Movies and TV shows are fun to think about and discuss. Clearly. But as much as this is the case, there’s still a point past which we’re not talking about the movie or show in any meaningful way. One thing that becomes clear after doing any kind of serious critical work for any significant period of time is that, just because something’s there doesn’t necessarily give it meaning. True Detective is a great example: the best part about all those great McConaughey four-bong-hit college philosophy student monologues about nihilism is that they don’t mean anything with regards to the big picture. (Even with two episodes remaining, consider that an ironclad guarantee.)
And sometimes people apply the same four-bong-hit college philosophy student mindsets to the movies and TV shows themselves. They lead Andy’s Mom to have a deeper identity, or for entire stories to shuffle off their context, so it’s always nice to have a reminder of what these theories really are.
Here are some of the most beside-the-point “mind-blowing” theories about films and TV.
6. The Gorfeins Were Mike’s Parents in Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen brothers pack their movies with detail, and they like screwing with audiences, both tendencies having ample demonstration over their thirty-year career (yeah, Blood Simple was thirty years ago . . . wow). Looking for subtle detail in a Coen brothers movie is a perfectly fine pursuit, especially in their immaculately detailed 2013 folk-scene period piece Inside Llewyn Davis. Among the plethora of visual and textual details that ring true, there were the Gorfeins, an older couple who liked to host academics, political types, and folk singers (who were often some hybrid of the previous two), in the manner of many culturally active New Yorkers of the time.
Protagonist Llewyn Davis frequently sleeps in a spare bedroom the Gorfeins have, and dines with them. His deceased folksinging partner Mike is a bit of a dark cloud hanging over him, or rather one part of that cloud. Somehow, through a misheard line of dialogue or something, the theory briefly exploded on Film Twitter that the Gorfeins were Mike’s parents. This would then cast Llewyn’s behavior toward them in an even nastier light than that cast on it already, which was bad enough.
The only problem in the movie is that nothing actually supports that conclusion. It’s certainly not as though Llewyn would come across as a nice guy but for his appalling treatment of the Gorfeins, and this is more respectable than the rest of these theories, because it was, at least, based on a legitimate mishearing of a line, rather than being manufactured out of whole cloth.
5. The Matrix: Morpheus is Gay
Granted, this was never that widespread, and its primary exponent was a guy in a bar rather a ways into the evening, but it was a very elaborate theory. Essentially, it took as its starting point the idea that, at the beginning of The Matrix, Morpheus’ fixation on Neo was less to do with Neo actually being The One—and that Neo’s initial failure to recognize his One-ness before eventually convincing himself of it was something that any one of Morpheus’ people could have done with the proper training—than with Morpheus’ sexual desire for Neo. Morpheus’ increasing marginalization over the course of the sequels was a factor, as was the sudden end of his relationship with Niobi after a visit to the Oracle.
Obviously, there’s no overt textual support for this, and just as obviously, if it actually were true, that would be perfectly fine, but it would also be a completely superfluous character trait that had nothing to do with the events of the movies themselves (since the whole reason why Neo was special was, eventually, explained).
4. Pulp Fiction: What’s in the briefcase?
In the first handful of years it was available on video, a number of fan theories about Quentin Tarantino’s second film flourished, many of them deriving from mythology and religious iconography. The most popular was the one holding that the glowing suitcase Vincent and Jules steal from Frank Whaley and Flock of Seagulls contained Marcellus Wallace’s soul. Why else would Marcellus’ minions go to such ends to wrest it from the bandits who stole it?
I don’t know, maybe because when people steal from gangsters, gangsters tend to want a) them dead and b) their stuff back? Lots of people use “666” as the combination for their attache case. It’s really either that or “420.” What other three-digit combinations are there?
The problem here, as with the one about Esmeralda the cab driver being Charon, the ferryman on the river Styx, escorting Butch down into the underworld, is a conflation between something that makes for a cool metaphor with an actual theory about something literally happening that way. Pulp Fiction is a pastiche and occasional inversion of literary and cinematic elements within the fairly broad genre of pulp. It’s not a Trojan horse full of religious gobbledegook.
3. Mad Men is What Flashes Before Don Draper’s Eyes at the Moment of His Death
This is the one “theory” on this list that’s yet to be “disproven” by the work in question being complete, as there’s still a season left of Mad Men. This one derives from the now-famous opening credits, with its a silhouette of a man falling from a great height. Fans have advanced the case that the silhouette is protagonist Don Draper’s, and that the series will conclude with him jumping out a window to his death. Some have taken it farther than that.
Whether he does or not, the theory is completely superfluous to the text of the show. If Draper does, in fact, succumb to his encroaching cultural obsolescence and jump out a window, it still doesn’t change the fact that the story that (retroactively) unfolds is a story that one can watch and analyze, and the elements in that story do not change, and thus nothing that would affect an evaluation of that story’s merits changes. At all.
2. Bill Murray Whispering in Scarlett Johansson’s Ear at the End of Lost in Translation
This is the capo di tutti capi of pointless theorizing. All the necessary information about the moment between Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson is conveyed by the camera. The whole point is that she’s the only one who needs to know what he said; you may have noticed that the idea of privacy is one that crops up here and there over the course of the film, in relation to its antithesis (Bill Murray’s celebrity) and dark side (the loneliness he and Scarlett Johansson both share in). And the only thing the audience needs to know is her reaction, which is clearly visible, because the camera’s pointed at her.
The need for an “answer” here is nothing more or less than a fear of the responsibility of interpretation. A little thought is sometimes necessary, and a filmmaker who chooses to end her film on an ambiguous note deserves the presumption that she did it for a reason. Note also that the chances of this ending still being discussed over a decade later would be diminished greatly, if not completely destroyed, if Bill Murray’s voice could be audibly heard to say “Well, like, bye and stuff I guess.”
1. Nothing on The Wire Ever Happened
Toward the end of the series finale, former Baltimore city police officer Jimmy McNulty drives to Washington DC to retrieve a disabled homeless man who had figured in the shenanigans that got McNulty booted off the force. When they return to Baltimore, McNulty stops the car and looks out over the city, and the show’s customary end-of-season montage showing what happened next to whom ensues. What this theory presupposes is . . . what if the entirety of the preceding five seasons also came to McNulty in that moment, and not only that what if it was all a fantasy based on an assumption?
What if Jimmy McNulty was never a cop? What if he was just some guy who always wondered if there was endemic corruption at every level of every societal institution? What if his life was so devoid of hope that his wildest dreams were of the isolated small triumphs of the labor class against the sclerotic hegemony of the bosses? And what if the fictionalization within fictionalization encoded in that one subtextual moment was David Simon’s secret defense against accusations of lapses in verisimilitude MAKES YOU THINK, DOESN’T IT?
I made this one up for illustrative purposes. There is more than enough actual detail in movies (and TV, which is the same medium in nearly every meaningful sense), and more than enough actual interplay between constructed fictions and the realities in which they exist, that the least we can do in concocting wild interpretations is at least base them on the work itself, rather than just making stuff up out of thin air, or confusing irrelevant details with central points.