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Why it’s time to stop the anti-spoiler paranoia

Being on guard against spoilers means so much else gets missed

Walter White dies at the end of Breaking Bad.

Now, you might think this a spoiler. If you haven’t seen the show and have somehow avoided all discussion of its series finale up until this point, technically, it is. But look at all of the things I haven’t told you about Walter’s death. I haven’t told you if he’s done in by a friend, foe, or the cancer he was diagnosed with in the pilot. I haven’t told you if he dies on his own terms, or because he was bested by someone or something. I haven’t mentioned the fates of any of the other characters, like Jesse Pinkman, Hank Schrader, or Walt’s wife, Skyler. I haven’t talked about the way the sequence is constructed, shot, and edited. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that Breaking Bad tells you from episode one—remember that cancer?—where Walter is headed. This is explicitly a tragedy, and tragedies are constructed so we have at least a vague sense of where things are headed. They gain power from it. Could the knowledge that Walter is marked for death “ruin” Breaking Bad for someone? It could, but only if you value plot above everything else—to pretend otherwise is anti-criticism.

That might sound unduly harsh, but the longer I do this job, the more I find it’s true. One of my earliest editors, The House Next Door’s Keith Uhlich (now at Time Out New York), half-jokingly insisted that spoilerphobes would be the end of criticism as we knew it. I don’t know that this was borne out by reality—after all, criticism is mostly alive and well, and spoilerphobes are louder than ever—but I can see where he was coming from. Critics have a responsibility to their readers to keep major plot points to themselves until the readers are also afforded a viewing. But once something airs or is released to theaters, that relationship changes. Critics need to be able to consider the whole of a work. And the further away one gets from the airdate (like, say, a series finale that aired last September), the truer this is.

The point-of-view of the anti-spoiler zealots is fairly easy to understand, which is why they’ve gained notable traction in recent pop culture discussions. We’ve all had a plot twist or story turn revealed to us before we got a chance to absorb that story through virgin eyes, and the natural response to this is a kind of shocked sadness—even if we know it’s our own fault for being spoiled. But it’s too easy to turn this point-of-view into a reflexive suspicion of anything that might even slightly look like a spoiler. And that has a deleterious effect.

What’s easy to miss about the anti-spoiler movement is that it’s a relatively recent phenomenon, and it’s increasingly driven by the “watch what you want, when you want” culture surrounding things like streaming sites and multiple viewing platforms. This is, in some ways, a natural evolution. When there were far fewer pop culture options, it was more difficult to make the argument that being spoiled was on the shoulders of the spoiler, rather than the spoilee. If you wanted to know who shot J.R. or who Luke Skywalker’s father was, the impetus was on you to watch Dallas or The Empire Strikes Back as soon as possible. Now, the pop cultural landscape is less homogenized. There does remain a certain sense that if someone is spoiled on a project they’ve taken too long to catch up on, it’s their fault, but even that is fading. I’m sure these comments will be filled with people who believe I’ve ruined Breaking Bad for them, even if it’s been almost a year since the airing of that episode—one of the most dissected and discussed in TV history.

The rise of anti-spoiler culture, then, can be tied to the rise of the Internet, which also gave rise to the sorts of viewers who actively seek out spoilers, even for projects that won’t hit screens for years to come. But it’s also closely tied to films like The Sixth Sense or TV shows like Lost, projects where major plot points are ideally kept secret for viewers’ benefit—projects where knowing there’s a twist is just as much of a spoiler as knowing what that twist is. (I’d argue this is a misconception, too, as sometimes knowing where something is going can be just as fascinating, particularly from a critical perspective. But I long ago realized that was a losing argument.) In a 2006 blog post pushing back against spoilerphobia, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that this “preserve the twist at all costs” sentiment is a recent development also. He points to novels like Don Quixote and the works of Charles Dickens as examples that largely gave away plot points in their chapter headings, which is to say nothing of plays like The Taming Of The Shrew or Death Of A Salesman, which give away their endings right there in the title.

