Great television has always been about turning the viewer into a detective searching for clues, and where there are clues there are theories… but have we fans gone too far in our quest for answers?
In the 1950’s, when the rules and grammar of serialised television were still in their infancy, Flash Gordon and The Lone Ranger would, each week, leave us with a figurative and often literal cliffhanger – asking a whole generation of kids if their heroes would make it out alive.
In the 60’s millions tuned in to watch The Fugitive every week in the hope of discovering the identity of the one-armed man who killed Richard Kimble’s wife.
Across the pond, in England, cult swinging sixties TV show The Prisoner asked “Who is Number One?”
This article contains spoilers for Mr Robot, Lost, Sherlock and the whole first season of Westworld.
If you haven’t caught up, stop reading now!
The 1980’s “Who shot J.R.?” was replaced in the 90’s with “Who killed Laura Palmer?”
In the noughties Lost fans completely missed the point and argued over minutiae while in 2014, after leaving us guessing for two years Sherlock actually included real fan-theories within the show to try and explain Holme’s miraculous escape!
Mr Robot has spawned countless fan theories while there are websites, podcasts and entire Youtube channels dedicated to the latest example: Westworld… and before you say it, we get the irony:
Couchpotato is as guilty of throwing Mr Robot theories around as much as the next guy, but mine are more like Marvel Comics What if…? series and I hope my theories do more than just spoil what’s gonna happen next week – they are designed to pull back the curtain of Elliot’s reality.
But it isn’t only shows with mysteries at their core – all plot-driven television is based on Good Old-Fashioned Detective Work whether it’s CSI, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? or Mr Robot; the breadcrumbs must always first be laid. Without well-telegraphed signposts, twists make no sense and fall flat. The murderer in an episodic police procedural must be more conspicuous in a one-hour show than in a season-long whodunnit like Twin Peaks or Broadchurch.
The same time-limitation works in movies – I pride myself on seeing twists coming, but I missed two huge twists in the recent Ben Affleck film The Accountant. As both twists were revealed, my buddy and I turned to each other and mimed “Of course! How did we not see that coming!” Given a week to ruminate, we’d have soon seen those two twists coming a mile off. Then factor in ten million people, all theorizing online and the twists become impossible to miss. The thing is, knowing would only have lessened our enjoyment.
So when did all these internet theories begin? I always maintain it began with Lost in 2004. Why? Well, several momentous social changes occurred in the few years before it’s release – it was the first global mystery show to appear after (nearly) everyone had access to the internet.
Together with the anonymity that hiding behind a computer screen provides, the other big change around this time was Reality TV. Combine these phenomena and two new, twenty-first century species were spawned: Fan Boys and Haters… and more often that not, they were one in the same!
Reality TV is designed to bring out your judgmental side – you become Caesar, choosing the fate of Roman Gladiators with thumbs up, thumbs down or telephone vote. If you don’t believe me watch this excellent TED Talk which demonstrates how the advent of reality TV and the decline of traditional family values in television are inextricably linked.
Anyway, back to Lost: Just like reality TV, the showrunners responded to the much-hated Paulo and Nikki by killing them off and in doing so, became the first drama to listen to the Internet audience who, by now, had become an army of detectives watching boxsets on widescreen TV’s and laptops and scrutinizing every frame; like when I freeze-framed the scene in the cabin looking for Jacob in the chair…
But in the ultimate irony, nearly everyone missed the point of Lost. While the show asked (and answered) the most important question that we can ask as a species – what happens to us after we die? – fan boys were more interested in arguing over why a statue had four toes, not five.
This new viewing experience where fan boys became judge, jury and executioner meant they picked everything apart, suddenly knew better than the writers and it was their God-given right to destroy anything they didn’t like or understand. Lost didn’t disappear up its own ass, the haters ruined it. Science Fact!
The water cooler had been replaced by the keyboard and it was downhill from there! Every website and publication must now post a review within an hour of a show being broadcast and millions of Fan Boys and Girls like you and me lap it up. Scan-reading hurriedly-written articles to see if we missed anything, to see if we noticed more than the reviewers and (dare I say it) so we can pretend we saw next week’s big twist coming.
Before long, it was the norm to post your theories on Reddit and by 2014, Game of Thrones fans began posting videos on Youtube guessing Jon Snow’s parentage. It only takes one person in a sea of millions to guess correctly and the cat is out of the bag forever.
So let us jump forward to today. During early parts of Mr Robot’s two seasons, we fans have worked out the major twists weeks in advance. If you’ve seen Hamlet or The Lion King or Star Wars it was pretty bleedin’ obvious that Mr Robot was Elliot’s father. Even we here at I even posted a theory that Elliot was in jail after S02E02.
Similarly, fans worked out Westworld’s major twists six or seven weeks before they formed a major part of the antepenultimate episode and Season Finale. And when the twists that Bernard was a robot host, that he was Arnold and that The Man in Black was a bitter, battle-scarred William in another timeframe were all revealed, every single one of them fell completely flat and left the (internet) audience underwhelmed and frustrated.
But whose fault is it?
The fans are hardly to blame for theorizing. Guessing what’s going to happen next is part of our DNA. It’s probably why we homo sapiens survived and the Neandertals didn’t! Making us guess what’s round the corner is key to all storytelling and the raison d’être for mystery shows.
It’s certainly not the journalists who rush to post their reviews before anyone else who are spoiling things.
It’s hardly the show’s writers fault either, I mean what do we expect screenwriters to do? Stop writing twist-based TV?
Or, as audiences become more sophisticated, should we expect the writers to invent new ways to hide breadcrumbs?
Expect the industry to always film multiple versions like The Walking Dead filmed the death of every major character?
Where would that end? With showrunners writing multiple versions of a show in case Reddit users correctly predict future events?
Or should we expect Redditers, Youtubers and fansites to stop posting their thoughts?
At the end of the day, if we don’t want our enjoyment spoiled, it is us who should learn not to peek at our presents and leave the mystery boxes wrapped and under the tree until Christmas Morning.
We’ll be back soon with some more Mr Robot theories – not those spoilery ones that kill shows, but thought-provoking, high-concept ones that add to your enjoyment of the most mind-bending show on TV.
P.S. As I was nearing finishing writing, I found this article which also covers Mr Robot and Westworld. Enjoy!