As the wedding band played, Sunday night’s Game of Thrones audience was neatly divided into two groups: readers of the original novels who knew exactly what was about to happen and those who only know the battles of Westeros through TV—which is to say, they had no idea. With the runaway popularity of the TV series (the premiere of its third season set an online-piracy record earlier this year), the most surprising plot twist of all may be the fact that the second group was so large. In the history of the internet, has a larger population of rabid know-it-alls ever been so good at keeping a secret?
Here comes the spoiler. There’s still time to turn away.
The famous scene from last night’s episode, known as The Red Wedding, ends with the death of the boy-king Robb Stark—one of the few sympathetic characters in a series lousy with antiheroes and villains—along with his mother, pregnant wife, pet direwolf, and most of his loyal comrades in arms. In one fell swoop, a hero, his mother, his true love, his dog, and his friends are all savagely murdered. It’s the kind of moment that actually seems to punish viewers’ enthusiasm for the show itself.
And there was plenty of outrage on Sunday night, proof that the secret had been kept for more than a dozen years. (The third novel, on which this season of the TV show is based, was first published in 2000.) A Twitter account, @RedWeddingTears, popped up to aggregate the anguish and vows of vengeance against a story and its creators for upsetting their expectations:
Having a deep Game of Thrones-related depression and psychological distress.
— Angeline Fuentes (@AngelineFuentes) June 3, 2013
Game of Thrones literally just tore my heart out and stomped on it. I’m gonna throw up man.
— Ben Biggers (@biggerben19) June 3, 2013
IT’S BEEN HALF AN HOUR AND IM STILL THROWING UP #GAMEOFTHRONES
— Adrian Wong (@NothingsWong) June 3, 2013
For a medium that does little more than encourage its users to tell everyone, everything, all the time, the Internet has actually gotten remarkably good at dealing with spoilers; the big SPOILER ALERT all-caps warning is fairly ubiquitous. Even so, it’s remarkable to consider the restraint required to create Sunday’s moment of collective shock. Nearly two decades after the publication of the first book, there are more than 8.5 million print and digital copies of Martin’s fantasy series in the hands of readers. Taking steps to preserve the plot has become a staple of the fan culture since the debut of the HBO (TWX) version of the series three years ago. Websites that post recaps or traffic in discussion of Game of Thrones typically offer safe spaces for first timers and separate venues for a more experienced audience. Even on Reddit, not generally known for genteel manners, the administrators of the forum on the series offer no fewer than 12 filters and settings to help readers guard against unwanted spoilers.
It’s hard to feel good about the world after emerging from an hour of slit necks and puncture wounds at a wedding. Odd, then, to think that Games of Thrones could at the same time help restore the sense that common decency, consideration, and, well, politeness is possible—even on the Internet.