Interested in Endings: Game of Thrones

What follows is somewhat-disjointed, but I left it as-is because it’s mainly a thinking-points post, and it ties in together at the end. Sorry for the weird structure.

So Game of Thrones is over. This is the sort of thing about which people seem to need to make their opinions known, but there’s only one of them worth addressing (that’s at the end, here).

I mean, I have a set of opinions about Game of Thrones, and they are, at least, markedly different from my opinions of A Song of Ice and Fire. Since the show is over, and the likelihood of any further books existing seems to be vanishingly low, here is that set of opinions.

I think that George R.R. Martin is a terrific writer. His early short stories, especially the ones with a horror bent, are wonderful. The Nightflyers is great in either form. I read all of this, however, after I first read the first 1.5 books of A Song of Ice and Fire. I think ASOIAF is of tremendous importance to fantasy publishing, if not writing, by dint of both its scope and its popularity – it will, like all unfathomably popular things, have changed things even if its only qualities were the fact that everyone was into it, so publishers were encouraged to make more things like it. This means that, in an oblique way, I probably have it to thank, at least somewhat, for excellent work by Kate Elliott, Ken Liu and KJ Parker 1, each of whom have written better “realistic” and/or “dragon-y” (sometimes both!) works of fantasy.

That’s reductive, but it’s the positive part. As far as it goes, I thought the books were overly convoluted, and there was clearly a lot of breadcrumb-trailing that I would need to see an ending appear in order to appreciate. If it ends, I’ll re-evaluate the way that I feel about the beginning, and see how it feels as a reading experience, but as it is it seems like opening a lot of doors just to have the rooms available later, and I find that process maddening and not at all fun to read.

The television show, however, I’m pretty unreservedly negative on. They managed to transcribe many of the events of the books 2, but by about season 3 the version of the story they were telling was pretty far removed from the books – characters and events were added, other characters and events collapsed together, that sort of thing – and seemed, for most of the middle seasons, to be more about wheel-spinning to set up giant “event” episodes that served as bait to keep watching and/or occasional fan-service for people that were into the books. They played up all of the most lurid/talk-about-able elements of the story, while leaving aside most of the mitigating circumstances thereof.

This is, however, not a problem unique to Game of Thrones. This is a problem with episodic television, which it is unfair to blame on Game of Thrones. They’re merely doing what is expected of them in their idiom, which is part of why I find it difficult to take television seriously in general. For as much as there were some mechanical aspects of the show that were effective – some of the acting was good, many of the action setpieces were well-choreographed, etc. – there’s still the generalized fact that the storytelling itself had to contort around not only appearing in more-or-less one-hour chunks 3, but also to the rhythms of those one-hour chunks themselves, which even in non-adapted stories, means that the whole thing has to contort around the constrictions of the form. It means that the scenes of sensational violence, or sexual menace, or glib one-liners, all take primacy over any other way of telling the story.

Anyway, this isn’t about my opinion of the thing, or about my opinion of television, although they both come to bear here as a result of this thing being around for the last eight years. My time writing this, a blog about things that are popular or well-regarded or feted, and how they become so 4 coincides almost exactly with this being among the most-popular things out there. It’s been strange, but illuminating, to watch everyone go apenuts bananacrazy – people I like and whose opinions respect, even! – for something that, even in its best, original incarnation, left me pretty cold.

So the question, then, from the popularity standpoint is the oft-asked one about whether this is the last mass-popularity, event-television thing of its caliber. But like everything else, I have no idea. It seems like it might be! But it also seems like it probably won’t be. For the entire era of “peak tv” – which is a decade in 5 at this point – the line has been that it’s impossible to get a bunch of people around the television to watch the same thing, and that it’s even harder to have a real hit.

But of course, this space is also largely about music, and the record-selling folks have also been dealing with the same problem for even longer now, and it still remains the case that there are Drake and Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande and Adele, people who can penetrate the consciousness and still create some degree of penetration into the mind of the public consciousness. There are fewer of them, and the hits are smaller, but the number on Game of Thrones aren’t actually that huge when compared to the television hits of yesteryear either, so we’re already on the way there.

I think that the role of “huge popular tv show that everyone watches” is the kind of void that will always be filled, in short. I’ve been largely-indifferent to television 6 for more-or-less my entire awareness of it, and there’s always been something. The notion that the most-popular thing is going to be smaller than it was is perfectly provable – it already happens, after all, every single damn week – but I don’t think that’s the same as there not being huge water-cooler shows.

I will prognosticate this far, however, and I think this is why this is all so interesting to me. The Avengers movies have ended their run before metamorphosing into whatever it is they’re going to be without the two marquee stars. Game of Thrones has ended its run, and is likely to metamorphose into whatever it is without its marquee stars 7, Marvel is re-launching the interesting half of its comic book titleset. But, most germanely to the question of actual real-time popularity vs. public-perception popularity, we have to talk about The Big Bang Theory.

The Big Bang Theory outperformed Game of Thrones every single season. It often doubled the viewership. Part of this is about network television vs. cable, certainly, and about CBS being a juggernaut among the sort of people that still watch television when it’s available for them, which means they’re decidedly after the audience, but what it says is that the number of people watching is not actually a function of the amount that people think/talk/write blog pieces about them, which is the thing people are talking about when they talk about “hugeness”.

