Overthinking Lost: Who Spoils the Spoilers?

Overthinking Lost: Who Spoils the Spoilers?

Spoiler alert.

Spoiler Alert

Originally, the OTI editorial staff was going to make this a break week for the Overthinking Lost series, as Mlawski is on vacation.  However, rather than finding out what happens when we let the clock reach zero, I decided to race to my computer and punch in the numbers.

In addition, it has been a while since I have Overthought anything, so I saw this as the perfect opportunity for me to go back to the island.

Now might be a pretty good time (or in fact a bit too late for some readers) to mention that I’m going to depart from Mlawski’s cardinal rule—there will be substantial Lost spoilers in this post, so only read on if you’ve watched through the end of season 5 or don’t mind learning things that will substantially bias your viewing experience of the whole series thus far.  There will also be major spoilers for The Wire.

Why would I gleefully break protocol after you’ve all been so careful not to reveal any of Lost‘s big mysteries in the comments for the past few months?

Because I’m special—the rules don’t apply to me.

[Ed. Note: Seriously. There are substantial Lost spoilers after the jump, up to and including everything that has aired. And pretty substantial spoilers for The Wire as well, covering the whole series. Don’t read on if you’re not prepared.]

Mlawski and I are in very different positions vis-a-vis Lost; I watched seasons 1-4 on DVD and then watched all of season 5 as it aired. As a result, I’m more interested in jumping around through the whole series and tackling overarching themes rather than doing a close reading of a given episode or set of episodes.

It is also worth making clear that I gave the above spoiler warnings out of my deep admiration for what Mlawski has been doing with this series and for her experience as a viewer, not out of any particular respect for the “spoiler alert” norm that is prevalent when discussing TV shows and movies on the internet. If you’re reading this, you probably know that Omar dies in episode 8 of Season 5 of The Wire. Why do you know that? Because I probably told you, you heard me say it on one of several OTI Podcast episodes, or you thought I was joking when I said there were going to be Wire spoilers and you just kept reading.

Spoilers were actually integral to how I experienced both Lost and The Wire.  My first exposure to both shows came while I was doing dissertation fieldwork in Kenya a few years ago.  While there, I watched a number American TV shows on DVDs that had been I acquired through “nontraditional” methods.  Although these DVDs helped me to decompress after long days of conducting interviews, the questionable provenance of my DVD copies led to some relatively unorthodox viewing experiences. For instance, the DVD that my Kenyan supplier assured me was Season 1 of The Wire was in fact Season 2 (something I only figured out pretty far into the season), meaning that I watched D’Angelo Barksdale die before I even knew why I cared about him. Once I got around to starting Season 1 of Lost, I found that the copy that I had been given didn’t work at all. Given that I had finished watching all of the other DVDs that I had, I decided that starting to watch Lost at the beginning of Season 2 would be better than not watching anything. This DVD was also damaged and stopped working about 4 episodes into the season, but I saw enough to realize that the show was about something very different (and in my opinion more interesting) than what I had expected based on my a priori knowledge—a bunch of people crash land on an island where spooky stuff happens.

When I got back to the states and started to watch both shows again from the beginning, the spoilers only got bigger and more substantive. Omar’s death in the final season of The Wire was spoiled for me by New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, which ran an obituary the day after the episode in which the character was killed off. I learned about the big reveal in Season 3 of Lost—that the flash in “Through the Looking Glass” is a flashforward—from a New York Times article about Darlton’s decision to give the series a definite end date.

Even if I had avoided all pop culture commentary and news, I would have still managed to pick up ambient Lost spoilers from ABC’s advertising campaigns for the show. The promotional poster for Season 4 directly juxtaposes the island with a somber, menacing image of the Los Angeles skyline. Although this alone doesn’t explicitly spoil the flash forward, it certainly made me think that at least some part of Team Jack was going to get off of the island and certainly changed the way that I experienced the so-called “slow section” of Season 3. In addition, the TV spots for one of the latter episodes of Season 4, which aired around the time that I was watching Season 3, contained a shot of Michael saying something to the effect of “They’re going to kill everyone on the island”, which both spoiled Michael’s return and the fact that someone from the outside world was going to find the island and that their intentions in doing so were far from benign.

