The Ending Changes Everything
The Gordian Knot of Twist Endings
When The Ending Changes Everything
, it calls into question exactly how much of what you've seen was actually real or how to interpret what you have seen so far. A charitable director (or one who wants to show off how clever the script is) might give you a Once More with Clarity
montage to help you work it out. One thing that is for certain, it creates a very different experience when you revisit the story
There are various associated tropes used in achieving this:
UNMARKED SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
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Anime & Manga
- In Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, we find out in Tsumihoroboshi-hen (the end of season 1) that the conspiratorial events of Onikakushi-hen (the beginning of season 1) were all in Keiichi's head, horribly twisted by the Hate Plague he was infected with. And then the second season comes along and cheerfully informs us that, while we have never been LIED to, we've just seen the action through the eyes of several different unreliable narrators.
- Umineko no Naku Koro ni is even worse, in that several murders are shown to be committed via crazy, insane magical means, like demon robot bunny girls shooting seeking arrows of energy through keyholes to kill people in locked rooms. One major plot point is the main character trying to disprove those supernatural justification and find a human culprit.
- Umineko Episodes 4 and 6, in particular, reveal that certain completely mundane-seeming scenes we've been shown in previous Episodes were in fact complete lies.
- With Episode 8, most of what came before (specifically Episodes 3 thru 6) is revealed to be the result of amnesiac Battler trying to figure out what really happened.
- Seitokai no Ichizon: The introduction of the bullying victim Nakameguro lead to some interesting revelations on Sugisaki's side, shedding a completely new light on the relationship between him and the girls as well as his desire to create a harem.
- Death Note: Another Note. Naomi Misora is conscripted by L to solve a series of murders in Los Angeles. She's joined in her investigation by a mysterious young man with messy hair, white skin and bags under his eyes using the pseudonym "Ryuzaki" - must be L, right? The ending reveals the man is actually the murderer, Beyond Birthday, who is obsessed with L and modeled his appearance on him. This leads to a lot of Fridge Horror considering Naomi's interactions with him throughout the book.
- Paranoia Agent begins with Tsukiko Sagi being attacked by a mysterious, baseball-bat-wielding assailant. The attacker, Shonen Bat, then begins to strike various other victims. Turns out that the first attack was faked by Tsukiko herself in order to relieve some of the pressure she was put under on her job. Unfortunately, Shonen Bat spread like a particularly violent meme, and it has a life of its own now...
- Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt: "I'm a demon." That's Stocking, Panty's sister. After she returned from Heaven. Who then promptly slices Panty up into 666 pieces. Also, the Big Bad wasn't slain by the duo's Wave Motion Gun. The fandom reaction was... severe.
- Denpa Onnato Seishun Otoko: The last episode of the anime caps off with Yashiro (the little girl who runs around in an astronaut suit and insists she is an ESPer) saving Makoto's life by having him move back the EXACT number of steps required to not die from a meteorite and disappears right after. Immediately prior to this she had said she would prove her abilities. Incredibly convenient coincidence or she was telling the truth about her abilities? Since the whole show up til that point has broken down the existence of the supernatural as nothing but figments of people's imaginations it throws the whole message in a different direction, becoming more along the lines of "keep an open mind, because you never know" and not actually answering the question of whether or not the supernatural exists. leaving the viewer wondering things likewas Erio abducted after all?!?!
- The final volume of Scott Pilgrim definitely forces the reader to question the validity of the story the previous five told. Gideon Graves revealed to Scott that he has tampered with his memories as Scott's real ones were "boring."
- Specifically, it forces the reader to re-examine Scott as a character. The earlier volumes have him generally come off as an eccentric, pathetic hipster geek, but this image starts to crack and we get a better idea of why Scott's friends dislike him so much. It all builds up to the aforementioned final volume, where we see the innocent way Scott views himself is partially the result of Gideon tampering with his memories; it turns out, in reality, he was a major Jerk Ass to his friends and past girlfriends, and his breakup with Envy was apparently nowhere near as one-sided as it was made out to be. A recurring theme is Scott learning from his past mistakes instead of (literally) running away from them.
Films - Animated
- The Lego Movie is a rare animated version of the trope, where the third act reveal the entire events of the film have been imagined and constructed by a young boy playing with his father's LEGO, and the villain is an expy of the boy's father who wants all of his LEGO to remain immutable and perfect forever.
Films - Live Action
- Popularized by the film The Usual Suspects. A police prisoner, Verbal Kint, is being interrogated about a ship explosion the previous night. His interrogator Agent Kujan believes that the explosion was caused by Dean Keaton, a crooked cop, but Kint tells how a diabolical mastermind called Keyser Soze was behind it all. Eventually, Kint relents under Kujan's pressure and admits that Keaton was Keyser Soze all along. Just after Kint is released from custody, however, Kujan realizes that Kint has been spinning a gigantic lie using objects around the office as inspiration. It's suggested that it was Kint himself who is Keyser Soze and was simply playing a role the whole time. This is all foreshadowed in the beginning, when Kujan states that cops almost always find what they expect to find. Kujan expected Kint to be a weak patsy protecting Keaton, so that's the role Kint played.
- Matchstick Men. Obviously, most of the film is a con. But when did it start? How much of it was planned, how much improvised? And just how much affection do Frank and "Angela" have for Roy? The film suggests answers for some of those questions, but some of them we just have to guess about.
- Memento ends this way, when it's revealed that Leonard killed his wife's rapist before any of the events of the movie, and not remembering this, has been killing criminals with similar names. The man he kills at the start of the film (actually the end of the timeline) is the dirty cop inducing him to do this, toward whom he himself had planted hints. Raising even more questions, the dirty cop claims that the actual rapist did not kill Leonard's wife, but she committed suicide because she couldn't deal with Leonard's amnesia. His memory of "Sammy Jenkis" is actually a twisted version of his own story that he conditioned himself to remember. However, since he is a dirty cop, whether or not he's actually telling the truth or just trying to keep Leonard busy until he loses his memory again.
