One of the most exciting things about a story – whether it’s in print, a TV show or a movie – is something called “foreshadow.” Used as a verb, the word means to portend an event. It’s born from the Anglo Saxon words fore and skado, which together mean “the darkness that comes before.”
It’s not surprising that so many writers use the technique in their work. Foreshadowing is a useful way to hook the audience and to till the ground for a following scenario; it avoids a misunderstanding of events, which occur later in the work, seemingly for no reason.
Some TV writers are very adept at foreshadowing, but some are not. In order to be able to use the technique well, writers have to know to where their narrative lines are being drawn. In some TV series such as Fargo, the entire arc of the story is well shaped and foreshadowing is used from the outset.
Other TV programs, films, and books suffer from an absence of structure, often caused by a writer lacking experience or just being unclear about where the story is heading. We’ve often heard new authors say, “Hell! I’m just gonna see where this one goes!” But they usually end up with something flat and uninteresting.
It’s a hard thing to get right, but here are 15 TV series that did just that. The question is: did you find the clues when you watched the show? Foreshadowings can often be spoilers, too…
Spartacus was an eastern European gladiator who managed to escape his slave leaders during the Third Servile War — a major slave uprising against the Roman Republic in 73 BC. Little is known about Spartacus beyond the vicious trials of the war, and contemporary accounts are often unreliable. However, most historians agree that he was an ex-gladiator and a worthwhile military leader. His legacy is enacted in scores of books, films, and Steven S. DeKnight’s eponymous TV series.
Rather than try to rewrite history, DeKnight wrote the series according to historical accounts. For those who don’t know, Spartacus died in battle (although his body was never found). DeKnight foretold his death by having Spartacus’s wife tell her husband of a dream she had. Her vision of him bowing before a great red serpent, the life draining from his veins, is a warning. “If you go to war,” she tells him, “you are destined for great and unfortunate things” (Starz, 2010).
Some TV series have been known to foreshadow events that don’t occur, equally a symptom of a clumsy plotline. But while the writers of Lost had a tendency for doing this, it’s widely regarded as supremely well written. Having received critical acclaim and having been a commercial success, Lost was ranked as one of the greatest television dramas of all time, according to TV Week in 2009.
The show ran from 2004 until 2010 although it’s now being reshown on some networks. In the pilot episode, John Locke (played by Terry O’Quinn) is playing backgammon with Walt Lloyd (Malcolm David Kelley), and he mentions that it’s “the oldest game in the world, with one side light and one side dark” (ABC, 2004). Toward the end of the show (Season 6), we learn that two brothers from a light and dark realm have been at war with each other for “thousands of years.”
13. Game Of Thrones
Game of Thrones is another critically acclaimed commercial success. The series, which premiered on HBO in 2011, has a granary of awards: 38 Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama Series in 2015 and 2016, three Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation (2012-2014), a 2011 Peabody Award, and four nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama (2012 and 2015-2017).
The head of The House of Stark (inspired by the English House of York), Lord Eddard Stark, takes possession of Theon Greyjoy. To begin with, Greyjoy rails against his confinement yet appears to come to terms with his new guardians. However, in the pilot episode, Greyjoy reiterates his grand design to kill a now extinct predator called the dire wolf. It’s not a coincidence that the Starks’ heraldic emblem is a wolf. Greyjoy later turns on his host family.
12. The X-Files
X-Files ran on Fox from 1993 until 2002. The series centers on two agents employed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) namely Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). The pair investigates crimes on the margins of the known physical realm, including paranormal events and alien visitations. It was an incredibly popular show and received largely positive reviews although it suffered with what was considered an increasingly muddy plotline.
There’s still some foreshadowing, though. In an early episode, Scully is kidnapped by the deranged Gerry Schnauz. Schnauz straps the agent to a chair and prepares to lobotomize her, pointing to a place in the center of her forehead where he believes “Howlers” reside. Scully escapes with her brain intact but, in a much later episode, discovers she has a brain tumor… behind the same part of her skull on which Schnauz had placed his finger.
11. Arrested Development
American sitcom Arrested Development follows the story of the Bluth family, a dysfunctional group that fights among themselves for control of George Bluth Senior’s failing (but once thriving) business. Michael Bluth (played by Jason Bateman) tries to maintain some degree of control over his manipulative siblings and the family’s general materialism. The show ran for three seasons before being dropped by Fox network in 2006 because of poor ratings.
