Madness descended upon the internet earlier this week when the Westworld showrunners stormed into a the /r/westworld subreddit for what proved to be one of the larger online pranks in recent history.
The gist of the prank was simple: the Westworld team announced that they would be spoiling the entirety of the show for the Westworld superfans. Their logic was that the fans of Westworld seem to love guessing spoilers, so they might as well have them all revealed in advance.
This was a clever stunt, a well-executed, but most importantly: the Westworld team had created a genius act of public shaming that should bring into focus the absurdity of many aspects of internet fan culture.
The internet loves a good fan theory. The trouble is, the phrase “fan theory” has started to go the way of words like content or hipster or artisan or any of the other words whose definitions are so vague, so all encompassing, that they have very little meaning at this point.
“Fan theory” is currently used as a descriptor for the following things:
A prediction for an upcoming storyline
Analysis of a character’s motivations
Analysis of a storyline
The dissection of a trailer and conclusions drawn from moments in said trailer
Explanation of subtext, predicated on the explainer failing to recognize subtext.
Recognition of dramatic irony or a plot turn before the reveal
None of the above should be considered fan theories, in the opinion of this blogger.
So then, you may ask, what the heck qualifies as a fan theory?
I’ve been trying to write this article for a while. Years. While I try to avoid listicles, I’ve found that, at times, they have their uses. These are my opinions and observations on what we talk about when we talk about fan theories, and what they are, and how we should talk about them.
No one has an agreed-upon definition for “fan theory.”
Fan theory is not listed on Urban Dictionary. It is not explained on Know Your Meme. Even the /r/FanTheories subreddit does not have any official stance on what makes a fan theory a fan theory.
This is largely because the phrase “fan theory” means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Part of why I’m writing this is to reach some kind of definition and meaning, and to refute what I see as being inaccurate uses of the phrase.
A fan theory is a form of contemporary critical theory, in which the audience analyzes the text and creates a new interpretation that explains “what really happened,” creating a separate narrative aside from or within the narrative.
This is what I’ve come up with. I don’t know if it’s perfect, but I think it says a lot.
Now, more importantly, I’d like to explore both what makes a fan theory good and what makes a fan theory bad and what makes a fan theory not a fan theory. Part of this will include citing particularly good and bad fan theories.
A weak fan theory is anything that suggests “it was all a dream” or “the main character was dead the whole time” or any variation of this.
If you aren’t familiar with it, The Eric Andre Show is a post-modern talk show starring Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress, two comedians who are either parodying a late night show or trying to escape one.
In its description of the show, Hulu describes it as the “most manic and unorthodox late night talk show ever made,” calling Andre “inept and bipolar” and Buress “his apathetic co-host.” The AV Club says “what most distinguishes The Eric Andre Show is its disintegration.” MediaLife Magazine, in a furious review, calls it “slapdash, noisy, annoying and not funny.” IndieWire, in a review of its fourth season, calls it “some beautiful chaos.”
But the review that still haunts me and informs my entire viewing of the show is one on IMDB, titled Is This Comedy? The author, diesixdie, describes the experience of The Eric Andre Show with such troubling precision and insight that it has informed my view The Eric Andre Show ever since:
“We seem to be viewing some sort inescapable closed universe containing nothing but an endless slightly nightmarish talk show. It feels like a bad dream, half remembered. It feels like there’s some unspeakable horror lurking just off-camera that the people on-stage can see, but, we can’t, and they can only stay safe by pretending to ignore it.”
Those of you who have read this blog with any regularity will recall my True Detective review in which I offered a fan theory about the fate of Ross Geller’s son, Ben. It was a strange blog post, in that it ended up being a theory about a show I haven’t watched in years. The other strange thing about that blog post is that it got a lot of attention, showing up referenced or summarized on Entertainment Weekly, Hello Giggles, Cosmo, Redbook, Refinery29, and a series of other websites.
After several waves of intermediate virality regarding a theory about Friends, this blog and its author have received some very entertaining feedback, through the legions of recappers, bloggers, and commenters that have thoughts and feelings regarding my suggestion that Ross Geller was an inept father who lost custody of his son. My initial response, when reading some of these, was to want to go out there and argue with people.
Instead, I remembered something important: haters are inevitably going to hate. As proven by the celebrities who read mean tweets about themselves, the best thing to do is laugh and shrug and keep doing what you’re doing.
So here are some of the rave reviews that I’ve received:
“…completely ridiculous.” – Michelle B, commenter on Huffington Post.
“What a waste.” – Sally K, commenter on Huff Post.
“….what a bunch of dribble….” – Patrise S, commenter on Huff Post.
“This is stupid.” – Jessica F S, commenter on Huff Post.
“Seriously? I think a hobby is needed…” – Melissa S-A, commenter on Huff Post.
“Anyone who spends this much time analyzing character on a comedy, yes – a fictionalized version of peoples lives, has way too much time on his or her hands. Do something productive!” – Lori M. H., commenter on Huff Post.
“He’s not a bad professor.” – Nait A. C., commenter on Huff Post.
“Waaaaay too much time on your hands” – Jay R., commenter on Huff Post.
“Way too much time on your hands. How many years ago was this show cancelled?” – Deborah B., commenter on Huff Post.
“Someone has way too much free time.” – Ephy K, commenter on Huff Post.
“Coming to all of these conclusions would be like arguing for statistics based on the frequency of extremely rare medical cases all occurring in Princeton-Plainsboro from House M.D. …” – Vadim B
“…maybe the child actor who played Ross’s son had to be somewhere else, like school.” – Ariel Karlin, someecards.com
“Or more likely, the boy or boys, playing Ben actually had some career success with Big Daddy and decided not to be on the show anymore.” – Joseph F.
“…smells of SJW…” and “This author has sympthoms of feminazi.” – Honza8D, on the Friends subreddit. (SJW, I learned, means “Social Justice Warrior.” Huh. Okay. Thank you!)
Now brace yourself for this one, because it’s long but it’s a good one:
“I just finished binge watching Friends from beginning to end on netflix, over the course of a few months. Friends had a lot of internal inconsistencies which indicate that actually it’s not a show where you should put a lot of effort into logically understanding. For example in one episode Chandler flies to Yemen and in the following episode (one week later) there is no mention of Yemen. It takes practically a week just to fly to Yemen and return. In another episode Joey’s eyebrows are destroyed and in the following episode, another week later, his eyebrows have returned to normal. This is a show that can be enjoyed for the wonderful acting and wonderful writing and jokes, but that is not a holy text to be understood through study and close analysis. It’s more like Gilligan’s Island, less like Lost. What is going on here is that Lovett has his own dead horses to beat, and is using old episodes of Friends to beat those horses.” – Peter J, commenter on Huffington Post.
Haters will hate
I’ll leave one response to all of this: over-thinking things is fun. Blogging is one of several fulfilling hobbies that I have, and a hobby I would recommend to all the angry internet commenters.
And to answer one more question I’ve gotten: No, I’m not much of a Friends fan. If you recall from the original post, I thought of this while watching True Detective, not because I watch Friends. I didn’t watch a single episode of Friends while writing this theory. I’ve never even seen most of the episodes. It took, from start to finish, about one hour to research this theory on Wikipedia and a few other sites, and another hour to crank out the original blog post, which has now been viewed by over 10,000 people. (My favorite recap of my theory is the one on Cinema Blend, because it’s the only one to consider my thoughts on True Detective and Ray Velcoro.)
It’s Halloween season, which means all the usual trappings that come with this time of year: pumpkins, corn mazes, shockingly-early Christmas advertisements, and the annual “Treehouse of Horror” episode of The Simpsons.
But as I thought about the upcoming “Treehouse of Horror” episode, which I may or may not watch, I started to wonder: do the regular episodes of The Simpsons all take place in the same continuum? Are they actually one story about one family in one town in one universe? Is there such thing as a canonical Simpsons episode? Does The Simpsons make any sense at all?
And thus, a new fan theory: every single episode of The Simpsons takes place in a different universe.
My suggestion is that every time we see an episode of The Simpsons, we are getting a glimpse into a slightly different version of Springfield and this family. There is an infinite amount of universes in which The Simpsons exist. No two episodes show us precisely the same family or the same world. Sure, sometimes a character will remember something from a previous episode, but they are only remembering a similar instance to what we previously saw. Every Lisa, Bart, Homer, Marge, Maggie, and the rest of them are always slightly different, like the differing iterations of Spock and Kirk between the old Star Trek and the new one.
If every episode is a different universe, this theory explains all the continuity issues and changing details.
The Simpsons, like many cartoons, refuses to allow its characters to age while the world around them changes. This is not unique to this cartoon, but there are many issues that have arisen, both in addition to this and beyond this. A few of them:
Homer and Marge were once Baby Boomers; now they’re on the young end of Generation X.
Waylon Smithers used to be black.
Homer once was in a Grammy-winning band, which appears to have been mostly forgotten and irrelevant.
Seymour Skinner was revealed to be an impostor, with a stolen-identity Draper-esque plotline, before the entire town agreed to never speak of it again.
Apu’s children age while other characters (such as Maggie, who should be older than them) stay the same age.
It explains the evidence behind “the Tesseract theory.”
