NOVEMBER 8, 2014
THE PILOT of the new CW series The Flash is one of the most oddly paced, fractured television episodes I’ve ever seen. The super-velocity whoosh of the show’s hero, Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), seems to have addled the creators’ collective brains; the episode zips stochastically from Barry’s tragic, childhood loss of his mother to a freak lightning strike and through his nine months in a coma. Important events are skipped over then retold in jokey two-second asides; the romantic subplot spasms, rejiggers, runs into fast-forward, and then pauses with its right foot lodged behind its left ear. In the final moments of the pilot, the scientist guy who wasn’t in a wheelchair and then was in a wheelchair suddenly, shockingly, stands up and reveals he doesn’t need a wheelchair, like all those other sneaky, slacking supervillains before him. Then he magically looks into the future at a newspaper about a “Crisis” years down the road, which longtime comics fans will remember as a plot point in the 1985 Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series. Past and future thump against each other in a high-speed pratfall devoid of suspense or interest. When the whole plot is an incoherent jumble of snags and kinks, who can care about the twist ending?
However, if you are someone who cares about a twist ending, then, of course, I’ve spoiled it for you.
People hate spoilers. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Derek Thompson says that he nearly sustained bodily injury and/or lost a friend when he mentioned over coffee that Walter White died at the end of Breaking Bad. I’ve often had editors tell me to rework a piece in order to avoid spoilers, because they know they’ll get hate mail otherwise. I’ve even had some commenters complain about spoilers when I’ve written about decades-old films. You’d think everybody would know by now that Darth Vader is the sled and Rosebud is his father, but folks still get cranky when you say it out loud. Thompson, however, points out that you don’t necessarily ruin enjoyment of a film if you reveal spoilers, and he points to psychological research that suggests, in most cases, people actually get more pleasure out of a story when they already know the ending. Adam Sternbergh argues along similar lines when he writes that “[a]nticipation is certainly one of the pleasures fine films and TV can offer us, but it’s not the only one, and frankly, it’s probably the cheapest.” Rather than obsessing about twist endings and plot reveals, Sternbergh says we should bask in the other, lovely details along the way: acting, dialogue, characterization, staging. Worrying about spoilers, he worries, detracts from enjoyment more than do the spoilers themselves.
Thompson and Sternbergh reject the dictatorship of the spoiler. But they don’t really reject the reasoning behind “spoiler worry.” That reasoning is, in a word, pleasure. Readers of reviews do not want the ending spoiled because they feel it will reduce their pleasure of viewing. Thompson and Sternbergh say, on the contrary, that spoiling the ending can increase pleasure. But in both cases, the purpose of the review, the primary goal of writing about a movie or television show, is to enhance enjoyment. Whether by avoiding spoilers or embracing them, the point is to not ruin the thing you’re watching. Thompson and Sternbergh are endorsing the anti-spoiler crowd’s Hippocratic view of critical writing: The art is important and delicate. If you’re going to talk about it, first, do no harm.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this approach to criticism — but it’s worth recognizing that it is only one approach. Academic writing pretty much never worries about spoilers. A scholarly study of Pride and Prejudice won’t shy away from telling you that, yes, Darcy and Elizabeth get engaged. For that matter, a scholarly study of Citizen Kane isn’t going to be coy about that sled.
Academics don’t worry about spoilers, in part, because there’s a scholarly presumption that everyone has read the whole work, or at least is interested in talking about the whole work. You’re there not only for the genre’s pleasures but also to try to understand the art in a global or contextual way, and for that you need to look at the entirety of the work. You could say that academics actually value the work more than fans do, since the academics think the work is so important that you have to look at it all, even unto the surprise ending.
