Correction: An earlier version of this article misreported the cause of death for Lady Sybil Branson, a character on PBS's “Downton Abbey,” as toxic plasmosis. She died of eclampsia. The online version of the story has been corrected.
Editor’s note: There are lots of spoilers in this article, probably about a TV show or two that you’re not caught up on. Complain all you want.
Last Sunday night, in the Eastern time zone first, and then with a ferocious momentum moving westward, a collective scream of horror rose up from Twitter and Facebook users who also happen to watch HBO’s “Game of Thrones” in real time (a highly populated subset, it turns out). In the last seconds of the episode, Robb Stark, his pregnant wife, Talisa, and his mother, Catelyn, were violently murdered at a wedding reception-turned-ambush.
Too late for spoiler alerts here, mere days after the fact. Reactions (and details) flash-flooded the infotainment lowlands with anger, grief and — for those who might have wished to wait an hour, a day, a week or even many months to watch this season and this episode for themselves — exact details: who, what, how, why. The “Red Wedding” incident was not news to fans of George R.R. Martin’s novels, who’ve known for years this was coming, but some perhaps did not know that the TV version would diverge slightly from the book and kill off Talisa.
Oh, well. Now you know. Once again, mainstream culture found itself briefly marveling at how profoundly the shared terrain and common etiquette of watching TV are altered by the complete undoing and reinvention of the medium. If nothing else, reaction to the Red Wedding felt like a truly shared moment, something we so rarely enjoy anymore.
Three decades after a VCR became an affordable household item, we are well into an era of intense connection to our entertainment, while becoming disconnected from the mutual, real-time experience of communion. The customizable TV experience (on-demand, freely streamed, subscribed or pirated, curated and prioritized) means that we are less likely to experience shows as watershed events and must instead settle for membership in various fan clubs.
We’re all in a heated race with no finish line except the series finale. Despite the hurrying and binge-watching, some viewers nevertheless pride themselves on the tortoise approach. They wait — in some cases, several years — to catch up to the show everyone is (or was) talking about. I still occasionally bump into erudite Post readers who feel compelled to let me know about a very well-written television show they’ve been enjoying about drug dealers in Baltimore, perhaps I’ve heard of it, called “The Wire”?
Television can never again be as simple as plugging a box into a wall and watching it occasionally, casually. And in all the misplaced anxiety about how to watch it and when to watch it and why to watch it, we wind up screaming and yelling at one another about spoilers.
You’ve seen all of “Breaking Bad,” but your friend hasn’t. (Hank Schrader now knows that Walt’s the meth maker — he found the Whitman poems sitting on the back of the toilet.) Your mom calls and wants to discuss “The Good Wife” finale and you shush her, because that episode is still sitting in your DVR queue. (Alicia and Will are back together; Diane saw them making out in Will’s car.) A Washington Post editor’s inbox goes up in flames because of a headline on a Health section article that describes the death, of eclampsia, of poor Lady Sybil in “Downton Abbey,” which had aired the night before. (And had aired months before that in England, but no matter — if you hadn’t seen it by that point, it was spoiled for you. And if you still haven’t seen season 3? Cousin Matthew dies in a car wreck. So there.)
So much stress over such first-world problems, lampooned, naturally, in a “Portlandia” sketch and elsewhere; true-to-life of scenes of dinner guests angrily shushing one another for bringing up plot developments of shows someone else hasn’t binge-watched yet.
In four years and counting as The Post’s TV critic, I’ve lost track of how many lives I’ve allegedly ruined by writing (rather broad) descriptions of new TV shows. In a review this year of a network’s fancy serial-killer drama, I made an oblique reference to the explosive end of the second season of “Homeland,” which had aired on Showtime several weeks earlier. A reader e-mailed me to complain that I’d failed to issue the all-too-familiar “spoiler alert” before that particular sentence. As someone waiting for Showtime to release the season to non-subscribers, she thought the whole thing had been ruined for her, all because she was innocently reading a review of an entirely different show. A similarly miffed reader proposed a new rule: no writing about one TV show in a review of another.
Another reader recently wrote in to ask to me to refrain from ever (ever!) quoting snippets of dialogue or memorable lines from TV shows — and while I’m at it, do not summarize the premise of the show, either, even generally.
Other readers approach the matter as if I’m Miss Manners and they need advice:
Do you have to ask your friends and fellow guests if it’s okay to talk about a TV show?
Is it okay to unfriend and unfollow a social networker who blabs too much about tonight’s episode?
What is the appropriate waiting period before one may discuss in polite company what happened on “Mad Men” last week?
Here’s what: Don Draper went to a house party in Los Angeles, smoked hash and almost drowned in the pool. “Mad Men” fans have grown so bored with their beloved series that they’re now in the business of peddling conspiracy theories — pre-spoiling, if you will — and predicting that Megan Draper will meet her end when the Manson Family crashes a party at 10050 Cielo Dr. in 1969. None of this can be pleasing to “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, whose much-noted fretting about spoilers borders on anal-retentive and whose “next week on ‘Mad Men’” previews now blip by in as few snippets and syllables as possible, verging on the subliminal.
Spoiler etiquette only becomes more dicey on the Netflix model, in which alluring new shows such as “House of Cards” or the cult favorite “Arrested Development” are released in entire seasons all at once. The question becomes not only “Have you watched?” but “how much have you watched so far?” And how long is the proper waiting period for critical analysis? How long should TV critics let a show digest before we rush to make deadline? (Before you answer, factor in the real race: trying to increase Internet traffic.)
Of course we all — critics and the savviest viewers — need to mind our manners. Just because we’ve seen it first doesn’t mean we need to shout it from the mountaintops. But where does this worry over spoilers and spoiler etiquette really get us? Nowhere.
My colleague Eric Deggans, who critiques TV and media for the Tampa Bay Times and NPR, wrote a piece a few months ago suggesting that all the hue and cry about spoilers misses the real art of storytelling: “Knowing the details of a plot twist rarely ruins the show for me,” Deggans wrote, “because so much of television is seeing the action. So relax with the spoiler alert stuff, already.”
That’s precisely what I want to tell people who plug their fingers in their ears and scream “spoiler alert” even as I’m carefully writing and talking my way around potential reveals. To watch TV only for plot is to subsist only on the dots and to disregard the rather lovely lines connecting them; you never end up with a full picture. Our best conversations about this amazing and exasperating era of high-quality programming aren’t about which character died, and these conversations deserve and demand to begin the minute a show has aired.
The real glory of today’s shows isn’t only about what happens to characters. It’s about subtext, meaning, theme. It’s about deeper secrets and varying interpretations. And ideally, it’s still a group experience, even in our niched-out, semi-private cocoons. Freaking out over spoilers has to be the least sophisticated way to watch modern TV.