Television

The Many, Many Twists of Netflix’s Hit Clickbait, Explained in Non-Clickbaity Detail

Plus: Is this show clickbait?

Adrian Grenier as Nick Brewer in Clickbait, face bloodied after being abducted.
The ever-clicky Adrian Grenier as Nick Brewer. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

Deciding which of Netflix’s thousands of shows and movies to grant your all-important click can be a paralyzing task for many of us, so there was something brilliant, or cynical—or in all likelihood, both—about the streaming service coming out with a show called Clickbait. It’s announcing itself as potentially dishonest and exploitative and daring you to click anyway, and the gambit clearly worked: As of Tuesday, the limited series, which premiered on the streaming service last week, was topping Netflix’s most-watched list. Whether you don’t want to give Clickbait the satisfaction of your click or you’ve already clicked many times over, let’s talk about it—and there is a lot to talk about—spoilers and all.

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OK, what’s this thing about?

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In the first episode of the eight-episode series, a video surfaces online of Nick Brewer (Adrian Grenier), an improbably perfect husband and father, being held hostage and holding a series of signs: One says he abuses women. Another says that if the video gets to 5 million views, he will die. His sister, Pia (Zoe Kazan), his wife, Sophie (Betty Gabriel), and the rest of his family freak out, trying to find him before the video goes viral. As they look for the people who kidnapped Nick, they’re also forced to contemplate what Nick could have done, and to whom, to prompt this hostage situation.

Does the video get to 5 million hits?

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Yes, it does, and as promised, Nick is a goner.

That’s not that many hits in 2021!

Regardless, he eats it by the end of the second episode.

How could this happen to a swell guy like Nick? Unless … is it possible that Nick’s life isn’t as perfect as it initially appeared?

Good guess. It looks like Nick wasn’t a faithful husband, first of all: He had profiles on dating sites and was involved with multiple women. But neither was his wife: She had an affair with a co-worker a few years ago. Plus, the night before he disappeared, Nick was fighting with his prickly sister. Also, at the school where Nick worked as an athletics department physical therapist, there’s a female student volleyball player who seems to know something.

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Was it the wife then? Or her lover?

Nope. For a second, it seemed like the man Sophie cheated on Nick with, her co-worker Curtis, might have been involved, because he was caught on surveillance camera getting into a bar fight with Nick not long before his kidnapping, but it was just a red herring.

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What about the sister?

No, though there are a few things about her that seem shady at first: In addition to the aforementioned prickliness (check the punky dyed-blond blunt-cut hair), she’s friends with a teenage hacker, and she also matched with the main detective on Nick’s case, Roshan Amiri, on a dating app.

It eventually comes out that she and Nick had been keeping a secret: When the two were kids, their father died by suicide, and they were the ones to discover him. This will matter later.

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The detective on the case who the sister matched with—what’s his deal?

Amiri is angling to be reassigned to the homicide team, so it seems like that might give him impure motivations, plus he doesn’t always seem great at communicating with Nick’s family. Not to mention he’s married, so why was he on a dating app? But he’s separated, it turns out, and he’s basically a good guy. He’s also very handsome, shoutout to Phoenix Raei.

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This is a show about the dark underbelly of the internet, so there’s got to be more shadowy figures from the web, right?

Yup. One of them is someone who goes by the handle “Al_2005,” a stranger who Nick’s oldest son, Ethan, is messaging with throughout the show. Ethan spills a lot to Al_2005, and it seems plausible that the kid is being preyed upon, or even conspiring with the stranger out of anger at his father. But eventually the two meet in person, and surprise, Al_2005 is a nice agoraphobic girl who exchanges shy smiles with Ethan and just wants to help him figure out what happened to his dad. Mmm hmm.

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What about the college volleyball player, then? Was Nick a typical sleazy older man having an affair with a student?

