Tuesday, May 5, 2015

I Totally Saw That Coming...and sometimes that's not bad

Kerrie did a great job talking about the good side of predictability. Despite the snark implied in the title of this blog hop, I don't always think predictable is a bad thing.

My husband and I watched a great little show broadcast by BBC America last year, The Game. It was set in early 1970s London, and it was about a group of agents from MI-5 who were trying to forestall a Soviet plot. The main character is young but jaded agent Joe Lambe played by Tom Hughes. Even though he's barely in his late twenties, the viewer can tell that he's already starting to lose his conscience and is willing to be more and more ruthless.

Whatever happened to corrupt young Agent Lambe so? He lost the love of his life, of course- or did he? (SPOILER ALERT) From the first time I saw a flashback of Joe remembering the murder of his lover Yulia years before, I knew that she wasn't dead. (And if I hadn't known that, the fact that they showed the flashback in almost every episode would have given it away by the end.) More importantly, because Yulia was an intelligence agent for the Soviets, you knew the bad guys were going to use her as leverage. But what you didn't know: would it work?

You could guess what happens next and then what happens right after...but could you figure out why?
There was another big twist I could guess within two episodes, and that was the identity of the mole. It was a small team: Joe, director "Daddy" (yes, that is kind of creepy), young assistant Wendy, proto-techie Alan, his brilliant wife Sarah, Bobby, a to-the-manor-born agent who needed to hide his homosexuality and Jim, a detective on loan from the London police department. (SPOILER ALERT) It didn't take much to figure out that Sarah was the mole, although they did do a very good job for a few minutes of making it look like her husband Alan was. Why did he confess? Because he figured it out first and he wanted to protect Sarah.

Really, only one of these people could have been the mole. The real question was whether the rest of them could get on in spite of it
So why did this make for really good television viewing anyway? A couple of reasons: first, the viewers knew who the real mole was before the team did; would they figure it out on time? And what were the Soviets planning? Even more importantly, the credibility of everyone on the team was compromised in some way: that which made it plausible for them to be the mole also made it possible that they weren't going to be able to do their jobs even though they weren't.

The look on Joe Lambe's face: that's what The Game was really about
Further, being able to suss out a plot twist isn't the same as being able to figure out why. As predicted, Joe was reunited with Yulia at the end, but he was tormented as to what, if anything, her role in the plot was. Did she willingly go along with a charade to make it appear that she was being killed, or did the Soviets spare her at the last minute so they could use her as leverage against Joe? While the viewers may have had a pretty good idea that it was the latter, it didn't matter: the end frame of the final episode made it clear that Joe was always going to be tormented by his doubts. As Jim pointed out a few episodes back, there was no way Joe could be the mole they were looking for: he didn't believe in anything. That was what the show was really about, and predictability wasn't going to ruin that.

If predictability can be a good thing, the converse is also true; sometimes, there's such a thing as too much surprise. No, I'm not talking about Scandal this time, but rather the 2014 novel The Big Hit. I went into this expecting to find out why Hollywood star Catherine Delure was murdered by a sociopathic hit man. If you look at the cover and read the back cover, you'd most likely think that the murder had something to do with the victim's job. You know what else makes you think that? The fact that more than half of the book is spent following NYPD Detective Jeb Barker into the corrupt warrens of some of Hollywood's producers- that, and the fact that said hit man just happens to hail from LA as well. (SPOILER ALERT) But no. As it turns out, Delure's profession is just one big red herring that gives birth to a slew of others. (An early tip should have been that she wasn't killed anywhere near LA.)

The question of a mystery should be something like Who Dun It? and then Why?, not What Is This Story About?
That kind of a "twist" might have felt clever if it had taken up fifty pages, but when it takes up more than 200 out of 400 pages, it feels like a manipulative way of drawing out what would have been better as a compact murder mystery. If you're going to be unpredictable, it should make the story better, not completely derail it.

What have you watched or read that wasn't hurt by predictability or that was greatly harmed by a lack of it?

Thanks for stopping by! Please be sure to visit Karin Cox tomorrow for her take on when predictability works and doesn't.