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An Appreciation of ‘Game of Thrones’

By Seth Freilich | TV | May 21, 2019 |

By Seth Freilich | TV | May 21, 2019 |


So Game of Thrones is done. Over the last six weeks, as our watch has been ending, there has been much anger, disappointment, and “I wanted…” and “it shoulda been…” second-guessing. And I was as much a participant as anyone else. This season felt like it only cared about getting to endings, rather than earning those endings, which is to say, although I may not have loved where all the pieces landed, it would have worked for me if the show did the work necessary to support the endgame. For many, myself included, these criticisms aren’t even limited to just this last season, as these cracks have been in the armor for quite some time.

Yesterday, many of us spent the day mocking and complaining, lamenting what could have been and rewriting the final season as we would’ve preferred it. But as I was discussing and complaining about the finale with co-workers, something washed over me. I don’t want to walk away with this show leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Because yes it was deeply flawed, and no it didn’t come close to sticking the landing, but that shouldn’t take away from what the show got right.

Game of Thrones Was a Technical Marvel.

From the very opening shots — a giant wall of ice, a vast winter forest, a White Walker beheading a man — Game of Thrones was a sight to behold. As the show expanded in scope and popularity, it honed its craft. Set pieces got bigger, battles got more intricate, spectacles got more spectacular. By this final season, the show was a force of nature and, quality of storytelling aside, it was a god damned sight to behold. One of those episodes may have been a bit hard to actually behold, but even with these last two episodes and their many (many) flaws, it was impossible not to watch in awe of most of what was on screen, or to just baste in the aural beauty of the score.

But this fantasy world wasn’t just brought to life by remarkable set pieces and dragons, it paid attention to the little details (maybe not with quite as much attention as should’ve been afforded to these last episodes). The utmost care went into the costumes and hair, the sword hilts, every little piece of jewelry and every morsel of food served. These little things are what gave the world of Westeros life, what made it so easy to fall into this fantasy.

And once we fell in, god damned did the cast hook us and keep us in. Way back in 2009, when casting for the first season was complete, we called that casting “nifty.” Ain’t that an understatement. There may have been a misstep here or there but, by and large, Nina Gold and her team knocked it out of the park. As the show grew, so did the cast’s talent. We may not like where many of their journeys ultimately took them, but it was never the fault of a single member of this cast and what they were doing on screen. Or this crew and what they were doing behind the scenes (except for the poor grip responsible for clearing out cups and bottles). Game of Thrones was like no show that came before it. It gave us a fantasy world that was not to be ridiculed. It was to be respected and awed. I will forever be thankful to Game of Thrones for giving us that.

Game of Thrones Was a Cultural Touchstone.

Between 2005 and 2008, HBO retired Six Feet Under, Deadwood, The Sopranos and The Wire (among others). I mean … Jesus Christ. Much like today, many said this would be the channel’s end, that it could never achieve the viewership and watercooler momentum that it had during this run (The Sopranos, in particular, being the channel’s cultural crown jewel). And just a couple years later, HBO accepted that challenge with dragons.

In the early days of the show, I loved talking about it with the handful of friends who were also watching. Some of them were book readers, and we’d talk about how the show was hewing closely to George R.R. Martin’s written words, when it was zigging when readers expected it to zag, or where it went completely off-book. All the while, the book readers went respectfully out of their way to preserve the moments of shock and surprise so that we could have those moments and they could have the enjoyment of watching us experience those moments. I’m not sure we’ll ever have something like this again where, for at least a few years, half the fandom knows what’s going to happen and works hard to preserve the spoiler-free atmosphere for the other half of the fandom. It was a pretty special thing.

