Spoiler Alert: The Actual Problem with Spoilers

Be warned: I reveal some surprise plot points on Dune, Moon, Battlestar Galactica, and Game of Thrones in this post. I would argue none of these things constitute a spoiler, per se. However, if surprise is important to you, then you might not want to read on. This is your only warning.

Between sessions of Descent: Journeys in the Dark, I asked my gaming group for their thoughts on a suitable statute of limitations for spoilers. Wearisome groaning followed as this not the first time I’ve posed such a question. The resulting discussion did precipitate some fun tangents on the precise nature of a spoiler, rules governing trans-media spoilers, and a critic’s obligation to avoid, or at least indemnify themselves against, potential spoilers. One of the more controversial suggestions was that a medium-specific piece of popular culture – Game of Thrones the HBO series versus A Song of Ice and Fire – must be two-years-old before a person can assume it has entered public consciousness such that it can’t be spoiled.

For example, it’s not a spoiler to say that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. It would be a spoiler to say that Walder Frey kills Robb Stark at Edmure Tully’s wedding. Though I think that’s the exception rather than the rule because who on twitter and/or facebook, regardless of if they are a Game of Thrones fan, didn’t hear about the details of the Red Wedding?

Out of this discussion I began to think that we, as media consumers, are doing ourselves a real disservice through an obsession with spoilers. I posit that the conventional spoiler isn’t about “ruining” an experience, but is rather black flag which masks a shallowness in storytelling. The extent to which the spoiler allegedly “ruins” the story is directly proportional to the weakness of the writing.

Let’s consider Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel, Dune. Suppose I tell you that Duke Leto Atreides dies at the end of the novel’s first act. Is this news a spoiler? I should say not. We learn of Leto’s impending death within the book’s first fifty pages. Leto himself knows he is walking into a trap on Arrakis. He and his inner circle suspect that the Emperor is likely in collusion with House Harkonnen. In revealing that he dies, I’ve done nothing but give away a single plot point. Considering that the genius of Herbert’s writing is found in deep subtext and layered themes, there’s not a sensible person who could accuse me of ruining the novel over this one detail.

I could make a similar point with a recent movie. Moon’s Sam Bell is a clone. Have I ruined the movie? Hardly. Moon is a story about purpose, existential dread, isolation, and individual agency in the face of large corporate entities. None of those things are so closely married to any lone plot point that discussing what physically happens will break the experience.

The moment a narrative ceases to be about big ideas, or even medium sized ideas, is the moment spoilers become relevant. Consider the third season of Battlestar Galactica. Who are the final four Cylons? Who cares? The names ultimately proved as meaningful as Ron Moore blindly throwing darts over his shoulder. Even when Galactica went off the rails, it still offered enough substance that my telling you that Tigh, the Chief, Anders, and girl-Billy are the final four doesn’t do anything to marginalize the overall story (even if the back nine of BSG are significantly weaker than the front).

So when the internet gets its knickers in a twist over somebody spoiling the big reveal at the end of an episode of Doctor Who – PS: the Name of the Doctor is a giant fake out - or some other series, film, or book, I think we all need to take a step back and ask ourselves some more important questions. Are we really angry at the spoiler for revealing the most fundamental building block of a story? Or are we actually disappointed in the people crafting said narrative because they can’t be bothered to elevate storytelling beyond plot? I think it’s the latter. And I think all of our handwringing about what fans owe each other as members of a community can be traced back to the fact that sometimes the stories we love, or want to love, aren’t really as deep as we would want them to be.

I’ll close on this point. I’ve known who Tyler Durden is for the last fourteen years. This knowledge doesn’t preclude my enjoying re-watches or re-reads of Fight Club. The same goes for knowing Keyser Söze’s true identity in The Usual Suspects. Now ask me how many times re-watched I’ve watched The Sixth Sense since its release. Stories of that variety are all plot and no thought. Once the surprise happens, what is there to reinforce a long-term value to the story?

Spoilers: they’re what you complain about when the thing you’re complaining about isn’t that good to begin with.