- The Jet Li movie Hero uses this trope by taking place almost entirely during an audience with the emperor during which the main character tells his story to the emperor in long flashbacks, after which the emperor points out a flaw in the claims. Based on the lies he discovered, the emperor tells the story again with some changes of what he thinks really happened. And with his lie exposed, the nameless hero then confesses the actual events and retelling the story a third time. And then everything changes again when he reveals that he never actually intended to kill the emperor since he realized the folly of the insurrection on his way to the palace and only wanted to explain his reasons before accepting his punishment for participating in a conspiracy.
- He also demonstrates that he could have killed the emperor at any point, after getting within 10 paces of him, even using his technique but turning his blade at the last moment.
- Likewise the movie House of Flying Daggers. In its final half hour, each individual character reveals each other individual character, all of them in roles they hadn't seemed to fill for most of the movie. The only character, amusingly, who's been somewhat honest the whole way through, is the one who's supposed to be the one conning others.
- The 2006 film Irresistible: You don't know if Mara (Emily Blunt) was in fact Sophie's (Susan Sarandon) prodigal daughter, or if she just stole the identity of her best friend Kate (who bears a closer resemblance to Sophie and her other daughters).
- The 2003 French/American horror film High Tension (known as Switchblade Romance in the UK) uses this to disturbing Mind Screw effect. Marie is a severely unreliable narrator, and a Psycho Lesbian, and the killer. This WAS somewhat foreshadowed in the beginning (the dream about Marie chasing herself, with footage from later in the movie; Marie being mentioned as never having a boyfriend) but this is in the realm of Fridge Brilliance; to most people it seems like a totally random and jarring Ass Pull bordering on Gainax Ending, due to several scenes that make no sense if she and the killer are the same person.
- The Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters featured both an Unreliable Narrator and Real After All, leaving the viewer to wonder how much was truly supernatural, and how much was merely the delusions of the insane protagonist.
- Another Korean film, Bloody Reunion, ends when we find out that the narrator is the murderer, and she made up the entire story, and all the bad things in the flashbacks actually happened to her, not the other guests.
- Korean horror Dead Friend (also known as The Ghost) is played out as a generic horror flick, until the final scene where it is revealed the ghost who has been killing off Ji-won's (the main character's) friends IS in fact Ji-won. In a flashback it is shown that Ji-won had inadvertently caused the death of a girl before the movie began. The audience is led to believe this girl is the ghost and that she wants revenge. However, it is later revealed that she and Ji-won switched bodies just before the girl died, so the girl is actually the protagonist we have been following throughout the movie and Ji-won is the ghost.
- Wild Things, where pretty much all the characters were revealed in a series of twists to be allied with one another, then revealed in another series of twists to be secretly betraying one another. Even when the movie was over, the writers threw in several more twists during the closing credits just for fun.
- David Mamet is well known for his big twists, which call into question large chunks of the previous plot.
- In House Of Games, the heroine realizes that none of the cons in which she participated were real. They were all one giant con on her.
- In State and Main, the main character perjures himself in court and instantly regrets it. It turns out that the whole court scene was just a play designed by the local love interest to give him a chance to rethink his choice before the real court case begins. The Simpsons parodied this scene, and Lisa admits that it's almost insultingly far-fetched.
- In The Spanish Prisoner, Mamet returned to the topic of conmen. It turns out that most of what happened in the first half of the movie was an elaborate con, but even after the hero thinks the con is over, it's still going.
- Redbelt tries this, though not as well as previous films. After suddenly being snubbed and ripped off by some Hollwood types, the main character desperately tries to figure out what's going on. He finally discovers that it's all about a laughably impossible scheme to fix Mixed Martial Arts matches.
- Primer: The second act of the film involves the use of very limited Time Travel; in the third act Abe learns that his friend Aaron has already used the time machine to change the past. So during the entire aforementioned second act, Aaron had actually been Aaron-from-a-week-in-the-future, manipulating current events for his own ends.
- American Psycho leaves the reader/viewer unsure of how much of it was real and how much of it was fantasy. It's left up to the audience whether Bateman was so crazy that he only imagined himself killing a lot of people, or if the world is so oblivious and corrupt that Bateman's crimes were covered up and ignored to such a degree that even he doubts that they ever occurred.
- The original Total Recall (1990) spends a lot of time questioning which parts of the plot and the hero's background are real, fake memories, or hallucinations. The film ends with a very strong suggestion that most of the plot was not real, though the truth is left ambiguous.
- The remake Total Recall (2012) drops the ambiguity and sticks with a happy ending, but the Extended Cut of the remake puts some of the ambiguity back in. The message that Quaid finds in Hauser's apartment shows Quaid/Hauser portrayed by Ethan Hawke instead of Colin Ferrel, and the tattoo he received at Rekall is missing at the end.
- Lucky Number Slevin, in which it's revealed that the eponymous apparent patsy has planned out all the film's events thus far, working with the hitman who'd apparently been using him to play both ends against the middle.
- In After Life, Liam Neeson plays a mortician named Elliot who claims to have the ability to speak to the dead. Throughout the movie, he talks to the main character (who is dead) in hopes of getting her to move on with her life. It turns out in the end that he was lying the whole time and that the main character was alive the whole time. However, there have been foreshadowing for both options on whether he was lying or not. With lots of those moments pointing towards the former. And one large hint that he has been doing it for a long time.
- In Shutter Island, we learn at the end that the protagonist isn't a cop anymore; just a delusional mental patient. Everyone he's met, including his partner, has been playing along in the hope that it'll let him get over it and the apparent conspiracy was all in his mind. Not only that, but he killed his wife after she killed their children; it was this incident that caused his psychotic break and he's been blocking it out.
- In the 2011 Unknown, Liam Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a scientist who came to Berlin with his wife for a biotechnology conference. He gets in a car accident, wakes up in the hospital after a four-day coma and finds that another man has completely taken over his life. Harris' wife believes the other man, who seems to know everything Harris knows, is her husband. The Reveal is that Harris is a deep-cover assassin who was on a mission to kill someone at the conference, but now believes his own cover story as a result of the brain damage he suffered in the car accident: Harris' "wife" is actually his partner, and the other man was a backup assassin who took over the role of "Dr. Harris" when the protagonist disappeared.
