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Spoiler alert: Logan Roy is dead. The grizzled paterfamilias of HBO’s acclaimed drama Succession met his maker in an episode screened in the UK on Monday, and great pains were taken by journalists not to give away this major plot-point. Except the Los Angeles Times – which decided to publish an obituary of Logan once the episode had aired. Outrage followed, to the extent that you would think the media outlet had falsely predicted the apocalypse.
The LA Times clearly didn’t deserve that level of vituperation, but it did bring back into focus the question of spoilers, and how much people care about knowing what happens in a TV series or film or book. It’s an age-old problem. In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock urged audiences not to reveal the denouement of Psycho to those who had yet to see it. “Please don’t give away the ending,” he said. “It’s the only one we have.”
Since then, cinemagoers and film critics in particular have been asked to tread carefully when it comes to such things. Films such as The Sixth Sense – in which it is revealed that Bruce Willis’s character Malcolm has been dead all along – or Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – which offers a counter-historical version of the 1969 “Manson murders” in which actress Sharon Tate is not present and thus survives – have hinged on the fact that audiences must see the film unprepared; that knowing what happens beforehand will ruin their enjoyment.
I think people are being over-sensitive. A spoiler is, after all, just a plot-point, and if we obsess about such things, we lose some of the reason for watching or reading something – that is, to immerse ourselves in a world, to engage and sympathise with a character. I have seen Romeo and Juliet dozens of times, and such is the richness of the characters, the scale of the tragedy of the young lovers’ plight, I never cease to be moved by the devastation at the end of the play. (Actually, I did once see a terrible production in which I willed them both to hurry up and die, but anyway.)
I knew about the death of Logan Roy several weeks ago, and while respectful of not wanting to raise the ire of The Daily Telegraph readers – as we did when we announced the death of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey after the embargo had lifted – I was happy to have found out early. In fact, my prior knowledge meant that I was able to zoom in on Logan in the previous two episodes; subtle little moments, which I would have missed had I been ignorant of the outcome, gained weight.
Similarly, 30 years ago, I was told about the “shock” twist in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game by a friend – the fact that Stephen Rea’s hard-nut Provisional IRA soldier falls for a woman, played by Jaye Davidson, who is revealed, explicitly, to be transsexual – and found that the early scenes between the two actors fizzed with a particular emotional power because I knew what was coming.
I know I am not alone in thinking this. Not only do friends of mine feel the same, but there have been academic surveys, too. A study at the University of California San Diego showed that people who were given “spoiled” stories enjoyed them more than those who weren’t. Sometimes a revelation in advance can even be beneficial to a programme or film-maker. In America, there is a show called Jeopardy, a trivia quiz that has been running for more than half a century. When contestant James Holzhauer’s winning streak was revealed in advance, ratings went through the roof. If we know something big is going to happen we want to watch.
We live in the age of spoilers. The internet has made it very hard to avoid knowing outcomes, while you could argue that the trend for binge-watching on streaming services such as Netflix has made the case for not wanting to know what happens redundant. I tried to cast my mind back to my childhood – where everything came as a surprise – to
remember the shock of seeing Darth Vader tell Luke Skywalker he is his father, or Zammo McGuire lying in a drug-addled stupor behind an amusement arcade. These were big reveals, but I can’t honestly say that their bolt-of-lightning nature made me enjoy them all the more.
Not only are we living in the age of spoilers, but also in the age of plot, and my hunch is that that’s why we get so angry when we find out something in advance. If people were more invested in ideas, nuance and characterisation, then TV and film would probably cater for such tastes, rather than simply feeding the beast. Production companies have become particularly jittery about such things, with actors auditioning for roles having to sign all sorts of insane non-disclosure agreements before they even come close to the role of their dreams – which they probably won’t even get. Paranoid film franchises will even shoot multiple endings.
The spoiler issue makes things particularly difficult for critics. Sometimes they are asked by directors not to give anything away; the Russo Brothers, for instance, did this for 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. Given the increasingly depressing
Marvel-ification of cinema and TV, in which franchises rely on plot and little else, it is going to be harder for reviewers not to feel straitjacketed. The fact is that good criticism often relies on opening up a story for discussion, and for that you may have to get into the minutiae.
I hope that the LA Times is not too downhearted over the reaction to its obituary. Reports of Logan Roy’s death were not greatly exaggerated: they were fact. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go and watch The Godfather. There will be blood, apparently.
How do you feel about spoilers? Did any here surprise you? Let us know in the comments section below