Sunday’s season finale of “Downton Abbey” concludes one of the most vexing episodes in spoiler alert history. Because the series ended in the U.K. last Christmas and was released on DVD before the American broadcast, any attempt to read about the Crawleys, follow them on social media or even chat about them with friends became a minefield of unexploded plot twists.
This was not the case when “Upstairs Downstairs” aired on PBS in the ‘70s. Even though the series was broadcast in the U.K. well before the American.airing, no one in the U.S. learned ahead of time that Lady Marjorie had gone down with the Titanic or that Hazel had died from the Spanish flu.
Of course it’s digital technology that’s changed everything, dramatically increasing the information flow within and among borders. Thanks to our friends at Google, Facebook and Twitter, it really has become a small world after all. In my own case, I learned prematurely about the unfortunate demise of two major “Downton” characters, one from Wikipedia and one from accidentally clicking through to a British newspaper.
The problem is only going to get worse. The New York Times’ Brian Stelter points out that Netrlix’s simultaneous release of all 13 episodes of its new series “House of Cards” creates a whole new set of spoiler problems, because when viewers are given the chance to set their own schedules they don’t watch at the same pace. Some binge-watch in one day and other stretch it out over week or months. The increased use of DVRs and even DVD boxed sets also decreases the communal experience of television watching and creates additional spoiler opportunities.
Spoilers have been around forever. In 1841, American readers stormed ships arriving from England carrying the last installment of Dickens’ “The Old Curiosity Shop,” shouting “Is Nell dead?” And in 1960, ads for “Psycho” warned there would be a “no late admissions” policy to spare plot revelations. Alfred Hitchcock himself warned departing audiences over a loudspeaker, "Don't give away the ending - it's the only one we have."
Television never used to be so obsessed with spoilers. For one thing, there wasn’t much to spoil. Series didn’t have season-long narrative arcs. Each episode existed on its own, with little reference to what happened in the past or might happen in the future. And when there was a potential surprise, the networks usually exploited it for promotional gain. First Lady Betty Ford’s appearance at the end of a “Mary Tyler Moore” episode was widely reported, thereby attracting more viewers.
But when “Dallas” producers contrived to have J.R. Ewing shot by an unknown assailant at the end of season three, the massive ratings that followed opened the industry’s eyes to the value of a surprise and the associated danger of spoilers. Ever since then, TV creators have worked hard to keep plot details secret. Heck, Matthew Weiner won’t even reveal the year in which the next season of “Mad Men” starts.
By why are we so furious about spoilers? Why do we insist on not learning plot details? We can enjoy a story even when we already know the ending. Three of the best movies of 2012 –“Argo,” “Lincoln,” and “Zero Dark Thirty” – were based on factual incidents in which the climax was not in doubt. Going into these films, we all knew that the American hostages escaped from Iran, that the Constitution abolished slavery, and that Osama bin Laden eventually swam with the fishes. Yet all three movies delivered immensely satisfying and suspenseful endings. And anyone who’s ever rewatched a movie or TV show knows that the enjoyment can be even better when you’re not worrying about plot development.
Part of the answer goes to the essence of how we interact with narrative art. If we’re fully engaged, we’re interacting with the story on multiple levels. Both our minds and emotions are working overtime. We’re trying to get to the essential truth of the story. On one level, there’s the basic satisfaction of figuring out the plot – what just happened and what’s going to happen next? In a serious piece of art, we’re also trying to figure out what the creator is trying to say, what the deeper meaning is and how this relates to our own existence.
To deny someone the ability to experience a work of art on its own terms, with the story laid out as the creator presents it, is to steal something essential. In my own case, because I knew that these two “Downton” characters were doomed, their fates loomed over every episode as I wondered if this were the week they would meet their demise. In a way, my viewing was “spoiled.”
As children, we delight in stories with surprises. Only an ogre would give away the ending of a fairy tale to a child. The same principle applies as we age. After all, Merriam Webster defines “to spoil” as “to affect something in a way that makes it worse, less attractive, or less enjoyable.” Exactly right; knowing the plot details too soon makes the story less attractive and less enjoyable. Please keep your spoilers to yourself.