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Internet sleuthery cannot abide a loose end
Surprise! Here’s a guest column from Emily St. James!
Hi there, Ryan here. I’m still on a reduced summer schedule, but I couldn’t resist bombarding your inboxes with some more content. Today I bring you a piece from guest writer Emily St. James.
She dug into the history of online fan theories — going all the way back to Usenet — and tried to figure out why the internet is so obsessed with finding twists in TV shows even if, in the case of Succession, they don’t really even have them. And if you’re looking for more of Emily’s writing on Succession, check out this piece she did for the New York Times.
Succession And The Fan-Theory-ification Of Everything
—by Emily St. James
Whether you watched the show or not, chances are you've been completely bombarded by some kind of fan theory about the final season of the recently concluded HBO series Succession.
Either Swedish billionaire Lukas Matsson had completely made up a piece of bad news to ensnare the central Roy brothers in an unexpected trap or a dead character wasn’t actually dead or some other Big! Twist! Everything was four-dimensional chess, and you, conspiracy-minded viewer, were there to catch the show in the act.
But Succession has never been a show that pulls the rug out from under its audience, something I argued as early as its second season. Yet every plot point was overanalyzed by the show’s fanbase who were desperate to predict any dizzying twists still to come. On a show where part of the point is that the ultra-rich are exactly as short-sighted as they seem, some viewers kept wishing for Kendall or Roman or Greg to reveal that — ah ha! — they had pulled one over on us.
When it comes to non-twisty shows where audiences kept inventing twists they could outguess, Succession is in good company. Mad Men fans couldn’t stop postulating that Don Draper was the falling man from the show’s opening credits or D.B. Cooper or maybe both at once. Breaking Bad fans kept predicting ways for Walter White to reveal how completely he’d outsmarted everyone, long after the show had revealed his venal little heart. And most famously, nobody will simply let the ending of The Sopranos remain ambiguous. Sooner or later, someone will prove that Tony Soprano is either alive or dead. There is a right answer. [Ed. note: He's dead.]
It doesn’t matter what show you’re talking about; the internet will find a way to come up with some wild theory of what’s “really” happening. To be clear, this tendency is completely harmless, and sometimes, as with the “Don Draper is D.B. Cooper” theory, the theorizing functions as a kind of Wiki-flavored fan fiction. It’s also probably better for online commenters to be trying to discover conspiracies within Succession than within reality. (Though in real life, as in Succession, it’s so blindingly obvious that the ultra-rich are terrible that many of us keep looking for some big reveal.)
Nevertheless, there's a real tendency within online TV discussion to treat every show not just as a series of story or character arcs but as a series of big reveals that just haven’t happened yet. The standard series to blame for this tendency is the 2004-10 series Lost, which saw fan theorizing reach such a fever pitch that it essentially gave birth to an entire TV blogger subculture.
Then, this line of argument goes, the 2010s saw shows like Game of Thrones lean all the way in to trying to shock and surprise the audience at every turn. So now all we know how to do is process serialized television through incredibly elaborate theories, even when the shows all but beg us to take them at face value.
Here’s the thing: This actually isn't that new. Internet TV discussion was obsessed with trying to outguess shows going all the way back to the first message board. Usenet discussions of popular shows of the ‘80s and early ‘90s had kernels of this, and the 1993-2002 Fox sci-fi series The X-Files, a popular show in the Nielsens that was the center of online TV discussion for the second half of the 1990s, hypercharged everything. The two central discourses of online X-Files discussion were “Can we, the fans, figure out what’s going on with the alien conspiracy?” and “Will FBI agents Mulder and Scully sleep together?” Both of those discussions are still with us today, for so many different shows.
And contrary to the hellish screams you may have seen recently on Twitter, serialized TV and internet sleuthing are compatible forms of storytelling. Both encourage us to go down rabbit holes in a hunt for treasure, and both require endlessly leaving catharsis just over the horizon. Yet there’s one subtle disconnect between the two that becomes more obvious when viewed through the lens of a Succession. A TV show that wants to reflect reality on some level will leave lots of loose ends and frayed edges, and internet sleuthery cannot abide a loose end. Nobody actually saw that Succession character die? Then the obvious answer isn’t that death is terrifying and unknowable and comes for us all; it’s that he’s not really dead.
The question of whether this fan-theory-ification of everything is getting better or worse is also complicated. To be sure, these discussions are so endemic to the way the internet discusses everything that it’s unlikely we’ll stop talking about TV in this way any time soon. (And, again, better we dissect TV this way than reality.) There are encouraging signs for us fans of ambiguous art, however. Given the fact that an entire subreddit sprang up to mock Succession fans who were looking for the show to pull off a giant twist, I would love to say that we, as an online TV discussion culture, are turning a corner.
But every time I think a corner has been turned, I realize there’s some other shiny object just around that corner, and… ooh, maybe said shiny object proves the main character is a robot? Which is all to say: Ava on Abbott Elementary is obviously aging in reverse, and I can prove it.
One More Live Event In New York This Summer
I’ve got one more Caveat show on the books. It’s next week on June 21st and you can get tickets here. Doors at 6:30, starts at 7:00. We have some kick ass guests, including comedian Ena Da and journalists Shannon Liao and Allegra Frank. See you there!
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***Any typos in this email are not on purpose and if you see any its because Ryan put them in by accident***