Our obsession with fan theories is ruining our favorite shows and we’re just getting started
Warning: There are spoilers for various shows below including "Westworld" and "The Walking Dead."
Sunday's episode of "Westworld" came with two rather shocking reveals. First, it was confirmed that the series has been unfolding across multiple timeframes. Then it was revealed that Bernard, who was recently revealed to be a host in the park, was also modeled after the co-founder of Westworld, Arnold.
Eager fans even spotted early on that Bernard Lowe is an anagram for Arnold Weber, which was later revealed to be Arnold's full name.
For anyone monitoring the show closely on online forums or Reddit threads, you probably weren't shocked by these "Westworld" revelations. Fans have been calling the show's major plot twists since early on in the season.
Redditors postulated that Bernard Lowe was an anagram for Arnold Weber back after episode three aired. Various theories suggested that Bernard could be a host before the actual reveal in the show's seventh episode. Joanna Robinson, over at Vanity Fair, offered a three timeline theory after others suggested there may be two timelines.
Many are still waiting with bated breath to see whether one of the last major fan theories — that William (Jimmi Simpson) is actually a younger version of the mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) — becomes reality in the season's 90-minute season finale airing on December 4.
"Westworld" isn't the first time fans have called a show's big twists, and it certainly won't be the last.
In the age of online binge-watching, it's easy to freeze frame, screen grab, and go back to analyze scenes over and over again right after an episode airs instead of waiting around for it to re-air on television or for a boxed set to become available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Because of streaming, fans are allowed instant access to scrutinize over every detail — something they would never have been able to do before the age of Netflix or DVR.
I've tried to imagine what it would be like if another big phenomenon like J.J. Abrams' ABC hit "Lost" premiered in 2016 instead of over a decade ago in 2004. How many of the show's twists and turns may have been predicted before they hit the air? I'm not saying there weren't "Lost" theories before binge-watch culture — there were, and some were truly awful. But they were not nearly as accurate or as prevalent as anything you see today with "Westworld" or "The Walking Dead" on a weekly basis.
Pausing and screen grabbing live TV is what helped fans realize that Glenn on "The Walking Dead" didn't die early in season six when he landed into a pile of zombies. Many conjectured that he may have rolled under a nearby dumpster after analyzing stills from the episode. Several episodes later, fans learned that was exactly what happened.
What was supposed to be a huge reveal no longer had the same shock value since many viewers saw it coming.
After a first season full of surprises, Redditors were able to guess the big twist of "Mr. Robot" season two not long after the premiere episode. Meanwhile, fans of "The Flash" had a ball guessing season two's reveal about the true identity of a villain named Zoom.
Currently, viewers are freaking out over a small moment that happenedon season seven, episode five of "The Walking Dead" where Rick and Daryl may or may not have communicated via Morse code with each other. And a "Grey's Anatomy" theory from Entertainment Weekly suggests it may eventually be revealed that the main character, Meredith, is suffering from Alzheimer's just like her mother.
The list goes on.
So what happens when we're able to predict the storylines of our favorite shows — are we disappointed in the showrunners for being predictable, or are we excited to have solved the puzzle laid out by creators? It seems like it's a bit of both.
Fan theories and their potential reveals can make a fandom feel empowered and even rewarded — "Westworld" co-creator Jonathan Nolan is even reading the show's subreddit — or they can make a fandom jaded.
In the case of "The Walking Dead," some reveals have started to become predictable to the point where it's causing fan backlash. Glenn's dumpster dive in season six resulted in many critics suggesting the show was wasting opportunities for great storytelling by offering cheap, predictable cliffhangers.
Here's how Vanity Fair covered "The Walking Dead" after Glenn was revealed to be alive: "How Glenn’s Fate Became the Worst-Kept Secret in 'Walking Dead' History: This week, 'Walking Dead' fans got some answers. But did it even matter?"
