Imagine this: you’re waiting in line at the store or scrolling through your Facebook feed when, out of the blue, somebody mentions what happened on last night’s Game of Thrones — an episode you haven’t yet had time to watch. If you’re anything like me, you’ll suddenly be filled with rage that a story you’ve been anticipating for months has been spoiled for you.
Spoiler Alert! This article mentions two minor plot points from season 5 of Game of Thrones.
Many of us prefer to see a new film or television series with hardly any prior knowledge, which means we’ll worry about accidentally coming across spoilers. A spoiler is ‘information about a plot or event in a movie, book or show that may spoil the suspense or surprise’. Implicit in that definition is the idea that they ruin your enjoyment. And yet the science says not only that spoilers shouldn’t make you (too) angry, they should even make a story more enjoyable.
The first study to investigate the effect of spoilers was published by social psychologists Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld. In their 2011 paper, they asked people to read short stories featuring an ironic twist, mystery or literary style, then rate how much they enjoyed the narrative. Some readers also got a summary revealing the plot in advance. The results showed that those reveals didn’t decrease rating scores and actually had a slight positive impact on enjoyment, so the researchers concluded “story spoilers don’t spoil stories.”
Since Leavitt and Christenfeld’s classic paper, however, studies have reached contradictory conclusions. In a 2015 study, for instance, Benjamin Johnson and Judith Rosenbaum found the opposite: spoilers had small negative impacts on enjoyment of the narrative, appreciation of the story and the feeling of being immersed or transported into a fictional world.
But from a layperson’s perspective, it’s easy to criticise the questions that scientists are asking. Most notably, as pointed out in a 2013 blog post by clinical psychologist Ali Mattu, researchers will typically ask participants to report how much they enjoyed a story — even though the emotion that people most associate with encountering spoilers isn’t positive, it’s negative: anger.
Why do spoilers make you angry? One possibility is that they trigger ‘psychological reactance’. “It’s an emotional reaction that people have when they feel that their freedom to make choices has been taken away — there’s a loss of autonomy,” explains Dr Benjamin Johnson, who has published four papers on spoilers.
Psychological reactance has only been tested once. In a 2018 study by Johnson and Rosenbaum, people were shown promotional movie posters for various genres, from the Disney animation Big Hero 6 to the horror film Unfriended. Participants were also given a synopsis of each film’s plot that either did or didn’t contain spoilers. The researchers then asked participants to respond to statements related to their expected enjoyment (like whether they agreed with ‘It would be fun for me to watch this movie’), behavioral intentions (‘I intend to watch this movie’) and psychological reactance (‘I felt irritated / angry / annoyed / aggravated… after being exposed to details about the movie’).
From the study’s many measures, only one result stood out: a movie poster with plot details made people slightly more annoyed. “There was about a 2% increase in peoples’ feelings of reactance,” says Johnson. “It’s not that the people who saw the spoilers were incredibly angry, but it’s a small difference — that’s a common theme throughout a lot of this research.”
Regardless of whether scientists measure enjoyment or psychological reactance, spoilers seem to have a small effect. But why? One explanation a layperson might propose is that studies don’t reflect real-life experiences. Researchers will ask people to read short stories, which produces results that might not apply to audiovisual entertainment. In modern popular culture, people care about spoilers for new movies and TV shows, not from some stuffy old book. Or to put it more kindly, there could be a difference between reading and viewing experiences.
Johnson and Rosenbaum tried to rectify that oversight in their 2018 study. In one experiment, they showed participants audiovisual media — video clips from a show such as Veep or a film like Captain America: The Winter Solider — then asked people about outcomes such as enjoyment. Revealing spoilers had no impact.
Are the scientific results actually relevant? A layperson might level another criticism at existing research: studies make entertainment less entertaining. In order to check that people — usually college students — have performed a task, researchers have participants answer questions or even submit a written report, something that comes awfully close to homework, not a leisure activity. To be more realistic, studies should examine what engages us, like a TV show featuring a world and characters that we care about.
Such research has implications for the entertainment industry from an economic perspective, as a spoiler might stop consumers from paying to visit a cinema or subscribing to video-on-demand services like HBO or Netflix. “If I’m spoiled, does that make me less interested in seeing a film?” asks Johnson, an assistant professor of advertising at the University of Florida. “If you tell me how something ends, I might be less likely to go spend money on it. So we wanted to see: Do those spoilers impact on that decision-making process?”
Johnson and Rosenbaum’s 2018 study featured a third test that focused on Game of Thrones. It wasn’t a controlled experiment, but a survey that took advantage of a leak where the first four episodes of season 5 appeared online before they were broadcast on HBO. From those episodes, the researchers selected 20 specific events and had almost 200 viewers complete a questionnaire on whether they had been exposed to spoilers and measured their viewing experience.
