Thoughts On Spoilers In TV and Movies. Spoiler Alert!

Two of my main pop-cultural experiences for the summer brought me face-to-face with the reality that I’m far more willing to spoil myself for a movie than I am for a TV show — and I’m not sure why.

Needless to say, SPOILERS AHEAD!

During the four years since the release of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek reboot, the filmmakers tried to keep the identity of their main villain under wraps. As a geek who spends many of his waking hours online, I happily spoiled myself about the central twist in this summer’s follow-up, Star Trek Into Darkness. (Spoiler alert: It’s Khan. I’m working on a joint review of Into Darkness over on CC2K, but for now I’ll simply say that I found the movie a very entertaining, very baffling disappointment.)

Part of this wasn’t my fault. I’ve been a co-editor on CC2K for almost 10 years, and we get the occasional scoop. One of our best scoopers told me that Benedict Cumberbatch would be playing Khan years ago. But much of it was my fault. I eagerly went out of my way to find out his identity, and in the process, I denied the filmmakers to tell me the story they were honestly trying to tell.

By contrast, I’ve had the opposite reaction and relationship with HBO’s Game of Thrones. Although I’d read all the books well in advance of season three — and thereby had the third novel’s many mind-blowing twists “spoiled” for my viewing of its television counterpart — I did my best to guard my friends from spoilers about the show, especially during Sunday night’s infamous “Red Wedding” episode.

Oddly, the Internet felt no such impulse to deprive anyone of spoilers. I had no fewer than two people on my contacts list who posted about the episode in real time, as it aired, describing in detail the sea-change events of George R.R. Martin’s third Song of Ice and Fire novel. I texted a close friend to tell him to stay off social media, and I advised my girlfriend to do the same.

Full stop for a reality check: To be sure, these are all silly first-world problems. All the same, I’m intrigued by the differing thoughts and attitudes about spoilers — including my own.

Thinking about it this morning, it occurred to me that although it was quite possible to uncover Khan’s identity online, you had to go out of your way to find it out. Any geek website that ran the news protected it with spoiler alerts. You didn’t see anyone blurting his identity in a status update.

Part of this relates to the pop-cultural zeitgeist. If it were a competition, Game of Thrones would be blowing out Star Trek in terms of its grip in our consciousness. (I’d say that TV in general is winning that competition. More on that in a moment.) Pound for pound, no one really cared that Cumberbatch was playing Khan, and as much as I wish I’d given the Into Darkness team a chance to deliver that twist, I also think they so bungled their delivery that it didn’t matter. (Micro-review of Into Darkness: The filmmakers engineered a movie that could house and sustain the Khan twist, and in the process, they wound up with a garbled movie that lacked sense on a basic storytelling level. Moreover, as great as Cumberbatch is, he’s not really playing Khan. He could be anyone. I wish they’d simply invented a new character; a rogue agent from Section 31.)

But when it comes to Game of Thrones, we’re obsessed. I also think there’s a healthy neckbeard contingent that’s delighted to see the elevation of one of its masterworks to the forefront. With that elevation comes a puerile impulse to spoil. A casual glance around some of the Internet’s kookier corners reveals discussion threads that gleefully spoil the major details of the upcoming Song of Ice and Fire books, including the remaining twists to be found in season four of the TV show, which will cover the second half of the third book. (Don’t worry — I don’t plan to discuss any of the spoilers to be had the balance of the Song of Ice and Fire books in this post.)

There’s a douchey cultural meme associated with spoilers: “It’s fair game as soon as it airs.” I don’t entirely disagree. I’ve found myself putting spoiler alerts on social-media updates about shows that ended years ago, and even then, I’ll get grief from my contacts list for spoiling. (That’s part of the reason why I’ve returned to this blog.) IFC’s series Portlandia, which has made a cottage industry of pillorying hipsters, nailed the tiresome “spoiler alert!” mentality that’s arisen in the DVR/DVD era of TV, when we can still discover shows (and their myriad wonderful twists and turns) years after they’ve aired:

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But I’m puzzled by the impulse to live-tweet about a major episode like the “The Rains of Castamere” without apology. I’d put it on par with this guy, who spoiled the ending of the sixth Harry Potter novel by shouting the ending to bookstore patrons the weekend of its release. (Oh, SPOILER ALERT FOR THE VIDEO:)

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I’d also like to voice a similar complaint about a related issue. I’ll phrase it in the form of an imperative: Don’t try to be cute. When I was reading the Ice and Fire books for the first time, a buddy of mine (who’d read them) told me, “Wait until you get to the Red Wedding.” Now, to be fair, there are quite a few weddings in Storm of Swords, but simply knowing that one of them was going to be worthy of the title “Red” effectively spoiled the experience for me. Similarly, while I was watching Mad Men for the first time, a friend gleefully told me, “Wait for the lawnmower episode!” For perspective, that spoils one of Mad Men’s signature shock moments. Oh, well.

That brings me to my next point: TV is the last great refuge of the spoiler. I can’t imagine a high-profile theatrical release being able to protect its spoilers against the onslaught of the Internet geek hordes. But TV can. Heck, Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner has elevated show secrecy to new heights with his tightly run production and hilariously oblique “Next week on Mad Men” bumpers. To wit:

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That said, I’ve been guilty of being cute myself, having posted reaction videos about the “Rains of Castamere,” as well as recaps for the episodes. (Note: I didn’t post any details about the episodes themselves in my status updates, but all the same, I get it. It’s hard to guard yourself against spoilers, and simply staying off social media isn’t always an option for those of us with busy lives and jobs that require us to be online.)

Gang, I welcome feedback in the comments section below or back on Facebook.