The TV landscape shifted when Jon Snow rode off into the wilderness with a ginger-bearded freefolk and his fiercely loyal direwolf in May. It was the culmination of eight seasons of a sprawling fantasy epic told over eight years—one that ended, to the surprise of some viewers, contentiously. Game of Thrones’ series finale was polarizing for a multitude of reasons, from where some characters’ journeys took them to how they were written.
But the end of Game of Thrones started well before that. We had months to prepare for it. Ahead of season 8, the question of what the fans would do next was already top of mind. (To say nothing of Thrones reporters like myself.)
What comes next after you barrel your way through a binge-watch? What do we do with ourselves after a beloved show, or a movie franchise, or book series that we’ve been immersed with for years is finally over? In a year when Game of Thrones is just one of three major pop culture phenomena to come to an end (alongside the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Skywalker Saga), we can’t stop wondering. Discovering new and old stories alike is part of the equation, but so is keeping what we loved about the story alive. Fans need a team.
The worry of what will happen to a fandom once its primary source is finished is an evergreen issue. An infamous 1980 essay that appeared in a Star Wars fanzine looked at what Star Wars would look like in a prequel trilogy without Luke Skywalker. Before that, some Star Trek fans worried that the arrival of Star Wars in 1977 would kill Star Trek fandom.
Nowadays? We’ve seen several Star Trek and Star Wars films, TV shows, tie-in books and comics (both canonical and not); female Star Trek fans are largely responsible for modern fandom, having both pushed the forefront on letter-writing campaigns to save a show and fanfiction long before those became modern television mainstays. “[O]ur perspective has since changed, and it has become glaringly apparent that earlier reports of the death of Star Wars fandom have been greatly exaggerated,” the science fiction Starlog magazine stated in the December 1987 issue, more than four years after Return of the Jedi‘s release in theaters.
Both properties have included more inclusive characters in their stories in recent years, which is slowly making its way behind the camera, too. Those fandoms have changed and evolved as new generations fall in love with Star Wars and Star Trek, often with some pushback and gatekeeping among older fans resistant to change. We’re decades from the original series and the original trilogy, but there are no signs of either fandom sputtering out.
Of course, given the online reception to the end of Game of Thrones, we’re having a much different conversation than we expected. I felt immediate relief that it was over, and I imagine I wasn’t alone. It might be too soon to really get a feel of what Game of Thrones fandom will look like in a year from now (or even five years), given that HBO is filming a pilot for a prequel show that will almost surely be ordered to series and we still have two more books in A Song of Ice and Fire to eventually look forward to.
But if we never got another TV show or Martin never publishes another book, that wouldn’t necessarily sign Game of Thrones fandom’s death warrant.
Thanks to streaming, online communities, live events, and continuous supplemental pop culture, there are vast ways to curate and celebrate the geeky stuff you love. Even outside influential pop culture mainstays and modern-day hits, we’ve seen plenty of fandoms flourish long after the series finale aired, the final film debuted, or final book was published. It might not look and feel exactly the same way that it did in its heyday, but fandoms don’t die—they multiply.
There’s no question that nostalgia sells.
We’re surrounded by reboots, revivals, prequels, and sequels on TV and film—and if there isn’t one in the works, the cast, crew, and executives behind beloved properties are routinely asked about the possibility of it happening ad nauseam.
Authors like Margaret Atwood and Suzanne Collins are compelled to return to the fictional universes they made famous while J.K. Rowling created an entirely new film franchise out of untapped potential along with helping craft a Harry Potter sequel for the stage.
Perhaps the biggest new show to come out recently? A Netflix re-release of the 1995 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, complete with a new English dub, which has already sparked both controversy and a new flux of fans who, perhaps for the first time, can finally legally access the notoriously difficult-to-watch series.
