I saw the trailer for Catfish and had no earthly idea what was going on, so I checked out the Wikipedia page. Of course, this immediately spoiled everything for me. (I assume. I haven’t seen the movie yet.) This made me think of how a few friends told me there was a twist at the end of The Usual Suspects, and proceeded to guess it immediately rather than sit back and enjoy. So I was just wondering if you had ever seen a movie or episode of a TV show after it had been spoiled thoroughly for you, and whether a) you still enjoyed it, and b) you feel it significantly altered the way you experienced it, compared to the general public. —Geoff
Editor’s note: It should go without saying that some of the answers below contain spoilers—though most of them tread pretty carefully—and that the comments section will likely be a slough of spoiler-despond. Tread carefully, wear your helmets, and don’t come crying to us.
As The Wire was entering its last season on HBO, large sections of the A.V. Club office were gripped both by Wire fever and by an intense anti-spoiler crusade. It was not uncommon to see people clap their hands over their ears and go “LA LA LA I’M NOT LISTENING” if anyone else even mentioned the show. At one point, an intern approached us, concerned because he was transcribing our interview with Michael K. Williams, a.k.a. Omar, and he had stopped the interview recording and wasn’t sure he wanted to go on transcribing, because he didn’t want to know how a sentence beginning with “When Omar…” might end. Nonetheless, someone in the office managed to give away the death of one of the series’ major characters—and I hadn’t even started watching the show at the time. There’s so much going on in The Wire that this piece of knowledge certainly didn’t come close to ruining the show for me, but it did nag at me the entire time I was watching, especially given that I was watching it with a bunch of other first-timers who all gleefully speculated the whole way through on whether this or that character would come to a bad end, and when, and how. And I had to bite my tongue the entire time and pretend I didn’t know about this character, and wait for the other shoe to drop. It was no pop-culture catastrophe, but I wish I had been in the same boat as my friends, and as able to freely speculate and wonder.
Also, as a side note, my boyfriend and I waited months to get around to seeing The Crying Game, so of course we knew the big twist going in, and of course that spoiled it—from the beginning, I couldn’t see Jaye Davidson the way I was supposed to, the way director Neil Jordan expected me to. And it’s still a great, moody, well-acted, atmospheric movie, but I can’t help but feel like I missed out, particularly when the key moment came and the only other person in the theater blurted out “WHAT THE FUCK?”
I subscribed to HBO for the first time last fall, but because I try to stay cognizant of what’s going on in popular culture, I read a lot over the years about the major HBO shows, especially The Sopranos. Whenever my wife and I would buy the Sopranos box sets and watch them, I had a similar experience to Tasha. I’d know exactly who was going to die by the end of the season—and often how—but would have to keep my mouth shut while my wife occasionally glanced over at me to gauge my reactions. (I’ve had the same issue with Buffy The Vampire Slayer… I knew about most of the major character deaths long before I started watching and writing about the show.) Did it alter my experience? Of course. Watching something fresh, at the same time as everyone else, is bound to be a different experience than knowing major plot points in advance. But I’m of the belief that no popular art worth a damn can ever be “spoiled,” per se. Yes, it’s more fun to watch and be surprised, but if the surprise is all a movie or book or TV show has to offer, than it can’t be very good.
I’m largely with Noel on this one; while it’s enjoyable to have that “Holy shit!” moment when an unexpected development crops up in a movie, book, or TV show, it usually doesn’t ruin the whole experience for me if I know what’s coming. I value plot a lot less than other people, and for me, if the art in question doesn’t have any good qualities other than a plot twist, it’s probably not that great in the first place. (For this reason, in fact, I sometimes deliberately seek out the ending ahead of time for a movie that’s mostly being sold on the virtue of its twist; this has saved me lots of money, since it’s how I decided not to waste time on movies like Orphan and Seven Pounds.) There’s one time, though, that I tried pretty hard to avoid spoilers, since they seemed to involve not just the plot, but the whole tone and direction of the movie: my A.V. Club colleagues, as well as lots of other critics, praised Takashi Miike’s Audition so highly that it shot to the top of my must-see movies list. Every review of it, though, made a special point of a) explaining that there was this major tonal shift midway through the movie, and b) not saying exactly what it was, for fear of spoiling it. I was torn between my decision to see it cold and my desire to learn more about it; in the end, I inadvertently read a spoiler-packed review and knew, more or less, what I was getting into when I finally got hold of the DVD. It was still an amazing movie, and I have no regrets about seeing it, but it’s one of the few times I genuinely feel like knowing what was going to happen ahead of time really did lessen my enjoyment of the film. By the way, The Sopranos season five has to be one of the only movies or TV shows where there’s a spoiler right there in the cover art, right? I can’t think of another one, though I’m sure they exist.
