Game of Thrones was another TV show until Eddard “Ned” Stark lost his head.
The lord’s eyes closed. The sword fell. The birds took flight.
It was an Everest moment in what would later be called Peak TV. It defined Game of Thrones as a pop-culture event that made sure to build moments into every season that were designed to stun the audience and compel primal reactions: lusty cheers, howls of rage, cathartic weeping. And it was proof that social media had changed how people watch their favorite shows, uniting people around the world in a virtual living room. Ned’s execution was foretold in the source material, George R.R. Martin’s best-selling novels, but it was a seismic shock for viewers who had no idea what they’d signed up for — a gut punch for grown-ups on par with the childhood agonies of losing Simba’s father and Bambi’s mother. In the old days (roughly pre-aughts — Facebook went online in 2005, Twitter in 2006), people might have cursed desperately or shed a tear, then commiserated with whomever happened to be sitting on the couch beside them. Or they would’ve called a friend or relative that they knew to be a fan. Or they might’ve gone online and left a post in a chat room, then refreshed the page to see if similarly bummed fans had logged on.
As established by other milestone moments strewn throughout TV’s history — from the birth of Lucy and Ricky’s son on I Love Lucy and the exoneration of Dr. Richard Kimble in the concluding two-parter of The Fugitive, through the still-controversial finales of Seinfeld, The Sopranos, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica — TV’s advantage over other storytelling mediums is a feeling of simultaneity. Whatever’s happening onscreen, we’re experiencing it together: millions of us, all at the same time (in our respective time zones, anyway). That’s when TV attains maximum TV-ness. It’s why live events like the Super Bowl and the Oscars still command high ad rates despite all the people who’ve cut their cable-TV cords and gone streaming-only. And it’s why, despite all the different iterations of time-shifting tech, from VHS to DVR, true fans prefer to watch their beloved series at the same moment as everyone else. We want to be part of something larger.
We cheered as the Hound and Arya teamed up. We marveled at the overwhelming scale of “The Battle of the Bastards” and “Baelor.” We shuddered as the Night King raised the dead. It wasn’t just happening. It was happening to us. It was happening to everyone who was riveted by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s adaption, which acquired an extra-dramatic thrill after season six when it ran out of existing material and had to find its own path to an ending.
What current scripted series besides Game of Thrones has the power to move and enthrall viewers so viscerally, and in such great numbers, all at once?
Until 2017, when HBO cracked down on piracy, Thrones was the most illegally downloaded show globally; you can watch it on your phone, laptop, and tablet, or catch it on HBO Now whenever you like, as many do. But it feels much more like a bridging series, more emotionally and creatively attuned to TV’s past than to its present and future. “We” are still doing things together, but rarely at the same moment. The experience of watching TV has become more like reading a novel or listening to music on headphones (or perhaps seeing a film in a theater with only one or two people in it). We’re aware that others are experiencing the story, but they aren’t physically or virtually with us as the plot unfolds. We watch new episodes of favorite shows when we get around to them. We discuss them when we’re able, and try to avoid spoilers in the meantime.
After the battle, massacre, double-cross, or conflagration that brings the curtain down on Martin’s world, an era will have ended in Westeros. And as goes Westeros, so goes TV.
Game of Thrones may be the last show we all watch together the way we used to, on such a tremendous scale. Even if you don’t watch it, you may feel as if you do. So many key incidents on the series — including the Red Wedding, Cersei’s walk of shame, and the death and resurrection of Jon Snow — seeped into the surrounding culture and became synonymous with “shocking plot twist” (or “obligatory plot twist”) even for people who’d never seen a frame of it. It’s a lavishly produced, massively popular piece of entertainment that generates awareness far out or proportion to its legal viewership (between 12 million and 16 million people watch a first-run episode, according to HBO), dominating online TV conversation during consecutive weeks when it airs new installments.
The most important words in that last sentence are “consecutive weeks” and “installments.” From the heyday of Charles Dickens, whose piecemeal novels were so popular that superfans used to wait at the docks for shipments of periodicals containing the latest installments, serialized storytelling has always known how to hook people’s imaginations with the bait of “What will happen next?”
Television, as it existed from the 1950s until recently, was the ultimate incarnation of the form. You can draw a direct line from Dickens to the comic strips that told stories over the course of weeks or months in newspapers to the half-hour adventure serials that used to play in movie theaters (new installments every Saturday!) to Janice plugging Richie in season two of The Sopranos, one episode prior to the finale, when everyone expected him to die at Tony’s hands.
And then Netflix came along, brilliantly refining the storytelling model, but losing something essential.
The streaming era of scripted drama came into its own six years ago, when David Fincher debuted House of Cards on Netflix. It wasn’t the first show to “drop” an entire season rather than parcel it out over time. Other streaming services had released seasons, including the Netflix gangster comedy Lilyhammer. Broadcast and cable networks had experimented behind-the-scenes with making whole seasons available to critics, to demonstrate the coherence of a season-long story (the first cable series to do this was season four of The Wire). But the combination of a famous showrunner, two big-name stars (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright), copious production values, a major marketing campaign, and the presence of many knee-jerk “prestige TV” signifiers (including murderous anti-hero protagonists, Godfather-styled plotting, and Stygian lighting) made this one feel like a next-generation evolution of a storytelling genre perfected by The Sopranos.
