Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Spoiler alert: This post on spoilers contains spoilers.

Lately I've been thinking a lot about this phenomenon of "spoilers" and what they mean to us as writers, readers, TV and film watchers, and members of social media. Three instances in particular -- a book and two TV shows -- have raised the questions: Are there "rules" when it comes to spoilers? Are there statutes of limitations, and if so, how long are they? What is the responsibility of the spoiler-er vs the spoiler-ee? And what, exactly, is a spoiler?

Even River Song saying "Spoilers" here might be a spoiler!

A "spoiler," basically, is when you learn a twist or ending you usually didn't want to know about, usually before you've read/watched something you enjoy. Posting publicly the details of a last episode of a series, or the major twist of a movie, is a spoiler.

But what about that grey area -- people's reactions without details? I'm talking specifically about last week's "The Walking Dead" season 5 opener. Because we don't have cable, my husband and I watch TWD a day late. I know that a lot of my friends on Facebook watch TWD the night it airs, and so I was wary of going online last Monday, lest my eyeballs accidentally see a "spoiler" one of them may have posted. While I didn't see any details that would ruin the episode for me, I did see a lot of "OMG!" and "Best season opener ever!" and "Way better than I even expected! You outdid yourself, Walking Dead!"

Do those count as spoilers?

This image from the season 5 opener, "No Sanctuary," was
all over the internets long before the episode aired, leading
many diehard Deadheads to wonder if it was, in fact, a giant
spoiler, and with a legion of Daryl Dixon fans threatening
to riot if he was killed off the show.

I say no. Anyone familiar with the show knows that each episode is white-knuckley to a greater or lesser degree, and that most episodes contain some sort of twist or surprise. I knew the first episode of season 5 would be epic, and so my friends' reactions in no way ruined my enjoyment of seeing that episode for myself.

What about responsibility? Does everyone online have a responsibility to post "spoiler alert!" before posting details? How long can that go on? For TWD's first episode, I gave everyone I know, who may not have seen the episode yet, the benefit of the doubt and listed some questions I had under the heading "spoiler alert," with some space between that and my questions so that they'd be hidden to anyone who didn't want to accidentally read them.

After that I think it's fair game. If I take my time watching a show, I'm grown-up enough to know what I'm getting myself into when I go online. Beyond a reasonable grace period -- a night or two for others to catch up, longer for first and last episodes of a season -- I think posting spoilery details should be fine. If you are that afraid of your eyeballs accidentally seeing something -- a comment, a Facebook or Twitter "trending," or something on a forum or message board -- then it's easy enough to avoid those spaces. We all have reasons why we might not watch a show live, or the next night, but that doesn't mean the whole rest of the online world has to wait for you to catch up. If I'm too busy to watch my favorite prone-to-spoiler shows, then I'm probably too busy to spend a lot of time online, as well.

Spoiler? I don't care. Cute as fucking hell.

What about another grey area of spoilers? I read all of the Harry Potter books before the movies came out; I also read all of the Hunger Games books. My husband read neither of those series, but we were already coupled up when I read the last of the HP books and the entire HG trilogy. As I read, I'd tell him what was happening in the books; what I liked about them; what I didn't like; what I agreed with; disagreed with. I'd tell him plot details. I'd tell him the endings.

Did this ruin his enjoyment of the movies? Not at all. I'd say that unless you are a die-hard fan of something, knowing the outcome in advance does not ruin your enjoyment of the work. Sometimes the journey, the getting there, is the important part. Did anyone think that Harry would not defeat Voldemort? Did that make the final battle less exciting? Were the deaths of some of our favorite supporting characters any less heartbreaking? Does knowing that Katniss must win the Hunger Games in the first book make her story any less amazing to read?

You'd have to be living under a rock not to know what was coming.

In other words, which is more important: wondering whether or not Frodo will destroy the One Ring, or reading three books/watching three movies that chronicle his journey, and the other events taking place in Middle Earth?

I came late to the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" world: I didn't start watching the show until seven years after it went off the air. Going in, I already knew certain major show events: I knew about Angel and his soul, I knew about Buffy's mom, I knew about Buffy and Spike, and I knew about Willow. Even knowing all those things going in, I can honestly say I did not like the series any less. In fact, I loved it quite a lot.

