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The Not So Art of The Long Game

The new trend in Hollywood screenwriting is intricate plots that depend on characters that possess uncanny foresight. Plot after plot in movies and TV shows involve seeing ahead twenty steps, knowing exactly what a reaction will be to an action. 

One of the most obvious examples of this has been the sheer number of movies in just the last two years where the bad guy is such a diabolical genius that their scheme always includes what seems like an improbable gamble: purposely being captured.

We’ve seen this in: The Avengers, Die Hard 5, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Skyfall, to name a few.

In all instances the villain further advances towards his goal through a series of events playing out like a Rube Goldberg Device — Action A, results in B, which prompts response C, causing action D, and so on. 

But this phenomenon is not confined to the scheming of bad guys.

On TV, Frank Underwood’s plot to become Vice President in House of Cards is also a long game. And in the current season of Homeland, Carrie and Saul having been running an equally convoluted con. 

There are two major pitfalls of scripting a story this way. 

The first is that when the villain is Bobby Fischer playing a game of chess, that they essentially become unstoppable until the story needs to be ended. I mean, how do you beat someone who outwits you to the extent that they allow themselves to be captured because they know exactly what will happen when they are incarcerated (not to mention 100% confident they can breakout)? As a result, the eventual victory over them is a bit hollow. Something very convenient always happens at the right moment — there was no real skill on the hero’s part.

Consider The Avengers.

Beating Loki pretty much came down to a few people in the US government being crazy enough to fire a nuke at Manhattan, which Iron Man redirected into the black hole. Had that not happened, aliens would have continued to pour out of the black hole, eventually killing the Avengers and taking over the world. So thank god for a trigger happy bureaucrat.

(In fairness, at least in Skyfall the villain did prove to be unbeatable — he was able to accomplish his mission).

The other major problem that comes with this kind of plotting is that when the hero does it instead of the villain, because we’re following the story from the hero’s point of view, we’re often kept in the dark about what’s happening so we’ll be wowed by their ability to plan something so perfectly.

Or in other words, it’s a plot twist.

And in this case the long game becomes a kind of deus ex machina. Case and point is the current season of Homeland. The writers appear to back themselves into a corner with Carrie’s incarceration, and then we get a: “just kidding, it was all a con, Saul and Carrie are just that brilliant.”

While this makes for a good twist, it’s a whole lot of time wasted just to surprise the audience. The story ends up not covering the most interesting thing: the mechanics of the con.

This is also the case with House of Cards. Some of the best moments — Frank plotting with Doug — happen entirely off screen because the writers don’t want us to quite have the full picture of what is being planned.

And I’d argue that this obfuscation diminishes rewatch value.

Procedural police dramas like Law & Order have tremendous repeat values precisely because they are so heavy on the procedure — there is something inherently entertaining about a story that takes you through some kind of complicated process.

Now I wouldn’t really be thinking about this at all — and I don’t mind the occasional plot twist or super genius villain — but it happens with such a persistence in movies and TV shows that Hollywood writers must really believe that clairvoyance is a legitimate phenomena. 

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