Image via HBO

Game of Thrones and the Disappointment of ‘Event TV’

For the First Fans of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy epic in Westeros, tonight’s season finale will bring about an ending (of sorts) they’ve been waiting for since August 1996. Yet, the ending that we all think is coming — either from foreshadowing on the show or from the any number of series finale leaks online — seems destined to disappoint not just book fans but almost every viewer of the series.

Even if none of the leaks are true, the ending will likely disappoint a significant portion of the audience, save for the most enlightened. Now, I don’t mean that people who hate or like this current season are objectively right or wrong. Rather, when I say “enlightened,” I mean very specifically the sort of viewer/reader who accepts precisely the story they are given instead of the story they want or expect. There is a metaphorical Grand Canyon’s worth of distance between a piece of art being objectively “bad” and simply not liking it on an individual level. It’s this distinction that suggests that the era of the “television event” is over and that’s a good thing for stories.

Game of Thrones might legitimately be the last true nationwide (hell, worldwide) television event, at least where scripted series are concerned. To be fair, this has been said about many shows from The Sopranos to LOST to many others. Naturally, the melancholic missives pine for the days when there were only three networks and a significant portion of the country sat down to enjoy a story or show at the same time. Television became a communal event, whereby people would discuss what they watched the next day at work or at school. Things like “Who Shot J.R.?” or “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” could captivate everyone, even folks who normally didn’t watch much TV. Tonight, the latest chapter in this larger story, Game of Thrones, comes to a close. So popular is this series, HBO had to work with many different providers to ensure the episode premieres globally at the same time as a way to cut down on leaks and piracy.

Yet, at least for scripted series, bringing the story to the end after an extended hiatus is a kind of Faustian bargain. With fans, some who have been waiting decades, eager to find out the end, sticking the landing becomes that much more difficult. Even if tonight’s episode is perfect, the legacy of this final series in the minds of all those who were a part of this television event is that the final season was mostly “bad.” At the very least, they will remember that for at least three of the six weeks the show aired, many die-hard fans were pissed off. Yet, what I find most interesting is not this legacy, but the one that has yet to be written, so to speak. I am curious about the experience for viewers who binge-watch their way through the show for the first time. Will it gel together better for the viewer not left with questions week-by-week or season-by-season? Or will the final seasons seem even more rushed and less cohesive without big breaks of time in-between? If it’s the latter, will these new fans be as angry as some are right now? Or, will they just accept the story as it was, a good time with a less-than-ideal ending?

A good case study in how the viewing experience changes the reaction to these mysterious event-shows is LOST. After a divisive final season and seemingly disappointing finale, the series is experiencing something of a renaissance among repeat-viewers and those who are discovering the show on streaming platforms where the wait between episodes is as long as it takes to get a fresh snack and take a leak. This series definitely suffered as it aired week-to-week, with so many big mysteries dependent on the show having an endgame they didn’t yet have. The quintessential example of this is an episode in the third season all about how Matthew Fox’s Jack Shepard got one of his tattoos. (Of course, this episode also brought the inimitable Bai Ling into the LOST-verse, an unquestionably awesome thing.) Fans were outraged that this was the story they got when they wanted to know, well anything else.

My own journey to the show offers some perspective as well. When the show premiered, I was two weeks into my stint with the U.S. Army, waiting to deploy to Iraq. By the time my deployment ended, the second season was nearly wrapped up. I knew of the show, but I wasn’t all that keen on seeing it. At a (civilian) job, people talked about the third season as it aired. I noticed two things about them. First, the words they used to describe the episodes sounded to me like a Lynchian fever dream. Nothing they talked about made a lick of sense. The second thing I noticed was that they seemed to be very angry. In retrospect, this was simply their impatience at the pace at which the show revealed its most interesting mysteries. They would wait a week, sometimes two, for the next episode and instead of something about the smoke monster, they learned that Hurley’s dad was a bum.

Eventually, I read that LOST would be ending, but not cancelled in the traditional sense. The producers wanted to to end the show so they could tell a full story. When I lost my job in the summer of 2008, I decided to dive into the show I’d been actively avoiding for so long. If my memory serves, I watched the show on a very early Hulu (where I also discovered 30 Rock). Binge-watching wasn’t even really a thing, but that accurately describes how I watched the show. Instead of just watching an episode here or there, my unemployed ass knocked it down in about a week. At the end of each episode, I immediately wanted to know what would happen next. By the time the fifth, and what I thought was the final (more on that later), season aired, I was all caught up and watching live. That experience was also really satisfying, especially when I realized they were doing time-travel. I was all-in.

Watching the series week-to-week was fine for me. Sure, I wished I’d could just skip to the next episode, but I wasn’t spoiled yet. I knew that by the end of the season, I’d have the end of the story. I was in no rush to get there. At least, not until I realized that the fifth season was not actually the final season of LOST. There would be one more season, and I had a wait an entire summer to get those answers. Ultimately, this was good for me, because I got to experience the denouement of the wildly active cottage internet industry LOST created, full of fan sites, blogs, and podcasts. Yet, I yearned for that final season. Seeing others’ theories and set leaks and spoilers, I didn’t realize I was “writing” a season six in my mind that the storytellers could never match with what they actually came up with. In fact, so burning was my desire to see the season finale that I stayed up until 2 A.M. to watch the first half of the season six premiere projected on a screen at a beach in Hawaii via the grainy webcam of some UStream-er with a killer view of it.

