Who killed Laura Palmer? I found out the hard way. In the middle of my first viewing of Twin Peaks in the fall of 1998, before I reached the reveal on the show, a wholly unrelated SPIN article about the Malcolm McDowell remake of Fantasy Island casually blew the mystery for me in a mid-sentence aside. I screamed. Then I called up the friend who’d been screening the show for me on VHS and screamed again, into the phone: “It was HER FATHER?!?!” Then I heard my roommate scream, since I’d just revealed it to him, too.
Like a young Bruce Wayne staring into a pool of blood, pearls, and shell casings in Crime Alley, this traumatic early experience with spoilers scarred me for life. Of course, this was back when television access was locked to your television, or perhaps a DVD of a previous season.
Today, DVRs, HBO Go, Netflix, and other streaming services have enabled a panoply of approaches to viewing what used to be considered “appointment television.” Not to mention social media like Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook, which have radically altered the way we interact with one another about what we watch and read, and our degree of control over receiving that input.
Now, every morning is a “morning after” for someone, and front-page headlines emerge from every nook and cranny of the Internet. Spoilers aren’t just something you randomly stumble across in articles about Fantasy Island — they’re something you must actively avoid. And no show has to tread this line more carefully than Game of Thrones, HBO’s hit adaptation of the epic fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.
There are currently five A Song of Ice and Fire novels and counting dating back to the summer of ’96; functionally, that means several thousand pages’ worth of “spoilers” for everything that’s happened on the show so far, plus tons of stuff it hasn’t even gotten to yet. Many viewers came into the show fresh, then went back and read the books. Others are still blissfully unaware of the horrors to come. It’s the one show where the wide range of knowledge levels among fans mirrors the wide range of ways to experience and discuss the show itself, making Game of Thrones a unique window into the ongoing negotiations between shows, their fans, their critics, and websites to establish community norms regarding spoilers.
The fansite Tower of the Hand has developed a unique, and uniquely user-friendly, approach to spoilers: a “scope” system in which readers select the point they’ve reached in the series (book or show) using a toggle bar that hides or reveals information in the article they’re visiting according to their selection. By tagging different sections of each article according to the corresponding source material—”Book 1,” “Book 2,” and so on—site co-founders John Jasmin and Alex Smith are able to customize their reference materials, reviews, and essays to the needs of each individual reader.
The largest and most influential A Song of Ice and Fire fansite, Westeros.org, has an additional challenge on its hands: its hugely popular forum, where over 56,000 registered members with divergent levels of information about the books and show mix and mingle. The fans, says site co-founder Elio García Jr., agree in large part about a couple of things: “that no one wants to have something spoiled for them involuntarily, and that we must protect the TV show watchers from spoilers as best we can. We try to make our policies clear and consistent, so people know what they’re going to get when they enter some particular forum.”
With its focus on the show rather than the novels, Winter Is Coming, the youngest of the “big three” ASoIaF/GoT megasites, treats anything that hasn’t aired as a spoiler. Like Westeros, they make copious use of a spoiler-masking tag that hides text until a user mouses over it, plus good old-fashioned “SPOILER” warnings in the bodies of posts, to protect newcomers. Once something has aired, however, game on.
“The instant an episode of GoT airs, discussing it openly on the site is fair game. We assume any one coming to the site has caught up with all the latest episodes,” says site creator Phil Bicking. “My feeling is if someone is behind on a show and visits a fan site for that show, they should expect to get spoiled.”
One of the reasons for the care taken among fans of this particular franchise is that, well, they’re fans of the franchise. Although the shocking death of Eddard Stark that rocked the show’s audience back in Season One had been accidentally revealed to me by a well-meaning coworker while I was in the middle of reading the first book, later events hit me like bolts out of the blue. I was so upset by the massacre of Robb Stark and his forces at the event known as the Red Wedding while reading A Storm of Swords, the volume upon which the current season is based, that I immediately re-read the chapter, sure I’d gotten something horribly wrong, then literally lost sleep over the fact that I hadn’t. And by god, I want others to feel my pain.
The Time-Shifted Critic
Whether — or when — to discuss spoilers is a complicated line for anyone to walk, but particularly when it’s your job to talk about what happens in television shows. Huffington Post TV critic Maureen Ryan takes a Hippocratic “first, do no harm” approach to revealing plot information without warning: “I generally work from the principle, ‘Try not to ruin someone else’s TV-watching experience whenever possible.’”