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A sleazy older man was having an affair with a student, but it wasn’t Nick; it was his colleague, Matt. However, Nick knew about it and pressured Matt to confess, which would give Matt motivation for wanting to get rid of Nick. Back to that in a bit.

But Nick wasn’t a saint or anything. He had those dating profiles.

True, he did, on a bunch of different sites under a bunch of different names, and we even meet one woman, Emma Beesly, who claimed to have been having an affair with Nick. We also find out about a woman named Sarah Burton who Nick was involved with—a reporter travels to another city to find her, only to discover that she recently died.

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A dead woman—that definitely seems like a lead!

It is. It turns out that Sarah and Nick met on a dating app and were talking online—until she threatened to kill herself, and he seemingly encouraged her to do it. When her brother, Simon, devastated by his sister’s suicide (and whose mental state is not improved by a job as a content moderator, where he spends all day flagging abusive videos), figures out that she was talking to Nick, he wants revenge.

Finally! So Simon kidnapped Nick, made the video, and killed him, case closed?

Not exactly. Simon, along with a buddy of his, kidnapped Nick, and he shot and posted the video, but he also let him go at the last second, when Nick convinced him that it wasn’t him who was talking to Sarah online, but someone impersonating him.

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And Simon believed him?

Enough to let him go. Nick was able to point out that the photos on the profile that was in communication with Sarah had been Photoshopped—a case of the ol’ mismatched horizon lines. Nick didn’t tell Sarah to kill herself; a catfish did.

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This is where that secret Pia and Nick had comes into play: As Pia is trying to crack the case on her own, the thing that convinces her of her brother’s innocence is that she knows he would never encourage someone to hurt themselves, after what they went through growing up.

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OK, but Nick was still a cheater! What about all those other women?

Only one of them, Emma Beesly, said she’d actually spoken to Nick. When Ethan’s son and his online buddy/love interest Al_2005 figure this out, they contact Emma and play her a tape of Nick’s real voice. They ask her if that’s how he sounded when they spoke, and the answer is no—meaning none of the women Nick supposedly was cheating with ever actually met him, meaning all of them could have been being catfished.

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This is exhausting. Who was catfishing all these ladies? And did that person kill Nick?

For a minute, Clickbait has us convinced that it was Nick’s co-worker, Matt, but it turns out that it was someone else in Nick’s office who had access to their computer network (and Matt had an affair with one of the students on his team but, uh, is otherwise not a bad guy). This would be someone who was able to both plant a bunch of files on Matt’s computer and had access to all of Nick’s photos in the first place.

It was … Dawn, the kindly-seeming older lady admin who’d been present in the background all along. Married but childless, Dawn was sad and lonely, so when she found Nick’s dating profile—which he only started out of frustration after his wife’s affair—she decided to have some fun. And before she knew it, she’d gotten totally wrapped up in catfishing a bunch of ladies, so much so that she knew how to use deepfakes to convince them they were really talking to him. She must have been pretty good at technology, despite sucking at Photoshop? Maybe she learned as she went.

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Phew. So Dawn did it.

Not quite! Her husband, Ed, did. Dawn was catfishing women, but she wasn’t actually out to hurt anyone. It was only when Ed discovered her secret and demanded that she stop that she got so upset that she didn’t talk Sarah Burton down from her suicide threats. After Simon let Nick go, Nick figured out that Dawn was responsible and went to confront her. Ed attacked Nick, and she helped him cover it up.

Damn, OK, would not and could not have guessed that one. One last question: So was Clickbait clickbait?

The definition of clickbait is something that grabs you with a tantalizing promise and then fails to deliver on it. By naming this show Clickbait, Netflix was kind of promising the opposite—that this series wouldn’t be clickbait but a sophisticated commentary on the clickbait-y world in which we live. In practice, it was a bunch of red herrings precisely engineered to get you to keep watching, whose final message was something along the lines of, er, Adrian Grenier actually was a great guy and lonely older women are dangerous. So, total clickbait.

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