Surprisingly, people who said that the plot had been spoiled didn’t report less enjoyment, immersion (transportation) or understanding of the story. “That kind of shocked me,” says Johnson. Although this result implies that spoilers don’t matter, his study had one more twist in its tale.
Of the 20 events Johnson and Rosenbaum chose, half followed the series of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ novels faithfully (e.g. ‘Jon Snow is elected as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch’), while other spoilers were inconsistent with the book series (e.g. ‘Littlefinger takes Sansa Stark to Winterfell, where she is engaged to wed Ramsay Bolton’). The survey found that participants reported less understanding of the plot, suggesting that a departure from the source material made the story more confusing. On the other hand, when events were consistent between the page and screen — the adaptation was faithful — people reported greater immersion.
The finding that a spoiled plot helps viewers enjoy the story is supported by results from a 2019 study led by Johnson, which found that fans of horror films get greater enjoyment — and no psychological reactance — from being exposed to minor spoilers about the plot. This further illustrates that the science of spoilers is more nuanced than simply ‘spoilers are bad’ and, as the authors admit, “the impact of spoilers is never fully captured in research.”
Overall, it’s premature to conclude that revealing twists prematurely doesn’t spoil stories. At the same time, it seems that spoilers have a small impact on our viewing experiences and their effects are inconsistent.
The inconsistency across studies could be explained by cognitive biases, like the fact that our thoughts and feelings are distorted by expectations: a 2016 test found that people overestimate the effect that spoilers will have on their enjoyment, known as ‘misforecasting’, which might be due to impact bias — a human tendency to poorly predict future emotional states. People might also underestimate the impact of a plot twist once the initial shock fades away, leaving them to later report ‘I saw it coming’ or ‘I knew it all along’ after having time to process the story, which is down to hindsight bias — the tendency to believe that an event was predictable after it has already occurred.
So if the scientific evidence suggests a weak effect of spoilers, is the idea that they ruin stories just a misperception? “I don’t want to say a myth, but we have developed these norms that may not be based on real experiences,” says Johnson. “We have these strong cultural beliefs that spoilers are bad and yet, as research shows time and time again, it really doesn’t matter that much.”
Johnson won’t go as far as to discount concerns completely though. As his results on psychological reactance from movie posters showed, spoilers do make people at least mildly annoyed. He says that it’s important to respect personal preferences on whether to reveal twists and praises self-policing communities (which typically hide plot details behind ‘spoiler’ tags).
“It’s a good example of online norms evolving to facilitate conversation and connection without people being harmed or feeling like their freedom is being taken away by hearing things they don’t want to hear.”
This is the first in a three-part series on the science of spoilers. READ MORE:
According to science it’s not yet clear whether spoilers ruin our enjoyment of stories or even make us angry. Based on my own anecdotal evidence, I prefer to know as little as possible about a plot. If you’re like me then know that can be hard because as potential spoilers are everywhere, from (not-so-subtle) hints in news headlines to posts by (soon-to-be-former) friends on Facebook. As a consequence, articles will often include a long, rambling introductory paragraph and use the warning phrase ‘Spoiler alert!’ near the top of a page to avoid revealing twists prematurely.
Spoiler Alert! This article mentions major plot twists from seasons 1 and 4 of Game of Thrones.
Evading spoilers can affect our everyday lives. “People won’t see their friends or they won’t go into work because they’re worried about something being spoiled for Game of Thrones or whatever,” says psychologist Dr Alex Daniel of Westfield State University. “We feel like it’s been spoiled for us, but whether or not that’s actually the case is still under investigation.”
Scientific research has come to contradictory conclusions. A 2011 study by Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld found that spoilers for short stories actually increased readers’ enjoyment, for example, while a similar experiment in a 2018 study by Alex Daniel and Jeffrey Katz showed that spoilers had no effect.
There could be multiple (and not necessarily mutually-exclusive) reasons for the conflicting findings, such as the fact that researchers don’t present stories to participants in a way that they’re experienced in reality. A 2015 study by Benjamin Johnson and Judith Rosenbaum examined how people responded to spoilers in audiovisual media, for instance, but that involved showing video clips instead of an entire movie or TV episode — in which storytelling tools like pacing play a key part in building the suspense that’s needed for a satisfying plot twist.
Daniel and Katz’s 2018 study included an experiment to address the shortcoming of previous work, by giving people complete stories. The researchers showed 430 participants two 20-minute episodes of classic science-fiction TV series The Twilight Zone, which is known for its twist endings, plus three kinds of synopsis for each episode’s plot: with no spoilers, with a spoiler, and with a spoiler after an explicit ‘spoiler alert’ message before the plot twist was revealed.
