WARNING: SO MANY SPOILERS WILL FOLLOW. EACH ENTRY ON THIS LIST IS A BIG OLD SPOILER. IT CAN RUIN YOUR DAY IF YOU LET IT. PROCEED WITH GREAT CAUTION. BRING A BLINDFOLD.
So I wrote a top ten list of my favorite plot twists in movies, books, TV, and games. And here’s another twist: it wasn’t enough! Sequel time! I’ve thought of a bunch more unexpected story turns that left me amazed, or stunned, or delighted, in some way. My timing is good because the new season of Game of Thrones is starting up, and soon enough, King Joffrey will get married to Margaery Tyrell, and...well, let’s just say it’s going to be yet another wedding that’ll make folks lose their shit. Can’t wait!
DANG-BLASTED’S TOP TEN PLOT TWISTS, PART DEUX
American Horror Story: It’s an Anthology
This first entry is very unusual, because it’s not really a plot twist per se. More like...a twist about plots? I think it belongs here because it had a similar effect on our expectations. Season One of American Horror Story wound up as it wound down, with all kinds of supernatural mayhem. Violet Harmon’s discovery that she’d been dead for several episodes was easy to telegraph, but by the season finale, the entire Harmon family had become cozy domestic ghosts. So Season Two would showcase a new family moving into the same haunted house, right? NOPE! Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk waited that long to spring the news (in between puckish cackles, I assume) that their horror show was a horror anthology and every season would tell a self-contained story all of its own. Some people whined about that (we’ll never know what happened with Jessica Lange’s adopted killer Antichrist baby!), but most were thrilled that we’d been fooled, and that AHS was going to hit us with different horror homages every year. It’s a “twist” that’s kept on giving.
Arkham City: The Joker Hires a Stand-In; Dies Anyway
I knew about this twist in advance, which kinda sucked, but enabled me to appreciate all the clues and foreshadowing. Of the many, many subplots pinballing around in Batman: Arkham City, one deals with the fact that the Joker’s dying of a virus. But...it’s the Joker! Yeah, the game perma-kills several Batman villains, but...it’s the JOKER! When he makes a miraculous comeback partway through, we’re both mystified and oddly relieved. Only, if you pay really close attention, you might guess the truth, which is that the Joker recruited the shapeshifting Clayface to impersonate him. Dun dun DUNNNN! Okay, now where’s the last-minute save? It’s...not there. Batman defeats Clayface, the last vial of antidote is lost, and the Joker dies. He fucking dies for realsies, and it’s such an unexpected thing that even Batman is left kinda traumatized. I mean, what will he do without the villain who all but defines him? It was a great swansong for Joker-voicer Mark Hamill and a great way to show how comic book rules are for the weak.
Final Fantasy X: Being Dead Is One Thing, But Imaginary?
“I’ve been dead this whole time!” An overdone twist if ever there was one. Leave it to Final Fantasy to offer a very unusual alternative within one of its typically bizarro plots. Tidus, the hero of FFX, is a spoiled athlete from the high-tech city of Zanarkand, and when the city’s destroyed, he is catapulted far into the future. Or so he thinks. Something weird is going on with poor whiny Tidus, and we don’t figure out what until very late in the game, when we learn that Tidus isn’t a ghost, he’s a fucking imaginary person. To condense an extremely convoluted explanation, there are these mystical entities known as the Fayth, human souls locked in a dreamlike stasis, and you wanna know what they’re dreaming about? Zanarkand, the long-destroyed city. And when the need arises, an individual from the dream, Tidus, is booted into the real world to be a savior. Don’t ask me how the hell it works; just know that I was delighted to have my expectations upended. Oh, and it turns out another character, Auron, really has been dead the whole time. Just in case y’all weren’t confused enough.
Identity: The Man Who Wasn’t There
Identity is a neatly underrated little horror/thriller from 2003 in which John Cusack, Ray Liotta, and a bunch of other rubes are trapped in a remote motel during a thunderstorm, and start to die horribly. Pretty typical Agatha Christie fare...only why do some of the deaths seem like improbable accidents rather than murder? And why can’t anyone leave the motel? And why is there a seemingly unrelated subplot involving a condemned murderer whose therapist is making a last-minute attempt to get him off? Did he kill the people at the motel? Nope. It’s quite simple, actually: the murderer is the people at the motel. All of them. He has multiple personality disorder and his doctor is subjecting him to a procedure intended to purge all but one identity. The people at the motel symbolize this process. It’s a great fucking reveal. The twist about who the killer is (it’s the cute little kid!) might be silly on its own, but in the overall context, it’s just the final piece in a very awesome puzzle. It’s also creepy as fuck. “As I was walking down the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there...”
InFamous: Does the Bad Guy Seem Oddly Familiar?
“I’m you from the future!” Yet another twist that’s been done to death, to the point where it’s now mostly employed as comedy. InFamous, however, took it seriously enough to effectively pull the wool over my eyes and make my jaw drop at the big post-final-boss-fight reveal. As the electro-powered Cole McGrath attempts to save (or subjugate) Fake New York City, he quickly learns that someone has been pulling his strings the whole time, puppet-mastering events to turn Cole into a tortured Jesus/Rambo figure. Main baddie Kessler, the sinister and mysterious leader of the Second Sons, knows just how to push Cole’s buttons, as well he should. Yep, he’s Cole from the future -- a future in which civilization is in ruins and Cole/Kessler has lost everyone he ever cared about. The horrible irony is that in order to avert tragedy, Kessler must cause it, turning Cole into a darker, more ruthless avenger than Kessler ever was. When Cole realizes the truth about everything, it drives home the point that there’s really nothing super about being a superhero. Reality’s too cruel.
