As a number of cable shows wind down their seasons, many are choosing to bow out with a large twist in the final few episodes. This trend began with Breaking Bad's season four finale and continued with Dexter, Sons of Anarchy and, most recently, American Horror Story. Some of these twists worked. Others? Not so much.
In this blog, I'm going to examine some of these reveals and evaluate which ones packed the most punch and why. If you're not up to date with these shows, there will be spoilers going forward.
The Set-Up: Over the summer, Walter White pitted his wits against his nemesis Gus Fring. As season four progressed and Walt lost the trust of his partner, Jesse Pinkman, he found himself increasingly backed into a corner. When the young son of Jesse's girlfriend became violently ill, Walt convinced Jesse that Gus had poisoned the boy with ricin, causing Jesse to once again turn to Walt.
The Twist: In the final minute of the finale, Walt celebrated his victory following Gus's death -- and while doing so it was revealed to the viewer that it was Walt who poisoned the child using a lily of the valley flower that mimicked ricin poisoning.
Did It Work? Totally. From early in the season Walt had planned to use ricin planted in a cigarette, which came to be referred to online as Chekhov's Cigarette, to kill. Throughout the scene, viewers knew the ricin would come into play and showrunner Vince Gilligan succeeded in using it in a way very few people predicted. Bonus points should also be awarded to Gilligan for revealing the twist in the very last scene of the finale, allowing viewers to re-examine their opinions of Walt's irreparably altered moral compass during the show's hiatus.
The Set-Up: During season six, Dexter Morgan and Miami Metro PD investigated the Doomsday Killer, a murderer who leaves his victims to be discovered as tableaus that represent biblical passages. While they investigated, the viewer was privy to conversations between Colin Hanks's Travis Marshall and Edward James Olmos's Professor Gellar as they planned their next kill.
The Twist: While helping Travis in the season's ninth episode, Dexter discovered Professor Gellar's refrigerated corpse. He'd. Been. Dead. The. Whole. Time. Dexter wasn't the only serial killer with a dark passenger.
Did it work? No. Categorically no. Not only was it fucking obvious but also neither Dexter nor the audience cared. Travis barely cared. And on top of that the truth about Gellar wasn't going to change the course of the season much one way or the other. By the time the ninth episode rolled around, the writers had provided us with two options: Either Gellar was real or he wasn't. Either way you've got nine episodes spent building up to something that only Travis cared about. Dexter didn't care. And, really, if the titular character of the show doesn't care, why should the viewer? At time of writing, the season has two episodes to turn this clusterfuck around.
Sons of Anarchy
The Set-Up: In the fourth season, the Sons found themselves in an alliance with Danny Trejo's Romeo and the Galindo cartel. The season sent shockwaves through the club that led to personal consequences for all involved, including a hit being put on Tara's life. Meanwhile, outside forces in the form of U.S. Attorney Lincoln Potter began zeroing in on the club.
The Twist: Just as Potter was about to make his big move, Romeo stopped him, revealing himself to in fact be CIA and using the Sons as part of a much bigger plan.
Did it work? Kinda. The twist wasn't revealed until the last episode of the season, which was originally meant to be the second half of a ninety-minute finale. As twists go, no one saw it coming -- it had that much going for it. It also provided Jax with a reason not to kill his step-father Clay, allowing the show to continue on the Hamlet-esque path it was on. There's a strong argument to be made that the CIA's involvement was a deus ex machina, which all too easily wrapped up the season's bigger plotlines. The reveal also seemed to randomly come out of nowhere at the beginning of the episode, but it's possible this was just an unfortunate by-product of the finale being divided in two.
American Horror Story
The Set-Up: It took the Harmons a while to catch on that their new house was haunted. First to discover the truth was Violet, the family's youngest member and girlfriend of Tate, one of the house's more homicidal ghosts. Upon finding out her boyfriend wasn't alive, Violet tried to overdose on pills only to be saved by Tate.
The Twist: You guessed it: he didn't save her in time. A few episodes later, Violet learnt she had died when she was unable to leave the house.
Did it work? Yes. Like Dexter, quite a large portion of the audience saw the twist coming. Unlike Dexter, the twist involved a main character that the audience cared about and the build-up to the revelation lasted a fraction of the time. The fact we saw it coming didn't alter the emotional impact of watching Violet discover it for herself, thanks in no small part to Taissa Farmiga's acting.
A twist that works is hard to pull off. Prolong it too long and you run the risk your audience will have worked it out weeks ago. When this happens the twist can be seen as cheap, manipulative and gimmicky. Twists need to be well timed and earned by the writers and should either inform our understandings of the characters or involve the characters discovering something they're invested in at the same time as the audience. If the main characters don't care about the twist, is there any reason a viewer should?