Trivial Pursuit spoiled the endings of Psycho and Citizen Kane for me, and I’ve always wondered what watching the movies would have been like had I not known the meaning of Charles Foster Kane’s dying word, or the truth about Norman Bates. That said, although I can’t know for sure, I don’t think it made much difference. Orson Welles himself dismissed the “Rosebud” device as a cheap gag, and Psycho’s final scene deliberately mocks the pat Freudianism of its pivotal revelation. I’m a passionate believer that movies aren’t just vehicles for plot delivery. I don’t think it ruins Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary to know how their heroines end up. Any work of narrative that is spoiled beyond repair by knowing what happens beforehand is not worth visiting once, let alone more than that. Do I wish a New York Times headline hadn’t given away Six Feet Under’s finale the day before I watched it? Sure. But I was still surprised and moved by it, and still tear up at the sound of Sia’s “Breathe Me.” Chances are I would have liked The Prestige more had I not been hipped to its preposterous conclusion, but that wouldn’t have stopped me from snoozing up until that point. As a critic, I find the anti-spoiler movement to be nettlesome and sometimes odious, since without going into a modicum of plot detail, all that’s left are vague generalizations. That said, there are revelations and there are revelations. I don’t think anything is spoiled by revealing the location of the climactic robbery in The Town—or the basic plot of Catfish, whose anti-spoiler aura is entirely the creation of the film’s marketing team—but if someone had let the end of the third season of Mad Men slip before I saw it, they would have met a swift, untimely end.
Spoilers by and large don’t bother me, for all the reasons stated above. (I think there is plenty to enjoy in The Usual Suspects, for instance, if you already know the ending.) In fact, I get annoyed by people who spend time on pop-culture sites, then complain about having endings ruined: If you don’t want the spoiler cars to hit you, you shouldn’t go wandering into traffic. To tell the truth, in some cases, I actively seek out spoilers of movies that I’m curious about but know I’ll never see (Catfish, Human Centipede, and my favorite, Orphan, among them.) The one time I was unwittingly spoiled was when I learned that Nate died on Six Feet Under. I wasn’t watching the show at the time, so it didn’t mean a lot to me when I heard about it, but I got into the series later, knowing the entire time that he was going to die early. I think in some ways, I embraced the spoiler, because when Nate’s brain started giving him problems, it was suspenseful because the question was more “when” then “if.” Plus, it made me watch his character and life a little more carefully to see what would be left behind.
Before I even mention Lost, let me say this: I can’t recall enough details of the final season to spoil anything here, so you’re in a safe place. I started watching the first season on DVD while season three was airing, and like millions of people, I was pretty riveted—until I grew bored with the second season’s well-established doldrums. For at least a year, the rest of season two remained in my Netflix queue, perpetually ascending the list, then getting pushed down because my wife and I weren’t interested. When all the hype around the final season hit a crescendo, I decided to watch it with everyone else. The hourlong special that preceded the première caught me up, for the most part, and I read a bunch of spoiler-filled articles. The experiment went well until my DVR stopped recording it and I fell behind. In the end, I read summaries of the finale and shrugged. To be honest, the more Lost relied on science-fiction hooey, the more my interest waned. In the end, nothing felt ruined to me, because I just didn’t care that much.
If you aren’t completely caught up with Dexter, stop reading now… So I recently caught up with the fourth season on DVD, but I already knew about the death of a major character. (Rita, Dexter’s wife.) The real kick in the balls was that the death was delivered as a huge, shocking surprise in literally the final minute of the final episode. So it wasn’t like I knew one fact, but could still experience the aftermath. I actually enjoyed the moments leading up to it less, because I was waiting for it to happen. And guess what I did? Accidentally spoiled the same fucking moment for Scott Tobias. I’m a dick.
How about a movie that can’t be spoiled? By the time Primer straggled from its Sundance debut into theaters, I’d heard more than enough times that it was a film demanding three, maybe four viewings just to put together a basic timeline of how the cloning movie worked, multiple parallel universes and all. Ticket prices (and undergrad impoverishment) being what they are, I read as much spoiler-tastic material as I could ahead of time to get as much as I could out of my one viewing. ($36 for three viewings? Forget it.) And yeah, it was still barely penetrable, although I got the gist then about as well as I have it now, even after looking at this handy timeline.
