Behind whose eyes? Why we love a jaw-dropping twist ending

During the initial episodes of the glossy new Netflix thriller Behind Her Eyes, there’s a sort of polite familiarity to it. Oh it’s this show with these characters spouting this kind of dialogue, a slick domestic saga of secrets, lies and oversized glasses of expensive white wine, the kind that’s proliferated tenfold both on page and on screen since the explosive arrival of Gone Girl. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s sexy and well-acted and propulsive enough to keep us clicking on to the next episode – but on first glance, it’s something we think we’ve seen before and something we think we’ll be able to predict.

Related: Netflix smash Behind Her Eyes: Sarah Pinborough on writing 'that ending'

But by the time the sixth episode wraps and we’ve taken a few minutes (and an extra glass of wine) to fully process the what-the-hell lunacy of what’s just happened, it becomes clear that we’ve been fooled both in regards to our expectations of the plot at hand but also the genre at large. The show, based on the book by Sarah Pinborough, ends with a series of escalating twists that culminates with one of the most remarkably nutty shock reveals in recent memory. It’s hard to fully explain it to the uninitiated without breathlessly ranting and pointing at a cork board (and for those yet to see, I recommend actually watching it first) but what seems like an ITV drama-adjacent love triangle ultimately mutates into a supernatural head-scratcher about lucid dreaming, astral projection and body swapping. It turns out that one of the three characters has actually been an entirely different person the whole time, a wolf in designer clothing, a gay man in the body of his female friend who then leaps into the body of her love rival, ending on a deliciously dour final note.

It’s somehow wilder than I’m making it sound and while I’m sure in time, more considered thinkpieces will emerge on what the show has to say about queerness, race, gender, class and performance, for now everyone is too busy recovering from the whiplash of it all. Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk referred to the ending as “a big, disorienting, trollish wallop”, Variety’s Caroline Framke eschewed a traditional review just to discuss the “deeply silly” finale and a quick scan of Twitter turns up a mixture of exclamation marks and gifs of dogs looking surprised, a buzz of disbelief that’s quickly fired the show to the heights of Netflix’s top 10.

Its arrival comes just months after HBO’s monster hit The Undoing, another airport thriller turned polished miniseries, a show that became the network’s biggest of the year, yet one that left many of its viewers feeling a little undone by the finale. The slow-drip reveal – an episode a week, just like the old days – led to many a manic theory about who might have killed Hugh Grant’s mistress yet the final twist was that well, there wasn’t a twist at all, as it was Hugh Grant all along. It’s a conclusion that would have felt more fitting at the end of a 100-minute film (and 30 years ago, that’s exactly the format a legal/domestic thriller such as this would have taken) but after six weeks, people wanted, and expected, more. The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan labelled it “a disappointment” while Time’s Judy Berman counted herself part of the “collective ‘ugh’” that followed its airing, a thirst for a shock that remained unquenched.

The miffed masses who said goodbye to Nicole Kidman’s big coats with a middle finger rather than a wave proved just how much we all desire a genuine surprise ending yet how hard one is to find on either small or big screens. The jaw-dropper final twist is frequently dismissed as merely gimmicky and that’s often the case, a surprise that feels frantically picked out of a hat with very little embedded before to suggest that it was always planned. A classic example is the not at all classic 2007 thriller Perfect Stranger, a gloriously silly film starring Halle Berry as a journalist going undercover to unmask Bruce Willis’s sleazy ad man as the killer of her childhood friend (both in his office and online via some hilarious smutty instant messages). The huh what reveal (that the killer Berry is investigating was actually Berry herself all along) was one of three different endings filmed, a sure sign that the script was flimsy and soulless enough to bend in whatever direction needed.

Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi in Shattered
Tom Berenger and Greta Scacchi in Shattered. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

But when deployed with skill and, most importantly, supported by a carefully structured buildup (one that withholds second watch scrutiny), there are few more effective entertainment highs than being jolted out of one’s seat by a surprise twist, when it’s less of a left-turn than an entirely new journey, destination and vehicle. Remember the fun of Wolfgang Petersen’s demented mystery Shattered when it was revealed that Tom Berenger’s amnesiac architect wasn’t actually Tom Berenger at all but he was his wife’s lover and post-car crash she’d made the plastic surgeons reconstruct him with a different face? A thrill! A stupid thrill but a thrill nonetheless. It came at the start of a decade that closed out with the emergence of M Night Shyamalan and his dead all along chiller The Sixth Sense, preceding the 2000s, the twistiest era on record, for better or worse. His Bruce Willis breakout was by no means the first to employ such a twist but it led to a run of similar reveals (from The Others to Stay to Passengers) as well as an industry-wide desire to outshock, each thriller aiming to be more surprising than the last. But it all became rather exhausting as well as incredibly repetitive with last act twists feeling inevitable rather than essential and most often being an ever so slight variation on something we’d seen many times before.

The upside being that when a rare surprise ending did feel genuinely fresh, it hit harder as a result, the biggest reveal being that a twist could actually still shock us, despite our fatigue with the format. Near the end of the decade, the greatest example of this was Orphan, a schlocky Dark Castle horror that felt on paper like just another post-Omen tale of an evil kid wreaking havoc on a family. So imagine the loud communal intake of breath when it was revealed that Esther, the adopted girl from hell, was actually Leena, the adopted 33-year-old woman from hell whose rare hormone disorder had allowed her to disguise herself as a child, a wonderfully deranged rug-pull that pushed the film from indistinguishable to indispensable, a cult status beckoning (12 years later, a sequel is currently in post-production).

The twist ending was less common in the following decade, partly because the thriller itself was less common, along with other mid-budget “adult” movies, pushed further away from the big screen by both the rise of cheap horror and the dominance of superhero fodder. But in 2014, David Fincher’s sleek adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl served as a flashy reminder of what we’d been missing. Like another marital monster hit, Fatal Attraction, some 27 years prior, it was a water cooler phenomenon, inspiring audible audience reactions, intense thinkpiece-spawning debate and huge box office (almost $400m worldwide, a staggering number for a non-franchise film). So much of its success was down to Flynn’s devilish second act reversal, transforming Amy from victim to villain, securing star Rosamund Pike an Oscar nomination and creating a legacy that continues to thrive (just last weekend with the arrival of Pike’s equally icy turn in Netflix’s I Care A Lot, Gone Girl was trending on Twitter yet again).

It’s that desperate urge to discuss and dissect, even if opinions might be divisive, that drives us so wild after a big twist and our immediate, visceral reaction to the shock sticks with us, a sense memory that’s hard to shake, even if other elements might fade with time. Because even an otherwise forgettable film can suddenly sear itself into our brains if it’s bookended with a narrative leap off a cliff. The disaster of 2019’s noir thriller Serenity, a film where Matthew McConaughey hunts a giant tuna called Justice, was made indelible after we found out that the entire film was actually a video game. The 2012 Jessica Biel horror The Tall Man seemed like just another story of missing kids and a boogeyman until we found out that it was actually a bizarre social drama about an underground initiative to save kids from poverty. And the 2003 romantic drama Dot the I would have been dismissed as manipulative soap were it not for the reveal that the lead character was being unwittingly coerced and filmed in order to create an “emotional snuff movie”. Great films these are not but it’s difficult not to admire their unhinged audacity and, for me at least, impossible to forget it.

The ease of access – to films, shows and spoilers - makes it harder to please, impress and surprise us than it ever has been, a spoilt generation of jaded, savvy consumers, smugly convinced that we always know what’s coming. The skill it then requires for storytellers to disorient us is quite something and while that might often take us somewhere extremely silly (Behind Her Eyes has received its fair share of criticism for this), I’ll take silly over safe any day. With communal viewing experiences on the verge of a full return (New York City cinemas are set to reopen next month with the UK following in May), it’s not the rush of a giant action scene on a giant screen that excites me the most. While many might be most pumped to see Godzilla thump Kong in Imax (and hey, I’m looking forward to that too), it’s the armrest-clenching shock of a huge twist that has me truly itching to be with a crowd again, the thrill of collective, audible surprise, a reminder that even after all you’ve seen, that you really ain’t seen nothing yet.