The Genius, Heist Stories, and the Art of Misdirection

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn.” The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”
The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The structure of a heist story is particularly fascinating to me. It’s almost the reverse of a mystery: instead of starting with a crime as the inciting incident and attempting to figure out the details of the crime retroactively, it begins with a person or group actively planning a crime, with the crime itself being the climax instead of the inciting incident. However, this creates a bit of an issue, because blatantly telegraphing the climax is, well, anticlimactic. So what a heist often uses, in place of a mystery’s summation, is something appearing to go terribly wrong…only for that to have been part of the plan all along and the story flashes back to reveal critical parts of the plan that have been hidden up to this point.

While this technique could be considered “cheating” since it usually isn’t foreshadowed, playing fair is not the intention of a heist. The intrigue of the heist is the tension as you watch all the dominoes being set up and worrying about how they could accidentally be toppled. It’s not just about the plan, it’s about the mounting tension and wondering if they’re going to be able to pull the plan off. The appeal of the heist is in the sleight of hand, making it more like a magic trick.

Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige, as well as the film adaptation by the same name, outlines the three parts of a magic trick. First, the Pledge, or the setup, in which the magician declares the intent of the trick. For example, “I am going to make this coin disappear,” or in the case of a heist, “we are going to rob this bank.” Next, the Turn, in which the trick is pulled off–making the coin disappear, or robbing the bank. However, that alone leads to a “so what?” reaction. It’s not exciting. It’s anticlimactic. The joy is in the surprise, the twist: the Prestige. In the magic trick, it’s making the coin reappear from an unexpected location, such as behind an audience member’s ear. In the heist, it’s a failure that’s part of the plan, like a team member’s betrayal being accounted for, leaving them as the fall guy. A heist’s job is not to foreshadow, but to divert, to misdirect, so that when the Prestige moment happens, you’re sufficiently dazzled. Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Presto. Shazam.

And now we pivot to what I’m really here to talk about: The Genius, and why you should watch it.

The Genius is a South Korean reality competition I’ve become obsessed with recently. I’ve been a fan of reality competitions for almost two full decades now, and of all the shows I’ve seen, this one is by far the best (and also the one I’ve had the most success recommending to people). There are a lot of reasons I love it–the creative games, the fun characters, the incredible soundtrack, the surprising civility compared to western reality competitions known for their “I’m not here to make friends” attitude–but what really sets it apart for me and most others is the creative editing and storytelling. You see, while The Genius is an unscripted series that consists of the producers putting big personalities on set together and saying “here’s this week’s strategy game, go crazy,” the gameplay and editing turn nearly every episode into a thrilling story of deception, betrayal, and intrigue. In short, most episodes are structured like heists, and they’re some of the best heist stories I’ve ever seen.

Part 0: Explaining The Genius

I think the first thing I need to do is elaborate on what exactly The Genius is. The Genius was a four-season South Korean reality TV competition (inspired at least partially by Japanese manga Liar Game), in which 13 contestants compete in a variety of strategy games. These contestants are often celebrities of some form, from actors to K-pop idols to professional Starcraft players (though later seasons begin drawing from public casting calls), but are always distinguished in some way, be it intellect, people skills, or creativity. The games are designed in a way that usually allows for one or more clear winners, as well as one clear loser. The loser of the main match than picks a player who is not immune to compete against in a death match, with the loser of that death match being eliminated.

Players are competing for “garnets,” gems that will be worth roughly $1000 USD each at the end of the game. Garnets are awarded for meeting certain win conditions in main matches, and the winner of every death match gets the loser’s garnets. This might seem like a weird way to do the prize pool, since all the garnets eventually funnel down to one person. However, garnets can also be used to purchase advantages in main matches, meaning they can help you get a leg up and make useful bartering chips.

The thing that makes the games in The Genius particularly compelling is that they’re all basically just strategy board games, with many actually being slight tweaks on existing games. Hell, one of the most notable episodes of the series has a main match that boils down to Pit. While some games can be difficult to follow (especially in later seasons), most are incredibly easy for the audience to grasp, meaning the viewers are able to think through the games along with the players and consider what strategies they might employ if they were playing along as well.