Two results stood out. First, if people watched an unspoiled episode then one with spoilers, they rated the spoiled story as less enjoyable. This makes sense if you hate spoilers. But the second result was weird: if people saw a spoiled episode followed by one with a spoiler alert, which then revealed the twist, the episode with the spoiler alert was rated as less enjoyable. “It’s like they enjoy the spoiler, but they don’t enjoy when it’s pointed out to them,” says Daniel.
Why would a spoiler alert reduce enjoyment? While that seems counter-intuitive, it makes sense of you imagine a situation where it might occur. “Think of Game of Thrones,” says Daniel. “If I were to say ‘The main character is beheaded midway through the first season’ and I was just casually explaining it, somebody would be like ‘Oh wow, that sounds intense!’ But if I said ‘There’s this big reveal… and here’s what it is’ then they feel like they’ve been robbed of something.”
The negative response to a spoiler alert could be related to why ruined twists provoke mild anger through ‘psychological reactance’. It might also explain why a casual plot reveal can spark so much outrage online.
A well-known case of spoiler rage occurred in 2014, when Stephen King made many Game of Thrones fans angry on Twitter by revealing the death of Joffrey. In a follow-up tweet he justified his actions by arguing that the character had been killed-off in the books 15 years before. While that might sound like a reasonable argument, the novelist wrongly assumed that TV viewers have read (or want to read) a whole series of lengthy novels, and that events in the show are faithful to the books (there are actually numerous differences). King also said “If ya don’t like it, don’t look”, which trivializes the issue that not everyone can watch an episode live, and that news and social media can make it almost impossible to ignore spoilers unless you proactively block websites from showing content that you don’t want to see.
Like most previous studies, Daniel and Katz’s study found that spoiler alerts seem to have only a small effect on enjoyment. If we assume that anecdotes are accurate and that research somehow isn’t capturing natural experiences, the reasons why are still unclear. One explanation is that experiments involve stories chosen by a researcher, not books or movies that someone would pick themselves. Entertainment that we choose to read or watch for fun, like our favorite TV shows, might make us more susceptible to the impact of a ruined plot twist.
“Part of the reason why I’m sceptical of this research as a field is because it’s arbitrary and artificial,” says Daniel. “We’re not letting people get really invested. If I were to spoil the first episode of Game of Thrones for a friend, I don’t think that they would really care because they haven’t spent 80 hours watching these characters. Spoilers might actually spoil the piece of entertainment because we’ve invested so much time and energy into them.”
Daniel himself had a favorite show ruined by a reveal. Studying spoilers isn’t his main research area and his work on spoiler alerts only came about because of an argument with a friend, after Daniel claimed the existing data proved that spoilers don’t matter. His friend then revealed a major twist for Battlestar Galactica. “I was devastated,” he says. “I was like, How could you do that?”
This is the second in a three-part series on the science of spoilers. READ MORE:
Everybody dies in the end. No, that’s not a spoiler for the Game of Thrones finale, simply a fact of life (or death). But according to science, finding out more about the fate of your favourite characters through fan theories and spoilers could help you cope with losing them when the show finishes.
Spoiler Alert! This article describes the end of How I Met Your Mother.
The genuine sadness associated with losing a fictional person is known as ‘parasocial breakup distress’. “A parasocial relationship is something where we feel an emotional connection with the characters,” explains Dr Morgan Ellithorpe, an assistant professor of communication at Michigan State University. “We miss them when they’re gone and when they’re killed off or the show ends, we feel stressed — just like we would with the loss of a real-life relationship.”
Game of Thrones isn’t over yet, but Ellithorpe did study how fans experienced the end of How I Met Your Mother, a comedy series that added suspense with an overarching mystery over the identity of the mother in the show’s title. In a 2016 study, she and Sarah Brookes found 22 theories (a quarter were actual spoilers) from online discussion boards and surveyed people before and after the final episode. The researchers asked the 107 participants who had been exposed to fan theories whether they thought those theories made sense, affected their enjoyment of the finale, and if they had experienced parasocial breakup (by asking things such as whether they felt like they had lost a close friend).
The results showed that spoiling the twist ending reduced parasocial distress. “Exposure to spoilers and fan theories about what would happen seems to lessen the blow of missing those characters once the show has ended,” says Ellithorpe. Her study also found that exposure to information that could potentially ruin a surprise actually increases enjoyment of the story — a result that’s contrary to what you would expect if spoilers are bad.
Why would people think that ruining plot twists is good? Following an experiment showing that spoilers increase the enjoyment of short stories, the psychologists Jonathan Leavitt and Nicholas Christenfeld published a 2013 paper in which they suggested that the positive effect of revealing a plot in advance is down to making it easy for the brain to process information, or ‘processing fluency’.
