‘Saw’ Primer: Explaining the Most Convoluted Horror Mythology Ever
“I want to play a game.”
What began as a simple, ominous statement with horrific implications in 2004’s Saw evolved over the course of six years (and six films, released annually) into something increasingly convoluted. With each new sequel to James Wan’s original horror thriller, the mythology of the series’ murderous mastermind (Tobin Bell) became more complicated than his Rube Goldberg-esque death traps. This week, a new reboot / continuation of the Saw saga hits theaters. To prepare you for Jigsaw, we’re revisiting the complex mythos of its title character.
You’d be forgiven for forgetting a lot of these plot points; it’s been seven years, after all, and even the most enthusiastic Saw fans have a hard time keeping track of the labyrinthine mythology — particularly with the addition of new plot threads introduced via flashback over the course of six sequels, ending with 2010’s Saw 3D, which was touted in some territories as The Final Chapter (Ron Howard voice: It wasn’t.) The films all share basic elements: People wake up in strange locations, often attached to or placed in the middle of a death trap. A mysterious voice on a tape tells them they’ve been selected for a “game” — a sick form of moral instruction that, should they survive, will make them better people. “Live or die,” the voice says, “the choice is yours.” The choice is always between committing gruesome acts of self-harm or succumbing to violent, torturous death.
It’s also difficult to know where to begin with the mythology. You could go by the order in which the films were released, or organize the narrative chronologically (which places the films out of order). So let’s just begin at the beginning of everything with the first Saw, which introduced audiences to two new voices in horror: Director James Wan and Jigsaw himself.
In comparison to its sequels, the first Saw is extremely simple. Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) wakes up in a rusty washroom with a man named Adam Stanheight (played by screenwriter Leigh Whannell). They’re both chained up; in the middle of the floor is a dead guy holding a gun and an audio recorder. Lawrence and Adam both have cassette tapes in their pockets; Lawrence’s tells him he has to kill Adam by 6PM or his wife and daughter will be murdered, while Adam’s tape urges him to escape.
Saw introduces a few of the series’ key characters: John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, the mastermind behind these torturous tableaus; Dr. Gordon, the oncologist who diagnosed John with terminal cancer; and Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the first survivor of a Jigsaw trap. At the end of the film, the corpse on the ground is revealed to be a very-much-alive John Kramer, and Dr. Gordon chooses to saw his own foot off before crawling out and leaving Adam alone in the room to die.
I hope you’re settled in because things are about to get real complicated.
Jigsaw’s Origin Story
In Saw IV, we learn what exactly compelled John Kramer to become a killer — although, according to him, he gives his victims the tools to save themselves; most of them choose to die. Back in the day, John was a successful civil engineer married to Jill Tuck, a lovely woman who runs a rehab clinic. One night, a pregnant Jill is leaving work when she encounters a dangerous drug addict named Cecil, whose actions cause her to miscarry. After losing their unborn child, John became extremely depressed and isolated himself, leading to the dissolution of his marriage.
Around this time, John goes to see Dr. Gordon, who diagnoses him with terminal cancer. That’s when a gruesome little light bulb goes off in John’s head. With death imminent, John understands the true value of life (and hardware), and realizes that there are a lot of jerks out there just wasting their lives. Basically it’s like when you’re a kid and you don’t finish your dinner, and your mom says, “But there are starving children in third-world countries!” Jigsaw is your mom, I guess? It’s not a perfect metaphor.
Anyway, a flashback in Saw II reveals that John’s real stroke of genius came after he survived a suicide attempt, when he realized that the only way to truly appreciate life is by being confronted with death. In Saw IV, he builds his first trap and tests it out on Cecil, the drug addict who caused Jill’s miscarriage. This is also when he earns his nickname as the Jigsaw Killer, owing to the puzzle-shaped piece of flesh he removes from each victim (and also his death trap puzzles).
In Saw V, we learn that John recruited an apprentice: Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who began helping John with his traps way back in the first film, when they kidnapped a suicidal drug addict named Paul (who can be seen leaving Jill’s clinic in IV). John selects Hoffman after the detective stages the death of his sister’s murderer to look like a Jigsaw trap. At first, John blackmails Hoffman into working for him, but Hoffman takes a liking to the “work.”
John was impressed by Amanda’s survival instinct when she escaped his trap in Saw, so he asked her to become his protégé. Amanda was the ideal subject: Surviving the trap made her feel grateful, not only for her own life, but for John’s brutal “intervention.” But early on, Amanda proves that she doesn’t necessarily like playing by the rules. In Saw III, it’s revealed that when Dr. Gordon left the washroom at the end of the first film, Amanda went in and killed Adam as an act of mercy.
In Saw II, Amanda helps John — whose health is now deteriorating — kidnap the son of another detective, Eric Matthews. They take him to an abandoned house where he’ll participate in a “game” with seven criminals, including Amanda, who’s working undercover for John. When Detective Matthews fails to play by John’s rules, it’s revealed that the surveillance feed they’ve been watching from the house was actually recorded much earlier; the game has already concluded, and Matthews’ son (dying from gas poisoning) has been locked in a safe near John the entire time.
