Reveals are an important part of storytelling, and they have so many uses! A good reveal can raise tension as the heroes are dumped into an even worse situation than before, or it can be a source of satisfaction as the heroes save the day with a brand-new trick. But some reveals don’t get the job done, instead leaving us wondering if something important was supposed to happen. These failures can only be referred to as underwhelming, and they’re so common that it took me only half an hour to come up with five examples.
Spoiler Notice: Hawkeye, Star Trek: Discovery, Red Sister, and The Order of the Stick
1. Underpowered Mob Boss: Hawkeye
For the first five episodes of this Disney+ show, the writers heavily hint that there’s a secret villain directing the Tracksuit Mafia from behind the scenes. This is a good play because, let’s face it, the Tracksuit Mafia is a joke, more comic relief than actual threat. Their leader Maya is good at martial arts and notably wears a leather jacket rather than a tracksuit, but that’s still not enough to threaten an Avenger like Clint Barton. With his trusty bow and techno-arrows, Clint has faced down alien invasions and hordes of killer robots, to say nothing of Thanos himself.
Fortunately, the show’s tension is largely maintained by the many hints of someone more powerful behind the scenes, along with a less cartoonish approach to violence than the MCU usually takes.* Maya refers to how her “uncle” will be displeased, while Clint talks about an unnamed “big guy” whom he’s worried about angering. Then, in episode five, the bad guys are joined by Yelena, a Black Widow assassin with a personal grudge against Clint. Whoever this uncle/big guy is, he must be the real deal if he can swing something like that.
Finally the big reveal comes and… it’s Kingpin, the one from Netflix’s Daredevil, still played by Vincent D’Onofrio and everything. While it’s neat that the Netflix Marvel shows are being integrated into the MCU, this reveal doesn’t do anything to raise tension. I’ve critiqued Kingpin’s portrayal in Daredevil several times, but that’s not important because even if you think everything in that show worked perfectly, Kingpin is still just a guy whose biggest ambition is to gentrify a neighborhood in Manhattan.*
We’re left back at square one. Despite not having any powers, Clint is an Avenger and has faced Avengers-level threats. There’s the ever-present question of why he doesn’t call one of his superpowered buddies for help,* but putting that aside, this is all just way below his pay grade. As far as we know, Kingpin is just a human who works out and is pretty good at martial arts. Granted, when the heroes actually fight him, he’s inexplicably immune to arrows, but that doesn’t help the reveal.
Worse, Hawkeye already has two villains with martial arts powers: Maya and Yelena. Adding a third barely changes the situation. At least Yelena also has some super-spy training to go along with her martial arts. Kingpin doesn’t even have that. Of course, the real reason for adding Kingpin is so the heroes still have someone to fight after Maya and Yelena switch sides, leaving us with the MCU’s most contractually obligated reveal.
2. Emergency Backup Targaryen: A Dance With Dragons
In the fifth* Song of Ice and Fire book, Tyrion meets up with a mercenary named Griff who has a son, creatively named Young Griff. These two seem like a couple of throwaway side characters until Tyrion does a bit of sleuthing and figures out that Young Griff is actually Aegon Targaryen, son of Rhaegar and grandson of Aerys II, the last Targaryen king. Before this point, it had been widely established that baby Aegon was killed when the Targaryens were overthrown, but surprise! He was switched out with another baby at the last moment.
This reveal is pretty contrived, largely because George R. R. Martin has already used the plot device of children supposedly dying when it was actually only a body double who died. Readers are very sensitive to any trope that lets characters cheat death, so using the same one twice is passé. Nor did the reveal have much – if any – foreshadowing, so it comes out of nowhere. This reveal is also very difficult to justify from an in-character perspective. We’re supposed to believe that Illyrio had a pliable infant with a perfect claim on the Iron Throne, but instead he went with the obviously unstable and more distant Viserys as his primary candidate? Sorry, I don’t buy it.
But if this reveal is so contrived, why did Martin write it? Usually this kind of flopped reveal happens after an author overpromises, but other than Jon Snow’s mysterious parentage, Martin never even hinted that other Targaryens had survived. As you may have guessed, I do have a hypothesis.
