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We need to talk about spoilers. (Warning: contains spoilers)

It will surprise nobody with an appreciation of film and television, and some understanding of the culture in which they are discussed, to say that we live in spoiler-averse times. One might also say “spoiler obsessed” or “spoiler paranoid”. I cannot count (and I doubt you can either) the number of conversations I’ve had with a person suddenly exclaiming “please, no spoilers!” – as if disclosing even basic plot information constituted a hideously inappropriate act, like pulling their pants down in public.

Most of us enjoy a good twist. The fleeting buzz received from plot reveals, however, is too often, and too greatly prioritised over the long-lasting satisfaction gleaned from a great story well told. Recent years have seen a distorted emphasis on ‘what’ over ‘how’ and ‘why’: a focus on the contents of a text over other elements that form, enrich and complicate the experience – such as technique, construction, themes and ideology.

I am convinced that if I started watching Breaking Bad knowing what would become of Walter White, my experience, again, would in no way suffer.

Asked by a reader why he should watch The People Versus O.J. Simpson, given he already knew the ending, The Washington Post TV critic Hank Stuever recently, and rather perfectly responded: “Please tell me why I should order a steak when I’ve had one before and I know how it tastes. Please tell me why I should go to Paris when I’ve seen pictures of it and I know what it looks like.”

An academic from the University of California, Professor Nicholas Christensen, has been studying the relationship between spoilers and viewer satisfaction for years. His work includes findings published in this journal article, given the self-explanatory title Story Spoilers Don’t Spoil Stories.

Here’s how Christensen explained his findings, taken from an interview conducted in 2016:

“What we found, remarkably, was that if you spoil stories, they (viewers) actually enjoy them more. Spoilers were actually enhancers…As I point out to skeptics, people watch these movies more than once happily and often with increasing pleasure. Even a movie like The Usual Suspects, where you think ‘that movie will be ruined if you know the ending.’ I ask people, ‘so the second time you watched it, did you like it?’ And they say ‘oh I loved it the second time! Every time I watch it I like it more’…the point is we’re not really watching these things for the ending.”

“Members of the community here who want the season spoiled for them can watch ahead, and then protect the rest of the community,” Westworld‘s creators wrote.

What would happen if a major film or TV series messed with the current state of play and announced, ahead of time, all its twists and turns? Would fans love it just as much? Would the discourse around the production change? Would those proliferate ‘recap’ pieces invest greater focus on other areas – such as visual composition, editing, or the ideology of the content and the motivations of its makers? These are interesting questions. And for a little while, last week, it looked like we were going to get some answers.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, co-creators of the massively successful television spin-off of the ’70s science fiction film Westworld, took to Reddit on April 9 to announce that, in advance of the show’s second season (which premieres later this month) they were doing things a little differently this time around. According to the co-creators, the huge online buzz around the first season included theories that turned out to be spoilers, which posed a problem for fans.

To counter this, they said, a video would be released prior to the season premiere, divulging all the twists and turns – “everything.” This, according to the pair, would empower fans to be custodians of its secrets, as well as satisfying those who simply want to know everything. “Members of the community here who want the season spoiled for them can watch ahead, and then protect the rest of the community,” they wrote. Their logic sounds, admittedly, rather flaky, but myself and many others took them at their word. After all, why would they lie?

Plot twists are only a small part of the writing, and an even smaller part of the total experience.

Spoiler alert!: it was a prank. Nolan and Joy punk’d Reddit and the wider entertainment industry, reneging on what would have been the show’s first truly original idea. (Westworld hasn’t even attempted new ground. That is not the same as saying it isn’t well written and produced. But there is something a little lazy, if not intellectually defeatist, in a science fiction series that rehashes a well-worn robot story from the 1970s, in the age of virtual and augmented reality). The next day the supposed spoiler video arrived. It consists mostly of footage of a dog in front of a piano.

Bugger. The Westworld spoiler fest that never happened might have been just what the doctor ordered to get a grip on today’s spoiler-paranoid times. Or at least to encourage us to think about spoilers in a different way. The extreme current climate not just affects how people discuss film and television, but how media outlets approach the task of writing about them – and the discourse that subsequently becomes part of history.

A few years ago, I was sort of surprised, but also sort of not, when editors prefaced a piece I wrote, reflecting on Peter Weir’s classic war film Gallipoli, with the words: “Warning – contains spoilers!” This was in relation to a description of the film’s famous ending, when Mark Lee runs out of the trenches and is mowed down by enemy gunfire. This ending has remained water cooler conversation since Gallipoli premiered 40 years ago; it is as iconic as the film itself.

I knew how Gallipoli ended before I saw it for the first time in my early 20s. My viewing experience did not suffer one iota. I was blown away by it back then, as I was the second and third time I watched it. Like a lot of people, I was also hooked on television’s Breaking Bad. I am completely convinced that if I started watching it knowing what would become of Walter White, my experience, again, would in no way suffer. Twists are only a small part of the writing, and an even smaller part of the total experience.

For the record: this is not a declaration that I will henceforth by incorporating ‘spoilers’ into my reviews of contemporary films. Doing so would risk aggravating and alienating readers. But this is a necessary conversation to have, given our attitude towards spoilers might itself be spoiling (or at least adversely affecting) an important part of film and television culture.

If ever there was a time when we ought to have greater emphasis on critical concepts such as visual literacy, instead of constant obsession with small details that ultimately mean little, it is now. Soon our children will have augmented reality devices strapped to their eyeballs and be spending inordinate amounts of time in virtual reality.

The future prophesied by films like Blade Runner 2049, with its saturation of digital advertisements and god-like holograms roaming the streets, won’t be exactly right. But it will be broadly right, digital storytelling and stimuli becoming increasing embedded in our day-to-day experiences, blurring the line between reality and artifice. So enjoy your twists, by all means, but let’s not get carried away. And while we’re still on the subject: Soylent Green is made of people, and Norman Bates murdered Marion while dressed as his mother.

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Main image: A scene from Westworld

One response to “We need to talk about spoilers. (Warning: contains spoilers)

  1. Yep. The sign of a great film, well, great to you at least, is that on the sixth viewing you are still finding new things, new nuances, that somehow eluded your attention on the first five viewings. Being an old bloke, of the Boys Own Annual generation, possibly the first movie that struck me that way was David Lean’s / Peter O’Toole’s magnificent ‘ Lawrence Of Arabia’. Could always watch it. But nowadays I could also always watch Myazaki’s ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’ (talk about soppy love movies), and hey, ‘Breaking Bad’, the medieval morality play for our new millenium.

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