We’re in the midst of our week-long Vulture TV Awards, honoring the best things television had to offer in the past year. In addition to the awards selected by our staff writers, we also asked a few industry luminaries to weigh in on their favorites. David Milch wrote about a particularly iconic TV villain. Amy Sherman-Palladino discussed the dialogue of Sherlock. Up next: Damon Lindelof, the executive producer of HBO’s upcoming drama The Leftovers singles out a moment from House of Cards as his pick in the Best Plot Twist category.
As told to Jen Vineyard.
[Warning: The rest of this article discusses major plot points from season two of House of Cards and season four of Game of Thrones. If you haven't yet watched those, come back later.]
WINNER: House of Cards — the threesome
I feel like I've already exhaustively commented in the pop-culture sphere about my love and adoration for the awesomeness of Breaking Bad. But that was not the direction I was leaning. I'm leaning toward House of Cards. I think there were two [twists] in House of Cards over the course of the season, and obviously there are spoiler alerts needed here. The one that made a lot more noise, at least in the culture sphere, was what happened in the premiere, in terms of Zoe being pushed under the subway tracks by Frank Underwood. And that's a high-quality twist. Very daring. I think the real boldness of it was not doing it in a finale, or sort of toward the end of the season, but doing it in the season premiere where it feels like the setup for the story is that you're going to get more of the same, and we're going to be exploring the relationship between these two characters, and then right out of the gate, the entire quote-unquote franchise of the show gets turned upside down, or crushed underneath a subway train, and that's really daring.
But for me, there was another moment of the season that had all the ingredients of an amazing twist. You start to see it about five minutes before it happens, and it feels inevitable, but there's also a part of your brain that's saying, They're not going to do this. It was when Agent Meechum, who has basically been handpicked by Frank Underwood to lead his security detail once he becomes the vice-president, decides to hang out with Mrs. Underwood, and they're spending time together in the privacy of the Underwood home, and everything is being calibrated toward They're about to have an affair now — Robin Wright and he are about to hook up. And then they completely and totally subvert that expectation. Meechum hurts himself, he cuts his hand, and she's sort of in the process of bandaging up his hand when Frank returns home. And there's a sort of stunning switch. I've never really seen anything like it on television, because by any other context, it is a Cinemax move — old-school Cinemax, not new classy Cinemax. This very strange threesome seems like it's about to happen. But the way that it was executed ...
It eventually leads to this kiss between the star of a very, very upscale television show — cable-quality, Netflix-quality, Emmy-prestige show — and another actor. And this, despite Frank not having really been presented as being a gay character, although certainly there were allusions in the first season to that, when he was in his college days. But really, that hadn't been mentioned before or since. And they did it in this way that I thought was completely bold: We're just going to do this! I just thought it was completely and totally bold, it was completely and totally fair, it was really interesting, and it felt like it was a payoff for the question I've been asking, which is, Why is Frank Underwood so interested in this Meechum guy? Why does he want him close? And the show was using language to say, Oh, what Frank Underwood does is, he sets people up to take falls, so he's basically going to screw this guy. But not literally! And the fact that they took it there, and that it became an emotional answer for why this guy is around? And then there was some ambiguity as to whether or not it was something that Mrs. Underwood was also involved in, although she certainly curated or brought these two together, and condoned it, because the next morning, she's asking Frank how he slept. So there is some sense that Frank and Meechum went off on their own, and she was no longer a participant in this scenario. But it happened, not just with her blessing, but I think with her pimpness. She facilitated this thing happening.
It felt like a very unconventional twist. It felt like, to me, that if this were not running on Netflix, if this was a thing that was airing on a Sunday night, and we had all watched it together, and if I were still on Twitter, that would have been the thing that everybody was just losing their brains over. But they handled it elegantly. I liked it. In the old days, I would have gone and solicited the opinions of many others to decide whether or not they liked it, or whether or not they thought it was a betrayal of the show, or completely and totally out there. It took the entire series up a level for me, that one move, and I think really good plot twists have a way of doing that. They suddenly make you go, This entire series has become more engaging to watch because of what they just did.
RUNNER-UP: Game of Thrones — Littlefinger’s reveal
Game of Thrones certainly did that in its first season. It was like, This is a pretty cool show, I like dragons, the actors are really cool, I'm into this. But then the moment that Ned Stark gets his head cut off, you suddenly go, If they're going to do that, I can never, ever miss an episode of this show. I think that some shows — and certainly Lost was one of those shows — particularly when you're doing twenty-plus episodes a year, those sort of twists become your bread-and-butter. There's almost an expectation that you have to provide one an episode, or a cliffhanger. And then there are shows like Scandal — which I love, by the way — where that's what the show is about. The show is about, Is there anything we will not do? So once that becomes an expectation that when you walk into the restaurant, you are going to be served up a plate full of twists, it becomes a slightly different animal.
The harder show to find is the one that doesn't seem to have twists built into its narrative cycle, and then when they do, it's a great twist because it's one you don't anticipate. We all went to see The Sixth Sense, and we were treated to what was a very effective horror movie, with no sense whatsoever that we were watching a movie built on a twist. And it was successful in both arenas. Subsequent M. Night Shyamalan movies have been a victim of needing to continue to propagate that idea, so you would watch them differently. You'd be like, I'm not accepting the fact that these people just sort of live in a village like Amish people. There's got to be something happening below the surface here. I would certainly have the expectation that there will be twists in [Shyamalan's forthcoming TV series] Wayward Pines. And then will we be disappointed if it doesn't have those twists?
I love the way Game of Thrones executes those twists. For some reason — and this is just me being completely and totally precious about the idea of a twist — it's that area where it can't just be about a character's unexpected and sudden death. By definition, a twist is a move in a direction or the presentation of a connection between characters that completely and totally subverts your feelings about the show, or the world in which the show is taking place. There are exciting things that happen on shows like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad that are very plot-drived. But neither one of them engages in what I would call an active misdirect.
For example, Breaking Bad had a scene in the first half of their final season where they showed Walt walking out of a restaurant and opening up his trunk and revealing that the gun was in there. And a twist would be that the final season is calibrated around a series of incidents that don't lead to him using that gun in the way that we traditionally would think that he was going to, as opposed to the inevitable connections of the lines. Breaking Bad was not a show that was built around shocking twists. It was more the super-impactful moments that were highly memorable, akin to Krysten Ritter choking to death on her own puke and Walt standing over her and letting it happen, or Walt begging for Hank to not be executed and failing. I guess those traditionally qualify as twists, because when you tuned in that night, you didn't think that that character was going to be leaving forever. But I put the shocking death of beloved characters or not-so-beloved characters, like in Joffrey's case, in a slightly different category than twists.
Littlefinger is the kind of twist I love, because it's more of a reveal, right? The moment that Ser Dontos comes and grabs Sansa, in the moment that Joffrey is choking, we know that he is employed by the person who is responsible for that poisoning. So the real twist, I think, is more a matter not of Littlefinger killing Joffrey; it's that Littlefinger has basically been the mastermind all along, and manipulated Lysa Arryn to essentially to suck Ned and Catelyn into this complicit plot, having poisoned her own husband, and framing the Lannisters for such. That is a hell of a twist, no doubt.
I had to stop reading at the third book because I started to feel a little bit douchey about watching the show. I found myself being one of those guys who was like, "Oh, wait until you see what happens next!" I found myself wanting to be one of those guys who didn't know what was going to happen next. But I love me my Lord Baelish.