Even if I had access to my very own Orchid station, I don’t think I would go back in time and prevent myself from hearing these spoilers for either show. Prior knowledge of D’Angelo and Omar’s respective deaths cast many of their actions and decisions in a more poignant light. Knowing that the hatch is the Dharma Initative Swan station or that 6 of the Losties get off of the island in Season 4 didn’t ruin those big moments for me—rather they increased my interest in figuring out exactly how these drastic changes were going to happen and what they meant.

This type of nonsequential experience of viewing TV shows is similar to how I read comic books. When picking up a graphic novel, I find it hard not to look at panels and pages in the middle or end of the book, which often spoils major plot points or at the very least provides contextual information that informs my reading experience. This ease of skipping through narrative time as the reader of a comic is illustrated quite nicely by of Chapter 4 of Watchmen, which uses Dr. Manhattan’s nonsequential experience of time as a larger comment on how we, the readers, experience comics. The combination of whole-season DVD compilations and widespread internet commentary for popular shows like Lost drastically increases the likelihood that you will experience a given serial TV drama in a way that is not unlike reading comics. Rather than sequestering yourself in a sensory deprivation chamber or shrilly castigating your friends who let plot points slip out, integrating spoilers into how you experience shows like Lost can put you in an epistemological position not dissimilar from Dr. Manhattan, which is a totally valid way to experience serial fiction.

12 Comments on “Overthinking Lost: Who Spoils the Spoilers?”

  1. Wordsworth #

    Spoilers, I must admit, annoy me to no end. Predominately, this is because the Australian television networks adamantly show an episode of LOST, or any other show, several weeks (or months) after it airs in the States – and I refuse to download. Of course I have the choice to shut off the internet and delete my Favourites link to Lostpedia, and I have taken to that in recent seasons after being rudely spoiled about the Season 3 finale. However, there is an added level of frustration in my position, that I suppose places my experience more in line with people like you or Mlawski who are watching the show well after it has aired. It irks me that I’m following it as it goes, and yet there are still people knowing the secrets before me… Ooh boy, season six is going to be a doozy in that respect.

    So I suppose I sit in the middle of the balance between unavoidable spoilers and those who consciously seek out the answers.

    However, what you mention about putting the pieces together, and wondering how the storyline will reach the spoiler that’s been uncovered – that, I believe, is the only redeeming feature of spoilers. It opens the spoiled people up to a whole sphere of theorising. Of course, LOST has been rather clever in some respects, in that knowing the big reveals beforehand doesn’t give you any more insight, just destroys your surprise. Knowing that Locke’s in the coffin doesn’t illuminate anything, only allows you to theorise for a little bit longer. Everyone else has exactly the same question milling around in their heads between THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME and THE LIFE AND DEATH OF JEREMY BENTHAM.

    The non-LOST example that immediately sprang to mind was the STAR WARS prequels. We start off knowing that little kid is going to become Darth Vader – that’s not the surprise. The surprise is how he gets there. Obviously, the SW prequels are orchestrated for non-linear viewing, but I heartily agree that knowing snatches of what’s to come can make taking the intended ‘chronological’ path very intriguing.

    And as your analogy states, Eloise Hawking is a brilliantly semi-meta example.


  2. Kevin #

    As for me, I’ve experienced Lost from a few different places when it comes to spoilers: the first season, I was casually into the show, and was willing to read spoilers… but usually there weren’t very many out there. When the second season came along (and the number of spoilers, not to mention Lost web sites, exploded), I’d read them, and well into the third season… and then decided to stay spoiler-free for the S3 finale.

    And thank God (Jacob?) I did — I can’t imagine having any of the same love for the episode if I had known from minute one that some of the characters were off the island, and Jack was flashing forward, not back… that Charlie would finally die… that Walt would appear to Locke… and so on. That experience taught me the value of staying spoiler-free as much as possible, at least when it comes to Lost. I’ve remained pretty faithful to that ever since, and I honestly think it’s made the show more pleasurable to watch.

