The Aggravating Way Stories Keep Screwing Up Their Twists
Watching a twist onscreen is a treat. The writers actually managed to surprise you, and now that the story's so different from what you thought, you want to watch it all over again, so you get to experience it two different ways. But sometimes, writers fret over twists. They say to themselves, "Sure, I tried to make something surprising. But how will the audience know it's surprising?"
"What are you talking about?" you ask. "If something's surprising, it's surprising." But the writer panics anyway. So they make sure someone you can identify with is onscreen, and they make sure the twist surprises that character. That character is totally shocked upon learning the truth ... even though that character knew the truth along.
This makes no sense and should never happen. But I've seen it happen time and again. Spoilers ahead, of course, so be prepared to skim and skip ahead accordingly.
Scrubs, And That One Twist Episode They Had
In one season 3 episode of Scrubs, a patient dies off-screen under J.D.'s care. He reports what happened to his superior/mentor Dr. Cox, saying he's sorry. Dr. Cox is furious. If we had time to think about this, we'd find this situation pretty strange. The patient was an old man, bound to die sooner or later. Knowing these guys, if anything, J.D. is the one who'd be overreacting, and Dr. Cox would be telling him to man up and move on. But the episode's moving at a quick pace, so we don't notice anything weird.
Throughout this episode, we're joined by recurring character Ben (Brendan Fraser), Cox's brother-in-law and best friend. Ben tells Cox he shouldn't be blaming J.D. for the death, even as Cox takes over all of J.D.'s duties and works dozens of hours straight. Meanwhile, there's some event Cox is supposed to attend, and he's refusing. Based on some stuff from earlier, we figure it's his toddler son's birthday.
Finally, at the end of the episode, we get the big reveal. That patient who died? Turns out it wasn't the old man, it was Ben. That's why Cox is so broken up. The Ben we've been seeing talk to him (and only to him) is actually a ghost, or a vision. The episode ends on the event Cox was dreading—not a birthday party but Ben's funeral.
Good ending, right? Except, here's what the characters say, right before we learn what's really happening:
Cox: "Aren't you gonna take some pictures?"
JD: "Pictures of what?"
Cox: "Y'know. Crying babies covered in chocolate. People singing 'Happy Birthday' to my son who've never even met him before. You know, the whole routine."
JD: "Where do you think we are?"
This dialogue seems to make sense because up to this point, we thought they were headed to a birthday party. Except, Cox didn't think that. Cox knew it was a funeral—that's why he didn't want to go. He said some stuff earlier that we thought was about a birthday for a baby ("as a rule of thumb, I don't attend parties where the guest of honor has no idea what's going on"), but that's such a good line because in retrospect we know he was really talking about Ben's funeral.
Until the end, we think Ben's alive, but Cox knows he's talking to a dead man, and some their dialogue even hints at this. Certainly, you could write an episode where someone has a mental break and denies his friend's death, imagines he's still alive, and is forced back to reality at the end (the episode we got throws out the words "denial" and "acceptance" at various points), but that's not what's going on here. All of Cox's actions show someone frustrated over his friend's death and reacting with conscious knowledge. One scene in particular, where he forgives J.D., would be meaningless if he thinks Ben is alive, if he thinks he's forgiving J.D. for a random patient's heart giving out.
We can all agree that the "happy birthday" line ruined the story, which is why this episode, "My Screw-Up" ... got an Emmy nomination for writing? And this is viewers' favorite episode, beaten only by the series finale? Well, okay, this isn't so much a case of ruining the episode as messing with the reveal, which merely mars the episode. And the fumbled reveal is all the more frustrating because the rest of the episode is so strong.
With our other examples, however, the fumbled reveal truly does ruin the twist ...
Detroit: Become Human
This video game from developer Quantic Dream is about androids, and—as with nearly every story where robots can pass as human—there's a twist where a seemingly human character was an android all along. With this story, the twist character is a little girl, Alice. You control an android named Kara, and throughout the story, you think you're playing an android who kidnaps/rescues a human girl (whose father she might have murdered), but no, they're actually two androids fleeing together.
You (the actual person playing the game) don't know Alice is an android for most of the runtime, but based on what happens, Kara (the in-universe character) must know this. The pair spend several days together without Alice ever eating or needing to pee, and we don't notice this, because we don't watch the characters 24/7, but Kara surely does. When the big reveal happens, there's even a flashback in which Kara finds Alice's manual, showing she knew the truth from the start. It might sound unusual, that you're controlling a character who knows things you don't, but a previous game from Quantic Dream did this for its big twist—I won't name the game here, but if you've played it, you know the one I'm talking about.
And yet here's how Detroit handles its reveal:
The pair are now among a whole bunch of robots, and Kara spots one that's the exact same model as Alice. This proves Alice is an android, and we get a few flashes explaining this. Kara had the evidence all along, but she deluded herself into thinking otherwise. Now, she knows the truth, and she has the option of treating Alice differently.
Why did Kara delude herself? They're a little vague about that. "She became the little girl you wanted and you became the mother she needed," explains another character, but no one can explain why Alice had to be human to fulfill your need (given that you didn't have to be human to fulfill hers). If the game wanted a secret-robot twist just for the sake of surprising us, they could have done that without making Kara ignorant of the stuff she should know. They'd have to tweak some earlier parts, but as for the reveal, it could be something like this:
Kara: "Alice?" (bumps into an Alice lookalike, who has different clothes and an Android LED). "Oh, sorry." (not worried at all) "I thought you were my Alice." (She finds Alice now and hugs her. Alice flickers, all Androidy, and Kara sees but is unsurprised; this is routine for her. We see the same explanatory flashbacks the actual game gave us. Kara and Alice talk normally, as the game lets the twist sink in for the player).
