Changing the Game: How “Game of Thrones” Rewrites the Rules of Modern TV




GAME OF THRONES has generated more cybercommentary than any cable series in recent history. In 2015, Game of Thrones was the most discussed television program on Facebook and the most tweeted-about show in the world. By the end of the fifth season, major media outlets were reviewing each episode, often running separate editions with and without spoilers, along with an extensive lineup of supplementary coverage. There were recaps, roundtables, reviews, previews, rumors, theories, and countless unanswered or unanswerable questions. And there were interviews — oh so many interviews — actor interviews, producer interviews, author interviews. But the most prevalent genre has been the digital media equivalent of tabloid gossip columns. “Who is currently the worst person in Westeros?” asked a recurring feature on Slate dubbed “This Week’s Worst Person in Westeros.” Other stories on the site have headlines worthy of the National Enquirer: “Are Daenerys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister Finally a Game of Thrones Power Couple?” “Was Tywin Lannister an Evil Man?” “Will Daenerys Ever Find True Love?”

Such captions characterize something odd happening in the culture. Game of Thrones commentary is distinguished from other TV criticism by a shift in editorial emphasis from the primary content of the storyline to the secondary reaction of the audience. The viewer’s visceral response — whether flippant or furious — becomes the major topic of coverage. Buzzfeed allows authors to catalog their most arbitrary whims following the formula “79 Thoughts I Had While Watching the Game of Thrones Episode X.” Business Insider makes “fans” the favored subject and “freaking out” the favored verb in the title format “fans are freaking out over Cliffhanger Y.” At 11:09 p.m. on June 14th, 69 minutes after the latest finale, the first piece Slate posted was the “Game of Thrones Graveyard” to “mourn the dead of Westeros,” a “virtual graveyard” where we can “leave a flower” and “say goodbye” to the “brave souls who George R. R. Martin took from us too soon […] and let the healing process begin.”

In the brave new world of virtual discussion, fictional characters are dragged from their imaginary deaths into tabloid pseudolife as surrogates for the audience’s emotional journey. Across the vast, new digital landscape, one common theme connecting disparate media formats is reportage functioning as a type of group therapy. Two days after the 2015 finale, Vulture ran two pieces that sounded closer to grief counseling than journalism: a video labeled “In Memory of Those We Lost This Season” and a paper by Sean T. Collins ranking the protagonists by their “potential for long-term happiness.” Collins confesses a crippling anxiety over the possibility that his favorite characters are permanently “trapped in a depressive tailspin.” But he finds a surprising solution to his dilemma, “To answer that question, I turned to the person who’s spent the past few years helping me try to answer it for myself: my therapist.”

This therapeutic undertone has infected Game of Thrones criticism. The voice of the typical review is casually confessional, self-absorbed in the columnist’s private concerns with almost no awareness of the show’s larger artistic aims. Consider Jezebel’s appraisal, “the theme of last night’s Game of Thrones episode — ‘Kill the Boy’ — was … me being bored.” Or Vox’s assessment, “My first reaction to watching this week’s episode was simple, emotional, and visceral: Ramsay has to die.” The author’s immediate impression — yawning or yelling — becomes the subject of the review. In the conflation of neutral evaluation and personal venting, criticism leaves the library desk for the psychiatrist’s couch.

The psychiatric style reached a feverish peak after the apparent death of protagonist Jon Snow at the end of season five. The real-life abduction of over 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by Boko Haram elicited less public outcry than Jon Snow’s fictional murder. For Time, Eric Dodds eulogized in high-sermon solemnity, “Goodbye, Jon Snow. May you know more in the next life than you did in this one.” For Grantland, Andy Greenwald pleaded, “But look: He’s not dead. Call me sensitive, call me emotional — and you’d be right — but I’m sure of it.”

In a representative review on The Atlantic website, Amy Sullivan moves through all the classic stages of grieving — except, of course, acceptance. She fumes in rage (“Right now, I feel like Tyrion. I’ve lost everyone I ever cared about, traveled thousands of miles, finally met a leader who might deserve my interest, and for what?”). She wallows in despair (“if every ray of light and decency in this series gets snuffed out, why bother continuing?”). She even disputes the logic of Jon’s murder (“Surely a similar speech — with testimony from his traumatized comrades […] — could have made some impression on the Watch”) as though he would have been saved if the writers had only given him a better speech. Sullivan hops from denial to depression, from anger to bargaining, before — in an astonishingly convenient illustration of my point — circling back to denial again:

Now we have to spend a year hoping that Melisandre can put Jon back together again. Considering that either her magical powers are seriously on the fritz or she just burned a little girl to death for no reason at all, that’s of little comfort. Winter is coming. Uncle Benjen is still out there. And Jon Snow cannot be dead. Do you hear me, George Martin? He cannot!

