Here Are the Rules for Netflix Spoilers

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 1 2013 2:52 PM

Here Are the Rules for Netflix Spoilers

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Kevin Spacey, center, in House of Cards

SPOILER ALERT: The following article contains real spoilers for Six Feet Under, The Walking Dead, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Hamlet, and Citizen Kane, and made-up spoilers for House of Cards.

By 4 p.m. Eastern/1 p.m. Pacific, someone will have finished House of Cards. That’s the earliest a theoretical viewer—one with a strong bladder and a lenient attitude towards gainful employment and personal hygiene—could have consumed the entirety of the 13-episode series, which Netflix released in one giant chunk at midnight, Los Gatos, Calif., time. Of course, you could also skip to the ending right now, or watch the final episode before the first. But when can you talk about it?

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People frequently argue about the rules for spoiling “regular” TV—on Twitter last night, a few Angelenos griped about New Yorkers spoiling the 30 Rock finale before it had aired on the west coast. But most reasonable folks understand that once something is out in the world, public discussion is fair game. With House of Cards, though, the old rules do not apply. Without a TV network to arrange our virtual viewing parties, how do we know when it’s safe to talk about, say, Episode 7, when ambitious blogger Kate Mara is mauled by a hungry wolverine? Or Episode 12, when Kevin Spacey’s power-hungry Congressman is revealed to be Keyser Soze? Without weekly recaps, where do we gather to express our dislike of a given character’s direction, especially knowing that said character’s endpoint is just a trackpad tap away?

In separate articles, the New York and Los Angeles Times hailed the House of Cards’ all-episodes-at-once release as the triumph of “binge-viewing,” which the industry apparently prefers to call “marathoning” (presumably because 24-K runs have higher favorable ratings than eating disorders). The NYT’s Brian Stelter went so far as to say the series was “expressly designed to be consumed in a single sitting,” which is a little like saying that because cakes are sold whole, they’re designed to be eaten that way. Some of Netflix’s attendant promotional strategies, like making the service free to Xbox owners for the weekend, do encourage viewers to mainline the series—or, more accurately, to start mainlining it and then realize they’d rather pay for a month of Netflix than burn out their eyeballs. But the simultaneous release actually encourages, even forces, viewers to set their own schedules.

Some forums have offered to set that schedule for them. The A.V. Club, whose weekly reviews often gather comments in the thousands, is treating it like a regular series, reviewing a new episode each week, while establishing a separate space for readers to talk about the series as a whole. At SomethingAwful, however, the gloves are off. “For House of Cards, every episode is fair game once it’s up on Netflix,” a moderator posted. “This means don’t whine about spoilers... after February 1st.”

In its bold, and costly, move to reinvent itself as a content creator, Netflix has also created an intriguing social experiment: How do we watch when no one’s watching us? How will word of mouth spread without the social-media flood following a major plot twist, or the carefully orchestrated morning-after interviews with recently offed actors? Although Netflix plans the same strategy for its Arrested Development revival, the salad-bar approach to distribution is likely to remain, at least for the near future, more of a marketing tool than a game-changer. Even so, if we want to talk about House of Cards—and it’s possible we won’t—we have to figure out how.

With that in mind, we suggest a few rules—or, per Alan Alda’s character in Crimes and Misdemeanors, “guidelines”—for the all-you-can-eat era.

Distinguish between “push” and “pull” spoilers.
Push technologies are those that deliver information no matter what you’re doing, like text messages. And so push spoilers are those you can’t avoid seeing. I still haven’t forgiven the New York Times for headlining their morning-after review of the Six Feet Under finale “And They All Died Happily Ever After.” Similarly, if you tweeted, “Oh no! They killed T-Dog!” midway through episode 4 of The Walking Dead’s third season, you’ve ruined a significant (if long-awaited) plot turn before anyone has a chance to turn away.

Pull spoilers are those in the body of an article or the middle of a discussion. If you read an article about House of Cards, including this one, you lose the right to be surprised when Kevin Spacey smothers a mortally wounded dog in the series’ opening scene. Ditto Facebook threads and, to a lesser extent, Twitter replies. Once two or more people are involved in a conversation, they’ve got a right to go where it takes them without constantly worrying who might be listening in. Expecting otherwise is like asking everyone else to talk in a hushed voice in the event you might walk by.

Set a reasonable schedule.
Assuming most people won’t barricade themselves inside like Portlandia’s Battlestar Galactica bingers, setting aside two hours a night doesn’t seem too much to ask. So by next Thursday, it’s fair to expect that those who care most about not having any detail of House of Cards revealed in advance will have worked their way through the entire thing. Chances are most people will take longer; some will certainly take less. But by this time next week, talking about the series as a whole, at least in broad terms, is in-bounds.

Don’t be a jerk.
Kind of obvious, but someone always needs reminding. Given that there’s no way to know what stage your friends and followers have reached, it’s better to tread lightly—again, keeping in mind the difference between push and pull. If you wouldn’t have walked up to a committed Potterphile the day after Deathly Hallows’ lay-down date and said, “Wow, bummer she killed Tonks, right?” then don’t give away the part in House of Cards where it’s revealed that Robin Wright’s character is actually a man.

Keep in mind that narrative art is not simply a device for the delivery of plot.
Stories are told the way they are for a reason, and the better the teller, the better the reason. That said, no great work of art can be ruined simply by the disclosure of its plot. Has anyone ever seen Hamlet and regretted knowing that everyone dies at the end? Does it kill Citizen Kane knowing that Rosebud is his sled? (Thanks for nothing, Trivial Pursuit card.) Likewise, coming into contact with a stray bit of information about what turns House of Cards does or doesn’t take is unlikely to render it worthless. If surprise is all a story has to offer, then it’s not much of a story.

Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Out New York, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter.