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(HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

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The Internet Is Spoiling TV

These days, you’re not done watching a big TV show until you’ve consulted the subreddits and subscribed to a couple of podcasts. But what if all that theorizing is messing with what makes great shows great?

There’s a thought experiment I like to call the "Wikipedia Test."

It goes like this: If I’m watching a plot-heavy show and I’m unsure I want to continue, I read the synopsis section of the show’s Wikipedia page, thereby spoiling the plot for myself. Do I still want to watch? If so, the show passes. If not, I was only watching to find out what happens next — and while Wikipedia plot summaries can’t communicate more than a fraction of what they’re summarizing, they’re very good at communicating what happens next.

Because Wikipedia isn’t clairvoyant, the test almost exclusively applies to older or ongoing shows with back catalogs available through streaming. (I was late to get into Homeland and early to bail on it.) But now we have Westworld, the rare show it’s possible to Wikipedia Test while it’s still on the air.

Westworld is part of an elite yet troubled class. They’ve captured the increasingly elusive zeitgeist, every Peak TV–era executive’s dream, and yet they’ve found it to be a mixed blessing. Often genre, always story-centric, shows like Mr. Robot, Game of Thrones, Westworld, and their shared ancestor Lost face enormous pressure, partially self-inflicted, to deliver jaw-dropping twists and stay one step ahead of an ever-savvier audience in order to pull them off. As Westworld’s shown, they can’t always. We’re currently living in a paradoxical TV moment: "Spoilers" are considered sacrosanct, and yet we do our damnedest to figure out what they are. We rush to do the Wikipedia Test — and then to check Reddit, and the recap, and the podcast. Preserving a pop culture property’s sanctity and plumbing its depths are just two different ways of showing how much you care.

So how are shows shouldering the burden of that scrutiny, provided they’re lucky enough to earn it? Is rabid sleuthing an entertaining appendix to a show, or a distraction from it? Are we loving our TV to death?

Westworld the show is inextricable from Westworld the research project. Westworld the show is what airs on HBO on Sunday nights at nine: the story of an NC-17 Frontierland, its man-made populace, and the humans who maintain and take advantage of them. Westworld the research project is all that, plus a cottage industry that sprung up faster than an actual Old West boomtown: the subreddit. The recaps. The podcasts on podcasts. The whole online enterprise is single-mindedly focused on decoding Westworld like the back of a cereal box, and for the most part, it’s succeeded. Westworld fans thought head programmer Bernard was actually a host … and he was. Westworld fans thought Bernard was a host modeled after deceased park cofounder Arnold, who pushed surviving cofounder Robert Ford to make the hosts more lifelike … and he was. Westworld fans thought William, the wimpy first-time guest who’s fallen for host Dolores, was actually a younger version of Ed Harris’s mysteriously macho Man in Black … and we’re almost certainly 10 seconds of finale away from confirming he was.

Though Westworld has only started to validate these theories over the past few weeks, they’ve been circulating since its earliest episodes. That’s left more than a month for the hive mind to come up with possibilities far more ornate than Westworld was likely to provide, but also time to step back and ask a few rather important questions: What if all this was true? If we’d really "solved" the plot, what did that leave us with? Did Westworld pass the Wikipedia Test? To put it in big-picture terms: Did Westworld the research project ultimately enhance Westworld the show, or spoil it, in every sense of the word?

One certainly could enjoy Westworld the show in isolation, limiting the speculation to your own processing power and therefore preserving at least some of the surprise. (For example: I’d probably have pieced together Bernard’s identity on my own, but the Man in Black-William connection would have taken a while.) But the theories are virtually inescapable given even a cursory engagement with the show; they’re rounded up in well-read recaps and mainstream publications rather than left to ferment on the forums. More importantly, Westworld feels reverse-engineered to provoke exactly this kind of anticipatory craze.

(HBO)
(HBO)

Time after time, Westworld has chosen to preserve or deepen a mystery rather than enrich other elements of the show, particularly character. It’s an approach that made sense throughout the show’s enjoyable early episodes; after all, part of a pilot’s job is to spark interest by posing questions viewers will tune in next week in hopes they’ll be answered. But as the first season went on and those answers never arrived, it became clear the mystery wasn’t a preamble to the main event — it was the main event, with answers, rather than their consequences, serving as the climax.

Nobody represents those priorities more than Ford and Bernard/Arnold, a contrast that contains some of its most intriguing ideas: one believes in honoring his creations, even if it means sacrificing himself; the other wants to spare them the trauma of memory — which also happens to keep them under his tight control. Except we’ve never actually gotten to see this debate play out beyond Ford’s one-sided summary. Bernard’s true identity was kept from us for the bulk of the season, then shortchanged by yet another twist (he’s not just a host — he’s Arnold!), and then cut off entirely by his suicide. Ford himself has clearly undergone some kind of important shift, setting up a grandiose, climactic "narrative" and disposing of his valued deputy. But we don’t know what that shift is, what it’s spurred by, or what it means for the hosts, because Westworld’s opted to preserve Ford’s mystique as an opaque supervillain rather than engage with his substance.

It’s a show’s prerogative to emphasize certain components over others. But the problem with trading themes for twists, as Westworld has, is that twists can be anticipated; when there’s as little else to focus on as there is here, it’s practically a self-fulfilling prophecy. Which leaves precious little for the show to fall back on once the inevitable happens and the fans crack the code.

