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Twist and Shout

The "plot twist" is ruining our conversations about television

In the weeks leading up to tonight’s “True Detective” finale, one particular phrase has cropped up repeatedly in chatter about the show: “plot twist.” There’s a whole sub-Reddit devoted to prophesying a surprise ending for the series. “A ‘True Detective’ twist that even hardcore fans won’t see coming,” trumpeted one website. Meanwhile show creator Nic Pizzolatto has been adamant that he has no interest in dropping major narrative bombshells. “Why do you think we’re tricking you?” he asked a Daily Beast reporter. “The show’s not trying to outsmart you.” And yet viewers have continued to sift through each episode for signs of an imminent twist.

Take a quick jaunt through the internet and it soon becomes clear that “True Detective” is not the only show to be mercilessly picked apart by twist-hunters. Some critics called out Zoe Barnes’s death in the premiere of season two of “House of Cards” as a shocking twist. One blogger objected to the “twist” on “Girls” in which it was revealed that Hannah Horvath had OCD. Yahoo! cited Pam’s affair with the boom operator in "The Office" and the romance between Nick and Jess on “New Girl” in a round-up of “15 TV Twists We Hated This Year.”  Each time “Game of Thrones” offed one of its protagonists, the blogosphere buzzed with that familiar word.

The problem, alas, is that none of these are twists. As plot developments go, some of them were genuine whoppers. But strictly speaking, a twist is not just a mind-blowing plot point. It’s a total reversal of narrative expectations, recalibrating our understanding of everything that came before it. It was first formalized in Aristotle’s Poetics, as the Greek word “anagnorisis,” meaning “recognition” or “discovery”: the dramatic turning point at which a character—or the audience—finally recognizes the true state of affairs. It’s Oedipus realizing that he had killed his father and married his mother, or Pip discovering that his benefactor was Magwitch instead of Miss Havisham. It’s The Sixth Sense’s dead protagonist, or Ed Norton as Brad Pitt’s alter ego in Fight Club.

TV twists have been around for awhile, but the concept gained popularity in soap operas aiming to spice up the serial format and avoid predictability. The Soap Opera Digest Awards even give out an annual award for “Outstanding Plot Twist.” So for a long time the phrase “plot twist” conjured melodrama and improbability: one character turns out to be a pair of identical twins, someone presumed dead has merely been held captive on a desert island. But now twists seem to be everywhere. There's “Homeland,” of course, which—at least in its first season—made an art form of the plot twist, with its insistence that nothing was quite what it seemed. The season three finale of “Lost” helped set the precedent that upending the whole premise of a show could make for gripping TV. And as prestige drama has gotten increasingly baroque, in character and context and production value, audiences have become obsessed with parsing plots, looking for trap doors and red herrings and narrative misdirections. The idea of the twist has come to dominate our conversation about television plots in an age of TV drama in which “anything can happen”—heroes can be beheaded, protagonists can be hurled in front of a train in a season premiere.

Part of what makes “True Detective” so interesting, though, is that it is constitutionally resistant to twists. Even its biggest plot reveals have a quality of obliqueness—they leave you wondering whether what you think you've seen has really happened at all. When we finally meet the suspected killer at the end of episode seven, his scars are subtle enough that there's room for uncertainty as to who he really is. As the camera traces the murder tableau at the end of episode two, it’s clearly a clue but we’re not sure to what. “True Detective” is all murky, needling doubts with no cathartic blasts of disclosure. The architecture of the plot is fairly straightforward: accumulating clues, developing main characters, introducing suspicious ones as the plot unfolds. And yet these days, it seems, we don’t know how to talk about plot in a way that doesn’t invoke that sacred “twist.”