Obsessive television watchers, especially those who follow Mad Men and Breaking Bad theories, are not doubt familiar with the dramatic principle, Chekhov’s Gun. It holds that a seemingly unimportant object (or even person) will ultimately serve a significant purpose later in the work. It is the opposite of a MacGuffin, which is a seemingly important object which ends up having little narrative value (see, e.g., the works of Quentin Tarantino and George Lucas). Chekhov was obsessed with efficiency of writing: No object, no character, no setting was wasted. If it’s in the story, then it has a purpose. While that obsession with efficiency has clearly not translated into most television works, the dramatic principle has.
A recent, though not terribly good example, is in Under the Dome, where we see Julia bouncing tennis balls off the dome, a seemingly unimportant development that shows that objects will ricochet off the dome, which turns out to be significant later in the episode when the crazy cop shoots his gun and the bullet bounces off the dome and puts a hole in another cop.
It’s important to note, however, that Chekhov’s gun often plays just as important role in contemporary television if it doesn’t go off. We have been so conditioned to find the significance in everything that often a Chekhov’s gun will be introduced as a red herring to mislead us, e.g., while we’re waiting for a gun to go off, a bomb explodes.
Below are ten of my favorite examples of Chekhov’s gun in contemporary television, both straightforward examples, and subverted. My favorites are those guns that are planted early and don’t go off until episodes, or even seasons later, because it is those Chekhov’s guns that demonstrate forethought, that validate our beliefs that television writers aren’t just making it up as they go along.
1. Arrested Development — In the third episode of season two, “Amigos,” Mitch Hurwitz introduced a chair shaped like a hand, which didn’t seem to have any significance at the time. That gun, of course, would continue to be loaded over the next eight episodes before it would finally go off, when a loose seal would bite off Buster’s hand.
2. Breaking Bad — We have discussed several of the Chekhov’s guns in Breaking Bad, including my favorite, the box cutter,seen lying idly in the opening act of fourth season premiere and used later by Gus to slice open a throat (link NSFW).
There are at least two Chekhov’s guns still in play, however. The ricin cigarette hasn’t yet been used (and may have been a Chekhov’s gun by omission), nor has the machine gun that Walter bought in the fifth season premiere, which will almost certainly become significant by the series’ end.
3. Community — First introduced in the 21st episode of the first season, “Contemporary American Poultry,” Annie’s Boobs (the monkey) was given by Abed to Troy as a gift, although Abed would later release the monkey in a fit of frustration with his friends. It did not seem significant at the time. That Chekhov’s gun, however, would return in the eighth episode of the second season, “Cooperative Calligraphy,” a bottle episode in which we discover that Annie’s Boobs stole a pen that was the focus of that episode, a fact that wasn’t discovered until the 21st episode of the second season, “Paradigms of Human Memory.” That Gun would go off three more times over the next two seasons, in addition to the fourth season episode, “Heroic Origins,” in which it is revealed that Britta — before meeting the rest of the study group — had released Annie’s Boobs from an animal testing facility.
4. Doctor Who — Doctor Who is rife with Chekhov’s guns, but my very favorites was the Doctor’s hand, which he lost in “The Christmas Invasion” in 2005. It was picked up by Captain Jack in that episode. That hand would travel with Jack over to the spin-off Torchwood, where it would appear twice before Jack brought it back to Doctor Who, where it would be used as a weapon by The Master against The Doctor in a 2007 episode, and used again in the season finale of a 2008 episode, “Journey’s End,” to clone the Doctor and imbue Donna with the Doctor’s mind, allowing them to save the TARDIS from destruction. Russell T. Davies was amazing.
5. Party Down — Hilariously subverted in the Party Down episode, “Investor’s Dead,” when a prop gun is brought out and confused for a real gun. Casey makes an overt reference to the Chekhov’s gun trope, noting “Well, you know what they say about a gun in the first act,” and sure enough, a gun returns to in the third act, thought to be a prop gun, though it turns out it was a real one, which Ron does not realize, as you can see in the image below.