Watching last night's Game of Thrones episode, "First of His Name," was the closest the show has ever been, for me, to Lost. Neither in form or content, mind you, but in everything that's not directly related to the show itself, its many strong performances, or especially brutal moments of carnage, like Jon Snow driving the sword straight through Craster Keep alpha Karl's skull.
Back during the live-on-the-air Lost days, episodes would conclude and I'd immediately race to my computer and peruse the Internet for online fan reactions, which were always divisive and endlessly readable. Particularly in its middle seasons, Lost tapped into the pop culture subconscious like no other show of its time, or any other time, frankly. Commenters posting in response to those magnificent weekly recaps from Entertainment Weekly's Jeff "Doc" Jensen were never at a shortage of heated opinions. There would be times during any given episode where something crazy would happen and my own visceral thoughts would be proceeded by my anticipation of the inevitably negative feedback. And the Lost viewing experience was all the more unique and fascinating for that.
Prior to this current season, Game of Thrones was surefire Sunday night entertainment. You knew the writing would be first-class, the acting exceptional, and the overall production quality multiple steps beyond anything else on television. And you didn't wait for those Lost-like instances of cyber backlash, because Game of Thrones co-creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had been executing one hell of a creative tight-rope walk. While delivering consistently excellent television on their own rights, they'd also been reverential to George R.R. Martin's A Song of Fire and Ice literary source material. The book series' millions of passionate, loyal readers adored the HBO show's faithfulness and skillful methods of condensing Martin's sprawling text into digestible 10-episode seasons. Game of Thrones always felt foolproof.
That was before Game of Thrones turned into the Nielsen-smashing juggernaut it currently is, though, averaging north of a whopping 14 million viewers. It's HBO's biggest ratings poster since The Sopranos. And now, like what happened with Breaking Bad last year, when the once-inconspicuous critical darling magnified into overwhelming ubiquity, Game of Thrones is the central topic of small-screen conversation. Benioff and Weiss' every move and decision will now be tirelessly analyzed.
And, as a result, their once-untouchable program has become unintentionally button-pushing in recent weeks. Two episodes ago, Jaime Lannister's sexual assault of his sister/lover Cersei in front of their offspring Joffrey's deceased corpse set the entire Internet, from Game of Thrones die-hards to people who'd never previously paid the show much mind, into a mostly angered frenzy. Jaime's mounting identity for anti-heroism was instantaneously tarnished; George R.R. Martin's handling of the scene in the books, which was more consensual, was usurped for something much more insensitive and against its character.
Then, in the following episode, A Song of Fire and Ice readers' minds imploded during the hour's closing section, in which the exceedingly malevolent vibes of Craster's Keep veered far away from Martin's writings. Falling in line with Game of Thrones' long-established tone, the women in Craster's Keep are treated like puppets for torture and heinous humiliation; Bran Stark, finally brought into the show's primary action for longer than two minutes, gets captured and similarly degraded. The last baby alive in Craster is then brought to the land of the White Walkers, where a regal-looking White Walker touches the infant's face and turns his eyes blue—a regal-looking White Walker who, that's right, has yet to show up anywhere in Martin's published novels.
Indeed, it was an unexpectedly tumultuous month of April for Game of Thrones/A Song of Fire and Ice fans. Not to mention, an unforeseeably rough April for the show's creators and producers. For the first time, Benioff and Weiss were called out for what many perceived as wrong artistic choices. Some folks behind the series were prompted to speak up in defense of their property, like HBO's president of programming Michael Lombardo, who told the New York Times' reporter Dave Itzkoff, "The choices our creative teams make are based on the motivations and sensibilities that they believe define their characters. We fully support the vision and artistry of Dan and David’s exceptional work and we feel this work speaks for itself.”
Martin, for his part, took a less supportive stance on Jaime's sexual mistreatment of Cersei, writing on his blog, "The whole dynamic is different in the show, where Jaime has been back for weeks at the least, maybe longer, and he and Cersei have been in each other's company on numerous occasions, often quarreling. The setting is the same, but neither character is in the same place as in the books, which may be why Dan & David played the [scene] out differently. But that's just my surmise; we never discussed this scene, to the best of my recollection."
Weiss and Benioff, meanwhile, have upheld their oath to say nothing. Over the weekend, Entertainment Weekly's James Hibberd wrote about how Game of Thrones' co-creators discussed their shared vow of voluntary aloofness during the publication's set visit last year. "We both made this pact that we were going to stop looking at stuff online because you can go into the rabbit hole and get lost in this world of online Thrones commentary if you’re not careful,” said Benioff. “We both felt a lot saner after we stopped doing that.”
Of course, that's the complete opposite of how Lost executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse operated during their ABC drama's live run. They kept up with all the online chatter. After Lost's highly controversial series finale in 2010, Lindelof told Entertainment Weekly, "We are not indifferent to fan reaction. We care about what they think. A lot.” Which isn't to say that Benioff and Weiss aren't concerned with their Game of Thrones viewership's opinions—all showrunners care about that. Without their impassioned viewers, they'd have no ratings and, therefore, no show. Yet even if the Thrones shotcallers aren't reading any of what's being said about their program lately, and will keep declining interview requests like the one sent by NY Times' writer Dave Itzkoff for his piece, they're certainly aware of it all.
Who's to say that, in season five, they won't second-guess some of their narrative maneuvers against Martin's books. Going from being TV's beacons of near flawlessness to its sudden targets of ire is previously uncharted territory for them. A Song of Fire and Ice fans could once leave their paperbacks on the shelf every Sunday night, with confidence in the show's precise obedience towards the book's narratives. These days, many are no doubt watching new episodes while fingering along with the coinciding action in Martin's prose.
I, for one, tune in every Sunday without any knowledge whatsoever of the goings-on in those A Song of Fire and Ice books. I've never read a single word in any of them. But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that Game of Thrones has become an equally disrupted experience for me. I used to sit down and flip on HBO with the understanding that Game of Thrones would once again do its impeccably sterling thing and I'd leave it at that. From here on out, though, I'll spend time in Westeros being on the lookout for the Lannister, Baratheon, or Tyrell family's answers to Nikki and Paulo.
Matt Barone is a Complex senior staff writer who lives in New Jersey and tried his hardest to work a "Hodor" namedrop into the preceding essay, but, sadly, wasn't successful. He tweets here.