I went to The Sixth Sense with a very strong hunch that that Bruce Willis wasn’t what he appeared to be. I saw it pretty late in its run, so it wasn’t that difficult to figure out the big reveal, but I enjoyed it all the same. I find that movies with big twists at the end often play better upon a second viewing. The novelty is certainly gone, as is the element of surprise, but it’s also a lot easier to appreciate and pick apart the craftsmanship and diligent plotting necessary for anything worth spoiling.
Keith’s TV Club Classic coverage of Twin Peaks helped me kill plenty of time at my old day job (Thanks, boss!), so by the time I got around to watching David Lynch and Mark Frost’s surreal slice of small-town noir, I already knew the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer. I was also aware that the murder itself would eventually become the series’ biggest red herring, so I watched for early clues with the knowledge that, in the end, Agent Cooper’s hunt for the killer wasn’t the central piece in Twin Peaks’ impenetrable puzzle. Sure, the television viewers of 1990 felt cheated by the show’s big reveal—had it been spoiled for them, they might have kept watching anyway, at least until that insufferable subplot involving James Hurley and the married woman.
I find the whole militant “no spoilers” culture a little odd, to be honest. I spent much of my childhood reading the last chapter of books first. But I have also always been more interested in how narrative works than in how it unfolds. Case in point: I’ve always thought Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince was the weakest book in that series, featuring a barely there narrative and lots of clumsily deployed backstory. Yet it’s a fan favorite for one reason: Dumbledore dies in a sequence that’s tragic and wonderfully written, with far-reaching implications for the rest of the series. Still, when my wife first read it, her distraught weeping eventually led to her spelling out in detail what had happened. And when I read it? The Dumbledore death scene still held visceral power, but it was easier to focus on how much of the rest of the book was marking time.
Like most, I didn’t see Fight Club in the theater. (I distinctly remember being turned off by the trailer: “I’m Brad Pitt, and I want to fight you!”) I eventually caved to peer pressure and rented it maybe a year or so later, somehow then still completely clueless to the double-take ending. It wasn’t until mere minutes before I had planned to watch it that my roommate offhandedly remarked to me how unexpected for him the whole split-personality twist was—talk about a gaffe. But it was too late by then, the DVD was already in the player, so I spent the next two hours trying to block out warnings of the bomb that was to drop. It actually didn’t turn out to be too bad of a spoiler—I think I watched Fight Club a lot closer because of it, looking for cinematic clues and character glitches, and appreciating David Fincher’s direction and storytelling a lot more than I would have had I not known how it would turn out.
The biggest spoiler predicaments for me come in book-vs.-movie scenarios. Whether I’ve seen the movie first or read the book first, I always go into the other wondering if I’m going to ruin the experience by fussing too much over the stuff I know is coming. So it’s up to the filmmaker’s cleverness or the writer’s style to take my mind off that. I didn’t read James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential until this past summer, even though I’ve liked the movie for a long time. From the movie, I remembered a lot of the stuff that eventually gets revealed, and how some of the characters start out hating each other and become allies or lovers, or end up dying horribly. In this case, I got to enjoy both in their own separate little universes, because it turns out the movie preserves only about a third of the original plotlines and the gradually revealed super-plot that binds them all together. Ellroy also (unintentionally, of course) headed off any potential spoiler problems by making the novel’s plot a fuck of a lot more warped than most mainstream films (even excellent ones) would care to bother with, and saving a lot of the twisted brutality for the book’s final 50 or so pages. Yeah, the novel still generally conformed to what I already knew happened, but the movie does readers a service by keeping a respectful distance from some detailed plot points and Ellroy’s frenzied staccato style.
Again, you’ve taken all my possible options. So, again, I have no choice but to resort to a semi-related story. I took a friend to see Psycho. (For the record, this is the same friend I mentioned last week. Hi Bryce! Happy birthday!) Not only had he never seen Psycho, he had somehow managed to remain ignorant of its twist. We sat in front of a pair of elderly women who decided to provide a running commentary about the film, specifically about how much things had changed since the 1960s. “Gas sure was cheap back then,” one commented as Janet Leigh pulled into a gas station. “Cars sure were big back then,” the other responded. (It might just be my memory making the story better, but I could swear one of them also said, “It sure was dark back then.”) It was annoying. But not as annoying as the moment shortly after Leigh’s death, when one said, “Isn’t he pretending to be his mother or something?” I could actually see Bryce tense up in rage, although he says he still enjoyed the film.