‘Game of Thrones’ and the End of the Last Great Watercooler Show
HBO wants you to know that it’s going to be just fine without Game of Thrones. They have, executives insist, tons of exciting new shows forthcoming that viewers will love. There’s only a small chance the network will lose the entire population of King’s Landing in canceled subscriptions once someone is seated on the Iron Throne. They have plenty of programming and even a Game of Thrones prequel in the works. Everything is going to be OK.
But I’m not sure I will be. I am deeply sad about the end of the series, about what will be missing in my life and in the collective culture once it bows on Sunday. Even with the mediocrity of this last season, I don’t want to say goodbye. I’m not alone. Because of the very specific circumstances that existed when it first aired in 2011, it has formed an intense relationship with millions of fans, and I doubt any subsequent television show could ever replicate it.
HBO, presumably, knows this. Though the network has a plan for how to survive without Game of Thrones (make lots and lots and lots of new shows, something for everyone, and release them every three weeks!), executives there viscerally understand that no matter what, when Game of Thrones ends, it takes an era of television with it. “The TV landscape has changed since that show aired, and it’s probably more of a challenge for any platform—network, basic cable—to get that big watercooler hit,” HBO programming chief Casey Bloys told Vulture last month. This is nothing if not an understatement.
When Game of Thrones debuted eight years ago, the age of binge-streaming whole seasons of television shows had yet to dawn. Netflix’s all-at-once experiment House of Cards was still two years away, and even though it was possible to stream GoT with an HBO Go account, viewers still had to wait until Sunday night to see it. This made Game of Thrones event television. Appointment TV. And because not everyone had an HBO subscription—or an HBO Go account they could mooch—people gathered to watch it together. Game of Thrones parties were immediately a norm, and with its shocking inversion of television tropes—killing its most beloved characters, going long and deep on wonky internecine politics—people often sat around afterward processing what the hell just happened. Mondays became a collective debrief session. On Twitter. At work. Over drinks. Even abstainers have endured enough of these discussions to be versant in the lingo of the show. Huge swaths of the population can wield the phrase “Red Wedding” even if they’ve never watched an episode.
I experienced the pain of the Red Wedding at least three separate times. First, when my husband read it in the book before me. We were young—oh so young!—and he was upstairs reading when suddenly I heard a gasp, and what sounded like choking, and before I could run up to see if he was dying, the book came sailing across the apartment, narrowly missing a cat, and skidding across the floor.
He wouldn’t tell me what he’d just read. He just sat there, stunned. We’d both been living in the Game of Thrones universe for weeks. At work, if I closed my eyes, I was in Winterfell. I scoured San Francisco in search of meade. I began baking meat pies, with zero irony. But he was way ahead of me in the books, having begun before the shows aired. I, on the other hand, had not planned to read them. I’d never read a fantasy series before; why on earth would I start now in anticipation of a new TV show?
But then the show premiered, and immediately I was one of its biggest fans. This surprised me and anyone who’d ever known me, since genre fiction—in writing, on screen—has never historically been my jam. I loved everything about it, the period-drama-ness, the weirdness, the rich dialogue, and the conversations it sparked, IRL and online.
What I hated was that my husband knew what was coming before I did, since that first season tracked the first book almost exactly. So within four episodes, I’d begun reading. I made it to the Red Wedding myself in a few months. I remember sitting on a train as the Starks, the heroes, were decimated. I closed the book and looked up at the faces of the poor idiots around me who didn’t know the whole world had changed. This, I realize, was my first real experience of fandom.
By the time the show got to the massacre in the third season, it was a trauma we all experienced together. Smugly, we book readers filmed the faces of our friends and family as they innocently watched without any knowledge of what was about to happen. For me, knowing what was coming didn’t make it any less upsetting to watch on screen.
In season 6, the show changed irrevocably when it began to outpace the books. No longer were there those who had special knowledge of the story and those who didn’t—we were all in it together. And by now streaming TV had upended watching behavior completely. It was 2016, and we were used to being able to watch the new season of Orange Is the New Black over the course of a weekend. The resultant conversation was loud and interesting, but confined to a few days or weeks. It was a shot to the system that quickly got flushed. Game of Thrones still unfolded slowly, a titration into the bloodstream of the culture. It continued to be a reason to gather, a reason to debate continuously.
Now, even on days when real-world news is breaking, Game of Thrones can still dominate the online discourse. This power is vestigial, emanating from an earlier time, grandfathered into our culture by virtue of starting in a different era.
Cut to now, when the show is ending, and even on days when real-world news is breaking, Game of Thrones can dominate the online discourse and group chats everywhere. This power is vestigial, emanating from an earlier time, grandfathered into our culture by virtue of starting in a different era. If the new sci-fi dramas or even the Game of Thrones prequel manage to be huge hits for HBO, they likely won’t have that same impact. They’ll have their fan base and their burst of discussion, but I’m not sure in this fractured streaming environment they could ever be as central as Thrones.
And maybe that’s part of why everyone seems so upset about this final season. Yes, it’s rushed. Yes, the plot twists feel unearned. Yes, it’s infuriating to learn that HBO would have given the showrunners millions and millions of dollars to keep the show going. Yes, I frankly growled when I read that Martin believes the only way the show could be true to his vision would be by having five more seasons, and HBO would have been willing to pay for them, yet the showrunners declined. All of that is reason to gripe about the show on Twitter. But the main reason, truly, is that by ending, the show forces us to leave the world that Game of Thrones kept us tied to, the world of communal television. The only way to fight back against the coming dawn is to complain about it together one last time.
The Long Night has simply not been long enough.