After George Sr. is arrested by the Securities and Exchange Commission for defrauding investors and spending large wads of the company’s funds, we find the family in disarray. We learn later that Bluths’ adopted son, Annyong, is working undercover for the Commission, but prior to this — and in an episode toward the beginning of the show — we find Annyong wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a mole printed on it.
10. Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon’s skill for storytelling brought us the acclaimed Buffy the Vampire Slayer. According to Insightbb.com in 2008, the show regularly amassed viewing figures of between four and six million. It’s said by some (The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post, et al.) to have influenced the making of other shows about strong female characters overcoming challenges while “trying to live a moral life” (Thestar.com, 2003).
In early episodes, the arrival of Buffy’s sister, Dawn (in Season 5), is foretold several times, and for those with a keen ability to read between the lines, the mention of this would’ve constituted an epic spoiler. In one dream, fellow Slayer Faith makes a reference to the arrival of Little Miss Muffet… a term used regularly for Dawn. In another, Buffy is told by Tara Maclay (played by Amber Benson) to be “back before dawn” (The WB, 2000).
9. Bates Motel
Developed by Carlton Cuse, Kerry Ehrin, and Anthony Cipriano and produced by Universal Television, Bates Motel was more a reimagining than a sequel of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror film, Psycho. Lead actors Vera Farmiga and Freddy Highmore were praised for their performances. Farmiga received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination and a Saturn Award for Best Actress on Television. The show itself won three People’s Choice Awards for Favorite Cable TV Drama.
With most audiences aware of how the 1960 film ends, the creators were challenged by how to sustain audience intrigue. As a result, they made an ending that was both surprising and thoughtful. Bates Motel ends with Norman Bates buried beside his mother, a conclusion that’s hinted at from the outset. In the first season, two days after opening the motel, Norma is attacked. She stabs the assailant to death, and both she and her son bury his body.
8. 30 Rock
American satirical comedy 30 Rock takes place backstage of a fictional televised comedy show. It stars Tina Fey as Liz Lemon, Tracy Morgan as Tracy Jordan, Jack McBrayer as Kenneth Parcell, and Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy. The show was filmed from 2006 until 2013, after which it entered local broadcast syndication. According to Huffington Post in 2014, its series finale “has been named as one of the greatest in television history by several publications.”
We learn in the final episode of 30 Rock that the upbeat Kenneth Parcell is immortal. From the start of the show, references were made to his age, which remained a secret to the other characters. In the third episode, Kenneth remarks that he’s “worn this jacket since nineteen-hubeduh” (NBC, 2006). 30 Rock’s use of surreal humor led critic Todd VanDerWerff of The A.V. Club to write: “[30 Rock] adopts the manic pacing of a live-action cartoon” (2010).
7. Walking Dead
Glenn Rhee (played by Steven Yeun) was a pizza delivery boy in this hit U.S. show. He becomes a mainstay character, begins a relationship with Maggie Greene, and saves the life of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln). What made Glenn’s character was his intuitiveness and resourcefulness, which is why it may have come as a surprise that he was killed by the leader of the Saviors, Negan, in Season 7.
There’s an interesting dynamic surrounding Glenn’s murder, but what we’re interested in today is the foreshadowing of the death in earlier episodes. Frank Darabont’s hints at his eventual death are proof that Walking Dead was more or less written to completion even before it was, well, written. Earlier in the show, Glenn speaks telling lines: “Don’t worry about what’s gone wrong, focus on what’s going right.” In the pilot, Glenn repeatedly calls Rick a “dumbass,” and Glenn’s final words to Rick are “I gotta go. Good luck, dumbass.”
We return one last time to the hit show Lost. Its cult following was wholly consequent on the writing talents of Jeffrey Lieber, J.J. Abrams, and Damon Lindelof. They created a screenplay comprising many layers of interest, from crypto-mythology to complex supernatural. This prompted fans to theorize wildly about the events that take place on the island. In the very first show, we’re introduced to the “Smoke Monster,” a mysterious black entity that roams the island.
