Death to the spoiler police

As finale season gets under way, it's time to take a stand against the scolds ruining things for the rest of us

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 20, 2010 12:01PM (EDT)

Rosebud is a sled. Bruce Willis' Malcolm Crowe in "Sixth Sense" is actually dead, but Michel Delasalle from "Diabolique" is not. Soylent Green is people, and Sandra won the latest "Survivor." Spoiler police, up yours.

I am a great fan of the pleasures of surprise. When I discuss or review new films and books, I'm cautious not to disclose key plot twists. But as I find myself in the thick of finale season and drowning in a sea of springtime blockbusters, it seems I can't have a decent water cooler conversation without feeling like I'm tap dancing through a minefield of, "Wait, wait, don't tell me!" So let's get a few things straight: Starting with the fact that once a work enters the pop culture vernacular, it is not society's responsibility to provide you with earmuffs until you finally get around to experiencing it.

Now, there are different levels of spoilage. It's a reasonable courtesy not to blab the outcome of last night's "American Idol" if it's Thursday morning and a busy co-worker says she's DVR'd it for later. If it's the summer of 2007, don't broadcast all the stuff that goes down in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" to your friends who are slower readers.

But for the love of God, if you really don't want to know about a book/movie/television show, do the rest of the world a favor and stop hanging out in the online discussion groups about it. Sure, if you live in a time zone where your favorite show has not yet aired, you could go on any of the many websites devoted to it and rage about the injustice of it all, like the poster in a "24" thread who complained, "Your East Coast arrogance that once it airs on the East Coast, it's fair game to blog about -- and ruin for us on the West Coast -- is beyond stunning." Or you maybe could restrain yourself from joining the discussion for three measly hours.

And with regard to reviews, let it be noted that a critic describing what occurred is not tantamount to spoiling it. A few years ago, when I reviewed M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening," I carefully avoided the film's big reveals and even added the requisite warning at the top. Yet I still received angry e-mails from readers who complained I'd said too much. It wasn't surprising. Though reviews and television recaps routinely come with surgeon general-level warnings about their possible content, inevitably, comments sections teem with irate readers outraged they've been tainted by plot disclosure.

I'm pretty sure nobody's holding anybody down and forcing them to read those "House" recaps. But at least the folks sensitive to what's unfolding on television right now can make a case for a little time. On the other hand, if you don't know that the mysterious hairdresser from "The Crying Game" has a penis, that's on you. New "Planet of the Apes" fans may be born into every generation, but the gag rule on shocking endings only applies for so long.

On the other end of the spectrum are the folks who get in a lather over things that haven't even been released yet. These are the people who, when you ask, "Are you watching the 'Lost' finale?" throw up a warning hand and say, "Don't talk about it! I don't want to know!" They greet online speculation with a scold, conflating guessing with knowing. And people with no apparent psychic ability find themselves deferentially writing on message boards that "I predict **SPOILER**…" so as not to give offense.

Do these die-hards ever consider that maybe they're the ones spoiling things -- for the rest of us? I promise I won't blurt the ending of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" when you're behind me in the ticket line. If, in fact, you tell me directly you've never seen "The Third Man," I will simply say you're in for a treat. But how about you assume if you're in an online discussion about the film, maybe that's a space for people who've seen it and want to discuss it? Or the fact that you're just now getting hip to "The Wire" doesn't impose a cone of silence on it for anybody else?

The Internet makes it tough to keep a lid on anything, it's true. Yet in an age when plot twists are always just a Google search term away, somehow the notion that information wants to be free has found its ass well kicked by those who insist their right to have a pure entertainment experience is everybody else's problem. Besides, how important is it, really, to go into everything a tabula rasa, waiting for some big gotcha? Studios exploit that desire for novelty all the time, hoping that the public itch to know the big secrets of "Orphan" or "Shutter Island" will bring in unsuspecting crowds to their otherwise ho-hum movies. Anything that relies deeply on that final twist is probably not worth the time invested in it anyway.

Shakespeare spoils "Romeo and Juliet" right in the prologue. (They die, by the way.) Theodore Dreiser didn't call his novel "An American Story That I Can't Say Anything More About." And I hate to blow it for you, but "Death in Venice" lives up to its name. Not everything is a whodunit, and a work is more than its outcome. Suspense is a lovely element, but it's not the whole megillah; if it were, nobody would ever watch a Hitchcock film twice.

I'm not trying to harsh on anyone else's enjoyment. I have no idea how "Lost" is going to end, and I won't talk about "Iron Man" unless you want to. I'd just like those who haven't caught up to consider that those of us who have aren't going to wait around forever for them to do so before we speak about books or movies or TV shows. Not every conversation needs to come with a warning. Oh, and Vader? He's totally Luke's father.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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