Carl Grimes is dead! So is Jack Pearson! Who needs a spoiler alert? Both of these story points are common knowledge.
Spoilers used to be anathema on social media. But a funny thing happened in December when Carl Grimes began the journey that would ultimately end his fictional life: The internet couldn’t stop talking about it.
After the younger half of The Walking Dead’s central family took a zombie bite to the abdomen during December’s mid-season finale, AMC couldn’t act fast enough to let everyone know it was real. Actor Chandler Riggs made it clear in an interview published that very night: “Yes, Carl is going to die.”
Carl’s looming death, which finally played out during Sunday’s mid-season premiere of The Walking Dead, became a subject of open conversation on the internet for months. It wasn’t alone, either.
When This Is Us took its mid-season break last November, it left a tantalizing plot point to dangle: Fans would soon learn how Milo Ventimiglia’s Jack Pearson died. The show’s time-hopping flashbacks had long ago established Jack’s death, but the particulars of how the Pearson family’s super-dad met his end remained a mystery.
On the internet, the same thing happened. People couldn’t stop talking about This Is Us and what Jack’s final moments would look like. Shortly after the episode aired, an interview with producer Isaac Aptaker dispelled any doubts: “[W]e’re definitely quickly approaching the time of his death.”
For both shows, spoilers were no longer a concern. It was fine that everyone knew Carl was doomed, and that Jack’s death would be revealed. More than fine, even. Interviews suggested it all seemed to be part of a larger plan.
That plan worked. Crock-Pot-gate extended far beyond This Is Us fandom. Carl’s death shook readers of the comic books, where he’s still very much alive and is, in many ways, the story’s most central character. No one cared about spoilers; they were too curious about the conversation.
“Yes, Carl is going to die,” Carl’s actor said.
I don’t watch either of these shows. I’m aware of them as someone who exists on the internet, but I don’t keep up with their stories or, really, the social media chatter surrounding them. But as Crock-Pot-gate heated up, and as speculation swirled around Carl’s looming end, I found myself clicking on articles about them both. I’m guessing a lot of you did, as well.
Compare these examples to something like Game of Thrones. A show where, as Mashable’s Angie Han perfectly put it in Slack earlier this week, “if you so much as think the name of a character, the internet screams ‘SPOILERS’ at you.”
That’s the Game of Thrones schtick, of course. It’s shock TV. The show’s dense fantasy-world geo-politics drive the story, but unexpected twists and sudden deaths are what get people talking. As much as they’re able to, anyway; no one likes to see a Game of Thrones spoiler on social media. It’s popular enough that winks and nods alone are enough to propel post-episode conversations.
This Is Us isn’t wired in quite the same way. While its not without its share of surprises, the family-centric story is designed to hit you right in the feels. The reaction after any given episode isn’t, “OMG do you believe that thing happened?!” It’s more, “I have cried my tear ducts dry, there are no feels left to be felt.”
The Walking Dead does aim for shock value, but it’s never really hit the same heights as Game of Thrones. Since the show’s very beginning, online conversations after an episode have tended to focus more on the ongoing story. Or, during darker moments, perceived creative missteps.
In one instance, however, The Walking Dead conversation shifted. You might remember it, even if you don’t watch the show: Glenn died. Well, first Glenn almost died. But then, he actually did die. In both cases, conversations around the show hit buzzing peaks.
When The Walking Dead hit its mid-season break during Season 6, it left viewers guessing with a cliffhanger. Glenn seemed certain to die. It became a topic of open discussion, spoilers be damned. Were they really going to kill off such a beloved character here and now, in this way?!??!
Steven Yeun, Michael Traynor and Corey Hawkins in Season 6 of ‘The Walking Dead.’
That didn’t last long, however. There were clues everywhere that Glenn would survive. The audience wasn’t fooled, but they did keep talking about it. It was a completely organic shift; in public appearances, people involved with the series played it coy. But really, there was no doubt among fans.
Then, Season 6 concluded with another Glenn-related cliffhanger. His character had died long ago in the comics, and the TV show’s story ended Season 6 with a recreation of that memorable scene from Issue 100. Except it cut to credits moments before comic book Glenn would have died, leaving people to wait for answers — and closure — in Season 7.
Unlike the fake-out moment that occurred earlier in the season, the conversation after Season 6 felt hamstrung. People familiar with the comic, including many of the media personalities who write launching-off points for our online conversations, understood what was coming, but “Glenn is almost definitely going to die at the start of Season 7” couldn’t be a headline, because spoilers.
When answers finally came, there was a lot of dissatisfaction among viewers. But — and this is the important piece — no one was really all that surprised.
It seems like AMC learned something important from all the fallout around Glenn: Spoilers matter less than engagement. If loosening the iron grip on secrecy is what gets people talking, well… that’s probably what should be done.
It’s exactly what happened with Carl. We knew almost from the moment Season 8’s mid-season break aired that Carl was cooked. The actor came right out and told us, no doubt with AMC’s explicit blessing. And it shifted the conversation in a healthy way: Instead of wondering if Carl might die, fans could instead ponder what that death might look like.
Not only is that a more interesting line of thought, it’s also much clickier. Someone who doesn’t watch the show definitely isn’t going to click on a vague headline that’s built to tiptoe around spoilers. But something like “How Carl’s looming death alters the course of The Walking Dead forever” could easily rope in anyone who’s ever had even a passing interest in the series.
It’s harder to say the Glenn situation influenced This Is Us, but it’s not without similarities. There was no need for the NBC drama to maintain a “will he or won’t he?” aura of mystery around Jack’s death. Anyone familiar with the show knew it was coming.
That left room for the conversation to turn toward different lines of discussion. Specifically, the Crock-Pot. For This Is Us fandom, that kitchen appliance and the fire it caused became a lightning rod for tense speculation. For anyone else, the Crock-Pot conversation became one of those irresistibly weird internet oddities, the sort of thing that compels even non-fans to dive down rabbit holes.
That’s how you get people engaged. There’s nothing wrong with secrets and plot twists, but not every work of entertainment can achieve the sort of mystique that turned examples like Lost or Game of Thrones into mega-hits. Sometimes, it’s enough to just get people talking. Sometimes, it’s OK to ditch the spoiler alerts.