- In Unknown2006, the film's conclusion reveals that James Caviezel's character is actually an undercover cop, who had infiltrated the kidnapping ring and was about to bust them when a toxic gas rendered both kidnappers and kidnappees unconscious and amnesiac. And then the very last scene twists the twist, by revealing that he'd also been sleeping with the wife of the kidnapped millionaire, and had incited the rest of the criminal gang to abduct the man so he could murder him and set the gang up to take the fall.
- In Psycho Beach Party it turns out it was all a dream in the main character's mind, that later got turned into a film where the main character then goes to kill some of the audience... so arguably you have to wonder when she got put away, who actually died, who was the actual murderer... and it raises so many questions.
- Used to creative effect in this short film by Mathieu Ratthe "Lovefield." In the middle of a secluded cornfield a man appears to be finishing killing a woman off screen. Hurrying back to his truck, he grabs a towel and the audience presumes he's trying to cover up the body and perhaps dispose it in some way. Then just at the end the man says "It's a boy", and a newborn baby appears in view. The woman who sounded like she was dying was in fact in the midst of delivering a child and the blood was just the afterbirth.
- Near the end of Identity, it's revealed that none of the people at the motel are real. They are only the figments of Malcolm Rivers' imagination, each of them a separate personality of his mind.
- Four Dogs Playing Poker has four friends who had stolen a statuette find it has disappeared. They need to pay for it or be killed by the buyer- so they take out insurance policies on each other, and draw cards to see who will be the murderer and victim. But there's a twist...
- Excessively used in the American remake of the horror movie "Silent House", after being chased around the house by a mysterious burly man, and her father and uncle get attacked by the man and taken away, she finds out from a woman who claims to be her child hood friend that her father and uncle used her and the main character in child pornography and that the mysterious woman was the killer the whole time. Then it turns out the woman doesn't exist and that the main character was the killer. THEN, after killing her unrepentant father and sparing her repentant uncle, it turns out neither of them exist. Maybe?
- The 2003 version of Willard. The finale goes from the title character screaming while killing his turncoat rat to him screaming in an insane asylum. He has bite marks on his face, but it's not clear if anything else in the movie actually happened or if he simply has an obsession with rats, and his damaged mind created a fictional history for his wounds.
- In Sleepaway Camp, it was obvious early on that Angela was the killer. The real twist was that "Angela" wasn't "Angela." The real Angela died in the boat accident at the start of the film. "Angela" was actually Peter, Angela's brother. Peter was taken in by his insane aunt and raised as "the daughter [she] always wanted." Though this was actually hinted at a few times during the movie (Starting with the fact that we're never actually shown which sibling survived), most viewers would've blown off most of the clues as simply part of Angela's odd nature.
- Primal Fear ends with The Reveal that the innocent-seeming altar boy who seems to have a violent split personality - and who had just been found not guilty of murder - was nothing of the kind; he had only been pretending to have a Split Personality, and the innocent personality, not the violent one, was fake.
- The Prestige ends with a reveal that Christian Bale's character is actually a pair of twins, concealing this in order to perform magic tricks. Specifically, this calls into question which of the twins actually killed the wife in the beginning scene, whether it was truly an accident (and the possibility that he was telling the truth when he said he didn't know), and which one is dying for the crime, rightly or wrongly. It does however explain his odd behavior towards his wife.
- Fridge Brilliance and watching the dialogue again seems to imply that the twin who killed the wife was also the one who died at the end. However, it was the other twin who said they didn't know, which while likely true, raises even more questions.
- The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is presented with the Framing Story of a man telling a story of how his fiancee went tragically insane and how his best friend was assassinated by the mad Dr. Caligari. The Twist Ending reveals that both the storyteller and his companion are inmates in an insane asylum, and the whole story has been a mad justification fantasy that presents its teller as the blameless hero and his doctor as a diabolical, motiveless tormentor
- The Skeleton Key builds everything up to make it look like Violet is planning to sacrifice Ben and Caroline in a ritualistic sacrifice to give her immortality. It turns out that this is only half right. The ritual is a transfer, not a sacrifice, and "Violet" and her husband are actually two former slaves named Mama Cecil and Papa Justify, who have been using the ritual to swap bodies with younger people. "Ben"'s fear of "his" wife is because he's actually the family's young lawyer - Papa Justify moved from the Ben body to the lawyer's before the movie began, and the lawyer in the Ben body was understandably traumatized and trying to warn Caroline. The ending also changes the way a lot of seemingly trivial comments come across as, for instance Violet complaining that the nurse sent to look after Ben is not black (Mama Cecil comments at the end of the movie that she'd wanted to move into the body of a black girl) and asking if Caroline had any tattoos to see if her body was acceptable. It also adds a sinister layer to the romance between the lawyer and Caroline, since it's revealed that Papa Justify was only doing it so that he and Mama Cecil could continue to live as a married couple in their new bodies, without anyone suspecting something is off.
- Everything single horrible thing that happens to Michael Douglas's character in The Game - losing all his money, getting drugged and sent to Mexico, snapping and shooting his brother - is part of his surprise birthday party. Seriously. Or you could argue that the party at the end is a dying hallucination as he commits suicide for actually killing his brother. Either way, nearly everything in the movie is proven to be a staged incident.
- The Uninvited 2009 appears to be a typical horror film with the protagonist Anna seeing the ghost of her dead mother seemingly accusing her new stepmother (who was the mother's nurse before marrying Anna's father) of killing her. There's even a moment where her boyfriend comes into her room in the dead of night after failing to show up at the designated meeting spot earlier. She tries to hug him and realizes that his spine is broken. He then, with his body twisted, tries to walk to her, as she runs away screaming. Finally, her stepmother, whom she and her sister Alex think is a Black Widow, appears to drug Anna and threaten to put her back into the mental hospital. Anna wakes to to find the stepmother's body in the dumpster with Alex holding the knife. Their father arrives, and, horrified, reveals that Alex died along with their mother before the start of the film. Anna is the one who accidentally caused the explosion that killed them (after seeing her father cheat with the nurse) and went insane, imagining Alex to be alive and her mother and boyfriend's ghosts haunting her. She was also the one who pushed her boyfriend off the cliff but blocked it out. The only thing no one can figure out is why Anna thought that the stepmother was a black widow. The final scene reveals that one of her friends in the mental hospital was the real black widow.
