The fans had been waiting months to hear the end of the story. It was the only story in town, the only story in every city, in every corner of the nation – the most important story in the world. They were desperate, needy and impatient to know how it ended: they were fans. Rumors said that a boat from England would bring the final installment of Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop to America. Crowds of fans gathered at the docks in New York, or perhaps in Boston.
It was true. There was a boat. A great hush spread among the crowd. At once the solitary figure of the packet’s captain appeared on deck. As the boat grew ever closer to the shore a dreadful noise began to stir amongst the fans. The captain, overcome with emotion, had tears streaming down his face. He had read the ending, that was clear enough. They knew what it meant; the one thing the fans did not want to happen had happened. Howls of blubbery lamentation, waves of outrage, a terrible grinding caterwaul rose up and out of the fans.
Little Nell was dead.
The end of HBO’s Game of Thrones was all very death of Little Nell. The only true difference is that 19th century Dickens fans were unable to log onto change.org and demand – in their tedious millions – that the infallible little woman be resurrected. Game of Thrones lit up on Sunday night in a blaze of bathos so blistering that it was briefly visible in the Andromeda galaxy. Why did anybody expect any different?
Like political careers, the great franchise blockbuster saga-dramas only ever end in failure. Wasn’t The Return of The Jedi (1983) the worst Star Wars movie by far (those damn Ewoks!) until they started making them again this decade? Wasn’t Terminator 3: Rise of The Machines (2003) an utter sterility compared to The Terminator (1984)? Wasn’t the merciless, relentless fan service of Avengers: Endgame (2019) best enjoyed asleep, or better yet, not at all? And who can forget the interminable The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King (2003) a movie so fantastically long that it hasn’t actually finished, with audiences somewhere still watching a soft-focus scene of hobbits high-fiving while Annie Lennox wails in the background?
The difference with Game of Thrones has been the extent to which it has been treated as a serious, worthy and intricate dissection of politics and statecraft by critics and writers at top-flight publications. Thrones is not only popular – the most pirated show in the world – it is intellectually legitimate and endlessly written about. A search for ‘Game of Thrones’ on The Atlantic’s website yields 29,200 results (you’ll get 23,200 results if you search for ‘healthcare’).
The most bizarre spectacle of all was the way most of these writers (and many fans) had adopted aspiring monarch Daenerys Targaryen as a kind of yasss-kweeen modern feminist icon. Over eight seasons Daenerys adequately represented much of what is vilest in prestige television characters – selfishness, vulgarity (really what could be more vulgar than owning three dragons) and cruelty all pushed as far as they can be pushed.
Dany is highborn but morally low. Her evil is boring because it is easily explained: what motivates her is vengeance and lust after power. The solution to most of her problems is to set those problems on fire until they lie cooking on the floor. Emilia Clarke, the British actor who played her, was regularly acted off the screen by her dragons. Unlike her, being computer-generated meant they could not be wooden. That so many people worshipped this awful character, even named their real living children after her, brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s comment on the death of Little Nell: you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.
Today’s public intellectuals do pop better than any other kind of culture. They almost sound convincing when they talk and write about it. Ben Shapiro should definitely do more shows about Game of Thrones and Avengers: Endgame. It’s far safer terrain for him than being interviewed by Andrew Neil. Likewise Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther comic books are better than his baggy case for reparations article. You sometimes wonder whether George Steiner would have had more success if he’d stopped banging on about Dante’s Divine Comedy and started writing more thinkpieces about who should play the next Batman.
Ultimately the fury of critics at the way Thrones ended can be explained as a kind of sublimated rage at the prospect of a post-Thrones media landscape. What will writers at America’s prestige publications (and BuzzFeed) do now they cannot chew on such weighty morsels as Drogon the dragon, the ‘Cleganebowl’, or ruminate, as The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik did, on a still image of Queen Cersei drinking a glass of wine? Thrones was one of the most reliable drivers of traffic to media sites that ever existed, the gold standard of clickbait. The veteran entertainment editor Mark Lisanti was only half-joking when he tweeted last week:
Bracing for next week's great media apocalypse when the GoT content wells suddenly go dry all at once. Everyone saw it coming for years and yet nobody prepared.
— Mark Lisanti (@marklisanti) May 15, 2019
Sophisticated 20th century readers would eventually look back at their grandparents tearful reaction to the death of Little Nell with embarrassed scoffing. Perhaps the inevitable cheesiness and predictability of the final season of Game of Thrones will lead to a cultural alignment away from this ‘golden age’ of serial television. Maybe people will wonder if the golden age itself was a mirage all along. Why ‘invest’ so much time in stories that will most likely seppuku themselves on the finish line anyway?
It would take three days to watch every episode of Thrones back to back. In that time you could conceivably get through Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire, maybe get started with À la recherche du temps perdu, or learn some conversational German.
Then again the next series of Westworld is out soon, so…