One of my favorite narrative devices is the slow reveal of underlying layers of story and the way that throws a spanner into the more linear progression of Character-Does-Thing-And-People-React or People-Do-Thing-And-Character-Reacts. It becomes Someone-Did-Thing-A-Long-Time-Ago-And-When-It’s-Revealed-Suddenly-A-Lot-Becomes-Clear, and it’s incredibly satisfying when done right because it lets you play with the audience’s expectations and then drop them into the middle of something completely different and tie up a dozen loose plot threads while you’re at it.
It is, oddly enough, a very common trope in YA and children’s literature, and it’s often done very well there: the kids/teens who headline the story will eventually realize they’re embroiled in something their parents or older siblings or teachers set in motion ages ago. It makes stories feel that much richer and fleshed-out while providing writers with a wonderful way to throw their characters into in-media-res situations without having to justify an extended buildup. It’s a pre-set tripwire of a wham moment, just waiting for someone to stumble through. It’s a plot twist that relies on richness of backstory rather than a less-satisfying bolt from the blue.
And oh, Critical Role is perfect for that kind of setup, because Matt’s manipulating the players’ expectations every bit as much as he’s manipulating the audience’s, and because the improvisational nature of the show makes the twists that much harder to anticipate. For instance, a lot of the first few dozen episodes of Critical Role boil down to the slow realization that Vox Machina are basically playing out the sequel to Allura’s adventuring party’s campaign. What starts as someone giving them a quest takes a sharp left turn into the reveal that a whole lot of what’s happened to them over the years is the direct consequence of the actions of that quest-giver fifteen years ago. And that reveal is stunning, when it happens, because it ties so much together and shifts everybody’s perceptions of the world and the NPCs all at once.
Which is all to say that I’m pretty sure we’re just on the cusp of pushing through to a reveal of another underlying layer of the story. Thordak’s first fall and the existence of Glintshore Island don’t quite add up with his return. Emon is built on the subterranean bones of a long-abandoned city. Temples of Ioun are being repurposed for dark, secret rituals. A magical siphon has been spinning under the city of Whitestone for months. And on two occasions the party’s come across massive chambers filled with bones and glass. Nearly all the pieces are in place, and I honestly have zero friggin’ idea what they mean. Waiting for someone (be it VM or whoever comes next) to stumble over that one underlying thread that yanks everything together is like being just at the apex of a long, long drop on a rollercoaster.
This show is so much fun. I can’t wait for Thursday.