- The film Now You See Me ends with the reveal that Dylan Rhodes, the apparently inept, bumbling FBI agent chasing the Horsemen, was the mastermind behind the entire plot, casting every action the character takes throughout the movie in a completely different light.
- The endings to A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and its remake. When exactly was Nancy awake and when was she sleeping?
- The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh. There's room for interpretation, but it's strongly implied at the end of the film that Leon never returned home, and the events of the film are simply Rosalind's lonely ghost imagining what might have happened had her estranged son come to settle the estate.
- Cry_Wolf does this at the end when it reveals that Dodger was the Big Bad all along. She was in an affair with Mr. Walker, and was furious after finding out that he was seeing Becky on the side, and so she plotted to kill the two of them. She was the one who killed Becky in the opening, and the rest of the film, including the fake Serial Killer story, the prank, the staged "killing spree", and Owen shooting Mr. Walker, was part of her plan to kill Mr. Walker as well, getting Owen to think that he was the killer.
- Each of the Saw movies ends on a twist that is at least somewhat like this.
- The first film: The man lying "dead" in the middle of the room was John Kramer, the Jigsaw killer who had orchestrated the traps. He was alive the whole time.
- The second film: The "live" feed of the traps that the detectives are watching was actually pre-recorded, and Daniel, Eric's son, was in a safe in that room the whole time. Also, Amanda was working for John Kramer, acting as his disciple to continue the Jigsaw legacy after he dies, with the events of the film having been a trap she designed for Eric that he failed.
- The third film: The entire film was a Secret Test of Character that John Kramer had designed for Amanda, feeling that she had lost sight of his ideals and was just murdering people for her own pleasure by creating inescapable traps.
- The fourth film: Hoffman was another of John Kramer's accomplices, and continues his legacy after John and Amanda are dead.
- The fifth film: Hoffman frames Strahm for the Jigsaw murders he committed before killing him, getting away scot-free.
- The sixth film: In his will, John Kramer gave his wife Jill five envelopes containing pictures of five people to be "tested", which she gives to Hoffman. The ending reveals that Jill held onto a sixth envelope that contained a picture of Hoffman himself. Jill locks him into a reverse bear trap and leaves him to die; he survives, but gets half a Glasgow Grin in the process.
- The seventh and final film: Dr. Gordon, one of the victims from the first film, was yet another of John Kramer's accomplices. He finishes what Jill started by kidnapping Hoffman and leaving him to die in the same basement Gordon was locked up in in the first film.
- The revelations at the end of The Player of Games, revealing just how thoroughly Special Circumstances has been manipulating the situation. And then you find out that Gurgeh's drone companion and the drone who blackmailed him into accepting the assignment in the first place are the same drone.
- Atonement by Ian McEwan is an odd example, in that Briony, the story's narrator, directly addresses the reader and says she had to give the story a Happy Ending to instead of letting them simply die, as happened in real life. This is actually the point of her book, since she hopes to atone for her actions that kept them apart by reuniting them in fiction.
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel tells the story of a boy on a lifeboat after a shipwreck along with a fully-grown tiger and includes other bizarre occurrences. At the end he gives an alternate, more horrifying but less fantastic version of events to the people he's telling the story too, leaving it to them (and us) to decide which to believe. The in-story listeners believe the story with the tiger.
- The Thirteenth Tale is narrated by one of the characters. Near the end, she reveals that she's been combining two different people into one.
- William Gibson's and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine has a fairly interesting twist of this kind, although it doesn't really call into question previous events so much as how the reader was perceiving them. The reader's point-of-view was the perspective of an AI in the Alternate History's future analyzing past events to learn how it came about. Everything - the titles of the chapters, the structure of the writing (which seems stilted, almost bureaucratic at times), the descriptions of the world - it all plays into it.
Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)
- In Ian R. MacLeod's short story "The Camping Wainwrights," the father of the titular family is established as a sociopathic subtle abuser who does bizarre things like breaking the family's possessions for no reason, keeping his wife and children miserable and terrified. At the end, he gets what he deserves. Then it is revealed that the narrator's sister performed at least one of the mysterious acts of cruelty that were blamed on the father, raising the possibility that he may have been an innocent scapegoat of the family's general dysfunction.
- In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, the narrator himself is the murderer and he has been hiding that the entire time. He also points out how clever and careful he acted and wrote this all down which serves as a Once More with Clarity moment. What's notable about this is that he never actually lies, he just leaves out some important parts in his written account of the events. Of course, Hercule Poirot noticed those, but the reader probably didn't.
- Odd Thomas throws a twist in the last few pages that negates the previous few chapters, or at least our interpretations of them. His girlfriend Stormy was actually a ghost, having died in an explosion, and the interactions he'd had with her were wishful thinking on his part.
- Until the last paragraph, Randall Garrett's short story Despoilers Of The Golden Empire appears to be science fiction set in the far future. It is neither.
- In Bad Monkeys, Jane is being interviewed by a psychiatrist after being arrested, and she claims that she is part of the Department for the Final Disposition of Irredeemable Persons, or "Bad Monkeys". At the end, it is revealed at the end that Jane is The Mole for the Nebulous Evil Organization known as The Troop and that her psychiatrist is her brother Phil, previously thought to be dead, and he is a Reverse Mole.
- A Series of Unfortunate Events concludes its thirteen book run by twisting how you view the very reason why the books were even written in the first place with the final word of the entire series: Beatrice. A few chapters before then, A Series of Unfortunate Events turns out to exist within A Series of Unfortunate Events. Confused? Let's explain: Beatrice turns out to have been the Baudelaires' mother, and she had dated Lemony before marrying the kids' father. Lemony is recording the kids' misadventures partly out of curiosity about his lover's children and also to add their stories to the ASoUE book that records all the lives of those who washed up on the island, including himself.
