I would very much like to discuss a pivotal plot point in the third episode of the current season of HBO’s “Succession.” Like, it’s all I want to talk about. Still, I’m afraid that people who haven’t watched it yet are going to get mad if I do.
We’re talking about the death of Logan Roy, the terrible billionaire mogul and father to four equally terrible children, on HBO’s critically acclaimed series. And while the news of the character’s passing in the final season seems to be just about everywhere, we’re a long way from the days when my co-workers and I gathered at the newsroom water cooler to dish over whatever crazy thing happened to Jack Bauer on last night’s episode of “24.” Back then, shows came on at the same time every week, and if you hadn’t watched, you got your water later. It was that simple.
Now that water cooler is on your phone and the conversation is happening 24/7, whether you’re watching something two hours, two days or two years after its release. So what are the rules? Are there any?
Linda Holmes, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” and one of my favorite Twitter folks to follow, said no. She thinks when it comes to shows that viewers are intensely attached to, such as “Succession,” “Game Of Thrones,” “The Walking Dead” and “The Last of Us,” what people most love to talk about is what we want most not to be spoiled.
“‘Succession’ is a wonderful and fun show to talk about with other people on Twitter and podcasts. The desire to talk about it and to avoid spoilers, those tend to go together,” she said.
A lot of folks I spoke to said that being spoiler-free is a combination of vigilance and courtesy. “I’m at the the point where I will stay off my phone. I tell friends not to text me,” said Dennis Camlek, a fellow University of Maryland grad who is now a podcaster and entertainment marketer in Los Angeles. “Not many shows, at least for me, are live-watching worthy, but ‘Succession’ is part of the zeitgeist. You’re playing with fire watching a show like that on delay. People will want to talk about it.”
Lashonda Harris — a former Washington, D.C., resident who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia — is so serious about “Succession” that she and her team members check in Monday mornings to make sure everyone’s seen the previous night’s episode before they chat about it. She said she “would have been big mad, really annoyed” if she’d found out about Logan’s death before she had a chance to watch. Then again, she goes out of her way to have that not happen.
“I just stay off the internet,” she said. “Be an adult. You know not to go to the water cooler and talk about ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’ if you haven’t seen it. Just stay away from the water cooler, either the real or virtual one.”
I agree. I started that pivotal “Succession” episode a half-hour late and tweeted that I was staying offline until I finished. But readers of the Los Angeles Times and Vulture didn’t necessarily know to skip those sites to avoid seeing fake obituaries for Logan posted not long after the episode with the news of his death right there — or alluded to — in the headlines. Not cool.
A fear of spoilers isn’t new. Lorrie Palmer, an associate professor at Towson University who has a Ph.D. in film and media studies, noted that Alfred Hitchcock was strident about how “Psycho” was screened and a big twist was revealed. “He didn’t want anyone to be let in after it started, and told theaters not to give it away,” she said.
Maria Blake — a Laurel, Maryland, native who now lives in Colorado — is so anti-spoiler that she won’t even dive into older series with plot points that were revealed long ago. “If I can’t jump in the second it’s started, sometimes I don’t watch it.”
Holmes noted that old message boards had separate spaces for spoilers, but the word had a different connotation then. It used to mean information that hadn’t yet been released or revealed, and not just plot points available to anyone who’d watched. “Twitter is broad. Everything goes in one giant bucket,” she said. “If you haven’t seen it, it’s a spoiler to you.”
Is there a statute of limitations? I once got yelled at by some random on a Salon.com forum about “The Wire” for offhandedly mentioning the death of Stringer Bell without a spoiler alert — even though that episode had aired five years earlier. I don’t know that dude, his life or his viewing patterns. Holmes has “a dear friend who firmly believes that you shouldn’t mention that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, because there are new audiences every day, and someone who comes along now deserves to discover that just like you did.”
I feel y’all, but that’s too much. Palmer said there are phrases that are part of our culture like “Bruce Willis was dead the whole time” or “Soylent Green is people” that are spoilers we expect everyone knows by now. Even “understanding the term ‘gaslighting’ requires you understanding” the 1944 movie (or 1938 play) the term comes from, Holmes said.
COVID-19 made that virtual space even more intense. Kalima Young — a filmmaker and assistant professor at Towson with a Ph.D. in American studies, and co-host of the university’s “Silver Screen Radio” movie review podcast — changed her regular movie nights to streaming or going to Bengies Drive-In Theatre in Middle River. She gets not wanting spoilers, but also said there are times she’s been grateful for them. As a fan of “The Walking Dead,” it helped her “prepare my heart” ahead of viewing “when I knew something bad was going to happen and I needed to find out if someone I loved died before I watched the episode.”
I feel her. The “Sex in the City” reboot — “And Just Like That ... ” — killed Mr. Big off with a heart attack in the premiere episode, and since my own husband died that way, friends and readers immediately reached out to tell me not to watch it. I have watched the whole series now, but skipped the first two episodes. I didn’t need to see that.
In the end, “there’s never going to be a hard and fast rule,” Palmer said. “Even on discussion boards, people will space down, with asterisks and in all-caps type ‘SPOILER ALERT,’ and then space down some more, so your eyes don’t touch the words if you don’t want spoilers.”
Holmes’ practice is to “keep important plot lines out of headlines,” and if a big event like Logan’s death is more than a week old, “I assume most people who have reason to know about it already know. I try to be as considerate as I can be without hurting the ability to have a conversation.”
Young has a blunter point.
“You’re not gonna die,” she said plainly.
She’s right. Although Logan Roy did.
Sorry. SPOILER ALERT!