The most outrageous plot twist on TV?

3 weeks ago
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Netflix thriller Behind Her Eyes has been the TV talk of 2020, thanks to its outrageous surprise ending. Here, Neil Armstrong considers the fine art of the unexpected narrative turn.

With many of us around the world still locked down, TV has been a particular focal point for conversation this year – and few series have inspired more talk than Netflix thriller Behind Her Eyes.

Warning: this article contains plot spoilers for Behind Her Eyes and others.

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In the hit psychological drama, adapted from Sarah Pinborough’s bestseller of the same name, a young single mother, Louise, has a flirtatious evening with a stranger, David, in a London bar, only to find out that he is her new boss and married. She begins an affair with him but also strikes up a friendship with his wife, Adele, who once spent time in a psychiatric facility. Adele and David have a very weird relationship which is eventually explained by an out-of-the-blue double whammy of plot twists which seem to owe as much to the occult thrillers of Dennis Wheatley as to conventional psychological thrillers.

In fact, the publisher of Pinborough’s 2017 novel thought the final revelation was such a selling point that it made it a focus of its marketing campaign, devising a Twitter hashtag (#WTFThatEnding) which viewers of the TV adaptation have adopted.

Netflix's Behind Her Eyes tells the story of a young single mother Louise (Simona Brown), who gets caught up in the relationship between her new boss and his wife (Credit: Alamy)

Netflix’s Behind Her Eyes tells the story of a young single mother Louise (Simona Brown), who gets caught up in the relationship between her new boss and his wife (Credit: Alamy)

In both cases, some fans have loved the twists, hailing them as genre-bending, while others have hated them and felt they broke the unwritten rules by being completely unpredictable. But shouldn’t the whole idea of a twist be that you don’t see it coming? Well, yes and no. The art of a great twist is nothing if not complicated.

Screenwriter Ashley Pharoah’s credits include the hugely popular British crime series Life On Mars, in which modern-day police officer Sam Drake seemingly finds himself transported back to the 1970s, where he meets unreconstructed old-school cop Gene Hunt, and its similarly time-travelling sequel Ashes to Ashes. Both kept viewers guessing about what was really going on

 “Writing plot twists is really about surprising audiences in a way that makes them think back to the [beginning of the] book or film and get the satisfaction of realising the twist was already there waiting to discovered,” Pharoah tells BBC Culture.

“At the end of Ashes to Ashes, when we revealed that Philip Glenister’s Hunt was really a sort of angel who helped dead, broken cops into heaven, there were dozens of clues the audience remembered and which gave the ending closure and satisfaction. But a huge, unheralded, clunking great twist that hasn’t been planted or set up or earned – the dreaded deus ex machina – can be deeply unsatisfying.”

Pharoah suggests the gold standard in this kind of bad twist was set by Dallas, with its infamous “it was all a dream” season 9 ending, which saw the character of Bobby Ewing, played by Patrick Duffy, miraculously reappear in a shower scene after dying at the end of the previous series. “Duffy decided he wanted to leave the series so the writers reluctantly killed him off, only for Duffy to change his mind. So the poor scribblers had to show Bobby in the shower and come up with the ludicrous idea that the entire season had been another character’s [Bobby’s ex-wife Pam’s] dream,” he says. “Mind you, we’re all still talking about it decades later, so maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.”

Why we love twists

Of course, there are plenty of brilliant film and TV plot twists we’re still talking about decades later: the state of the health of Norman Bates’s mother in Psycho; the location of the Planet of the Apes; the identity of Fight Club’s Tyler Durden; Luke Skywalker’s family tree; the end of psychological horror Jacob’s Ladder (Adrian Lyne’s original 1990 film, starring Tim Robbins, not the 2019 remake), which owed a lot to the famous short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by 19th-Century American writer Ambrose Bierce.

Award-winning novelist Sarah Waters is a celebrated doyenne of the literary plot twist. Her novels Affinity (1999) and The Little Stranger (2009) both feature them, while her much loved 2002 book Fingersmith, a gothic crime story which features an elaborate scheme to have a young heiress committed to an asylum, is widely acknowledged as having one of the great twists in modern literature.

One of TV's most infamous twists came in Dallas, when it was revealed the death of Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) was a dream of his ex-wife Pam (Victoria Principal) (Credit: Alamy)

One of TV’s most infamous twists came in Dallas, when it was revealed the death of Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) was a dream of his ex-wife Pam (Victoria Principal) (Credit: Alamy)

“I think what we want from a novel or a film is the sense that there’s a creative, controlling intelligence in charge of it, and a twist really brings that home to you,” Waters tells BBC Culture. “At the same time, paradoxically, a twist makes the reading or viewing experience less passive, more dynamic: we suddenly have to sit up and take notice, cast our minds back, cast them forward, piece things together in a new way. It makes for a great moment of connection between an author and a reader. Fundamentally it’s a sort of: you’re alive, I’m alive, isn’t this great?”