People might perceive a spoiled story as more enjoyable because they already understand the plot, as the narrative would then require less mental effort to process. That processing fluency depends on whether a fictional world’s events and the behaviour of its residents resonate (match) with what you expect, based on existing information. Such ‘mental model resonance’ occurs when things make sense in the context of a story. Mental model resonance might explain the results of a 2018 survey by Benjamin Johnson and Judith Rosenbaum, which found that viewers exposed to leaked spoilers for Game of Thrones season 5 reported enjoying the story more, possibly because they understood it better.
“When we watch a television show like Game of Thrones, we need to have a mental model for the characters and their relationships in order to understand what’s happening,” says Ellithorpe. “That’s where [processing] fluency comes in: the easier it is for you to follow what’s going on, the more enjoyable it is — because you don’t have to think as hard to try to recall what happened before. Why is this person trying to kill that person?”
Fan theories that include potential spoilers allow you to incorporate past events into your mental model to see if the information makes sense, which is probably what participants did in Ellithorpe’s How I Met Your Mother study. The show’s twist ending — the titular mother was dead the whole time that the father (and narrator) is ostensibly telling his children an anecdote about how their parents met — was extremely polarizing. While some fans hated the lack of a happy ending for characters they had followed for almost a decade, others loved the foreshadowing and realised that, if the mother didn’t appear for nine seasons, the story was never really about her in the first place.
The divisive nature of twists, whether in Game of Thrones or How I Met Your Mother, mirrors the fact that audience members have different preferences for spoilers. Those preferences depend on differences between individuals, which are in turn determined by variation in their personality traits and motivations.
Some people like to engage the brain due to a ‘need for cognition’, for example, whereas others prefer to sit back and switch off. Similarly, individuals with a ‘need for affect’ want to experience strong emotions, others avoid them. A 2016 experiment by Rosenbaum and Johnson showed that readers with a low need for cognition preferred short stories that had been spoiled, while those with a high need for affect enjoyed unspoiled tales. The results suggest that if you’re a deep thinker or love to be surprised, you should avoid spoilers.
Ellithorpe’s latest work on spoilers has revealed why some people actually want to be spoiled. Her study, a collaboration with Brookes and Rosenbaum (presented at a conference), involved showing participants an episode from science-fiction TV series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams. Given the option to have the plot revealed at a critical moment of suspense, when the main character was in mortal danger, some viewers chose to spoil the plot and protect themselves from seeing something they weren’t ready to see: the character dying.
“With something like Game of Thrones, where there’s expectation that something bad might happen to the characters, our newest data is suggesting that for some people, spoilers are a self-protective mechanism,” says Ellithorpe. “It helps protect themselves against the shock of when it actually occurs on the screen.”
What this all means is that if you’re someone who’s worried about getting over Game of Thrones, one solution is to search for theories of how the show might end and see whether the details fit into your mental model of Westeros and its characters. A fan theory may or may not be true, which leaves uncertainty and therefore room for debate on its likelihood, without ruining real plot twists.
Fans who are addicted to actively looking-up spoilers online believe that ruining twists doesn’t matter. As the editor of a Game of Thrones fan site put it, “The journey is more important than the destination.”
This is the third in a three-part series on the science of spoilers. READ MORE:
President Trump recently tweeted a Game of Thrones meme, referencing the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
The distinctive font and misty background of the image are lifted from the violent high fantasy series, capitalizing on the immense popularity of the show to communicate a message.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 18, 2019
HBO, however, isn’t too enthusiastic about the association with Trump; an HBO spokesperson told Bloomberg:
Though we can understand the enthusiasm for Game of Thrones now that the final season has arrived, we still prefer our intellectual property not be used for political purposes.
Amusingly, this marks the second time the President has retweeted a Game of Thrones meme, originally using the distinctive Thrones font to twist the show’s slogan “Winter is coming,” into “Sanctions are coming.”
HBO responded at the time with its own tweet: “How do you say trademark misuse in Dothraki?”
It’s not unusual for Trump to retweet a meme glorifying his image or mocking a political opponent, and appropriating Game of Thrones imagery for political memes is extremely common, for both Trump supporters and critics.
Trump’s retweeted memes are often cooked up organically, in the online spaces where fans share their enthusiasm, using pop culture imagery to communicate and spread their ideas. The rise of social media has led to meme culture becoming an inescapable aspect of politics, but choosing to associate oneself directly with Game of Thrones is rather … questionable, seeing as the leaders of Westeros aren’t exactly known for their benevolence.
Despite HBO’s disapproval, the association isn’t going away anytime soon; Game of Thrones provides perfect material for political commentary and memes, as the imagery is instantly recognizable and oddly appropriate for the modern-day political landscape.
