This Was the Decade That Spoiler Culture Changed Everything

This Was the Decade That Spoiler Culture Changed Everything
Illustration: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo)
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Spoiler alert: We all love spoilers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we all want them, of course—there are as many people who fervently avoid details about upcoming stories as there are people who hunt them down to learn beforehand. But as the 2010s come to a close, the way we talk about spoilers with each other has changed dramatically—and not necessarily for the best.

The Rise and Fall of the Mystery Box

Coming into the 2010s, television was undergoing a major period of cultural change, especially in the genre realm (sci-fi, fantasy, horror). Both Lost and Battlestar Galactica, two shows that had come to define 21st century TV, wrapped up in 2010, and brought with them the end of two important eras in regards to spoiler culture. Firstly, there was the general coming to an end of an age of watercooler TV—shows that dominated public entertainment discourse beyond simply captivating us through the screen, but in debate and discussion in real life among friends, family, and co-workers in the pre-social media era. Shows like Lost and BSG—which had grown beyond the niche space of being discussed exclusively among diehard genre fans, and now reached an audience where people at work, or school, or in public spaces were discussing their twists and where they thought the plot was going—were entering their final seasons as the decade began. But the end of these two shows also, in some way, brought about an end of a major era in “Mystery Box” storytelling.

The Mystery Box—defined in a 2007 TED Talk by director J.J. Abrams as the “catalyst for imagination” that all stories are driven by—is a series of questions left unanswered so that the audience might dare to think of the possibilities they represent. The Mystery Box and the rise of watercooler TV went hand in hand. After all, as Abrams argued, the existence of mystery invites discussion. Conversations about Lost and BSG were conversations laden with questioning things like “what was the Island?” or “What are the Cylons really after?”, or in general, “what does it all mean?” They invited debate and speculation, and while that’s something genre fandom had been doing basically since it existed, it was now something that happened on a public, mainstream scale quite unlike anything else in the space thanks to these two shows.

But Lost and BSG both ended somewhat controversially, with finales that left audiences divided on just how satisfying these conclusions were at answering the mysteries upon mysteries hidden in those boxes of theirs. And with that soured feeling that all the speculatory debate had been for naught, the end of these shows momentarily killed off that desire for mystery—stories leaving trails of questions to pick up were fine, but if they didn’t pay off and it was mystery for mystery’s sake, what was the point? Audiences didn’t want mystery anymore: they just wanted to know where the story was really going.

Enter Westeros

And then, Game of Thrones happened. And nothing about TV, and the way we talk about it, would ever be the same.

It wasn’t just that Thrones became the hot new thing when it debuted to raucous acclaim in 2011, a new show that seemingly everyone wanted to talk about. Game of Thrones’ immediate booming success revived that idea of watercooler TV, but unlike either Lost or BSG, it brought with it an inherent divide in its broad audience. Lost and BSG were original properties—although at least the latter was a reboot of Glen A. Larson’s cult ‘70s classic, the way it ultimately evolved the story essentially made it its own thing with a familiar name—and Game of Thrones crucially wasn’t: It was an adaptation based on George R.R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, four of which had been around for decades already by the time the show began (the fifth, A Dance With Dragons, released just months after Thrones’ first season).

There wasn’t just an already established fandom with Thrones, there was a fandom that, thanks to the fact that the show was a relatively faithful adaptation—while it still had the material to draw on, that is—of Martin’s novels, basically knew everything was going to happen for at least four or five seasons. Thrones’ rapid entry into the collective consciousness brought with it both the audience that had already read the books and an audience that had no idea what was going on beyond each episode of the show. While Lost and BSG’s audiences were all trying to puzzle out where they were going together, Game of Thrones was a thing where knowledge was a matter of the Haves and the Have-Nots. You were either a Book Fan, or a Show Fan, and whatever category you fell into shaped the way Game of Thrones could be talked about.

That inherently meant that the way Thrones’ courtly intrigues and plot twists were discussed were laced with the danger of spoiler territory. A danger that became inherently weaponized by fans, when all it would take is one whisper of Ned Stark’s fate, or Daenerys’ true path, or an ominous mention of a seemingly far off wedding, to completely ruin the show for fans who had no idea that—in what is still paradoxically still one of the most audacious scenes of TV ever and also a plot point that’s been known since Martin first wrote it in 1996 —Sean Bean was about to get his head lopped off. The audience reach Game of Thrones had built over the course of its critically and publicly acclaimed first season, paired with this section of its audience that seemingly held all the answers to its secrets (thanks to the novels), meant that discourse around the show became a minefield, to the point where actors on the series constantly begged book fans to be kind to show fans, and be mindful of their teases of what was to come.