- Real Quick Flash Fic has a short story where a girl is being hunted ruthlessly down... then it turns out it was just a game of hide and seek.
- Ava Paige's epilogue in The Death Cure shows that she is still devoted to WICKED's cause, even after having turned on most of them. She altered WICKED's mission objectives in a way that put her on the protagonists' side, though, and she was genuinely sorry for some of the things she did. The same epilogue also implies that Brenda and Jorge were following her orders to the end.
- The final scene of the final episode of St. Elsewhere showed such a radically different interpretation of the major characters it opens the possibility that the entire series was an in-story delusion. One series writer deduced through Canon Welding that "90% of all television" is a subplot of a St. Elsewhere episode.
- The ending of 30 Rock parodies the St. Elsewhere ending twist by revealing that the entire series had just been part of a pitch for a TV show based on Liz Lemon's life, put together decades later by Liz's granddaughter and approved by the immortal Kenneth Parcell. To recap, 30 Rock is about people in a Show Within a Show putting on a show.
- One particularly impressive example is the CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode "Got Murder?". After finding that a dismembered body belongs to the estranged ex-wife of a man who had been accused of her murder, the investigators discover that that man's daughter is pregnant, and find evidence that he was molesting her. Just as their case starts to look watertight — that he killed his wife when she returned to find him in bed with their daughter — the truth comes out: it's just a hysterical pregnancy. The daughter killed her mom for threatening her fantasy life. Dad had no idea what the heck was going on.
- "Anatomy of a Lye" rips off the Gregory Biggs case from the headlines, whith a drunk driver hitting a man with his car, then driving to his garage with the victim stuck alive and unable to move in the windshield, where he dies hours later. Meanwhile, the perp continues with his life in order to not raise suspicions, buries the body in a park the night after and doses the car and garage with lye to erase any evidence. Unlike in Biggs' case, the episode ends with the discovery of a suicide note from the victim: he walked in front of the car intending to kill himself. The ending thus makes the whole elaborate scheme of the perp to avoid prosecution pointless and counter-productive, since if he had just taken the man to a hospital, he would have been charged with nothing - not even drunk driving, as it was unrelated to the 'accident'. His Smug Snake behavior was what made him a murderer.
- Nowhere Man, an early UPN drama, was about a man who was UnPersoned over a compromising photograph of U.S. Soldiers executing Third World peasants. He traveled the country trying to unravel the conspiracy that was behind his erasure and reclaim his old life. After twenty-odd episodes of Mind Screw and conflicting explanations about why the photo was important, the finale closed with The Reveal that his old life never existed. He was really a government agent that had been captured by the conspiracy and implanted with false memories, and his entire cross-country odyssey had been a test of how much of the lie he would believe. This may have been intended to lead into a second season, but it was never produced.
- In all places, the family sitcom Yes Dear. An episode revolves around the lead character Greg's reluctant attendance at a therapy session. The episode consists of flashbacks to elements of his life that have scarred him in the present day. At the end of the session, right after he leaves, the psychologist (played by Michael Boatman) comes to a realization that the whole thing was a trick. The ending features an Affectionate Parody of The Usual Suspects as he drops his cup of coffee in shock, and the camera cuts to a limping Greg gradually walking normally (his leg had fallen asleep).
- The final episode of Roseanne, in which it's revealed that all of the show's characters are simply altered versions of the real people in Roseanne's life. Further that, a number of key events and facts were altered... including that the 'real' Roseanne's husband died of the heart attack Dan survived.
- Derren Brown's The Seance is about a seance involving 12 medical students who committed suicide. The volunteers "make contact" with a young woman named Jane, complete with video and evidence confirming the things stated by the volunteer-turned medium. At the end, Derren explains some of what happened, asks the volunteers to wait, and walks outside. He reaches "Jane" in the van, perfectly alive, and calls her inside to meet the volunteers. The only thing missing is a rimshot. A good deal of Brown's specials have something like this.
- Parodied on Saturday Night Live with Kevin Spacey as host (in an obvious reference to the end of The Usual Suspects). Andy Samberg was late to rehearsals and Spacey starts to give him a verbal beating, only for Samberg to relate a long and complicated story that explains his tardiness including meeting up with Radiohead and having to confront one of those human statues who wore gold paint. Spacey forgives him and lets him go, only to turn around and see elements of the story on his back wall. Radiohead came from a mannequin head on top of a radio and the gold painted human statue was a picture of Spacey with his Oscar. It then went a step further, showing an entire line of items and symbols that spells out an entire sentence Pictionary-style.
- The 100th Episode of The Big Bang Theory plays this way. The episode starts off with an homage to the pilot with Leonard seeing Penny across the hallway and instinctively asks her out, being almost two years since they broke up. Most of the episode was then about the various pitfalls reinforcing why they had such a hard time dating in the first place, with Leonard admitting every scenario for them inside his head ends badly and Penny telling him he overthinks things. The story then jumps back to the first scene in the hallway, most of the episode being a mental debate on if he should ask her out again. Despite the "bad ending" he imagined he decided to do it anyway and the episode ends by contrasting real life with his imagination, proving that his imagined scenario may not be the end outcome.
- The Scrubs episode "My Screw Up" has Dr. Cox dealing with guilt over a patient dying while talking with his best friend and brother-in-law Ben. The dialogue implied it was a one episode patient who died while under J.D.'s care while Dr. Cox ran trivial errands but it was actually Ben, whose cancer had returned and was a hallucination of sorts to cope with the shock. This explains why Dr. Cox was so angry at JD, it was not just any patient like the audience would assume. Earlier in the episode when someone made a comment about him always carrying around his camera, he replied with, "'til the day I die." The rest of the episode he doesn't have his camera with him and no other character acknowledges his presence despite some goofy antics.