But let’s go back to 2008 for a moment. Just one year prior, a relatively new player in the prestige drama game stuck its toe in the pool with Mad Men, which was a pretty fast sensation. A year later, AMC tried to go back to the well with Breaking Bad and while that show hooked some of us right from the get-go (and you know who we are because we annoyingly don’t shut up about it), it really didn’t pick up steam until years later. Breaking Bad was possibly the first show to bridge the new streaming world and the old weekly episodic world, as folks caught up with the show on Netflix in order to be able to watch the final seasons together in real time. That ended in 2013, as Game of Thrones, between its third and fourth seasons, was continuing its own slow pop culture ascendency. Just look at the Google Trends for “game of thrones” over the show’s life:


It’s really not until last season, in 2017, that the show really pops, and that tracks with my own experience. From 2016 to 2017 is when it felt like the people watching this show expanded beyond my circle of friends, Pajiba, and all our like-minded social media acquaintances. That’s when it feels like the show had its Breaking Bad moment, when latecomers caught up with everyone else, so that we could all watch these final episodes (albeit with a painful 2-year break in between) together. By the time season 7 started back up in 2017, it felt like everyone was watching it. The book readers no longer had to hold back their secrets, and we were all in it together — Mondays in the office were full of breakdowns and arguments and fascinating discussions. I like to believe that this isn’t the last show that will still find a way to break through the glut of television that is available through countless channels and platforms. But if it is, if this was the last time we’ll have that kind of collective television cultural moment, I will forever be thankful to Game of Thrones for giving us that.

Game of Thrones Was Personal.

But the real reason, in my estimation, that this show was of such a cultural important wasn’t just because of the quality of its craft. Many people who didn’t give a flip about fantasy, let alone good fantasy, were all in on this show. Rather, I think it’s because this stupid fantasy show that some might say was just about “tits and dragons” was strangely personal. Each of us has our reasons that we loved this show and cared about it and, for me, there were two such reasons.

Initially, it was because fantasy stories were young reader Seth’s first true love. I wasn’t quite the Tolkien fan that many were (truth be told, I never even finished reading The Lord of the Rings). But I was an avid player of Dungeons & Dragons, which led me to the Dragonlance and, especially, Forgotten Realms books. And it was love. I almost got thrown out of a sophomore English class for turning in a paper about the value of friendship between a dark elf, a barbarian, a dwarf and a halfling (and fuck off Mr. McCann, I stand by it!).

When I started to get the writer’s itch, I immediately turned to fantasy. … Actually, that’s not true — I first turned to crass humor and wrote tale of Mr. Jeffries the Horny Monkey and his best mate Harry the Bearded Tit. But once I did turn to fantasy, I wrote non-stop. I have no idea how many words and stories I cobbled together, but I do know it was all derivative garbage in that unique teenage way, and thankfully it’s about all lost for the ages except for my protagonist thief’s name (which I won’t be sharing - he’s mine and mine alone).

Fantasy wasn’t the sole way I interacted with friends — I was a band geek and a theater nerd, thank you very much! — but it was the most creatively fulfilling. In some of the earliest days of the internet, I found a group of friends on Prodigy and we found backdoor hacks that allowed us to collaborate online in this hybrid artform we had jointly created that was equal parts fantasy game and collaborative storytelling. (We’d later learn that others used these same methods to share pirated video games and porn. The internet is the same as it ever was.)

Fast forward to about 2010, and I was no longer that person. Not because I had “discovered girls” or “grown up” or any of that bullshit. I had just moved on, as one does in life. I simply didn’t devour fantasy novels or live in the fantasy worlds as I did in my younger days. Yet there was still some elemental part of my being that was defined by the fantasy stories of my youth - that shit ran and runs in my blood. While I was vaguely aware of George R.R. Martin, I had never read any his books and had no meaningful knowledge about A Song of Ice an Fire until the day a friend of mine gave me a bound script and said “Seth, this is the best pilot I’ve ever read and I immediately thought of you.” An hour later, I was back in love. And a year after that, as I watched that script come to life, I was watching my childhood love come to life. I will forever be thankful to Game of Thrones for giving me that.