By the time of Feast for Crows and Dance With Dragons, two books that cover largely the same span of time, A Song of Ice and Fire’s political conflict has stagnated. Most of the major players are dead, and of those still living, most are stuck in their own personal quagmire, increasingly siloed off from each other. Daenerys is in Meereen, navigating a never-ending stream of local problems. Stannis and Jon are on the Wall, pinned down by Wildlings and Others.* Sansa is caught up in Littlefinger’s convoluted machinations at the Eyrie. The only factions with any momentum are the Ironborn and Dorne, neither of which have much development even after such a long series.
In that situation, I can understand why Martin would want to introduce something big so he could shake up the status quo. Adding another claimant to the throne might have been a way to do that, but I doubt Aegon is the character for the job. He doesn’t appear to have any real support in Westeros, and he’d need a lot if his purpose was to force the other characters out of their individual plotlines and back into a bigger conflict like the previous books had. At most, he might be able to get Dorne on his side, since they already tried making an alliance with Daenerys and it ended with their prince getting barbecued.
That’s just my best guess though. For all I know, Martin introduced Aegon as a way to throw fans off the scent of Jon being a secret Targaryen, something that was still technically unconfirmed when Dance With Dragons came out. Or maybe I’m assigning too much intention to the whole thing, and this reveal is as random as it is underwhelming.
3. A Contrived Power Source: Discovery
Star Trek: Discovery’s fourth season is, for the most part, very good. It even sticks the landing in its finale, something I haven’t been able to say about live-action Trek for a long time. However, it does have one heck of an underwhelming reveal.
You see, this season’s big threat is the Dark Matter Anomaly, which they shorten to DMA. Despite a fairly generic name, the DMA itself is pretty interesting. It’s effectively a black hole that teleports around the galaxy, causing catastrophic damage to any nearby ships or planets. Scans quickly reveal that the DMA has an artificial power source, which raises a big question: What is it for? While very destructive, it doesn’t make much sense as a weapon, since it isn’t targeting anything. The damage it causes appears to be a side effect. This question runs over several episodes as our heroes also investigate who built the DMA and how to stop it.
Then, in the eighth episode, Captain Burnham figures it out. The DMA is actually an advanced piece of mining tech for hoovering up boronite! Wait, how did she guess that? And what the heck is boronite? To answer the first question, it largely comes to her out of the blue. She learns that the DMA’s creators have high energy needs and then makes the leap that they’re using the DMA for mining purposes. It’s not the most unreasonable guess I’ve heard, but since nothing about the DMA indicates mining, it’s quite a leap.
As for the supposed element boronite, that’s a little more complicated. At first, it sounds like a case of classic Star Trek technobabble. But it’s actually an incredibly deep cut reference to the Voyager episode The Omega Directive, where the characters offhandedly mention that boronite is required to synthesize the Omega molecule, a limitless source of energy. If you happen to know that reference, then Burnham’s leap of logic sounds more reasonable. If you don’t, then you’ll probably be confused.
I’m confident in guessing that most of Discovery’s viewers either didn’t remember this obscure bit of trivia or never watched the original Voyager episode in the first place. For a reference like this to work, it has to make sense whether you get it or not. That way, those who don’t will continue the story as if nothing happened, while those who do will get an extra bit of satisfaction. Discovery’s writers forgot that critical rule, and so one of their overarching mysteries sputtered out in a bit of head-scratching jargon.
4. Nun of Your Business: Red Sister
This 2017 fantasy* novel opens with a prologue in which an assassin nun named Sister Thorn is fighting an army of mercenaries hired by someone named Lano Tacsis. After some fighting, we cut to chapter one, and Sister Thorn is nowhere to be seen. Instead, our protagonist is Nona, and she’s just getting started at assassin nun school. There is a major bad guy named Tacsis, but he has a different first name, so it’s impossible to tell if the prologue was a flashback, a flashforward, or happening concurrently somewhere else.
