Back and Forth: On Game of Thrones, Season Two and Spoiler Culture (with Andrew Daar)

(Editor’s note: having had a lot of fun with the conversation I had with Cory Barker a while back on Parks and Recreation, I’m introducing the new recurring feature “Back and Forth,” in which I and one of my many TV tweeting friends have a long-form chat on an issue related to one of our favorite shows.)

Well this takes me back. Almost one year ago to the month, with my TV criticism website in its embryonic stages, I wrote a brief column in which I offered a reaction to the first official poster for Game of Thrones, which depicted Sean Bean sitting on the titular iron throne looking appropriately conflicted and medieval. It was a forceful image that reassured me the series was cementing the proper mood and appearance of the book it was based on, even though I was concerned Bean as Eddard Stark looked far too close to Boromir to make the new character stand out. (Short answer, that worry was dispelled within one episode.)

Now, with the premiere of season two of Game of Thrones only a couple of weeks away, HBO has once again been accelerating their publicity machine, and their newest promotional image again fixates on Bean’s Ned Stark. Or rather, what was left of him at the end of season one.

Yes, the new ad campaign for Game of Thrones season two rather clearly exposes the fact that Ned, who had been advertised as the main character in the first, was killed off in the penultimate episode “Baelor” and had his head placed on a spike at the whims of a mad king. It’s obviously an arresting image that draws the attention, but also one that blatantly spoils the first season’s climax for anyone who hasn’t gotten to the DVDs yet. In our spoiler-phobic culture, for HBO to display this – particularly after they’ve taken some needling in comic form for an overly restrictive attitude about their content – it seemed like purposely trolling viewers who didn’t have the decency to subscribe and find this out themselves.

I thought it was worth talking about as opposed to solitary rambling, and thankfully my friend Andrew Daar of Pop Tortes was willing and eager to hash it out. Andrew, what are your thoughts on this being so clearly a spoiler for the first season? Did HBO cross a line or were they within their rights to do so?

Andrew: That’s a tough question.  When I saw the poster, my first reaction was that there was nothing wrong with it because the first season has been over for nearly a year and that twist is an important element of season 2.  Season 1 ended with the Starks and the Lannisters going to war, and while the entire season built up the tension on the two sides, Ned’s death was what induced the Starks and their bannermen to secede from the Seven Kingdoms.  The image also serves as a chilling reminder that no one is safe, especially with Joffrey Baratheon on the throne (made all the more clear by the tagline “The King Can Do As He Likes”).  But the more I thought about it, the less sure I was.  If HBO was going to make a poster that revealed such an important season 1 plot point, why did they release the DVDs only one week before?  You made a great point about how the official means of watching the show were very limited until the DVD release, so the use of this poster seems to run counter to the idea that releasing the DVDs now is meant to capitalize on interest from new viewers when excitement from current fans is at a fever pitch.

But, after wrestling with those competing ideas, I realized something: What does “spoiler” mean for Game of Thrones?  The TV show is based on a series of books, some of which have been in print for about 15 years.  The show is also extremely faithful to the books, so all the story beats are openly available in a different medium.  Anyone who has read the books knows what will happen, and any non-reader who goes to a wiki about the franchise like Tower of the Hand must do so at his/her own risk, because details from later books will not be marked with spoiler warnings.  What do you think about this idea?  Is Game of Thrones “spoiler-proof”?  Or does the fact that the entire story has been available for years not matter, and why?

Les: Certainly, the fact that what they’re spoiling in the posters is a revelation from a book first published in 1996 does change the conversation somewhat. I mentioned Sean Bean’s connection to Lord of the Rings above, and I don’t remember anyone throwing a fit if the promotion for The Two Towers or The Return of the King happened to give away the fact that Boromir wasn’t coming back for those movies. Even if anyone hadn’t said so directly, the evidence that the character died had been in print for more than fifty years. I think you can absolutely say there is a statute of limitations when it comes to spoilers, and an argument could certainly be made that A Game of Thrones was out long enough to pass that threshold.

Additionally, it’s not like this is a show that has ever been made in a vacuum. Yes, HBO spoiled the ending to their first season, but they did so after it had been out for a full year – a year in which fans and critics had dissected every episode in terms of how faithful of an adaptation it was, how well the characters were portrayed and whether or not it justified the immense cost to the network. This show probably inspired more discussion than any program in 2011 save Breaking Bad or Community, and Ned’s death was such a monumental event for the series that even if you didn’t watch it you probably caught at least one or two details from some review or message board.  Hell, if you pay attention to ABC promotion you’d see that Sean Bean was cast in Missing, which probably gave away that he wasn’t coming back to the show.