Posts about specific episodes or storylines that offer ample warning up front are one thing, she says, but “if you are writing a general-interest story, feature or review, unless you really need to mention a key plot point that people might want to discover on their own—whenever they watch the show in question—then don’t mention the development.” (I should note that this would have saved me my Twin Peaks agony.)
As a TV critic who watches the show but hasn’t read the books, HitFix.com’s Alan Sepinwall, a pioneer in the weekly-review format known somewhat inaccurately as a “recap,” is forced into the unique position of trying to protect not only his readers and commenters from spoilers, but himself as well. Apparently, it’s an uphill battle. “It’s incredibly annoying, if I’m being honest,” Sepinwall says. “I don’t think I can be much plainer in my warnings, and yet everyone seems to think that what they’re about to write will somehow not give anything away, when it always, always does.”
His opposite number on this score is ThinkProgress pop-culture blogger Alyssa Rosenberg, who’s not only read every book in the series, but wouldn’t much care if she hadn’t. “I don’t care at all about spoilers,” she says. “Ever… I actually hate the term ‘spoiler,’ because it implies that a work is ruined for you if you know plot points, which I think is both ludicrous and dramatically over-privileges plot.”
Thanks to that Twin Peaks incident, I’m pretty far removed from Rosenberg’s viewpoint, myself. I see plot information the way I see shot composition or editing rhythms or performance choices: an aspect of the work intentionally deployed in a certain way, for a certain effect.
It’s certainly true that great shows, books, or films can’t be “spoiled,” in the sense that foreknowledge of a single plot point “ruins” everything else the work in question has to offer; after all, I knew that Ned died while reading A Game of Thrones for the first time, and I know pretty much everything that will happen on the TV series thanks to that reading, and still greatly enjoy both novels and show. But spoilers are a nuisance the same way poor picture quality, glitchy sound, bad dubbing, or broadcast-TV edits are: They interfere with your ability to experience art the way the artist intended.
Common-Sense Spoiler Avoidance
Screenshot: Tumblr Savior
Yes, most fans and critics do their best to prevent heart-breaking spoilage, from Sepinwall’s clearly delineated warnings to Tower of the Hand’s book-by-book content filtering. (For Tumblr users, there’s even a Chrome browser add-on called Tumblr Savior that can help newcomers filter out posts marked with “#spoilers” or similar red-flag words when using Tumblr’s tag-based search function.)
But in the face of time-shifting, social media, and book-readers and show-watchers, fans and critics, hardliners and IDGAFers alike all agree that the best weapon in the fight against spoilers is common sense.
If you’re a time-shifted viewer who’s behind on a show, it’s pretty much on you to know where not to look. Stay off Twitter during and immediately after an airing. Avoid Tumblr tags for your favorite characters from book one unless you want to know what happens to them in book five (if they’re still around). Don’t read reviews of shows you haven’t watched yet. (Duh.) And have reasonable expectations of the people who write about this stuff, because in the words of Walter Sobchak, life does not start and stop at your convenience.
“There’s a slightly wearying expectation,” says anti-spoiler advocate Ryan, “that we should always protect everyone’s experience all the time. I’ve been yelled at for writing or tweeting about certain developments three days after the show in question aired. I try to be really careful about not spilling major things without warning, but hey, it’s three days later!”
This can get to the point where the mere existence of a post gets treated like a spoiler, regardless of content. “The morning after a Mad Men character died,” Sepinwall recalls, “I published an interview with the actor, and was accused of giving it away for those who hadn’t seen it yet, because why else would I be talking to this person right then?”
The death of Ned in Game of Thrones season one may well have transcended its context to become a cultural touchstone by now. The Red Wedding, the probable climax of Season Three, will most likely join it. These are cases where, barring the equivalent of driving past a line at Barnes & Noble and shouting the ending at people waiting to buy the book, there may no longer be such a thing as a “spoiler.”
“I know some people haven’t yet seen The Wire, The Shield,” Sepinwall says. “On the other hand, some things are so ubiquitous there’s no point in it. Everybody knows The Sopranos ends on a cut to black, that [Citizen Kane's] Rosebud is a sled, [The Crying Game's] Jaye Davidson is a man, [The Empire Strikes Back's] Darth Vader is Luke’s father….”
Well, not everybody, I’d guess. Hey, you can never be too careful.
welp house ontd posts are notorious for spoilers.