After eight seasons of epic battles, power-mongering, and political intrigue, Game of Thrones has finally reached its conclusion, marking the end of the golden age of television. This feature will look at the closing of this modern chapter of television history and then talk in detail about the conclusion of Game of Thrones.
The Modern Golden Age of Television
Beginning somewhere in the early 2000s, television had undergone a ratings renaissance. With memorable cultural gems such as The Sopranos, The Wire, The Office, House, and Lost—something special was in the air. A modern golden age of television was brewing, and it was different in tone from the feel-good era of the 90s.
Now, the 90s was an entertainment period marked by sitcoms such as Friends and Seinfeld where a post-1980s Wall Street fueled America opened an era of possibilities, driven by a booming tech-bubble economy. It was a period of resurging independent cinema. Where even the fear of the impending Y2K apocalypse, was subverted into a cyberpunk, Matrix-driven theatrical, blending philosophy and technology. It was seemingly the best of times. Nothing could hurt the American spirit.
This, of course, would change, with the insecurities driven by the internet bubble-pop, but also, in terms of authority. As a post, 9/11 world marked the end of a brief American era of invulnerability, and the country became strafe with nationalism and political turmoil.
You can see the political discourse in shows like The West Wing, Battlestar Galactica, and 24. Something had changed in American culture. Now, there was something wrong with our conceptions of security and fidelity, as an opportunity for a shift in narrative, had piqued the interests of popular culture.
Thus, the 2000s were an era marked by stories about an omnipresent loss of normative authority; as people lost trust in their leaders, their role models, but most of all, their tried-and-true old traditions. It marked the beginning of the modern golden era of television. As narratives about people looking for families, and not in the traditional sense, were booming. It was a zeitgeist that marked a tonal shift in social theory—the beginnings of entertainment embracing modern identity politics.
As people, more than ever were driven to entertainment that made them feel like they belonged.
And it wasn’t just dramas. Reality television started a trend of shows about characters that felt horribly relatable, if only because its stars were often just a single degree removed from your everyday neighbor. Now, anyone could be a celebrity. All you had to do was showcase your life 24/7 and sell people that sense of relatability. It’s an entertainment model that would go on to build empires for the Paris Hilton’s and Kim Kardashians of the world.
Saturday Night Live embraced the Tina Fey era of zany comedians, many of whom were women. The cast of this period would then move on to lead various sitcoms such as Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock, and some would even become late-night TV hosts like Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers. Likewise, Comedies switched from sitcoms multi-camera formats to single-camera formats with shows such as Scrubs or The Office, presenting entertainment that felt closer to home than ever before.
This era of content making, all critically acclaimed and well-received within their own rights, was soon supplanted around the 2010s. YouTube and the internet and eventually even the smartphone, allowed a wealth of information and entertainment at your fingertips—changing the landscape of entertainment forever. Social media, blogs, and entertainment sites came out of the woodworks of internet culture, soon overtaking the printed press, and shifting the power dynamics of what was high quality. Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB became the barometer for success. Modern fandom became driven not just by watercooler conversation, entertainment tonight, and the E! network–but by fans and fellow bloggers, such as myself. The people had a voice thanks to things such as Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit. More importantly, it was a voice that could be heard.
Entertainment had permanently changed in the past decade. Starting conversations that sparked controversy that both united us and terrified us as a culture.
It was in this 2010s era, inspired by the success of The Sopranos, that a new dramatic formula had emerged. Stories featuring tragic anti-heroes with complex narratives, often starring a brooding morally ambiguous character.
Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, House of Cards, and True Detective all feature protagonists like this. The shows often showcasing a world filled with violence, sex, and moral ambiguity. It was dramatic high art featuring lewd sexuality and unbelievable acts of cruelty, all for the sake of drama and story. The limits between MA versus R ratings became blurred in a time where entertainment could get away with censorship thanks to the familiar openness granted by the internet, and how instantly accessible gratuitous content came to be, desensitizing the youth of American Culture.
