May 25, 2018
The Truth Was Right Under Our Noses! …Predicting the Twist on Shows like "Wayward Pines"
Raise your hands if you figured out (more or less) the crux of the “secret” of Wayward Pines prior to Episode 5 and without the aid of internet spoilers.
Yay, you! To those who got it at Episode 1—kudos. You are Jeopardy! contestant smart. Episode 2? Good on you. Episode 3? Really? Took you that long? But you were pretty sure before that, weren’t you? Just waiting for one final clue before you could commit?
To the few who are mystified, still shaking your heads and convinced that those who say they knew are liars or cheating cheaters who read the books or looked online, they probably didn’t. They just have more time on their hands than you do. It’s a pretty petty thing to boast about. Unless you got it in the first episode, it’s basically like being able to hold a very basic conversation in Klingon. Will it get you laid? No, it will not.
For future reference, should you watch something that you know or are pretty sure will have a “twist” or “surprise ending” and you want to impress your friends (or alienate them) by poking them in the ribs and whispering, “They’re already dead!” or “It’s the future,” here are some tips for getting it right and an explanation of why you should’ve figured out Wayward Pines before The Truth.
Once you know there’s a twist is coming, and you usually do know, you’re halfway there. Let’s call this The Sixth Sense Dilemma. (Warning: Spoilers for The Sixth Sense ahead.) When The Sixth Sense came out, most reviews mentioned there’d be a big fat surprise at the end. The trailer and television commercials offered another spoiler: the boy’s declaration that he can “see dead people.” That’s not actually revealed ‘til around the one-hour mark on the film. But if you walk in knowing about it, and that there’s a twist, then as soon as you see Bruce Willis get shot in the gut, it’s relatively easy to figure out he’s dead. Except for one thing—he keeps appearing in scenes with people other than the boy, including with his wife.
However, if you stuck with YOU SAW HIM TAKE THAT BULLET and then you examine what’s happening in those scenes, you’ll see people never acknowledge or talk to him except for the kid who talks to dead people. The stuff that tricks you into thinking he’s alive, on closer examination supports his being dead. It’s a testable thesis. Nothing happens that contradicts it.
Let’s check out this nifty table, inspired by the payoff matrix (not another sequel, but a thing in game theory):
Does this work for every movie or television show with a twist? Maybe not. Some do more than others to trick you, but in the best ones when the twist is revealed, you should react by saying, “I shoulda seen it coming!”
And you probably should have. There is a limited vocabulary of surprises. “Dead all along” didn’t originate with The Sixth Sense, and didn’t end there, but because of that movie’s popularity it became much easier to see it coming. So you’ve got to figure out the genre as each has its own tropes. In the case of Wayward Pines, it was easy early on to knock out a metaphysical explanation. The fact that Ethan’s boss was in touch with Doc Jenkins/Pilcher pretty much ruled out purgatory. So what’s left? Artificial reality? Alien social experiment? Clones? (None of which preclude its being set in the future.) Or maybe Ethan was crazy. But what’s one of the most common twists in dystopian movies and shows? Like these: Planet of the Apes, The Matrix, Dark City. Hint: All of them happen in the future.
Rarely does the twist turn out to be so goofy or counter-intuitive that when the ending is revealed it feels like a cheat. (Sadly, the Lost finale was one of those rarities.)
So how does The Sixth Sense Dilemma apply to Wayward Pines? Why should you have seen it coming?
Starting in the first episode, there were several possibilities…and plenty of red herrings, too. We were pushed toward thinking it was a secret government facility not unlike The Village in The Prisoner—a place to park spies and others who knew too much. The fact that Adam knew about it made it seem official, if not sanctioned. And Doc Jenkins showing up holding an umbrella was a visual reference to the classic British series.
But we got another big clue. Something that if we chewed on it long enough would lead us to the only logical conclusion. How do you explain how it is that Kate “arrived” twelve years before Ethan, even though he believes he saw her five weeks before? Or that Beverly tells him she got there in 1999 and has been there a year. How did Evans have a wife and baby? While you can imagine some convoluted theory, the simplest explanation would involve capturing people at different times in the past, putting them into some kind of deep freeze, and then waking them up as needed at different times in the future. Suspended animation is not a new concept. But possibly there was too much else going on for us to focus on the time shifts. Kate’s telling us not to even think about them was a dead giveaway that they were extremely important.
