By Thea Hogarth
ARTICLE SPOILER ALERT: This is an article about spoilers, therefore it may contain some spoilers and even some spoilers of spoilers. If you read books and/or watch American TV and movies, you probably shouldn’t read this.
Winter has been coming for many months, and now the time is nigh. With the new season of Game of Thrones officially upon us, the national dialogue is atwitter with spoilers – those nuggets of plot information you can never unhear, unread, or unsee. When the conversation lacks fresh material to expose or declare outrageous, it circles patiently around the idea of spoilers. People declare social media hiatuses, reminding each other what they do and don’t want to hear.
Of course, whenever someone tells you not to think of elephants, what do you do? And, hey, do you remember The Game? Sorry did you just lose? Is this dredging up a lot of terrible high school memories for you? We can stop talking about this.
The point is: spoilers have become self-fulfilling prophecy. We ask people not to tell, and they can’t help but tell. We imagine how terrible it would be to learn what happens in the next episode of Game of Thrones ahead of time, and when we do, we have no choice but to validate our hypothesis.
As Vulture’s Amanda Dobbins points out, we live in an age of deferred viewership; missing an episode no longer means waiting until summer reruns to make it up, and so the new impetus to watch a show when it airs is simply to stay ahead of the spoilers. And spoilers only arise (according to Dobbins, anyway) from that old-school impulse to connect, from the desire to turn a solitary viewing into a shared experience – and in case you hadn’t heard, social media is the new water cooler.
While there’s a social element to spoilers (the incidental, conversational spoiler that begins, “hey did you see last night’s episode of...”) there’s also a selfish one. As spoilers begin to stick in the national craw, they create a platform both for habitual ruiners and for people who might get paid by the hour to get offended by stuff on the internet. The conversation swirling around spoilers creates an opportunity for someone to live tweet or launch into a tirade about how they really don’t want to hear what you have to say right now. Either side of the spoiler divide becomes a soapbox from which we can shout and hear the satisfying echo of our own voices.
Tweeting our reactions stakes a claim on a kind of emotional I.P. Just as Galileo sent coded messages to Johannes Kepler as a way to patent his findings, we’re beginning to tweet out our responses in a race to patent our reactions. The logic is pretty simple: I tweeted it, therefore I thought it. I tweeted it before you, therefore I thought it before you, therefore my reaction is more authentic than yours (therefore I am). And we are fierce guardians of the authenticity of our thoughts. Spoilers also force us to confront the fear that we might miss out on feeling a certain way – that we won't have the opportunity to feel sad or surprised by the Red Wedding and that we have somehow lost our chance to react genuinely. Of course, by this logic, our sense of the word "genuine" is predicated on how other people have responded; if we react like the group, our response is genuine – and if not?
Wikihow has an entire article dedicated to the process of enjoying a book whose plot has been spoiled. It has been edited by – I’m serious – no fewer than 10 people. Peppered with tidbits proclaiming, “Reading a book where you already know the plot can still be a personally enjoyable experience,” and “books can still be enjoyed even if you know how it ends or know the ‘big twist,’” the article essentially reminds readers that their own personal feeling still exist. I actually think there’s some good advice buried in there, but think about this: spoilers have become such a pervasive phenomenon in our world that there are people out there who actually need this page, who believe that a spoiler will impede a truly authentic reaction to a book or movie or TV show. The Big Twist may not be the only surprise embedded in a narrative, and knowing the largest surprise in advance may actually free us as readers to attend to smaller, more nuanced narrative maneuvers.
Most of the classics remain timeless in spite of (or perhaps because of) spoilers. It’s like we’ve forgotten that everyone knows how Pride and Prejudice ends, but most people love it anyway; or that many people in our generation have already seen some key scenes from The Shining before watching it from beginning to end, and it still scares the crap out of us; or that EVERYONE knows that Darth Vader is Luke’s father; or that foreshadowing is a thing. Somehow the rhetoric of spoilers has convinced us that learning a key plot element ahead of time is like pulling out the wrong Jenga piece, as if plot is the only element that makes a story good.
Spoiler: the first blood moon in 47 years was on Monday night. Sorry if you couldn’t DVR it, but the good news is that [spoiler alert] it’s the first in a tetrad and you’ll have another chance in October! There are things that we like to see coming so that we don’t miss them – once in a lifetime things. Without fair warning, you wouldn’t know where to look.
Thea Hogarth lives in New York City and believes in this webcomic.