It's not easy for TV or movie writers to keep good plot twists secret these days, with spoiler culture and social media. So let's pay homage to those TV shows and movies whose plot twists have managed to shock and surprise us -- even for years after they first played. (Obviously, spoilers abound.)
'24' (2001 - 2010)
Like "Lost," "24" depended on a cliffhanging twist every single week, as levels of conspiracy ran deeper and deeper and trusted characters turned out to be double agents. Even series finales had such twists, as viewers discovered at the end of the very first season. After 24 straight hours of counter-terrorism action, Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) finally seems to have thwarted the bad guys, only to discover that his lover-turned-traitor Nina (Sarah Clarke) has murdered his wife. Thus did viewers learn that there's no safety for anyone in Jack's world, and that he would always be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
'Citizen Kane' (1941)
When you think about it, the "Rosebud" twist makes no sense; after all, not even Kane's (Orson Welles) nurse is close enough to hear the dying man's cryptic last word. Still, it's clever of the film to reveal only in its final moments that "Rosebud" is the name of his childhood sled, a memory of the last time he was truly happy, before money corrupted everything. Of course, even once you know, the reveal doesn't really solve the mystery of how Kane became the man he was. Maybe that's why this remains the most famous plot twist in film history; knowing the surprise doesn't prevent you at all from enjoying the film as it traces Kane's evolution from idealistic firebrand to reclusive tyrant.
Throughout the first two seasons of this ensemble drama about prohibition-era Atlantic City, there were two essential, standout characters: city boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his protégé-turned-rival, Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). By the end of the Season 2 finale, Jimmy seemed to have patched up his differences with Nucky. But Nucky refused to forgive him and shot Jimmy dead. It was a shocker, first because we'd never seen Nucky kill someone himself instead of delegating the hit (but then, as Jimmy told him in the pilot episode, "You can't be half a gangster"). Second, it didn't seem like the show could survive the death of such a central character. Some would argue that it hasn't, though the show is about to start its fifth and final season.
In Roman Polanski's classic neo-noir, the case that private-eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is investigating starts out as a simple adultery case, but it soon evolves into a massive cover-up of political corruption, land theft, and murder. And then, Jake's client/lover Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) reveals the big shocker that adds a huge, new dimension of evil to the story: that her "sister" is also her daughter, the product of incest with her father, Noah Cross (John Huston). It becomes clear to the viewer, maybe even before Jake knows it, that he is no more capable of escaping his past than Evelyn is, and that some evil is so vast and overwhelming that there's simply no reckoning with it.
Maybe if we'd paid closer attention, we'd have spotted the clues -- like Jaye Davidson's Adam's apple -- but then Stephen Rea's fugitive IRA operative didn't spot them either. It's not until he and his new love are getting hot and heavy for the first time, late in the film, that Davidson doffs drag and reveals his manhood. Writer/director Neil Jordan's films often center on impossible relationships, but this one manages to remain swoony, dangerous, and romantic even after the startling reveal.
The classic nighttime soap had one of the worst plot twists ever -- the reappearance of Bobby Ewing (Parick Duffy) in the shower, indicating that the entire previous season (during which Duffy had left the show) had been a dream. That seemed likea cop-out at best, a cheat at worst. But the CBS drama also had one of the all-time best twists with the Season 3 finale, in which J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) was shot by one of his many enemies. Back in the days when CBS was one of just four channels, the entire nation -- and much of the rest of planet Earth -- spent the summer of 1980 pondering the question of "Who Shot J.R.?" (Also, would he live or die? It wasn't clear, since Hagman used the break to renegotiate his salary.) Months later, when the shooter was finally revealed -- it was J.R.'s sister-in-law, Kristin (Mary Crosby)! -- the episode was one of the most-watched events in TV history.
'Fight Club' (1999)
You'd have to be at least a little crazy to buy into Tyler Durden's (Brad Pitt) program of reclaiming one's masculinity through bare-knuckle brawling and anti-consumerist vandalism. More than a little, actually, since Tyler turns out to be an alternate personality of the nameless narrator (Edward Norton). The revelation itself is more than a little crazy -- how would a guy beating himself up have attracted such a following? -- although director David Fincher plants some Easter eggs throughout that hint that Tyler is not real, that he's some trickster spirit whose anarchist heart is in the right place, even if his frontal lobes are not.
Sure, if you've read George R.R. Martin's books, the plot twists aren't really a surprise. Maybe you didn't blink when, just eight episodes into the series, the show killed off seeming protagonist Ned Stark. (In retrospect, the fact that Ned was played by Sean Bean, king of the death scene, should have been a tip-off.) But even readers blanched at Season 3's "Red Wedding," at which conventions of hospitality (and genre) were tossed aside so that guests Robb and Catelyn Stark could follow Ned's example and die violently. The TV version was even more brutal than the print version, since it also depicted the slaughter of Robb's pregnant bride and her fetus. Now, that's brutal.