Let’s say you have written down “THE FUTURE” on the top of your list of theories. Then Doc Jenkins shows up and talks to Adam about Ethan. Doc Jenkins outside of Wayward Pines implies he can slip in and out at will. This would divert us from a future theory, unless we threw in time travel. Except it doesn’t. It’s the equivalent of watching Bruce Willis have scenes with other people in The Sixth Sense. Watch again and you’ll see he doesn’t describe how Ethan is adjusting or anything about Ethan other than “It’s begun.” This is Doc Jenkins before he himself has been frozen and reawakened in Wayward Pines.
Meantime, the show doesn’t give us any dead giveaways, at least not at first. What if Beverly had arrived in 2023 rather than 1999? That would have made it too easy. We’re given alternate possibilities. Ethan’s seeing Ben and Teresa being wheeled into a room at the hospital at the same time that we see them on the road implies that Ethan might be hallucinating/crazy (especially with the red herring that he’s had some sort of mental issue in the past), but that’s only because we expect the storytelling to be linear.
If being told early on about the time shifts was the equivalent of seeing Bruce Willis get shot, then the “I see dead people” moment came in Episode 3 when Ethan hides in the food truck and finds Teresa’s car. The car had a coating of dust on it, an extremely thick coating of dust. There’s just no other explanation for two thousand years of dust. Of course it made no sense that no one had ever taken a vacuum to the place. We were just being trolled by the show. Once we see the cars, it’s not only a clue that we’re in the future, but also that we’re still on Earth and not in a Matrix-like virtual environment.
Remember in The Sixth Sense Dilemma, your theory if correct is provable and all the seeming contradictions support it. Seeing Sheriff Pope outside the town boundaries approaching Teresa and Ben might be a shock. How does he know to stop them if he hasn’t met Ethan yet? But we’ve previously heard Adam on the phone with Pilcher. Adam was concerned that Teresa was tracking Ethan relentlessly, and he felt something had to be done. The Sheriff wasn’t taking her to Wayward Pines to make Ethan accept his new home; that’s just sleight of hand editing. Instead the Sheriff—entirely ignorant of what will happen with Ethan in the future—is acting on orders to stop a potential trouble maker before she discovers her husband’s been captured and frozen.
At the end of Episode 3, you might not know exactly what the lurking creatures are even if you have guessed that it’s the future. But they’re definitely humanoid. And the de-evolution of humanity is not a wholly original idea—see The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes, that particularly horrible episode of Voyager, etc.—although evolution happens a lot quicker in science fiction than in the real world.
So when watching something twisty, bear in mind ridiculousness and implausibility are NOT good reasons to throw out a theory, nor is IMPLIED contradiction. Only direct contradiction can invalidate your argument.
If you have a bunch of ideas in mind, just keep track and usually you’ll be able to eliminate most of them. Not having a great imagination shouldn’t affect your ability to guess the surprise, as they are almost always variations on a trope. Here are the four biggies:
- They’re dead. (Giveaway: Traumatic injury is hand-waved away.)
- It’s all in the protagonist’s mind. (Giveaway: No one but the protagonist has normal human reactions to events.)
- It’s all a big experiment being run by the government/corporation/aliens. (Giveaway: Protagonist runs afoul of mysterious authority figure.)
- They’re in the future. (Giveaway: Seriously? Did you not read this article?)
These are so common that most twisty shows and movies—including Wayward Pines—will head fake toward the wrong trope. If the show drops hints too heavily, it’s probably misdirection. At the same time, if you can’t make it work without it being way too complicated, then there’s probably another more likely explanation. (This does not apply to Lost). Got it? Great, now go annoy your friends with how brilliant you are for totally seeing that coming.
Then again, you could just relax and let the story reveal itself like a sane person.