Every TV fan loves a good plot twist, but only if it’s earned. A good twist happens in a way that makes sense given what’s come before, without pulling the rug out from under viewers. And the very best plot twists come after carefully planned clues hint at the twists long before they happen.
When TV writers and showrunners plan their stories well, viewers can find bits of foreshadowing that show up many episodes or even many seasons before fate takes its turn. It’s incredibly satisfying to go back and spot the clues that suggested all along what would happen.
30 Rock – Kenneth’s Immortality
In the very last scene of 30 Rock, Kenneth is seen far into the future, still at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, listening to Liz Lemon’s great-granddaughter pitch a TV show. The final joke of the series is also the last in a long-running 30 Rock gag that Kenneth is hundreds of years old and possibly immortal.
The first reference to Kenneth’s agelessness came as a throwaway line in season 1. Cerie tells Kenneth he’s an “old soul,” and Kenneth says, “My mama thinks so too. In fact, she’s pretty sure I’m the reincarnated soul of Adrian Twyfer. He was our town minister who died in an organ fire.”
Arrested Development – Buster’s Lost Hand
Every Arrested Development fan knows Buster lost his right hand when a loose seal attacked him in the ocean. But only die-hard fans caught the many jokes, some subtle and some not so subtle, that foreshadowed Buster’s fate.
The best known of these bits of foreshadowing is a visual gag that showed Buster sitting on a bench with a sign that had the words “ARMY OFFICERS” on it. Buster sat in a position that covered key letters so the sign instead reads “ARM OFF.” There are tons of jokes like this, such as Buster remarking on his long-lost hand-shaped chair, “I never thought I’d miss a hand so much.”
Breaking Bad – Jane’s Death
On Breaking Bad, Jane’s death was one of the most shocking and upsetting plot twists in a show known for them. When Walter finds Jesse and Jane unconscious after a drug binge, Jane vomits in her sleep. Since she’s lying on her back, she chokes on the vomit. And Walter, instead of saving her, allows her to die while he watches.
The death is shocking, but Breaking Bad planted hints about Jane’s fate and how it would happen. There’s an ironic scene earlier in the season in which Jane tells Jesse to sleep on his side when he’s on drugs. And there’s an even more subtle bit of foreshadowing in the same episode when Walter turns his newborn daughter on her side so she won’t choke in case she spits up.
Friends – The Xerox Girl
The on-again, off-again relationship between Ross and Rachel defined Friends. And the most well-known twist in the series-long saga came in season 3, when Ross and Rachel go “on a break.” Ross immediately sleeps with Chloe, a woman who works at a copy shop.
Before Ross’s ill-advised hookup, the show established Chloe’s significance by making multiple references to her before she ever appeared. Earlier in the season, Chandler mentions “that girl at the Xerox place” in multiple episodes, establishing her as an attractive and somewhat mysterious unseen presence.
Game Of Thrones – Robert And Ned’s Deaths
In the book series upon which HBO’s Game of Thrones is based, author George R. R. Martin has been building a Byzantine storyline for 30 years. The epic story is full of plot twists and lots of foreshadowing. And one of the boldest examples comes in one of the first scenes of the entire series.
While Ned Stark is out ranging with his sons at his side, they come across a dead stag and a dead dire wolf. In Westeros, where the series takes place, a dire wolf is the sigil of House Stark, which Ned leads. Meanwhile, a stag is the sigil of House Baratheon, whose leader is Robert Baratheon, Ned’s best friend and the king of Westeros. By the end of season 1, they’re both dead.
The Good Place – The Bad Place
The premise of The Good Place is simple: Eleanor Shellstrop dies and goes to “The Good Place” (Heaven). However, she knows she was supposed to go to “The Bad Place.” And due to whatever mistake put Eleanor in the Good Place, everything there starts to go a little haywire.
But in a major twist at the end of season 1, Eleanor learns the Good Place was the Bad Place all along. That’s when the characters — and the viewers — realize all the things that went haywire and inadvertently tortured the characters throughout the season weren’t inadvertent at all. Everything viewers saw was actually the punishment of the damned, hiding in plain sight.
Lost – Black Vs. White
More than 10 years after Lost ended, devoted fans still love dissecting its intricate plots. But Lost revealed everything about what was really happening right in its critically acclaimed pilot episode.
In an iconic scene, Locke explains the rules of backgammon to Walt. He holds up two game pieces and says, “Two players. Two sides. One is light. One is dark.” It’s certainly not a new idea for the colors white and black to represent good and evil in stories. But it wasn’t until the final season that viewers saw the central conflict literally came down to two individuals called the Man in Black and the Man in White.
Mad Men – Lane’s Death
In Mad Men’s world of ambitious careerists, Lane always seemed overwhelmed and in over his head. He had a good heart, though, and the show’s fans loved him even if they pitied him. Yet despite Lane’s haplessness and beta-male status, few saw it coming when the character died by suicide in season 5.
On the other hand, Mad Men gave viewers clues to Lane’s fate. At one point, Lane jokingly says he’ll be at the company “for the rest of my life,” and Pete Campbell mentions the company’s life insurance policies pay out even in the event of suicide. There are also visual clues like Don casually doodling a noose during a meeting earlier in the season.
Steven Universe – Cookie Cat
Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe started as a silly and charming cartoon series that, over the course of its seasons, revealed a dense and dramatic larger plot. Yet the intricate central story can be found subtly sketched out in a joke in the very first episode.
In the first scene of the first episode, Steven eats his favorite snack, a pink-and-white ice-cream sandwich called Cookie Cat. He also sings its jingle: “He’s a frozen treat with an all new taste/ ‘Cause he came to this planet from outer space/ A refugee of an interstellar war/ But now he’s at your local grocery store.” Viewers didn’t know it at the time, but the jingle described the central conflict of the show and hinted at the mysterious true identity of Steven’s mother, Rose Quartz.
True Detective – The Yellow King’s Identity
When True Detective first aired in 2014, viewers obsessed over the identity of its mysterious and shadowy antagonist, the so-called “Yellow King.” Fan theories leading up to the finale suggested practically every character on the show, but few guessed the Yellow King was the briefly seen “lawnmower man,” groundskeeper Errol Childress.
Before the finale, viewers meet Childress in only one scene in which Matthew McConaughey’s character interviewed him quickly before being called away. There’s precious little in the scene to tie the groundskeeper to the unsolved murders, except a sign in the foreground with certain letters blocked out to reveal the chilling message, “NOTICE KING.”
The Wire – Omar’s Death
Omar Little is an omnipresent threat on The Wire, a ruthless stickup man who robs from the drug dealers in the neighborhood. He’s the only man who fears no one and whom everyone fears. So fans were shocked when Omar finally met his fate, gunned down by a 10-year-old kid named Kenard.
Eagle-eyed viewers might have guessed at Omar’s ending because the series hinted at it all along. In season 3, Kenard is among a group of kids playing guns after one of Omar’s stickups. Chillingly, Kenard even says at one point, “I get to be Omar next!” As the series progressed, viewers saw the continuing effects of the neighborhood’s violence on Kenard, hardening and desensitizing him.