Thursday, February 16, 2012

Revenge - when it's okay to show us the climax first

Major spoilers for last night's Revenge in this entry, so if it's still on your DVR, you're going to want to skip this.


Just one week after I run a rerun post about how one should never use the cheap writing device of starting a script with a climax and then flashing back (which I call "Pulling an Abrams"), I'm in the position of praising an episode of Revenge that did just that.  Actually, the entire season did that, as the pilot episode opened with a sequence featuring the events of last night's episode before flashing back 12 weeks to show how the plot arrived at that point.

I have to confess, that was one of the few elements of the pilot that didn't work for me when I saw it the first time.  I found the first few minutes a little jarring and disorienting, but the rest of the pilot was strong enough that I found it easy to ignore that one quirk.  In that opening, we were led to believe that Daniel Grayson was shot dead on the beach as the party celebrating his engagement to Emily Thorne was in full force nearby.  Meanwhile, Jack Porter attempted to hide the body, but was unsuccessful before Daniel's sister spotted the hooded figure dragging what she presumed to be her brother.

A good number of viewers guessed early on that Daniel's death was a fakeout, especially since we never saw the corpse's face.  When the conniving Tyler arrived a few episodes later, it didn't take long for fans to theorize that he would be the one who died on the beach.

Later still, when the real "Emily Thorne" - now posing as Amanda Clarke - arrived in the Hamptons and seduced Jack, a good many fans theorized that Jack's role in hiding the body happens because Amanda was the shooter and he was trying to protect her.  (Though under this theory, it was probably more likely that Daniel would be the one to end up dead, as Amanda seemed to have more motivation to kill Daniel as a way of hurting Emily.)  Amanda had already been shown to kill one person with little provocation and she stirred up trouble for Emily from the beginning.

Last night we finally caught up to the timeframe shown in the opening of the pilot.  In fact, the episode opened by "pulling an Abrams again" by showing Daniel clearly falling face down in the sand, followed by an unseen figure discharging their gun.  With that, the episode flashed back 24 hours and built up to the engagement party.  By episode's end, we'd find there was more to the reveal.

Amanda, attempting to stop Tyler, ended up on the beach around the time of the murder.  Jack followed her there and arrived in time to see her kneeling over the dead body.  Assuming Amanda did this, Jack tries to hide the body.  But as we learn when the crowd is summoned... it's not Daniel's body - it's Tyler!  Daniel arrives as the crowd gathers on the shore, presumably having been knocked out by the real killer... though he has Tyler's blood on his body... hmmm.

I admit that's a lot of explaining on my part just to make a simple point.  Why did "pulling an Abrams" work here?  Because what we thought we were shown wasn't what actually played out.  Better still, even those who were convinced that Tyler was the dead man had to have been shocked with how it all played out.  The misdirection at the start of the episode showing Daniel's body falling to the ground was an effective way to provoke doubt.

I don't see that kind of cleverness in 99% of the scripts I read with this gimmick.  Too often, flashing ahead to a climactic moment is used as a cheap gimmick to get an intense scene in early on as the hook.  It usually is a sign the writer doesn't have faith in their ability to drawn the audience into the story linearly, so they have to resort to the trick of saying "I promise there's cool stuff down the line if you just sit back and bear it."  Then when that moment comes, there's rarely much of a twist. 

I have to give Revenge some credit - they did the flash-forward trick twice and when the reveal eventually arrived, few people could have guessed it ahead of time.  Moreover, along the way, there were other reveals that could have been anticipated, reveals that raise the stakes going into the last stretch of the season.  (These include Tyler telling Daniel there's more to Emily than he knows, Emily's revenge sensi picking up Amanda, and Amanda learning that Emily may have tried to help get her and Jack back together.)

I still think opening your script with a scene from your climax is a cheap trick.  But if you must do it, please be smart about it. Don't show us what you're going to do and then do it.  Show us enough to make us think we know where the script is going- then pull the rug out from under us.  There always has to be more to the climactic moment than what you reveal in the flashforward.


  1. Yeah, this simple version of in media res (to be pretentious about it) can go either way but it's easy to see how it can be a crutch, even for pros. As Sean mentioned last week, Breaking Bad used it in the pilot to good effect. However, I've really gotten tired how they continue to use it up through season four. One may argue it's part of their signature style but at this point it's more distracting than sensational, unlike other, flashier stylistic touches like object POV shots or Walter's panicky monologues.

    West Wing also frequently overused this device. It's a shame, really. It's a good device, people just wear it out, dangit.

  2. I absolutely love this show. You know a show is good when you get hooked by watching a random episode half season as your first.

  3. We only just got the premiere in Australia, and I was really turned off by the large supporting cast of incredibly uninteresting Hamptons women. I liked the Emily character, but the rest seem personality difficient. Is it actually worth trying again?
    p.s. For the first time in my life don't like a character that Stowe has.

  4. Has the entire concept of nonlinear storytelling become cliché? That cannot possibly be true. Yet it comes so natural to dismiss something because it has been done before.

  5. You must be," young." You mean starting with the ending, like in, Sunset Boulevard." lol