From that observation, Rosenbaum pivots to a point that’s even more interesting to me as a critic. His next argument is that anti-spoiler culture privileges the weight of plot and narrative above all else. Rosenbaum writes:

The whole concept of spoilers invariably privileges plot over style and form, assumes that everybody in the public thinks that way, and implies that people shouldn’t think any differently. It also privileges fiction over nonfiction (although Terry Zwigoff actually once complained about some reviewers of his Crumb including the “spoiler” that Robert Crumb’s older brother, Charles, committed suicide), and I’m not clear why it necessarily should. Why is it supposedly a spoiler to say that Touch Of Evil begins with a time bomb exploding but supposedly not a spoiler to say that the movie begins with a lengthy crane shot? Is it a spoiler only to say that Dorothy travels from Kansas to Oz, or is it also a spoiler to say that The Wizard Of Oz switches from black and white to color?

It’s here that I will most heartily agree with the idea that anti-spoiler culture has been incredibly detrimental to criticism. Set aside the notion of critics needing to be able to consider the whole, rather than just the few pieces anti-spoiler zealots would deem acceptable to know ahead of time. (Increasingly, these few pieces become less and less, usually confined not just to the first act but to the first few minutes, suggesting that spoilerphobes only want to read a few adjectives describing how good or bad something is. Never mind that most works demand a great deal more nuance from a critic.) Instead, think about how those violently opposed to spoilers tend to debate what’s acceptable to know before they’ve viewed it. When Charles Dickens was giving away major plot points in his chapter titles, it wasn’t because he was a dick; it was because his readers knew that the real fun was in reading his prose, in absorbing and enjoying his words. Anti-spoiler zealots largely ignore craft, privileging plot above all else. But the plot is often the least interesting thing about a movie, TV show, or book.

Yet we rarely think about spoilers in terms of craft, even if presentation is sometimes the chief reason to recommend something. Take, for instance, this post from Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan about this summer’s Godzilla, which gives away one of the film’s best, most exciting edits. Look at the comments on that article, and you won’t see anyone complaining about being spoiled, yet that particular bit of craft is something that might have been just as fun to experience without knowing about it ahead of time as any twist or turn in the plot. Because we largely know the beats of a Godzilla movie, craft might be the only thing that can be spoiled in such a film. But we somehow have all agreed that this sort of thing is acceptable, whereas saying that Godzilla saves the day in the end somehow isn’t, even though we all know that’s where things are headed. (His name’s in the title, after all.)

Or, put another way, take this article on the show Hannibal, which was decried by many in comments, on Twitter, and via e-mail for featuring a spoiler in the photo—apparently oblivious to the fact that the photo in question was taken from the season two premiere (which was months old by the time the article ran). The whole point of that article was the idea that Hannibal embraced the weight of inevitability to give itself dramatic impact. Yes, there were moments and twists best left unspoiled, but the series embraced the fact that viewers already knew Hannibal Lecter would be caught to pay off story points in brutal fashion. It was, in its own way, going back to the days of those 19th-century novels, where the audience largely knew what it was getting and was more interested in how the novel was put together than anything else. To cover one’s ears and frantically try to avoid spoilers ultimately defeats that purpose. By avoiding spoilers at all costs, it becomes far too easy to avoid so many other interesting things beyond plot.

Finally, if there’s one particular that makes me more and more weary of anti-spoiler culture, it’s the fact that once one becomes unnecessarily defensive about spoilers, everything starts to look like a spoiler. Those of us who write for sites like The A.V. Club spend lots of time discussing what readers will want to know ahead of time, and we err on the side of caution as often as possible. Yes, we’ve made mistakes, and we’ll probably make more. But more often than not, we’re doing our level best to protect readers from things they wouldn’t want to know ahead of time. But this is reflected less and less in the views of spoilerphobes, who increasingly assume that everything in the world is out to spoil them, ruining their good time. It’s an argument that refuses to give anyone the benefit of the doubt, an argument that assumes only the worst of essentially everyone but the spoilerphobe.

Wanting to preserve a virgin viewing experience is a natural desire, but it can’t prioritize the individual over everybody else. That’s selfish and allows no room to accommodate the needs of others. Such rigidity rarely allows for good critical discussion and tends to create suspicion and paranoia even at the best of times. Maybe the response to a world of à la carte viewing options with no time restrictions isn’t to make angry accusations, but to accept that the world won’t always align to your schedule. The ability to watch what you want, when you want, is a powerful tool of the modern pop-cultural world, but it’s unlikely to translate into a world where you’re able to discuss what you want, when you want.