish me, it punishes Elaine,” Jerry points out in his most characteristically condescending tone, “And cruelly, I might add”). It’s got one of the great one-off Seinfelders with Kramer’s friend-cum-death-wisher FDR (Franklin Deleanor Romanosky). It’s got some of the all-time classic Newman quotes, goading Kramer that he wasn’t invited to his all-Postal Employee birthday party because his invite must’ve gotten “lost in the mail!” and explaining an inside tip to his birthday-wish-supermodel-girlfriend about Zip Codes (“They’re meaningless!“) It’s even got Sue-Ellen Mischky, the braless wonder, and the all-time last appearance of Susan, supplying George with his hysterically meaningless catchphrase-to-be.
But my emotions about this episode remain mixed, for one simple reason: I don’t really get why it has to be backwards. It’s a fascinating gimmick, sure, especially in the pre-Memento era, but according to Wikipedia, it’s not a unique one, as Sci-Fi series like Red Dwarf, Voyager and The X-Files have all attempted the “Backwards Episode” before. The explanation for the creative choice would most likely be tied to the fact that the episode is titled after and I suppose roughly themed after the Harold Pinter play “The Betrayal,” with Sue-Ellen’s fiancee even being named after the playwright. And sure, there are a couple decent reverse chronology-jokes, like Elaine being Schnapped three seconds before we see her confessing to Jerry her previous Scnhapps-spill to George, and of course the episode’s final/first scene, in which Kramer’s general mooching tendencies are explained by a too-inviting Jerry upon first moving across the hall to the big man.
But really, minus this closing/opening scene, would the episode seem at all weird or out of place if it were put back in the correct order? If you think about it, it’s basically just like every other Seinfeld episode, and some jokes that would’ve been good if they were found at the end of the 22 minutes (Nina explaining she knew about George’s faux-heightening all along, Elaine’s acrimonious re-split with Sue-Ellen) just don’t make sense at the episode’s beginning. And unlike in Memento, in which the character’s amnesia was thematically echoed by the fragmented, constantly re-starting backwards chronology, there aren’t really any such themes to be found in this slight (albeit not particularly so by Seinfeld standards) episode for it to be seen as anything but a gimmick.
There are two defenses I will consider for the ep’s backwardness, one of which is intentional and one of which is circumstancially coincidental. The intentional one, and one which comes pretty close to justifying the ep’s backwardness on its own, is that of Kramer’s lollipop, pictured above. It’s never really explained why he has it in the first place–I guess he acquired it at FDR’s birthday party, though I’ve never been at a party in New York cool enough to give out giant lollipops. Watching the thing start out as having been nearly licked down to the nub at Kramer’s second confrontation with FDR, and watching it inconspicuously grow back to full size as the episode regresses is one of the episode’s greatest and most subtle triumphs.
And the second thing which nearly justifies this creative gambit to me, and a benefit that I don’t see how the episode’s creators could possibly have predicted, is the way it ends up commenting on the way people like me that mostly know Seinfeld through watching the reruns watch the show. I’d wager that of all the Seinfeld episodes I’ve seen, I’ve maybe seen about a quarter all the way through at any one point. Instead, I’d tune it at 6:47 and catch the last thirteen minutes, then catch the ten minutes before that about a year later, and maybe three years after that, I’d finally see the opening scene. “The Betrayal” was no exception to this, and consequently, I essentially saw the episode like it was any other TV show–maybe one of the only Seinfeld episodes where I first saw the beginning, then the middle, and then the end. Freaky.
In any event, I’m sure the Pinter play doesn’t have an exchange nearly as hilarious as when Kramer and Newman negotiate their birthday-wish bartering (“Your next…fifty birthday wishes.” “48!” “49!” “Done!“)