Amongst this renaissance of television in the 2010s, two major TV shows debuted, and they were the most watched drama series in America. These shows were The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. Shows that at their peak, averaged over 14 million viewers per episode. With Game of Thrones’ final season averaging just north of 17 million views per episode, and an astounding 19 million for the finale ranking it as the most watched finale of a scripted TV show within the past decade.
Atop of this, Modern Family announced that its ending and The Big Bang Theory has also just wrapped, marking the end of the era of big sitcoms. It’s also the end of viewership juggernauts, as The Big Bang Theory and Game of Thrones were likewise, the most watched TV shows in the world.
This is the point of demarcation. This was the highpoint of television in the modern era. As Game of Thrones might just be the last cultural phenomenon consumed in such a massive scale.
I should stress, that anything averaging over 9 million viewers is an alarming statistic for today’s viewership standards of television. While it’s not as largesse as the numbers in the 90s for sitcoms such as Friends or Seinfeld, which averaged over 20 million viewers per episode, it’s still respectable in its own regard for the era. This is not to say modern shows are lesser quality, but rather, that there is so much TV and entertainment competition such as videogames, live-streams, and podcasts.
Personally, I don’t believe we’ll find another show this watched on TV ever again. At least, not for a long while.
With the rise of the golden age came the rise of the long-form story arc. People like consistent characters. It feels safe and at home. More than anything else, TV has grown to be watched at your own pace and access–much like internet culture.
From 2011 to 2016, scripted shows on TV had increased in fold by 71%. This includes digital, broadcast, and cable platforms. In 2002, only 182 shows aired on TV. In 2018, this number was at 495. Likewise, in 2009 there was only a single show aired online. In 2016, that number increased to 93 .
This is due to companies such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Though every major network and platform is vying now for original content with digital distribution platforms. CBS has All Access. There is also, YouTube Premium and Facebook TV. This doesn’t even include two new juggernauts entering the competition for streaming platforms: Disney+ and Apple TV. And while a lot of these platforms are simply redistributing old seasons of shows, most are seeking new material, with Netflix alone released 700 original titles in 2018. At this rate, imagine how staggering the number saturation will be within the next five years of TV.
The Game of Thrones Conclusion
The first Game of Thrones novel by George R. R. Martin came out in 1996. The TV show aired in 2011. Since then, a lot of content regarding fantasy, dystopian themes, and political intrigues have occurred and released. Though what’s compelling about Game of Thrones was that much of it was a look at the brutality of medieval warfare. Steering away from romantic stories like The Canterbury Tales and telling more of the harsh betrayal filled world that was the War of The Roses.
Thrones broke the mold in what was possible for TV. It’s the only show I know that stuffs knights, zombies, time travel, and borderline pornography, all within the fantasy genre, and somehow still makes it work. It taught us that you can kill off your main character early. More than anything it surprised us by showing how far people will go for love, honor, and family.
You Can Listen to what we all had to say about the Game of Thrones’ Finale over on The Workprint podcast available on iTunes and GooglePlay.
It would be a disservice to talk about the numbers and show history, without discussing the conclusion for the characters of Game of Thrones itself. So let’s take a look back at how each character has come full circle—essentially fulfilling their hero’s journey.
Jon Snow – the rightful heir and king – chooses to do the right thing for the realm: murdering his love, Daenerys Targaryen for the sake of humanity before she continued her genocidal rampage. He rejoins the Night’s Watch and becomes in a way, his own iteration of Mance Rayder, a well-respected crow living amongst the wildlings. His ending is foreshadowed by Aemon Targaryen, who was also loyal to the Night’s Watch despite also being in-line next to be king in ages past.
We also see a bit of fan service with Jon in the north, as he finally pets Ghost—the last Stark Direwolf, his loyal companion, and friend. Having seen the ravage horrors of war, Jon wants nothing more to do with the kingdoms, and journeys beyond the wall with his friend Tormund Giantsbane to live out his life riding off into the snow set.