Westworld isn’t the first show to attract this level of amateur detective work. Its most obvious antecedent is Lost, the show that essentially invented internet fandom culture as we know it. Lost was made for an era when much of TV plotting was done on the fly, and when stories could be cut short or extended at any time by networks imposing their will on showrunners with much less leverage than they currently enjoy. (One of The West Wing’s seminal plot points, President Bartlet’s multiple sclerosis, was essentially made up on a whim and only fully integrated into the show when Aaron Sorkin realized what a massive liability he had given his main character.) But Lost created a community that expected the same level of care in planning a series that they took in analyzing it — then revolted and permanently traumatized its cocreator Damon Lindelof when that expectation wasn’t met. Critics were correct in pointing out that it seemed like Lost’s producers were making things up as they went along, because they were. That was the norm.

One fallout from the Lost phenomenon was a rise in shows that really were planned out years in advance, even voluntarily ending when they had reached their natural endpoint. Vince Gilligan explicitly distanced Breaking Bad from the infinitely renewable network model: "The very design of Breaking Bad was that it was a finite, closed-ended series," he told EW after the series finale. Another takeaway was the Mr. Robot approach, in which creator Sam Esmail has repeatedly emphasized that surprise is "not the point," and reveals like Mr. Robot’s identity and protagonist Elliot’s institutionalization were "foreshadowed … as much as we could." (It didn’t take a hacking savant to figure out a show with a heavy dose of Fight Club homage would have its very own Tyler Durden.) Though the success of that strategy faltered significantly in Mr. Robot’s uneven second season, the intent was clear. Esmail wanted fans to judge Mr. Robot on other merits — its frequently experimental visuals and portraits of social isolation. Fans were free to take their best guess about Whiterose’s plans or the precise nature of Phase 2, but those theory-friendly plot points were meant to be a supplemental pleasure, not the main event.

As with True Detective’s first season, though, what fans latched onto (potentially supernatural death cult/cyber-thriller) and what the creator wanted them to latch onto (hard-boiled noir/family drama) were two different things. The internet spent seven wonderful weeks spinning Carcosa into a Lovecraftian fantasia, only to find Nic Pizzolatto on the other end asking why we were so disappointed. Though the comedown for Mr. Robot wasn’t as extreme, it confirmed the cautionary tale that True Detective began: Be careful what you wishfully think about, because it’s possible you were never going to get it. Still, when something’s as straight-up confounding as Mr. Robot Season 2, one man’s crazy conjecture is another’s attempt to answer the more basic query of "What the hell is happening?"

(HBO)
(HBO)

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have refrained from laying down a similar line for Westworld, though Nolan has expressed admiration for Esmail’s work. Instead, they’ve acknowledged the possibility fans will inadvertently spoil the show for themselves while expressing the hope that reveals will register on an emotional level anyway: "The twist is one thing," Joy told The Hollywood Reporter. "But the way that it lands? That’s what sticks."

It’s an admirable goal, one that other shows have managed to meet even if Westworld hasn’t. A few weeks ago, the entire plot of Game of Thrones’ penultimate season supposedly leaked on Reddit. Dubiously trustworthy as the "spoilers" are, I’ve thought about them a lot over the past few installments of Westworld. Actually, I’ve mostly thought about how I haven’t thought about them, though I dutifully read the whole Thrones thing just in case — because as seismic as X’s death or Y’s and Z’s meeting may be, what happens matters infinitely less than watching it happen. You can’t really spoil "two people sit in a bathtub and talk about honor," even though it’s the best scene Thrones has ever done; you can say "a dragon is about to ether some slavers," but it doesn’t compare to watching our heroine trump-card a bunch of men who’ve underestimated her. We watch Game of Thrones for people we care about dealing with what their absurdly cruel world throws at them, however predictable that cruelty turns out to be. It’s a show that has twists but doesn’t rely on them. It passes the Wikipedia Test.

Mr. Robot’s theory and Game of Thrones practice offer a road map for the future of spoiler-prone shows, Westworld included. They don’t necessarily accept spoiling as an inevitability, but they do hedge for it in a way that also happens to be good storytelling. Where Westworld goes all in on intrigue, these shows diversify, offering plenty to invest in beyond a potential future surprise. Best-case scenario, it can even work as a sleight of hand: We’re so busy parsing a relationship or scene we’re not bothering to anticipate what’s next. Legitimate blindsiding ensues.

That’s the optimal path for Westworld, whose six-season blueprint hopefully includes a second installment that sorts through the fallout of Season 1’s reveals, rather than building up a set of new ones. The rest of television, though, might look not to Lost, but Lindelof’s follow-up. The Leftovers is a truly great show in its own right, but it’s instructive in this case as Lost’s coda, one that veers so far away from plot as to be virtually unspoilable. Where other shows depend on mystery and therefore momentum, The Leftovers rests on a permanent unknown — a mass disappearance that can’t be explained by science or religion, let alone the show’s characters. There are no answers here; The Leftovers is literally a show about not having answers, and knowing they’ll never come. Partly because of this, The Leftovers hasn’t captured the imagination the way true spoiler-bait has, and since it’s ending after next season, it never will. Yet TV doesn’t need to be as extreme as The Leftovers is to follow its example of fascination without false promises. It’s the anti-mystery box.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.

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