If a TV Show Has a Spoiler, Chances Are It’s Already Spoiled
Real masterpieces don’t have conclusive answers, but new sorts of questions
The rise of digital media and video games has encouraged the makers of commercial entertainment to mimic some of the qualities of post-narrative work, but without actually subjecting their audiences to any real ambiguity.
Movies and prestige television, for example, play with the timeline as a way of introducing some temporary confusion into their stories. At first, we aren’t told that we’re watching a sequence out of order, or in multiple timelines. It’s just puzzling. Fans of ongoing series go online to read recaps and test theories with one another about what is “really” going on. But by the end of the series, we find out the solution. There is a valid timeline within an indisputable reality; we just had to put it together. Once we assemble the puzzle pieces, the show is truly over.
In a nod to the subscription model of consumption — where we lease cars or pay monthly to a music service — the extended narratives of prestige TV series spread out their climaxes over several years rather than building to a single motion-picture explosion at the end. But this means energizing the audience and online fan base with puzzles and “spoilers.” Every few weeks, some previously ambiguous element of the story is resolved: The protagonist and antagonist are two parts of a single character’s split personality, the robots’ experiences took place a decade ago, those crew members are really androids, and so on.
Spoilers, as their name implies, must be protected lest they spoil the whole experience for someone else. They’re like land mines of intellectual property that are useless once detonated. We are obligated to keep the secret and maintain the value of the “intellectual property” for others. The superfan of commercial entertainment gets rewarded for going to all the associated websites and fan forums and reading all the official novels. Superfans know all the answers because they have purchased all the products in the franchise. Like one of those card games where you keep buying new, expensive packs in order to assemble a powerful team of monsters, all it takes to master a TV show is work and money.
Once all the spoilers have been unpacked, the superfan can rewatch earlier episodes with the knowledge of what was “really” going on the whole time. No more damned ambiguity. The viewer gets to experience the story again, but with total knowledge and total control — as if omniscience were the desired state of mind, rather than a total negation of what makes humans conscious in the first place.
A show’s “loose ends” are its flaws. They prevent the superfan from maintaining a coherent theory of everything. They are not thought of as delightful trailheads to new mysteries, but as plot holes, continuity errors, or oversights by the creators. In commercial entertainment, where the purpose is always to give the audience their money’s worth, submission to the storyteller must be rewarded with absolute resolution. This same urge is driving such entertainment to ever higher frame rates and pixel counts — as if seeing the picture clearer and bigger is always better. We don’t make sense of it; the sense is made for us. That’s what we’re paying for.
Loose ends threaten to unravel not only the fictions upholding an obsolete Hollywood format but also the ones upholding an obsolete social order: an aspirational culture in which product purchases, job advancement, trophy spouses, and the accumulation of capital are the only prizes that matter.
Loose ends distinguish art from commerce. The best, most humanizing art doesn’t depend on spoilers. What is the “spoiler” in a painting by Picasso or a novel by James Joyce? The impact of a classically structured art film like Citizen Kane isn’t compromised even if we do know the surprise ending. These masterpieces don’t reward us with answers but with new sorts of questions. Any answers are constructed by the audience, provisionally and collaboratively, through their active interpretation of the work.
Art makes us think in novel ways, leading us to consider new approaches and possibilities. It induces states of mind that are often strange and uncomfortable. Rather than putting us to sleep, art wakes us up and invites us to experience something about being human that is in danger of being forgotten. The missing ingredient can’t be directly stated, immediately observed, or processed by algorithm, but it’s there — in the moment before it is named or depicted or resolved.
It’s alive, it’s paradoxical, and it’s the exclusive province of Team Human.