Daenerys Targaryen – the Queen who saved and then broke the world. After greatly helping in the battle against the dead and destroying King’s Landing, Daenerys chooses to execute any few remaining loyalists to house Lannister. This is of course, after all the war and struggles she’s undergone, including losing two dragons, having her most loyal advisors killed (both Selmy and Jorah), and losing her good friend (Missandei).
She then gives a speech to her armies invoking odd allusions toward the Third Reich just as Tyrion condemns her mass genocide of the people of King’s Landing. Daenerys wants to seemingly continue her alleged ‘liberation conquests’ vanquishing ‘tyranny’ in what’s seemingly a call for global conquest. She offers Jon the option of joining her so that they can rule together, and in return, he murders her – knowing that neither he nor his family would ever be safe with them as potential threats.
It’s a sad arc but one that wasn’t entirely foreshadowed. Daenerys has always been a better conqueror than ruler. She’s broken cultural molds for the sake of ‘liberation’ though has left little in place for government of the areas she’s conquered. She’s left cultures and economies destabilized and broken in her conquests. Crucified those she deemed evil in slaver’s bay and has for most of her life – been built up to be a Queen. Though she’s also done things such as liberate slaves, raise an army out of nothing, and of course: giving birth to dragons.
Her story is a complex one and I think the books can pace it out better than the last two seasons of the show has. Still, I can see the symbolism – a girl birthed by fire who burns the world around her.
Sansa Stark – becomes not just a princess, but a queen of the North, with even the bannermen chanting her name. Originally all Sansa wanted was to be betrothed to Joffrey and become a princess, living a fairytale ending. Her long journey from King’s Landing back to home is sprinkled with years of trials and traumas, as Sansa spent the time picking up experience and learning the ins-and-outs of being a ruler. By Journey’s end, she’s come full circle becoming the best ruler amongst all the Starks.
Arya Stark- decides to travel yet again heading west to the land’s unknown. Arya has mentioned since the beginning that she’s no lady and has more than justified herself and her ability as a warrior/assassin. She’s taken down entire houses (Freys) singlehandedly and even murdered the night king in the biggest saving grace of the Battle at Winterfell. At this point, she’s a legend in her own respects and adventuring the world to continue on with her tales seems like the perfect ending for what’s probably the strongest character to come out of Game of Thrones.
Brienne of Tarth – becomes commander of the Kingsguard (notice the crest on her lapel, it’s a raven, not a direwolf), fulfilling her dream of not only becoming a knight but becoming the greatest knight of all the Realm tasked with the kingdom’s most daunting responsibilities. She’s proven herself as a warrior, having defeated the Hound in battle and killing Stannis Baratheon on the battlefield. She also inscribes Jamie Lannister’s fate on the record book of knights, fulfilling his dream of having him be remembered honorably. The only real demarcation… probably falling in love with Jamie Lannister, as it hurt her emotionally, though was really her only soft spot in the entire series.
Tyrion Lannister – Does a good job showcasing what he hasn’t all season in the finale —giving us glimpses of wit and wisdom— but more than anything else, displaying how flawed he is as a character. He gives a final riveting speech demonstrating all that he once was and is punished as a traitor for freeing his brother, by becoming the hand of the king – for a reign that would last a long lifetime. By the end, he’s served as Hand of the King for three different rulers. Yet despite his acclaimed wit… Tyrion never really amounts to having successfully done anything substantial, as most of his efforts technically ended in failure and the need of someone to bail him out. The battle of Blackwater Bay was won by the Tyrells, the trial of Tyrion lost by the Viper. Likewise, his attempts to sway and keep Dany in check went full-on collapse when his many calls for diplomacy: failed. Worst of all, when his request for the bells to signify the surrender of King’s Landing went unheard and his queen went onto murder the people of King’s Landing. Which is perhaps why he’s not accredited in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Still, he comes full circle getting a lifetime to fulfill his role as Hand in King’s Landing.
Sam – is given the title of Grand Maester, which is confusing, given that he’s taken both a wife and fostered a child plus is incredibly young. That’s sort of it. Sam gets a very happy ending, which is good.
