The art of the reveal is a key factor of television. Two recent examples demonstrate how differently it can turn out.

Spoilers ahead.

Mysteries, unexplained circumstances and open questions drive TV dramas. Some are short-term while others linger for years. But they all lead to a reveal. That moment when the writers say “try this on for size.” Sometimes the results blow fans away. Other times, it leaves them with a sense of “eh.”

For months, The Flash has been teasing the mystery of The Man in the Iron Mask. The character was introduced in an episode that saw the title hero travel to another Earth, where he encountered a masked prisoner of his enemy, Zoom. Circumstances prevented Flash from freeing the masked captive. He turned up in subsequent episodes, still a prisoner. Still masked.

Leading up to the reveal of the captive’s identity in the Flash season finale, producers and cast members teased his identity in interviews. They implied it was an amazing reveal, that it would be emotional, possibly heart-breaking.

So when the episode revealed that the captive was the “real” Jay Garrick (the name Zoom had used to gain the trust of Flash and friends), another Flash from another Earth, that wasn’t a huge shock. The captive had told viewers as much in his first appearance, tapping it out in code. Zoom casually revealed his identity when speechifying to another prisoner. The twist to the reveal was that Jay Garrick from another Earth was a doppelganger of the Flash’s recently murdered father, Henry Allen.

Even that wasn’t much of a shock. In a recent episode, Henry had oh-so-casually noted that his mother’s maiden name was “Garrick.” And savvy viewers noted the presence in the finale credits of actor John Wesley Shipp, who played Henry. Surely producers hadn’t brought him in merely to collapse wordlessly at the episode’s outset and expire. So this amazing reveal was actually fairly usual.

It wasn’t a bad development. It made sense and was consistent with the clues provided. And it served a story purpose, pushing the Flash to the emotional place that drove him to a reckless end-of-episode action. If it felt like a letdown, it was only because of the ancillary build-up the reveal had received. The hype machine that surrounds so many TV shows these days did its best to whip viewers into a frenzy over this mystery. That it fell short of mindblowing is more an issue of the promotional over-promising than of the show’s actual writing.

Compare that to the major reveal in the most recent episode of Game of Thrones. One of the show’s more mysterious characters was Hodor, a large, mentally-impaired man named for the only word he ever uttered. A long-time retainer of the Stark family, for years he was the primary protector and form of transportation for young Bran Stark, who’d been crippled at the outset of the series.

Over the years, fans had many theories about why Hodor was the way he was. When the reveal came, with no advance warning or hype, it was shocking. Bran, who has been developing mystic powers, had entered a dream state that allowed him to visit and view past events. He saw a young Hodor at the Stark family home, then a normal person. While in the dream state, the cave where Bran was hiding came under attack by the deadly White Walkers. Meera, Bran’s self-appointed bodyguard, roused Hodor to protect Bran.

As Meera dragged an unconscious Bran into a blizzard, she called back to Hodor to “hold the door.” The phrase repeated. Torn between two worlds, Bran heard the phrase like a chant in his dream state. And then witnessed the moment when Hodor collapsed, chanting “hold the door” until it devolved into a chant of “Hodor.” That revelation was intercut with scenes of Hodor sacrificing his own life to allow Bran to escape.

It was a devastating moment, both for Bran and the show’s fans. The reveal had a lot of power and thematic weight. Part of the reason it landed with such impact was that it was unexpected. Producers and actors hadn’t been making the publicity rounds, building up the moment. Indeed, it caught fans by surprise and felt like a punch to the gut. It was amazingly effective.

It’s not like fans don’t have intense interest in what’s coming up on Game of Thrones. But the show’s policy of not releasing much information about upcoming events, of not flashing a neon arrow to specific episodes with the caption “momentous revelation here,” served to enhance the experience for viewers. They went in with no expectations, no promises of impact or shock. They didn’t see it coming.

With the art of the reveal, under-promising and over-delivering works better every time.

Originally published at on May 25, 2016.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store