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.