Bronn – is given wealth and power. More so for comedic relief than anything else. In the books, his character is already written out of the story and so the show just found a way to crack a joke and keep Bronn the rogue type. Still, he’s always wanted greed and so now he’s Master of Coin. Working for his very good friend who’s showered him for years: Tyrion.
Ser Davos – Has gone from smuggler to Hand of the King, to master of ships. He’s a good man and caring father figure and in the end, will probably coordinate with his pirate friends in rebuilding King’s Landing and Storm’s End. His is a rather straightforward and happy ending as well. Also, he’s proven his strength with words and grammar, thanks to the lessons of Shireen.
Grey Worm – Has taken the unsullied to where he was going to retire with Missandei. Given that her people are peaceful, it’s implied that the unsullied will be there to protect them.
And that’s mostly it. In the end, the story came full circle. The Heroes’ Journey was completed, as everyone returned to the world before in a very fantasy and J.R.R. Tolkienesque way.
The finale was far from perfect. There’s more than its fair share of plot holes, and a lot of people were left unsatisfied for good reason. A part of me would like to say it’s all about the journey; however, we’ve already gone through that conversation with Lost and in this modern age of TV–poor writing is sort of inexcusable. Though it pains me to admit it: the execution of the series was poor (though I didn’t mind where things ended, just how we got there).
Below, I’ll list just some of the gaping holes people are upset over…
- After the battle of Winterfell between the living and the dead, a lot of Dothraki and Unsullied surprisingly survived. We see them in the finale but aren’t most of them supposed to be dead? Where did these legions magically appear from or were they just secretly masked in the poor lighting behind the Battle of Winterfell?
- The Dothraki who survived are given free rein to roam Westeros after the death of Daenerys. The only thing keeping this group in check was Daenerys and the U Without them, what’s to stop the Dothraki from turning back into the raping pillagers they used to be in a kingdom that’s severely broken?
- It’s nice that the North remains independent but why is Dorne remaining part of the kingdom? It doesn’t make sense, as the South is just as independent and strong-willed as the North.
- What happens to all of Dany’s kingdoms in Essos?
- What is the actual wheel Dany is trying to break? If it’s the nature of feudalism and titles, doesn’t that make Jon and her the enemy?
- Does the Iron Bank of Braavos ever get their money back?
- There are literally no armies keeping the kingdoms together now that the Unsullied have left. The bulk of the Greyjoy fleet was burnt. The Lannister, Tyrell, and Baratheon armies are all dead (as a reference, each army was absorbed by the winning side—until all you had left was a large Lannister force—now burnt to a crisp or executed). The remaining militaries in Westeros are an exhausted and scattered Northern force who just fought four wars back-to-back, the main garrison of House Arryn at the Eerie (who are only concerned with protecting themselves), Yara’s Iron Born (which are few), the roaming Dothraki (who should be dead after the charge in Winterfell), and unsurprisingly: the armies of Dorne – who never even fought a single battle throughout the entirety of Game of Thrones’ series. What is keeping the kingdom united if at all? (As a side note – if there’s one thing Game of Thrones royally screwed up with plot holes: it’s military. In all aspects of operations, functions, and strategy— none of it makes sense, despite how many times they try to build cool looking maps and move fake soldier pieces on screen.)
- Bran is chosen as king because he’s a keeper of stories as the three-eyed raven, but he hasn’t really done much to prove his worth as a STORYTELLER (at best, he’s a documentary commentator watching movies about the past). Nor is his story that compelling as Tyrion claims, as most people don’t even know what the three-eyed raven is and the show has done little to describe what it means. Atop this, there are a LOT of other characters with more interesting stories. Arya killed the night king. Jon Snow resurrected from the dead to help liberate the North. Both are easily much better stories than a kid who sat doing nothing but acts as a living encyclopedia—knowing that in doing so, it would allow him to become king. Why would anyone, particularly the PEOPLE of Westeros, believe Bran deserves to be king when he’s done nothing for them?
