“AND NOW OUR WATCH HAS ENDED.”
All of us have a connection to Game of Thrones. Either you were a fan of the books, you watched all eight seasons, or you simply got caught up in the drama of the outrage of its conclusion.
As a franchise, it “broke the wheel”. It redefined fantasy tropes, death was unpredictable and consequential, characters were neither good nor bad, and we saw a fantasy series get a big budget behind it and dominate mainstream pop culture.
But the final season … that’s where people lost their sh*t.
There are articles, and memes, and videos dedicated to everything wrong with this franchise – so I won’t focus on that in this post.
Instead, I wanted to explore the fan response, and the online response to the fantastical finale of Westeros.
“WHEN YOU PLAY THE GAME OF THRONES, YOU WIN OR YOU DIE.”
Cersei Lannister’s immortal words of conquest certainly embodied HBO’s attitude to their fantasy smash it – a modern day “Go big or go home” approach.
There was a lot riding on Game of Thrones as we saw different families and factions compete to rule Westeros. For fans, we had grown to live and love these characters and their story arcs – for EIGHT YEARS! That is a lot of time and emotional investment to sit through.
But the finale’s gone down in infamy. Now, we’ve seen fan backlash before. We saw it with Doctor Who, we saw it with Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, we saw it with Captain Marvel, a we saw A LOT with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
For Game of Thrones, the criticism levelled is directed squarely at the writers – to the point where fans google-bombed the creators. If you type in “Bad writers” D. B. Weiss and David Benioff – often referred to as “D&D” by the online community – they would show up at the top of the results.
Of those criticisms levelled, the main ones are:
- Jon Snow’s right to the throne is never addressed.
- Cersei goes from being ruthless to being scared, and has an unceremonious rock crush her.
- Jamie loses out on his redemption arc, goes back to his abusive Brother-Sister relationship, and contradicts his behaviour in earlier seasons.
- Tyrion goes from being incredibly smart to being incredibly dumb – putting people in a crypt where the Night King is bringing the dead back to life.
- The Night King’s motivations are never revealed, nothing really about his connection with Bran, and he dies by having Arya just stabbing him.
- But the biggest one is Daenerys herself. She forgets about the Iron Fleet and has a heel-turn to villainy by burning down the whole of King’s Landing – including innocent men, women, and children – with her suddenly super over-powered dragon.
If you go online, there are many more issues fans had.
After eight years of getting to know these characters, seeing their humanity and their struggle, this was how it ended.
It’s a mess, and it really frustrated the fans.
What’s weird is that they could have easily expanded and developed all these plot points beyond their six-episode final series – and HBO was more-than-willing to give them more episodes.
But the greater issue here is the response, the mishandling of the creator/fan relationship – and something that I think could have been better foreseen.
“THE THINGS WE DO FOR LOVE.”
A perfect quote to describe the modern fan. Whether it’s Doctor Who, Star Wars, Harry Potter, or Game of Thrones the audiences have changed. This isn’t the passive consumer renting a B-movie video from a Blockbuster. Fans are now active, they have choice, and they want to invest their time and money into properties that will deliver.
There is now a petition with over one million signatures to ‘Remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with Competent Writers’ … those same writers who crafted the show to begin with. This sort of demand would have been unheard of even a few years ago. But now, it’s an increasingly common occurrence – a Last Jedi approach to fandom.
I’m very much opposed to petitions for this sort of thing myself. It reminds me of that Stephen King story: Misery, where an obsessed fan has her favourite author held captive to force them to write the story they wanted – it was strangely ahead of its time.
The big difference in in how we consume culture, and the role of multi-platform engagement.
We can now tweet and circulate petitions if we don’t like something. If there’s a show that’s great, memes and fans will make it their responsibility to make it go viral. If something fails to deliver, it risks getting lacerated in online reviews.
But this response seems to go further than just fan criticism – it’s almost … capitalist. (Stay with me).
In this new space of streaming and tweeting, the measurement of the success of a show isn’t how much money it makes, but its social and cultural impact. Culture is the commodity, and it costs money.
Fans have treated this show as an investment – investing time, money, and engagement in this series. Placing our trust in the producers and writers at HBO.
The petition isn’t just “the ending sucked, and I hate it!” It’s also about the eight years of investment. It’s an investment HBO failed to deliver on. It reads like shareholders demanding the CEO get sacked and replaced with someone who knows what they’re doing.