Which brings me to historical fact. As a fan of historical fiction, sometimes the outcome of a show or book is already well-known. I'm currently reading Helen Hollick's wonderful novel, "I Am The Chosen King," about the famous 1066 Battle of Hastings. I already know the outcome of that event; and anyway, 1000 years is well beyond even the most liberal statute of limitations on spoilers. The ending of the book will not be a surprise for me. What I'm interested in are the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings. The politics, the machinations, and especially the people. The real people behind the famous names. The Battle of Hastings did not happen out of the blue. It did not come out of nothingness. In this case, no spoiler alerts needed.

1000-year old spoiler courtesy of the Bayeaux Tapestry, circa 1080ish.

What about slightly less well-known history? My husband and I recently watched all three seasons of Showtime's "The Borgias," a family he and I know very little about. In this case, despite the passing of more than 500 years since the events depicted in the show, we had to avoid looking up any real-life Borgia family member to avoid show spoilers. But had we accidentally come upon some historical fact that might give away a meaningful event in the show, well, how angry could we get, really? It's been 500 years!

What do you think of spoilers? Do you post details on social media? Do you label them? How long do you give others before saying, "Not my problem anymore?"


  1. I think that you can post right away if you say "spoiler alert" - at this point, it's universal code for "don't read this if you haven't seen the show. I know that when I write about media (usually books), I try to not include any spoilers, partly so I can ignore the whole issue. I'll talk about whether the plot worked, the pacing, characters, without going into detail.

    For me, the big issue with spoilers is posting cultural zeitgeist stuff, even a year or two later, when we live in a world where you can watch things at your leisure. My wife and I spent years consciously avoiding information about the Sopranos until we got to the series - same with Breaking Bad. I think that even now, you shouldn't let slip critical plot points of, say, Breaking Bad, without noting that there are spoilers coming; thought it might seem to you that "everyone" has seen it, plenty of people haven't, but want to.

    The thing that's really unforgivable, in my opinion, is casual spoilers in an article not about that thing. Let's say you've been waiting to watch the acclaimed series, The Wizard of Oz, on Netflix. You've avoided information about it scrupulously. One day you're reading an article about weight loss, and the writer says "I felt like the witch - you know, at the end of The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy kills her!" That's totally, totally uncool and you need to be hunted down.

    The gray area for me are not series, but older movies. I think it's fair game to "spoil" Casablanca, or note that in Terminator 2, Arnold is the good guy. It's so old, and so in the consciousness, that it's up for grabs. Of course, then you have more gray - there are a few movies that are old, but I wouldn't spoil, because you should see it. I don't want to name names, but some movies are quite literally ALL ABOUT THE SPOILER, and if you let it drop (and for what?) you ruin it.

  2. I do agree with you about surprise spoilers where you didn't expect them. I think where the problem lies is in what the expiration date might be for spoiling shows and movies. "Terminator 2" is certainly old enough that, if you haven't seen it by now and you are over a certain age, you just have to deal with it if it gets spoiled for you. Same with "The Sopranos." "Breaking Bad" only just ended a short time ago, so I think it's still important to keep that one spoiler-free.

    I guess, for me, the whole point of this blog entry was to point out that we are all responsible for both ends of spoilers: of not being an asshole when it comes to posting them, but also of remembering that others are under no obligation to keep spoilers off their own social media. Since "The Walking Dead" airs on Sunday nights, and I watch it on Monday nights, I feel fine, come Tuesday, posting funny memes and photos of the episodes I find on Twitter and FB. By Tuesday pretty much everyone I know has a)seen the episode; b)is avoiding social media until they can watch it; c)doesn't watch the show and has no plans to; or d)might watch it some day, but the spoilers I post have no effect on that for them.

    Then, you get to my dad, who likes to talk about movies and TV shows he thinks we should watch by giving us every single sordid detail, including the endings and twists. Before my husband and I ever watched a single episode of "Game of Thrones," we knew exactly what happened in the first three episodes. My dad is just like that: he loves knowing things other people don't know, and he loves letting people *know* he knows things they don't know. Which, is ironic, since I saw "Terminator 2" in theaters before he did (speaking of that movie) and he wouldn't let me tell him so much as the opening shot.