- This is similar to the episode Ben first appeared in, where JD day-dreamed the entire second half because he didn't want to believe the test results that said Ben had cancer in the first place.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Normal Again", The Trio tries to convince Buffy that her life as a vampire slayer is delusional, and she is really a patient in a mental hospital. The episode ends on Buffy in the Mental Institution going catatonic. (Joss Whedon claimed this episode was ambiguous, and the show snaps back in the next episode.)
- Almost every episode of Hustle ends with the revelation that the main characters were in complete control of the situation, even though it seemed that they were completely doomed. The best example was the episode in which they were being conned, which revealed at the end that not only were they aware they were being conned, they had been aware before the episode had even started.
- An overseas example from Japan: the tv show Papadoru!, or Papa wa Idol (meaning "Papa is an Idol"), where Kanjani8's Nishikido Ryo plays Nishikido Ryo, a member of Kanjani8 who falls in love with a convenience store worker with three children and marries her in secrecy but soon they are outed by the media. The show basically goes between getting to know his wife's children and him dealing with the backlash of his fans and the group members' reactions to him not telling them about his marriage. In the last episode, everyone gets a happy ending and then it's shown that the rooms are actually sets and it was all a fucking tv show within a tv show.
- One episode of Empty Nest has Harry seeing a series of patients all named Billy. They get progressively older as the episode goes on. The final patient is a young man about to leave for college who's come for his records. Harry and the college bound man have a brief conversation which includes a mention of past drug use (which another of the patients had issues with). Then the man gives him a book on sexual education (which Harry had given to a pre-teen patient who asked about it) and a Pez dispenser (which Harry had given to a diabetic patient). It's then revealed that all of the patients were the same boy at different points of his life. The last shot is all of the patients leaving Harry's office in single file.
- An episode of Los misterios de Laura tells the story of a guy who wakes up after an operation with a girl he's never seen claiming to be his wife. She conveniently needs him to sign some papers to access a very shady security vault at a bank, the girl he claimed to be his real wife is murdered, then the "new" wife tries to get him incapacitated, which would give her automatic access to all those shady accounts... He was behind everything, he was truly married to the "unknown" wife and wanted to get her arrested by making it all look like she had been the one pulling off an elaborate rouse.
- How I Met Your Mother:
- The episode "Time Travelers" has a surreal story of Ted and Barney dealing with duplicates of themselves in multiple time periods, a girl Ted met years ago showing up along with several potential future versions of how their relationship will turn out, along with a subplot of a Marshall and Robin conflict regarding the name of a new cocktail. It is then revealed that the entire episode was an Imagine Spot. The duplicates thing never happened and the Marshall and Robin conflict occurred five years ago. Ted was actually sitting in the bar all by himself because his friends were too busy to hang out with him. Future!Ted then talks about how that was such a depressing moment in his life that he says the only thing that he would have wanted to do was run to "The Mother" and be with her 45 days earlier than what really happened.
- In the Grand Finale it's revealed that the Mother died in 2024 from an unspecified illness after being with Ted for 11 years, having two kids, and loved each other deeply the entire time. In addition we learn that Robin and Barney's marriage lasted only three years and that Barney regressed to his womanizing ways only to get one pregnant and become the father of a little girl, while Robin fell off the radar because of how much it hurt to see Ted and Tracy (the Mother) together, only returning when they got married in 2020. In 2030 as Ted wraps up the story, his kids don't buy his reason for telling the story and believe he wants to pursue "Aunt" Robin again (which they can see every time she comes over to visit). They give their blessing and the last shot of the series is a 52 year old Ted offering Robin a Blue French Horn.
- The 100th episode of Castle, "The Lives of Others", has Castle stuck in his apartment with a broken leg, increasingly bored to the point where he ends up spying on the apartment across the street from his loft, and ends up thinking that one of the tenants committed a murder there. Beckett insists that he's only letting his writer's imagination get away with him, and finally decides to visit the apartment to prove Castle wrong, only to be suddenly held at knifepoint by the tenant. Castle, Esposito and Ryan rush to the apartment, knock down the door... and then the lights turn on and everyone shouts "Surprise!" Turns out Beckett organized the whole thing as an elaborate birthday surprise for Castle. Notably this helped explain some seemingly inexplicable moments, such as Alexis giving her dad a pair of binoculars for his birthday and Beckett's rather hamfisted attempt to insert the word "fridge" into a conversation to trigger a Eureka Moment.
- The music video for "Molly" by Rites of Ash seems to be telling the story of a guy who goes to a strip club, starts fixating on an attractive stripper, follows her out when she leaves and abducts her. At one point, he's got her handcuffed to a chair, and later, he chases her through some woods. Until the ending, when the video shows the guy being chased, handcuffs dangling from his wrist and his shoulder bleeding, and the stripper standing over him with a knife in her hand. We then get a flashback that shows us that everyone who works at the club is working together to abduct chosen victims from the people who go there, and the video ends with the real victim, either dead or unconscious, being dragged off.
- The end of The Natural History of Fear has the Censor tell the Doctor that the Doctor, Charley and C'rizz only stayed in Light City for one day and the Doctor gave his memories in exchange for them being set free. The character who thinks himself the Doctor has only been given the Doctor's memories to cause a social revolution.
- The opera The Golden Cockerel has a Downer Ending followed by an epilogue which suggests that only a couple of the characters were real.
- During the Finale of Pippin, the Lead Player encourages the audience to take Pippin's place and says "Why, we're right inside your heads," implying that the players are Pippin's mental constructs, the personifications of his self-destructiveness. Even before that, the previously "helpful" players, including those that played Pippin's father and grandmother, encourage Pippin to find fulfillment in suicide.
- Braid's story is allegorical and, while open to interpretation, is seemingly about a man trying to salvage the relationship with the love of his life. The last level features Tim and the Princess running from a knight who is out to steal her from him. At the end of the level you then rewind time - revealing that you were actually seeing the events in reverse, and that the knight was trying to save her from the obsessed Tim. The books in the area after the level and the extremely well-hidden secret ending offer a few more clues about the plot: while still open to interpretation, the game is seemingly an allegory for the development of nuclear weapons. Tim is a scientist, and the Princess is the split atom. Word of God says that it is up to the reader to decide what the story is really about.
