It’s not that I don’t want to spoil things. Of course I do. We all want to spoil things. We are a species of spoilers. Spoiling stuff is a great way to get attention, and what is attention if not a wrinkly, dried-up raisin of affection? I firmly believe that our desire to spoil things — from TV shows to actual human children — is merely a testament to our collective need to be loved.
So here we are, billions of Horshacks at the front of the class, pumping our hands in the air, “ooh, ooh, ooh”-ing, and shouting out the answer whether anyone calls on us or not. We can’t help it. We’re built to spoil.
Luckily, both life and art are slippery things that defy our best attempts at spoilage. Spoiling an egg salad sandwich is easy. Spoiling a great film? Harder. Because our entire arsenal of spoil tactics barely blows a dent in our experience of, well, experiencing art for ourselves. “The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery,” says Anaïs Nin on the Internet somewhere. “There is always more mystery.” I hereby submit that mystery persists, despite our best-spoiled plans. Here are a few reasons why:
You can spoil a plot, but you can’t spoil a story. Recently, I demanded a friend catch me up on some episodes of Mad Men I had missed. He required some prodding. “Really? Are you sure? Well, okay…” He then filled me in on all the major plot points; Who did what and when. I nodded, gasped, and said “no he di’in’t” at all the right moments. Two days later, I blew through my SCDP backlog better prepared to appreciate the subtleties of the show than I might have been had I been preoccupied by plot. I knew what was going to happen, but I didn’t know how it was going to happen. Or exactly how each character would react. Or what Joan would be wearing. Or what would replace that rad Bridget Riley-esque painting that once hung in Roger’s office. Plot may be the foundation on which any story is built, but great stories aren’t just structurally sound. They have form and style and purpose. Great stories have a complex architecture that belies the simplicity of a basic plot. And that architecture makes them deceptively difficult to spoil.
The best defense is a good offense. I devoured all five books (so far, R’hollor and George R. R. Martin’s cholesterol level willing) on which Game of Thrones is based. This doesn’t in any way diminish my enjoyment of HBO’s interpretation of the places, people, and events in these books; if anything, it increases it. I burn thousands of dork calories analyzing the ways in which the showrunners and performers deviated from or remained true to the source material. It has given me a fuller appreciation of the advantages — and limitations — of each medium. Should I ever find myself worried about slapdash attempts at spoilery, I have my bookish insight to shield me. Plus, I have seen the future. I enjoy the perverse pleasure of knowing who’s going to die next! Bow before me, puny humans, for I am a god among you! Of course, all it takes for anyone to reach such dizzying heights of finger-steepling omniscience is to read a bit. And a lot of the books, stories, and plays on which films and TV series are based range from ripping yarns to award-winning masterworks. You can’t lose. (Except with the Twilight series. Don’t even bother cracking the spine on one of those bad boys.)
The watercooler wants you back. And the threat of spoilers just might lure you there. Because spoilers, combined with straight-up good-ass TV, conquer the time-shifted space of DVRdom, forcing us to watch as they did in days of yore: all together. Sure, I could (and do, see above) watch “my stories” anytime I like. A few hours early, several days late. One at a time or all at once, in a wine and chocolate-fueled binge. But there’s nothing quite like settling in at 9 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, watching events unfold at (roughly) the same time as everybody else, and feeling the invisible tug of the collective cableconscious. If you’re rather more spoiler-shy than I, watching with everyone else keeps you safe from Twit slips and Tumblr blunders. Best of all, it gives us all something to talk about in the morning — online and off.
The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one. Sometimes things that don’t seem too spoileresque, like, say, the identity of the villain in Star Trek: Into Darkness, really are. I saw a sneak preview of the film, uninfluenced by any post-release spoilers. And my audible “squeeee!” at Benedict Cumberbatch’s reveal had less to do with my overwhelmingly positive feelings about watching Benedict Cumberbatch move around, breathe, and say things than it did with my love of Star Trek and the Möbius strip of self-referential goodness J.J. Abrams has woven. Despite my general assertion about the toothlessness of spoilers, it’s important to recognize when we’re about to spoil something emotional. Something that can’t be recaptured. Something more intangible than a plot point or a scrap of dialog. Abrams, to my mind, went to rather great lengths to deny rumors and prevent leaks around this gasp-worthy moment in the film. Because he recognized that many fans of the franchise would deeply relish it. So while we strive to take spoilers in stride, we should also keep our spoiling instincts in check.
But then, as a certain Vulcan once said, I would not remind you of that which you know so well.