One of the Genius’s big appeals is the style. The set use a main hall and four rooms with garish Western-style decor (the first season uses a dining room, study, bedroom, and cellar) players can use to have private conversations, discuss strategy, and form alliances. In addition, the soundtrack is phenomenal, with a ton of licensed music used to great effect. While I’m not entirely sure how it’s able to use everything from the Ocean’s film series to Skrillex to Fallout Boy to the Cowboy Bebop soundtrack, I’ve heard the production company is tied to a music distributor or some similar situation, so they’re able to get the rights for dirt cheap. Or maybe litigious eyes just aren’t turned on them. I don’t know.

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Look at all that pink and purple
However, the thing that truly elevates The Genius is the editing. As I said, almost every episode is edited in the style of a heist. Allow me to use the first episode to demonstrate. Obviously, there will be spoilers from this point forward.

Part 1: The Pledge

So here’s how the first episode of The Genius breaks down: We’re introduced to all our players, as well as the dealers and our host, the “Bandage Man.”

He’s a man in a hat and trenchcoat whose face is covered entirely in bandages. What’s not to love?

The Bandage Man explains the rules of The Genius, as well as the game they’ll be playing: the 1, 2, 3 game. All 13 players will get 9 cards each: three with a value of 1, three with a value of 2, and 3 with a value of 3. Two players will duel by each putting out one card from their hands. Both cards will be discarded, and the player who plays the card with the higher number value gets a point. If there is a draw, neither player gets a point. When the time is up, any player with cards remaining will get 0 points. The player with the most points at the end is declared the winner, and the player with the fewest points is the death match candidate. And hey, they have handy little infographics to help make things more clear for the audience!

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They are given one more piece of advice: the game is not a luck-based one. There IS a way to win for those who can find it.

Wrap-up on the explanation. The players begin to banter. And then, before the game even starts: 

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2 Hours Later
We flash forward to everyone in a panic as Minseo realizes she’s been betrayed and her game is spiraling out of control. She and Eunji have a hurried conversation in a side room where they discuss that someone was being set up for a win by someone else. As they discuss who that could have been, Eunji leans forward to whisper the unheard name in Minseo’s ear. After this short glimpse into the future, we get a “2 Hours Earlier” scene as it cuts back to the calm, carefree banter between the contestants as they talk through the game together and try to figure out the best way to play it.

This scene serves as a tease for what’s coming later in the episode, but more importantly, it serves as the episode’s “Pledge”–the promise the episode is making to set the audience’s expectations. Not only has it established through the game format that someone will win and someone will be sent home, it has made the additional Pledge that Minseo will be betrayed, but who the betrayer was and who they helped are withheld, with the implication that those questions will naturally be revealed. It frames the narrative of the episode through that lens and prepares the viewer to be paying particular attention to that storyline.

Part 2: The Turn

The bulk of a heist is actually a lot of setup between the initial Pledge and the eventual Turn. This is where all the pieces are maneuvered into place for the eventual payoff. As a result, this is going to be a long segment. Buckle up.

The players begin asking for rule clarifications and elaborations, as well as discussing strategies with each other, learning some valuable pieces of information in the process. First, cards can be traded or gifted. Second, they realize that, with 13 players with 9 cards each, they’ll have a total of 117 cards. Poker player Cha Minsoo, AKA “Jimmy Cha,” explains to a group that, since there’s an odd number of cards and cards can only be played two at a time, there will always be one card left over.

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Cha proposes a strategy based not around winning, but around not losing. Forming a pair allows both players to trade wins and losses with your 1’s and 2’s, giving each 3 points while leaving both with the unbeatable 3’s. That way, you’re guaranteed at least 3 points, and if you’re able to get rid of all your cards, you won’t end up in last.

