The quality of last night’s series finale of HBO’s Game of Thrones will be a hot bed of opinions and cultural think pieces for years to come. Much like the ending of Lost and The Sopranos, fans and casual viewers who followed the violence and political intrigue within the world of Westeros will decipher, discuss, and debate the merits and missteps of the battles for the Iron Throne. However, whether you loved or loathed the ending of the series, the series has become another example of toxic fan culture that has permeated entertainment.
When the series started in 2011, the show’s runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss had five books of material from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to develop the television adaptation. With the first book in the series published in 1996, Martin had already developed a rich, complicated world for his characters and their adventures, a process not unlike the kind other fantasy authors such as J. K. Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien adhered to when crafting their mystical worlds. It is a process of methodical craftsmanship where an author will outline everything, down to smallest detail, before they begin the arduous task of putting words to paper.
The most recent book of Martin’s series was published in 2011 with the promise that the final two entries in his saga would soon follow. Since making television adaptations is a much quicker process than writing a sprawling tome, the show runners for the series had to rely on notes with Martin serving as a creative consultant when producing the final two seasons in 2017 and 2019. Coincidentally, this timing corresponds with when fans believe the show took a nosedive.
Over the last six weeks as the final season of Game of Thrones aired, it was frankly bewildering to see just how much animosity fans of the series expressed over the quality of the final season. As each new episode aired, the Internet would explode with comments, editorials, and general winging about how terrible the series had become now that the show was venturing into territory not based on existing published materials.
Even prior to the finale airing, a petition appeared on Change.org demanding that the final season be redone in accordance to the wishes of the fans. After the finale aired and did not alleviate any of the anger and vitriol the fans felt over the series ending on terms they didn’t want or expect, their demands to have a reproduced final season have only grown louder and the credentials of Benioff and Weiss questioned for their perceived bungling of a complex, richly detailed world to the point of advocating that Disney and Lucasfilm drop the dragon duo from producing their upcoming Star Wars movies.
With all the complaints about Game of Thrones, I couldn’t help but laugh when I realized the premiere of the series finale fell on the 20th anniversary of the theatrical release of Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. I was 11 when that movie was released but even then I was aware, in this age where Internet fandom culture was not as massive and pervasive as it is now, of the toxic fan culture that responded so intensely to the first new Star Wars film since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
I was a child and was thoroughly entertained by the movie. Older generations who were kids when the original series came out felt betrayed by George Lucas with claims that their childhood was ruined by bad acting, wooden dialogue, and unnecessary special effects. For the movie’s 20th anniversary, I actually rewatched it right before the premiere of the Game of Thrones finale (and actually was late to starting the finale so I could finish it). And while it is flawed and definitely not as good as its predecessors, it is still a fun movie that served its purpose in the series and did an excellent job at expanding the look and feel of the Star Wars universe. Worst film in the franchise? Not by a long shot (sorry Attack of the Clones). However, it will never shake that reputation.
Though, think about the immense pressure and responsibility that was put on The Phantom Menace because of fan expectations. This was going to be a unique experience that would be very loosely connected to the original films. So much so that it almost feels like a completely different fantasy franchise. As a result, you find very little familiarity to generate feelings of nostalgia with the fans who would end up being the most upset and vocal. And there were consequences. Ahmed Best, the actor who portrayed Jar Jar Binks, almost committed suicide. Jake Lloyd, the boy who played Anakin Skywalker, was bullied and quit acting. And George Lucas, the creator, wasn’t having any fun making the movies so he sold the rights to Disney who then went in directions that conflicted with the intent Lucas had for expanding the saga
And sadly, toxic fan culture has only grown worse as technology has increased the speed, frequency, and range in which negative opinions can travel. You may have forgotten about Best or Lloyd or Lucas, but the actors in the latest Star Wars films have been bullied and quit social media because of toxic fan culture. Same shit, different decade.
And so, as I am reading the critiques of the final season of Game of Thrones, I am seeing some familiar criticisms. Claims of bad acting, prioritizing cinematography over the script, and not adhering to whatever vision these fans had for the series. For people my age, this generation has always experienced toxic fan culture. From The Phantom Menace, the first big worldwide cultural milestone of our lives, to Game of Thrones, the latest in worldwide cultural milestones, it is hard to remember a time when toxic fans did not ruin things for everyone else.
What comes from all this? The democratization of creative content. Toxic fans have become such a major problem that creative control has increasingly been shifting from the content creators to the fans as major multimedia conglomerates work to appease fans as it has become such a profitable business model. So much so that it is almost an absolute science. A formula that can be plugged in to give you everything you wanted as opposed to anything you need. Just take a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a 22-film franchise that has been studied and crafted for over a decade to create a moviegoing hegemony where fans don’t have to worry about getting something they do not want and did not ask for. As all these media companies combine, fans will never have to worry about being challenged again when they can simply vote for what they want with their dollars. A “choose your own adventure story” where the media companies know what you’re going to choose even before you do.
Benioff and Weiss had an impossible, almost Sisyphean task; tell the story of A Song of Ice and Fire before its own creator could. No way was this going to please everyone, and I am sure they anticipated much more negative criticism than they are receiving. However, they stepped up to the task and did so admirably. I could not have written a better ending, something all these toxic fans and fan-fiction writers have yet to admit themselves.
The series’ main title, composed by Ramin Djawadi, is iconic and one I’ll never forget. Kicking off the soundtrack for the first season, the Game of Thrones main title kicked off an epic journey that has secured its place in pop culture history. Hearing it at the beginning of every episode and seeing how the opening title animations would change from week to week was absolutely thrilling. I don’t know when I’ll return to the world of Westeros, but I am eager to see what Benioff and Weiss come up with. And my advice for anyone engaging with creative content as massive as Star Wars or Game Thrones is to just watch and keep an open mind. The creators do not owe you anything and making demands on them only limits them and restricts their output.