Should someone remind Sullivan that Jon Snow doesn’t actually exist? Yes, such woe has an overtone of impish hyperbole, but under the histrionics is a more intimate note of outrage than typical online hysteria. Betrayal is a pitch that rarely resonates in the noisy soundscape of internet debate.

It becomes clearer every season that such public lamentations are actually part of the show’s dramatic project. HBO started planning the social media strategy a year-and-a-half before the first season. Between January 2016 and early April, leading up to the season premiere, researchers estimate the show has generated 83 million online engagements. Game of Thrones uses the architecture of digital commentary to access a spectrum of imperceptible emotional frequencies, essentially redesigning audience acoustics to bring subtler expressive pitches into the viewer’s hearing range. By “acoustics” I don’t mean a vague science of sound but the precise mechanics determining the transmission and reception of sound waves in a specific space. This technical acoustics is concerned with how a room’s structural properties affect how people hear in it. With the image of the concert hall in mind, the precise nature of the show’s innovation becomes clear: classical concert acoustics aims at the one-way transmission of the sounds produced on stage to a static audience, while Game of Thrones devises a reciprocal, two-way acoustics that aims to amplify the echoes bouncing off the audience back toward the stage.

Such a relationship is made possible by digital culture. There has often been an interactive element in art — an exchange of energy between the creators and the consumers. Yet Game of Thrones has formed a unique kind of creative symbiosis with its viewership that could only exist in a world where many of the most dedicated fans spend their day staring at screens, locked in a web of instantaneous and continual commentary. The show’s achievement is manipulating this bond to gradually mold their audience’s engagement with the fantasy. If crowdsourcing is the outsourcing of business tasks, then the online phenomenon around Game of Thrones might be called “crowd-scaping” (from the Middle English “scipe” meaning “to shape”). Crowdscaping solicits small emotional contributions from many members of a mass virtual public that combine to form a more substantial total psychic landscape than an artwork’s content could ever achieve on its own. The quality of a hall’s acoustics are the same if the seats are filled or entirely empty. But the series revises the traditionally one-sided model of the audience–artwork relationship. So the audience does not sit in silence waiting to clap, but unapologetically participates, shouting and sharing as an essential contributor in the quality of the artistic experience.

The model of simultaneously shaping an object by exerting pressure from two sides has a physical analogue in blacksmithing, which provides a useful illustration for understanding the internet’s role in the show’s aesthetic method. When a blacksmith forges metal, he is not only shaping it with his hammer. The anvil beneath projects part of each blow’s force back into the other side of the workpiece in an effect called “the rebound.” Thus the final piece is formed both by hammer blows on top and by the anvil’s rebound from below. Game of Thrones has discovered how the internet offers television a figurative anvil on which to forge finer emotions than with hammer alone.

The crafted complexity of the show’s fantasy compels me to crown the HBO series — that most meaningless and meaningful of titles — “great art,” but it is the absolute originality of its interactive bond with its audience that tempts me to make an even grander claim: Game of Thrones is groundbreaking art that redefines the rules and possibilities of great art for the post-internet era.

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Do you hear me, George Martin? Do you hear me? The tenor of personal demand rings throughout Game of Thrones writing as pundits always seem to feel they have the producers’ ear. In the era of digital hypercommentary where the audience offers unchecked and unlimited opinions, the show’s innovation is adopting this communication infrastructure as a guiding influence in its creative process. Like many cable dramas Game of Thrones has a vocal audience, but unlike other prestige programs it actually listens to those voices in the writers’ room. The popularity of the characters Bronn and Brienne led the producers to generate whole new storylines for these secondary figures.

Significantly, and this is how the game has changed, the audience’s influence is mainly antagonistic; a source of creative friction generating excess emotional energy. The show’s exploitation of its audience’s anger and grief was observed in a Vulture editorial by Matt Zoller Seitz titled “The Fifth Season of Game of Thrones Reinforced That the Show’s Fans Are Just As Imperiled As Its Characters.” Seitz writes:

Even though the makers of Game of Thrones have heard complaints about the violence (specifically the sexual violence and torture), and have given us their rationale for it, I haven’t seen much evidence that they’ve responded to viewer concerns by deciding to temper it. […] In fact, a good number of this season’s big setpieces felt as though the series was doubling down.

Exactly.

“Doubling-down” has become a key technique in the show’s interactive dramatic method. The producers assimilate online complaints and outside commentary — and they shape their story in reaction but not in conformity to it. Rather than pleasing popular demand, Game of Thrones seems explicitly to design its story to provoke public opinion. EW columnist James Hibberd recalls in one article, “I once asked the showrunners if there’s any character death that would really zap a lot of life from their series. Dan Weiss replied: ‘There are several characters whose loss will do that. But it doesn’t mean they won’t die.’” The writers do not compromise their vision to appease mainstream consensus. They exaggerate it. Controversial scenes don’t just prod middlebrow scruples but guillotine them. The writers embrace inflammatory subjects like rape and torture but approach them with an unsettling intimacy that reframes these issues less like a national debate than a private conversation. Fans become so incensed — so hysterically entitled — precisely because they feel like they are being heard, so every disappointment is a personal insult.