An article from a Forbes' contributor suggested "The Walking Dead" "completely screwed up Glenn's story in season six." All of the tension from the season six, episode three cliffhanger was sucked dry and dragged out for weeks. During that time, astute fans were able to mull over footage from the episode, compare notes online, and correctly guess what happened on the series.
If this had aired in the '90s, maybe the reveal would have been more of a surprise. But in the digital age, these cliffhangers don't hold up as well.
On the flip side, not too many people seem disappointed with correctly guessing plot devices and twists in HBO's new drama "Westworld." After episode nine, a conversation submitted to the show's Reddit thread titled, "You guys are f—ing good" congratulated the subreddit for a job well done.
"All the subtleties, all the winks and nods…that is truly what makes this sub. And now I'll leave forever. No more tinkering with this one. Cheers. From now on… "Doesn't look like anything to me."
However, the ubiquity of theories has led to some viewers expecting grander twists and turns. When several theories for "Westworld" cropped up early in the season about the Man in Black potentially being an older version of William, some of my colleagues hoped that wasn't the case, and that a bigger reveal would happen.
This obsessive nature of what I'll call active viewing (think active reading, but with a viewer heavily scrutinizing a show or movie in order to comprehend it better) has opened up a frenetic fandom that doesn't seem to care if they're spoiled. Half the fun is about seeing if they can correctly guess what will happen next, making for truly interactive television.
It's no coincidence aftershows for popular series became increasingly popular this year. As The Guardian's Paul MacInnes wrote, fan theories are becoming more of a talking point than the show itself. Fans want to mull over and discuss spoilers for shows. They want to be able to say, "I called it before it happened."
Though aftershows have been around as long MTV's "Real World/Road Rules Challenge," it wasn't until 2011 when AMC launched "The Walking Dead" aftershow "Talking Dead" that the appeal really started to stick. "Talking Dead" consistently remains the second most-watched show on cable television Sunday evenings.
Here's a quick list of a bunch of new aftershows that were announced in the past year:
• In March, BBC America, which is jointly owned by AMC and BBC Worldwide, announced it would launch "After the Black," to coincide with the latest season of "Orphan Black."
• In March, Fox announced it would air an "Empire" aftershow on the series' YouTube channel.
• In April, HBO launched an online-only discussion show for "Game of Thrones" called "After the Thrones."
• USA launched an hour-long aftershow for "Mr. Robot" called "Hacking Robot" in the summer.
• AMC has invested in "Talking Saul" (for "Breaking Bad" spin-off "Better Call Saul") and "Talking Preacher" for "Preacher." There's also "Talking Dead: Fear Edition" for "The Walking Dead" spin-off.
Fan theories and their place in the pop culture conversation has become almost second nature to fans watching shows with massive followings like "The Walking Dead" and "Game of Thrones." And the media knows it — if there's one theory that starts to become popular among a fandom, myself or a colleague will probably cover it in some shape or form, whether we're debunking it or finding evidence to support it.
Even if no one covers a theory, that doesn't stop people from discussing in their fandom hubs. Sometimes the aftershows bring up these theories to stir the pot.
Recently, someone said to me in passing that show theories are practically the new spoilers. It's an idea I initially scoffed at. Fan theories are theories and nothing more, or so I thought.
But what about when they come true, as we've seen more frequently over the past year with "Westworld" and "Mr. Robot," among others? Suddenly, they're not just theories, but accurate predictions that foretell the show's plot. Should we treat these theories then as potential spoilers?
Yes, according to "Westworld" co-creator Jonathan Nolan, who addressed that point recently to The Hollywood Reporter.
"The thing about theorizing is that occasionally, you're going to be right," Nolan said. "The distinction between a theory and a spoiler becomes moot if someone guesses correctly."
So yes, our obsession with fan theories is likely spoiling our favorite shows. While it may lead to some disappointment, fans can't seem to get enough of them.
Fan theories, speculation, and their ability to (at times) correctly predict a show are now the new norm, even for a casual viewer. With a new crop of aftershows and theorists primed for television, I expect to see even more of them moving forward.