In Season 6, Benjamin Linus (played by Michael Emerson) encounters the Monster and learns of its incarnation as John Locke (Terry O’Quinn). Jacob (the leader of the island) considers the Monster his nemesis and explains to the others its true identity. Jacob had thrown his brother into a light emanating from inside the island, and from this light, his brother reemerged as the Smoke Monster. The Monster took the form of deceased people and successfully manipulated the survivors.
This American sitcom was created by Daniel Harmon (Rick and Morty, Great Minds with Dan Harmon) and follows disgraced lawyer Jeff Winger studying at Greendale Community College. Jeff befriends various students, including Annie Edison (played by Alison Brie), an obsessive-compulsive learner with a tendency to outbursts of anxiety.
In what feels like a reference to the Bloody Mary folklore legend (that, should the name be said three times, a ghost will appear in a mirror), the writers alluded to the appearance of Beetlejuice throughout the show. In an early episode in Season 1, Annie says the name “Beetlejuice,” then again in Season 2. In Season 3, she repeats the name, and since this is the third utterance, we see the reflection of Beetlejuice in the mirror. Beetlejuice was played by Michael Keaton in the eponymous 1988 film.
In the 1400s, Englishman Sir Thomas Malory wrote a semi-fictional account of the birth, conquests, friendships, and death of King Arthur. Even today, Malory’s biography of the legendary Celtic Briton is thought by most to be the true version of the Arthurian Legend. Malory titled his work “Le Morte d’Arthur”. It also tells of the king’s attempts to repel the Saxon invaders of old England during the 6th Century AD. Merlin was a BBC production that ran from 2008 until 2012 and was based upon his life.
Such a longstanding legend would’ve been easy to rewrite with a favorable ending, but for BBC producer Julian Murphy, King Arthur’s death was inevitable. “The thing is, there’s something about this legend that works because it failed,” he told Digital Spy in 2004. “They did create this Camelot, and it failed. It always carries that – as a myth, as a story, as a culture – and we can’t really run away from it.”
3. How I Met Your Mother
HIMYM aired on CBS between 2005 and 2014 before entering local syndication. The series focuses on the adventures of Ted Mosby (played by Josh Radnor). The story is in the form of a narration of past events to his son Luke (David Henrie) and daughter Penny (Lyndsy Fonseca). The show has been nominated for 72 awards, winning 18, and the nominations include 28 Emmy Awards and a nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series.
The show is known for its reworking of events, setups, and multiple flashbacks. In an episode of Season 6, we learn that the father of Marshall Eriksen (played by Jason Segel) has died. Throughout the episode, we see numbers in the background of the action, which descend from 50. But previous to this episode, in Season 4, a reference to the death can be found in the absence of Marshall’s father at a Thanksgiving dinner.
2. Breaking Bad
Vince Gilligan created and produced this popular American neo-western crime drama. It aired between 2008 and 2013, won 16 Primetime Emmy Awards, 58 nominations, including winning the Outstanding Drama Series (2013/2014), and two Peabody Awards. It stars Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, and Bob Odenkirk, among others and entered the Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed show of all time.
The title of each episode gave viewers an idea of the storyline, but throughout the whole run of season two, a pink teddy bear was the star. According to cracked.com, in 2014, each episode in which the teddy bear appears is given a particular title so that, when combined, they provide the sentence “737″ “Down” “Over” “ABQ.” At the end of the season, we learn that the actions (or lack thereof) of Walter White indirectly cause a midair collision of two airplanes — and it’s from one of the planes that the pink teddy bear fell.
1. Mad Men
The story of Mad Men begins at an advertising agency in New York City. The American period drama is set in the 1960s and was created by Matthew Weiner. It ran for eight years from 2007 and, during this time, won 16 Emmys and five Golden Globes. It follows the story of Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) who, while successful in the city, decides to join an earthy commune.
The show was well planned with Weiner pitching details of the entire run to producers, from beginning to end. Lane Pryce’s (Jared Harris) suicide in Season 5 had been foreseen in much earlier episodes. Don is seen doodling nooses, and Lane remarks to Don, “I’ll be here the rest of my life” (cracked.com, 2014). Symbolism is in rich abundance throughout Mad Men, which, when combined with its historical accuracy and strong narrative arc, was called “groundbreaking for luxuriating in the not-so-distant past” (The New York Times, 2007).
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