The other reason this show was so personal for me is because of what it did for my friends, how it allowed them to shine. Pajiba started covering the show all the way back in 2009 from its earliest days of casting (it was dear Professor Steven Lloyd Wilson, who deemed that cast list “nifty”) and, in 2011, we were right there with recaps of the very first episode, “Winter is Coming” (and TK wasn’t wrong: “The show promises to do for the lands of Westoros and Essos what HBO was able to do for the Old West — create a vibrant, violent, mature world”). Our coverage changed over time and right now I’m watching several of my friends do some of their best work covering this show, from Tori’s episode recaps and Genny’s encyclopedic book unpackings, to Lord Castleton’s mind-bogglingly outrageous deep dives. I’ve known Lord C for the better part of 20 years (in fact, it was a mutual friend who handed me that script back in 2010) and while I loathe him as a human being, I fucking adore what he’s done with this show and his words.

Did I forget, Hannah? No. No I did not. Do you read her Ghost of Thrones columns? My god. They’re unlike any other Game of Thrones pieces out there. They’re funny and insightful and heartbreaking. Look at how she ends “The Bells:”

Far away from the main group, the spirits of two golden-haired children appear. In the gloom, it is almost impossible to tell them apart. They are running. The first, a girl, is laughing, the light, carefree laugh of a child who has known no pain. The second, a boy, calls out — ‘Wait for me!’ The girl turns and smiles, and the boy catches up. Breathless, they grin at each other.

The boy: Let’s go again. I will win this time.
The girl: You won’t. You’ll chase after me forever.
The boy: I will always catch you.

The girl laughs again, and starts to run. As promised, her brother follows. Unseen in the shadows, Tywin Lannister watches. The faint hint of a smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. But his eyes, wearing an unfamiliar shine, tell a different story.

Fuck. Me. …There will come a day this site likely loses Hannah’s talent because she’ll outgrow us, and it will be because of the kind of work she does with those columns. I love this show for giving Hannah this outlet.

Oh. And speaking of outgrowing our site. Three days before the “Winter is Coming” pilot would premiere, we published a little piece called “Want To Watch HBO’s “Game Of Thrones” But Haven’t Read The Books? Don’t Worry, We Can Help. A Guide To Recognizing Your Bearded White Dudes.” That piece started our dear friend Joanna Robinson on an “unforgettable, uncontrollable ride” which has been an absolute thrill to follow. The amount of content she puts out is staggering. It’s so god damned good, a pleasure to read and listen to and, like much of our own content, has made it so easy to enjoy this show even in its weaker moments.

I joked last week, in the leadup to the finale, that Child Seth would be so profoundly disappointed if I told him that an absolutely amazing fantasy show with magic and fucking dragons was ending a spectacular eight season run and Adult Seth was simply exhausted and ready for it to be over. But at least I know that Child Seth would not be disappointed in Adult Seth’s love for his friends and colleagues and seeing what they’ve made and grown out of this show, and I will forever be thankful to Game of Thrones for giving me that.

Coming all the way back to where I started with this piece, there’s actually one bit of business from the finale that I do feel was fully earned. I believe that in that final scene, Jon chose to abandon the Night’s Watch to live free beyond the wall like Mance before him. The Wheel may not have been completely broken, but his own wheel was. He no longer feels obligated to follow rules and impractical honor. His life is his own.

Others read this differently and believe Jon was merely escorting his friends north, with every intent to return because things don’t change, Jon Snow knows nothing, and he will forever live honor- and duty-bound. I spent much of yesterday discussing this with three different groups and tons of great points were made for both interpretations and there’s clearly no right answer. I don’t know whether this vagueness was intentional or not on the part of the showrunners. Given how on-the-nose everything else was, it certainly feels unintentional.

Jon may be a character many truly didn’t care about, to the utter distraction of more interesting characters. But I’m glad at least, in his final scene, that this cloud of intent was there. Because it lets us leave this show and its final moment on our own terms. As Jon walks with Tormund and Ghost and the wildlings, as the gate closes behind him, we see a small green plant. Winter came, but spring is coming. Even in this darkest world and grimmest tale, there’s still hope. If you want your bleaker ending, you can have it. But I’m taking the hopeful ending. The ending that feels like, all other flaws be damned, the show earned. The ending that lets me walk away from the show remaining appreciative of it.

I will forever be thankful to Game of Thrones for giving me that.

Header Image Source: HBO