At first, this seems like a standard case of a disconnected prologue. Many authors think that if they open with an unrelated action scene, it justifies the real opening chapters being as slow as they like, and oh boy are Red Sister’s opening chapters slow. Nona learns how to fight for a few chapters, but there’s no significant tension. The only major conflict is handled by the abbess rather than by Nona herself, so we’re left to watch as the protagonist meanders through lessons and eventually makes a friend named Ara. Lano Tacsis does eventually appear as a minor antagonist, but it’s impossible to tell how his actions in the present are relevant to the prologue.
Finally, over 200 pages after the prologue, Nona and Ara get to pick new names for themselves, and Ara announces she’ll be known as Sister Thorn. The chapter dramatically ends there like this is a big reveal, when most readers will have forgotten that name entirely. Fortunately, the book helpfully reminds us by cutting back to the prologue fight, which we can now deduce is a flashforward in which an adult Ara is fighting for her life. And then to add an extra twist, Ara is stabbed in the back by someone she knows. It could be Nona, but the text keeps it deliberately vague.
The Sister Thorn reveal falls flat for the same reason all disconnected prologues do: it’s too disconnected! Learning that Ara will one day be in a fight doesn’t change anything that’s happening in the actual story, which is still taken up with training, training, and more training. It’s not even about the main character, but her friend from assassin nun school. Nona is the one we’ve been building attachment to for the last 200 pages, not Ara.
Speaking of 200 pages, that’s too long to wait for this kind of reveal. For a reveal to work, readers need to understand what’s being revealed. A lot of readers won’t even remember who Sister Thorn is, and switching back to her prologue fight just feels like justifying something after the fact. And then the author tries to raise suspense with Ara getting backstabbed, but it falls even flatter. That moment is clearly vague on purpose, so it could easily not be Nona, or it could be some kind of elaborate trick to save Ara’s life. We don’t have nearly enough context to judge if we should be worried or not.
5. A Time-Wasting Halfling: OotS
For this last entry, we have a classic webcomic. The Order of the Stick started way back in 2003, and its long-running story appears to be finally nearing its conclusion, as the major players align themselves for a battle to determine the fate of all existence. It’s come a long way from the days of weapon proficiency jokes.
As our heroes rush to stop the lich Xykon from taking over the world, a new enemy emerges, attacking Team Good’s allies and generally being a nuisance. This enemy is invisible when they first enter the story, building a mystery about who they are and how their identity will change the story. Are they working with Xykon, or do they have some third agenda that will shake up the entire conflict?
The comic spends quite some time chasing down other plots, but finally our heroes are ready to take on this mysterious enemy. The big reveal: she’s a halfling named Serini, the last survivor of an old adventuring group that tried and failed to stop Xykon back in the day. Hmm. That’s potentially interesting, but why is she attacking Team Good? It’s because she’s worried that in fighting Xykon, they’ll break an important artifact that will, in turn, destroy the world. Instead, she wants them to let the lich win.
Oh boy. This immediately casts Serini in a bad light, since we know the good guys aren’t going to destroy the artifact in question. They already talked about it. This should be a simple misunderstanding, but Serini refuses to believe them and keeps insisting on letting the villain win. Her mystique quickly evaporates, replaced only by annoyance, as she’s just being unreasonably stubborn.
Worse, the entire arc of defeating Serini now feels pointless. Discovering her identity didn’t change anything about the main conflict, nor have the heroes had to reconsider their approach. There’s not even any potential for Serini to become an ally, since the heroes already have plenty of those and Serini doesn’t bring anything new to the table.* We can’t even say that this arc reduced how much time the heroes had to defeat Xykon, since the bad guys seem to have been on pause the whole time.
It’s still possible that Serini will turn out to have some previously unknown clue or magic item that helps win the day against Xykon, as the arc isn’t quite over yet.* That might be better than nothing, but it would also be pretty contrived. So far, it’s seemed like the heroes have everything they need to defeat the lich, and it’s hard to imagine what Serini could offer that wouldn’t feel like a retcon. She’s little more than a speed bump in the story’s final chapter, and it would have saved a lot of frustration if we’d just skipped this side arc.
The specifics of an underwhelming reveal may change, but the core problem is almost always the same: the reveal doesn’t change the story very much. A big reveal is supposed to shake things up, to make the characters reexamine their approach. If that doesn’t happen, then audiences are left wondering what the point was.
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