How Game of Thrones went from a show that could do no wrong, to one that could seemingly get nothing right
Winter is Coming — Game of Thrones' first-ever episode — released nine years ago today. After that triumphant debut, who could have foreseen the ignominy with which it would bow out, eight seasons later?
Last night, I went to Westeros again.
In the 11 months since its finale aired, occasional YouTube clips aside, I hadn't rewatched an episode of Game of Thrones, from beginning to end (and I'm quite the rewatcher). It wasn't that I was angry, like a lot of the show's very voluble fans, about the way it had ended, although I will admit to being disappointed. But The Last Watch had cemented the feeling of a conclusion, signaling that it was time to move on.
Last night, however, felt different. It was the eve of the ninth anniversary of GoT's premiere: 'Winter is Coming' aired on 17 April 2011, to 2.2 million viewers in the US (substantially high for an HBO show, although not in the same league as The Sopranos, for instance), and launched a television event unlike any other before or since.
Settling in with the episode, I felt the same thrill as the three brothers of the Night's Watch — Will, Gared and Ser Waymar Royce — rode out beyond the Wall into miles of frozen wasteland. I knew what Will would find: the dead and mutilated Wildlings; what would happen to Royce and Gared: cut down by the White Walkers; and how Will's flight would end: on the executioner's block, at the end of Lord Eddard Stark's greatsword. Even knowing those things, I couldn't help hanging on to every moment.
When the title credits came on, it felt almost like a homecoming — this fixture of our TV watching lives for nearly a decade. And then there was a truer homecoming to be found in the courtyard of Winterfell, where Bran practised his archery under the supervision of Jon and Robb, the watchful gaze of Ned and Catelyn, and with little Rickon as an audience.
Other familiar faces quickly made their entrance, and it was like seeing long-lost friends — Ser Rodrick, Theon!, Sansa, Arya, Septa Mordane, Maester Luwin. But we wouldn't tarry overlong with a happy filial reunion. This was Game of Thrones, and as Ned would say, "Winter is coming".
Winter did come, for Winterfell, for Game of Thrones, for the world.
Later in that episode, the cosy domestic scene would soon be disrupted by the arrival of King Robert and the Lannisters, foreshadowed by the discovery of a dead stag and direwolf. Memorable words would be spoken by the Lannister men to the Stark boys: "All dwarves are bastards in their father's eyes", but also "The things I do for love". A child would be tossed out a tower window; a princess would be gifted dragon eggs at her wedding; off screen, an opportunistic social climber had already triggered chaos, and nothing would be the same in the Seven Kingdoms (or across the Narrow Sea) again.
When Game of Thrones made that triumphant debut nine years ago, who would have foreseen the ignominy with which it would bow out, eight years later?
Episode 1 of its final season — 'Winterfell' — released on 15 April 2019, to over 17 million viewers in the US alone. The world it was broadcast into had changed markedly from the one in 2011. Tinder, The Avengers, Netflix's original programming, two Olympics and FIFA World Cups, Donald Trump, Narendra Modi were just a few among the many momentous developments that had shaped these intervening years. And Game of Thrones had changed too: the audience was cynical now of the makers' intentions, their botched attempt at ending a story that no longer felt like it was the same one they started out with. A rushed pace, character arcs that seemed stretched, vital plot points that dropped into nothingness, a force-fit finale — the concluding seasons had problems aplenty.
Game of Thrones' ending coincided with that of other significant pop culture phenomena; it wasn't a particularly rousing send-off as send-offs go. The show that for years could do no wrong now seemingly couldn't get anything right. If at its peak, Game of Thrones had united millions of fans worldwide, now it left them divided — over the show's legacy, over its merit, over the characters' fates. Maybe the bitterness of the recriminations was a consequence of how special it once had been to fans. Or maybe it was fitting, in a world that felt increasingly toxic.
On Reddit, a common theme for recent posts seems to be someone apologising for having recommended Game of Thrones to others, or reiterating how — even with absolutely nothing to do in coronavirus isolation — they're not going to rewatch the series. In these uncertain and alarming times, when we've been forced to stay within our individual silos, an experience that may have brought many of us together again no longer does or can.
"Winter is coming," the Starks warned. Winter did come, but Game of Thrones had long since ceased to shelter us.
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