Spoiler culture has turned us all into monsters
In 2013, I was executive editor of the NY Daily News, and we, like every other publication in the country, were covering the series finale of Breaking Bad. As one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows in history, the finale was obviously a huge news event. I decided to treat it as such and put our coverage of it across the top of Page One. There, with a small picture of the main character, Walter White, was the headline, “Breaking Dead. Walt meets bloody end in series finale.”
Many editors in the newsroom argued we couldn’t do that because it would act as a spoiler for those who hadn’t watch the finale yet. Coincidentally, the headline beneath the Breaking Bad story was about the New York Giants’ loss that Sunday afternoon. So, I asked the editors, Should we not print the score of that game because certainly some fans recorded the event and hope to watch it the next day? They didn’t have a good answer to explain the difference. So the Breaking Bad headline stayed.
The next morning, as I was buying coffee at my local deli in Brooklyn, a gentleman in front of me purchased a bagel and a copy of the Daily News. A few seconds later we were both on the sidewalk, and he was crossing the street a few paces ahead of me when he glanced at the paper, stopped in the middle of the intersection, tensed his entire body, and shrieked, “Nooo!!!”
I like to think he was pissed about seeing the Giants score, but we all know what he was mad about.
Six years later, spoiler culture has gone too far. It’s turned us all into monsters: There are the spoilerphobes who whine on social media at even the slightest hint of a plot detail. Then, there are those like me who resent and are annoyed by the spoilerphobes. And there are the people actually creating the entertainment, who are forced to take the most bizarre, absurd measures to prevent any semblance of a spoiler.
Just in the past year we’ve seen the creators of Westworld promise to, in an effort to circumvent the rampant spoiler culture, release a video revealing all spoilers for the entirety of Season Two. Their plan, which was received surprisingly well by fans, ended with a laugh upon the release of a 25-minute, custom Westworld Rickroll prank.
Avengers directors Joe and Anthony Russo have said that none of the Endgame actors, with the exception of Robert Downey Jr., had been allowed to read the entire script. In fact, Spider-Man actor Tom Holland was so vulnerable to leaking spoilers that they didn't give him any details for the scenes he was even acting in.
“I remember for Avengers, the Russo Brothers are like ‘So you’re just standing here, and you’re fighting this guy and just do whatever,’” Holland said at a Comic Con Phoenix event last year. “And I’m like, ‘Okay, who am I fighting?’ And they were like ‘Well, we can’t tell you because it’s a secret.’
Is this really what moviemaking has come to? Even a showrunner such as David Simon—the famed creator of The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce—who doesn't consider his work prime for spoiler culture, can’t avoid it.
“I don't write stuff with a lot of twists and turns, by standards, and I also don't conjure an audience that runs to the water coolers, digital or otherwise, after every episode to foment speculation,” Simon told me by email, before conceding, “We do try not to publish reveals in whatever episodic synopsis we send out through HBO. That's about it.”
For the past few weeks, spoiler culture has reached a truly nightmarish climax with both Avengers: Endgame and the final episodes of Game of Thrones. Social media has become a constant battle between the Have-Seens and the Have-Not-Seens. The Have-Not-Seens will take every opportunity to attack a stranger for a perceived leak of a plot detail.
One random person on Twitter accused me of "breaking the social contract" when I passingly pointed out that Arya Stark killing the Night King was like a “last-second, game-winning dunk."
I’m not sure that this is what Thomas Hobbes or John Locke had in mind.
This is a spoiler— Bart Harley Jarvis (@Duckettdog) April 29, 2019
None of this is new. For as long as people have been talking loudly as they walk out of theaters, there have been poor schlubs on their way in for the next showing complaining about the spoiler they just overheard. The internet and on-demand viewing has only exacerbated the phenomenon. But at this stage, you’d think that as a society, we’d have figured out to manage it all better.
As Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor at UC San Diego points out, that’s what’s new about the conundrum.
“Everyone knew who shot J.R.,” Christenfeld says, referring to the huge reveal in the 1980s prime-time soap, Dallas. “You didn’t have a chance to watch it at a different time. With asynchronized viewing, that old social contract is suddenly breaking down.”
To be fair, there are rare exceptions where sharing plot details about movies, TV shows or books is just plain rude. If you invite me to your home for dinner you are more than entitled to request I don’t discuss how Jon and Dany seem destined for a showdown in the final two episodes of GoT. If you have set your Facebook to private, then you have every right to have your friends honor your request for no Endgame discussion. Beyond that, you are being a bit selfish.
“People get carried away and self-absorbed,” Christenfeld told me with a laugh. “They are still entitled to that, but they feel violated more than they are violated.”
Christenfeld and colleague Jonathan D. Leavitt published a research paper in 2011 that demonstrated that spoilers not only do not hinder one’s enjoyment of a piece of media, they actually enhance them.
“People who see the research don’t believe it,” Christenfeld says. “People think that they can’t know the ending ahead of time. They are wrong about their own aesthetic judgments.”
Being deceived by one’s emotions into making flawed intellectual judgments is understandably human. What’s less understandable is the seeming randomness involved in what spoiler protection people feel entitled to.
Imagine walking into a bar on an autumn afternoon during halftime of that same Giants game and demanding the bartender turn off the TVs and that all patrons cease discussing the game simply because you planned on watching it later. It’s preposterous, no? (And would likely get you thrown out of the bar on your ass.) But how is this different than the way people behave with dramatic series and movies?
“When you watch Hamlet, is it ruined if you know he dies?” Christenfeld says. “You’d have to be an idiot going to a Shakespeare play and not knowing the ending.”
He’s right. It doesn’t ruin it or dissuade people from watching Shakespeare’s plays. We all know what happens. It’s like looking at the Mona Lisa more than once. Or listening to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks despite knowing the sequence and word of every song on the album.
This is what separates the football game from movies, plays, TV shows, paintings and songs. Football isn’t art. It's plot is driven toward a singular purpose: the final score. That’s not how TV shows and movies should be treated, yet they are.
“I have a French filmmaker friend who scoffs at the American idea of plot in movies,” says Christenfeld. “He thinks film is art and should be consumed as such. ‘Plot is for children,’ he says.”
And I’d argue spoilers—and the culture surrounding them—are, too. If we demand and accept having our breaking news fed to us intravenously via push alert, shouldn’t we not flinch at the needle prick that is a plot reveal? In a world where our TV and film choices are no longer cul-de-sacs of guilty pleasure or cultural enlightenment, yet full-blown news-cycle events, this seems like a reasonable ask. Even with access to on-demand entertainment to watch on our own time, should we treat Game of Thrones episodes as a live entertainment event when the conversation is happening in real time? The way we are exposed to details of major cultural events is evolving along with a society that demands immediate access to news and information—spoilers aren't any different.
“If I happen to follow someone on Twitter who posts about a show or movie, is that my fault or theirs?” Christenfeld asks, before suggesting it isn’t the person who’s posting that is responsible for protecting you from a spoiler. “No one owes you that.”
We live in a world of spoilers—one that's even more heightened and immediate than the media landscape in which I put Breaking Bad on the cover of the Daily News. And the earlier we accept that the better it will be for everyone.