When the season finally began to air, I think I finally understood what drove my co-workers so crazy three seasons ago. That final season was a bit of a let-down, specifically the off-island stuff I felt got in the way of the story I wanted to follow. I loved the finale though, and felt that the story they told was just-as-good to better-than my own version in my head. (High praise from someone who fancies themselves a storyteller.) I honestly had no real desire to re-watch the series after that. I’d done a second watch-through during the summer of yearning, and I watched each episode of the final season twice, when it first aired and in advance of the next episode. I didn’t need a justification to watch the finale a second time. Two viewings of the series felt like more than enough, and I moved on, satisfied. Yet my daughter, who was nine at the time, wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

She just decided to watch the show the next summer (now on the Xbox 360’s Netflix app), and so I watched it with her when I could. I didn’t watch it all the way through this time, especially since my daughter wouldn’t (couldn’t) wait for me to watch a new episode if she had control of the TV. Because she was able to binge-watch it, the things that made LOST fans crazy — the tattoo episode or the episode featuring “new” characters Nikki and Paulo (and Billy Dee Williams as himself!) — delighted her. Season three, the one that made my coworkers so insane all those years ago, is one of her favorites. We complained that the characters were in cages for so long, but she was a little disappointed when the gang escaped the Others’ clutches so soon. Even on the rewatch of the final season, I realized that I appreciated the off-island bits that much more. I still don’t love them, but I finally realize they were essential to the characters’ stories. That’s who the show was about, not the island or the polar bears or demigods in linen clothing. (And if I watch the series a fourth time, I want it to be the Chronlogically LOST version, which I wrote about here.)

This, I think, reflects a bigger shift in the culture, at least with how binged shows will be remembered versus shows that aired traditionally. Communal viewing still occurs, but the ways in which we can comment on or discuss that media has advanced light-years since the days of LOST. Fandoms all over are experiencing loud backlash from people who are, essentially, angry that the “new” stories they getting aren’t the stories they want. Star Trek: Discovery faced this criticism, because it took a bleak and less hopeful tone than previous installments of the series. (And The Orville seems almost a response to that, though it isn’t, at least not directly.) Star Wars fans are so incensed about the latest movie in the Skywalker saga that one of those ridiculous petitions to “remake” it circulated in the weeks after release. Actors in the film were harassed so much they closed down their social media accounts. And director Rian Johnson gets at least one “fuck u, u ruined Star Wars” reply to literally anything he tweets.

In fact, pretty much any eagerly-awaited series finale from The Sopranos to How I Met Your Mother pissed off some of their fans. Television events that aren’t scripted are also struggling in the on-demand era. The live ratings for sure-fire hits like the Super Bowl and award shows are consistently declining. The recent spate of Live TV musicals have also peaked and plummeted in less time than LOST was even on-the-air. With the convenience of on-demand viewing, the idea of gathering around the television at a set time to watch something seems almost antiquated. The real question, at least for me, is whether or not the final season of Game of Thrones would have worked better had HBO followed SYFY’s lead with 12 Monkeys. That wonderful, little show never stunned in the live ratings, but it’s on-demand and streaming numbers were solid. This resulted in a deal that gave the show two last seasons to wrap up the story. Rather than draw them out, SYFY aired Season Four in a weekend and Season Five aired three-episodes per night for three weeks. And the 12 Monkeys series finale is one of the best of all time (pun most definitely intended), especially when it comes to “sticking the landing.”

At the very least, for HBO, airing the final season of Game of Thrones in one fell swoop would have softened the “Season Eight is bad” chorus. Each week, more and more disgruntled fans join their ranks and add their voices. The first two episodes featured mostly sullen conversation, and people said it sucked. The next episode was shot in darkness and denied two fan-favorite characters an “epic” battle, so more fans said it sucked. The next episode featured what seemed like a forced loss for the “heroes,” and people said it sucked. Finally, the penultimate episode suggests maybe the heroes aren’t the heroes at all, and even more people say it sucks. Fans were always going to be pissed off at the ending, especially for a series that features things like “the Red Wedding” and other grisly, violent turns. Arguably the theme of this story, the books more so than the series, is that there are no good monarchs and all [people] must die. The proposed rulers are either too naive or power-mad to effectively wield power. No one gets a happy ending, because death comes for us all. Fans who wanted Jon and Dany on the throne with a pair of babies and hybrid Direwolf/Dragon pups flapping about were always going to walk away disappointed.

Ten years from now when the series hits that arbitrary milestone that starts us looking back at what was, how will it fare? Will the outrage at the last season disappear like the complaints against the Star Wars prequels, another series fans may have slightly overreacted about and eventually grew to appreciate? Perhaps the best thing for stories and storytellers is that the week-by-week era of television seems to be ending. It gives them a chance to tell an entire story and have the season be judged as a single body of work, rather than episode-by-episode. Yet, can binge-able series ever capture attention on a macro-level without it? There are a few that have, from Netflix’s early seasons of House of Cards and Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Do these shows need that week-by-week buzz to etch themselves into the zeitgeist as Game of Thrones has? Because right now, the biggest downside to these epic pop-culture franchises is that sometimes when fans don’t get what they expect, they turn toxic and angry, dividing people further apart. And that’s precisely the opposite of the allure and intended effect “communal viewing” is suppose to bring to our lives.