Newer technology and streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon make it much easier for people to check out older TV shows and films, which comes with the risk of that show being pulled at any time. Two of the most-watched TV shows on Netflix aren’t Netflix originals but instead long-running series that haven’t aired a new episode in several years: Friends and The Office, which are both incredibly popular with younger viewers who almost certainly wouldn’t have watched the show as it aired; both series are leaving Netflix within the next two years for other streaming platforms.
“Sometimes, I think it’s that technology reopens the door,” Fandom head of creative development Roth Cornet told the Daily Dot. “For Star Trek, it was the fact that I watched it as a kid on television in reruns, but if that wasn’t available for me to do, it would’ve been completely unknown or a sort of mythological thing that happened a long time ago in my mind. For Dungeons and Dragons, a lot of the resurgence around D&D right now is because people are playing it in live streams, like Critical Role. If people can see it online and the barrier of entry is lower, they feel like they can watch it first and then try to play it.”
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Rewatch podcasts like Gilmore Guys, The West Wing Weekly and Buffering the Vampire Slayer can also open the door. Episodes that recap a series help provide structure to your rewatch and can make diving into a long-running show less daunting for first-time viewers. Some fans have taken to revisiting Lost, whose final season garnered a lot of comparisons to the divisiveness of Game of Thrones season 8, or watching it for the first time with the Lost rewatch podcast The Storm (which used to be a Game of Thrones podcast called A Storm of Spoilers) as a guide.
“We’re in a world where so much of the television that we consume is binge TV where the whole season is dropped on us in one fell swoop,” Kristin Russo, who co-hosts Buffering, told the Daily Dot. “And so we’re all watching it, but we’re all watching it at different times and paces. And so nostalgia podcasting and nostalgia viewing do this really cool thing where suddenly, even a show that’s been off the air like Buffy for almost 20 years, has a viewership that’s suddenly on a time track with us.”
Preserving the experience
Within these communities, those who’ve seen a particular show make an effort to preserve the experience for those who haven’t.
Russo, who launched Buffering with singer-songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs in 2016, called Buffy (which ran from 1997 to 2003) a show with plenty of themes that will especially resonate today. According to Russo, the vast majority of their listeners (she estimated around 75-80%) are revisiting Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but there are some first-time viewers among those who tune in. And every day, more people discover the podcast and start from the beginning, she said. But despite Buffering’s audience skewing toward repeat Buffy viewers, Russo and Youngs have always kept the podcast spoiler-free past whatever Buffy episode they’re discussing.
Of course, there’s only so much you can do about spoiling a show that first started airing more than 20 years ago, long after any kind of spoiler window (official or otherwise) has expired. Some of Buffy’s biggest moments, reveals, and deaths are pop culture touchstones, widespread on a similar scale to Ned Stark’s death or the Red Wedding. Some podcasts or subreddits loop in episode discussion within the greater context of a series; others try to separate that conversation for newer viewers.
Daphne Olive co-hosts the Black Sails recap podcast Fathoms Deep, which launched after Black Sails’ third season and delved into the greater themes of the series amid episode discussion. Whenever she talks about the series, she tends to do so in vague terms in the hope that other people will be inspired to start watching Black Sails. (Disclosure: Olive and I became friends last year through the Game of Thrones convention Con of Thrones.)
Black Sails was initially compared to Game of Thrones but never had the audience that Game of Thrones did. It gained a cult following both during its run and in the two years since it ended, often thanks to word-of-mouth and a pitch of the bigger story it’s trying to tell, but that mindset is also present among some of its fans, who Olive described as being “very protective” of first-time viewers.
“Everyone [who participates] in the live-tweets is so careful not to talk about certain things in the show because those are the big moments that they want people to experience organically through the story rather than experience it through a spoiler,” Olive explained.
Nearly 14 years into PotterCast’s run (its first episode was released August 2005), Mischief Management CEO and PotterCast co-host Melissa Anelli hasn’t run out of things to talk about when it comes to the original Harry Potter series, let alone the new material that Rowling has put out—and doesn’t see that being an issue for Game of Thrones fandom either.