At the end of the second film, Amanda takes Matthews down beneath the house where the game was staged to — wait for it — the washroom from the first film. After a tussle, she leaves Matthews there for dead…but in a Saw IV flashback, Detective Hoffman retrieves Matthews and locks him in a cell to use him in a new game.
The Death of Jigsaw
Saw III and Saw IV take place at the same time. In the third film, Amanda kidnaps Dr. Lynn Denlon and places an explosive collar around her neck, forcing her to help keep John — now on his death bed — alive for one more game. That game involves Jeff, a grief-stricken father seeking revenge on the drunk driver who killed his son. During the big, twisty reveal, we learn that Jeff is actually Lynn’s husband, and the person who’s really being tested is Amanda. John finds out that she’s been building traps that are inescapable, undermining the purpose of the games, so he designs a stealth test requiring her to keep Lynn alive.
When Amanda fails, both she and John die. Simultaneously, in Saw IV, an officer named Daniel Rigg is being tested by Hoffman in a game involving our old pal Detective Matthews. Rigg fails and Matthews dies. After leaving Rigg for dead, Hoffman attends John’s autopsy and finds a cassette tape in his stomach. When he plays the tape, John warns Hoffman that he will also be tested. Still with us?
With John dead, Hoffman organizes his very first game all by himself, kidnapping five people who all played a part in a fire that left several people dead. Two people survive and are rescued by Detective Erickson, while Hoffman goes about framing FBI Agent Peter Strahm as Jigsaw’s accomplice. As Strahm follows the bread crumbs, he fails to follow the rules of the game and is eventually killed in the film’s final trap as Hoffman escapes unscathed in a glass box (see above).
Bride of Jigsaw
Guess who’s back. Back again. Jill Tuck’s back. Tell a friend. John Kramer’s estranged wife returns in Saw VI, delivering a box to Hoffman that contains the instructions for another game. (SHOCKING!) This time it’s topical: They’re targeting an insurance executive and his team of agents who are responsible for rejecting two-thirds of all claims, effectively screwing over private citizens (and resulting in many deaths). Seems like ol’ John became a bit of an activist on his death bed.
While the game is in progress, Agent Erickson and Agent Perez try to figure out what happened to Agent Strahm. Hoffman tags along to keep them off his trail, but when they figure out it was him all along, he kills them both and heads back to the game site. Jill returns (yet again) and puts Hoffman in a head trap like the one used on Amanda in the first film — only this one is reversed, and there’s no key. Still, Hoffman somehow manages to free himself, earning a gnarly jaw injury for his troubles.
The Totally Not Final Chapter
Hoffman may have escaped the trap at the end of Saw VI, but in Saw 3D (aka The Final Chapter, aka Saw VII), Jill is not going to give her husband’s legacy up that easily. She reveals Hoffman’s role in the killings to the police and goes into protective custody, while the erstwhile detective begins assembling a new game that will hopefully lead him straight to Jill. It works. As the game — involving some dummy who wrote a book in which he claimed to have survived a Jigsaw trap — plays out, Hoffman maneuvers his way into the police station where Jill is being held and shoves that reverse bear trap thing on Jill’s head. She dies, which kind of sucks because she’s the most interesting character in the series (Hoffman is kind of a ween machine).
But there’s one last twist…
What Goes Around Comes Around
That’s right — Dr. Lawrence Gordon is back, baby! As it turns out, once Gordon escaped (minus one severed foot) in the first film, he teamed up with John, who had a well-established fetish for “survival instincts.” In a weird retcon, it’s revealed that Gordon helped John with his traps throughout the series, somehow never once running into Hoffman or Amanda along the way. Gordon and his crew of henchmen capture Hoffman, who’s trying to get the hell out of dodge after killing his boss’ wife, and take him to ...
Yep, the washroom from the very first movie. It all comes full circle. Hoffman is chained up in the bathroom and left to die — because leaving this dude for dead has worked out so well for everyone else. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The Legacy Continues
With John Kramer and Jill Tuck dead (and Hoffman presumed dead; jeez, these dummies), who is presiding over a new game? That’s the big mystery at the center of Jigsaw, which was previously titled Saw: Legacy and centers on a police investigation into killings that are eerily similar to John Kramer’s designs and motives. The sequel picks up over 10 years after John’s death, and there are a few possible candidates that could’ve taken his place: It might be Hoffman (if he survived), or a previously unknown relative of John’s (like a son we never knew he had), but one seems more likely than the rest — if the sequel is following the established mythology, that is. It could be Gordon and his little crew from the end of Saw 3D. The marketing for Jigsaw touts a “cult of Jigsaw,” which suggests that Gordon may have been schooling some disciples in the intervening years.
Gallery - Sequels That Claimed to Be Final and Totally Weren’t: