(Spoilers for True Detective, but not The Leftovers, below)
During the first season of True Detective, back when creator Nic Pizzolatto used to give interviews (instead of hiding out in shame, as he seemed to do during season two), he would often insist that the series wasn’t about “who” the Yellow King was, or the identity of the killer. In other words, he was saying, True Detective wasn’t a “mystery,” it was a “character study,” and by saying as much, he could hedge his bets if the internet figured out the “mystery” early on. Many on the internet, indeed, figured out who the Lawnmower Man was long before the reveal, and since Pizzolatto assassinated his best character by giving the existential nihilist Rust Cohle some bullsh*t hope in the end, many were disappointed overall in the True Detective finale.
In season two, Pizzolatto did create a mystery surrounding the identity of the “Bird Mask Killer.” However, he resorted to pinning it on a nobody character who had all of one-and-a-half scenes in the entire season in order to maintain the surprise. The mystery was a big nothing, because he didn’t play fair. It wasn’t earned (and yet, as absurd as the reveal was, many of us had still figured it out).
Pizzolatto was the victim of this new era where the internet always seems to be one step ahead of the writer. It’s almost impossible to create a successful mystery in a television series, because the internet has become so good at tracking down clues and picking up on foreshadowing. We scrutinize every episode. If a writer has done his or her job correctly, there should be a trail of bread crumbs that we should be able to follow to figure out the mystery. Writers can’t outsmart the internet.
Except that Damon Lindelof did. That’s what has been so impressive about this season of The Leftovers. Without spoiling anything, Lindelof managed to create what seemed impossible in this age: A surprising (in fact, mind blowing) reveal. He pulled a fast one over on us. Lindelof created a mystery that no one figured out and yet, the reveal also made perfect sense. If you go back and watch early episodes of this season, the clues were there all along! Lindelof managed to obfuscate and redirect so well that no one managed to sniff them out.
It’s a huge feat in this age, which is something that even Lindelof acknowledged in an interview with Maureen Ryan over on Variety this week:
We’re in a media culture where the audience is so sophisticated and they can crowdsource and Reddit this information — if they get a twist, you know, like the Edward James Olmos [twist] on Dexter or what happened recently on The Walking Dead, the audience basically crowdsourced exactly how [that twist could have happened] within hours of it airing. By the time it airs a month later, the audience just goes “Duh!” That’s not the storytellers’ fault. It’s just the sophistication [of the audience’s ability] to figure things out. It’s like, we’re up against this incredible creative algorithm.
Lindelof then summed up the challenge for every television writer working in this environment: “So if The Leftovers is going to have a twist, if we have any chance at surprising people at all, we really have to hide it but we have to make it fair.”
That challenge has become so difficult that writers barely bother to try anymore. Instead of giving us “surprising reveals,” we get “shocking deaths.” I love The Walking Dead, but the biggest mystery on that show is who is going to die next. Same with Game of Thrones. Over on Homeland, there is often a mystery, but it’s only a mystery for the characters, not the audience, because the writers let the viewers in on it. Fargo, which is running neck-and-neck with The Leftovers for best series of 2015, is all about the shocking deaths and great storytelling, but the only mystery there is when a character will die.
No one seems to have the courage to try what Damon Lindelof pulled off this season. There’s a certain irony to that, as well, because Lindelof not only helped breed this sophisticated media culture with Lost, but he became one of its biggest victims when everyone figured out the ending to that series three seasons before it aired. Still, Lindelof got back on his horse and tried again, seemingly hellbent on proving he could pull off a surprising reveal. He knew he was running a huge risk, as he acknowledged himself in his Variety interview. “We had to set it up …. and then just let it go and just hope that nobody figured it out, because if one person went on Twitter and said [SPOILER], the whole second season of the show [goes down].”
It’s for those exact reasons that so few writers try anymore, because if someone figures it out early on, an entire season is ruined. That’s why this season of The Leftovers is so impressive. Lindelof not only had the balls to set up a mystery, but he actually pulled off the reveal.
As someone on Reddit suggested in considering what Lindelof pulled off this season, it’s hard not to think of the three parts of a great magic trick, as enunciated by novelist Christopher Priest in The Prestige:
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn.” The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”
The wrinkle in The Leftovers is that the degree of difficulty was even higher: The media culture was “looking for the secret,” and we had nearly two months to search for it. The fact that we didn’t find it when it was there in Miracle, Texas all along is nothing short of… well, miraculous.