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Online theorizing ruined too many TV shows in 2016

Trying to predict twists on your favorite series used to be a fun guessing game. Now, it’s become an industry.

Mr. Robot
The truth about Elliot’s existence on Mr. Robot was guessed by fans pretty quickly.
USA

It only took one episode for diehard Mr. Robot fans to figure out the big twist of the show’s second season.

Elliot Alderson, the show’s paranoid, reality-shifting protagonist and unreliable narrator, was living in isolation at his mother’s. He’d gone there to unplug from the internet, which he had used in season one to bring down much of the world’s economic system.

But viewers quickly realized that not everything about Elliot’s self-imposed exile made a lot of sense. By the end of the premiere, Reddit users had decided he was either in prison or at a mental health facility. Vulture dedicated an especially thorough post to the latter theory.

It turned out Elliot was in prison after all — but it took the show five additional episodes to reveal as much, by which point, the show’s most attentive viewers were restless, having long since sussed out what was going on.

In a Vulture podcast recorded after the season two finale, Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail said that he had hoped viewers would start to question Elliot’s reality, sure, and that he knew they might catch on to what was really going on. But in the first episode?

“I don’t mind that people dissect. And like I said, when they figured it out … I mean, it was really quick, it was like the first episode. I remember everyone was bummed out because we were still shooting and everybody on set was like, Oh shit, this is fucked up,” Esmail said on the podcast.

Fan theorizing has always been part of online TV discussion, going back to the days when speculation about the alien conspiracy on The X-Files fueled seemingly thousands of message boards. But 2016 felt like a tipping point; this was the year showrunners stopped being able to hide anything, thanks to a whole industry dedicated to guessing their secrets.

Websites discussing TV are the primary drivers of this phenomenon

While online theorizing isn’t new — anyone who was into Lost will remember the boom of theories surrounding that show — there are way more websites dedicated to talking about TV than there were in the days of that earlier show. And increasingly, they’re talking about what’s really happening on your favorite TV shows.

We all like to feel as if we’re one step ahead of where a story is going, and if a TV show seems to be hiding something, it probably is. Posts that pull together the most popular theories, whether from Reddit or other sources (including the author’s own sleuthing), allow readers to get ahead of what may be coming.

This kind of speculation and theory-trading has been especially prevalent and frustrating with regard to HBO’s Westworld. Though the show’s season one finale hasn’t aired yet, it seems likely that said finale will reveal some pretty big things — which some fans suspected as early as the show’s second episode. (I won’t say what they are, in the interest of all of you who are still catching up with the show.) This predictability has been held against the show.

Westworld
The Man in Black is actually a highly trained bear!
HBO

And yet the more I’ve watched Westworld, the more convinced I’ve become that its particular meditation on memory and identity is intended, on some level, to involve easily predictable “twists.”

The purpose of Westworld’s big reveals, in other words, isn’t to keep the audience off-balance, but to further explore the idea of the robotic Hosts’ uncertainty about their own reality and existence. The show doesn’t want you to be questioning what the Hosts are up to. It wants to make you feel like a Host, with just enough remove to understand there are other levels at play. It uses your knowledge against you. (Genevieve Valentine has further thoughts on this topic right here at Vox.)

But fan theories and online discussion are often more interested in the question of “what’s really going on,” often to the detriment of the work being discussed. Indeed, go back and read the early reviews of Westworld.

As TV scholar Myles McNutt argues convincingly at Flow Journal, Westworld was not designed to be a Lost-style mystery show. But its complex plot, combined with online content demands, made it a prime target for fan theorizing, nevertheless.

Writes McNutt:

Google Trends shows that the specific idea of Westworld theories” was not something that predated the show’s premiere, garnering little-to-no search activity in the weeks leading up to its debut. This discourse’s presence in pre-written coverage represents an effort by websites to turn Westworld into another consistent traffic-generating series in the vein of Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Treating the show as a puzzle justifies not only weekly reviews and interviews when episodes air on Sunday, but also updates throughout the week aggregating fan theories from Reddit, responding to theories presented on other outlets, or generating new theories entirely.

If every twist can be guessed, what’s the point of having twists?

A handful of TV critics have recently written about how fan theorizing — and its omnipresence online — has essentially made it impossible to talk about Westworld as anything but a collection of the top theories. Discussion has largely become uncoupled from theme and character and focused mostly on trying to guess what will happen next.

To return to Mr. Robot, the most dismaying thing about how easily the season two twist was guessed was that the discussion became entirely about how poorly the twist had been hidden from the audience, with very little conversation around how Esmail intended the reveal as a way to explore Elliot’s relationship with the audience.

Now, I don’t think Esmail or his crew conveyed these ideas particularly well, but the way twists are talked about in modern entertainment journalism essentially insists that we only care about them in terms of their plot function, not in terms of what they might be trying to say beyond their immediate relationship to the plot.

So the instant a twist is invoked, or even hinted at, the discussion immediately pivots toward figuring out just what said twist is and lining up all the right ducks in all the right rows. After a year in which essentially every major storytelling reveal on a TV show was guessed weeks in advance — and often criticized for being too “predictable” — why would anybody take the risk of utilizing this particular device?

Maybe that’s not a problem. Twists, after all, are primarily about pushing the plot in another direction. But I think of a recent movie like Arrival, which has a pretty big reveal in its last third, and I’m impressed by how the discussion around that twist tackles it in terms of plot and character and theme, whether you think the reveal worked or not.

Episodic television rarely enjoys the same consideration. If there’s a twist, viewers and websites will sniff it out, write about it, and get ahead of the story. Maybe that’s just an inevitable offshoot of the way the medium is presented — the downtime between episodes longs to be filled with something, whereas a film can be consumed and understood all at once.

And yet on shows like Mr. Robot and Westworld, which are about trying to understand the discombobulating nature of reality itself, shouldn’t there be more to the story than pinning down the plot on corkboard like a butterfly, the better to examine it? Our obsession with outguessing our television shows is robbing them of some of their power.

Understanding is critical

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