The show famously features a massive border wall, and depicts a rising antagonism between opposing political factions, unable to set aside their differences and fight the apocalyptic threat of climate change.
No wonder HBO is planning a Game of Thrones spin-off – there’s an abundance of inspiration out there.
Elmo of House Sesame Street has an important lesson for Tyrion Lannister and his sister, Queen Cersei.
The Imp (Peter Dinklage) and the Ice Queen (sit in a hall in the Red Keep at King’s landing bickering like siblings do.
“You can’t ignore me forever,” Tyrion says, as Cersei ignores him.
“I only want what’s best for Westeros,” he says.
“And I only want for you to not get what you want,” Cersei replies icily. This is actually a line I could imagine her saying in Game of Thrones.
Just then, they hear something under the table, and moments later Elmo appears, bedecked in plate armor. Here’s the sketch:
“Elmo thinks that you two need to respect each other,” Elmo tells the warring siblings. “When Elmo has a problem with his friends, like Abby or Cookie Monster [at this point Tyrion mouths “cookie monster?” at Cersei] Elmo doesn’t get upset, Elmo listens and learns from what they have to say.”
Tyrion is intrigued. “If we stop fighting and work together, we can be stronger,” he muses. Turning to Cersei he says, “I’m willing to learn and listen if you are.”
“Will Miss Cersei try to listen and understand what Mr. Tyrion is saying?” Elmo asks.
Finally the ice melts and the dam breaks and Cersei, convinced by Elmo’s adorableness, grudgingly says “I can try.”
Naturally, Tyrion suggests a toast to this newfound friendship.
“I love toast!” Elmo shouts.
Me too, Elmo. Me too.
The lesson of respect is par for the course when it comes to Sesame Street.
It’s . . . a less common theme in Game of Thrones. There are very few characters who actually treat one another with respect and dignity in that show. Usually it’s poison and knives to the back. Certainly the Lannister children were never taught the kind of respect Elmo is referring to. They respected their father, Tywin, but only because they feared him and admired his power over others. That’s the kind of respect that earns you a crossbow bolt in the gut.
It’s probably for the best that Sesame Street used these two Lannister siblings instead of Cersei and Jaime given their . . . rather more confusing relationship. Even Jon and Dany would be wildly inappropriate for a kids’ show at this point. Stannis and his daughter Shireen could have been an interesting pair for some lessons on respect and family values. Oh well, too late for that.
Game of Thrones returns for its second episode of Season 8 this Sunday. You can read my review of last Sunday’s premiere (which was quite good) here. Maybe Sesame Street can get Ghost to come on the show next—after all, he’s not getting much work on Game of Thrones. And kids love direwolves. Especially muppet direwolves.
It is known.
This number could describe the population of Shanghai, the world’s largest city, if you doubled it and then added 3 million more people. It could also describe the distance in light years between planet Earth and the recently imaged black hole.Or it could refer to the rise of mammals on earth when, approximately 55 million years ago during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum time period when global warming events, possibly sparked by a comet hitting earth, drastically changed life on this planet.
But for the purposes of this post, (nearly) 55 million refers to the number of the Game of Thrones season 8 premiere was pirated during its first 24 hours. It’s a very big number. A lot of people pirated the show, despite it having massive ratings that broke HBO records.
Still, the Season 7 premiere was pirated 90 million times in its first three days. But this is still a faster rate, and three times the number of legal viewings which clocked in at 17.4 million.
The biggest offenders are India, with 9.5 million instances, China with 5.2 million instances and the US with 4 million. Of these three, Indian viewers have the best excuse: HBO is not available in India, and there is no legal means of watching Season 8 at this time. In China, the version aired was a censored version that cut out all the naughty bits, giving Chinese viewers (already fairly accustomed to piracy) a good enough reason to pirate the premiere. Here in the U.S. of A. we have no such excuses.
I love writing about Game of Thrones, and I’m sad that it will be over so soon–five seasons too soon according to author George R.R. Martin, whose series A Song Of Ice And Fire inspired the HBO drama.
Lots of other people love to write about Game of Thrones also, but I’m not sure if it’s out of a love for the source material or simply for the clicks which, admittedly, can be plentiful.
Take, for instance, this article in Slate. It’s titled “Will Game of Thrones’ Winter Ever Come?” The obvious answer to this question is “Yes, Slate writer, Inkoo Kang, winter arrived in the Season 7 finale Winds of Winter.”
But the actual article contradicts itself immediately, while also mixing up a bunch of details from the show. Read on:
Winter finally struck Westeros at the end of Game of Thrones’ sixth season, as Jon Snow returned home to recruit soldiers in the fight against the white walkers, Arya Stark fed Walder Frey his children in meat-pie form, and Cersei Lannister ascended the throne after massacring a sizable fraction of King’s Landing, including her daughter-in-law Margaery Tyrell, which led to the suicide of the blond matriarch’s last living child, Tommen Baratheon.
