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Could Westworld’s crazy season 2 spoiler plan have worked?

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In an AMA, Westworld’s creators promised to spoil the entire upcoming season, but it was a prank. But what if they’d followed through?

Photo courtesy of HBO

Well that was intense. On Monday, April 9th, Westworld creators Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy held a Reddit AMA where they announced that they were planning to post a video spoiling the entirety of the upcoming second season of Westworld. Nolan put it like this:

We thought about this long and hard, and came to a difficult (and potentially highly controversial) decision. If you guys agree, we’re going to post a video that lays out the plot (and twists and turns) of season 2. Everything. The whole sordid thing. Up front. That way the members of the community here who want the season spoiled for them can watch ahead, and then protect the rest of the community, and help to distinguish between what’s ‘theory’ and what’s spoiler.

It’s a new age, and a new world in terms of the relationship between the folks making shows and the community watching them. And trust is a big part of that. We’ve made our cast part of this decision, and they’re fully supportive. We’re so excited to be in this with you guys together. So if this post reaches a 1000 upvotes we’ll deliver the goods.

Of course the news was widely reported, and fans passionately weighed in on both sides of the debate: would having full spoilers available cut down on the cottage industry of outguessing the series as it aired? Or would it just make it utterly impossible for spoiler-averse viewers to avoid the trolls trying to interfere with their viewing experience? As it turns out, though, it didn’t matter: the post got its thousand upvotes, and in response, the Westworld crew posted… a custom-made Rickroll.

So, no creator-endorsed spoilers for you, and we’re back to where we were with the first season: with the understanding that the fans and critics, trained by the show’s insanely elaborate scavenger hunt of a marketing campaign, will continue analyzing every frame of the show and theorizing about every new plot twist. But could the spoiler-video plan have worked? Could it have changed the narrative around Westworld? Is that even something we want? We’re of different minds here. Let’s talk it out.

Devon Maloney, Internet Culture Editor: For me, watching people online react positively to the prospect of having an entire season of television spoiled in advance by the showrunners was bizarre, if not totally surreal. One of the most compelling parts of Westworld as a show has been its mystery. Like The Prestige, which Nolan co-wrote, the structure of the story is built on breadcrumbs that naturally prompt audiences to theorize and speculate among themselves, both during and after the show airs.

In the case of Westworld season 1, fans and journalists alike did indeed figure out the twist(s) in advance of their reveals, but I don’t understand the appeal of having the answers upfront because the creators handed them out. Isn’t the journey the entire point? The twists “revealed” online aren’t spoilers, just theories. Nolan and Joy evoked Game of Thrones to suggest how spoiling the show for everyone might have a positive result, because knowing how things on that series would play out was still fun for audiences who had read the books. But that’s a false equivalence, because Westworld isn’t an adaptation of a novel series. People who read the Game of Thrones books still got to experience the reveals when they were reading. There was an element of surprise for them at some point. And the show was different enough to keep them guessing. So I don’t see how the spoiler plan would improve anything. I can imagine it must be frustrating as a creator to have people immediately figure out your carefully crafted, elaborate plot twists. But responding by taking away the fun of the fan theory is prioritizing the creators’ egos over the way people choose to enjoy their art.

Photo courtesy of HBO

Tasha Robinson, Film / TV Editor: But I don’t think they were cutting down on ways for people to enjoy their work — if anything, they were suggesting a new option. I thought the initial outlined plan was clever, because it invited people to consider what they really want out of Westworld, and to choose their own experience, whether that meant getting ahead of the plot, or shutting out spoilers entirely. It felt like they were pushing viewers to consider whether they really want all the answers up front. It seemed like a unique social experiment, a chance to try something that hasn’t been tried before. It was an unconventional idea, but that’s what made it so compelling to me.

And it seemed more daring and creative than what the show is doing right now. I’ve been frustrated with Westworld’s reliance on twists and reveals, especially where concealing information from the audience has meant stretching out plots past their sell-by date. There’s been a lot of repetition in Westworld, in places where the plot could stand to move forward faster. And the endless circling has replaced actually grappling with the fascinating ethical questions raised in the first two episodes. There’s a lot of shock and joy in a single game-changing twist, but when a story relies this heavily on shock value, it also depends on the audience not being able to see certain things coming. And stretching out the narrative this much has given fans plenty of time to discuss, debate, and see everything coming. There’s been so much complaining about the anticipation culture around this show — why not change the narrative entirely by undercutting the people who only care about the destination instead of the journey?

In retrospect, I’m embarrassed I fell for the prank. Of course the creators aren’t going to spoil the next season, because that would cut down on people endlessly speculating about the show, which gives Westworld more press and attention. Isn’t it more egotistical to expect viewers to have these endless debates? Giving away the game and trusting viewers with those reveals strikes me as a much more ego-free act than playing the “You’ll never guess my puzzle in time!” game.

Photo courtesy of HBO

Devon: As for the show’s over-reliance on twists, I don’t disagree with you on that point. I’ll admit it does get exhausting to constantly be thinking about the show along two rails: what’s happening onscreen, and which fan theory might best contextualize what’s happening onscreen. And the ethical dimensions are under-examined at a time when we need that kind of incisive cultural commentary about tech more than ever. (This is the part where I shamelessly plug Jonah Nolan’s previous show, Person of Interest, as one of the most incisive series about AI and tech ethics of this era in television. Nolan would do well to bring more of that show’s philosophy to Westworld.)