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After this explanation, we see the steely-gazed news anchor Kyungran pulling Sunggyu (of K-pop boy band “Infinite”) aside to discuss this strategy with him. Sunggyu doesn’t quite seem to grasp it. We see Sunggyu continue struggling to keep up as he discusses the game first with former pro Starcraft player Jinho, then 90’s pop star and current producer Sangmin, who strong-arms him into an alliance by focusing on their shared occupations in the music industry. However, while Sunggyu struggles to grasp the strategy of the game, the way he talks about other players in confessionals (i.e., things said privately in production interviews) reveals that he has very good reads on the people around him. Everyone wants the exploitable Sunggyu on their side–but he’s aware of it.

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At this point, several alliances begin to solidify. First, comedian Gura ropes in Sangmin and webtoon artist Poong for a 3-person alliance. Newscaster Eunji and pool player Yuram team up, followed by Sunggyu teaming up with Minseo. As they form a deal, Sunggyu jokes that she might betray him. Later, as politician Junseok talks about having a 2-player alliance and eliminating his “lookalike” in Jinho, the gathered players ask Sunggyu if he’s finally gotten the hang of the game. His response of “I think so. If I win a lot, I win,” is met with laughter. Flash forward. One Hour Later. It establishes some new information: that the one on track to win is Sunggyu, but the one who set him up is still kept secret.

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Alliances start forming
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Note: “Nuna” is a term of respect meaning “older sister,” used by younger brothers and males addressing a female friend older than them.
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Returning to the earlier Pledge is important at this point for a few reasons. We now know the players and their dynamics a little more, so we have context. Now that we know more about Sunggyu and how he’s seen as naive and unable to grasp the rules, revealing him as the one on track to win actually provides even more of a mystery: how did this dunce end up in first, and who arranged it? In addition, seeing him form an alliance with Minseo and joke that she’ll betray him is the most relevant and impactful time to immediately reveal that he’ll go on to be one of the people betraying her.

We return from the flash forward and the game proper starts.

As Gura and Poong begin playing, the last few unaligned players begin pairing up: Kyungran with Jimmy Cha, the young adults Changyeop (an actor) and Jungmoon (a Mensa member), and finally, Junseok and Jinho.

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Left to right, top to bottom: Gura/Sangmin/Poong, Eunji/Yuram, Minseo/Sunggyu, Junseok/Jinho, Cha/Kyungran, Changyeop/Jungmoon
The Changyeop/Jungmoon pair and Junseok/Jinho pair both begin developing strategies to improve on the “3 win” strategy most pairs are using. Changyeop and Jungmoon come up with one that changes how they match up their cards that results in 4 wins and 1 draw for each of them.

Meanwhile, Junseok and Jinho consider a much riskier strategy that involves trading cards to give one player 9 wins and the other player 0.

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Why this strategy? Well, because if multiple people end up with 0 points, the winner chooses which of them will be the elimination candidate. And since this strategy allows the two of them to use all their cards, it means that someone else will be holding the leftover card at the end of the game, putting them at 0 points. At this point, if Jinho is able to use those 9 points to win, he’s able to choose the person with the leftover card to be the elimination candidate instead of Junseok. However, the two of them start to have second thoughts. What if 9 points isn’t enough to win? They abandon that plan, and decide Junseok will trade Jinho all his 3’s for now so he can use them to take points from other people, and they can adjust as they go. Sangmin enters and informs them that others have started playing, and as they leave, Jinho forgets his garnet. Sangmin grabs it, turns to the camera, and asks production what would happen if he were to take it.

Jinho begins playing Poong, and the two players both turn over two 3’s in a row. Jinho realizes that he’s wasted two of his six vital 3 cards, and after he plays and draws with someone else, it dawns on him what’s happened: the “3 point strategy” Cha proposed became widely known and adopted, causing everyone to use their 1’s and 2’s to trade wins, leaving everyone with only 3’s. As a result, what should be the most powerful card has been rendered completely useless, as it can only produce draws.

