While Redditors are only a small portion of a TV series’ fan base, they usually make the most noise. HBO’s Westworld, for instance, has around 368,000 users subscribed to its subreddit—a tiny fraction of the show’s 1.75 million weekly viewers (and that’s just based on traditional ratings metrics). But if you were casually perusing the subreddit and checking out fan theories during Westworld’s first season, it might have felt like experiencing the show alongside an all-knowing oracle. Because give credit where it’s due: The internet did a great job predicting Westworld’s biggest twists.
Does figuring out the twists make or break a show like Westworld, and at what point does reading fan theories turn into straight-up spoilers? Other shows—most notably HBO counterpart Game of Thrones—have been put under a similar microscope by fans, but the constant theorizing feels especially intrinsic to Westworld’s DNA. Westworld, like Lost before it, is a byproduct of puzzle-box enthusiast J.J. Abrams (an executive producer of Westworld). And like Lost, the show could struggle to keep audiences happy if they aren’t provided clear-cut answers to mysterious, lingering questions brought to the fore; just ask poor Damon Lindelof after the Lost finale let the mystery be. This interplay also comes with a cost: If the mystery is too predictable and stalled for far too long—as with Mr. Robot’s prison reveal in Season 2—fans are disappointed, and hours of TV are wasted.
But what if Westworld tried to function without all these mysteries at its center? It appeared that showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy were willing to test that idea going into Season 2, which premieres April 22. In a Reddit AMA on Monday, the cocreators shockingly wrote that they were going to post a video detailing all of the new season’s twists for fans who wanted answers. “That way the members of the community here who want the season spoiled for them can watch ahead,” they explained, “and then protect the rest of the community, and help to distinguish between what’s ‘theory’ and what’s spoiler.” Nolan and Joy added that the cast was “fully supportive” of the decision, though there was no mention of HBO. (When reached for comment, an HBO rep provided this statement: “This is an initiative from the Westworld showrunners. We suggest you stay tuned to Reddit for their next move.”) All that was left was for Reddit to upvote their post a measly 1,000 times, and a spoiler-filled Season 2 explainer would be on the way.
Or would it? The post caused a fracas for outlets that even vaguely cover the entertainment world: The biggest show of the spring just said it was going to spoil its new season! This was either the strangest PR move in recent television history, or a massive troll from the creators who just last month said they “love to fuck with Reddit as much as possible.” It was the latter.
On Monday night, a video was uploaded to YouTube that began with Westworld’s Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) waking up on a beach with no memory, while a voice-over from the character stated that he’d seek answers in Sweetwater. Once in Sweetwater … Angela Sarafyan’s Clementine started playing the piano while Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores performed a soothing rendition of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the official, longtime anthem of internet trolls. “Dear Reddit,” a white text read over a black screen. “From all of us here at Westworld, thank you for watching. We hope you enjoy season two.” (The video continued on for more than 20 minutes, showing a very good dog sitting by a piano; I can’t say it was a complete waste of time.)
Admittedly, this was a well-executed troll. Wright’s Bernard hit the show’s paranoid tone just right, and right when you started to let yourself think, “Are they really doing this?” Wood started singing (quite well, actually!). All told, it provided unique buzz ahead of Westworld’s premiere, and is the only marketing decision in recent memory to inspire Twitter threads.
And yet, the whole stunt—that it was just a prank—feels a tad disappointing.
There are bits of truth to Nolan and Joy’s initial post: “It’s a new age. And a new world in terms of the relationship between the folks making shows and the community watching them.” Spoiler culture has enveloped certain shows, especially ones like Westworld that fashion themselves as puzzles that need to be solved. In turn, showrunners need to adapt to this heightened level of scrutiny or risk being embarrassed by their own fans. The Thrones team tried—and failed—to make Jon Snow’s death and subsequent resurrection a between-seasons cliff-hanger, but Kit Harington was spotted on the set several times with his signature mopey Jon Snow haircut. When he was resurrected in the second episode of the next season, the general reaction was, “Well, yeah.” In 2018, the onus is on creators to understand that the digital landscape hasn’t just changed how people watch television, but how they consume it. Shows are always under a microscope—even when the cameras stop rolling.
In March, Nolan and Joy excitedly declared that Season 2 would have an “all-new Rubik’s Cube narrative puzzle box” for viewers. Reddit was up to the task in that first season, so it was safe to assume they’d dive into the maze once again and come out with some of the answers before Nolan and Joy were ready to reveal them.
But if Westworld did spoil itself, would it ruin the show? Studies have shown that knowing spoilers ahead of time can make a show more enjoyable. And if the discourse around Westworld was less about theorizing on what’s going to happen next—because that’s already known, or at least readily available online—the focus would be on the storytelling itself. There was so much attention paid to fan theories in that first season that, at times, Westworld felt less like a show than an exercise in riddle-solving.
With the buzz of spoilers stripped away, we could judge Westworld beyond its puzzles and the theories that seek to solve them. And Nolan and Joy could focus on making a TV show with deep philosophical ruminations about consciousness and free will, rather than making an increasingly complex mind game replete with Easter eggs and hidden clues. Perhaps that’s what was so intriguing about their declaration on Reddit: the confidence it seemed to suggest. Because if Nolan and Joy were so ambivalent about fans knowing the solution to Season 2’s central riddle, they would have to have been sure that they made a season of TV that went deeper and was richer than maze-driven plots. Releasing a video full of spoilers would have made a statement: “We don’t care if you know what’s going to happen, because the show is about far more than that.”
But, it was just a prank, a well-orchestrated Rickroll. The irony is that this move doubles down on Reddit theorizing; Nolan and Joy just winked at redditors and all but teased them: “Good luck figuring out this season.” By encouraging Reddit to spin the wheels on whatever’s in store, the dynamics of fan-theory culture will remain at status quo. What the Westworld showrunners ended up doing was cheeky, but not at all groundbreaking. The thing that could’ve separated the show from its puzzle-box-inclined peers (Mr. Robot, Legion, Thrones, etc.) was a radical upheaval of spoiler culture; instead, Westworld is doing more of the same. That’s a twist anyone could have predicted.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.