This article contains spoilers.
There’s no question that Game of Thrones is the most popular TV show in the world. Sunday nights have become event TV and the HBO series dominates all aspects of American social media.
Its much-watch status—especially after the Red Wedding aired in 2013—was the culmination of a perfect storm: It already had a built-in fandom to tap into thanks to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and then it shocked and stunned us, tapped into our love of fantasy epics and political dramas, and functioned as one of the last traditional watercooler TV shows. (It doesn’t hurt that the show, like many massive franchises, is also ripe for merchandising.) As Game of Thrones reaches its end, the volatile nature of the conversations we’re having about the show is a similar perfect storm of chaos.
It’s a series that’s analyzed down to an inch of its life as fans and journalists alike dive into each episode and come up with predictions and speculation. It’s become existential and personal—you can even use Game of Thrones to match with someone on dating apps.
This month we will finally—once and for all—know how Game of Thrones ends. Ahead of season 8, the showrunners hoped that people would like the ending, while some of the cast surmised that the end will divide and potentially upset fans. We know one thing for certain, however: It will tear the internet apart.
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Game of Thrones took narrative shortcuts
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been open about the fact that they envisioned the entirety of Game of Thrones would be 70-75 hours in total. In 2016, HBO signaled that season 8 would be the show’s final season.
With only 13 episodes to wrap up a story that not even Martin has yet to complete over just two seasons, the crunch of just how much the show had to accomplish affected the storytelling negatively. As the end approached, the cast and crew kept mentioning how little time they had left to tell the story; Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister, said as much last summer.
“We didn’t have much time, or any time, to explore [Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen’s] relationship as a real relationship in the seventh season,” Weiss told Entertainment Weekly ahead of season 8. “It came to fruition at the end.”
Instead of spending an episode or two on the Kingsroad, a character might appear at whatever location they need to in the next episode—no matter the distance. Romances that might’ve otherwise developed over several seasons now evolve over a few episodes; other relationships might form and fall apart in a handful of scenes of a single episode with an unclear passage of time. A character’s potential downfall that could’ve been threaded out over multiple seasons now plays out abruptly with character-breaking ramifications. The death of one character to motivate another doesn’t land as intended, both for the troubling tropes it presents and how little we knew her.
The rushed arcs lend to the rise of far-fetched theories designed to fill in the blanks of Game of Thrones’ sprawling story. They differ from tinfoil theories, which are wild with only a shred of evidence to support them, in that these theories are meant to help us make better sense of what we already saw to deal with plot holes and flesh out character motivations. The things Game of Thrones should be doing of its own accord.
Take, for instance, the idea that there was something bigger going on behind the scenes when the Northern Houses gave up Rickon Stark to Ramsay Bolton in season 6 (there wasn’t). Or the belief that the Waif has been pretending to be Arya Stark since season 6 (she hasn’t) or was the Waif (she wasn’t). Some fans came up with a grand scheme to lay out just how long Sansa and Arya could’ve been plotting against Littlefinger last season (they weren’t). At one point, there was even a theory about Jon warging into his Valyrian steel sword. (Nope.) They tried to explain that Jon actually had a role in Arya killing the Night King, even though the theory falls apart the moment you turn on the captions. (It’s also pretty sexist.) Many clung onto the idea that Bran Stark got stuck in time at some point so that his mind became one with the Night King to figure out his motivations. (Definitely not.) There was even a theory that Night King was a secret Targaryen because he could ride a dragon and couldn’t be burned by fire. (No.)
Sometimes, Game of Thrones takes narrative shortcuts or takes a convoluted route to get to the end result, which often requires suspension of disbelief in a show that already has dragons. (Just look no further than having Dany “forget” about Euron Greyjoy’s fleet despite having referenced said fleet in a previous scene.) It might get you there in the end, but it’s messy and the seams are visible for everyone to see.
Game of Thrones fandom dropped us into the deep end
Season 8 has been nothing short of exhausting. We’re getting longer episodes over a shorter period of time; we’re staying up later to watch the show live. There’s been criticism at every turn, ranging from granular nitpicking to concerns about what kind of message Game of Thrones is trying to send to viewers. Fandom’s beating heart is palpitating: The people who enthusiastically record videos and podcasts, write headcanon and theories on Reddit and Tumblr, write fanfiction, and livetweet.
This cottage industry of takes, built on the backs of superfans, has made the series the phenom that it is. But it’s become too intense.
Early on, book fans complained about adaptive changes (back when the show was more of a straight adaptation of ASOIAF) like cutting Lady Stoneheart. We’ve discussed how the show used nudity since the beginning; “sexposition” was even coined midway through season 1 because of it. The show has always gotten flack for how it portrayed sexual violence, not to mention that almost all of its writers and directors are men.
A character-driven episode like “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” might be described as a payoff for several characters by some while others might snidely call it fanservice and get bored with how little bloodshed there was. We’ll debate over how (literally) dark the Battle of Winterfell was while wondering whether enough people died in that battle. The discourse over a coffee cup accidentally left in one scene or Jon not petting Ghost in “The Last of the Starks” has no end in sight. Some fans are distraught over what they perceive to be character assassination of several big players. There’s even a shipping war.