“That after all this time, we still have such things to find and things to notice and things to rip apart together,” Anelli said. “And the way that George R.R. Martin writes, man, if that’s the fuel of an ongoing fandom, there’s no end in sight.”
But what time ultimately does is give us a new perspective on older stories and allow us to reevaluate them how we might relate to them. In Harry Potter fandom, we’ve watched as some fans wrestled with a franchise that now includes queerbaiting (teasing queer characters and/or a queer relationship that will never go beyond subtext to draw in viewers and readers) like Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts franchise. But it also includes a massive break of story logic after a timeline created by fans that Rowling officially adopted years ago was broken completely in favor of a cameo that made little sense.
On Buffering, that gave Russo and Youngs the chance to have a dialogue. When they discussed “Pangs,” the Thanksgiving episode from season 4 that featured Native-American spirits seeking revenge, they brought in Native-American activist Coya White Hat-Artichoker to talk about the Chumash people and how Buffy handles race along with adding a crucial voice to the conversation.
“Jenny and I dug in discussing where the episode went wrong and where it could’ve done a better job and where we wished it had done a better job,” Russo said. “So certainly I think there are problematic pieces—there are problematic pieces of probably anything you’re gonna watch on television at any point—but when we’re looking back 15-plus years, a lot of us are coming to these shows with an awareness that we didn’t have 15 years ago.”
Fandom, together and IRL
Although the internet can always bring out the best and worst of us, sometimes simultaneously‚ getting offline to share in your favorite shows, films, and books can remind us just what we loved about them in the first place—even when it’s been years since the release of the last book or movie.
“Twilight was ultimately really, really fascinating because it was also a fandom that, in fan culture at large, was really rejected,” Fandom’s Cornet said. “There was so much animosity about Twilight. It went so far beyond just not liking it (which is fine, by the way) or even having kind of fundamental, in-the-text criticisms of the work, to this vitriol and this anger that I never really understood. So I wanted to understand the fans that were still attached to it, and I wanted to understand how they felt about that reaction from the rest of the world and then really to demonstrate our common humanity.”
Cornet witnessed that first-hand when she traveled to Forks, Washington, the small town where the Twilight books and films take place and where Twilight fans meet yearly for the Forever Twilight in Forks Festival. In a documentary filmed in Forks and posted to YouTube last month, she said she met cosplayers, fans who traveled far and wide to get to Forks, and one woman who moved to Forks after reading the Twilight series; Forks’ popularity among Twilight fans even helped keep the small town going during the recession. Although Cornet noted that Twilight has been vilified for years by geeks, “it’s very, very difficult to dehumanize someone face-to-face.”
It’s a slightly different story at LeakyCon, the Harry Potter-centric convention run by Mischief Management. Anelli said that she got asked the question of what would happen to Harry Potter fandom “8,000 times in 2007” around the publication of Deathly Hallows, and when the final Harry Potter film came out in 2011, she initially believed that LeakyCon wouldn’t continue past that year. But LeakyCon 2012 ended up being one of its biggest events.
“Look, there are lots of things that make people in the Harry Potter fandom upset now, but I’ve never felt an overriding feeling of derision at any moment of any LeakyCon I’ve been in,” Anelli said. “It provides fans space to work through that and talk about it and maybe come out with something that they hadn’t considered before. But even when you disagree with the way authors or showrunners have taken things, even when you don’t like aspects of the thing you love—you’re still there because you love the thing. And when you’re there with people who are feeling it the same way you do, I found that it’s just a much more positive experience.”
She saw a similar thing happening with Game of Thrones fans who attended Con of Thrones in Nashville, Tennessee this month. As divisive as the end of the series was, talking through your feelings in person can always help.
The long Con
When I walked through the Music City Center during Con of Thrones, it felt like the series never ended. You didn’t have to go far to find lively discussion and debates that sometimes had so much interest that people were turned away; some of them were eventually moved to larger rooms.
