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Why Little Women and The Witcher are kind of the same

Jumbled timeline storytelling is becoming more and more popular, especially on TV.

Jo March from Little Women and Geralt from The Witcher stare at the camera.
Jo March and Geralt both live their lives all out of order.
Sony Pictures/Netflix
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Over the holidays, I had a truly unexpected realization: People were having the same major complaint about Netflix’s weirdo fantasy The Witcher as they were about director Greta Gerwig’s sweet-tempered adaptation of Little Women. Despite the former garnering incredibly mixed reviews (though solid viewership, at least according to Netflix) and the latter becoming one of the most beloved movies of the year (by critics and audiences), it wasn’t hard for me to find folks on social media asking just what was going on in either of them.

Little Women got less of this confused reaction, which makes sense. It is, after all, based on a beloved American novel that had been adapted numerous times before Gerwig’s movie. But even with that in its corner, the movie’s time-jumbled narrative, in which it leaps between present and past with thrilling abandon, filling in gaps as the story goes, left at least some viewers confused.

“Gerwig has thrown linear storytelling to the wind, and opted for a series of unidentified flashbacks and flash forwards. But in a chronicle with so many characters and locales as Little Women, that’s a great disservice to anyone who’s new to it all,” wrote critic Ed Symkus, who’s actually familiar with the story. But Symkus fears that those who aren’t as familiar will be too confused by the film to properly enjoy it.

Were they? Yes and no. Most people seem to find the film more or less comprehensible. But when I started looking through my Twitter followers for those who had no trouble following the story of Little Women, despite having not read or seen prior versions, I realized something: A lot of them were people I followed primarily for sharing their thoughts about television, not film. (Take, for instance, TV critic extraordinaire Alan Sepinwall, who seemed more or less fine with the story unfolding as it did.) The handful of viewers who struggled to follow along, however, seemed more tapped into the world of film. (Film awards pundit Sasha Stone, for instance, has repeatedly criticized the movie’s disorienting timeline.)

Certainly plenty of films have had jumbled timelines before (even its fellow Best Picture nominee The Irishman slowly fills in its pieces as it goes), but Little Women feels like it handles this sort of storytelling differently from most similar films. My hypothesis is that Little Women — which does this sort of jumbled storytelling extremely well — makes a lot of sense to those of us who watch tons of TV, because it’s structured less like a film adaptation of Little Women. Instead, Gerwig’s film more closely resembles a prestige TV drama.

All of which brings us back to The Witcher, and the way many of our biggest TV shows have moved from relatively straightforward A-to-B storytelling to jumbled Z-to-J-to-X-to-C storytelling.

Lost, Westworld, and the rise of complicated puzzle-box narratives

A still from The Witcher.
Check out this neat cliff Geralt found.

Like Little Women (which takes place across two timelines about seven years apart), The Witcher is told broadly across multiple timelines, in this case three timelines of different lengths. (One takes about 70 years, another about 20 years, and the last about two weeks.) This timeline shuffle was apparently inspired by a movie — Christopher Nolan’s expressionistic WWII drama, Dunkirk — but The Witcher’s execution is pure 2010s genre television. It most reminds me of HBO’s oft-confusing series Westworld, which similarly takes place across multiple timelines without explanation until late into its first season. (Dunkirk advertises upfront the nature of its weirdo chronology, if nothing else.)

Unlike Little Women (which openly uses a “seven years ago” subtitle at one point to set up that some events are happening in the past), The Witcher seems as though it’s trying to hide the fact that it’s told nonchronologically, jumbling events together in ways that can give casual viewers a headache. The Witcher may seem like the classic “turn it on and do something else” sort of show, but if you do this, you’ll walk away and come back feeling deeply confused by everything that’s happening. (Vulture has a timeline that more or less sorts everything out.)

This style of puzzle-box show has become so common in genre television that it’s honestly surprising when a show isn’t told in that fashion. Even HBO’s relatively straightforward sequel to Watchmen features an entire storyline that takes place several years before the series proper begins. (It’s the one with Jeremy Irons in a mysterious manor house.) Watchmen never comes out and says, “This happened several years ago.” It just assumes you’ll figure it out.

Puzzle-box narratives were not invented by television or movies. Books that play with chronology are as old as fiction itself, and storytellers’ experiments with timelines have grown only more brazen over the last several centuries. But prestige television has taken this technique and made it all but required of sprawling serialized narratives, especially for genre shows. This kind of storytelling is no longer unconventional on TV: It’s the standard.

Ground zero for this current era of puzzle-box TV is likely Lost, a show that played around with time so much that at one point it had flashbacks, flash-forwards, and actual time travel rattling along in the same story. Its experiments were not as brazen as other shows’ — you always knew when you were entering a flashback, thanks to an established sound cue — but it suggested that a big, ambitious genre show could and should find ways to experiment with its chronology.

From there, prestige television has become ever more addicted to this style of storytelling. Westworld is a prime example, with its first season featuring events that occur decades apart, something the series doesn’t conclusively reveal until the 10th and final episode of that season. Nevertheless, intrepid fans on the internet pieced together the timeline long before that finale aired, thanks to subtle clues in set design and costuming. If you were into piecing together the series’ puzzle, the show could be delightful; if you just wanted a good story, well-told (and traditionally told), it was far more enervating.