As Junseok and Jinho’s plan falls apart, Minseo begins asking around for someone to play with. It quickly becomes apparent that almost everyone has already used up all their cards. Junseok and Jinho go off to quickly reconfigure their plan, trading cards around in a way where Jinho will get five wins and Junseok will get one, just to be safe. The two use all their cards, leaving Minseo with three cards: the only person with cards left.

It’s at this point we begin to see the events shown in the flash forward. We’ve reached our “Turn.” Minseo wasn’t able to use all her cards because Sunggyu betrayed her. She gave him three wins, but when it came turn for him to reciprocate, he stopped. The group suggests she simply get back at him by picking him for the death match, only for them to realize that Sunggyu has somehow acquired six wins, putting him in the lead and making him immune. Had Junseok and Jinho actually carried out their original plan, they would have had a handy lead.

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Things become hectic as Minseo and the others try to figure out whether Sunggyu stumbled into that win by accident or if he was backed by someone.

It’s revealed that, since a three-person alliance can’t get rid of their cards using just each other, Gura went to Cha and Kyungran to enlist their help, convincing them to pull in Sunggyu to give them a total of six people.

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Cha and Kyungran pull Sunggyu away from Minseo, and the two alliances merge.
If Sunggyu were to become the sole winner, he would be given an additional “token of life” (which grants immunity from the death match) he could give to one of his backers to save them. Minseo doesn’t particularly want that, so she goes to Jinho and offers to give him one of her cards to give him one additional win. Then he and Sunggyu would both have six wins each, becoming joint winners and taking some power away from the alliance that betrayed her. She strong-arms him into the plan, saying that, since he’s not a winner, he could still be chosen if he chooses not to help her. It’s simultaneously an offer and a threat: help and he becomes one of the winners, winning immunity and a garnet. Refuse, and she takes him to the death match, forcing him to fight for his life.

It’s at this point that Eunji bursts in to pull Minseo aside, and we see the scene at the end of the flash forward where Eunji whispers the name of Sunggyu’s backer to Minseo: Kyungran. We flash back to Kyungran pulling Sunggyu into the alliance and dictating how he should play.

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Then, after he’s won against her 3 times, she “innocently” asks if you can stop playing someone at any point.

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I love the framing of this shot and Kyungran’s casual but ice-cold delivery of the line.
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The dealer confirms that you can decline.
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Kyungran’s plan succeeds, complete with turning around for an evil laugh.
Kyungran then strong-arms a wavering Sunggyu into using the rest of his cards quickly, telling him it will take him out of the game so he can relax, but also preventing him from backing out, giving him the three additional wins he needed in the process.

It’s at this point that the “Turn” is complete. We know who was in first, betraying Minseo in the process, we know how the betrayal happened, and we know who was behind it all. However, there are still a few things that need to play out before we get to our “Prestige” moment.

Kyungran immediately goes into damage control, apologizing, saying she really wanted to work with Minseo, hoping she can talk her way out of going to the death match. Meanwhile, the pairs outside the six person alliance inform Junseok and Jinho that, since the two of them refused to throw Minseo a lifeline, Gura is throwing them under the bus to try to get Minseo to take one of them to the death match.

With four minutes left before the end of the game, Junseok and Jinho decide to help Minseo the best they can. Minseo declares she’ll play with Jinho to give him one more point and give him a joint win with Sunggyu. She hands him a card he can use to beat her and gain a point, but before they can play, she slips off, leaving him holding the card. He’s taken the bait. If she won’t play him, they’ll both be left with 0 points at the end of the game, and both be candidates for Sunggyu to choose for the death match.

With only a minute and a half on the clock, Gura pulls Minseo aside and attempts to convince her to leave Jinho vulnerable, then pick him for the death match. Since players are able to provide aid, Gura’s side would be able to ensure that only Junseok is able to help him.