It’s also the case, though, that the academic approach is often enabled by valuing the work less — or, at least, by thinking that the review, or the criticism, is potentially as important as the work being criticized. When Linda Williams writes about The Wire, she tells you when and how Stringer Bell dies because her main goal is to explain something to you about tragedy and melodrama, and that goal is more important to her than preserving the elements of suspense for a potential viewer of the show. James Baldwin isn’t an academic writer, but he’s operating in a similar paradigm. In his amazing work of film criticism The Devil Finds Work, he just up and tells you that the little girl survives in The Exorcist, and that the priest doesn’t. Baldwin wants to use The Exorcist to analyze, and think about, race in America, and that analysis is what’s important, not the film.
In some cases criticism can go beyond simply not caring about spoilers to actually, actively wanting to spoil. Take, for instance, Mark Twain’s takedown of James Fenimore Cooper:
Pathfinder showed off handsomely that day before the ladies. His very first feat a thing which no Wild West show can touch. He was standing with the group of marksmen, observing — a hundred yards from the target, mind; one Jasper rasper raised his rifle and drove the center of the bull’s-eye. Then the Quartermaster fired. The target exhibited no result this time. There was a laugh. “It’s a dead miss,” said Major Lundie. Pathfinder waited an impressive moment or two; then said, in that calm, indifferent, know-it-all way of his, “No, Major, he has covered Jasper’s bullet, as will be seen if any one will take the trouble to examine the target.”
Wasn’t it remarkable! How could he see that little pellet fly through the air and enter that distant bullet-hole? Yet that is what he did; for nothing is impossible to a Cooper person. Did any of those people have any deep-seated doubts about this thing? No; for that would imply sanity, and these were all Cooper people.
If you suggested to Twain that he had spoiled the suspenseful set piece by telling you that the bullet hit the target, he would have no doubt stared at you incredulously. Spoil Cooper? The whole point of the passage is that there is nothing to spoil; Cooper is vapid, spoiled nonsense from the get-go. The excerpt above is not a passage meant to enhance your enjoyment of The Leatherstocking Tales. It’s a passage meant to jump up and down on The Leatherstocking Tales, to kick The Leatherstocking Tales, and to make those who like The Leatherstocking Tales take themselves off to some distant forest and huddle down in shame and sorrow.
Similarly, when Laura Mulvey wrote about Hollywood cinema in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she didn’t want you coming away with a deeper, more fulfilling experience of narrative film. Instead, she hoped that pointing out the sexist, sexual gaze in film would make people unable to enjoy Hollywood movies in the same way, or even at all.
The first blow against the monolithic accumulation of traditional film conventions […] is to free […] the look of the audience into dialectics, passionate detachment. There is no doubt that this destroys the satisfaction, pleasure and privilege of the “invisible guest,” and highlights how film has depended on voyeuristic active/passive mechanisms. Women, whose image has continually been stolen and used for this end, cannot view the decline of the traditional film form with anything more than sentimental regret.
Mulvey doesn’t reveal a twist ending, but she does want to spoil your fun, or, at least, she wants to replace the pleasure of viewing cinema with the pleasure of analyzing, dethroning, and rethinking cinema — with the pleasure of reading her essay.
When fans or viewers insist on spoiler-free criticism, they are privileging a certain approach to art — reverent, deferential, and committed to a consciously naïve pleasure of immersion. Critics like Linda Williams, Mark Twain, James Baldwin, and Laura Mulvey, though, insist that art offers other possible pleasures and displeasures. They also insist, in various ways, that criticism is itself a form of art. The call for “no spoilers” can, in that context, become a form of philistinism or censorship. Taking the spoiler from the criticism can spoil the criticism, when the aesthetic purpose of the criticism is to spoil (for example) The Flash.
The rise of spoiler-free criticism seems like a move away from criticism as art and a move toward criticism as an arm of fan marketing. It’s fine to not want spoilers in your criticism. But there is something distasteful about the assumption that providing spoilers is some sort of lapse in ethics or etiquette. If you don’t treat art first as a consumer product, the spoiler-free doctrine seems to suggest, you’re being cruel and unfair. But critics really are not under any obligation to like what you like or to treat art with one particular kind of reverence. In the name of preserving suspense, the command to remain spoiler-free threatens to make criticism and art more blandly uniform, and less surprising.