There’s an agreement that the audience makes with a storyteller: the plot is important. When characters make decisions, those decisions will have consequences. This is something that the audience needs in order to stay connected and interested in the characters. This rule is actually difficult to break, it actually needs to be done consciously. What I’d like to discuss is when the story is undermined in the finale, when it turns out that the previous actions of a character did not matter at all. I call this “The Cheat”.
Perhaps the most well known Cheat, and best example of it, was in the drama “St. Elsewhere” when it was revealed that the entire series had been a dream of an autistic child. Seriously.
I suppose that it’s tempting to say that any story that turns out to be a dream Cheats, but let’s remember that regardless of what dream level “Inception” took place on, those dreams led Cobb to accept the death of his wife. If Nolan had implied that the whole thing took place in Ellen Page’s head though, he’d be just as guilty.
If you look back on any work that uses the Cheat, you’ll notice that they all stem from the same problem: the author wanted a character to triumph in an impossible situation, and the only solution was to Cheat.
This is not to say that because a story uses a Cheat that I cannot still enjoy it, like Ocean’s 12. The film consisted of the heist team traveling throughout Europe to try to steal a priceless artifact before a French cat-burglar could. After the Frenchman beat the protagonists to the prize, it was revealed that the artifact was a fake; the team had stolen it much earlier in the film without the audiences knowledge. Clearly, this was a flagrant Cheat: all the efforts of the protagonists throughout the journey had no eventual consequences on the story. Further, the Cheat was made even worse by the gravity of the plot (specifically, they would be murdered if they did not succeed). Perhaps audiences would have been less offended if the stakes had been lower like the other two movies where the team just wanted to heist to make themselves more wealthier.
I think though, that Ocean’s 12 did not deserve the criticism it received for it’s cheat. Remember, caper films are designed to trick the audience. Ocean’s 11 had me convinced that they had broken into the Belagio vault, and Ocean’s 12 just did something similar, just on the scale of the whole movie. Also, Ocean’s 12 left clues in the film that explained that they didn’t care about subverting convention for the sake of advancing the plot. Julia Roberts’ character actually impersonates Julia Roberts to get past security, which is a device that I still have not experienced elsewhere. With it’s relatively lighthearted tone compared to most films that require a Cheat, and a plot centered around deceit and deception, a Cheat in Ocean’s 12 was completely warranted.
I recently came across an especially frustrating Cheat that left me feeling quite angry at the writing: the Doctor Who series 6 finale. Perhaps why I’m most upset is that I know that Moffat and the writing crew can handle seemingly impossible situations and get the Doctor out alright. It’s not even that tough to weasel the way out, just throw some techno-mumbo-jumbo at the audience and I’ll gladly eat it up. If it goes over my head, I’ll just assume that it makes total sense. In the series 5 finale, the entire Universe collapses until the Doctor explodes the Tardis which causes a second Big Bang and somehow the Pandorica recreates the Universe so then everything turns out fine as long as Amy can remember the Doctor. Sure! Why not? Anything is possible in science fiction. Well, except when we’re told otherwise.
Moffat directly tells the audience in the middle of series 6 that the Doctor’s death in 2011 is a “fixed point in time” and cannot be changed. When that plot point came up, I was excited for how Moffat would squirm the Doctor out of the situation. The finale began with the Doctor on a farewell tour of all his friends and companions, and he goes to meet his fate. Then though, the entire drama of the Doctor’s death is undermined when he essentially has a robotic copy of himself killed instead. The Doctor is fine, and doesn’t die. This blatantly shows a Cheat that paints that the actions and words of trusted characters as worthless. The actions of the Doctor didn’t influence his fate at all, he just had to get one of those robots. Unlike Ocean’s 12, I didn’t feel that the writers were being clever, I thought that they were being lazy.