So an article asking when winter will come says in its opening sentence that winter “finally struck” and then gets the season finale completely wrong–it was Season 7, not Season 6–and then completely mixes up what actually happens in the season finale in which winter came.
Each of the things Kang describes, from Arya feeding Walder Frey his sons, to Cersei ascending the throne after Tommen’s suicide, happen in the Season 6 finale. What doesn’t happen in that finale is winter coming. That happens at the end of Season 7.
And this might very well explain Kang’s confusion throughout the article. Where is winter? Well, at the end of Season 6 it hasn’t arrived! But it does arrive at the end of Season 7, and it’s discussed in the Season 8 premiere. It’s almost as though Kang didn’t watch Season 7 before writing this piece! And then nobody at Slate managed to catch such a massive mistake.
Meanwhile, over at Cosmopolitan we get this gem of a post by Shannon Barbour, titled . . . oh gods this title: ‘Um, This ‘Game of Thrones’ Theory That the Night King Is Actually a Targaryen Is Horrifying’ because if you write for Cosmo you need to put words like ‘Um’ in your headlines.
It’s a really weird piece that discusses a fan theory that because the Night King can ride one of Dany’s dragons he must have Targaryen lineage. I’m pretty sure that killing and then reanimating a dragon with White Walker magic nullifies any blood-lineage rules, but that’s not the point. The point is Barbour’s reaction to this:
“Well here’s an absolutely horrifying fan theory that will make you want to shout a big “NOPE” from the top of the Wall,” she begins. “Shockingly, the latest theory is that the Night King is actually a Targaryen. Lemme just speak on behalf of the whole audience for a second and say please, dear god, NO.”
The word “shockingly” has no business here. There is nothing shocking about this theory. Nor do we need the author to speak on behalf of the whole audience and say “please, dear god, NO.” There is nothing so horrifying about the possibility that the Night King could be a thousands-of-years-old Targaryen. Many of the Targaryens, including Dany’s father, were already monsters. Many were good people. Dany herself has some monstrous traits. This reaction is entirely contrived. Either that or it displays a deep lack of understanding about the material being discussed.
And so we come to the conclusion of this masterful bit of Game of Thrones opinion writing:
Basically, if the Night King is a Targaryen, he could have some sort of weird claim to the throne despite being a walking corpse. Now that is a world nobody wants to live in or watch unfold on TV. HBO, you really don’t need to do this!!
That’s what’s so horrifying about this fan theory? That the Night King might have a claim to the Iron Throne? Oh dear lord.
Of course, this is nothing new. Recall the New York Times’ review of the first season of Game of Thrones. While snubbing its “Dungeons and Dragons aesthetic” among other things, critic Ginia Bellafante noted that the show was rather lude as well, with plenty of sex thrown in the mix. She wrote at the time:
The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.
You see, ladies, this show–and the novels upon which it is based–just isn’t for you and the only reason you’re watching is for the skin, perverts. (Granted, Jason Momoa was in the first season, but still . . .). The New York Times made a negative reference to D&D players being the show’s only audience in its review of Season 2 as well, before cooling its jets in Season 3.
Then there’s the endless parade of articles only concerned with who dies. What will the next big death be? There are betting pools and all sorts of other nonsense about who will get the ax next, all of which miss the entire point of the show in the first place. This was never a show about big character deaths. Those deaths were always simply part of the story, part of the way Martin (and the showrunners) propelled big events in Westeros and beyond. The death of Ned was indeed shocking, true, but not for shock value. It was used to scatter the Starks and set into motion the wars that followed.
In any case, there’s obviously plenty of good commentary about the show out there as well. That’s the nature of the beast, I suppose. The nature of ye olde internet. Perhaps it’s these more ridiculous pieces that inspired Jon Snow actor Kit Harrington to tell critics to go bleep themselves.
Whatever the case, I just felt the need to vent a little bit. I feel better now.
Being a critic can be strange at times. Our job is to watch movies or TV shows, play games, read books and then discuss what we’ve experienced with others, either to spark conversation or to help people decide whether or not they want to go see a movie or read a book or play a game.
There’s another aspect to criticism that’s just as important to a critic. It’s the selfish part. We write criticism because we enjoy writing criticism. It makes us think more deeply about the things we love.
On the other hand, sometimes as a critic you watch something you once loved go downhill. Whether you’re writing about food or music or TV shows, there’s a strong chance that things will eventually change for the worse. Fans experience this also, of course, but it’s a critic’s job to point them out. The most devoted fans will often refuse to admit there’s a problem, and will disagree vehemently and aggressively. Less devoted fans will just leave. The Walking Dead is testimony to all of this.