The Witcher attempts something similar to Westworld. Much of its jumbled timeline is best understood by trying to grasp the political situation unfolding in Cintra, the fantasy kingdom where the series takes place. In general, when things are more stable, they take place earlier in the series’ timeline. But the show doesn’t really come out and tell you that’s what’s going on. You’re expected to figure it out yourself, busywork that might be fun on a better-made show but kept me bouncing off of the series (which I finally dragged myself through after it had been on Netflix for over a month).

Telling a story across multiple timelines is murderously difficult to pull off, but when a show does pull it off, it can be hugely rewarding. I’d argue Westworld’s first season succeeded at this, and in so doing, it underlined how it might feel to be an artificial consciousness and have your past and present jostling for attention in your cybernetic brain. But The Witcher doesn’t have a similarly compelling reason to split up its timeline, which means its storytelling choices provoke headaches more than deep thinking.

The timeline shuffle is a way to draw audience engagement from viewers who enjoy putting puzzle pieces together. But it’s also a way to artificially push audiences to feel as though characters are making dramatic changes when they actually aren’t. Most TV shows are centered on characters who can only change in very small ways, lest they break the status quo of the series. (Westworld, for instance, needs its robots’ understanding of their selfhood to happen at a glacial pace.) Jumbling the timeline means that major revelations the characters came to in their own pasts can be withheld for later in the season, which gives the illusion of change because you’re seeing the way things used to be rather than the way they are right now.

But if your brain is steeped in the world of modern prestige drama, you are well aware of timeline jumbling as a conceit, even if you’re mostly aware of it via more mainstream examples like, say, the long-running sitcom How I Met Your Mother. And who was going to be the lead of that show’s proposed (and ultimately scuttled) spinoff, How I Met Your Dad? Who pitched in to help write the pilot of that time-bending show? That’s right: Little Women director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig.

Little Women takes a story many of us know well and turns it into a puzzle box. But it has its reasons.

The four March sisters look out the window.
The March sisters check out something going on outside.
Sony Pictures Entertainment

I loved Little Women, but as I left the theater, I found myself wondering why it was assembled nonchronologically. The film’s present-day timeline is centered on Jo March pausing her budding writing career in New York to care for her ailing sister, Beth, back home. While she undertakes this journey, Jo thinks back to other times in her life when her sisters were important to her, which include many of the most famous scenes from the book (whose first half is generally better known than its second half).

Gerwig plays fair with its nonlinearity in a way I’m not sure The Witcher or even Westworld does, probably because she knows this book is so famous that she can’t really disguise her timeline tricks. In general, the past scenes are colored with a golden hue that befits a memory of a better time, while a blue filter overlays the harsher, colder present. Also, youngest sister Amy March has bangs in the past, while she doesn’t in the present. These are the biggest cues among several others that Gerwig uses to guide the audience.

Gerwig’s isn’t the first adaptation of Little Women to utilize a nonchronological narrative, however. The Broadway musical, which ran for a short time in 2005, also opens with Jo’s writing career struggling along, then flashes back to her past. But that musical uses Jo’s present-day writing career as a framing device, showing how she comes to write the book Little Women (because, yes, Jo March writes the book Little Women within the novel’s own fiction). Gerwig is much more liberal with her time jumps by comparison.

It takes a bit to figure out just what Gerwig is up to. But by the movie’s second half, particularly with regard to the famous love triangle among Jo, Amy, and the neighbor boy Laurie, Gerwig begins piling on the ironies of life and the ways these characters find themselves struggling to reconcile their past and present selves. (Writer Dana Schwartz has a very smart Twitter thread about how Gerwig uses timeline shenanigans to get viewers more invested in the Laurie/Amy pairing than they might otherwise have been.)

The more I’ve thought about Little Women’s story construction, the more I’ve come to love it. This is a story about how hard it is to ever go home again after you’re an adult, about how the warm and happy place where Jo March grew up is no longer available to her, even when all of her sisters are home. (Indeed, Beth dies before Amy can rejoin the family from abroad, meaning that most of the present-day timeline takes place when all four sisters can’t be home together.)

That’s all well and good. Many of us have longed for a past we cannot return to, no matter how hard we try. But Gerwig is utilizing this idea to underline more specifically how much harder that idea is to bear for women. A man who might long to return home will feel wistful, yes, but Jo March’s longing is driven by her desire to go back to a time before she realized how little the world had to offer her in comparison to a man her age. She is trapped, in some ways, by her memories, but the memories she holds allow her to write the book that finally brings her success as a writer. It’s a catch-22, albeit one I suspect Jo welcomes.

So this version of Little Women, too, is structured not as a story where Jo changes, but where she is better revealed to both the audience and us. Gerwig uses her two timelines in the way a TV show would — to underline ironies and to reveal other sides of characters that we might not understand so dramatically in a different story. There’s a reason people who watch so much prestige television have glommed right on to this movie: It’s almost like a two-hour TV season.

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