My Teacher Flunked the Planet: There’s Only One Human Being
This extremely interesting and profound twist was well-hidden inside a children’s book. I didn’t quite get it as a kid; now I think it’s beautiful. Bruce Coville’s series about aliens disguising themselves as schoolteachers started out fluffy but got super-serious, and the fourth and final book is about no less than the fate of Humanity. Basically, an alliance of advanced alien races is considering blowing Earth to smithereens, that’s how appalled they are by the Human tendency toward violence, genocide, and self-destruction. Three Human kids have to be Earth’s defense lawyers. Tall order. But then our young heroes discover something amazing: Humans share a collective consciousness. Technically, we are a single entity in billions of bodies, but as we developed civilization, each individual body built up mental barriers, shutting itself off from the single great brain. And that’s why we as a species are such assholes: because we all know, on a subconscious level, that we are missing something crucial. That we are not alone; we are all part of the single Human Being. And if we could tear the walls back down and become a collective mind once again, we would have limitless potential. Let me reiterate that all this is in a children’s book. So let’s not condescend to kiddie lit. Well, unless it’s about lovelorn vampires.
A Night In Terror Tower: Oh, I Just Can’t Wait to Be King
More kiddie lit! Alright, the Goosebumps books were never very profound. They were kinda dumb. But author R.L. Stine did love his third-act twists; hell, he did “I’ve been dead the whole time!” long before it was cool. A Night In Terror Tower is about two American siblings, Sue and Eddie, being all touristy in London. While visiting the titular edifice, they get chased by a creepy executioner, discover alarming gaps in their memories, and travel back in time. What could it all mean??!! Maybe grown-up me could have figured it out, but ten-year-old me was blown away to learn that “Eddie” and “Sue” were Prince Edward and Princess Susannah of York, sent forward in time by a friendly sorcerer and given modified memories to spare them from a bloody coup. The discovery that our snarky modern preteens were actually medieval royals was awesome, and the TV adaptation (seen above) did a fantastic job of bringing the twist to visual life. (How convenient, that the magic spell also covered the kids’ clothing and accents!) It ain’t great art, but it gets a heap of nostalgia points.
Passage: Main Character is Perturbed to Find Herself Dead
This is kind of a distant cousin to the Chrono Trigger entry from my first list o’ twists: you don’t expect the main character of a story to get killed off two-thirds of the way through, especially when there’s no indication they’ll come back. However, Chrono did come back (in some endings, anyway), whereas the heroine of Connie Willis’s novel Passage ain’t so lucky. The book is an endearing mix of supernatural mystery and screwball comedy, as psychologist Joanna Lander struggles to unlock the secrets of near-death experiences and eventually starts inducing them via drugs. Startlingly, her own NDEs all involve being aboard the Titanic, which turns out to be a metaphor for the body’s attempt to save itself. But then Joanna dies. Permanently. For realsies. Only she keeps on existing within the narrative, because the book’s final act gets into metaphysical territory that’s actually pretty cool. When you’re done, you realize that the whole book was about Joanna’s death, in one way or another. This is why people read books more than once.
Star Trek TNG: See You In 500 Years
I find this twist just...sweet. Simple, yet profound in a personal way. It’s basically the culmination of the unique relationship between Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise, and Guinan, the centuries-old alien bartender. Guinan is never hugely important to the plot, but her wisdom and sense of humor make her a great recurring character and she hints that something very special exists between her and Picard. All is revealed in a two-part episode (“Time’s Arrow”) during which the Enterprise crew visits 19th-century San Francisco. See, Guinan happened to be living there at the time, and thus, the first “meeting” between her and Picard took place after Picard had known her future self for some time. Thus, Guinan spent centuries knowing she was destined to become Picard’s friend. It’s an entirely character-driven twist and the relationship between said characters is so understated, yet so effective. I wish Whoopi Goldberg hadn’t sunk her own career in kiddie bullshit, because she’s good. She’s goooood.
The X-Files: Leonard Wants a New Big Brother
Well, this final twist ain’t profound, but what the hell, I like it anyway. In “Humbug,” a classic episode of our favorite 90s cult sci-fi procedural, Mulder and Scully visit a town populated by ex-circus performers, some of whom are getting killed and mutilated. Best rogue’s gallery ever, dude! Is it the bearded lady? The tattooed creep who eats raw fish? The Fiji Mermaid? What about the alcoholic bellhop with the dead conjoined twin attached to his torso? Well, we’re getting warmer, actually. In a gross and creative twist, the killer is, in fact, the conjoined twin, whose name is Leonard and who tears himself loose from his big bro to prowl the night. The bellhop is dying, see, and Leonard only desires a new person to cling to. Too bad it’s an impossible dream. Family really is everything, I guess. Seriously, WTF. This twist is so bizarre that I had to put it here. The X-Files could be great that way; I prefer stuff like this to black oil and conspiracies.
Okay, time to fess up. These are all my least favorite twists. I hate them all. Fooled you! No, not really. Um, I’m actually not Dang-Blasted. I’m his long-lost Hungarian cousin, and I killed him and stole his identity. No? Not buying it? Plot twists are hard to pull off, which is why I love it so much when a work of fiction manages to fool me. I honestly don’t mind if people skip this list, because maybe then they can be fooled too. Fooled in the best of ways.