We’re living in an unprecedented era of entertainment. Once, knowledge of literary theory came bound in the skins of rare babies, and it was locked in a section of university libraries that you had to solve a series of logic puzzles before battling the end boss, Elbow Patches, in order to reach. The only people who had the leisure time to consume a large amount of media were the obscenely wealthy, who usually had better things to do than smoke weed and marathon Doctor Who, or people who did that for a living. Now, thanks to an endless sea of easily accessible information and a better standard of living than has ever been seen in all of human history, everyone’s a media scholar.
And it’s absolutely taking all the fun out of it. Because…
3. We Get Mad When They Break the Rules
Even if phrases like “deus ex machina” and “unreliable narrator” put you to sleep, you’ve likely consumed enough entertainment to have picked up the basic rules. Every story has an introduction, a conflict, a climax, and a resolution. The gun shown in the first act must go off in the third. Thou who smelt it, dealt it. Some people get so into it, though, that they read things like the minute-by-minute formula that almost all successful movies follow, and who could blame them? That stuff is fascinating, and it gives you a new perspective through which to view entertainment. Education is never a bad thing.
Except when it is. After the first season finale of Game of Thrones, for example, one of the most consistent complaints voiced by viewers was that the scene in the first episode with the White Walkers “didn’t pay off,” meaning we never saw them again that season. They weren’t just mad ‘cause they wanted to see some more badass CGI ice monster action – it was just “bad storytelling,” because I say it is. Because that’s what the rules say. The author’s intentions cannot be open to interpretation – it cannot be one element of the chaotic and unpredictable nature of this fantasy world, or whatever – these rules are as rigid as the law.
|Great art never breaks the rules.|
I’m not gonna pick on those guys too much, though, because I absolutely do this. I took myself out on a rare theater trip to go see The Fault in Our Stars recently, which might surprise you given that you were heretofore under the impression that I am not a 13-year-old girl. I do believe that his wife and two children don’t mean John Green and I aren’t getting married someday, though, and I gotta support my boo, y’know. As I was watching it, I kept getting frustrated with these big emotional moments that only lasted long enough to get me right on the edge of tears before cutting back to the more mundane storylines, never letting me reach that emotional climax that I wanted. I was already writing a mental review, titled “TFIOS IS JUST A SHITTY BLOWJOB.” I didn’t realize that the movie was just working me up to the eventual emotional wad, so it turned out to be the best kind of blowjob, but I couldn’t make my brain shut up about what movies should do long enough to enjoy it. Our cultural education has left us with a firm set of expectations, and we get pissed off if those expectations aren’t met. And I think that’s because...
2. We Need to Be Right
While we’re on the subject of Game of Thrones, one thing I have never understood is the desire to speculate about future events while also screaming “SPOILER!” at anyone who dares to mention that Arya pets a dog in Book 5 or whatever. You don’t need to speculate – we know what happens. Unless they start veering wildly off the path of the books – which is entirely goddamn likely at this point, but still – this is a matter of public record. Do you sit in history class on the edge of your seat devising theories about how the Confederacy is going to pull itself out of this one? Do you know how much pain you caused when you smugly announced in 2012 that it looks like Daenerys will set sail for Westeros pretty soon? Do you have a single fucking clue how hard it was, when everyone started making macros that said “Quick, let’s all start caring about Joffrey,” to refrain from responding “I think you’ll find that won’t be necessary”? I just want to share my knowledge! WHY DO YOU HATE MY KNOWLEDGE?! JUST TAKE IT! JUST TAKE MY KNOWLEDGE!
|Deep breaths. Pulling it together.|
Alright I’m calm. Sidebar: I’m a helper, by nature. Nothing makes me happier than doing a favor for someone, or having an answer they need, probably stemming from a deep-seated desire for approval and daddy issues and lots of other boring stuff my therapist keeps droning on about while I doodle dicks. So when you “NEED TO KNOW WHAT’S HAPPENING WITH TYRION” and I’m like “Hey, I can tell you that,” and you’re all “No don’t tell me,” it confuses me and makes me sad. Because I don’t really understand the aversion to spoilers, either. I spoil everything for myself. I know I’m going to need to go back and look for signs of the twist, and frankly, I don’t have the patience for that, so I’d rather know beforehand, and I’ve never felt like that ruined the experience for me. I try to be respectful, but I don’t get it.
I think I finally understand why people like to speculate, though, because while I will spoil the shit out of myself, I do do that sometimes when the end game isn’t known. (Hee. Do do.) During the episode of How I Met Your Mother in which Ted and The Mother (I’ve already forgotten her name and have no intention of learning it – we’ll get to that in a minute) are discussing Barney and Robin’s wedding and The Mother says “What kind of mother is gonna miss her daughter’s wedding?” and Ted starts crying like a little girl, like he do, I shouted to my empty living room “OH MY GOD! THE MOTHER IS DYING! HE’S CRYING BECAUSE SHE’S DYING BECAUSE SHE’S GOING TO MISS HER DAUGHTER’S FUTURE WEDDING BECAUSE SHE’S DYING OH MY GOD SHE’S TOTALLY DYING THAT’S TOTALLY WHAT HAPPENS AAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!” I told everyone who was willing to listen, I told them that I would eat my weight in mini-corndogs if that wasn’t what happened, they pointed out that I would probably do that anyway and I told them that was beside the point. My faith was shaken momentarily when the actress who played The Mother insisted that the rumors of her death had been greatly exaggerated because she is a liar and I kinda had a big giant baby fit about it, but like any heartbreak, it was great while it lasted.
That feeling is so addictive. I sure did feel awful smart that I figured it out when nobody else I knew had done so, and I sure did enjoy rubbing it in the faces of those who doubted me. I have to think that must be why that desire to speculate is so strong even when you could easily just look it up. We become detectives, searching for clues instead of simply enjoying the mystery, which eventually means that…
1. We Expect the Unexpected
What all of this adds up to, this constant speculation and enforced adherence to The Rules, is the worthlessness of the plot twist as a literary device. We know the rules and we’re perfectly happy to apply them, so it’s almost more shocking if you don’t try to shock us. For example, near the beginning of the most recent season of Orange is the New Black, we spent a lot of time with a prisoner named Miss Rosa who has been battling cancer for the duration of the series. We get to see her having heartwarming moments with a younger, bitter patient when she’s released temporarily for her regular dates with the chemo chair, and we get to see flashbacks of her as, what the entire fuck, a totally badass and hot young bank robber.
Obviously, this means Miss Rosa ‘bout to die.
That’s the textbook plot twist. You can hear the white girls in their yoga pants eating yogurt on the couch right now. “Awww! Just when I was starting to really like her, too! Darn you, television people, you got me again. You’re mean, bad people. Oh, I can’t stay mad at you. Let’s make out. Only a little butt stuff.”
So when that didn’t happen, and Rosa got a much more deservedly awesome ending, presumably dying offscreen before the next season but left up in the air, it was actually a lot more surprising. Her storyline didn’t “pay off,” and we’re not going to get a tragic plot twist out of her – she’s going to keep chugging along until she just runs out of gas, as we all will (though perhaps not so literally), and it was one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen on television. I wonder when it’s going to circle back around and we’re going to start expecting the expected, and then they can build to the plot twist that never comes but then it does, until we start expecting that so they build to the plot twist that never comes but then it does but oh no it actually doesn’t, until we all eventually wind up just eating our own assholes. Which would kill off a lot of entertainment venues for entirely new reasons.