There was a time when Game Of Thrones mattered. Truthfully — you know this as well as I — that winter has passed. We’re still watching, of course. We storm ahead in denial as the final season arrives, engulfed in expectations and coasting on once-deserved momentum. We desperately want it to matter, which isn’t quite the same.
The eighth and final season began this week on Hotstar Premium — new episodes are out every Monday at dawn — and the first episode involved many a reunion as characters torn asunder by bloodlust and betrayal finally came together, assembling like medieval Avengers preparing warily for the final push. It’s a sweetish, strictly okay episode, and one that consistently echoes ‘Winterfell,’ the breathtaking first episode of the first season, reminding us how special this show was. An adaptation of the longdrawn books by George RR Martin, the spectacularly mounted HBO series felt like a bonafide epic.
In season one, the leading man died. This was revolutionary. This show trod on moral compasses, spat out obvious conflicts and ruthlessly slaughtered the audience’s darlings. Characters evolved to the extent of leaving their old roles behind and taking on new significance. It showcased behaviour so detestable that it made viewers cheer for the good — a massive storytelling victory in itself. Perhaps most thrillingly, it told a story where anyone was expendable.
Well, almost anyone. Once the pieces started falling into place, it became apparent that a few players would inevitably stick around for the final skirmish. In the middle of the series, the fan-theories began to add up, and we started predicting the way threads would come together. An air of inevitability set in. Martin, an evocative but lamentably slow writer, doubtless has more to say, but at the end of season five, as the series overtook his novels in their scramble to the endgame, the seams became conspicuous. The final equation, the familial twist at the end of season seven, turned out to be predictable and easy math. When the show that killed its best started bringing identifiable heroes back to life, it was clear the blade had dulled.
It began with terrific characters, striding out of Martin’s books dripping with motives and madness. In time, these seductive and repulsive characters became stars and fan-favourites, some gaining prominent screen-time, some becoming too beloved to die. Tripped by its own success, the mighty series lost the ability to devastate. Budgets soared like maturing dragons and battle scenes looked increasingly stunning — but for the last honest-to-goodness gasp, one that guillotined our expectations, I look back to that time in season four when a handsome head was crushed.
That was five years ago, and that squishy memory made me realise we may never again root for something this gratuitous. In 2011, the world was a different place and Woody Allen was winning Oscars. Here arrived an amped-up series, a horny and hardcore show promising, as the actor Ian McShane memorably summed, “tits and dragons.” Imagine those first few episodes airing this summer. Incest, barbarism, rape, misogyny, overwhelming whiteness, exclusively female nudity…. In this timeline of hot-takes and outrage, the show wouldn’t have made it past a season, let alone won 47 Emmy Awards.
Some believe Game Of Thrones will be the last show the world watches together like this, all of us bitten by the same bug, obsessively fearful of spoilers. Entertainment options have multiplied exponentially, and it looks implausible for television worshippers today to agree on the same altar — not least because social media itself has gone from being the friendly world-wide watercooler to a pit of reactionary hell-fire.
I think we will buy in, though. At a time when we are forced to turn to entertainment to find heroes and gods, we must seek out stories to celebrate together. If there’s anything Game Of Thrones has demonstrated, it is our need to belong to something larger, something communal. We want to be part of an army, whether it marches under a dragon-fostering queen or alongside frozen horses.
It’s Fight Club in reverse: Everybody who watches Game Of Thrones talks about Game Of Thrones. We watch in order to discuss, to compare reactions, to theorise. (Speaking of theories, here are my baseless predictions for the final season: Daenerys Targaryen turns evil, Tyrion and Jaime Lannister kill each other, Sansa Stark takes the throne, and the inimitable Cersei gets the sharpest quote and finest GIF of the season.) We’ll talk about it at length when the show ends, because, well, because we must.
Back in the day, many of us would have called Game Of Thrones one of the best and most compelling shows, but now television has left it behind, and the last few seasons wouldn’t make most top-20 lists. Still we look forward to this flawed show, and how tenderly it made us feel about cripples, bastards and broken things. We know better, and yet we hunger for it. These are, to quote the words that started off this whole damned saga: the things we do for love.