As a critic, you find yourself in that very awkward position of writing about something you love, only you love it less now. All its flaws are on display, and it becomes impossible not to see them.
So it was with a heavy heart that I penned negative review after negative review about Game of Thrones’s seventh season. Not everything about that season was bad, by any means. I knew that the cast and crew had worked hard on the show. I wanted it to be every bit as good as the seasons that came before it. But it wasn’t. I’ve written at length as to why it wasn’t and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice to say, Season 7 was a letdown in many ways.
So far, after just one episode of Season 8, I’m optimistic that I will be writing much more positive reviews this season. Certainly my review of the season premiere was very positive. That’s a relief, especially given statements made recently by Jon Snow actor Kit Harrington, who says that critics of the show can “go *&$% themselves.”
“I think no matter what anyone thinks about this season — and I don’t mean to sound mean about critics here — but whatever critic spends half an hour writing about this season and makes their negative judgement on it, in my head they can go *&$% themselves,” Harrington said in an interview with Esquire. “Because I know how much work was put into this. I know how much people cared about this. I know how much pressure people put on themselves and I know how many sleepless nights working or otherwise people had on this show. Because they cared about it so much. Because they cared about the characters. Because they cared about the story. Because they cared about not letting people down.”
Harrington added: “Now if people feel let down by it, I don’t give a *&$%. That’s how I feel.”
I have a complicated reaction to this. On the one hand, I absolutely see where Harrington is coming from. When you put this much blood, sweat and tears into something only to have it panned by critics, that can’t be a good feeling. On the other hand, the show exists because of the fans, because millions of people are counting on David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to deliver an amazing TV fantasy drama. Not only that, but to deliver the ending of an adaptation that has eclipsed the novels it’s based upon.
That’s a tall order, no doubt about it, but there’s no way around it. And in many ways, even in Season 7 most of the people working on the show did a fantastic job. The actors are all fantastic. The set design and makeup and sound design and special effects are all phenomenal. Most of the hard-working people Harrington is talking about deserve nothing but praise.
And yet, what’s a critic to do when you have transparently bad writing and plotting to contend with? People worked hard to not let us down, they cared about the story, and yet here we are let down by the story. The plan to catch a wight beyond the Wall was simply not very bright. That Gendry was able to run back and get a message off to Dany who was then able to zip 2,000 miles north with her dragons in time to save our heroes felt not only implausible but entirely contrived. Nobody owes Game of Thrones anything just because people worked hard to bring it to life.
There’s a great scene in the Season 8 premiere when Sansa scoffs at Tyrion’s plan to convince Cersei to help them. “And you believed her?” she asks, incredulously, when Tyrion says she would send her armies to help fight the Night King. He says he thinks it will give Cersei a sense of purpose again. “I used to think you were the cleverest man I knew,” Sansa replies, echoing my own thoughts.
So here we have the show itself pointing out how stupid Tyrion’s plan was, vis-a-vis an increasingly chilly Sansa. But Tyrion is very clever, and I don’t think for a second he would have come up with that boneheaded of a plan. As a critic, I don’t see myself as someone ignoring or belittling the hard work of the cast and crew of Game of Thrones or any other show.
When I point out something like this it’s because I love the show and the stories and these characters. I fell in love with Tyrion’s character back when I started reading the books nearly 20 years ago. The Tyrion from those pages, the Tyrion from the first six seasons of Game of Thrones, would not have come up with such a terrible plan. He would certainly never trust his sister to keep her word.
Pointing this out isn’t because I want to feel smug or superior or rain on any parades. I point it out because I love this show. It’s one of my favorite shows of all time. I may be a critic but I’m also a fan and as a fan, I don’t want to see the writing go south. I don’t want to see characters like Tyrion or Jon Snow written into corners simply to drive the plot. I’m not sure I can even watch Season 7 again without fast-forwarding the entire Sansa vs Arya vs Littlefinger subplot. It was simply not up to the standards this show has set. It was like pretend Game of Thrones, a shallow facade of what used to be one of the most complex and gritty political dramas on TV.
Sometimes critics can be unfair or spiteful. They can jump on a bandwagon, trashing something like The Orville before realizing later that it’s actually a really good show. But I write about shows that I love and when those shows go down the wrong path I point it out, not to trash them, but to hopefully help the creators of the show see flaws they may not otherwise notice. Sycophants are worthless. At least a critic tells the truth.
I get where Harrington is coming from. The critic in me is very used to being yelled at and chastised for having an opinion that goes against the grain of the fandom. The fan in me is a bit more gloomy about it all. It reminds me of George R.R. Martin flipping off fans who worried he would die before writing all his books.