But if the twists are the problem, the hypothetical choice to spoil those twists in advance seems like an overcorrection, when the problem might have been solved far more easily by simply changing up the format of the show to rely less heavily on those puzzles. With the way things shook out in the finale, that’s a distinct possibility: all the cats were let out of a very bloody bag, and no twist, to my recollection, was left un-twisted. We will start season 2 in the incredibly fortunate (narratively speaking) position of a new day for the hosts of Westworld. “What will happen next?” is currently a far less compelling question than “What could happen next?” If the narrative steers us back toward the former, that poses a more essential storytelling problem. But if we’re going to choose these puzzle-y story structures, to keep people transfixed by and talking about the show — and really, what is the point of a puzzle, if not to solve it? — then spoiling them in advance defeats the whole purpose.

Tasha: I was actually hoping the full-season-spoiler treatment was a hint that this season relies less on puzzleboxes and “surprises,” and more on execution and exploration. A spoiler like “Dr. Ford is actually still alive, and he sent a host duplicate of himself to be killed in his place” blows a lot of secrecy and setup. (Necessary disclaimer: I’ve seen none of season 2 and I have no idea if this is true, but I won’t be surprised if it is.) But it’s much harder to spoil something that isn’t based on a gotcha reversal, like “Dolores and Maeve meet and have a profound conversation about what they believe about their own nature.” The Ford reveal would be a secret, and seeing it coming blows any impact it might have had. In the case of that possible Dolores / Maeve scene, you’d still have to see it to get the value of it, because it’s all in how the characters respond to each other, what they learn from each other, and how their beliefs and states of mind emerge in the storytelling. If you knew it was coming, that’d be a spoiler, but it wouldn’t actually spoil anything.

Personally, I’m pretty spoiler-averse. I tend to avoid trailers and advance interviews except when my job makes that impossible, and the endless speculation about what’s next on a given show bores me, because it gets in the way of enjoying what’s actually happening as it’s happening. I like surprises. So I suspect I enjoyed the full-season spoiler plan mostly because it was going to be a surprise. Would it have had the effect they were supposedly looking for, with people speculating less because the answers were already available for anyone who wanted to look? Weren’t you curious about how that might play out?

Photo courtesy of HBO

Devon: I like surprises, too, but I value the surprise of finding out which fan theories were right more than the surprise of how one full-season spoiler might play out. In either scenario, fans can choose not to engage with external chatter and marketing. (I can relate, though, to having to go down rabbit holes as a culture journalist when I’d rather avoid them as a fan.) For me, though, the difference is that the full-season spoiler would eliminate the possibility of pure speculation for those who do want to feverishly discuss among friends and fans every week.

Technically, that congregation would still be possible with the MegaSpoiler. (It should have a name, right? Just spitballing.) But the MegaSpoiler’s existence would devalue or flat-out answer the questions many people want to keep asking until the characters answer them onscreen. I typically don’t love advocating for whimsy when talking about fan culture, but the potential move Nolan and Joy threatened to make here just screamed magic killer to me — it inspired a genuine, almost visceral sense of dread in me that a show I enjoy so much might remove something I’d come to see as more or less integral to its appeal.

Tasha: That’s the difference between us, then — I don’t see all the speculation as integral to the show’s appeal. I see it as a lot of people trying to be more clever than the creators by getting ahead of them, and a lot more people distracting from what the show is by spinning off a million imaginary alternate universes where it’s something entirely different. To me, it all feels like chaff getting in the way of seeing the show. And the part of me that wanted the MegaSpoiler was probably just seeing it as a brisk breeze blowing away the chaff. Human nature being what it is, it probably wouldn’t have actually played out that way at all. I was looking forward to finding out how it would change the conversation, though. I recognize that this is just my prejudice, and if people are authentically enjoying playing the speculation game, I have no business interfering in that. It seems counterproductive to me, and frustrating in that even if I choose not to participate — the old “if you don’t like it, don’t read it” argument — it still spills over into my awareness in a lot of ways, on social media, or site comments, or RSS headlines, or what have you. It’s hard to avoid.

Spoiler culture has affected our jobs in weird ways — I’m now routinely getting emails that say, “Here’s a screener for a film or TV episode, and here’s a list of things that happen in it that we don’t want you to talk about.” Essentially, public relations people are spoiling their own shows to tell us how not to talk about their shows. I wanted to see whether it was possible to completely disrupt that culture, or whether people really are enjoying the speculation so much that they’d ignore the MegaSpoiler entirely so they could go on playing the who-sees-it-coming-best game.

I think we’re just coming from opposite angles on this one. Any last thoughts?

Devon: I’m interested in how you delineated between the Ford “spoiler” and the Dolores / Maeve “reveal.” Obviously the best-case scenario would be that fewer big one-off twists like the Ford “spoiler” would make the MegaSpoiler itself less disappointing or “spoiler”-y, but it’s clear already that the reality will involve plenty of puzzleboxes. An announcement like this no doubt painted a very vivid picture in the minds of the many people who enjoy this show, so I’m wondering what it conjured up for you. In your mind at that moment, what did that MegaSpoiler look like?

Tasha: Oh, there are plenty of great examples online already of what a full-season recap looks like. Just check YouTube for “everything that happened on [show name]” or “[showname] season recap,” and you’ll find an entire cottage industry of people summarizing seasons. I figured it’d look something like Vanity Fair’s season 1 Westworld recap, just with plot points we hadn’t seen yet. But maybe it wouldn’t have looked like this at all. Maybe it’d just be a video of Jonathan Nolan being carried through a crowd, like Charlton Heston at the end of Soylent Green, howling, “Peter Abernathy will be back! And he’ll be a samurai this time! And he’ll take over Shogun World in the final episoooooode!”