For the past eight years, I’ve sidestepped a cultural phenomenon.
For the past 10 days, I’ve done almost nothing but soak myself in it. Game of Thrones, one of the most acclaimed and popular television series of all time, ends with Sunday’s series finale on HBO.
The Friday before last, I began a quest to catch up before that finale by watching the entire series, wedging more than 70 hours of clanging swords, cryptic intentions, grim violence and problematic heroism between all the rest of my daily life in that short time.
I spent an embarrassing amount of time — time I could have been watching Game of Thrones! — syncing a laptop, a phone, a TV and a tablet, to make it possible to watch as I moved through every part of my home. I watched while taking out the trash and while nearly falling off a StairMaster. I watched in the shower. I watched in a McDonald’s drive-through, until a horribly timed sex scene started playing loudly over the car speakers just as I approached the window. I threw my phone on the floorboard in a panic before the cashier saw what was happening in that King’s Landing brothel.
Later I figured out a way to watch some episodes at 1.5x speed, which conveniently compresses an hour into 40 minutes, and probably makes showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss want to throw up.
Lots of people have been catching up, apparently. The show debuted in 2011 to moderate critical attention and viewership. The audience, it was assumed, would be mostly built-in fans of George R.R. Martin’s source-material fantasy novels. But Thrones’ fans and its cultural cachet have snowballed like the series’ long-promised winter.
HBO says 18.4 million people watched last Sunday’s episode the night it aired. Count those who watch on various platforms during the week, and the latest season averages 43 million views an episode, a whopping 10 million more than last season. Analytics firm Muso said the Season 8 premiere was illegally pirated an additional 55 million times. All those newcomers probably aren’t jumping into the middle of the story.
But nobody needs hard numbers to know Game of Thrones took over pop culture in a way that “includes people who don’t watch the show,” as NPR TV critic and former Tampa Bay Times staffer Eric Deggans put it. You feel it. You know what the Iron Throne is even if you’ve never seen an episode. “Do you watch Game of Thrones?” is the most fun, unavoidable, aggravating and eye-roll-inducing question of 2019. Having only switched sides a week ago, I can sympathize with both fans and Thrones avoiders.
I did this partly as a stunt. To see what an extreme binge of such an extreme show would do to my mind. That’s more than 2,339 on-screen killings in just the first seven seasons, according to a Washington Post tally. Would it give me some unique insight into why it’s so popular? Maybe I’d have fresh thoughts on a culture that can binge-watch any show at any time, and whether binge-watching is a good way to enjoy TV at all. Maybe I’d go insane.
If I’m being honest, though, the FOMGOT is what finally convinced me: fear of missing Game of Thrones. You’ve heard of millennials suffering legitimate anxiety due to FOMO, the social media-driven “fear of missing out”?
Well, when you walk out of your apartment and hear Game of Thrones playing through two different neighbors’ doors, pass a parking lot security guard watching it on his iPad and overhear a Season 8 spoiler from a woman on her phone walking her dog, it can feel like everyone on Earth watches this show. Or maybe you’ve just been on the internet since the Season 8 premiere.
At one point, I tried to take a break from my Thrones binge to go see a baseball game. Of course it turned out to be Game of Thrones night at Tropicana Field. My girlfriend couldn’t hang in with the pace after Season 2 and went to see a concert on a Sunday night. She came back and reported that the band, Foxing, walked on stage to the Game of Thrones theme. Even they were missing that night’s episode.
Days into my binge, I heard armies of horse hooves in my sleep. I dreamed Kit Harrington yelled at me in the supermarket. I called people “m’lord” under my breath. I fell hard for this show.
I thought about pretending to be sad over how my binge prevented me from reading the Sunday New York Times, working on that long-stalled art project or strolling the waterfront listening to the birds. But let’s be real; I would have wasted a lot of that time zombie-scrolling Instagram, getting mad on Twitter or playing Fortnite. Streaming marathon hours of TV was, ironically, a pretty quaint digital detox.
No surprise, it made me think about death, which is probably why I think one of the series’ best quotes came from one of its most despicable characters. Littlefinger advising his nervous stepson: “People die at their dinner tables. They die in their beds. They die squatting over their chamber pots. Everybody dies sooner or later. Don’t worry about your death. Worry about your life. Take charge of your life for as long as it lasts.”
People get hysterical about spoilers and spoiler alerts. Is there any greater cultural faux pas these days than to spoil? We live in the era of serialized dramas, and nobody wants to know who’s going to die before it happens. I get it. But also, relax.
I knew some stuff that was going to happen on Game of Thrones before it happened. It was still great. Only plot points can be spoiled, and the plot is not what will be remembered and dissected for years to come. I might not remember exactly who died or when, but I’ll remember the brilliance of how the show was willing to kill off or maim anyone at any time.
Those turns in the story won’t stay with me like the characters themselves, the banter between Varys and Tyrion, the way the show was made so that every evil or good act felt connected to real human psychology, not just things a villain or a hero would do. Right up to the last episode, you still aren’t 100 percent sure about anyone.
Binge-watching has become a part of the culture since Netflix and Hulu began releasing entire seasons of original shows at once. Now even old-school CBS has a streaming service where Star Trek and The Twilight Zone are released in bingeable chunks. Disney’s highly anticipated streaming service will likely add to the binge fuel.
A hazard of binge culture could be less thoughtful TV altogether, Deggans said. He believes some series have “gotten a bit lazy in their storytelling, because they know fans will watch multiple episodes. So they are less likely to make every scene count in every episode. Netflix’s Marvel superhero series, for example, suffer mightily from this.”
But he also sees some value in watching a quality show in bigger bites, like reading multiple chapters of a book. Sometimes watching episodes back-to-back makes it easier to see the larger themes, he said, to “connect the dots over multiple episodes.”
I finally caught up, an hour before writing this. I don’t know if I’ve gained any special insights into Game of Thrones, but I don’t hate this final season the way a lot of people do.
Maybe they’re sentimental after watching for years in a way that I can’t be after only watching for 10 days. Maybe I’m more clear-eyed than some, but it feels right that a show like this would have an uneasy ending.
It’s interesting that the other most popular show on TV, The Big Bang Theory, just ended. Sometimes it beat Game of Thrones in the traditional Nielsen ratings, but nobody is sitting around analyzing Sheldon’s motives and character development.
I don’t think I watched it the best way. It was too fast for a show that needs to be contemplated. I also don’t regret it, because on Sunday I’ll be watching along with all the other fans. It feels like we still watch the Super Bowl and the Oscars together live, but neither of those is a work of art.
Someday we’ll all huddle around our phones, or whatever device wired into our brains we’re calling “TV” at that point, as we watch the Mars landing, but not any time soon.
It could be a while before we get another real-time, shared cultural TV experience on this scale. We need those as much as we need good TV. Savor what’s left.
Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected] Follow @SpataTimes.
WATCH IT The Game of Thrones series finale airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on HBO.