Adding insult to injury has become the Game of Thrones formula for a fanatical virtual following. The series has inspired a new species of digital journalism reporting extreme reactions to the show. Last season Mashable compiled the internet’s “fiery” reactions to the penultimate episode and “gut-wrenching” reactions to the finale. Some of these responses are tweets, others are screenshots, but perhaps the most popular form is video. When I search “reaction to” on YouTube, four of the 10 suggestions are “Jon Snow,” “Game of Thrones,” “Red Wedding,” and “Jon Snow Death.” The genre was born after the infamous Red Wedding massacre (the most popular Red Wedding video has nearly 12 million views on YouTube), and oddly this unusual form of amateur documentary has come to differentiate the show’s e-literature from ordinary online fan-generated content.

Red Wedding reaction videos are a touchingly sadistic exercise. While typical YouTube reaction clips feel contrived, somehow Game of Thrones fan footage feels natural and deeply honest — managing to strike a rare raw nerve in a long-numb arm. The scenes are intimate, even affectionate, usually set in living rooms with couches and blankets. Watching strangers become traumatized feels impersonally cruel, but these movies are marked by a devious sort of empathy. They are usually filmed by friends who have cherry-picked an especially vulnerable “victim” because they wanted to see how that particular person handled the horror. Suffering has become an activity to be shared, and even enjoyed, with friends. In this sense, the reaction video posits a radical new direction for the field of reality TV, whose manipulative mechanics could be reengineered to induce tragic rather than burlesque emotions, catharsis over caricature. It’s difficult to imagine but it might be a bit like if MTV’s prank show Punkd was directed by Sophocles rather than Ashton Kutcher.

Now, two seasons after the Red Wedding, Game of Thrones devotees don’t need to be tricked onto the camera, but rather tape their own tragedies. Countless fans recorded their live reactions to the season five finale — not only expecting to be traumatized but hoping to share it. In the streamlined digital culture of overautomated pleasures, pain is the most honest channel for making meaningful emotional connections. The urge to share one’s sorrow — whether that sharing takes the form of reaction videos or reaction reviews — has ignited the viewer’s passionate personal engagement with the show. So the series traumatizes its followers to build a relationship, and continues to traumatize them because it’s committed to helping their abusive relationship grow.

A revealing case study of this phenomenon is the infamous rape scene in season five. At the end of episode six, Sansa Stark is raped on her wedding night by her sadistic new husband Ramsay Bolton while the enslaved servant Theon is forced to watch. Betrayal was the dominant emotion of media reaction. Salon: “I think the showrunners have betrayed the trust of their audience, by depicting a scene of brutality against Sansa Stark for no purpose.” Vanity Fair: “Did they really need to go there on Game of Thrones? Did we really need to see Ramsay Bolton rape Sansa Stark? No, we absolutely did not.” The Baltimore Sun: “For a girl who’s had her father, mother and brother killed in horrifying ways, does she really need to get raped by a psycho?” This indignant tone reached its most self-righteous pitch in Nina Shen Rastogi’s review titled “I Am Sansa Stark” for New York:

But it also feels hateful on a narrative level. It’s cruel to strip Sansa of the agency she’s been accruing so painstakingly, but to do so by literally stripping her is so cheap, such an obvious choice, I felt offended as a fan. And if this means Sansa loses all her momentum, which has brought such a fresh energy to the show’s plot — I’ll be mad as a fan, not just as a feminist. I suppose this is what rape is: a blunt way of taking a woman’s selfhood. But if it’s going to be used as a plot point, I want it wielded more intelligently, with more care, and especially from a show that has proved it can do graphic violence so hauntingly.

Yes, it is hateful on a narrative level: rape is a hateful act. The scene was supposed to be cruel and crude and offensive because rape is cruel, crude, and offensive. It’s difficult to imagine the “intelligent” rape — the rape “with care” — proposed by the author. Apparently, “literally stripping” off a woman’s clothes is too obvious an artistic choice in a rape scene and should have been replaced with some original, “haunting” humiliation. In this morass of critical commentary, the qualitative difference between filming and endorsing an action has been largely lost. But beyond the qualms about rape, the issue at stake in these reviews is less the depiction of violence than the vicarious feeling of violation when a show breaks your trust as a viewer. “This scene is primarily a violation of Sansa, but it is a violation of us too,” wrote Sarah Mesle explaining, “What I was feeling, watching the show, was also a kind of silencing: a silencing of my own critique […] it feels like the story’s creators are joining with Ramsay in saying: the plot of rape is not one a woman can expect to escape.” Todd VanDerWerff summed up the sentiment: “Trauma isn’t a character study on Game of Thrones; it’s a plot point.”