RIP, Ned.
RIP, Ned.
Image: HBO

But aside from foreknowledge, Game of Thrones’ pre-baked subsection of fans brought something else with it: fan theories. Readers of Martin’s books had spent decade poring over them for clues about just where the grand plot was going, of what secret connections there were to be between its characters—theories that were suddenly thrust from being things discussed in niche forums online or among friends to something that could captivate the mainstream audience Game of Thrones now had as a show. Mystery Box storytelling wasn’t really dead, it had evolved. It was no longer simply just speculating about where it was all going, that “catalyst for imagination” J.J. Abrams had first described in 2007. Now there was a source material and already established facts and twists to build that speculation off of. Spoilers hadn’t just become a mainstream weapon, but a tool for the evolution of the Mystery Box into a speculatory culture that is alive and well in this era of “Peak TV.”

The need to chase the explosive success of Game of Thrones heralds where we are right now, the age of Peak TV—where there is so much (arguably too much TV, especially in a serialized format) to watch, from new hits like Watchmen to icons of the decade like Breaking Bad, The Americans, or Halt and Catch Fire. And all these shows, Thrones included, now come with not just the idea that these stories cannot be missed, but must be experienced “pure”: watch live, don’t get spoiled, be part of the event. Paired with the almost catastrophic rise of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in tandem with these trends, you also begin to see brands and shows themselves latch on to this discourse and even encourage its immediacy—a world where every show around has its own official Twitter, its own corporate-decided hashtag, and audiences are invited to “#jointheconversation” and live tweet episodes as they happen. The watercooler now lives online in these moments—and if you’re trying to avoid spoilers, it suddenly becomes a lot harder.

The Mystery Box Reawakens

While Game of Thrones was revolutionizing the way we talked about spoilers in regards to television, when it came to movies things were traveling at a different pace. In many way TV was simply catching up to the movie industry: Movies were already events, and while attempting to live tweet a screening of a new movie would probably get you kicked out of a theater, the inherently public experience of watching a movie during its theatrical run already made the idea of being unable to miss out, lest you be spoiled, a common thing.

But just as Game of Thrones was helping typically geek culture on TV explode to a place of pop-cultural dominance, Disney was doing the same on the big screen thanks to the rise of Marvel Studios and its cinematic universe. The growing successes of Marvel’s output of movies over the last decade radically reshaped mainstream moviemaking. Post-credit scenes, shared universes, the quasi-serialization of movie experiences as Kevin Feige and his studio slowly built all of their disparate films into a cohesive whole—as part of what is now dubbed the “Infinity Saga”—brought the Peak TV era’s idea of spoiler avoidance and the fear of missing out to a booming, global scale. If you didn’t keep up with every movie, stay till the end of every credit roll, you weren’t a “true” fan, and you were missing out on the “real” story.

But it wasn’t just Marvel that was about to change the game for Disney: the studio had acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, and Star Wars was coming back courtesy of the father of the Mystery Box himself, J.J. Abrams. Abrams’ approach to mystery in storytelling defined the run-up to the release of The Force Awakens, a sequel in the footsteps of one of the most beloved movie trilogies of all time. Unlike the maligned prequel saga of the decade prior, this new movie wasn’t going back to explain the how of something we already knew was going to happen—that Anakin Skywalker would become Darth Vader. It was set in a future that was only filled with things to imagine: What happened after the second Death Star blew up? Where are Han, Luke, and Leia now? What is the galaxy far, far, away like after the heroes have won and the Empire has fallen? There was nothing but mystery to be found.

RIP, Han.
RIP, Han.
Image: Lucasfilm

Abrams’ approach was one that Disney and Lucasfilm were more than happy to play along with. The marketing for The Force Awakens was deliberately vague and cryptic, almost to a fault, to the point that the reveal of any concrete information about the film—from the sight of a familiar ship or the name of a new character, could whip up a frenzy of debate and speculation that didn’t just hit the blogosphere, but late-night TV. That speculation itself was now news on a level beyond just hardcore fans—who, unlike Thrones in its early days, did not hold all the answers to The Force Awakens mysteries, thanks to the ejection of the Expanded Universe of Star Wars novels and tie-ins in order to create an entirely new post-Return of the Jedi canon. It was part and parcel of public awareness of the film. All this, combined with the mainstream appeal of Star Wars, created a perfect storm. Breakdown culture and fan theories were elevated to a place of importance unlike anything before it; the minute a new piece of Force Awakens footage dropped, hundreds of articles and YouTube videos popped up combing through it all frame-by-frame to uncover clues.

