It’s hard to say whether Game of Thrones faces any challenges anymore. It is the most popular show on television today. Despite massive leaks and pirated episodes, it still manages to post impressive rating numbers for a show on a premium cable network. After all, it has become a corner stone of American popular culture.
But if there is one problem Game of Thrones has to deal with, it is a victim of its popularity. We live in a divided country in a divisive time. The most popular show in America will have a diverse fan base. So each of the show’s fans falls into one of two very different camps.
The Clash of Fans
The Book Readers. House Words: We Do Not Show
On the one hand, there is an army of ravenous Book Readers. Like Daenerys’ army, they see themselves as having a rightful claim to Westeros. After all, they were there first. Like Aegon the conqueror, they fought through 4,451 pages of dense text to internalize this story. They studied the intricacies of the political games in Westeros. They learned the finer points of inheritance law. And they combed over each of the 1.7 million words George R.R. Martin wrote about Westeros so they could expect twists and turns which George himself has yet to write.
These fans may be vicious in their study, but they are ultimately merciful. Many will point to The Red Wedding or the battle between Oberyn Martell and The Mountain as times that Book Readers kept their secrets to themselves. But their mercy extends far beyond that. The wedding of Lyanna Stark and Rhaegar Targaryen, Jon Snow’s true identity, and Cersei Lannister’s fate are all things Book Readers have known for years. But they have patiently waited for confirmation of their crack pot theories.
The Show Watchers. House Words: Now Our Watch Begins
And while that is more work, it doesn’t mean it’s the correct way to watch Game of Thrones. There is no correct way to enjoy a TV show. And so there is the other camp. In our metaphor, they are Cersi’s army. New comers, yes. But with a much louder voice and a much stronger hold on the reins of power.
For years, these two clans worked in harmony. The Show Watchers were excited to watch the show and experience the story that The Book Readers already loved. And The Book Readers were excited to see the Show Watchers react to things they would never possibly see coming. But as time went on, the balance of power was thrown out of alignment, and the Show Watcher clan took control of the narrative.
Game of Thrones went from being a well-liked TV show on a premium cable network to being the most important piece of modern culture in its time. No form of entertainment was as adored nor as lusted after as Game of Thrones. Media outlets couldn’t cover it enough. Any article with a new Game of Thrones theory was sure to be a jackpot for page views. And so Book Readers watched and rolled their eyes as arguments they had discussed and dismissed in Reddit forums began popping up on the front page of Buzzfeed as though it had only popped into that writer’s head in a moment of divine inspiration.
The Finale Is Coming
Fundamentally, Season Seven of Game of Thrones had one purpose and one purpose only: make sure the audience knows that Jon Snow is Aegon Targaryen, the one true heir to the Iron Throne. The rest of the show was enjoyable, but tertiary at best. The point of the season has been to show us that Jon is both Jon and Aegon. Both Ned’s son and Rhaegar’s son. Or, as the season finale’s title put it, he is “The Dragon and the Wolf.” The same way that Jon told Theon he is a Greyjoy and a Stark.
But if that parcel of information is the most important thing in the season, how is it best delivered? Because, as Littlefinger found out in the season finale, the execution is everything. One side of the audience won’t even recognize the name Rhegar Targaryon amongst the word soup of Game of Thrones names the try and keep straight every Sunday night. The other side has a secret room in their house with a conspiracy-theory style yarn wall and is just waiting for Young Griff to show up on the show and complete it. So how do you deliver your big reveal to both? Especially when one side already knows it?
The Game of Thrones from the first several seasons would say that the answer is in a series of deliberate scenes in rooms filled with books and conversations about politics. A series of scenes where two people talk in a throne room. Howland Reed could even show up. But when Jon died at the end of Season Five, the show changed forever. It became its own beast, more occupied with war than it ever was with wit. And so Season Seven spent all seven of its episodes on grand battles, just to squeak that one little parcel of relevant info in at the end so nobody would forget it before the Season Eight premiere in 2019.
Dance With Dragons
Game of Thrones did change at the end of Season Five. When Jon died at Castle Black, it became a show less focused on medieval politics and more focused on recreating “Hardhome” as many times as possible. And who can blame them? In one week, “Hardhome” increased the number of viewers from 5.40 Million to 7.01 Million in one week. And they’ve never dropped below that number again, save for one week. Season Six, Episode Six, “Blood of My Blood”, an episode that focused mainly on politics.
But the show also changed in another crucial way. Game of Thrones usurped A Song of Ice and Fire as the definitive story of Westeros. Book Readers can kvetch all they want about Old Griff, Darkstar, and Victarion Greyjoy. It turns out they were never important. At least, they aren’t for now. For now, the show is the story.
There’s a good chance Martin never finishes the books. Or, if he does, that he ends up dramatically changing his original plans just to make it different than HBO’s version of his story. But until the nonexistent Winds of Winter release date finally arrives, Book Readers and Show Watchers only have one story. And it’s a story that spends as much time as possible in massive battle scenes, at the expensive of the interpersonal politics that fuels the show.
Need proof that the profound, political, interpersonal moments are still where this show shines? The meeting at The Dragon Pit in the Season finale was far more laden with tension than all of Episode Six, where all our favorite characters wandered out into the North only to have their plot armor protect them the entire way. The meeting between every character we care about on this show glowed with the political tension that initially made Game of Thrones great.
Game of Thrones exists because high fantasy nerds got excited about a high fantasy TV show adaptation of some high fantasy novels. Game of Thrones transformed when its cool action set pieces won over a mainstream audience. Those set pieces are now Game of Thrones’ bread and wine. The trouble is, you should dance with the one that brought you. And if we accept the original metaphor that Book Readers are like Daenerys’ army, then there is only one logical path forward for Weiss & Benioff. They need to dance with dragons.