We buy culture like we buy cars. You’re promised an experience, you give your money and trust, and you feel let down if it doesn’t deliver – this is what the response to Game of Thrones has amounted to.
This has revealed something very important for producers: that they must now navigate a fine line between toxic fans demanding their own way, and an investor who’s not seeing a return.
In economic terms, the stock of Game of Thrones plummeted as soon as those bells rang.
“A MIND NEEDS A BOOK AS A SWORD NEEDS A WHETSTONE.”
One of the things that franchises need is a Bible and a writer for that Bible.
Harry Potter has J. K. Rowling,
Star Wars had George Lucas,
Game of Thrones had George R. R. Marin.
These writers were responsible for crafting the mythos surrounding their worlds, timelines, histories, destinies, characters, religions, physics, everything.
Their word is final, and it was something that fans and readers could deem “authentic”.
A take away from the finale is the response ‘at least we have the books’, in an age where streaming is the dominant medium-that’s problematic.
Ideally, different mediums should reinforce each other. Perhaps the books could offer greater perspective or internal thoughts. What could be interesting is if Daenerys does eventually take over, we see more of her internal conflict and thought process about destroying King’s Landing.
But the television series has left the community in a state of shock and limbo. HBO’s Game of Thrones is not the true story – it’s now the books. They are at odds with each other.
“IF YOU THINK THIS HAS A HAPPY ENDING, IT DOESN’T.”
One of the terms I’ve used in the past is ‘Trickle-Down Transmedia.’
If you think back to the post-Jaws blockbuster boom from 1975 onwards, often you would have a film, then if that was successful you might get a sequel which was created more to capitalise off of the hit, and then you’d have outsourced video games, TV shows, or maybe an animated series.
This was the case with Jurassic Park, Terminator, Ghostbusters, Alien, Star Wars – just about anything that was big in the 80s and 90s.
With the film, home video, book, graphic novel, and video game markets being so disconnected, often the spin-offs weren’t as good as the original was created as a quick cash in.
I think it is this approach that turned people off transmedia for the longest time – that “It’s popular, let’s milk it for all it’s worth!” mentality.
But we live in a platform-neutral world. We can watch TV shows, read books, and chat about TV shows and books, on the same device – there needs to be a co-ordinated effort to make the most of this technology.
Smarter franchises, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, have adopted spherical storytelling approaches, and are synergising their different platforms. Kevin Feige stated that the spin-offs from Avengers: Endgame will ‘Intersect [with the MCU] in a very big way.’
But it is the Game of Thrones spin-offs that I think are going to struggle more – as they don’t tie directly into the story like Endgame, and a sequel series has just been ruled out given the response.
We have FOUR spin-offs coming from Game of Thrones, and it feels more reminiscent of that old transmedia mentality.
Think back to when Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars, and how many planned spin-offs and movies we had off of that single IP. Unsurprisingly, we ended up getting an over-saturated market, core fans alienated, and average film-goers losing interest.
Of course, these spin-offs might be good, or they might be dangerously close to saturating their own market after an incredibly controversial finale … we’ll have to wait and see, but I don’t think anyone has an appetite for much more Game of Thrones – the stock’s just gone through the floor!
It’s a real business gamble, and it’s telling that we already have HBO losing subscribers after this.
Game of Thrones proved just how valuable content and IP is for streaming services, and highlighted the dangers of a network investing so much into a single vehicle.
Perhaps diversification is the key.
“I’M NOT GOING TO STOP THE WHEEL. I’M GOING TO BREAK THE WHEEL.”
It’s now such a shame that the series has yet to break the wheel when it comes to a long-term engagement strategy.
As with Star Wars and Fantastic Beasts before, I fear there’s only so much you can spin off a series. These franchises haven’t evolved to meet the needs of the multi-platform consumer.
However, they are sticking to that ‘Trickle-Down’ spin-off approach from before. We have the technology where you can play as a character and explore Westeros in an open-world game – maybe with a ton of Easter Eggs linking back to the show to spark debate, and explain and develop the hidden fates of characters.
If these franchises are investments, then some form of diversification is needed to survive – just as in a business. I believe that Game of Thrones could have minimised their damage through better co-ordination of its properties, and a long-term strategy for how it was going to manage these characters – again, it didn’t help that the last two books hadn’t yet been released.
Unless storytelling changes are made, we will risk more cultural stock plummeting.
For a television series Game of Thrones certainly “broke the wheel”. But as a franchise, I fear it remains trapped in past.
It is not enough to break the wheel if you can’t replace it with something better.