With only seconds left on the clock, Minseo makes her decision. The results come in, and it’s revealed that she ultimately decides to give Jinho the joint win. However, when it comes time to pick her opponent in the death match, she decides on Jinho’s partner Junseok rather than anyone in the six person alliance that betrayed her.

So that’s the trick, right? That’s the big twist this episode leads up to. The reveal of what happened to Minseo, as well as the reveal that, in the end, after wavering, she finally decides to save Jinho rather than dooming him. That’s where the trick ends, right?

On the contrary. This is where the trick begins.

Part 3: The Prestige

Okay, this part should be faster to recap.

The game for the death match is the “winning streak” game. In it, the two players in the death match each play rock-paper-scissors with each of the remaining eleven players. The goal of the game is not to have the most wins, but to have the longest win streak. The order in which the eleven players are faced is determined by random lot, and both elimination candidates will face them in the same order.

On the surface, this seems like a game of pure luck, but in reality, it’s one of social politicking. Both Minseo and Junseok take the same strategy: “I’ll throw the same thing every time.” Junseok chooses to only throw rock, Minseo chooses to only throw paper, but it’s the exact same strategy: instead of leaving it to luck or playing useless mind games, they’ll simply leave their fate in the other players’ hands.

At this point, Minseo reminds Jinho that she’s the reason he ended up a joint winner, and she ultimately decided to save him, asking he repay the debt by keeping her. Jinho tells her that, since he’s in the 11th and final position, his decision doesn’t hold much weight. Just for good measure, she offers him a garnet as a bribe.

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The remaining eleven players discuss how they want to approach the game. Someone will have to break the streak at some point, but the point it’s broken at will be critical. For example, if it’s broken by the person 6th in line, the highest streak that can be obtained is 5 on either side of it. If a streak is broken early, a player down the line may change how they otherwise would have played, and a betrayal could cause the elimination candidate to change up their own strategy. What’s more, everyone is reluctant to be the one to break the streak and play the bad guy.

At this point, Gura proposes an idea to the group: Jinho was allied with Junseok, and Minseo was ultimately the one who gave him the win. Since he was involved with both of them, they can just make it his decision and his alone.

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Jinho has gone to one of the least powerful positions to the one deciding one. Everyone laughs and loves this idea. Why not? It’s fitting, it takes the blame off them, and if one of them changes their mind, they can always break the streak earlier, right? They’re happy letting him shoulder the burden.

Jinho finds himself with a difficult decision. Does he choose to keep Junseok, his closest ally? Or does he choose Minseo, who he owes a debt to–especially after receiving a garnet?

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In the end, he decides to keep Minseo, eliminating his closest ally. The episode’s has reached its conclusion. The story of Minseo, Jinho, and Junseok has finished playing out.

But wait? What’s this? Large flashing text declaring that “a huge twist will be reveales shortly?

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I’ll break down what happens next, but it’s best to watch the two and a half minute sequence yourself. It’s delivered in a way that a write-up just doesn’t do it justice. This, my friends, is our “Prestige.”

Jinho gives a confessional explaining that he wasn’t sure why Minseo offered him a garnet at first, intercut with a confessional of music producer Sangmin explaining that the garnet may have been what tipped the scales in Minseo’s favor.

Jinho begins counting out his garnets. He has the initial garnet every player started with. He has one from winning the main match. And finally, he has the one Minseo gave him, for a total of three.

It cuts back to Sangmin, confidently declaring “Minseo needs to treat me well. She has to be my ally. A twist happened because of me.”

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It cuts back to Jinho. A producer asks if he still has all his garnets. Jinho says that he only has two. One of them…he lost it.

The music cuts out. The video pauses, complete with a pause icon superimposed on the screen before the video begins rewinding. It rewinds back to Sangmin entering after Jinho and Junseok finalize their plan in the cellar room. The opening beats to a quick, rhythmic song (“Bangarang” by Skrillex) begin playing. We once again see Sangmin grabbing Jinho’s garnet and asking what happens if he takes it. We remember when and how that garnet went missing. But we’re only getting started on this reveal.

