Warning: this post doesn’t actually contain any spoilers. At least I’ll try.
Last week, my man Eric and I had a visit from Andrew, one of Eric’s oldest friends from back home in Michigan. They hung out in the fashion of young men today — they played every sport under the sun and watched a lot of TV. Specifically, they used Andrew’s Netflix account to watch Breaking Bad, that knuckle-biting tension-fest about the high school chemistry teacher who cooks meth. Shenanigans ensue (if your definition of “shenanigans” is, you know, incredibly visceral gang violence). I had already seen the first two seasons a few years ago, and I mentioned this as the guys were getting through the first couple episodes. Every few minutes, they asked me a question about what would happen next: whether this person would die or where the money would go or if somebody was going to get their head chopped off and planted on the back of an exploding tortoise (uh, not that this particular event actually happens or anything). They asked me what would happen next, but with a strange expression of hopeful hesitance on their faces. They wanted to know what would happen, but they didn’t want me to spoil it for them. Oh, but they really wanted to know. But I couldn’t tell them. But they really needed to know. They had to know.
Full disclosure: I am a spoiler. I love spoilers. I live for spoilers. I spoil everything for myself before anybody else has a chance to. I notoriously flip to the back of the book to check out the final line of a novel. I read the recap for the latest episode of Mad Men before I get a chance to see the episode. I know the endings to all those terrible M. Night Shyamalan movies, and I haven’t even seen any of them. Sometimes I get yelled at by my friends because I tweet said spoilers or let them casually slip into conversation (like the big surprise death that happens in Mad Men this season GAH SORRY). I’m that person at the bar who asks if you’ve seen that movie, and omg do you know what happens at the end, do you want to know? I totally won’t tell you if you don’t want to know but seriously don’t you want to know? I’m obsessed with knowing what happens at the end, or over the course of, the media I ingest.
I think part of it is because I’m a writer. I’m invested in taking a narrative apart in order to learn from it and hopefully steal something useful for my own work. Knowing the general arc lets me hone in on the hints, the build-up, the lines of tension. If a piece is dependent on the shock of a surprise ending, then I would probably find it weak, right? A piece of art, whether it’s a movie or television show or book, shouldn’t rely on a heavy plot detail like a twist — at least that’s the conventional wisdom. The art should be good with or without the surprise. Of course, I spoiler myself so often that it’s hard to know whether my initial satisfaction with a piece is diminished by knowing the major plot points ahead of time. I’m pretty sure I knew that Gatsby wasn’t going to necessarily thrive by the end of the novel as soon as Nick was making his Very Important Statements on the Human Condition on page one. But I flipped to the end just to check.
On the other hand, I knew the ending to The Great Gatsby because it is part of the great American literary canon, and thus has asserted itself as a piece of our collective cultural consciousness. I think this is more accurately the answer to my obsession with spoilers. If you didn’t know that Gatsby dies at the end of that novel, then you can’t get mad at “spoilers” — you’re just an idiot. But it’s not just because Fitzgerald is old and there’s an unspoken statute of limitations on spoilers. What about more modern stuff? What if you don’t know who Tyler Durden really is? What if you don’t know that Jim and Pam end up happy and married? What if you don’t know how the two parts of Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World come together? How could you NOT know these things? And if you don’t, why not just get thee to Google and know them already?
What I’m interested in is that collective cultural consciousness, and how that’s changed with the way we consume our art and our media these days. We have a culture of media simultaneity. Media is produced, consumed, and critiqued/deconstructed in nearly the same moment. I don’t want to lay the cause wholly with the Internet, because I think it’s more of an expression of this concept rather than the cause of it, but it provides us with the best examples. For instance, remember that whole Kony 2012 campaign that lay waste to our Facebook pages this past year? As soon as that video was out, it seemed, there was a Tumblr critiquing its message and rhetoric. I watched the Kony 2012 video and read the critical blogs of it while I was watching it. There was no room, no space or time for me to think about it on my own. Did that change how I viewed it? Probably. Did it enrich my viewing of it? I absolutely think so. I could have purposefully delayed it, but knowing the entire story before I had experienced the story made it easier for me to consume the whole product, artifact and cultural response to it. I don’t have to read the spoilers on Television Without Pity religiously. I don’t have to read the spoilers on IMBD. I don’t have to flip to the backs of books. But I do. I want to. Sometimes, I feel like I have to, because of my hunger for information, to be in, to be a part of the larger conversation happening around me, around all of us all the time.
With the way we communicate in this accelerated culture, nothing stays hidden for long. Once a book is published, an episode aired, a movie opened, it exists in our collective knowledge. The media becomes more than just a Thing We Can Talk About; it becomes a Thing We All Know, Whether We Want to or Not. I didn’t spoil the first two seasons of Breaking Bad for Eric and his friend, because in spite of all my defense here, spoiling things for people is a really obnoxious thing to do. But I wonder if more people aren’t like me, and don’t just indulge in spoilers for the vacuous joy of knowing the shocking ending. Rather, we spoil them because we have to in order to actually understand and process everything in front of us. Because the simultaneity of media requires that we do. Because we want to know the end. Because we have to know the end, perhaps, in order to truly enjoy the beginning.