Who doesn’t love a good flash-forward mystery? It’s that moment when a TV show jumps to the future to show us something jarring, and then jumps back to the present to spend an entire season or half-season building back up to the future moment we glimpsed. It’s a surefire way of injecting energy back into a flailing TV show and jarring complacent audiences into compulsively eating up every little clue left behind like a trail of bread crumbs. It’s like we’ve glimpsed the final page of the book but couldn’t quite make out all of the words. We think we know where the show is heading, but we’re not altogether sure how it’s going to get there or what will happen once it does.
Three geek genre TV shows have recently used this trick:
Agents of Shield, Arrow and Vampire Diaries spoilers below
Agents of SHIELD
Last we left SHIELD, Ward’s dead body was being possessed by the HIVE creature from the other dimension, and Coulson was coping with the dark places he went to while grieving the death of his kinda, sorta girlfriend. The season was nicely set up to transition into exploring the new Big Bad now that he’s on Earth. We didn’t necessarily need anything on top of that.
However, co-showrunners Jed Whedon and Maurissa Tancharoen chose to return with a flash forward to three months from now when someone wearing a SHIELD-labeled astronaut suit will be in seriously dire straits in a space ship floating above Earth. It is but a brief glimpse before the episode returns to the present and sorts out the fallout from the mid-season finale. However, now we know something bad goes down and ends up in outer space.
This obviously adds some intrigue. Tancharoen told THR, “We will be uncovering things from the midseason opener all the way to the finale. We will slowly be discovering what that image is.” Whedon followed, “We will see how it unfolds and what it really means and if that flash-forward has meaning or if it’s just an ominous prediction for the future.”
It’s hard to make any kind of judgement since they’ve only just begun with this particular flash forward mystery, but Arrow and Vampire Diaries managed to make their mysteries more immediate and personal, less like random imagery.
We were stunned when we reached the end of Arrow‘s season 4 premiere and saw Oliver Queen and Barry Allen standing over a grave and pledging vengeance against…someone. Could be Damien Darhk. Could be Malcom Merlyn. Could be a random baddie who rolls up on Verdant one night (wait, is Verdant even still a thing in this show’s universe?).
Speaking to reporters after the premiere, producers Marc Guggenheim and Wendy Mericle promised that whoever is in that grave is most definitely dead. Moreover, Mericle observed, “They will stay dead. We want to bring stakes back to the show. We don’t necessarily know who it is right now. We’re still planning out the whole season, but we want it, obviously, to have resonance, and if it doesn’t mean anything to the characters, it won’t to the audience either.”
We’ve re-visited that moment in the future once since the premiere, learning Felicity is not the one in the grave but she’s also no longer wearing Oliver’s engagement ring (nor has it been replaced by a wedding ring).
Of course, in the time since the initial flash forward we’ve also seen Sara Lance and Ray Palmer return from the dead. But, um, ignore that. The CW needed characters for Legends of Tomorrow. Whoever is in that grave, though, will stay dead. Death will again have stakes on this show. Much crying shall ensue.
This has lent the season a new air of tragedy. We are being set up for Oliver’s triumphant birth as the bonafide hero Green Arrow as opposed to cold-blooded vigilante Arrow, and all of his consternation about it is offset by the guiding hand of love that Felicity has brought into is life. However, we know he royally screws up and someone ends up dead, and Felicity is probably no longer by his side. The smiling, slightly higher-pitched version of Oliver we’ve witnessed throughout the season will at some point transition back to the stern killer of old.
Vampire Diaries came into this season with ever diminishing ratings and an identity crisis afer Nina Dobrev exited after six seasons. Their challenge was to return the show to a fraternal love story about two brothers instead of a romantic love triangle in which the girl chose between two great guys. Would Ian Somderhalder’s Damon revert to his evil ways without Elena? Could his brother Stefan (Paul Wesley) keep him in line and also navigate a new relationship with friend-turned-lover Caroline (Candice Accola)?
The answer, we learned at the end of the season 7 premiere, was a big fat no to all of that. Three years into the future Damon is essentially vampire-hibernating in a coffin before being awakened by Stefan, on the run from a mysterious vampire hunter drawn to him by some kind of mark on his chest. “She’ll never stop hunting you, brother,” the resuscitated Damon taunted.
What the what? Um, why was Damon in that coffin after Elena left explicit instructions for him to live his life while awaiting her return? Since when does this show care about vampire hunters, and when did those vampire hunters start marking their prey like that? And if the vampire hunter is a “she” could that mean she’s Bonnie, Caroline, Lilly or any of the other females already on the show?
Little by little, more and more of this future was revealed through continual flash-forwards in subsequent episodes, gradually doling out a hostage scenario whereby the mysterious hunter captured and used Caroline as bait to lure out Stefan. Beyond that, characters we never would have expected to end up together (e.g., Bonnie & Enzo, Caroline & Rick) somehow emerged as romantic partners in the future. This “peek to the ending” approach offered extra intrigue to all of the present day storylines, effectively re-invigorating a show which drifted far from greatness and appeared repeatedly directionless in recent season.
Eventually, though, the flash-forward sequences seemed more interesting than the present-day storylines. Luckily, the show has now caught up to itself, using its most recent episode to fully execute its time jump. As such, everything is now happening in the three years from now timeline. We know how all the characters reached that point. Now we get to see how they handle the emotional wreckage of the three years of change.
This is an unfair comparison, really. SHIELD is merely at the “mysterious imagery” stage. Arrow’s revelation that someone will die has turned the entire season into a murder mystery where we don’t know the identity of the victim OR the killer. Many who rightfully gave up on Arrow during season three have been sucked back in by this mystery, and the mid-season revisit to Oliver and Felicity sitting in a limo near the grave has sparked all sorts of extra intrigue. Some theorize that the Felicity we saw there is a ghost or figment of Oliver’s imagination because the real Felicity is the one in the grave.
Or is it? That’s the beauty of this type of device – it inspires fans to speculate wildly.
Still, among the three Vampire Diaries has used the device to its fullest effect. Arrow gave us a murdery mystery and one serious relationship complication with its flash forwards. Vampire Diaries teased future couplings for every major character, introduced a new bad and managed to unleash yet another big reveal with each subsequent portion of the three-years-from-now period we glimpsed. They essentially created an entire episode set three years from now, cut it up into little pieces and affixed it to the beginnings and endings of present-day episodes for three-quarters of the season. That doesn’t make it a better show than either Arrow or Agents of SHIELD, but it does mean their use of the flash-forward mystery has been bolder.