Yes, I get that it’s annoying to have people say that about you, and it’s annoying to have pesky critics pointing out flaws in something you’ve given your all to, but that’s the price of fame and fortune. Critics get yelled at. Movie stars have to dodge the paparazzi. Mega-hit TV shows will face scrutiny. Infamously slow authors of beloved series will have fans worry that they won’t ever finish that series. So it goes.
Besides, the real issue is not that critics are being too mean to a show like Game of Thrones. Even Season 7, with all its myriad problems, received incredibly positive reviews from most critics. Critics are often, sadly, not that critical, especially when something is as big and popular and critically acclaimed as Game of Thrones. Bandwagons and all that.
Season 7 has a 93% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and virtually all the reviews are glowing. Then again, that number is skewed thanks to a very good season premiere (even I gushed about that one) but even later episodes only dip into the still-very-fresh realm of the mid 80s.
Those few of us who waved red flags and questioned some of the bizarre plotting and subpar writing in Season 7 did so because we care enough about the show to point out its flaws, even if it means that fans will yell at us and we may not get the juicy interviews from HBO, and even the star of the show will tell us to go *&$# ourselves.
C’est la vie. Such is the nature of the beast. I respect and appreciate all the hard work that the Game Of Thrones team puts into this show. It is marvelous entertainment, parts of Season 7 notwithstanding. I’m so happy that some of my favorite books of all time have been made into one of my favorite TV shows of all time and I hope Season 8 wraps up the story in a satisfying fashion.
But I still don’t understand how Euron built all those ships so fast.
We don’t know much about the Night King, the big bad of Game of Thrones.
The character can be compared to Sauron, from Lord of the Rings, a mortal man who transcended into a demigod, representing pure evil. Like Sauron, the Night King seems to have no personality, no real motivation other than the conquest and destruction of the Seven Kingdoms. Death is his game; nothing more, nothing less.
The only hint of communication we’ve seen from the Night King is the mysterious spiral that the White Walkers like to construct out of severed limbs.
I’m assuming that the Night King is going to die a mystery; the real threat of season 8 appears to be Cersei, who plans to massacre whoever remains after the battle of Winterfell. This is, obviously, mere speculation, but I just can’t see Game of Thrones, the series defined by complex and sympathetic villains, ending with the defeat of the most one-dimensional villain imaginable.
The Night King is the apocalypse, a force of nature, while Cersei embodies the worst traits of humanity, the unwillingness to put aside grudges and fight for the greater good. In the end, I believe Cersei represents the greater, more interesting threat.
To that end, I don’t think the spiral is an effort to communicate, but a symbol meant to draw a parallel to another character. Fans have already pointed out the striking similarity between the spiral and the dragon sigil of House Targaryen.
— Evette ♡ (@Evette_V) April 15, 2019
I don’t think this is a clue to the Night King’s secret Targaryen identity, but rather, a thematic connection between the two “families” (White Walkers are just as much a family as a pack of wolves, sharing a common goal and cooperating).
The Targaryens, with the help of their sentient A-bombs, brutally conquered the Seven Kingdoms, contrasting cultures that wanted to remain separate. The North still longs for independence, understanding that they are essentially enslaved under the rule of the South (there’s an amusing parallel between modern-day Scotland and England here).
The Targaryens did, admittedly, bring temporary peace to the Seven Kingdoms through unification, but said peace didn’t last. The true legacy of the Targaryens is one of incest, madness, tyranny and mass murder. Robert’s Rebellion preceded the War of Five Kings, an immensely bloody affair orchestrated by wealthy, power-hungry men.
The spiral symbol, shared by both the White Walkers and Targaryens, traditionally symbolizes infinity. Does the similarity of the two sigils signify their shared endgame – the endless, ever-turning wheel of death, the violent power struggles that the very existence of the Iron Throne provokes?
When it comes down to it, are the White Walkers and Targaryens all that different, or simply separate sides of the same coin? The titular fire and ice of the series may well be these two forces, tearing Westeros apart through repeated cycles of war and destruction. Perhaps the biggest distinction between the Night King and Daenerys Targaryen is his honest intentions; at least the Night King knows his end goal is death, while Daenerys seems deluded by her messiah complex.
If this theory of mine happens to be accurate, then this really doesn’t bode well for Daenerys; the pilot episode of season 8 already highlighted her propensity for violence. Terrible actions done for the “greater good” are still terrible, after all.
It might be that Jon Snow, the reluctant ruler, the guy who makes Jesus and King Arthur look like slackers, could be the only person who can truly “break the wheel,” and destroy the neverending spiral of violence.
At least, that’s my take on it. The spiral could well be just a cool image, or perhaps holds a deeper significance to the Night King.
What do you think? Let me know on Twitter.
If you enjoyed reading, check out my recap of Season 8, Episode 1: Winterfell.