Ever since she was a kid, Steph Bailey has read the last page of a book first. Some readers love surprises, but Bailey finds suspense anxiety-inducing. She reads books exhaustively, exploring every nook and cranny, digging through the text in search of deeper meaning. Knowing the ending focuses her search, allowing her to discover things that normally might have taken two or three readings to discern. While some run from spoilers, she welcomes them with open arms.
“Instead of wondering what’s going to happen,” she says, “I wonder how they’re going to get to the final curtain.”
In September and October 2016, a Reddit user named awayforthelads posted synopses for every episode of season seven of “Game of Thrones,” the HBO fantasy series whose appeal is partly founded on shocking, gruesome twists. For anyone reckless, daring or foolhardy enough to read them, awayforthelads’ synopses had the potential to spoil the show’s entire second-to-last season. But with season seven not set to begin airing until July 16, 2017, there was no way of knowing if the synopses could be trusted – until Bailey and the Free Folk got to work.
Working with the other members of r/FreeFolk, a pro-spoiler Reddit forum where she moderates under the handle BladeOfDaNorf, Bailey put her detective skills to the test. She checked the information in the synopses against official set photos and social media posts. To confirm that season seven would feature the long-awaited meeting of Daenerys and Jon Snow, she looked for news stories and paparazzi shots that suggested that actors Emilia Clarke and Kit Harington were on location in the same place at the same time. After days of exhaustive work, she concluded that the synopses were real, and everything that’s happened so far has borne that out. If you saw a headline promising spoilers of an upcoming episode of “Game of Thrones,” it is likely that the information was sourced from r/FreeFolk.
“Once you’ve found reliable sources,” says Bailey, “or made yourself a useful clearinghouse of sources so that people with information come to you, the leaks and spoilers become a daily treat.”
Not everyone was impressed. When posts whose titles boldly spoiled key plot points began filtering up to r/All, a clearing-page for Reddit’s most popular posts, outraged fans began issuing death threats at the Free Folk. But Bailey and her crew pressed on, doing honor to their namesakes: the nomadic northerners of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, whom Bailey says are “beset in an unwinnable war but refusing to stop fighting for their place.” Like the Free Folk of the books and television show, the committed fans of r/FreeFolk “do not kneel.”
When A Game of Thrones, the first book in Martin’s series, was released in 1996, communities sprang up online to analyze and dissect the text, looking for clues to where the story might go next, and trying to predict who might end up in final possession of the Iron Throne. That spirit carried over to the television show, exposing a rift in the fan base between those who want to know everything, and those who wish to be surprised.
In April 2015, four episodes of season five leaked. Bailey and some of her fellow spoiler-loving fans wanted to discuss them in r/asoiaf and r/gameofthrones before they aired. But those forums would not allow a single thread discussing the leak, banning anyone who mentioned spoilers under the rationale that to do so was to condone piracy. Redditors seeking to discuss the leaks migrated to a new sub called r/piratesofthrones where no such rules were in place.
“People mentioning r/piratesofthrones got banned from the big subs, but that just helped the word spread. Soon we had around a thousand members, and we started discussing how we weren’t really about pirating, we were about discussing the show and books without rules.”
For that purpose, r/FreeFolk was born, and Bailey has been a moderator since day one.
In the bad old days, watching television meant sitting down at a specific time every week. “There was no skipping commercials, pausing for bathroom breaks, or possessing a copy of the show,” says Bailey, but modern technology makes it easy – even irresistible – to pause the show and look for clues in the background, to transcribe the episode for later review, allowing fans to hunt together for clues to what’s coming next. Those who complain that the Free Folk aren’t watching TV the way it was intended are missing something crucial: Bailey and her fellow spoiler-hunters are having so much fun.
When 1.5 terabytes of data were stolen from HBO on July 31, 2017, and a hacker demanded $6 million to return it, 80,000 fans flocked to r/FreeFolk, to see what Bailey and her team would turn up from the leak. Despite this, the actual amount of new information leaked was little, containing partial scripts for the third and fourth episode as well as confirmation that actor Wilf Scolding is playing Rhaegar Targaryen this season. When the season’s penultimate episode was leaked on August 16, 2017, Bailey and her fellows tore it apart, looking for every nugget of information they could find that might point to what will happen in the August 27 season finale.
It’s that level of commitment – some would say obsession – that makes r/FreeFolk the premier clearinghouse for the show’s spoilers. While it isn’t an easy process, Bailey loves making spoilers and leaks accessible for people with “wildly different browsing styles and platforms [who] can easily miss the headlines and FAQs” she has provided.
For Bailey, “every new piece of the puzzle found is a little victory.” Last September, as filming for season seven began, Bailey scoured #GameOfThrones on Twitter, coming across a little viewed tweet revealing that Joe Dempsie – the actor that plays Gendry, a king’s bastard last seen in season three, had been spotted near one of the shooting locations. Ecstatic, Bailey began trying to determine how his long-absent character would fit back into the story.
“If you get leaked set photos of him in an old costume it may just be a flashback,” she says, “but if he’s got new clothes, you know he’s present in the plot.”
Gendry’s clothes were fresh, and his reappearance in episode five this season was a great surprise – to all but the Free Folk.
There are fewer than ten episodes left in “Game of Thrones,” whose eighth and final season will air in 2018. Bailey believes that it will take at least a year for the Free Folk to finish picking the show apart, before moving on to the long-awaited sixth book in the series, The Winds of Winter. But even if r/FreeFolk dies a natural death after the show’s finale, its spirit will live on in those who choose to not kneel.