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11 April 2018

Westworld tricked its fans with a spoiler prank – but is the show even worth spoiling?

It could be argued that if all a television show has going for it is suspense, it hasn’t got very much going for it at all.

By Ed Jefferson

A 1973 episode of sitcom Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads concerns the lads in question spending a day trying to avoid learning the result of a football match in order to be able to enjoy watching the highlights that evening. You couldn’t make this now, because within about a minute one of them would have absent-mindedly checked their phone and had the result spoiled by a version of the guy checking out the other girl meme.

In 2018, spoiler-dodging is an ever more difficult art. Last year, British Game Of Thrones fans were given the option of staying up until 2am to see new episodes broadcast simultaneously with their US debut, so that they wouldn’t accidentally find out which dragon Jon Snow had kissed while scrolling through social media over their cornflakes. Even staying up late, though, wasn’t a guarantee that you’d be safe, as several episodes had leaked online before broadcast and your cousin Barry had changed his Facebook avatar to a picture of Jon Snow kissing the green dragon and everything was ruined.

Maybe the fight against spoilers has been lost. Maybe it’s time give up. That’s what Jonathan Nolan, one of the people behind robot reboot Westworld, appeared to have decided a couple of days ago when he appeared on the show’s Reddit page and explained that ahead of the new series, he was going to post a video detailing every upcoming plot twist. Why? Because fan theories posted online essentially amounted to spoilers anyway – sheer force of numbers meant that at least some of them would be right about what was going to happen.

Fans were on tenterhooks – were the show’s creators really going to lay everything out, despite the somewhat dubious reasoning for doing so? Would they pretend to spoil everything, only to pull the rug out from everyone who thought they knew what was coming a couple of episodes in? Was it all a clever ploy tying into the show’s metaphysical themes? What if people who watch television are the real robots, makes you think???

The video arrived, and as it turned out, none of the above: after a minute of build-up, we get a performance of (of course) Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” from one of the series’ stars, Evan Rachel Wood. Followed by 20 minutes of black and white footage of a dog sitting at a piano while the show’s theme music plays. Always annoying when you think of a really good April Fool’s Joke a week late.

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And so the fans returned to their drawing boards, the more optimistic ones presumably scribbling things along the lines of “DOG = GOD???”. But what if Nolan had revealed all? Would knowing what happens in Westworld really ruin Westworld?

Even aside from the fact that Westworld is mostly about cowboys, and is therefore bad and boring by default (worse still, it’s about cowboys doing philosophy), it could be argued that if all something’s got going for it is the suspense of not knowing what’s going to happen, it hasn’t got very much going for it at all. If the spoilers spoiled it, was it even worth spoiling?

Although that does sound quite a lot like the argument of someone who’s just accidentally ruined the ending to a film and wants everyone to stop yelling at them, if something is still good after you’ve had it “spoiled”, that is a testament to its quality, surely?

Except: a 2011 study from the University of California presented participants with short stories by (among others) Agatha Christie and Roald Dahl – some unspoiled, some with an introductory paragraph detailing the ending. And when surveyed, participants who’d got the spoiled versions – who knew what was going to happen – actually tended to enjoy the stories more than those who discovered the twists as they went along. On the other hand, the study goes on to suggest that “perhaps secretly informing a person of her surprise party will increase her enjoyment” so possibly it should be disregarded and the authors put in a special prison for people who knowingly encourage tossers.

Anyway, if anyone tries to use that study as a defence for having told you who Darth Vader really is, you can reply by quoting another study, published in 2015, which found “that people who have a low need for cognition prefer their stories to be spoiled, because it makes the plot easier to follow”, i.e. people who like to read spoilers are just too thick to handle plot twists. 

In the end they find out that the football match was postponed because the pitch flooded, by the way. You’ve had 45 years, get over it.

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