The Warring Houses of the Seven Kingdoms

More than any other “appointment TV” phenomenon, Game of Thrones is one that has thrived in conjunction with social media and the democratization of film and television criticism across the Internet. With its diffusion of perspectives, the show has become this great relativistic document, something like the Mueller Report, where different sides project onto the same text and come away with opposing interpretations.

What’s your favorite noble house, Stark or Lannister, or one of the many others? I’d be just as content to join the Brotherhood Without Banners, but not everyone rolls that way. People want to fly their flags. The showrunners were perhaps so focused on what Daenerys was supposed to be, via Martin’s book blueprint, that they ignored what she became onscreen and in the eyes of fans offscreen.

This is a character who took on a life of her own. We’ve seen this happen time and again in pop culture, where creators put something out there into the world and the audience, fandom, takes ownership of it—to the point where every viewer becomes a dimestore Robert McKee and starts to think he or she knows what’s best for the story (even perhaps becoming intractable in the face of anything contrary).

Star Wars stopped belonging to George Lucas long before he ever sold the franchise to Disney. I’m sure Rian Johnson, for one, appreciates getting labeled with the nickname “Ruin,” as if he never left the kindergarten playground. The question no one ever asked: “Can you please expound, with vitriol and spelling errors, on all the ways The Last Jedi failed your inner child?”

Now it’s happening with Game of Thrones, which puts the Star Wars franchise in an even more awkward place, given that showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff (and Rian Johnson) are slated to be its stewards with new trilogies in the coming years.

People identify so strongly with their favorite characters, they grow so attached to their pet theories, that when faced with the official fan-fiction version of “The End” — as written or adapted by substitute scribes like Weiss and Benioff — they’re invariably disappointed. If there’s any consolation to be found in all this, it’s that fans need not petition for a remake of Game of Thrones, Season 8. They need only wait for Martin to summon up the elegant prose to finally finish his A Song of Ice and Fire book series (if he ever can).

Not for nothing, but with Game of Thrones regularly ranking as the most pirated show on Earth (until just last year when it was on break), you have to wonder how many of those 1 million+ petition signers were actual paying HBO subscribers. Like Daenerys herself, critics and commenters and one-eyed Internet pirates named EuronGreyjoy69 love to spout revolutionary ideas. They’re good at challenging the established order, highlighting the fallibility of the reigning storytellers, but when it comes to actual governance, really ruling rather than waging war, they might be at a loss. Otherwise, more of them would be out there working as creators rather than simple complainers and quarterbacks of the Monday morning variety (and yes, I’m one of those, too).

It seems like the only way to mitigate mass disgruntlement in the future would be for storytellers to adopt a Choose Your Own Adventure model whereby the viewer could pick from multiple endings. That’s not so far-fetched, actually. My 2019 on /Film kicked off with a spoiler review of Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive movie that sought to employ this very model. Ultimately, that experiment didn’t land as some game-changing new Avatar for the 2010s, but who knows, maybe we’ll see more of its kind in the 2020s.

The End of the MacGuffin Chase

One of the many ripple effects of Game of Thrones in its home stretch was that it got people talking about Lost again—another great watercooler show whose ending proved divisive back at the outset of the decade. Coincidentally, the first time I ever heard of Game of Thrones or George R.R. Martin was when I read something Martin had said criticizing the ending of Lost. Somewhere in the offices of HBO, Damon Lindelof must be cackling about poetic justice now.

In its (much nicer, more well-meaning) finale, Lost shepherded us into a church, where it gently came down on the side of character over plot. One of the reasons there was such initial blowback over that, maybe, is because people who were invested in the mystery element of the show had a hard time accepting that the mystery was a MacGuffin. It helped drive the zany island plot and the showrunners arguably underestimated just how much of a plot-driven mystery show Lost was to some viewers (even though its character-centric style of flashbacks and flash forwards obviously put said characters front and center from the very beginning).

In Game of Thrones, what seems to have happened, after the show went off-books, is the inverse of the Lost situation. The characters and their individual arcs became slaves to the expediency of the plot.

This show’s MacGuffin, of course, was always the Iron Throne, which Drogon has now melted. As A Cast of Kings co-host Joanna Robinson so expertly predicted, it was the One Ring of Power and Jon was Frodo and Daenerys was Gollum. Plot developments in the quest for it once sprang organically from the characters and their choices, but toward the end, we got the sense that the characters were falling unnaturally into decisions and plot hoops that had been preordained by the writers. In the end, maybe the MacGuffin chase is always destined to conclude with the feeling that the journey was more satisfying than the destination.

Whatever you think of Game of Thrones, there’s no denying its immense cultural clout. Here at the close of the 2010s, the complex tapestry that the show spent eight years weaving is one that roundly encapsulates the spirit of the times.

Westeros and its inhabitants are the soul of a rotten age. We witnessed their weak follies and black-hearted triumphs. Some of them were sympathetic; most of them, per The Dark Knight, either died or lived long enough to see themselves become the villain. Like Ramsay, the evilest bastard of them all, the show revealed its true colors early on and consistently traumatized its audience thereafter.

Perhaps we were gluttons for punishment. Now we may be at the point where the audience has outgrown the show and is ready to feed it to the dogs. But what is dead may never die.

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