Losing the Why and How for the What: A Case for Spoilers

As someone who has never really cared about film or television spoilers, I surprised even myself recently when discussing the season finale of Brooklyn Nine Nine with a friend. At that time, she had yet to see the episode, which I was particularly excited about. However, when she asked me what happened in the episode (this friend recently described herself as “pro-spoiler,” so this was not an unusual request) I found myself hesitant to fill her in.

When we discussed the episode after she had the chance to see it, she confirmed my impulse to not reveal any details was appreciated. So, what about this episode cause such a divergence from our party line on spoilers? When we finally talked about the episode in person, I realised I was not hesitant to spoil the story. What I was really concerned about was ruining the how the story was told, and why it was revealed in that particular manner.

This really gets to the crux of my issues with many people’s attitudes towards spoilers. With many insisting on going into films and television shows completely free of any story knowledge, this overemphasis on story is leading us to lose focus on what I would argue is the more important aspect of a piece of narrative visual art: the how and the why.

The terminology itself is a problem. To say something is “ruined” or “spoiled” seems to imply nothing can be gained from experiencing it. While that may be true for some films and television shows, shows with better writing and plotting should be more than just a string of surprises. Good art (of all modes) should do more than just surprise us. It should make us reflect upon how we understand ourselves, how we understand our culture, and how we understand the medium we are consuming.

This is not to say that these two models are mutually exclusive. As someone who had The Sixth Sense “spoiled” for them, there can certainly be a diminished impact in seeing a twist coming. That being said, I would argue the best part about that film is not so much the reveal, but rather how the overall form of the film both hides (in plain sight) the secret throughout the entirety of the film. If the value of a work of art is entirely tied up in a surprise, without that sense of reflecting on how the televisual or filmic conventions were employed to allow that surprise to happen in the first place, then you might as well be watching a fireworks demonstration (see also the diminishing returns of M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent films).

I enjoy approaching a film or television show fresh too, but there are few things that will completely squash my interest in something faster than someone completely unwilling to divulge any story information. If the only tool a television show or film has to capture my attention is withholding information, then it’s usually not worth watching in the first place. We should expect better. Take for example, the recent success of True Detective. When I hear fans discussing the show (which full disclosure I have not watched, but have spoiled for myself), little of the conversation was based on people eager to find out who the killer was. Instead, fans seemed to want to talk about the characters. How they interacted with each other, how they changed between the two time settings. Yes there was mystery, but the show was built on more than just a question mark.

To move to two much older examples, think of the “Who Shot JR?” and “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” stories from Dallas and The Simpsons respectively. While I can’t speak to the specifics of the original Dallas story line (as neither was I born, nor have I ever watched Dallas), I have a fair understanding of the story entirely based on my familiarity (some say overfamiliarity, I say go fuck yourself) with The Simpsons episode.

In the end, Maggie Simpson bares the responsibility for taking down the sun-blocking villain. Does it matter? No. Are there any significant reprecussions to this? No. Does it even make sense? Not really. Subsequent episodes of the show comment on the nonsensical nature of the crime, and making the culprit an infant means there is no need to make drastic canonical changes as no jury in the world would convict a baby…maybe Texas.

So what does it do? It provides an opportunity for The Simpsons to do what they once did best, execute top notch pop culture parody. This extended beyond the Springfieldian diegesis, and into the show’s marketing and publicity throughout the intervening summer. It allowed the writers to dream up a completely ludicrous fiendish plot for Mr. Burns, and gave the audience the cathartic experience of seeing some semblance of comeuppance for his cartoon villainy.

I’m not saying mysteries and twists don’t have a place in our culture. They do. And those that are done well last as examples of great storytelling that is based on more than just an unexpected story event, but on a well crafted narrative. So let’s ask for more than temporary scintillation, and change our priorities to hold the how and they why above the simplicity, and unrewarding nature of the what.

Besides, there are only seven stories anyway, and they’re all about sex and death.


P.S. Bruce Willis was dead the whole time. It’s been 15 years, there’s gotta be a statute of limitations on this thing.


4 thoughts on “Losing the Why and How for the What: A Case for Spoilers

  1. Pingback: Reading Digest: No One Cares About the Season Finale Edition | Dead Homer Society

  2. I think the problem is, you can only watch an episode once without knowing what happens, and if you mess that up for someone, that “once” becomes a “never, ever, in your life.” Narrative depth and killer construction is what keeps you coming back, and it’s what every story needs in order to age well, but people like to be surprised, people like to ride the rollercoaster along with the characters, just that once. Withholding information is a powerful narrative tool, and one that’s (generally) only effective the first time around, so if you spoil an episode for someone who doesn’t want to be spoiled, you’ve robbed them of the opportunity to ever digest that episode the way they’d like to digest it. You’ve not necessarily ruined the show itself, but you’ve ruined that unique first experience, which should have been the purest and least cynical form of media consumption.

    …That’s in the strongest possible terms, natch! Very few people go in completely blind, there are often details a spoiler-phobe won’t mind knowing, just as there are times that a spoiler-hound will want to withhold details, but pretty much every story is more interesting played out on screen than it is paraphrased, clumsily, from memory, by a friend or a colleague or a stranger on the bus. Basically, let the storyteller do their job!

    • I agree. I’m certainly not advocating for people to go around spoiling television shows for people. It really is frustrating when a well crafted surprise loses it’s effect on a viewer.

      I’m more concerned with the way in which obsessive spoiler-phobia (to borrow your term) can shut down a potentially productive discussion of a television show or film as a work of art, beyond the details of it’s story.

      Thanks for reading!

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