'Mad Men,' 'Game of Thrones': The No-Spoiler Guide to Spoilers

Sure, we mock Matt Weiner for his overprotectiveness, but HBO is the latest to ask too much of critics as "Game of Thrones" season four approaches.
Frank Ockenfels/AMC; Frank Micelotta/Invision for Academy of Television Arts & Sciences /AP Images
"Mad Men" season seven key art, with Matt Weiner

Every year Mad Men creator Matt Weiner gets mocked by critics for his overprotective (sometimes outlandish) pleas that we omit certain details from our reviews. He considers them spoilers. Of course, everyone considers everything a spoiler these days, so it's hard to fault a showrunner known for being obsessive about everything for continuing that habit when dealing with the press. Were Mad Men lousy, we wouldn't be having this discussion. But it's still one of the best shows on television, so it matters.

And I like a showrunner who cares. I don't always follow Weiner's orders -- suggestions? -- but the Empire still stands, and we still talk. With season seven just around the corner, AMC sent out its much-anticipated mailer (ah, for the days when critics got more than one episode), and Weiner's demands were again up for debate as to how far they went. My take? Far, far less onerous than last year. And none that I'm likely to break on purpose.


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But before Weiner's demands showed up, HBO completely one-upped him (and AMC) by suggesting to critics, in a screener mailing of Game Of Thrones, that they adhere to this: "Please do not reveal any major plot points in advance, or point to any one episode as 'a big one.'"

Oh, dear. Really?

We are talking about a series based on books that have been in circulation for some time now. Essentially, the books are spoilers. And have been for years. Which means that whatever malleable "spoiler rules" we all collectively don't agree to would have been pointless anyway. Besides, I wonder whether telling people that, say, the second of three episodes sent to us is "a big one" will completely and utterly ruin their lives. Well, actually I don't wonder that at all. I know it won't. Because what does "a big one" mean when it pertains to episodes anyway? There are only 10 Game of Thrones episodes a season instead of the 13 that I want and demand, so for me all 10 are big.

But I digress. Pretend you're reading my Game of Thrones fourth season review, and I tell you that the third episode is "a big one." Will you piss and moan and weep and rage? Or will you say, "Well, that's kind of vague, but sounds exciting. I can't wait." 

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Maybe I'll mess with HBO by saying that all three of the advanced episodes they sent -- do you hear that, Weiner and AMC? Three episodes! -- are all big ones. Or that one is big, another is huge and the third one is enormous.

I bring up this tiny little issue because we've reached critical mass on spoiler worries. Or we were already at full and sustained critical mass for several years, and this tiny little bit of nonsense from HBO explodes everything. In the case of both Game of Thrones and Mad Men, what's lost here is how difficult it already is to write a review of what's to come, what's changing or what's of merit in the new season when critics are already walking on eggshells about not ruining the experience for their readers. (Nobody willingly wants to spoil anything on a great TV series that becomes, in many ways, our shared cultural experience.) 

Weiner's list of spoilery notions -- there are four of them, and one could really be broken into multiples -- makes specificity very difficult. I don't take HBO's worries about revealing which episode is "a big one" very seriously, so I'm not worried there. Maybe the bigger issue here is that, at least in my world, there aren't many series that are so brilliant as to merit a review before every season. You don't see many critics reviewing Grey's Anatomy anymore for this very reason. The returning series that I believe are still creating art are also series I would never want to ruin for fans -- Game of Thrones and Mad Men being two perfect examples. So, how to celebrate what they've conceived and executed for this next season (or at least the beginning of it) while also not revealing a spoiler? Hell, we're already to the point in Our Spoiled World where you pretty much have to tell people there are no spoilers in your story, or they won't even bother to read it.

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Spoiler worries: Killing criticism.

But I also wouldn't want to ignore these returning gems, either. Some of them -- like FX's The Americans, which is superb -- really need new people to discover them. As a critic, you want to trumpet a top-tier series if its maintaining its greatness. Inevitably, reviews of returning series lack the depth of the actual criticism you might have found when they first appeared. Not necessarily something to wail about, but still worrisome. So pardon me if I get a little stabby when you ask me not to say there's a big episode coming up.

Don't steal our vagueness, HBO. At this point, it's all we have.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine