I’ve not been doing much in the way of reading or writing lately, because my brain has been a tepid, unseasoned bowl of oatmeal that’s just shy of congealing. In lieu of actually accomplishing anything yesterday, I watched the entire run of The Awesomes, Hulu’s excellent animated comedy about a team of powerful but unbalanced superheroes. If you have not done so yourself, get over to Hulu immediately, you silly person. There are only 14 half-hour episodes to date, it won’t take you that long.
Back? Great! Let’s spoil the shit out of some twists.
I have to admit, the big reveal of the mole perplexed me. At the end of “Pageant” when Malocchio takes a call from his daughter, the cut back to her side of the conversation is accompanied by a tense music sting and dramatic close-ups. My reaction was, “Wait, were we not supposed to know this?”
I may not be the best representative of this experience, since I am a TV Tropes search index that walks and talks in a rough approximation of a human woman. But still, I feel like a good twist is really difficult to pull off. You have to provide enough setup so that it doesn’t feel like an ass pull, but if there’s too much, it’s easily guessed by the viewer.
In this case, there’s honestly so much setup to Hotwire’s real identity that I’m not sure it should even qualify as a twist. It’s abundantly clear that there’s something shady about her, as early as “Baby Got Backstory” when she can’t keep details straight and declines to go into a flashback. Even in the pilot, Concierge points out that they don’t know anything about her history and background, when she’s fully researched all other members of the team. If you haven’t picked it up by then, they pretty much come out and say it in the parallel world. To recap, the Awesomes get zapped to an opposite world where heroes are villains and vice versa. In this world, Malocchio is actually Benocchio, a hero who’s lost his sight. He mentions that Hotwire’s voice sounds familiar and that he’s lost his daughter. Then, near the end:
Hotwire: Your daughter… She saved the day.
Benocchio: She was your opposite, yes?
Benocchio: So that means–
Prock cuts in and drags Hotwire away, so we don’t find out what realization Benocchio just had. Except we don’t actually need him to explain it, right? The only real way his revelation could have been phrased is, “You are a villain because she was a hero,” or possibly, “You are the daughter of my opposite,” and they’d set up enough to confirm that before the interruption. If Parallel Hotwire is Parallel Malocchio’s daughter, by the transitive property, we already know all we need to know. There’s nothing more to reveal to the audience.
Of course, that makes it all about the dramatic irony. Indeed, the conflict of “Pageant” centers around Prock’s suppression of his instincts and continued trust of Hotwire, juxtaposed with both Muscleman’s growing mistrust and Hotwire’s snooping. Since Prock is our main protagonist and viewpoint character (as evidenced by the fact that we stay with him whenever he stops time), his being in love with a traitor is a major driving force of the story. When he’s around for the revelations, the drama-heightening cues of cliffhangers and musical stings and camera angles all make sense.
But I’m still stuck on that one phone call. Prock isn’t in that scene, so those dramatic cues aren’t meant to convey his emotional and mental state. They’re purely for the audience, an audience that isn’t remotely surprised if they’ve been even half-awake up to this point. Is this merely a misstep? An overplaying of the hand? Or is it something else? It’s worth noting that The Awesomes is a comedy, so perhaps undermining the dramatic reveal is part of the joke, although the show is not particularly meta.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to be taken from all this is that you can’t depend on the big reveal. The plotline of Hotwire torn between two loyalties and Prock blinded by his feelings, it all still works even if you see it coming. A lot of stories bank so much on that A-HA moment that they forget to have it make sense. (I’d make the Shyamalan joke here, but I don’t think it even needs to be said anymore.) Certainly manipulation of the audience’s emotions and expectations is a big part of the game, but the audience isn’t a uniform entity. Some will be way ahead of you because of spoilers or TV Tropes addiction, some will be lagging behind because they weren’t paying attention or ate paint chips as a child or whatever. The story has to engage on multiple fronts, so that if some of them falter, it doesn’t bring the whole thing down.