In most cases, people do their best to avoid the sensation of inescapable, all-encompassing dread. This makes sense, of course, since there are few thing worse than being entirely unsure what is going to happen, but being certain that, whatever it is, it’s going to be horrible.
I remember exactly when I was first made to feel this way by a piece of media:
This scene, from The Silence of the Lambs, achieves its tension through a brilliant bit of deception. When Buffalo Bill answers the door, we’re led to believe that he’ll be met by the full force of the FBI. Then, thanks to some clever editing, the rug gets ripped out from under us. Clarice is alone, the FBI isn’t coming, and Bill has a serious home-field advantage. Watching Clarice fumble around in the dark while Bill watches through his night-vision goggles is like watching from a helicopter while a shark circles a solitary swimmer. Every second is soaked in tension. It’s almost unbearable, and then — poof (or, in this case, bang) — it’s over. The relief that floods viewers in this moment is the payoff that, in retrospect, makes the dread entirely worth it. It’s like when a comedian brings a long joke home with a perfect punchline, except the inverse.
And it’s incredibly tough to pull off. When done poorly, viewers just feel exploited (oh, hi there The Walking Dead. I didn’t see you come in). If you’re going to make us suffer through that kind of soul-eating tension, it’s important to give us the satisfaction of a worthy conclusion.
The Silence of the Lambs (which, by the way, is now available on Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, if you know a movie buff in need of a holiday gift) occupied the top spot on my personal dread-inducing scoreboard (What, you don’t have a dreadboard? Weird.) until just a couple of years ago, when HBO’s True Detective — season one, obviously — stole the title.
That season of TV, which is on the shortlist of greatest seasons ever, is soaked in dread. For huge portions of its eight episodes, True Detective stretches that awful sensation that I first felt while watching The Silence of the Lambs to what I assume is the absolute limit that a viewer can endure.
It’s horrible. And amazing. My wife and I usually capped off episodes of True Detective with an hour’s worth of New Girl, just so we could sleep.
It amazed me at the time that a prestige drama, which HBO presumably wanted people to, you know, watch would go out of its way to make viewers so uncomfortable. But there’s nothing quite like letting a story push you to an emotional limit, only to reel you back in from the brink at exactly the right moment.
Which brings me to my current viewing obsession/exercise in psychic punishment: Big Little Lies.
Now, Big Little Lies (also from HBO) is not always as intense as True Detective, but it does an equally impressive job of keeping the viewer entirely unsettled as it slowly unspools the mystery at its core. The show, which begins with a murder (the first episode’s title is “Somebody’s Dead,” so I’m not spoiling anything), cuts between police interviews with secondary characters and the events leading up to the murder, almost all of which feature the big name actors at the center of the plot (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and Shailene Woodley). The fact of the murder makes every scene rife with tension because, as a viewer, you can’t help but look for clues that might help you figure out who gets killed and who does the killing. As the characters’ inner lives are exposed, it becomes easier and easier to imagine that any one of them could be guilty, and any one of them could be dead.
At the end of each episode, I find myself letting out a long breath as though I’ve been keeping it bottled up for the last hour.
I’m only three episodes in (out of seven), but I’m relishing every scene, fraught as they are. Every little argument between spouses, every pregnant pause, every meaningful look holds the potential for catastrophe. Just like with The Silence of the Lambs and True Detective, I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen, but I know it’s going to be terrible.
It’s literally, perfectly, dreadful.