I don’t watch Game of Thrones but I am immensely passionate about gobbling up every piece of critical writing I can find on Game of Thrones. When you spend your working life dissecting pop culture and understanding its place in our world, it can be a truly solitary experience feeling like the only person in a room who doesn’t engage with the most popular show on the planet. For me, I’ve found great pleasure in seeing varying critics’ opinions and theories on the jewel in HBO’s crown. You get to see the evolution of a fanbase and how the loftiest of expectations can influence others. How could they not, after all? The stakes are so high for Game of Thrones to stick the landing and everyone knows it. That’s why the most recent episode of the final season and reactions to it fascinated me so much. People weren’t happy, to put it bluntly, and I saw one notion pop up in so many of these pieces: Is it possible that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, in an attempt to avoid popular fan theories and everyone’s frantic guesses for how it will all end, are now writing Game of Thrones in opposition to said predictions? Have they seen everyone’s theories on who will get the Iron Throne and chosen to run away from that, even if it was the intended conclusion?
Once upon a time, such a fan theory would have been utterly conspiratorial and nothing more. Nowadays, however, it feels like a real concern, mostly because we know this has happened before. The makers of HBO’s other high-concept genre series, Westworld, admitted that they made changes to their second season because Reddit users figured out their planned twist. The end result of that decision was a season of television that was heavily criticized for seemingly being made up on the fly. Game of Thrones has never faced that level of confusion, but a lot of problems people seem to have had with this final season are rooted in a similar mentality. The show wants to offer big surprises but has laid down little of the emotional or narrative groundwork to do so effectively.
Solving puzzles can be fun. The challenge of unwinding a labyrinthine narrative and discovering its secrets can offer an experience beyond fulfilling. Of course, that’s only when it’s done right. That’s not to say there isn’t some pleasure to be found in lesser examples of this - it’s the journey that matters, not the destination, right? - but there’s a reason talking about Lost these days inspires feelings more of infuriation than nostalgic joy.
Lost was not the first high-concept mystery show to break out into the mainstream in American pop culture - hello, Twin Peaks, please come in - but it signalled a shift in how viewers consumed such stories and discussed them as part of a larger conversation. That first season just dominated our screens in a way that many of us had never experienced before. I knew people in my high school who shared literal notes on the show so they could discuss them. Every magazine, forum, comments section, news show, and street corner obsessed over what it all meant. What was in the hatch? How is John Locke walking again? What the hell is up with that polar bear? Even my dad was coming up with his own theories. The show never really retained the sheer thrill and captive audience of that first season, partly because it became abundantly clear that JJ Abrams and company really had no solution to the problems they created. For them, the hook was in creating mysteries and then abandoning all intent of answering them. It’s the now infamous mystery box of storytelling.
The hype of mystery and puzzle solving is arguably more powerful a driving force of modern pop culture than story, character, and other such basic building blocks of the medium. In an age where writers like me are under the endless pressure to get clicks, a show like Lost or Game of Thrones or Westworld can be a dream come true. There are so many questions to be answered and there’s no better way to get your audience engaged than rallying them for a round of fan theories. We like answers, and they’re instantly more cathartic than a few seasons of achingly detailed character studies or languid plotting dedicated to truly building a new world.
This isn’t a knock on those shows that want to shock, surprise and be solved by you. Clearly, they can work wonders, but in the current environment of television, where there are more shows than ever and audiences’ attention is splintered to the point where we may be entering the age of post-watercooler viewing, it’s not hard to see why networks and showrunners lean more towards the high concepts than the slow burns. It’s a way to keep at least a portion of your audience obsessively focused on you week after week for possibly years at a time. The panic comes when initial interest wears off and you’re left with a smaller but still sizeable demographic to keep engrossed. That feels like what happened with Westworld: They needed to keep hype built up week after week, to pay off the enormous expectations on their shoulders, and they were afraid that people would lose interest if their heavily encouraged theorizing got ahead of the show. We’re already in this disheartening stage of pop culture discourse where large swaths of fans will decree anything they see as being ‘too predictable’ to be objectively bad. The last thing we need is storytelling that adheres to that philosophy.
I’m curious as to what any writer or showrunner has to gain when they decide to upend their entire creative plan just to own the fans. Does it make the show better just because it’s surprising, regardless of how much character development and plotting had to be changed to get there? That attitude suggests that the only thing driving your story is the instinctive gasp of shock, even if the long-term responses are less than satisfied. Doing so doesn’t ‘show up’ the fans who got ahead of you; it simply shows that you were completely willing to capitulate to them, and frankly, that can be a very dangerous road to go down. Remember season 3 of Sherlock, a show so poisoned by trying to disprove its own fanbase’s ideas that it ended up destroying everything that made it so special in the first place?
I’m not insisting that this is how Game of Thrones is being written, for the record. The showrunners have been vocal in reminding fans that they are simply following George R.R. Martin’s vision. We’ll have to take their word for that, obviously. It may simply be that this is what Martin always intended and Benioff and Weiss just don’t have the range to pull it off. Regardless of intent or actuality, the new age of television and its relationship with fandom had the potential to be so much more than an endless game of prediction cat and mouse. When you want to end the show with the opening of a box, you can’t just decide to change what’s in it because Reddit successfully guessed.
Header Image Source: YouTube // HBO