- Similarly, if Bran knew these events would come to pass… that makes him a horrible human being. One who knew these atrocities would happen, including the genocide of King’s Landing. For somebody who allegedly doesn’t want the throne, he also doesn’t seem to be doing much to refuse it. Nor does he seem to be prioritizing civilian lives – a horrible asset as a leader. We also don’t understand how the three-eyed raven fully works, and for all we know, Bran could be potentially evil—as he can manipulate events of the past (Remember Hodor?) and see time non-linearly. Technically speaking, he has the potential to be a far more dangerous ruler than Daenerys ever could be—including the ability to warg back into DROGON to kill everyone in the Seven Kingdoms if he so chooses it. Which is why his Kingship is really based on a giant leap of faith for all the kingdoms. And yes, you can argue Bran would never do that. But then ask yourself what show have you been watching? If Game of Thrones has proven anything: it’s that people are flawed human beings who make morally ambiguous decisions based on their situations—Bran is not an exception to this rule. In fact, in some ways he’s worse, because he knows how things can unfold, making him the perfect manipulator behind the scenes.
- Why would Bran need a master of whispers when he can Warg into anything?
- If the three-eyed raven is so important to the history of Westeros, how could you let one become king?
- How does Bran pass on his abilities if he’s far removed from the Weirwood forests?
- Why didn’t Drogon kill Jon Snow? Better yet, why didn’t Grey Worm or the Dothraki kill Jon Snow? Especially because once Daenerys is gone, all these armies are given free rein to cause havoc in honor of their fallen queen.
- Why did Drogon destroy the Iron Throne? Did the dragon blame the sharp pointy dagger and so destroyed the sharp pointy chair? Is Drogon going on a quest to destroy all pointy things now?
- What’s the point of the Night’s Watch without White Walkers?
- Bran is King, Sansa is the queen of the North, and the Unsullied have all left West Why is Jon Snow exiling himself to the Night’s Watch when nobody who remains in the kingdom dislikes him (outside Yara) and his family controls all of Westeros?
- Are all the prophecies pointless in this show? (Yes, yes they are)
- What was Jon doing at the end? Was he abandoning the Night’s Watch and going to live amongst the wildlings or going on a ranger run?
And there are plenty more, but I will stop there for the sake of rambling and the series’ embarrassment.
Is this the End of the Golden Age of television?
Game of Thrones ended with a message emphasizing the importance of story. That what wins over the people of the masses are the stories and the characters that go along with it. It’s not a bad message—though it may be a convoluted one—as I was always under the assumption the series was about the game itself and winning the Iron Throne?
With the series’ end marks the closing of an era of television. It’s going to be much more difficult now for a show to ever have that same type of following given the market saturation; especially, with all the channels, streaming applications, videogames, movies, and self-published content now vying for our attention. What Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Big Bang Theory benefited from was that it debuted just at the turn of the tide. I’d even go so far as to say these shows were the peak of it, showcasing the best of what modern fandom could build-upon and achieve. With the Golden Age of Television birthed the modern fandom, how we consume entertainment but also, how we’re critical of it. Look at all these remarks about Game of Thrones’ finale and the opinions it caused. More so now than ever before, fandom matters, and it’s becoming part of how TV operates in its writing and its discourse.
But with the increasing number of reboots, perhaps we’re seeing the end of this golden age of television. Then again, maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps now is the time things should be less about getting the most ad-revenue and subscriptions, and more about specified interests and becoming a more unique self-identity. Maybe let’s have shows with less massive popular culture appeal and release original narratives different people like for various reasons. Perhaps now is the time to embrace indie culture again from the ground-up; where the audience likes what they like because it’s enjoyable, and not because everyone is talking about it.
Personally, I’d be more than satisfied if we never hit these numbers again over a series, so long as there’s a varied and good amount of content out there, that fits people’s different personal tastes.
Still… I will miss bonding over a show that everyone watches at the office. But hey, that’s what sports are for right?