This article contains major spoilers from the beginning for Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes, Westworld, Bates Motel and Dexter.
Back in 2010, Den of Geek interviewed Matthew Graham, creator of the now-classic series Ashes To Ashes, shortly before the release of the show’s brilliant finale. When asked about how close the many fan theories were getting to the truth of how the series would end, he had this to say:
“The thing is that you should be able to guess. When you get to the end, you should be able to say ‘oh yes’. It’s not an out-of-nowhere thing, because I think that would be a cheat.”
Indeed, one of the prevailing fan theories around Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes was that the past world that modern cops Sam Tyler and Alex Drake found themselves in after traumatic injuries would turn out to be a kind of purgatory and – surprising few – this did turn out to be the case. But rather than be upset at a relatively easily guessed ending, most fans were thrilled with a resolution that not only made sense, but provided new context for everything we had seen before in a way that enriched the preceding story without adversely altering any of it.
Now compare this to the ending of the American remake of Life On Mars, in which the title turned out to be somewhat literal as we were essentially watching a group of astronauts living out a simulation while on an actual journey to Mars. It’s fair to say that this ending was met with a degree of mockery that has retrospectively turned that remake into even more of a punchline than it already was.
But here’s the crucial question; while plenty guessed the beloved ending of the British series, how many people figured out how the American show would wrap up? In theory, didn’t the American show have the bigger, more explosive twist?
Recently a good friend of mine started watching Westworld. This coming several months after the much talked about season finale, I was of course curious as to whether he had heard about the now infamous twist in the final episode, infamous precisely because just about everyone seemed to have figured it out by at least the halfway point of the series. He knew nothing about it and of course I didn’t give him any hints; when then moment came for the Man in Black to reveal his identity I received shocked texts from both my friend and his wife, neither of whom had seen this coming.
I won’t lie, I was a little jealous. I’m sure I never would have guessed the twist myself, but reading fan theories online meant that coming into the final episodes of the season I couldn’t unsee all the clues that now seemed to be pointing in one very obvious direction. Had I stumbled on Westworld later like they did I suspect my mind would have been blown by a twist that is not only quite brilliant, but makes sense in the context of everything we’ve seen and enriches the story, giving everything we’ve seen thus far an air of real tragedy that makes Westworld more than just some clever sci-fi.
But see, this is exactly why guessing Westworld’s big reveal in advance didn’t ruin its popularity at all: Westworld had enough going on that a great twist was just icing on the cake, and all the ultimately correct speculation prior to the eventual reveal ended up just being part of the fun of watching the show. When the twist came it was satisfying rather than disappointing, because everything the show had put into place until then was leading to it and as such it was suffused with a sense of grim inevitability rather than any disappointment. The story earned that moment, even if it didn’t shock us as much as we would have liked.
Recently Bates Motel, A&E’s intermittently excellent reimagining of Psycho, finally got around to adapting the events of the classic film, including a certain shower scene with Rihanna stepping into the iconic role of Marion Crane. For the most part events played out in a familiar manner; Marion steals money from her boss to help her boyfriend with his alleged debts, heads off to find him, pulls over to stay at the Bates Motel, has dinner with Norman Bates, then retires to her room and gets in the shower as Norman watches her from his secret hole in the wall. Even the shots around Marion’s shower do everything possible to suggest the original film and tell us where this is inevitably going.
But suffice to say things do not play out the same way as the film, and it made for one of the most thrilling moments of television I have seen in a long time, a brilliant, dizzying subversion of what we had been led to expect. But, and this is the important thing, the moment Marion’s shower doesn’t play out the same as the movie it becomes obvious where this is going, and knowing that does nothing to lessen the exhilarating thrill of the episode’s final interpretation of one of cinema’s most iconic scenes. In fact, while I anticipated it for the half an episode leading up to it, I was jumping up and down in my seat when the moment played out in the way I had guessed.
Again, my excitement was not due to the moment being surprising, but due to it being satisfying in all the ways that only a long-anticipated plot development coming to fruition can be. Bates Motel brilliantly uses our familiarity with its source material to distract us from its real intentions, and the moment that becomes clear the twist ceases to be a twist. But that doesn’t make it less excellent. The impact of a twist, after all, is superficial; a shock that only has lasting power if it means something in the broader context of the story. Bates Motel, Westworld and Ashes To Ashes all achieved that, and none of them were unpredictable. They were just good stories well told.
Of course, predictability often doesn’t imply some kind of integrity in the storytelling; often it signifies the exact opposite. Up until 2010 Dexter was generally well respected as a TV show. Then in 2011 in jumped the shark in spectacular fashion, dropping the ball in just about every way it possibly could. The most embarrassing case is probably the sad story of the ‘Professor Gellar Twist’, a notorious flipside to the coin of what Westworld did with William. Early on in season six a couple of fans suggested that the villainous Professor Gellar might in fact be dead and only exist in the head of his protégé Travis. As the series went on this became increasingly obvious; Travis was the only person ever seen talking to Gellar and whenever anybody else went looking for him he was always conveniently just ahead of them or in the next room.
By the time the ‘reveal’ came several commentators were suggesting that it would be a bigger twist if Gellar actually turned out to be alive, and consequently the series’ big reveal moment, complete with a shocked reaction from Dexter and swell of dramatic music, was met with howls of laughter from just about everyone watching.
Context is what turned that twist into a cautionary tale. It didn’t enrich anything or provide interesting new directions for the show; it was an annoying distraction that became a headache purely because the show seemed to think it had us all fooled, and it became emblematic of all the terrible storytelling choices Dexter had started making at this point in time. There was nothing wrong with the content of the twist; just the context and execution.
The truth is, a good twist is hard to pull off, largely because a good twist relies on good storytelling. Hitchcock managed it in Psycho through masterful sleight of hand; directing our attention to all the wrong places so that what was right in front of us would not seem obvious, but knowing the twist does little to diminish Psycho’s power. In many ways, it enhances it. Anyone can come up with something unexpected and shocking, but crucially, it only works if it makes sense and has power as more than just a cheap shock.
As such, guessing a twist ahead of time only really ruins the fun if the show/film is doing a bad job to begin with. Is the impact of Luke and Vader’s conflict diminished in any way by knowing the truth of their relationship? A good story will stand up to multiple revisits, regardless of knowing how it will go, but a twist only has shock value once, and has only really done its job if it retains its power even when you know what is coming.