I think what makes this particular spoiler a bit egregious to me is that it’s almost over the line in calling attention to itself, as opposed to being a spoiler that’s just something you overhear. I’m preparing to catch up on Friday Night Lights and LOST on Netflix after missing their initial run, and I accept that I’ll hear some spoilers just as being part of conversations. However, if someone were to blurt out a big game that the Dillon Panthers lost, or that two or three characters on the Island wouldn’t be around for long, I’d take exception to that. Do you think there’s a difference between incidental spoilers and overt spoilers, or should that difference matter?

Andrew: Absolutely I do.  When two people are talking about a work of fiction, each person’s knowledge of the work is usually established pretty quickly, especially now in this culture of spoiler warnings.  Obviously, some people can be jerks and intentionally give away details.  And some people just slip up sometimes.  Something as simple and innocuous as a pronoun can give away the game in some situations.  But if you know that you have a tendency to slip, you should take that as an indication that maybe you should just wait until your discussion partner is caught up.  On the other hand, if the speaker and the listener are both at the same place and a third party happens to overhear what they are saying, that’s just a risk the third party takes by leaving his or her home.  The speaker has no way of knowing that the third party could be spoiled by their discussion, and they have no duty to him or her beyond not shouting out spoilers to everyone present.

Things get complicated once you get to the Internet, where overt and incidental spoilers can sometimes bleed together.  On the Internet, you may be discussing something with specific users, but you are aware that others are reading your comments.  Unlike in real life, where you don’t intend for eavesdroppers to listen to you, when you post things on social media sites or comment boards, you know for a fact that third parties will read what you write.  People should be free to discuss works and make comparisons between things, but should also know that basic internet etiquette strongly suggests making spoiler warnings of things you are bringing up.  At this point, the question becomes, who has the responsibility to help minimize spoilers?

Les: Honestly, I think when it comes to spoilers the responsibility lies with the person who could be spoiled. In this age of Twitter and social media, there’s a constant discussion that is not going to stop for any one person’s benefit, no matter how much you beg or plead or indignantly tweet for them to stop because you haven’t seen it. My attitude has always been that something comes up that would be spoiled, I either avoid my various feeds until I get a chance to see it, or simply make peace with the fact that I’ll come across something  which may deflate the impact when I do see it. For example, I haven’t had the chance to play Mass Effect 3 yet and probably won’t get to it for a couple of months, but with how much everyone’s talking about its contentious ending I’m pretty much resigned that I’ll know at least part of it before I actually finish the game.

Getting back to what we said about Game of Thrones, I think that it does occupy something of a unique position in spoiler culture not just because its source material came out over a decade ago, but because it’s a show that’s trying to appeal both to the audience that knows the source material and the audience that doesn’t. If you’re going to watch Game of Thrones, the odds are good you’re doing so either because you loved the books and want to see that world come to life, or you’re interested in a fantasy epic with the high production standards of an HBO drama series. To the former audience, both the Ned poster and the most recent image of a hatching dragon egg are evocative of some of the most stirring visuals from the first book, and remind them of how heavily those events raised the stakes of the conflict. In which case, it’s less of a spoiler than it is priming the expectations of that fan base – a fan base HBO is clearly not anxious to offend, given the incredibly involved discussion that springs up almost immediately after each episode airs.

So I suppose, looking at it from that perspective, it’s not as egregious a spoiler as it seemed when it first came out, if HBO is simply marketing more towards the veterans of the books and viewers who are returning from the first season. Does that make sense? And given how solid that fanbase is, should they even care about alienating potential viewers?

Andrew: I think the strategy makes sense, and, like I said, my first thought upon seeing the poster was that they were trying to utilize season 1’s most shocking image to capitalize on viewer excitement.  My only qualm was that the DVDs had been released only the previous week.  I think that HBO should consider new viewers in some fashion, but I think that catering to the established fans is a valid strategy.  Especially when it is as devoted as the audience for Game of Thrones is.  As you can see here, the DVDs earned the largest first week sales figures for any show in HBO’s history.  Even if the series weren’t a huge success for HBO, it is within their right to market it how they want.  But it is a success, and they don’t have to be as worried about alienating potential viewers.  Furthermore, the use of Ned’s death can be used as a way to say “look at how shocking this show can be,” or “why are so many people talking about this show.”  To current viewers, the sight of Ned’s severed head is a reminder of what the show is capable of.  To new viewers, it is a statement that this is a show on which anything can, and will, happen.

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About Les Chappell

The Mad Hatter of media criticism. Co-founder of This Was Television, contributor to The A.V. Club, founder of A Helpless Compiler and The Lesser of Two Equals.
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