    But as a rule, I’ll only stay spoiler-free if I absolutely LOVE the show, or if it’s a movie I’m really excited for. If I’m only casually interested, I don’t see the problem with spoilers so much. Take “True Blood,” for example. I watch it out of curiosity, but I can’t say it’s a particular favorite of mine. So I’m willing to read spoilers if I come across them, mainly because I don’t have a lot of investment in the show. (At the same time, I don’t actively seek them out.)

    I would really recommend, especially for this final season, staying free and clear of spoilers as much as possible. There are so many twists on Lost, large and small, that the more you can be surprised, the better the show works. And after the explosive events of the Season Five finale… I don’t think anyone really knows how these last episodes will play out. So enjoy that experience!


  3. Mike M. #

    Re: “the more you can be surprised, the better the show works” – I think that’s true only to a point. Part of the enjoyment of “Lost” definitely comes from being surprised, but there is also a large part that comes from an appreciation of “Lost” as a piece of art. This is why TV on DVD works so well. I personally try to avoid spoilers as I’m watching through the first time, and I fully intend to purchase and watch the “Lost” series box set when it eventually comes out – not to relive the surprises, but the storytelling.


  4. Kevin #

    @Mike M: oh, I totally agree with you. I own and have re-watched the episodes on Blu-Ray, have watched the S5 finale a couple times on my Tivo, have faithfully read the fan sites and Lostpedia, and so on. But I still run away from spoilers.

    There’s a difference between “spoilers” and “knowledge” — I steer clear of the former, but try to get as much as I can of the latter. Spoilers only do one thing, and one thing only: they ruin the element of surprise. After all, it’s in the very NAME of the term: they “spoil” the story for you.

    Knowledge, on the other hand, is integral to Lost. If you’ve seen Season 5… it’s really interesting to re-watch Season 2, for example, and see what you didn’t pay much attention to the first time around that you now see in an entirely new light. And as we discussed in last week’s comments, there’s plenty of backstory that they haven’t included in the episodes (the mobisodes, ARGs, etc.) that, if you’re a fan, make it worth the effort to seek them out. That knowledge expands the universe of the series.

    For the people who care about reading as many spoilers as they can, the only question I have is: why do you bother watching the show?


  5. Genevieve #

    I think that the extent to which spoilers “matter” is directly related to the quality of the production. I tend to avoid spoilers myself, because I like being surprised, in general… but I can definitely understand the notion that Lost is a show where the spoilers don’t matter all that much. It’s a show that’s flat-out watchable, and it’s compelling thanks to the quality, not just the suspense. I cry every time I watch “The Constant,” and I’m sure I will continue to do so. Surprises are fun, but good storytelling isn’t DEPENDENT upon them.

    For example, people around the world tuned in to Dallas way back when because of all the hype around discovering “Who shot J.R.?!?” – however, I doubt many people, now that it’s no longer a question, bother to go back and watch the show again. Contrariwise, knowing that Maggie shot Mr. Burns does not make the Simpsons spoof ANY less re-watchable. (actually, I’m talking out my ass… I’ve never watched Dallas; it might be some quality television… )

    Lost doesn’t live or die on the strength of its surprises. It’s well-crafted drama that’s as fascinating to watch the tenth time as the first time. I respect spoiler-free requests, but people should ask themselves: if spoilers are really going to make-or-break your enjoyment of a show… maybe it’s not a show worth spending your time watching.


  6. stokes #

    I dunno, Genevieve. I think that is often the case, but not always. Case in point, The Sixth Sense. That’s a legitimately good movie, and one that I’d gladly watch again. But I had it spoiled for me before I watched it, and well, that kind of sucked. It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the film as a whole, but it took away an important part of the experience.


  7. Gab #

    @Genevieve: “I cry every time I watch “The Constant,” and I’m sure I will continue to do so.” ME TOO, ME TOO, ME TOO!! ::flaps arms:: That’s my favorite episode!!!

    ::relaxes:: Sorry…


    I’d have to say my feelings on spoilers tend to vary from item to item. I’m much more willing to get spoiled for things I have never seen or read that are being discussed by friends/family that have seen or read them versus things I myself am into; but, at the same time, if friends/family are discussing something I am also enjoying in a way that could spoil me, I’m usually okay with it, too. Obviously, this comes from a desire to be “in” on it because I’m a social person, so my conformity is more outward than inward based. BUT. Because spoilers have the potential to do just that, “spoil,” as Kevin said, I still think it is a matter of respect and courtesy to ask whomever is involved in the discussion if they have been exposed to whatever is about to be mentioned and, if not, would they mind being spoiled a little (or a lot, depending on what’s being talked about, obviously). Even if I don’t, I know some people DO get extremely upset if they’re even slightly spoiled. My friends and I would say, “Spoiler alert, the Comedian dies!” a lot as the _Watchmen_ movie was nearing release, but the first time one of us said it, another actually did get angry until he was reminded that the Comedian dies IN THE DAMN TRAILER and in like every synopsis out there of both the book and movie. Why did he get upset? He hadn’t read the book yet. While people like him are rather extreme, I take this into consideration whenever I think I may be about to spoil something. And I appreciate that same courtesy from others.

    That being said, I’m about to spoil _The Dark Knight_ here, in case anyone has, for some ungodly reason, not seen it yet.

    Being the nerdgirl I am, I just have to bring up _The Dark Knight_. The two “villains” are, of course, The Joker and Two-Face. Having a pretty good knowledge of the core bits of Batman canon/mythology, I knew basic origin stories for both, so I went into the movie looking forward to seeing how Nolan would go about them. I went in anticipating some sort of vat of ooze for one to fall in, and a mobster with acid for the other. After the Joker takes his mask off to reveal his makeup in the opening, I thought, “Okay, flashbacks or exposition, maybe?” And when Harvey says, “I suggest you buy American,” I thought, “Uh, he’s not seriously going to have TWO mobster-on-stand scenes, is he?” (amidst my thoughts of how utterly badass the moment was, of course). So I was EXTREMELY curious and it drew me in like a moth to a flame. I wasn’t expecting to be surprised at all, so imagine my surprise at *being* surprised- the Joker didn’t even *get* an “origin” and Dent became Two-Face in a way very, very different than any I had ever heard of before. It was exciting, a great feeling, and the irrelevance of what I had *thought* was pre-knowledge and thus somewhat spoileriffic, was tossed out the window- and in a way I was more than satisfied with. THAT is good storytelling.

    ::end pointless rant::


  8. manscaper #

    why would you put spoilers for The Wire in a post about Lost? That’s really annoying, I’m caught up on Lost but only a season into The Wire. You can’t really expect your reading audience to be fully caught up on two completely unrelated series for one article…its a bit odd


  9. Matt #


    Oh, you meant Lost spoilers… sorry.


  10. Genevieve #

    Stokes, that was kinda my point, though. I mean, sure, spoilers can be annoying… but with the right movies/shows/whatever, they’re not *deal-breakers.*

    I think watching something that’s been “spoiled” is sort of like listening to a “live recording.” If it’s good, it’s good, and if you like it you’ll listen to it again and again… but no matter how hard it tries, it can’t capture the raw excitement and undercurrent of shared experience of being *at a concert*. (going to a concert of music you don’t particularly like is akin to something that is all surprise and no substance – you’ll probably have a good time at the show, because you’ll be caught up in the hysteria… but you wouldn’t buy the live cd)

    So, to recap, watching Lost after having read spoilers is like listening to Exit… Stage Left. Watching Dallas knowing who shot J.R. is like listening to Frampton Comes Alive.

    Just kidding, I’ve never listened to Frampton Comes Alive. I’m sure it’s brilliant… (also, I couldn’t think of a better example – I checked, and apparently people like Brittany Spears are smart enough not to release live albums)


  11. Genevieve #

    PS – I will admit to having skipped the 2nd half of Gab’s comment, because I haven’t yet seen The Dark Knight. So, yeah.


  12. Gab #

    @Genevieve: Sad pandas- both items you have missed out on are highly recommended by me, at least.


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