Game Of Thrones finished last week, making this Sunday the first with no new season or episode on the horizon. Unless you count the spinoffs and prequels that will continue to run until the end of time, it’s over. For some, that’s a blessing; for others, it takes a massive bite out of their entertainment diet. For the world, it leaves behind an enormous dent in pop culture.
HBO has long sat atop the Iron Throne of prestige television, but Game of Thrones pushed the network to new heights. The show's insane production quality, often compared favourably to The Lord of the Rings, blurred the lines between cinema and television, but its place in culture was way more significant. It’s rare that a television show becomes such a comprehensive national (and international) pastime as Game of Thrones did. Social media trends were utterly dominated by Thrones-related subjects for days after every episode. “Did you watch Game of Thrones?” was a routine question at workplaces the world over. People who’d never seen the show still knew generally what it was about, at the very least the fact that it was known for killing off major characters with relish. It fundamentally changed how people engaged with social media at least once a week, alternately creating enthusiasm and fear around spoilers that frequently turned vicious.
Parodies and homages abounded. Internet memes flourished. Every development was hung upon and joked about on talk shows, Saturday Night Live, and in countless other media. Even the President tried to co-opt "Winter Is Coming" for his own political ends, only to get shot down by HBO. The New Zealand premiere production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (on now, with video projections designed by yours truly) has a Game of Thrones joke added to it. There’s no escape, no matter how much you hate the show.
In order to keep up, audiences were left scrambling to set their DVRs, stream the episode, and in numbers dwarfing those of other shows, pirate it. In North America, the show aired in a primetime slot, but in international territories, keeping up with the Starks (and Twitter) meant watching the show in the afternoon, or in the middle of the night, or even - as in India - first thing in the morning. Thrones' existence drove HBO subscriptions and even near-singlehandedly propped up equivalent services internationally, but to many audiences, it didn't matter how they saw it. They just had to see it. And in its later seasons, so fanatical were audiences that they signed petitions en masse to have whole seasons remade. That's its own problematic can of worms, but in this context it's merely another symptom of how damn popular this thing was.
When’s the last time a show became that kind of cultural sensation - not just a “water cooler” show, but a show that demanded to be watched, and watched quickly, lest ye be left out of the conversation, or worse, spoiled by it? And when’s the last time such a show didn’t involve a competitive element, a la Drag Race or American Idol? Breaking Bad? Lost? The original season(s) of Twin Peaks? In the age of streaming, when shows are more often released in their entirety all at once, and not tied to being watched at specific intervals, it’s hard to create that same kind of consistent conversation.
A significant part of that cultural virality stemmed from the show’s upending of many a TV storytelling rule. Game of Thrones was popular and highly-esteemed from the beginning, but it was the first season’s ninth episode, “Baelor,” that sent the world into a frenzy and rendered the show a must-watch. Once the show’s main character, played by its most well-known actor, was killed off, there were no rules anymore. Suddenly, anyone could die, at any time, regardless of their place in the show. Regulars were in nearly as much danger as recurring roles. The major deaths weren’t even confined to season finales, either, a norm generally abided by to satisfy contracts guaranteeing actors’ presences in full-season blocks. This added substantial suspense to every plotline, and made the show feel genuinely dangerous.
Thrones also broke TV tradition - or rather, broke it further - in its approach to world-building. More than most genre TV, the show gave few concessions to newcomers - even in its pilot. Audiences were simply plunged into an expansive fantasy world and expected to keep up, without so much as a voiceover prologue to help them along the way. Coming from even more-dense source material, it also pushed viewers to pick up books in order to gain a more detailed understanding of the world and its characters (at least until the show began to diverge from its inspiration). By the end of an eight-season run, it had created learned experts in the ins and outs of Westeros, fostering countless fan theories along the way.
Going forward, Game of Thrones’ legacy will be felt most in its status as a televised mega-blockbuster. Content providers have been looking for IP on which to base their own big-time sci-fi/fantasy sensation for years now, and everyone's scrambling to fill the hole left by HBO's biggest-ever show. Netflix has The Witcher and The Chronicles of Narnia. Showtime has The Kingkiller Chronicle and Halo. Disney has multiple Marvel and Star Wars shows. CBS is developing a good half-dozen Star Treks. Apple has Isaac Asimov's dense saga Foundation. Amazon has The Wheel of Time, The Dark Tower, a newly-rescued The Expanse, and a much-vaunted billion-dollar adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. And HBO itself has Westworld, Watchmen, His Dark Materials, and a bevy of Game of Thrones spin-offs in various stages of development. All of these productions will be granted enormous budgets and marketing campaigns, all vying to be the next must-watch blockbuster series.
In that respect, Game of Thrones has brought to television a phenomenon that’s been rapidly taking over cinema for years: total blockbuster domination. More-modest shows will have to fight extra hard for visibility amid this orgy of televisual titans. In a medium that’s traditionally dealt with small- to mid-scale budgets, that’s a big change. It’s in keeping with the entertainment industry’s - and the world’s - shift towards a monoculture, controlled by major corporate interests. That’s worrisome. But it’ll all be eaten up by audiences hungry for a new obsession, and newly trained to seek this kind of obsession. Or maybe a smaller show will emerge and take the world by surprise. We can but dream.