It was an air of mystery that Disney as a brand capitalized on in merchandise, too. Even purchasing toys became an unstoppable culture “event” in the form of “Force Friday”—the official day toys from the movie would hit store shelves, giving fans their first real look at some of its characters, and a trend that Disney and Lucasfilm would go on to maintain for the rest of the films in its new Star Wars saga. The Mystery Box became vital to the capital; after all, you couldn’t sell a kid a $20 Constable Zuvio action figure if they knew Constable Zuvio was a meaningless background character in The Force Awakens for literal seconds. But who was Constable Zuvio? What if he was important? What could it mean? Better buy the action figure, just in case!

With Marvel and Star Wars, Disney was on its way to becoming an even bigger powerhouse than it already was, its mastery over popular culture growing with every year and every box office record it shattered (usually by beating its own prior record, or at least buying out a studio that had previously held it). That control came to prominence under the influence of speculatory, mystery-box-style approaches to storytelling inherent to genre fandom—where even theorizing about what could happen in the next Marvel or Star Wars was burdened with the mere potential of spoiling a story—weaponized any plot detail as a dreaded spoiler. In 2015, “Han Dies in The Force Awakens” wasn’t just a simple statement of a plot point, it was a malicious banner trolls could lob into any and all discussion in the run-up to the movie just to ruin someone’s day—and thus it evolved the simple act of wanting to avoid spoilers into an entire culture of its own. Spoiler Culture was real, and now, it’s booming to an almost hyperbolic scale.

The difference between simply wanting avoiding spoilers—and the distinct difference between discussing a piece of media in general and the blatantly assholish move of spoiling something just to ruin someone’s experience—and Spoiler Culture in the modern era has become one of toxicity. Spoiler Culture in and of itself becomes an act of not policing your own level of foreknowledge heading into a piece of media, whether that’s a TV show, a movie, a book, or a game, but policing the discussion of those around you as well. It is not enough that you yourself avoid learning even the vaguest thing about a piece of media, it’s that no one around you should even mention it. What now counts as a “spoiler” in this cultural movement has now stretched to the point of almost meaningless, too. A trailer for a movie or TV show—a thing specifically released in advance to advertise to you, entice you to experience something, by the people who made it? That’s a spoiler now. The mere mention that a twist happens in a story, for example, is a spoiler because now you know that there’s a twist, even if you don’t know what that twist actually is.

Even opinion itself has become a cause for concern in Spoiler Culture, because knowing the quality of something in advance from a critical perspective immediately colors your preconception of it, and thus the experience is no longer pure. It is particularly here that Spoiler Culture has made one of its most absurd impacts, in the rise of the “spoiler-free review”—a paradoxical piece of terminology that requires a critic engage with a piece of media in review, but cannot do so truly, because actual engagement would require a discussion of what happens in the plot of something, or making commentary on how its characters and themes are impacted.

When no one can actually review something—lest the audience cry “spoilers!” and burn the reviewer at the proverbial social media stake—the review becomes meaningless...something of benefit to the corporations behind our largest media franchises, of course. Because why trust those reviews when you could just take your pure, unspoiled experience and see said media for yourself, sight unseen, regardless of whether or not The Media has said it’s good or bad—and potentially spoiled something in the process? Even the ability for critics to review material has been controlled under the supposed auspices of preventing fans from being “spoiled.”

Disney launched its new streaming venture Disney+—with a brand new Star Wars live-action series, The Mandalorian, as its vanguard. Interested in reading reviews ahead of signing up for the service? You couldn’t: Disney withheld review screeners for press until the day of release, saying they would prefer fans discover the show for themselves, spoiler-free. And the only way to do that is to sign up for Disney+, sight unseen, of course. The pretense was quickly dropped when it came to being able to “officially” discuss the show’s big twist—that an infant member of Yoda’s species was a major character—just a week after The Mandalorian premiered, still five months before Disney+ would be widely available outside of more than a handful of countries, because now the corporation could openly talk about merchandising opportunities.