This version of the TV drama wouldn’t have existed without the convergence of three important factors: new technology (high-bandwidth streaming video, solid enough to do justice to cinematically rich imagery); a new TV storytelling model (the one-season dump); and the virtual watercooler of social media, where TV fans gathered to analyze, praise, and condemn whatever was happening on their favorite shows, at the exact moment when it happened.
The virtual watercooler was a logical outgrowth of the “watching parties” that have been occurring in bars and private residences since the medium’s creation, and that spiked whenever a pop-culture-realigning show aired a finale. Spoiler etiquette came out of it, a subject of constant debate because we were all in a transitional phase of viewership: one in which people were commenting on TV series live and simultaneously (at least within a particular time zone) because the shows all started at a predetermined hour, and you arrived promptly (or tried to) and started watching at the same time as everyone else.
But here’s where things get tricky.
The state-of-the-art incarnation of virtual-watercooler viewing, where you could watch viewer response play out in real time like EKG readings of a fluttering heart, had a brief run, all things considered. Shows like American Horror Story, Scandal, Pretty Little Liars, Homeland, and Empire saw what was happening and played to it, building OMG!!!! moments into every episode, sparking tweets, giving birth to GIFs, and inspiring next-day reaction pieces at media outlets like this one.
The heyday of the virtual watercooler spanned from the debuts of Facebook and Twitter in the mid-aughts through maybe a couple of years ago, when the Netflix/Amazon model of season-dumping became so ubiquitous, it’s now the default release method for streaming services. (And how fitting that two of the reigning wizards of OMG TV, Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy, would get deals at Netflix.)
Nowadays, the online conversation around streaming series still exists, but it takes a different form. If a show starts trending on Twitter, it’s often because people have already watched the full season and want to recommend it to others, not because they want to experience the same moment with everyone else. Shows like Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Bosch and Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, Russian Doll, and Ozark built online buzz gradually, through word of mouth, more like an indie film slowly working its way across the country than a Marvel movie opening on 3,000 screens at once.
Versions of the virtual-watercooler phenomenon still exist for broadcast and cable series with large, loyal followings, like RuPaul’s Drag Race and This Is Us, and for events like the Super Bowl, the Oscars, and live productions of musicals. But it’s not as pervasive as it used to be. Once Game of Thrones ends, the experience may start to feel like a nostalgia act. And the No. 1 culprit will be streaming video and the one-season binge-drop model, which is but one subset of the convenience-based technology that’s revolutionizing every corner of life, for better or worse.
I once told my own children, who were born around the turn of the millennium, that when their dad was a child, there were only three broadcast networks, and we had to sit in front of the TV at a particular time on a particular day if we wanted to watch our favorite show, and that if we missed it, we had to wait months for a rerun, and hope we were sitting in front of the TV for round two, and after that, we’d have to catch up with it in syndication. They acted as if I’d described hunting woolly mammoths with hand-carved spears. Increasingly, we do everything according to our own bespoke timetables, whether it’s watching a show on Amazon or Netflix, reading editorials or watching cable-news segments when somebody brings them to our attention via Twitter or Facebook, ordering a meal from Seamless, or getting an Uber or Lyft to take us to the airport this weekend.
The convenience revolution has downsides that would be too huge to summarize here (gig economy, death of the middle class) even if they didn’t fall outside the purview of this piece. But it seems self-evident that one side effect is draining the virtual watercooler and replacing it with a more fragmented, solitary process. It’s trading the opening-night energy of previous iterations of TV for a systematic accumulation of interest that doesn’t reach critical mass until other people get around to watching the same show as you.
TV doesn’t feel the same when you watch it that way. It’s more of a solitary experience, no matter how many fellow fans discuss it with you on social media. And it necessarily reduces the level of excitement surrounding a season or series finale because the show has been deprived of that measured pace of one episode per week, with six days of contemplation and anticipation in between each chapter, all leading inexorably to that last run of episodes during which the fans, who’ve spent years living and breathing this thing, come to terms with the totality of the accomplishment, and ready themselves for the exquisite and horrible moment when the storytellers swing that sword at our necks and the birds take flight and the credits roll for the last time.
When TV ceases to be an appointment activity, however minor in the greater scheme, it becomes just another thing we fit into our lives, in addition to all the other things; it becomes just another form of content, along with movies, stand-up specials, YouTube videos of people twerking and failing at parkour and dressing their dogs like Game of Thrones characters. This may be a good thing or a bad thing or just a thing. But it is happening, or has happened. All that’s left is the stock-taking and analysis — and for one last time, Game of Thrones. Littlefinger summed it up for us: “The past is gone for good. You can sit here mourning its departure, or prepare for the future.”