The dog did it: Living in a spoiler culture

Spoiler Alert, obviously. 

Several friends of mine were rather disappointed when a story appeared online about a fake obituary in a New Mexico newspaper for Breaking Bad antihero Walter White. Some articles mentioned the disappointment of the paper’s readers over having the character’s fate spoiled for them. But my friends reading the story were equally disappointed, because they hadn’t seen the finale either. I saw the story 4 days after the finale aired, but by then I had already seen it. Nonetheless, I recorded the finale during its Sunday night premiere and intended to watch it in the next few days. I didn’t even make it that long. My Facebook news feed tantalized me with complex analyses of the finale, but I avoided them. Then I saw that Stephen Colbert had interviewed show creator Vince Gilligan the night after the finale. I watched the interview, and when Colbert warned of spoilers, I figured he meant everything but the final episode (I had seen all but the last episode at that point). I was wrong. “Why did you decide to kill off Walter White?” Colbert asked Gilligan. I let out a little groan, knowing full well that the spoiler culture had gotten the better of me once again.

The word “spoiler” is an interesting one. It implies damaged goods, something that is ruined beyond repair. After all, something “spoiled” can’t really be “unspoiled.” But in some cases the term seems a bit strong. I watched the Breaking Bad finale, and knowing the fate of Walter White in advance did nothing to hamper my enjoyment of it or the surprises of some of the other twists and turns the finale took.

And yet, having something spoiled for us can elicit an intense reaction. In the case of Breaking Bad, we feel betrayed. After spending a good 60 hours with these characters and this world, we hear of its conclusion outside of that world, detached from the universe that we’ve become so attached to. It’s ending with a whimper what should have been ended with a bang. But Breaking Bad is far from the most egregious example. After all, Walt was doomed from the start. It’s not so much about what happens to Walter White, but how it happens. Thus, watching the show is not a waste of time even if we know how it ends.

In a show like Lost, which is even longer than Breaking Bad, the betrayal is more abrupt. Because the entire series is predicated on a twist ending, having it spoiled for you can feel like you’ve wasted a good chunk of your life watching the show. Once the mystery is unveiled, it loses a lot of its magic.

One major issue with the spoiler culture is the lack of consensus on the shelf life of our entertainment. After all, the Sixth Sense has been out for over 10 years, and people still get upset when I try to talk about the ending (the dog did it, by the way). How long does the rest of the world have to wait for us to catch up? A month? A year? 10 years? When does the world get to stop feeling sorry for me and my ignorance?

The problem is confounded by the seemingly perverse joy people have in ruining things for others. A friend of mine tried to talk to me recently about the absolutely stunning ending to the video game Bioshock Infinite. “I heard that game gets crazy,” he said. Luckily, I had long ago finished it, but I think he wished I hadn’t. Someone else had ruined the game for him, and all would not be right with the world until he ruined it for someone else.

Our digital, always-on lifestyle makes avoiding spoilers even more difficult. The best way to stave off Breaking Bad spoilers would have probably been to stay away from all social media contact for at least a week after the finale. But for someone like me, who gets so much of his information and news from his Facebook feed, I don’t see how that’s possible. The spoiler culture also tends to be elitist. Everyone is talking about this, and if you’re not a part of the club, you’re shunned from the community with those patronizing “spoiler alert” messages that tantalize: “Come on, what we’re talking about here is pretty awesome. Don’t you want to be cool? One peek won’t hurt.” In that article about the New Mexico newspaper obituary, the underlying message is “hey, you know that Breaking Bad finale? Well look what happened here.” Never mind that our answer to that question might be “no.” If we don’t know by now, someone is going to tell us.

Traditional work culture describes a “water cooler moment” as an entertainment or cultural event that everyone will want to talk with their work colleagues during breaks around the water cooler. The advantage to this is that you know when you need to stay away from the cooler to avoid spoilers (and who you need to stay away from). But online, the water cooler is everywhere, and there are no breaks. It’s like dozens of strangers screaming in your ear “hey, how about that series finale? Pretty cool, huh?” You can only tune out so many voices before one slips by.

So, what’s the answer here? Are we doomed to have great stories spoiled for us because we don’t experience them at the same time as others? I think caution and consideration on both sides can minimize the impact of the spoiler. If you’re a person that tends to spoil things for others, realize that there are people out there who care about great stories as much as you do, and that ruining a universe for someone else is kind of a low blow. And, if you’re someone who tends to feel the cold sting of the “spoiler alert,” my best advice to you would be to tread lightly.