Now in its third year, there was a different weight to the weekend. Game of Thrones is over, so fans don’t really have to worry about spoilers. But since the show ended divisively, the weekend also provided a place for some to work through their feelings, both the good and the bad. It was cathartic.
A spotlight panel featuring all four of the Game of Thrones actors who attended filled up the room. Andrew McClay, the Game of Thrones extra at the center of Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, explored the convention floor and also introduced himself in one of the hotels while grabbing a drink after the last panels took place. An a cappella rendition of “Jenny of Oldstones” during karaoke moved some con-goers to tears.
Cosplayers ramped it up to another level, some of them refusing to allow what happened with the characters stop them from dressing up as them. At one point, I overheard one cosplayer describe in detail to a panel of judges for the upcoming cosplay contest how he built a weapon that he could light on fire for several seconds—and how he made nearly every single part of his costume. (Given that he was inside at the time, any flame ignition was completely left to the imagination.)
Granted, you can find a lot of that at just about any convention you attend: the camaraderie, online friendships realized in real life, and the intense bonding that occurs over a long weekend that’s largely spent within the confines of an air-conditioned building or in a hotel bar. Like any hotel that becomes a central hub, it’s common to both see cosplayers in the hotel lobby and non-con-attending hotel guests snap photographs in amazement.
And to be sure, attendees didn’t shy away from voicing their displeasure to how it all turned out—there were several panels specifically designed for that very notion—but even at its most heated, the discourse rarely reached the level of the vitriol that spewed online. And if it wasn’t evident at Con of Thrones, there is still a lot to enjoy about Game of Thrones and ASOIAF. Before the weekend was over, some were already starting to speculate what city the next Con of Thrones would end up in.
“I don’t think it’ll leave us—or leave me,” Jerome Flynn, who played Bronn, the sellsword-turned-Lord-of-Highgarden for eight seasons, said about the show during his spotlight panel.
One day, as I was about to grab dinner, my friends and I encountered several women outside the convention center who were in the city for a bachelorette party. One woman asked us what was going on.
“Oh, I love Game of Thrones,” she replied and expressed an interest in going. We gave her some information and parted ways, although I’m not sure if she ever followed through. But one thing stood out in my mind: She said love, not loved.
The next generations
Part of what has fandoms thriving long after the last official update isn’t just that they’re further fueled by reboots, revivals, sequels, and prequels or someone fostered a platform or space where they can convene. Many of these fandoms have been going on long enough that fans are introduced via word of mouth, and shows are shared with new generations of fans, some who were either too young or weren’t alive at the peak.
“A big question we got was, ‘So how old do you think that my kid should be when I introduce them [to Buffy]?’ People are having their kids watch this show now, and I really do think that it’s pretty timeless,” Russo said.
“A lot of times it is generational where parents or an older figure will bring their kids in,” Cornet explained. “I know a lot of people that I talked to around D&D and the same thing with Twilight. People talked about sharing [Twilight] with their daughters. There was a woman that I met [while filming the Dungeons and Dragons episode] who had also shared Twilight with her daughter.”
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Black Sails, which Olive noted had a small enough fandom so that discourse didn’t overwhelm on the same level as Game of Thrones when it was on the air, tends to welcome new viewers with open arms—and oftentimes, fans will join them along for the ride.
“It was always clear to me that Black Sails was a story worthy of revisiting the same way we do with books that we especially love,” Olive said. “I had no idea that the fandom was gonna grow. That part I didn’t know.”
Between the books and the show, Game of Thrones has plenty of stories still left for fans to explore (at least until there comes a new book or TV show), as do many of the other series we love. Because for many fans, that’s what drives us.
“These stories open worlds into the way that other people feel and think and live, and we love doing that because we’re humans and stories are inevitable,” Anelli said. “Stories are how we become humans that are a positive force in the world. We love stories; we’ve loved stories forever. Even sports fandom, I’m learning, is just stories. Stories never die. They don’t, and whenever I hear talk again of like, what’s gonna happen to my fandom, I’m here to say, it will never die.”
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