Here Is the Simple Mind-Trick That Makes Every Movie and TV Show Seem Better

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Photo: Buena Vista Pictures

Have you watched a film or television series lately that left you unsatisfied, confused, or vaguely disgruntled? Was there a moment in, say, Interstellar when you thought, Wait a second, just how much money can NASA raise through corn taxes, exactly? and then started to feel the whole narrative unravel? Have you followed an expertly written hit show through many satisfying seasons, only to be left befuddled and grumpy by the show’s finale? Until now, you’d simply have to accept that the film or show’s creators either made a narrative misstep or, even worse, failed to deliver a resolution that precisely mirrors your expectations. But no more! Thanks to a revolutionary new critical theory, you can explain everything, in every show and movie, to your complete satisfaction, every time. That theory? Everyone’s Already Dead™. (Be warned: Spoilers ahead for Lost, Interstellar, and a few other recent cultural touch-points!)

For example, remember the end of Interstellar — basically, the part where Cooper is picked up while floating in space after being ejected from the wormhole/love tesseract and awakens in a surprisingly bright and functional future space-station to spend a few scant minutes talking to his now-elderly daughter after not having seen her for a hundred years, before rocketing off to a faraway planet to reunite with Anne Hathaway and several tents worth of future human babies? You may have thought that seemed less than airtight, story-wise. Well, guess what? Cooper’s already dead! Here’s that very argument, over at Cinema Blend. And unlike some Everyone’s Already Dead arguments you’ll find elsewhere, this one at least marshals some quasi-plausible evidence, sort of, i.e., Mann told Cooper earlier that the last thing you see before you die is your children, and Cooper sees his daughter before the movie’s over, ergo, before the movie’s over, he is dying and/or dead. Also: How, exactly, does he survive in space? Answer: He doesn’t!

But wait, you say — if the character’s dead, what am I watching, exactly? Shouldn’t the movie be over? No! Because you’re watching a character’s dying fever-dream. This is very important to understand. In a dying fever-dream, anything’s possible. So all you need to do is select the exact moment in a TV show or movie’s narrative when things start to go a little hinky, then decide that, at that moment, the main character and/or all the characters are dead. It’s that easy!

Let’s take Lost. The final season of the show, leading up to the finale, was, for many fans, so profoundly unsatisfying that a complex theory emerged that Everyone’s Already Dead. They died in the crash. The island is heaven/hell/limbo/a dying fever-dream. And this theory was so popular and persistent, the show’s creators are still refuting it ten years after the fact.

Where did the Everyone’s Already Dead theory get its start? Perhaps we can blame it on a generation of kids who grew up reading “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the short story by Ambrose Bierce, or seeing that French short-film adaptation that aired in the U.S. as an episode of The Twilight Zone. Or maybe we all still remember the gotcha! endings of Newhart, Roseanne, Jacob’s Ladder, and St. Elsewhere — so we’re always on the lookout for dream reveals, smash cuts to death beds, and/or magic snow globes.

Having one or more characters turn out to be dead the whole time is a decades-old gimmick in film, but the 1999 hit The Sixth Sense definitively codified this particular switcheroo. But remember: That movie was actually about people who could see dead people, and the big reveal — that one in which we find out one of the characters was, in fact, dead the whole time — was made explicitly clear. By contrast, there’s really nothing in Interstellar to suggest that Cooper is dead at the end, except that he’s floating momentarily in space with his eyes closed, and also the plot kind of stops making sense. But trust me — that’s more than enough evidence for you to start formulating your own theory that Everyone’s Already Dead.

This theory was championed recently by The New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum, in relation to the end of Breaking Bad — though it should be stressed that she was simply suggesting that this alternate reading made her happier given her dissatisfaction with the way the show ended, rather than forwarding it as a plausible interpretation. But that didn’t prevent other viewers — like comedian Norm Macdonald — from seriously championing the theory as if it were a legitimate critical reading of the show that deserved to be debunked. In fact, it’s now pretty much standard that, at some point in the run of a popular show, the creator will be called upon to address the theory that Everyone on the Show Is Actually Dead. By this point, it might be safer to assume that everyone on your favorite show is already dead until you hear definitive proof to the contrary.

Because Cooper’s dead. And Walter White’s dead. And everyone on Lost is dead. Tony Soprano? Definitely dead. Do you see how easily any complicated and/or unsatisfying resolution can be explained away? And why stop there? Guess what: Yoda is dead the whole time. Why? Why not!

You may have thought you understood — and even enjoyed — your favorite films and TV shows, but you can’t truly understand them until you realize Everyone’s Already Dead. Here are just a few other examples:

The Godfather: Michael Corleone is dead. That’s why he showed up to the wedding in military uniform. He died in the war and now he’s a ghost. Everything that happens afterward in all three subsequent movies is his dying fever-dream about familial guilt.

Pretty Woman: Julia Roberts is dead. She drowns in the bubble bath. Look how her head sinks under the water here, then she rises again, wearing a shroudlike mask of bubbles. Also, she’s singing “Kiss” by Prince — a clear reference to the “kiss” of death. Everything else after that point in the movie is the dying Cinderella fantasy of a bereft prostitute engaged for a week by a rich jerk who inexplicably turns into a prince.

The Wizard of Oz: There’s a tornado in Kansas that swallows a girl, and then suddenly, we’re in a magic land of tin men and flying monkeys? Clearly Dorothy died in the tornado at the beginning, and Oz is her actually her dying fever-dream. When she “wakes up” at the “end” in “Kansas,” she is actually arriving in Heaven, reunited with all her relatives who were also killed in the tornado and are, thus, also already dead.

Orange Is the New Black: Piper Chapman is already dead and the prison is limbo. Otherwise how do you explain the continued presence of Jason Biggs?

The Knick: Clive Owen is clearly dead from the opening of the pilot. I mean, he’s lying down in the very first shot. Then he has a dying fever-dream in which he’s a genius surgeon, rather than a drug addict who wasted his talents.

Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” video: Okay, she’s obviously dead. “It’s gonna be forever or it’s going to go down in flames” — that’s clearly a reference to Heaven (immortality) and Hell (flames). Either way, she’s dead, and the whole video is her dying fever-dream — or it’s the dying fever-dream of that dude she kills. Let’s debate.

“Too Many Cooks”: This is Smarf’s dying fever-dream, and  clearly everyone is already dead, including you.

Mad Men: Don Draper is so dead, I mean, obviously! THEY SHOW HIM FALLING TO HIS DEATH IN THE OPENING CREDITS OF THE VERY FIRST SHOW COME ON PEOPLE OPEN YOUR EYES.

There you have it. There are countless other examples of movies and TV shows that are completely explained/immeasurably improved once you realize that one or more of the characters are already dead and it’s all a dream. I’m sure you can think of your own. Please leave them in the comments below. That is, if you’re not already dead and this column is not just your dying fever-dream, which I’m starting to think that it is.