Game of spoilers
Recently, I entered one of the most nervewracking phases of my pop culture life: I’m almost, but not quite, caught up on Game of Thrones. For various reasons, mostly because my diet of television was already overstuffed, I hadn’t gotten around to watching any of the series until last month, shortly after the fourth season premiered. When I did the math, I found that I could catch up quickly enough to watch the back half of the season as it aired if I ran through an episode a night, which is precisely how my wife and I have been spending the last four weeks. Fortunately, it’s the kind of show made for an epic binge, and there are extended stretches, especially in the second season, when you can’t wait to keep going. (Things slow down considerably in the third season, probably because of the decision to split one book across two ten-episode runs, but that’s a subject for another post.) And now that I’m only three episodes away from being able to watch the show in real time, I’m both relieved and a little anxious. Navigating the spoilers for the series so far has been an adventure in itself, and now that I’m so close to the goal, I feel a little like an explorer reaching the end of a series of booby traps—which, as Indiana Jones pointed out, is usually when the ground falls out from under your feet.
Game of Thrones is unique, of course, in that the spoilers theoretically never end. So far, the show has adapted two and a half books from a seven-book series, five installments of which have been published, which means that something like four more years of plot points are already in print. (If it isn’t clear by now, I’m coming to the series before encountering the books, although I expect that I’ll probably read them all before long, especially if I can figure out a good way to read A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons simultaneously.) The series has shown a willingness to depart from the books in certain ways, but it’s fair to assume that it will closely follow the overall narrative as laid down in Martin’s novels. As a result, viewers of Game of Thrones have a different relationship to spoilers than with any other show in history. On the one hand, if you’re just a day or two behind, there’s an enormous risk of spoilers online and in social media: even if you manage to stay off Twitter while the current episode airs, there’s always the danger of running into a gif, an offhand reference, or a think piece in the New York Times. On the other hand, beyond that immediate risk, we have what you might call the Experts and Newbies divide, and by the time we’re all on the same page, we’ll be well into the next presidential administration. And even knowing roughly how many years the series is going to run counts as something of a spoiler in itself: no matter how far along the narrative seems, we know that there’s much, much more to come.
Yet there are also ways, perversely, in which having certain developments spoiled has enhanced my enjoyment of the show. I nearly made it to “The Lion and the Rose” with one big twist still unknown to me, only to have it spoiled the day before by a gratuitous joke in an unrelated article on The A.V. Club. Not surprisingly, I was pretty mad about this—I was so, so close—but I found that it didn’t diminish the episode’s suspense. In some respects, it increased it: Hitchcock famously describes the difference between suspense and surprise, coming down squarely in favor of the latter, and much of my tension during the episode came from my knowledge of what was coming, much as Vertigo works better when its central revelation arrives at the beginning of the third act, rather than at the end. Did it make the episode better? Not necessarily, and I’m sure the creators would have preferred, as I did, that I’d gone in cold. Still, it allowed me to appreciate how cleverly all of the elements of the story were being laid into place, which otherwise would have had to wait until a second viewing, and it didn’t lessen the impact of a virtuoso set piece which ranks among the best things the show has ever done.
And there’s a sense in which our prior knowledge of the show—whether through accidental spoilers or having read the books—adds another dimension to the viewer’s engagement. The best parallel to this is Hannibal, a show based on source material that I do know by heart, and which pushes against its inspiration in ways that have become delightful and surprising. Even the most casual viewer probably knows more or less where Hannibal Lecter’s story is going, and Bryan Fuller’s stated intention to carry the series through Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and the climactic Hannibal novel itself tips us off to the arc of the stories for years to come. So far, however, this hasn’t been a weakness but a strength: Fuller has shown a readiness to depart from canon in startling ways, as well as to incorporate new arrangements of the puzzle pieces he has, and for a Thomas Harris fan, that’s part of the fun, whether it comes from a line of repurposed dialogue or a new interpretation of a character we thought we knew. We may have a good idea of the what, but the how remains unknown. And it’s in the how, or in those aspects of style and inspiration that can’t be spoiled in advance, that great television thrives.