In addition to the issues above, there are some really bonkers ones, that some have argued can only be explained through the idea that Springfield exists outside time and space. Examples like:
George Bush lives next door to The Simpsons in a mansion that doesn’t exist in other episodes
West Springfield is three times the size of Texas.
There’s a mountain called the Murderhorn that doesn’t otherwise exist.
Paul McCartney lived above the town’s convenient store.
This theory would not only eliminate the need for such a “tesseract fan theory,” but also eliminates the need and evidence for the “Homer is in a coma” theory.
It explains why no one ever learns any lessons.
Episodes of The Simpsons regularly end with a character learning a lesson. Or multiple characters. Or the entire town. But when the next episode begins, these lessons aren’t remembered. The events that triggered them rarely even are.
This might be the greatest example of a lack of continuity. How many times has Homer tried to be a better father, a better husband, a better man? How many times has he quit drinking? Unlike Randy Marsh or Sterling Archer, an action that Homer does in one episode will have no effect on himself in a future episode. And what happened to all the role models that Lisa has had: does she remember Bleeding Gums Murphy?
And perhaps that is why this theory is needed: it makes us feel better about the lessons that the characters gain from their triumphs and pitfalls. Imagine that there are countless versions of Homer who has learned his lessons, countless successful Lisas. Perhaps a version of Barney Gumble who is still sober. Maybe even a version of Homer who didn’t have the crayon re-inserted into his brain.
And finally, this theory explains what happened to Troy McClure.
Perhaps, if this theory is true, there are universes where Phil Hartman’s Troy McClure still exists.
If there is one fan theory I love above all others, it’s that James Bond is a codename. I’ve written about this extensively, including my own unique take on it, which is that James Bond is a codename given to every agent who has been brainwashed into believing that:
his name is James Bond,
it has always been James Bond,
there are no other James Bonds before him
he grew up at a place called Skyfall.
My interpretation, as described thoroughly in my post “Yes, Indeed, James Bond is a Codename,” (which was then thoroughly discussed and dissected in a reddit post on the subject) takes most of its evidence from the film Skyfall, including the relationship between Judi Dench’s M and Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva. I believe it’s implied that Silva is an agent previously brainwashed into thinking himself Bond.
But what does all of this mean when considering the new James Bond film, Spectre?
What do we already know about Spectre?
Many people already consider Skyfall to have disproved the codename theory, arguing that the graves of the dead Bond parents and the visit to Bond’s family estate prove he can’t possibly be a guy whose nickname/codename is Bond. Plus, as people always point out, we already know James Bond’s codename: 007.
This dig into Bond’s backstory appears to go deeper in Spectre, with the catalyst for the film’s action apparently involving a box of possessions from Skyfall. And the villain is none other than Christoph Waltz, who is either:
But, most importantly about Waltz’s character, he is certainly someone who already knows James, as we see in the teaser trailer:
And who is the other guy? To whom Bond’s face is familiar? To whom James may be bringing death? (Edit: it’s been pointed out that this man is Mr White, from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace.)
And then there is this trailer, in which we learn that James is “who links them all”
But what does this mean for the James Bond codename theory?
The real question is whether we can continue to believe that Bond is a brainwashed spy who wasn’t born as James Bond, but that he doesn’t know that.
I would say, yes. I would say, I hope so.
Consider what we hear Oberhauser telling him in the second trailer: “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.”
Did Franz Oberhauser author Bond’s pain? Or did he create Bond himself? Is he part of this brainwashing, codename-assigning conspiracy in which some of us so fervently believe?
Will it confirm the James Bond codename theory?
No. Certainly not. But it cannot disprove it either. We will continue to believe, and there will undoubtedly be a reading of the film that allows for the James Bond Codename Theory to continue to exist.
We will know soon. Spectre comes out on November 6th. As Oberhauser says in the trailer: “It’s been a long time. Now, finally, here we are.”
After posting the James Bond is a Codename, and Skyfall Proved Ittheory on the Fan Theories subreddit, /r/fantheories, a discussion with over 100 comments broke out over it. These are some of the more interesting responses I saw in this discussion. All original comments are credited to the redditors who provided them. The comments themselves are in italics, with my opinions appearing before and after.
1. /u/KodiakAnorak commented with this terrifying/awesome fan fiction set-up and extension of the original idea:
Imagine a “Project Bond”, if you will, that ties into your theory. The grown men aren’t brainwashed at all. The children are genuine orphans taken by the British Government, trained and raised from a young age (before they can remember) as “James Bond”, the ultimate assassination machine. The only truly original Bond was the one from the book series. The rest are copies, raised in the image of a brutal killer. To protect their people, the UK created monsters…Continue reading “The Most Interesting Responses to the Brainwashed James Bond Codename Theory”→