[ENG] TG S1E1 (1.2.3 Game) - from YouTube.mp4_snapshot_01.04.47_[2020.03.28_16.14.01][ENG] TG S1E1 (1.2.3 Game) - from YouTube.mp4_snapshot_01.04.50_[2020.03.28_16.14.52]

The music continues to build and the lyrics kick in as he goes to Minseo. He explains that he has Jinho’s garnet. His plan? Get her to ask Jinho to lose to help her in the death match, using his own garnet as the bribe. Bass drop. Bangarang. We see the events of Jinho’s choice to eliminate Junseok, with this new point of view now in mind.

After this, it’s just the denouement of the episode. Junseok is given his final due in the montage, with everyone speaking respectfully of him and talking him up as a big threat, with the announcer stating it’s dangerous to stand out as a threat by bare one’s fangs too early. The Bandage Man announces that Junseok is the first eliminated player, and that he’ll see the twelve remaining players in the next episode.

Part 4: A Good Heist, A Bad Magician

So why go through all the trouble of recapping a whole episode just to talk about a sequence that’s only two and a half minutes long? What’s the point of this post if it’s not just meant to be a recap? It’s because, as I said, a good heist reveal is like a magic trick, and you need to see the full trick in order to appreciate it. However, unlike a magic trick, a heist always ends by revealing its secrets. So that’s what I’m here to do now: revealing the secrets by breaking down just how The Genius (and by extension, heists) are able to utilize the art of misdirection.

The thing that makes The Genius’s editing so unique from most reality competitions is that it uses a limited point of view rather than an omniscient one. It focuses on the episode’s story though one player or group of players, but there’s pivotal information that other players have that’s deliberately being hidden. Most reality competitions will pare the point of view down, sure, but the points of view they remove are the ones they deem uninteresting and unimportant and can be removed without affecting the storyline. In The Genius, the removed points of view often are the storyline, and when they’re added back in, they completely recontextualize the entire episode.

Whose point of view is this first episode told from? Well, it’s primarily Minseo, Jinho, and Junseok, as most of the action is centered around them. They’re the three on the line at the end of the main match, and they’re the three people most affected by the results of the death match. However, while the action is centered around these three, they’re not actually the ones driving it. The episode slowly reveals how all the pieces came together by revealing who’s truly in control: the alliance of six, primarily Gura, Sunggyu, Kyungran, and Sangmin. Gura was the one who formed the alliance and convinced Minseo to target Jinho and Junseok instead of them. Kyungran pulled Sunggyu in, then arranged for his win and Minseo’s betrayal. And finally, Sangmin enacted a cheeky ploy to bribe Jinho with his own garnet, earning Minseo’s trust and eliminating a tough competitor in the process.

The Pledge and the Turn of the episode are all focused on selling you on one story. By focusing on Minseo in the flash forward, you’re automatically primed to follow her story. By presenting Jinho and Junseok’s strategy as a winning one, you expect them to do well. But when it turns out to be the story of how Sunggyu ends up as a winner despite coming across as an oblivious idiot, as well as the story of the alliance who got him there in the first place, it provides a satisfying payoff.

An alliance of six that’s been secretly controlling things behind the scenes works well as a reveal on its own. After all, reality competitions don’t usually play around with chronology and perspective like that. But then it goes one step further to reveal a the second layer of duplicity. It’s precisely because it uses the flash forward to telegraph a reveal that the “garnet heist” moment is so magical: because the “twist” that happens roughly 2/3rds through the episode isn’t actually the big twist of the episode at all. It’s simply another misdirection.

And honestly, I think that’s pretty magical.

This post focused almost entirely on the first episode of The Genius because focusing on a single episode as opposed to a variety of events spoils the least for future episodes and seasons. Many fans agree that this episode is easily topped by many later ones. I would highly recommend checking the series out. As it’s a Korean shows that uses a lot of licensed music it’s obviously not easy to find, but download links can be found in this Reddit thread. Please consider checking it out.

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