- Star Ocean: Till The End of Time has a very significant twist even if it's not the ending it changes the scope of all the past games of the series. The protagonists are just characters in an MMORPG.
- The Ending of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater: After having defeated the Big Bad, killed his traitorous mentor, averted World War 3, recovered the secret microchip, and retreating to a remote hut with the triple agent love interest, Snake wakes up the next morning to only find a tape record explaining that said love interest was a quadruple agent who was supposed to murder him and would have done so, but being unable to refuse the last wish of his mentor he killed who wasn't really a traitor but was chosen as the Fall Girl to give her life to cover up an even greater government conspiracy. And she also stole the microchip while he was asleep. Not that the last part would make a difference, since another quadruple agent had switched the real chip for a fake one.
- What's even more surprising? The Boss, who was the aforementioned mentor, never actually defected to the Soviet Union. Her supposed Face-Heel Turn was actually a Fake Defection, and she would have used that in order to kill Volgin and stop the construction of the Shagohod. But then, Volgin decided to nuke a building to test out the missle's capabilities. At that point, the original covert operation that Snake took part in was unveiled to the Kremlin, making America and the Soviet Union ready to nuke each other out of orbit unless someone could go in and kill both Volgin and The Boss. In short? She died to save face for both countries (especially her own), and to be known in history as a traitor, and she was completely fine with that. "Loyalty to the end" indeed.
- Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker has two endings in-sequence. The first ending reveals that The Boss wasn't REALLY loyal to either country, but to the philosophers; extra in-game content reveals that her big plan was similar to Maou Mayouu Yuusha: play both sides and alter their agendas with the right technology and leaders until the two world powers can select peace as an option. Unfortunately, Ocelot's existence is his first wrench in a plan ever; The Boss screwed up while giddy with realizing motherhood and screwed up the biggest mission of her life: killing the innocent Dr. Manhattan before he could advance technology in the wrong velocity. Hence the reason she was willing to sacrifice herself was self-rationalized guilt. Big Boss realizes that his goals differed from his teacher and finally gets the closure he needs to walk his own path. His own, CHAOTIC NEUTRAL, path. And then it gets WORSE: Paz, that 16-year old schoolgirl who drove 20% of the entire plot, is revealed to be yet another quadruple agent whose reveal and destructively-psychotic agenda make Big Boss snap. Which sparks MSF to evolve into Outer Haven, the extremist zealots.
- The worst ending of Silent Hill 1 has it reveal that the entire game is a dying dream of Harry's, who died in the car crash at the beginning of the introduction.
- At the end of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories it's revealed that the player has been controlling a fantasy version of protagonist Harry Mason, created by his daughter Cheryl to cope with his sudden death years before. This would seem to imply that the entire game is taking place in her head, but several throw-away events scattered throughout could be taken to imply that Cheryl's fantasy is somehow interacting with the real world. Ultimately the player is left unsure as to how much, if any, of the game's previous events really took place, or whether any of the people Harry meets on his journey actually existed.
- Similarly, the ending of Silent Hill: Downpour has the reveal of whether or not Murphy killed his mentor, and the worst ending revealed that he killed his son as well. That dramatically changes the entire game beforehand, where you believe that the child molester Murphy hunted down was responsible.
- One of the bad endings shows Anne Cummingham, a police officer who's been chasing you throughout, waking up in prison the same way Murphy did at the start of the game and Murphy is, effectively, in Sewell's position.
- Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge also ends in a massive confusing Gainax ending. The game is a pirate story set in the Caribbean. When it seems that protagonist Guybrush Threepwood has found the treasure Big Whoop, which allegedly can help him escape to another world from zombie pirate LeChuck, he falls down a massive rift. After switching on an electric light in a modern-looking tunnel system, he is confronted by LeChuck, who seemingly was inside the now smashed treasure chest. LeChuck reveals that they are brothers and tries to send him to a dimension of infinite pain with a special voodoo doll, but it just sends him in the next room instead. Guybrush explores the tunnels and finds the skeletons of his dead parents and a ticket with an "E" on it in the remains of the treasure chest. When Guybrush manages to defeat LeChuck, he pulls his face (now claimed to be a mask) off and recognises him as Chuckie, his long-lost brother. Chuckie explains that he was sent by their mother to look for Guybrush, and they find themselves as children at an amusement park with their angry parents. The park closely resembles an area earlier in the game, and there is a big sign saying "Big Whoop". When the reunited family walks off, Chuckie looks at the camera with a demonic gaze, and the credits roll. In The Stinger, Guybrush's love interest Elaine Marley looks down at the chasm, wondering if LeChuck put some spell on Guybrush. What was real, what was not? Many theories have been made:
- Is Guybrush just a little boy dreaming of being a pirate? In that case, all that happened up to this point was just the imagination of a kid.
- Was the "child in an amusement park" part a trick by LeChuck, an effort to trap Guybrush in a Lotus-Eater Machine?
- Did Guybrush somehow trigger Big Whoop and end up in another world? Was it when he fell down the chasm?
- The third game in the series seems to indicate that the second theory is true. Note, however, that the third game wasn’t made by original creator Ron Gilbert. We still don’t know what his plans for Monkey Island 3 were.
- FinalFantasyXIII-2. It turns out that actually You Can't Fight Fate. Everything you did during the game just furthered the villain's plans, in the end he succeeds in his plan to destroy time itself, and there's literally nothing you can do about it. In fact, for 100% Completion, you get a scene from the villain, mocking the player for trying to find a way out of the trap. As he points out, every timeline ends with Etro dying, time itself collapsing in a Time Crash, and his plans coming to fruition — only the fine details change. And since he can see the entirety of the timeline, he knew this the whole time. There are some Sequel Hooks (for planned DLC expansions)... but for the first time in the series' history, The Bad Guy Wins.
- What makes this even more aggravating is that the characters are told several times before the end of the game that, if they continue, Etro will likely end up dead. They are easy to miss or overlook, but are sprinkled throughout the entire game. The mini-boss before the final boss rush even has Yuel's voice telling them multiple times to stop and turn back. They, and the player, think it's just a trick. It's not.