I believe trauma is actually the central tool for studying the show’s most complex character, because the show’s most important character has gradually become you — the audience. The Sansa rape scene explicates the producers’ carefully crafted development of the audience as a “character.”

Over the last two seasons, Sansa’s plotline was changed from the books to give her an uplifting trajectory as she matured from a timid court girl into a savvy noblewoman. This momentum swept up the hopes of many viewers and appeared to lead toward Sansa’s victorious reconquest of the North. Yet the producers planted this seed of hope only to burn it once it bloomed. The series sparked particular outrage over the decision to switch the camera from Sansa to Theon’s face right before the rape, so the viewer had to experience the violation indirectly. Vox condemned, “what a step backward for her to then be raped offscreen as we ‘watched’ through Theon’s eyes. […] That close-up left viewers with the impression that her rape was ultimately about him.” But switching to Theon’s perspective offers a brilliant analogy. In a way, Theon can be seen as a stand-in for the most traumatized audience member. Because we — the spectator — like Theon are an unwilling audience to this horrible event, yet watch, powerless to stop it. Impotent, afraid, and transfixed.

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No other serious TV drama has shock value so fundamentally built into its creative form. Typical shows can ignite controversy a couple times during their run by killing off a popular character or depicting a taboo topic, but the HBO fantasy rarely departs from this tactic. By the sheer size of its cast, Game of Thrones can kill a fan favorite every episode, because there are just so many favorites to kill. The constant threat of a surprise death creates unease in the viewer, so he or she can’t passively consume the story as pure entertainment. The series co-opts a soap-opera device and wields it as a nuanced tool to probe audience psychology. In this manner, Game of Thrones crafts a sharper form of shock, not a blunt blade prodding kneejerk reflexes but a surgical scalpel dissecting each spectator’s private reaction.

The show’s plot twists differ from typical television because they isolate rather than unify viewer response. The melodramatic turn is abrupt — a sudden, unexpected reversal of circumstances. But on Game of Thrones, the denouements are shocking but not ultimately surprising. The biggest shocks in the series (Ned Stark’s execution, the Red Wedding, Oberyn’s death, Jon Snow’s murder) are not moments but extended scenes. Shock slowly, deliberately builds up in prolonged agonizing sequences that drain all immediate disbelief, leaving the viewer’s emotional reservoir completely dry, before culminating in a tragedy we’ve not only expected but awaited. We don’t just watch Catelyn Stark’s death but wait eight excruciating minutes for it — so we are traumatized exactly because we aren’t surprised.

Of course there might be some initial surprise, but beyond it is something deeper. An uncharted psychic territory beyond the civilized realm of preconditioned instincts, offering each viewer an empty space to fill with their natural emotions. The astonishment of the Red Wedding’s first arrows dissipates over the eight-minute massacre as the viewer is intentionally pushed to have a more layered personal reaction. Game of Thrones slows the tempo of trauma to an unbearable crawl breaking the feedback loop of desensitized television violence, clearing the brush of preprogrammed responses. The shock set pieces have minimal soundtracks that leave long periods of silence and use light orchestral leitmotifs that don’t impose an overbearing sentimental mood. The director strips away all distractions and forces the audience to inhabit their individual experience as if to say: Turn down the music and focus on what youre feeling.

In our increasingly screen-mediated world, the omnipresence of laptops and smartphones renders much of our daily lives an enclosed experience. The show’s spectacle does not so much break the fourth wall as implode the floor, dissolving the dimension separating the audience from the action. The closed stage is replaced with the open arena, which reformulates the recipient’s relation to the drama — transforming a potentially passive viewer into an engaged onlooker like a live spectator at a gladiatorial game. The seated theatergoer is forced to his feet. Game of Thrones turns the living-room couch into a private coliseum where, unlike a theater, you can’t just stop watching. You can turn away, but denial is not escape.

Perhaps the most remarkable detail of the Red Wedding reaction videos is that the fans keep watching. Even the most squeamish endure the televised carnage to its conclusion. The videos become an emotional excavation. Over eight minutes you observe how a person subtly changes: when they squirm and scrunch, when they sit or stand, where they turn their eyes and when they shut them. At the end, you feel more like a witness than a voyeur. What you’ve seen is a rare glimpse into the inner life of a person left alone in their uncomfortable individuality. Yet this aloneness is not lonely. In fact, it is the difference between the effect of art and entertainment. Art complicates private emotions and entertainment streamlines them. Exploring this private complexity, each of us becomes a witness to the sensation of our individual existence at that moment. The true epiphany of art is the discovery of your specific self.

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Theodore Gioia is a critic living in San Francisco. His work has appeared in The Believer, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and San Francisco.


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