VICE U.K. originally published this article.
In March, a replica of the Iron Throne appeared in London’s Kings Cross station. Predictably, people lined up for hours to sit on it. Around the world, similar promotional Iron Thrones appeared in Denmark, the U.S., Malaysia, Spain, Brazil, and Russia. People lined up for hours to sit on those ones, too. Game of Thrones—HBO’s hit TV show, all gore, dragons, nudity, battles, and the occasional spot of human barbecue—was always going to entice the white, male, middle-class demographic traditionally drawn to fantasy drama. But the lines for the Iron Throne around the world revealed Game of Thrones’ mass appeal. There were teenage girls, moms, people of color, old people, working-class people, and queer people, who loved the world George R.R. Martin had created.
Last night, millions of fans across the world watched Game of Thrones’ last-ever episode (Entertainment Weekly estimates that up to 100 million people watched the show’s final season around the world). In the U.K., more will watch it tonight. In an age in which streaming platforms release binge-able big-budget productions on a weekly basis, inundating us with chunks of entertainment to be watched at any time and any place, Game of Thrones has managed to do something different. For weeks on end, the show has been a juggernaut of event TV. Since its debut in 2011, fans have watched each season at home every week, shared reactions on social media, scrolled endlessly through plot theories on Reddit, and listened to dedicated podcasts like A Cast of Kings. But as we say farewell to Westeros, might we also be waving goodbye to the final TV show we all sat down to watch together?
The technology behind Game of Thrones' distribution helped create our communal viewing habits. Unlike, say, Killing Eve, which will return for a second season in the U.S. months before it reaches British shores, or The Wire, which ended in the U.S. a full six months before it bowed out in the U.K., fans watched Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic near-simultaneously with viewers in 170 countries worldwide.
It wasn’t always this way. When it launched, Game of Thrones was delivered in the U.S. via HBO the evening before the U.K.’s broadcast on Sky Atlantic. Viewers in other countries had to wait days or even weeks to see the show. Fans complained about the lag, and HBO—aware that Game of Thrones had become "the most pirated program across the world," according to Dr. Zoe Shacklock, an associate lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews—conceded. By season five, the show would be simultaneously broadcast around the world.
Making Game of Thrones a weekly treat created momentum. George Alexander, 23, a Game of Thrones super-fan who uploads real-time reaction videos of himself watching every episode of the series to a YouTube following of 13,500, explains: "In between episodes you’ll have a buildup, and there’ll be those discussions with friends about what will happen." Blacklock agrees that weekly delivery caused Game of Thrones to become ubiquitous in the cultural conversation. "The week-by-week delivery of Game of Thrones kept it at a higher level of visibility, which is why it has such good cultural penetration."
Conversely, binge-watching calms the cultural conversation around TV shows. When Netflix released all ten episodes of 2013’s House of Cards at once, the way we consume content change—for the worse, some believe. "We’re going to lose something if we lose weekly seriality,” Blacklock says. “Netflix doesn’t have the same level of cultural penetration Game of Thrones does. It drops all at once: You have to stay in for the whole weekend watching it, and you can’t talk to your friends about it because everyone’s at different levels. For two weeks, everyone’s talking about Stranger Things, then it’s done.”
What drove the hype around Game of Thrones? We should view it within a lineage of event TV started by shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and, even further back in time, major 1980s shows such as Dallas or Dynasty. (In many ways, the excitement around the Game of Thrones finale mirrored the feverish anticipation around the resolution of the “Who Shot J.R.” storyline in Dallas, which was watched around the world by 350 million people.) “Once upon a time we had water-cooler shows,” Shacklock explains. “You’d watch the show, think about it that night, then come in the next day and talk about it with your colleagues.” Timing may play a part in Game of Thrones’ blockbuster success. The show first came out in 2011, when Twitter was surging in popularity. And with Twitter, you can take the water-cooler around with you in your pocket.
Plus, the very nature of the show encouraged massive public debates. Game of Thrones made “shock central to its brand appeal”, Shacklock says. The chatter around Game of Thrones soon required more than 140 characters, and an industry sprang up, dedicated to analyzing the show. There were tie-in blogs, podcasts, and TV shows. TV critic Jamie East presents one such show, Sky Atlantic’s Thronecast. East puts the success of these associated products down to the show’s many “characters, locations, plot lines, motives, and possibilities… the conversation never runs out."
Another unique reason for Game of Thrones’ extraordinary popularity is the legacy of George R.R. Martin’s books. The Song of Fire and Ice series, published since 1996, has won a legion of super-devoted fans. But as Martin has yet to publish the final two installments in the series, the show was the “only outlet… that fans of the book have,” Alexander points out. Meanwhile, without the books as an anchor, according to Alexander, fans watched in dread: “Hardcore fans will watch it regardless, until the end because they want to see how it plays out."
The show’s tendency toward extreme and unexpected acts of violence, like the Red Wedding or the death of Oberyn Martell, meant that audiences needed to stay on top of the show in real time, unless they wanted to encounter spoilers. Unlike snappy dialogue, callous violence can be communicated in just a few words, which means the most brutal spoilers are the easiest to stumble upon on social media.
It’s hard to imagine another show creating such a dedicated and engaged community of stans. “It’s like watching sport, in that you’re being asked to pick a team: Stark, Lannister, [or] Targaryen,” Shacklock observes. Game of Thrones fans were afforded privileges like no other. After some memed the hell out of their wish for Cleganebowl—a face-off between the brothers Gregor Clegane and Sandor Clegane—showrunners Benioff and Weiss made it happen. Still, there’s no pleasing some people. Over a million people signed a petition demanding a season eight reshoot, after controversy surrounding storylines including Daenerys’s sudden descent into madness, and Jaime’s decision to reunite with Cersei.
Even if the hype around Game of Thrones may never be repeated, it’s still the case that we’re living in an age of prestige TV. While traditional broadcasters continue to make flagship TV shows featuring bona fide A-listers, like HBO’s Big Little Lies (Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman), or the BBC’s Killing Eve (Sandra Oh, Jodie Comer), streaming platforms redouble their efforts. This year, we can expect Netflix’s The Crown (Olivia Colman, Helena Bonham Carter), Amazon Prime’s Carnival Row (Orlando Bloom, Cara Delevingne) and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes). Meanwhile, HBO is dedicated to recreating Game of Thrones’ success. Currently, their miniseries Chernobyl, following the story of the 1986 nuclear power station disaster, starring Jessie Buckley and Stellan Skarsgard, is being heralded as the show to watch now Game of Thrones is over. There are also no fewer than five Game of Thrones-related stories in development, including a prequel called Bloodmoon, starring Naomi Watts.
Ultimately, the reason any heir to Game of Thrones will struggle to recreate its success is because the show subverted our fundamental understanding of drama, without disrupting the satisfying drip-drip delivery of legacy event TV shows. For any show to do what Game of Thrones achieved, culturally speaking, it will need a cast list big enough to stretch from The Wall to King’s Landing, give fans enough jolts along the way to keep them engrossed and never be too easy to pirate. That’s a hefty burden to meet, especially now that streaming has created such a crowded marketplace.
Today is a sad day. No matter how the show was going to end, it was always going to involve saying goodbye to something that’s been part of our lives for eight years. Arguably, we’ll never see another show like it again. In offices, colleges, staff rooms, locker rooms, and social media sites across the land, today we’ll discuss Game of Thrones, en masse, one last time. Spring is here.
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