But the twist has to be believable, she says, and in keeping with the world of the story.

“It definitely has to feel plausible – otherwise it’s more likely to make you feel cross than to be satisfying, narrative-wise. And you don’t want to invest a big chunk of emotion in a film or story only to be told that, effectively, ‘it was all a dream’, or something like that. I remember feeling some frustration, for example, at the end of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, when we learn that parts of the novel have been ‘made up’ by the protagonist, Briony. Novels are always ‘made up’, of course – and yet this felt like a bit of a swindle, somehow.”

Waters believes the best twists are those “that make you reconsider what you’ve been reading or watching, that make you see emotional layers in it that you hadn’t realised were there”. As an example of this, she cites the supernatural film favourite The Sixth Sense (1999), in which it is revealed at the end that the lead character, Bruce Willis’ child psychologist, is a ghost. “[There] the scenes between the Bruce Willis character and his wife, which we’ve been supposing to be all about her being fed up with him, are in fact about her being stuck in a state of grief after his death – brilliant.”

Pharoah is also a fan of The Sixth Sense, he says, though when it comes to ingenious endings, it is just trumped for him by the denouement of the classic 90s crime thriller The Usual Suspects. “The Kevin Spacey character, Verbal Kint, gives his version of the story and walks out into the night and we see him lose his limp, change his dominant hand and smoke a cigarette with the gold lighter that the notorious Keyser Söze used earlier in the movie. And then we realise Spacey was Keyser Söze,” he recalls. “Just a brilliant twist.”

Pharoah became interested in plot twists as a youngster when reading the 19th-Century novel Lorna Doone. “There’s a moment near the end where a character enters the church where Lorna is getting married and shoots her dead,” he says. “I was absolutely shattered and stopped reading. Inconsolable. About a month later I thought I owed it to the writer to finish the novel… only to find out that Lorna lived. From that moment on I knew you could never trust a writer and that I was determined to be one.”

For Waters, it was an even older story that introduced her to the really visceral power of a well-executed plot twist – the Welsh folk tale of Gelert which she was told at infant school. Gelert is the hound of King Llewelyn, set to guard the king’s baby while he is hunting. Llewelyn comes home, finds the cradle overturned and the baby missing, and Gelert with blood on his chops. He kills the dog only to discover – what do you know! – the baby alive and well under the cradle, next to the body of a wolf killed by the faithful Gelert.

Supernatural drama The Sixth Sense is widely recognised as having one of the most ingenious endings in film history (Credit: Alamy)

Supernatural drama The Sixth Sense is widely recognised as having one of the most ingenious endings in film history (Credit: Alamy)

“It’s a great example of a twist reminding us not to rush to judgement, to look beyond the surface of things,” says Waters. “It’s also really upsetting! I think I was mildly traumatised by that story, actually, and have never quite recovered.”

Forms of this particular legend are known the world over. In a Sanskrit version dating back to around 300BC, the dog is a mongoose. But plot twists are even older than that, as pointed out by Natalie Haynes, classicist and author of Pandora’s Jar, a book, in part, about the influence of Greek myth on popular culture.  

The original plot twists

“The Greeks definitely invented the plot twist,” she says. “It’s called a peripeteia – meaning a sudden reversal or change of fortune – by Aristotle in the Poetics, his study of how drama works, and he’s talking about Oedipus when he mentions it.”

Oedipus Tyrannos – Oedipus the King – is a tragedy by Sophocles which was originally performed at the Dioynsia, a big annual festival in Athens, probably in 429BC. The statute of limitations on spoilers has certainly passed on this one.

In Sophocles’s drama, Oedipus, King of Thebes, is told that, in order to lift a curse on the city, he must find the unknown killer of the previous king, Laius, whose widow, Jocasta, he has married. Oedipus had left his hometown of Corinth in order to avoid fulfilling a prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother. However, it transpires that Oedipus was adopted by the couple he thought were his mother and father and his real parents are – plot twist! – Laius – whom he killed without realising who he was – and Jocasta.

“So at the beginning of the play we have an unsolved murder, and by the end, we know whodunnit,” says Haynes. “It is a twist on the detective drama, because the detective finds that the criminal he seeks is… himself. This is a plot which will be used again and again – for example in the [1987 Robert De Niro] film Angel Heart.

“The moment where Oedipus sees who he really is – the man he has tried so hard not to be – is devastating. I’ve told the story of the play dozens of times to audiences and people always gasp when you get to that point. Because all the evidence is there, but they can’t believe it will be true.

“It’s perhaps worth mentioning that even though it was considered a masterpiece in its own time and now, the OT didn’t win the tragedy competition that year at the Dionysia. It came second to a set of plays by a man named Philocles. So plot twists aren’t always popular, even when they’re amazing.”

It seems those #WTF moments have been delighting and dividing audiences for at least 2,500 years.

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