But it ended, and it ended with huge numbers – even higher than the last episode of GoT, which got the highest numbers GoT has ever gotten, and nobody is lamenting that we’re seeing the end of the popular sitcom as we know it. What this all says to me is that there is definitely an avenue out there for something to become popular beyond Game of Thrones (given that something got more viewers but was less-talked-about), but also that this kind of talked-about-ness can be manufactured without having the giant audience that people are worried about not being able to be garnered 8. Since the size of the audience seems to be the primary casualty of the fracturing of the popular-culture firmament, I think it’s fair to point out that this is something of a canard – something can occupy a dominant place in the culture with a much smaller audience than is generally assumed. 

It’s further important to remember that the popularity of Game of Thrones was abetted by what amounted to the creation of a freestanding streaming service (the disconnected-from-a-cable-package HBO Go) in order to make it so the that numbers could climb all the way to half those of a popular network television show. Given that there are (conservatively) six hundred trillion streaming services, with another quadrillion or show lined up to come online in the coming couple of years, it’s trivially easy to imagine that there would be one of them that got ahold of some property and turned it into a gold-egg-laying goose.

In short, things are changing, and I think that what we’re seeing is less likely to be the end of event-style huge-viewership (for whatever given value of “huge” applies), and more likely to signal a shift in the general public perception from “geek”-genre-derived things into…..something else.

I’m not sure what that will be! And it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong, I guess, but man, this seems like the kind of slate-wiping that ends up with people getting really into romance stuff 9 or historical fiction 10 or whatever it ends up being. So maybe we’ll remember the days when people were really into sff all the time, and that’ll be what marks the teens as a pop-cultural decade, and when we’re all gathered around whatever the next big water-cooler thing is, we’ll reminisce about all them thrones, and the games thereof.

So, to sum up: Game of Thrones was a pretty effective soap opera that managed to engage an audience that was heretofore unheard-of for its platform 11, even though it’s also the platform that is largely the birthplace of the “Golden Age of Television” with Oz, The Wire and especially The Sopranos, and also launched the much better and more satisfying boobs soap opera Rome 12. It wasn’t the most popular show even though it was the most talked-about, and it did a lot of its business on a previously non-existent (at least in the form it has now) streaming service, which means it also had to plow its own road in terms of infrastructure.

It seems to me, then, that there is a possibility to claim more of an audience 13, using whatever tools are currently available, to be a big huge thing, because it seems like people want a big huge thing. It’s true that nobody knows how to know what a big huge thing will be! But nobody ever has – Game of Thrones was produced, after all, but I’m relatively certain that even the most die hard Song-heads thought it would be the most talked-about thing in the country for as long as it was.

While I still think that a move away from the currently-dominant sff thing is probably coming, I will also, once again, put out there The Secret style my belief that The Chronicles of Amber is the greatest sword-and-sorcery series ever made, and that the upcoming television series is the soap-opera with swords in that we all want and deserve, and we should all pledge to watch it, write about it, talk about it, and generally invest heavily in its goings-on so that I can be happy. I will be happy for two reasons: 1) I will have a good adaptation of a thing that I love and 2) I have read those books more than nearly any other series 14 so I can totally be one of those buttfaces that has Serious Opinions about the things that the television show does differently.

  1.  I mean, to whatever extent. I’m just talking about a general publishing environment, and my awareness – I’m not deep into this stuff, you know? – of it, such as it is. 
  2.  which, to be honest, is what most adaptations do anyway, this isn’t unique to Game of Thrones. 
  3. with, admittedly, some episode-timing leeway in the later seasons 
  4. well, mostly. Sometimes it’s also about how things used to be popular and aren’t any more, and occasionally it’s about sandwiches. 
  5.  we’re actually two decades into the “golden age” of television, but the idea of every single corporation owning a streaming service, and every single streaming service having original television, means that the idea of there being more “good” television than we can individually keep up with is about a decade old. 
  6.  this sounds more snooty than it is: I like some television fine, and like it a lot more now that I can watch what I want to watch when I want to watch it. I did not like television much at all when I was limited to watching something when it was on, or at other times that were still not under my control. For the reasons outlined above, I think dramatic television has a long, steep hill to hoe a row all the way up, although given the constrictions I think it succeeds admirably often (there’s almost always some kind of serious television drama on the air that I like), and is best suited for funny things (jokes are easy to structure around episodes and ad breaks than non-jokes) and shows where people cook. 
  7.  word on what the spin-offs and prequels are has been pretty thin on the ground, and the over-ambitious plan of making, like, a zillion of them appears to have been tooled down, but I will go so far as to say that if all that business with Arya in the last couple of episodes – the horse, the being-miraculously-unscathed-from-dragonfire, the fact that there isn’t going to be an Arya spin-off (as told of in this story here) is a huge surprise to me. 
  8. it would be interesting, actually, to look at the numbers for Orange is the New Black or Stranger Things, each of which have managed to have a stranglehold on public opinion for less time within the span of the airing of Game of Thrones, but of course Netflix famously has nothing to do with publishing their own viewership numbers. 
  9.  this is kind of my guess for what’s about to take over, but it has a lot of freighted baggage on it, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the sort of idiot that won’t get into it for its own sake is numerous enough to prevent this from happening 
  10. actually, this is probably my real guess. 
  11.  an undeniably impressive feat, which I didn’t get into above, but which I won’t take away from it. Y’all loved it, and that’s pretty cool. 
  12. that’s right, I said it. Rome was better than Game of Thrones. So was Starz’s Camelot. 
  13.  I mean, even just from a regular-old no-thought perspective, an audience that I am a part of, for example. I am almost certainly not unique in my opinion here. 
  14.  there are individual books that I have read more times, but as far as series go, I think only The Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker’s series have a claim at it. I’m counting the first five books in the Amber series as a complete series of their own, and I’ve read the second set a few times (I think three), but they’re completely different and not the thing that I’m talking about here.  

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