The hysteria of what Spoiler Culture has become has now, like most elements once inherent to the smaller, intimate scope of interconnected fandom cultures, been co-opted by the studios behind those fandoms. Companies will claim to act under the auspice of being “for the fans,” but essentially use the specter of Spoiler Culture as another way to control the discussion around a tentpole release. Marvel put out trailers for Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame with shots that weren’t in the movies—not because they were ultimately cut, but as red herrings to throw off media and fans alike breaking down every trailer in the hopes to uncover either movie’s highly anticipated plotlines (in a way rendering the complaint that even officially released advertising material is a spoiler all the more absurd, because now you can’t tell what’s actually in the film being sold to you!).

Those heady days of brand-managed hashtags on Twitter to promote live-tweets and other engagement? Now they’re joined by the likes of #DontSpoiltheEndgame—Marvel Studios’ plea to fans to police online discussion of Avengers: Endgame in the weeks immediately before and after its release, alongside its own “official” spoiler embargo—and #KeepTheSecrets—the hashtag imploring Harry Potter fans not to spoil details of J.K. Rowling’s stage show continuation of the book series, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Although both trafficked in the idea that only “true fans” wouldn’t talk about these stories online (just encourage their friends to also go see it as soon as possible, reviews be damned), in the latter case with Cursed Child things got even more insidious with the accompanying, officially mandated hashtag #DontBeWormtail, a reference to the Potter villain Peter Pettigrew, who betrayed his friends and became a turncoat spy for Voldemort. Even more recently, critic Emily VanDerWerff revealed that a positive critique of a studio’s recent release at Vox was facing pressure to be removed from the site—because it discussed spoilers, even demarcated and with appropriate warnings, for a movie that was in wide release:

And so, the 2010s come to a close with the discussion around spoilers more fraught (and, from a critical perspective, more concerning) than ever. With so much media vying for our attention, the landscape of how and where we discuss media has been radically altered in the last 10 years.

The corporations behind the media we consume began to slowly but surely use the fandom for that media as a tool to control the message. The pretense is defended under the idea that entering a fandom is no longer simply being a fan of the stories being told, but being a fan of the brand of those stories, and ultimately the companies that own that brand. What was once an internal self policing and an act of politeness among fandom circles—fans of books preserving secrets for fans who onboarded with an adaptation in another medium, online communities sharing theories that are now becoming front-page culture news—has started to become a way for megacorpations like Disney and others like it to control a much wider message.

But just as how the ends of Lost and BSG closed one chapter of spoiler-debate and storytelling, the end of Game of Thrones this year closed another (and, not unlike Lost and BSG, not without some controversy). Although the Mystery Box went away for a while with the end of Lost and its ilk—and Abrams has now managed to resurrect aspects of it for not just one, but two Star Wars films at the box office—creators in his wake have picked up the Mystery Box and the spoilery dialogues it helped enmesh in our discourse and evolved it in interesting ways in this last decade, too.

The Leftovers’ Nora, a survivor.
The LeftoversNora, a survivor.
Image: HBO

There’s been shows like The Leftovers—by Abrams’ partner in crime on Lost, Damon Lindelof—which, while playing with a central mystery (in Leftovers’ case, what was the cause of the rapture) was more content to place its character drama over funneling audiences from one unanswered question to the next. The Good Place is initially predicated on the mystery of just what the afterlife Eleanor Shellstrop is in actually is, but actually trusts its audience enough to just reveal that at the climax of its first season—and then spend every season since that reveal deploying new twists upon the scenario, instead of constantly layering mystery on top of mystery. The show respects that viewers now know to expect that moment of upheaval, and can get lost in what makes the show really shine: its characters.

Even something like Westworld—perhaps the closest to something like Lost in this day and age, both thematically and in its penchant for excruciating detail and love of mystery—has shown a maturation of its approach to Mystery Box storytelling, doling out plenty of questions to fans while also, crucially, knowing when it’s time to answer at least a few of them instead of just keeping stringing people along. On the flipside of that, it’s also a show that knows its fandom, and the impact spoilers can have on that kind of storytelling—its creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, know enough to know when to give their fans a reprieve and actually explain a few mysteries, but crucially, also know enough to have a bit of a fun poke at the debate around spoilers for the show’s labyrinthine plots. Instead of wielding that fandom like a tool to censure speculation and criticism, it presents a much more symbiotic and fluid relationship between fans and the media itself.

Spoiler Culture might be at the apex of its hyperbole right now—and curation of what is and isn’t a “spoiler” is now down to the individual more than ever. But we’re moving into an era where at least some of the media we consume is beginning to understand that the journey to get to the hows and whys of the stories being told is far more important than the “spoilers” of those hows and whys being revealed to us in the first place.

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