“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” -Albert Camus
Every time you sit down to read a book, watch a play, movie, or TV show, or otherwise consume a work of fiction, you have just entered into an implicit contract with the creators. It is a virtual Terms of Service ratified without even a perfunctory click. As in contract law, this meeting of the minds requires something of value from each party: You offer your willing suspension of disbelief, while the artist promises to lie to you. Or at least, to tell a non-factual story that will possibly entertain you for a while, and might even reveal a deeper truth about the human condition. We expect that if we keep our part of the bargain, and refrain from rushing onto the stage when Romeo is about to kill himself screaming “she’s still alive!,” the actors will do their best to stay in character. This is why plot holes or improbable science is so disruptive to the process, since they breaks the illusion of the story, raising the cost we pay to suppress our disbelief. However, in some special cases, a talented artist can take a weakness of the medium, and, in a kind of ninja maneuver, turn it into a strength that also subverts the audience’s expectations.
***SPOILER ALERT for Bioshock, Inception, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend***
In many video games, the player takes control of an avatar and has a great deal of freedom to dictate what happens. But video game makers have to bound this freedom if they want to tell any kind of coherent story. This is why some checkpoints or tasks must be accomplished, or else the player cannot advance. But what one of the main themes of the game is that free will is an illusion? In Bioshock, the game creators cleverly embed the message that your inability to deviate too much from your required tasks was not just a limitation of games in general, but a nefarious part of the main theme.
Andrew Ryan believes that he should be free of coercion by governments and religion because “a man chooses, a slave obeys.” The irony is heightened by the fact that, in addition to Jack, almost every character is the game is, at some point, in thrall to some other entity. The little sisters are kidnapped and conditioned to collect ADAM from deceased splicers. Besides the “would you kindly” mind-control wielded by Fontaine, the splicers are also under his pheromone-induced influence. For his part, Jack himself can hypnotize a Big Daddy for protection, enrage foes to fight each other, and even hack turrets and health stations to do his bidding.
The movie Inception takes on the tropes of films, such as plot inconsistences, rules that seem to change without notice, and discontinuous jumps between scenes, and makes them part of the story. In dreams, we also experience these features. Are these just limitations of the medium, or evidence that we are watching someone dreaming?
Sitcoms require an extra dash of suspension of disbelief, since the plots are often driven by “crazy” schemes concocted by the characters. While madcap hilarity, but not serious consequences, is sure to ensue, the motivations would be pretty flimsy in real life if concocted by a actual human of sound mind.
But what if, instead of a time-worn trope, this the insane schemes really were the product of mental illness?
In a Purloined Letter worthy reveal, the big twist was hiding in plain sight, or at least in the first word of the title of the show. In the fantastic show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the titular Rebecca really does suffer from mental illness, and receives a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder in the third season. It is rare for a show to attempt the difficult balancing act of being funny, while at the same time, exploring the ramification of metal illness and personal responsibility in general, and succeeds in a surprisingly sensitive and nuanced way.
I’ll leave you with a Handy exam trick: “when you know the answer but not the correct derivation, derive blindly forward from the givens and backward from the answer, and join the chains once the equations start looking similar. Sometimes the graders don’t notice the seam.”