*This article contains spoilers from ‘Game of Thrones’ season seven.
On Sunday morning, Greg Kropp, a real life fan of Game of Thrones, got a slap in the face with spoilers.
He was simply minding his own business commuting on the Long Island Rail Road, on the way into New York City for brunch with friends. A few seats away, he overheard two women talking loudly about shopping, politics and plans for the day. Soon enough their conversation switched to Thrones–his favorite show.
Kropp began to worry. He knew that the newest episode of the show had leaked online earlier in the week. He somehow managed to avoid hearing any game-changing spoilers. If he could just make it another 12 hours or so, he’d be able to watch in suspenseful peace. But in a matter of moments, his commute turned into a television nightmare.
“Did you see the part when the dragon dies?”
The biggest reveal of the season was gone. Kropp was beside himself.
“I had to cover my ears after that,” he tells BTRtoday. “I didn’t want to hear any more of it.”
He’d heard enough already. A dragon did die, killed by the greatest ice javelin throw of all-time. Despite the episode’s key plot developments and technical brilliance, the spoiler on the train changed the entire feel even before he started watching.
“It really took the anticipation out of the show,” Kropp says. “It was still cool to watch, and it looked amazing. But the second I saw the dragons fly into the scene, I knew this was it. It ruined the episode for me.”
Spoilers have been a major issue during Game of Thrones’ penultimate season. Hackers stole show scripts and from HBO, dangling them over the network’s head for a healthy ransom.
Inevitably, episode six leaked online.
HBO scrambled to remove download links and grainy YouTube videos, but as always, the internet won. The network had to cope with its actual content being released, while watchers were forced to battle against the urge to jump the gun.
Not that there isn’t enough content as is. Sponsored podcasts, Reddit threads and full wikis are dedicated to Game of Thrones content, history and crazy fan theories. It’s one of the few shows left with enough cultural clout to keep its fans waiting with bated breath for a week to find out what happens next.
With the status the show possesses, it’s easy for fans to become overwhelmed even if they don’t want to be. “People try to talk to me about Game of Thrones all the time,” Kropps says. “They want to talk about spoilers and theories and everything. I don’t want to hear any of it.”
Kropp’s sentiment is common among fans. The series has relied on its unpredictability since day one, from bizarre battles to major character deaths. Despite the frustration that comes with it (see: Red Wedding), it’s part of why Thrones is the most popular show on television.
Logic would dictate that removing the element of surprise ruins a story.
However, despite the leaks and spoilers, episode six saw record viewership. While a large portion of those viewers likely didn’t see or hear any spoilers, according to movie industry expert Richard Walter, a little predictability can go a long way.
“People don’t like spoilers because it makes things predictable,” he tells BTRtoday. “And yet, there’s an attraction to that predictability.”
Walter has taught screenwriting and storytelling at UCLA for years. The way he sees it, it’s the structure that makes a story, not how good or surprising the ending is.
“It’s not the information you get from a narrative, whether it’s a television show or a movie,” he says. “It’s the shape of the thing. There’s something about the shape and construction of a well-turned narrative that engages us.”
Wanting to know what happens next is part of human nature. Which might explain why some of the great dramatic narratives, from Sophocles to Shakespeare, have been repeated in popular culture (like in GoT).
Researchers Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfield of the University of California, San Diego confirmed this notion in a 2011 study. After having subjects read classic stories with information presented in varying order, they found the participants “significantly preferred spoiled over unspoiled stories” regardless of genre.
Think of your favorite movie–you’ve probably seen it a dozen or more times. You know the ins and outs of every character. During every viewing except the first, you knew exactly how the story would play out, and still, you keep coming back to it.
“When you know everything about that work, it doesn’t spoil it,” Walter says. “It enhances your ability to enjoy it. Really great art is that way.”
Folks who watch Game of Thrones a few years from now probably won’t remember when some stranger or internet troll ruined an episode for them. But it’s still a bummer to have a show ruined when you’re watching as it’s released. There are many ways to avoid them, but we may never escape.
The internet is dark and full of spoilers, and always will be.