'House of Cards' (2013 - Now)
In a show made to be binge-watched, the plot twists come fast and furious in the Netflix political drama. Season 2 has scarcely begun when one major character kills another by pushing her in front of a train. But the moment in Season 2 that really made jaws drop and eyebrows vault was the sequence when Agent Meechum (Nathan Darrow), the Secret Service bodyguard to Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire (Robin Wright) gets into a threesome with the Washington power couple at their home. Did we know that Frank played for both teams? He did hint at a gay sexual experience in college in a throwaway moment in Season 1. The sequence did seem to grow organically out of past events while forcing viewers to reevaluate what they knew about the Machiavellian couple. At least, now we know why Frank so carefully groomed Meechum for this position.
The bread-and-butter of "Lost" was a plot-twist cliffhanger every week, so it's hard to pick just one great one. There was the third-season finale, "Through the Looking Glass," which upended the series' typical flashback story structure and revealed that we were now looking into the future, when at least some of the castaways have returned to civilization, only to try to return to the island to rescue the rest. There was the fourth season finale, where we learned that the island could disappear and travel through time. But let's go with the early Season 1 episode "Walkabout," where we learned that, before the plane crash, John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) had been a paraplegic, and that the island had mysteriously restored his ability to walk. This let us know that the show was entering a metaphysical realm, where the usual laws of science didn't apply. It also let us know that the show wouldn't just boggle our minds but also move us to tears.
This popular CBS series is full of twists, but the biggest shocker may be the unexpected death of Will Gardner (Josh Charles). For one thing, Will seemed an essential part of the show, both as a founding partner of Gardner Lockhart but also as part of the show's central romantic triangle. Trade news readers might have known that Charles wanted to leave the show, but they wouldn't have expected that he'd exit by being shot do death in a courtroom by a desperate defendant who grabbed a bailiff's gun. His death sent the rest of the characters reeling, especially his erstwhile lover Alicia (Julianna Margulies). If viewers hadn't realized it before, they knew it now: all bets were off.
'M*A*S*H' (1972 - 1983)
Even though the series took place in a military hospital near the front lines of the Korean War, death largely spared the primary cast and stuck to claiming the guest stars who played severely wounded patients. Or so it went until the end of the third season, when McLean Stevenson chose to leave the show. His character, beloved camp commander Henry Blake, was discharged and sent home, only to die (off-screen) when the troop transport plane taking him home crashed. It was the most shocking, somber moment of the show's 11 seasons, and one of the few reminders that, in wartime, no one is truly safe.
There may be only one time the "It was all a dream" twist has really worked, and that was when it was spoofed in the series finale of "Newhart." The episode began with a mass exodus from the New England hamlet where Dick (Bob Newhart) ran his inn -- the departing villagers even sang the mournful "Anatevka" from "Fiddler on the Roof" as they left -- and ended with the star waking up next to Emily (Suzanne Pleshette), his wife on the classic "Bob Newhart Show" of the 1970s. In other words, the whole absurd "Newhart" series had been a dream of shrink Bob Hartley, the actor's "Bob Newhart Show" character. Well played, Bob, well played.
This spy thriller sees Pentagon naval office Kevin Costner forced to bring down the Secretary of Defense (Gene Hackman) lest he himself be made the fall guy in a murder investigation. It's an effective, suspenseful, by-the-books thriller until the last two minutes, when we learn that Costner really is a Soviet sleeper agent, one at risk not only of being falsely fingered as the killer, but of being correctly revealed as a mole. Arguably, the movie would work just as well without this revelation, which casts the whole rest of the movie in doubt. But maybe that's a good thing.
Revenge is a dish best served cold, and in Korean director Park Chan-wook's bleak modern classic, the dish gets 15 years to chill. That's how long Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is imprisoned by an unknown captor. Suddenly released back into the world, he swears vengeance on his kidnapper and sets out to find the man's identity and the reason for his long confinement. Along the way, he has an affair with an 18-year-old woman, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong). Ultimately, he learns the truth: that his captor was an old schoolmate who blamed Dae-su for exposing his incestuous relationship with his sister, leading to her suicide. The long captivity was necessary so that Dae-su's three-year-old daughter could grow to adulthood and commit unwitting incest with her father, for she is none other than Mi-do. Dae-su's discovery leads to more Oedipal bloodletting and the realization for both men that vengeance does not bring closure, only more horror.
If you've seen any of the "Apes" movies that followed this 1968 franchise launcher, you already know the big surprise reveal at the ending. Even so, there's a lot to appreciate and enjoy in this initial entry -- most of it having to do with Charlton Heston's scenery-chewing performance. Still, it's hard to top that final moment, when he sees the half-buried Statue of Liberty and realizes that the ape world is, in fact, Earth, and that his own species all but destroyed itself. "Damn you all to hell!" is actually a pretty sensible reaction to all that.
Sometimes a plot twist relies on smart casting to put it across. That's the case here, where Edward Norton plays a stammering, shy murder suspect named Aaron who has a vicious alternate personality named Roy. Unscrupulous lawyer Richard Gere easily exploits Roy's sudden rages to win Aaron an insanity defense. Only then does his client reveal to him that Roy is his true self, and that Aaron was just a calculated invention. The ploy worked -- on the viewer, at least -- because it was Norton's first major film role, and viewers had no idea what to expect from him. Then again, now that we know what an elusive chameleon Norton is as an actor, it still works.
The brain-twisting British sci-fi/spy drama ended with the biggest brain-twister of all. After 17 episodes of Kafkaesque frustration, former spy Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) finally penetrates to the heart of the mystery village where he's been incarcerated and gets to confront the leader, Number 1. When they meet, Number 1 is wearing a gorilla mask, but it comes off to reveal the face of... Number 6 himself! What did it all mean? Fans have spent nearly 50 years trying to decode the symbolism and explain the conundrum.
Hitchcock's masterpiece is a turning point in Hollywood history, thanks to both of its horrifying twists. There's the awful, final revelation that the murderous "Mother" no longer exists, except as a mummy in the cellar and as a projection of Norman Bates's (Anthony Perkins) own tortured psyche. But before that, viewers were thoroughly unsettled by the murder early in the film of its ostensible protagonist, Marion Crane, played by the film's top-billed star, Janet Leigh. Out the window went all audience expectations, based on half a century of accumulated knowledge of genre conventions and the star system. If Leigh could be killed off, who knows what might happen next. The dread itself was as terrifying as Leigh's shower stabbing -- and has haunted viewers and storytellers alike ever since.
The whole killer-disguised-as-one-of-his-own-victims thing goes back at least as far as Agatha Christie. Still, this first installment in the long-running horror franchise executes it particularly well. It's only at the end of the film, after game-playing killer Jigsaw has forced his captives into acts of extreme self-mutilation, that a bloody corpse that's been in the room since the beginning of the film suddenly comes alive and reveals himself to be Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). Pretty good trick.
A second viewing of the movie about the caring shrink (Bruce Willis) and the haunted kid who sees dead people (Haley Joel Osment) reveals a number of clues that Willis's character has, in fact, been a ghost himself the whole time. But on first viewing, the final revelation transforms the movie; what had been a scary enough horror tale turns into a poignant spiritual parable about letting go of one's past. The twist made M. Night Shyamalan into a brand-name director; unfortunately, viewers came to expect plot twists in his movies, and the ones he offered up in later films weren't that surprising or even well-executed. This one, however, still holds up as the textbook example of a plot twist done right.
'Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back' (1980)
If you watch the "Star Wars" movies in the order of their release, rather than the order of the episode numbers, then "Empire" contains a shocker that may be the single greatest plot twist in film history. After all, most of us who'd seen only "A New Hope" were as horrified as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) was to learn that his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi had deceived him, and that his father hadn't died at Darth Vader's hands but was, in fact very much alive because he was Darth Vader. That Oedipal stunner forces Luke to rethink his notions of good and evil and forces viewers to rethink all that they've learned over the course of the original trilogy.
The stories in the classic sci-fi/fantasy anthology series almost always ended with a twist, so there are many to choose from. Think of "To Serve Mankind," where the book of that title, the handbook of seemingly benevolent alien visitors, turns out to be a cookbook. Or "Eye of the Beholder," where a botched plastic surgery leaves a woman looking beautiful (to our eyes), on a world where everyone else has a gnarled snout. But the most memorable may be "Time Enough at Last," where a hermit-like bookworm (Burgess Meredith) is the lone survivor of a nuclear holocaust and now has time to read all he likes -- only to break his glasses. There's a twist that's not just surprising, but karmically cruel.
The final reveal makes the whole crime drama that precedes it look like an elaborate con job. Which it is. Turns out that the whole yarn spun by limping, small-time crook Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) was improvised on the spot. Watch it again and wonder if anything Kint says about unseen criminal mastermind Keyser Soze is true. Even the surprise fax at the end, which seems to identify Soze as Kint himself, seems dubious. All we know for sure is that Kint was telling a tall tale, and that, by the time anyone figures it out, he's shaken off his fake limp and strolled off into anonymity and freedom.