For some casual viewers who might not have engaged with a property online before Game of Thrones, it might be overwhelming because it’s a new experience hitting you all at once. For the viewers who are no strangers to the inner-workings of online fandom, they might be overwhelmed because of the volume of vitriol.
The fact that season 8 has been rushed and divisive has set the battle lines. No matter what we see in the final frame, the reply guys will come for your news feed.
When criticism attacks
The discussion around the show can get heated, be in bad faith, or turn downright nasty. Those attacks often get personal.
Take the discourse that surrounded Arya and Gendry’s sex scene in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.” Or how some fans dismissed Arya killing the Night King in “The Long Night” as her being a Mary Sue. When the show features scenes like Sansa addressing her own rape (which some fans found to be tone-deaf) or makes Arya the hero of Winterfell, chiming in requires nuance and self-awareness. When Dany and Grey Worm witness Missandei’s execution (one week after an episode featuring thousands of nameless Dothraki and Unsullied mercilessly killed), it brings up uncomfortable tropes and reminds us how clumsily Game of Thrones has handled race. But whenever race or gender become central to the series discussion there are too many who scoff.
Then there’s the criticism of the show itself, which has been turned back on reporters by creators.
After “The Long Night,” cinematographer Fabian Wagner blamed fans who didn’t know how to calibrate their TVs for how dark the episode looked. Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow, told Esquire last month that the critics who write about the show negatively “can go fuck themselves.”
Whenever celebrities object to a negative review of their work or a piece of criticism, we see a thin-skinned pushback against cultural criticism as a discipline. It’s the “let people enjoy things” approach, and the idea that offering a negative criticism of a show might ruin your own enjoyment is spreading in Westeros’ wake.
Most critics don’t spend the amount of time they do covering Game of Thrones—and for many of them, it’s a lot of time—because they hate it, by the way.
Expectations versus reality, again
Online meltdowns from angry viewers and creators notwithstanding, whenever a major TV show with lofty expectations ends it won’t measure up to the expectations you had for it.
Game of Thrones is reminiscent of the final season of Lost: It was messy but offered some great character moments, and the series finale remains polarizing. Fans who hated the Lost finale were angry that the show didn’t answer all of its questions; for those who loved it, it resonated on a character and emotional level.
We saw it with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. While some loved how it subverted expectations, others hated it because of how it treated certain characters and burned their fan theories to the ground; a vocal minority harassed the cast, crew, and people who expressed a positive opinion about The Last Jedi well after its theatrical run.
We’re already seeing the polarization of Game of Thrones season 8 before it’s wrapped. The fallout from our theories not coming to pass, such as when Arya killed the Night King, is indicative of that. Some expected Jon or Dany—the two people who were prophesied to be the Prince That Was Promised—to do the deed. That prophecy didn’t matter or it at least didn’t play out in the way that fans thought it would. As Tyrion told Jorah Mormont in A Dance With Dragons, “Prophecy is like a half-trained mule. It looks as though it might be useful, but the moment you trust in it, it kicks you in the head.” That didn’t sit well with fans.
“Fans searching for answers among the shattered pile of glass that was once the White Walkers are only finding misery,” Insider’s Kim Renfro wrote of the reaction. “…Fans had expectations rooted in decades of theory crafting and analysis of Martin’s work, and feel as if all those layers of true foreshadowing were tossed out the window in favor of retconning new meaning into Arya’s story.”
If how well the TV show honors unfinished books is your barometer for enjoying it, you’ll be disappointed.
The pressure on Game of Thrones to stick the landing is insurmountable. It has to wrap up the story Martin first published more than 20 years ago. It can’t answer every question we have, and we might not like the answers it provides. Some of our theories might be meaningless. We might not like where the characters arcs will wrap, even though there are still occasional episodes in Game of Thrones’ latter half that nail them down perfectly.
There are some characters we’ll never see again despite our hopes that they will return. There’s too much riding on the end and too many viewers with too many hopes. The fact that Benioff and Weiss are operating with knowledge that Martin bestowed upon them about the ending, first revealed in a meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico, several years ago, adds even more pressure because we’ll soon be left to figure out how much of Game of Thrones’ ending will play out in ASOIAF.
But no matter how it ends, Game of Thrones has brought so many of us together in ways we never would have imagined over the past eight years. Sure, we’re arguing about a fantasy show but we’re all in the weeds and invested in a shared experience we won’t get for a very long time.
“Maybe it’s not such a bad thing for these weeks we join together and yell and scream at this thing,” Game of Thrones sound designer Paula Fairfield explained on Still Watching in regards to the discourse around season 8. “And feel all the feels and emote stuff and see parallels in our own world and can kinda look at a different perspective… If that’s what the show is doing for everybody right now, then I’m proud to be part of it because the world is shitty right now and we can hold each other in this Game of Thrones universe and maybe feel like quite so much anxiety when we step outside our front door.”
There will be a major backlash to the end. The sooner we prep for it by setting reasonable expectations as viewers, the sooner we can weather through the aftermath.
The internet still hangs onto every second of Game of Thrones. Enjoy that while you can.
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