The deeply unpopular ending of the HBO fantasy series ruined its long-term prospects by depleting its replay value and squandering years of goodwill.
In the final moments of Game of Thrones, Jon Snow, son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, rightful heir to the Iron Throne, and resurrected hero of the series, ventures beyond The Wall one last time to confront an unknown future amongst the Wildlings. The series implies that Jon’s lineage and world-saving acts won’t prevent him from being lost to a world that didn’t know what to do with or make of him.
Jon Snow’s ending is a fitting allegory for the fate of the show itself.
Game of Thrones wasn’t just part of popular culture; it was popular culture. The HBO fantasy series dominated the entertainment conversation for nearly a decade, arguably our last communal television experience. At the onset of its final season in 2019, everyone’s eyes were trained on Westeros to see who would sit on the Iron Throne, or if the White Walkers would vanquish humanity. Endless Reddit threads, YouTube channels, and Twitter and Facebook posts rapturously predicted how showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss would complete George R. R. Martin’s sprawling narrative and resolve the arcs of television’s most beloved and reviled characters.
WarnerMedia, HBO’s parent company, planned to capitalize on everyone’s vested interest. Game of Thrones was one of the marquee titles of its then-upcoming streaming service HBO Max. They planned multiple spin-offs and prequels, marking the beginnings of a media franchise of unparalleled scope. Game of Thrones would be an entertainment monolith that would serve the company for years to come.
And then the final season started airing.
Season eight began well enough; “The Long Night,” featuring the long-awaited clash with the White Walkers, represented the series at its exhilarating best. However, the last two episodes shocked, confounded, and enraged viewers. I described “The Bells,” the penultimate episode where Daenerys incinerated King’s Landing and its citizens, as a “disgrace.” Other reviews mirrored that sentiment. The consensus was that Game of Thrones’ final episodes undercut years of intricate storytelling and complex character development with a resolution that not only failed spectacularly to pay anything off, but also defied logic, reason, and common sense.
It would be an understatement to call the series finale a colossal disappointment. Outraged fans and perplexed media outlets speculated that Benioff and Weiss preemptively ended Thrones because they were over the series and had shifted focus to their planned Star Wars film trilogy and universally-reviled revisionist history series Confederate. Cast reactions to the final season, most famously Kit Harington’s at the finale table read, went viral. Countless memes about the series’ ruination and comparisons to other series’ better or equally bad finishes flooded social timelines.
More than a year later, Game of Thrones has virtually vanished from our collective memory. Once a dominating force on social media, the series is barely referenced anymore outside of fan circles. Other series of varying ages, from Gossip Girl to Succession, are regular meme fodder. Media outlets don’t discuss it, except to occasionally guess what new show might follow its dragon-sized path. Both of the projects that Benioff and Weiss allegedly abandoned Game of Thrones for were canceled (the duo still has a $250 million development deal with Netflix, with an upcoming adaptation of the Chinese sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem).
Game of Thrones’ erasure from the cultural zeitgeist is made starker against the COVID-19 pandemic’s backdrop. Enforced global quarantine has been a boon to streaming services, and subscribers are hungrier than ever for binge-able content. Countless series and films – Avengers: Endgame, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Moesha, Girlfriends – have reaped the benefits of renewed cultural interest driven by virtual watch parties on social media.
Game of Thrones’ absorbing universe, elaborate plotting, and fascinating characters made it perfect for this moment. The hours you could spend obsessing over every detail and moment should’ve been the perfect distraction from the existential dread permeating the outside world. And yet, there are no Thrones watch parties on Twitter hosted by the cast (like Scandal had when the series moved to Hulu last summer). Why is no one taking advantage of this perfect opportunity to re-engage with this television behemoth?
What happened to Game of Thrones?
With 73 episodes and countless characters, locations, and storylines, the series has one of television’s highest entry barriers, in or out of quarantine. What made the investment worth it, in its early seasons, was the pay-off. The show’s jaw-dropping twists and unforgettable moments not only redefined what television was capable of, but they also felt earned. It was a spectacular journey that the final season ultimately rendered null, with no character left undamaged.
Jon Snow’s hard-fought battles against the White Walkers and his game-changing parentage? Irrelevant.
The lessons Daenerys learned in her evolution from child bride to powerful liberator? Eviscerated.
Tyrion Lannister, once the savviest man in King’s Landing? Reduced to a toothless dunce.
Sansa Stark, empathetic but perceptive? Now a stone-cold robot.
The ruthless and vicious Cersei Lannister? Falling rocks killed her and her brother-lover Jaime.
The Night King and his commitment to human extinction? Arya just knifed him in the gut.
The spectacular flame-out of these once-impeccable stories extinguished Game of Thrones’ replay value. Rewatching the series – knowing it would end so horribly – felt pointless. The series would die on the vine without a reason or desire to watch it again. Fans’ fury and disgust with the ending only hastened its demise. After the dust settled, millions of fans and casual viewers decided that it would be easier to write the show off as a loss and move on to something new. Countless streaming services would make that easy.
The tattered legacy and squandered goodwill is not only a tragedy for the beloved series; it leaves WarnerMedia’s plans for an expanded universe in a precarious position. HBO pulled the plug on its Long Night prequel Bloodmoon starring Naomi Watts last year. House of the Dragon still has a 2022 release date, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the combined effects of COVID-19 and Game of Thrones’ waning significance derailed that show as well.
Plenty of films and series have vanished from the public consciousness, but none as quickly and as violently as Game of Thrones. The series will always have fans, but there is no denying that its once-impeachable impact has dulled dramatically in just a year off-air, despite being one of television’s outstanding achievements.
For a series that once commanded and defined the cultural zeitgeist, its erasure is a spectacularly mediocre end.