Well, this is awkward.
Before sitting down to watch Wednesday’s season finale, I was fully expecting to write a glowing recap of the second season of Scream, the MTV/Netflix horror reboot that has quietly become one of my favorite shows on television. Unfortunately, the finale turned out to be a bit of a dud, especially when measured against the sublime first season.
The thing is, I’m still going to shout the praises of Scream because it’s an underappreciated series that more people should be talking about and the things that were disappointing about the finale also illustrate why the show is worthwhile in the first place. Scream demonstrates that a twist that you don’t see coming isn’t necessarily better than one you do, at least when that twist is grounded in plot and character rather than coincidence.
(This post does not contain any major spoilers.)
Based on the slasher movie of the same name, Scream is set in the fictional town of Lakewood and stars Willa Fitzgerald as Emma Duval, a local teenager and the subject of a masked killer’s obsession (Emma’s movie-obsessed friend Noah provides Scream’s running meta commentary). The difference is that whereas the original Scream movie plays like a conventional slasher flick, the TV show is more of a whodunit, a mystery thriller with horror elements rather than pure horror.
It works because Scream is not a supernatural series. There are no ghosts or monsters, only a killer in a mask with real motives and real fingerprints. That means the case can be solved, and that there are clues and evidence to gather along the way. The Scream movies rarely had time to concern themselves with those kinds of details, but on the small screen they’re wonderful fodder for cliffhangers. As pure entertainment, Scream is phenomenally suspenseful. Each episode makes you want to watch the next one as soon as possible.
Those clues also serve a vital storytelling function. The characters react to and process each new piece of information as it gets revealed, which provides important context for the narrative. It lets the audience know that everything happens for a reason, at least in the sense that each event is the direct result of another character’s actions.
That logical cause and effect sets Scream apart from the rest of the horror genre, where the monster is often a physical manifestation of some psychological insecurity, a metaphor that helps articulate an otherwise unstated fear. The narrative progression doesn’t have to make sense because fear is by nature an irrational and unpredictable emotion. If something happens without explanation, it only enhances any feelings of helplessness because it places the protagonists at the whims of powerful forces beyond their control.
The problem is that those same tendencies can push horror into the realm of comedy. That’s particularly true of the slasher genre, where the characters in a movie like Friday the 13th (or the original Scream) aren’t human beings as much as they’re action figures moved around at the whims of the director. In most cases, the lack of agency isn’t an issue because no one sticks around that long anyway.
Scream, on the other hand, just aired its 22nd episode, giving the audience time to get to know a likable cast that has been there since the beginning. Though the show has plenty of clever deaths, it doesn’t need them to trigger a response. It knows you’ll care because you don’t want bad things to happen to these characters.
The first season brilliantly toyed with those expectations. If you were paying attention, you could identify the killer about halfway through the season, but the final reveal was still satisfying because it built upon earlier events. The clues supported the payoff, recontextualizing characters in a way that clarified their prior actions. If anything, the predictable ending made the series more terrifying because your growing awareness about why the killer was abusing teenagers was enough to turn your stomach.
The second season started promisingly enough, largely because Scream used its broader TV canvas to ask a question that seldom gets asked in the horror genre. What does normal life look like after you survive an encounter with a monster? Before the second killer arrives, the show explicitly addresses Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and explores how the first season affected the characters, forcing Emma and her friends to deal with the cruel barbs of a town that refuses to credit their experiences.
Once again, the results are disturbingly plausible. Though the circumstances are exaggerated, both seasons of Scream have featured an antagonist who stalks and murders teenagers for a perceived slight that reflects a dangerous degree of entitlement. It was more vicious the second time around because the killer could use the old wounds as another weapon to re-antagonize Emma and her friends. The events of the first season informed both the character development and the horror of the second.
Sadly, the last episode undid much of that careful plotting. Lakewood’s second killer was once again someone close to the protagonists, but after a season of obvious red herrings, there was little to indicate that’s where the show was headed. In its search for a better twist – a ‘gotcha’ that the audience wouldn’t see coming – it delivered a contrived conclusion that came out of nowhere and didn’t connect to what came before. There are now massive chunks of the first two seasons that simply don’t fit because they assume that specific characters were almost impossibly duplicitous.
That’s a major concern entering the third season because it threatens to topple the entire house of cards. Scream has been excellent because the progression of the show is believable, and that structure is the source of much of the tension. Unless the third season is able to reconnect with reality (the season finale includes another stinger), the show could run off the rails just like any other horror franchise.
Of course, the pressure to top previous seasons has always been a challenge for long-running TV shows. Any plot becomes more difficult to manage when more plot points are introduced, so if Scream falls apart, it might say more about the medium than it does about the genre.
That’s why I’m inclined to say nice things about Scream after the lackluster finale. Even if the show never recaptures its former glory, Scream still delivered a season and a half of some of the best slasher horror of the decade. The show is scary and relevant to a modern audience, and that alone makes the unexpected spinoff all the more remarkable.