Or, if they really wanted Kara to delude herself into thinking Alice is human (we could think of some reason they'd want to, if we really try), they could have gone with that. But if she deluded herself upon seeing Alice's manual on day one, she'd keep deluding herself when shown this latest proof.
Kara: "Alice?" (bumps into an Alice lookalike, who has different clothes and an Android LED). "Oh, sorry." (not worried at all) "I thought you were Alice." (She finds Alice now and hugs her. Alice flickers, all Androidy, and Kara looks away. We see the same explanatory flashbacks the actual game gave us.) "Oh, Alice. My wonderful human daughter." (She absently moves Alice's hair, covering some robo sparking)
But no. They wanted Kara newly surprised by something she should have already known, and here's why: They wanted to present us with a choice. Do you remain affectionate or turn distant toward Alice, now knowing she's a robot? That choice might have been poignant were Kara human, but it's completely ridiculous given that Kara herself is a robot. "Do you love her any less now that you know she's one of us?" is how another robot puts it. Makes sense directed toward the audience, but it's a nonsense question within the story. What group loves you less when they learn you're one of them?
“Does a robot love Alice even though she's human" was a more interesting question than “does a robot live Alice even though both are robots.” And now I'm picturing the game flipping the traditional android twist. Making Kara liberate an android named Alice and only at the end realize the little girl is human. "That's why all that blue blood I've been feeding you hasn't been helping!" Kara would say, slapping her forehead. "You need FOOD!" And now Kara would have to decide whether to go on loving someone who's a different species, a species currently rounding up and killing the androids.
Note: My joke twist might—thanks to where the game goes next—lead to the government mistakenly killing a human girl in an android extermination camp, but you really need to play the actual game to judge whether that's better or worse than what we got.
Dexter Season 6, The ... Worst Season?
Before Dexter's recent revival came a legendarily bad finale and final season. But believe it or not, some people hated an earlier season even more. This was season six, which featured Colin Hanks as the villain, possibly because the network was being blackmailed. Colin Hanks had a murder mentor, played by Edward James Olmos, and savvy viewers quickly noticed something off about him.
I say "savvy viewers," but if you believe online discussion, all viewers picked up on this. Olmos only ever interacted with Hanks, he appeared and vanished mysteriously ... clearly, the show was pulling a Sixth Sense (aka a "My Screw-Up"), and he was a ghost/vision. It was especially obvious because Dexter the character also had a ghost/vision mentor, and because unlike most stories that try this twist, this one dragged it out for weeks.
Still, a twist isn't bad just because you guess it early. And finally, the time came for the show to reveal the truth. At the end of an episode, Dexter finds Edward James Olmos' dead body In Hanks' freezer and so realizes Hanks killed him years ago. Unfortunately, despite Dexter's penchant for explaining things to the audience (usually, he sees something, then explains it in a voiceover, then his ghost pal Harry explains it again), he can't quite play the audience surrogate here. He hasn't seen Olmos walking and talking, so they need an additional scene in the next episode, showing Hanks and Olmos in conversation—and showing Dexter's point of view, in which Hanks is talking to no one.
So, that's the twist revealed, right? No, because the show wasn't sure you understood yet. So they revealed it further by having Olmos explain he's dead, at length ... to Hanks. You know, the very guy who killed him. It seems Hanks blocked out that memory of killing him and has been imagining Olmos alive to this day. Viewers predicted a Sixth Sense twist, but they never imagined a version of The Sixth Sense where the kid thinks Bruce Willis is alive, despite the two spending years together.
It's possible to delude yourself into anything, so the show could write it so this murderer thinks his ghost mentor is still alive and is the one committing all these murders. But why do it? Only so we could get this explanation scene, as far as I can tell. It actually hurts the parallel with Dexter (who knows his own ghost mentor is a ghost). It also makes Hanks less evil, which is a problem, because the show wants him to be super evil from this point on. Plus, if he convinced himself Olmos is alive, why does he suddenly now realize he's not? Because he spots the same dead body Dexter does? That body's in his own basement freezer, he must have stumbled on it at least once every couple weeks for the past three years!
This episode also has a subplot where Debra wants to bang her brother, so it's not all bad.
Here's How To Do Avoid The Trap: Joker
Just to show writers can pull off this sort of twist without making this same mistake, let's look quickly at Joker. In this film, we have a bunch of scenes where Arthur and Zazie Beetz go out together. Late in the movie, he runs into her again, and she barely knows him. We realize their time together up to now was all in Arthur's head—he was just fantasizing about a relationship with her.
This is the same basic type of twist we've been talking about (sometimes dubbed a "mindf**k"), the kind where the film has been sort-of-maybe lying to you, and you can now rewatch the old scenes with the added info to newly appreciate them. The way this movie handles the reveal, they show you some flashbacks of those earlier scenes, now edited to show reality, to show Arthur was alone.
Now, am I citing Joker because it handled its twist remarkably elegantly, and this is some level of subtlety to which we should all aspire? No, just the opposite. I've actually heard quite a few people criticize this reveal for belaboring the point. The movie, some point out, could have simply shown Beetz not knowing Arthur, and we would have pieced together the truth. But the writer doubted we'd understand that, so they threw in explanatory flashbacks.
My point is that even with the writer doubting us, here's what they didn't do. They didn't say, "What we need is to have some character onscreen shocked, so the audience will mirror his facial expressions." They didn't rewrite the reveal scene so Arthur, who's been fantasizing about this neighbor, now forgets it was a fantasy and stammers, "You don't know me? But we've had such great times together!" They didn't do that, because we didn't need to see that to understand the twist.
Us in the audience, we're idiots, I admit it. But we're not complete idiots.
Top image: Showtime