- Spec Ops: The Line's ending reveals that the apparent Big Bad was Dead All Along, and much of what the player sees in regards of the mission to save Dubai was hallucinated/distorted by the Knight Templar protagonist. In fact, the Big Bad's audio transmissions and the "Final Boss" were both the manifestation of the protagonist's guilt over the Freak Out at the middle of the game, along with everything else that happened before and after it.
- In The Witch's House you play as Viola, a girl who must find her way out of the house of Ellen, a witch who kidnaps children and is able to trade bodies with people. The True Ending reveals that you were playing as the witch all along. As it turns out, Ellen traded her dying body with her unsuspecting friend Viola's (supposedly "just for a day") and left said friend in the house to die in terrible agony. Viola managed to use the witch's own magic against her, but you personally helped Ellen get past all the traps, and Ellen successfully assumes Viola's identity while the real Viola is shot by her own father.
- In Ghost Trick, the ending reveals that Sissel was actually a cat who was the pet of Yomiel, thus explaining Sissels lack of knowledge on certain human things and inability to read. It's also revealed that Ray was Missile from another timeline, and he manipulated Sissel into thinking certain things (namely that his soul would vanish at daybreak) to trick him into saving Lynne and Kamila.
- The ending to BioShock Infinite turns the story from a rescue mission to save a young girl from a bunch of amazing flying racists, into a multi-dimensional hopping Mind Screw that ends with the player character being killed off after The Reveal that he is both the protagonist (as the player character), and the Big Bad (as an NPC), and that the girl he was rescuing is his biological daughter.
- 9:05 is a very brief Interactive Fiction game by Adam Cadre that opens with what appears to be an exceptionally mundane situation — you're woken by an alarm clock and have to scramble to get to work on time. If you actually show up to work, however (you're given the option to just keep driving), the game ends abruptly with the revelation that you're actually a home invader who murdered the man whose bed you were sleeping in, and whose job you're going to. If you replay the game you can find the body under the bed, and the option to keep driving allows you to make a clean getaway.
- In the online game Strip 'Em All, the fifth puzzle/comic strip initially appears to be about a fat blond girl and her dark-haired Poisonous Friend who secretly loathes her and callously goads her into overdosing on her medication for no conceivable reason other than her sheer disgust of the blond girl. Then the final set of panels reveals that this "friend" existed only in the mind of the blond girl, which adds a whole new dimension to their interactions.
- The end of Broken Age Part 1 reveals that the "ship" Shay has been stuck in for his whole life is actually a Mog (not that kind of Mog kupo), namely the Mog that Vella has been trying to kill throughout her story. Also the creatures you rescue in Shay's story are actually the sacrifices of the other.
- In Xenoblade, once you find out that Alvis is actually the true God of the universe, it's interesting to look back and consider just where Meyneth and Zanza stand in the game's cosmology, since technically they aren't really gods, but rather just siphoning off some of Alvis's power.
- Elemental Gearbolt pits two Elementals against a Well-Intentioned Extremist prince plotting to make the world a better place — through any means necessary. All are destroyed in the end. Close attention to the credits reveals the twist — it was all a set-up. Both parties were used as unwitting proxies by external forces. The prince got technology from an extra-dimensional Arms Dealer that stood to gain from his plan to awaken an Eldritch Abomination. The Elementals were created by an opposing inter-world traveler to keep the sealed evil in its can.
- Both Dangan Ronpa and Super Dangan Ronpa 2 save some earth-shattering revelations about both the game and the state of the world for the very last chapter and trial. The first reveals that the game takes place After the End, where the Big Bad caused The World's Most Despair-Inducing Event, which reduced the entire world into a violent, anarchic hellhole, and the School Life Of Mutual Killing that the cast was forced into is meant to crush any last traces of hope left in the world. The second game reveals that not only has everything in the game taken place in a Lotus-Eater Machine VR simulation program, but the cast are actually The Remnants of Despair, brainwashed followers of the Big Bad from the previous game, who the survivors from the first game were trying to rehabilitate before the main character of the second game snuck a virus modeled after the Big Bad into the program, whereupon she hijacked it to fulfill her own goals.
- Eternal Darkness manages to incorporate the New Game+ feature into the story. Upon beating all three routes (each one requiring the player to destroy one of the Ancients by summoning another Ancient,) it's revealed that the entire thing was a plot by Mantorok, the fourth Ancient, who manipulated events across three different timelines before combining them all into a new timeline where all three Ancients are dead.
- Never Mind the Gap goes out with Mary, one of the central characters and half of the Official Couple, being revealed in the penultimate strip, to be a Ridiculously Human Robot. This changes the context of much of her interactions with other characters, many of whom are also sentient A.I.s (but not as completely human-looking as Mary).
- Skewered beautifully in the Clone High episode "Sleep of Faith: La Rue D'Awakening," in which Gandhi realizes that the mysterious trucker who has been mentoring him all episode is a ghost or hallucination. He has a Once More with Clarity flashback montage of events from the episode... which, among other things, reveals him floating down the highway four feet above the pavement because the truck he was riding in never existed.
- The Arthur episode "The Boy Who Cried Comet" ended with the characters turning out to be aliens and the show was being filmed on another planet.
- The Adventure Time episode "In Your Footsteps" features a strange bear that imitates everything that Finn does in a very uncanny way. Although Jake is suspicious of the bear throughout most of the episode, Finn doesn't mind, until towards the end, when he believes that the bear was using him to get with Princess Bubblegum. When Finn calls him out on this, the bear leaves the party, feeling crushed. Then Finn realizes that the bear was just trying to be like Finn so he could be a hero as well. In a Heartwarming Moment, Finn gives the bear a copy of the Enchiridion (a hero handbook), telling him that one day, he'll become a great hero. In the last few seconds of the episode, the bear climbs the mountain, where the snail, who is possessed by the Lich, asks him if he got the book. Turns out, the entire episode was all a part of the Lich's Evil Plan.