Is a secret more interesting before it comes out, or after?
Ideally, of course, the answer is both. We should be biting our fingernails anticipating the reaction when all is finally revealed, but there have to be other interesting things going on too. It can’t be all about the secret (otherwise, we get Mimi’s storylines for the past four years). If the secret is only interesting before it comes out, that means the story wasn’t really that good to begin with, and the suspense of keeping the secret was the only thing giving it juice.
A well-done reveal is like a shot of heroin all around—good for the writers, the actors, and the viewers, and if it’s a good, meaty secret, good for the storyline too. Reveals are moments that people tune in for, or take their fingers off the fast-forward for. Even the hackiest hack in daytime knows this, so TPTB string us along, tease us with false reveals, and let interested third parties in on the truth. (I could do a whole post just on the dynamics of reveals.) However, if you wait too long, viewers’ antipication turns into impatience and finally into indifference. Generally speaking, bigger secrets can be kept longer, because the payoff and fallout from the reveal are bigger. The longer you wait, the bigger the payoff has to be.
Of course, characters on soaps keep all kinds of secrets, but let’s take a look at a common type: when a rootable character in a rootable relationship keeps a secret out of fear of losing their partner’s love. As common as this is, it’s quite difficult to do well. First, you have to justify the secret-keeper by giving them some particular reason why they won’t tell their partner, and why they’re willing to settle for a relationship based on a lie. Second, for the duration of the secret, you’re going to lose the opportunity to develop the relationship much. The power imbalance of one person being “in the know” and the other being suspicious or clueless (or in Lucas’s case, both) means the relationship is basically on hold until the secret comes out. You have to minimize the character and relationship damage as best you can, and make up for the loss with an otherwise great story.
On Days right now, we have two characters keeping secrets: Sami and Nick. To tell or not to tell? Last week, each had their choice staring them in the face.
Let’s look at Sami first. Her secret is that she had sex with EJ in exchange for his help in saving Lucas’s life. Now she’s pregnant, with no idea who the father is.
Keeping secrets is nothing new for Sami, particularly keeping a secret from her fiance. The difference in the storyline this time is at its heart. Sami is for once not the guilty party. This is not insignificant, but that was cold comfort in January and February, when in terms of day to day watching it made very little difference.
The problem was, the show didn’t take care to minimize the damage to their relationship. Sami looked weak and stupid. Lucas suspicious and judgmental. Their relationship stalled. The show needed to make up its mind. Is Lucas a living, breathing character, or just a mirror for Sami’s guilt and fear of being found out? Is their relationship supposed to matter to us, or is it just a meaningless MacGuffin like her relationship with Austin was last summer?
Last week, finally, things started looking up. They let us in on what Sami is thinking. Lucas asked Sami what was bothering her, and she said she didn’t want to tell him. When a secret comes out, she said, “You always withdraw your love,” and, “I’m Sami Brady,” with all the heartbreak and humiliation it implies. If ever there was a reason for fearing the judgment of everyone in town, maybe “I’m Sami Brady” sums it up.
Lucas, however, begged Sami to tell him, while acknowledging that he has not stood by her in the past. “Give me a chance. Trust me.”, and Sami, weakening, opened her mouth …
Then we got the timely interruption, naturally. But this time the interruption was by an unexpected player in the drama: Celeste. A wild card. In some ways, she’s the classic third party who learns the secret first. But Celeste almost certainly has her own agenda here. Rather than pointing out the obvious truth that Sami’s least bad option is to tell the truth and hope for the best, Celeste quite calmly suggested that Sami kill EJ.
This is another ingredient that has been missing: interesting collateral drama. If Lucas were given something active to do, too, it would be even better. (A TWoP poster suggested that Lucas investigate and figure out the rape, but not say anything because he wants Sami to tell him. Then when Kate inevitably reveals all at the wedding, Lucas could calmly say, “So?”) All the signs—big secret, long kept, murderous intrigue, May wedding—are pointing to a big reveal during May sweeps. The payoff to this story, whatever it is, will make it or break it.
Our other Days secret-keeper is Nick. Unlike Sami, he seems capable of learning from his mistakes. After getting burned for not telling the truth about being LonelySplicer, he was determined to tell his other secret (that he slept with Billie), because he wanted to be worthy of Chelsea’s trust. I really, really appreciate this move on the part of the writers. If Nick were to be found out in both of his secrets (rather than coming clean), he would be in danger of losing his good guy status. It’s nice to show some human fallibility, but this story is supposed to be a good boy/bad girl redemption story. If Nick established a pattern of deceit, it would take a lot of the fun out of it.
In marked contrast to the Sami/Lucas conversation—where Sami wouldn’t tell while Lucas pleaded with her to do so—Nick wanted to tell, but Chelsea ended up stopping him. He got as far as telling her the secret involved sleeping with an older woman, and she cut him off. “It’s in the past,” she said. “I think that the only thing we should be thinking about is you and me and our future together.”
Then Billie rushed in, saying, “Did you tell her?” And naturally Chelsea put the pieces together. Again, this resonates with Sami/Lucas: there, the person interrupting kept the secret from being told; here, she revealed it.
This little storyline is an example of a very well done secret story. Character damage was minimal. Little teasers were played lightly—like Chelsea speculating on the identity of her mother’s mystery lover. Their relationship wasn’t all about the secret: they were dealing with LonelySplicer and getting to know one another. The secret wasn’t drawn out too long. The reveal was nicely handled and beautifully acted.
And I think the fallout is going to be very interesting. Billie and Chelsea’s relationship will have to be healed. Bo and Chelsea’s relationship is also in jeopardy. (It killed me today [3/13] when Chelsea said to Bo, “You’re lying to me. Everyone lies to me.”) It highlights some of Billie’s personal problems. And perhaps best of all (a mark of good soap writing), Chelsea’s hit-bottom moment looks to be leading directly and logically into her next storyline (speculation here), being suspected of setting fire to Bo and Hope’s house. And Nick will get another chance to be the white knight, and believe in her and stand by her. As I said at the beginning of this post, that’s the mark of a good secret: when it comes out, the story becomes more interesting.
Special note: Friday’s marvelous episode (3/9) when most of the above happened, was written by Jeanne Marie Ford. Nice job, Jeanne!