The rise of TV binge-watching, and the death of the spoiler alert

Netflix has put all of its new House of Cards series online in one go. It's like a boxset without a boxset - but will it ruin the social aspect of telly viewing?

In the last week or so, my Twitter timeline (a self-selected crowd of pop culture enthusiasts such as myself) went a little bit nuts. The reason? An American remake of House of Cards, the wildly influential 1990 TV series starring Ian Richardson as fictional Tory Chief Whip Francis Urquhart (“You might very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment”) had finally been released.

These days, the main man’s been relocated to Washington DC where he is called Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey), and is a Democratic congressman playing the long and not entirely diplomatic game after a betrayal. I’ve only seen the trailer, but everyone seems more or less blown away by it so far – one enthusiastic viewer compared it to State of Play, which is for my money, one of the best television series of all time, so there’s pressure. But critical success or not, the really interesting thing about House of Cards (2013) is the mode of its release. All thirteen episodes of Season 1 have been released at the same time, so you, the viewer, gets to dictate the pace of your consumption. We have finally achieved something I did not think I would see in my lifetime: The Boxset Dream Without The Boxset.  

The series was commissioned by Netflix – not usually found in the business of acquiring original programming (that’s the preserve of HBO etc), but streaming it. The true joy of House of Cards lies not in the pedigree of the crew and cast – Spacey’s co-star is Princess Buttercup herself, Robin Wright – which is of course, desirable and welcome. No, it is its instant availability, crucially at the same time as it is being aired in America that makes this drama super-glossy and revolutionary. Fans of popular culture are almost always acolytes of the School of Instant Gratification, and those of us based in these British Isles having become used to occupying the position  of the ugly stepchild: almost always several months (sometimes years) behind on the best (and in the interests of fairness, worst – hello, FlashForward) of American television-programming, if we receive it at all. Cast off your entertaino-shackles, brethren – no more! It’s a genuinely exciting prospect.

One of the good things about being constantly late to the party was the option of binge-watching.  As director and executive producer David Fincher has it: “The captive audience is gone. If you give people this opportunity to mainline all in one day, there's reason to believe they will do it."He’s right. We’ve all done it – it’s how I watched superior American television like Deadwood, The Wire, Party Down and Friday Night Lights among others – and we know it to be good. In fact, there is no joy quite like that which is to be found at 1.30am, as you bargain with yourself about how many more episodes you can watch and still be productive in the morning.

With new innovations like Netflix’s latest move will come new questions about how to frame spoiler alerts. A few people have already issued gentle warnings: “I’m giving you two weeks,” tweeted one. “Then it’s spoiler city on House of Cards.” Others have promised dedicated hashtags or just suggested followers mute them for a good long while.

Those of us who live a solid chink of our lives on the internet know the Spoiler Avoidance dance well. Only last week, my Tumblr dashboard turned against me when it began throwing up gifs of a much longed-for event on an American sitcom. That kiss (I will give no more information for fear of incurring viewer-wrath of my own) came up at least ten times in gif and YouTube clip form in less than an hour. In the parlance of the medium, “Tumblr no curr” if your geographical location means you have to wait months for the networks in your country to pick up the second season of a wildly successful show before you can see a seminal lip lock. Tumblr will post those gifs until the cows come home – and sure, you can filter out specific tags to avoid the worst of the spoiling, but there are always breaches. Sometimes, I’ve been using a particularly entertaining gif as a catch-all response on my dashboard only to find the context of its origins watch a show months later.

Death, taxes and spoilers – the new trio of life’s terrible guarantees.

So I’ll be signing up to Netflix, simply because I want to watch this new series. And I will probably watch all thirteen episodes in two long binges over one weekend. It’s not the same as getting Parks and Rec, Scandal and Community at the same time as fans in the States, but for now, it’ll do.

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge