Remember what it felt like when the blade came down on Ned Stark’s head? When “The Rains of Castamere” began playing at the wedding of Edmure Tully and Roslin Frey? When Roose Bolton’s chainlink armor was revealed? When a knife was thrust deep into Talisa Stark’s stomach, and into Robb Stark’s heart, and another clean across Catelyn Stark’s throat?
These were moments on Game of Thrones that truly stunned. I remember where I was when I first saw those episodes. I remember being unable to speak as birds scattered above Ned Stark’s severed head, and that speechlessness returned after the Red Wedding. Other viewers reacted more violently—there’s a whole subset of YouTube videos in which Thrones fans lose it after the credits roll on “The Rains of Castamere.” Game of Thrones’ power and popularity were built on these moments. A lot of television shows preach that “no one is safe,” but Thrones was the only one for which that threat was actually a promise. The show, through George R.R. Martin’s novels, killed off its protagonists with cold efficiency—meanwhile, The Walking Dead is still pussyfooting around its first kill of a truly, seemingly indispensable character. To watch Game of Thrones, and to fall in love with it, was to revel in the chaos of the world, and the unforgiving, unbiased scythe of death and war. The unpredictability of the narrative was the show’s’ main attraction.
But the days of being surprised by Game of Thrones are over.
Two Sundays ago, we watched as Melisandre brought Jon Snow back from the dead. The scene was played methodically and straightforwardly: the Red Woman washed his wounds, recited incantations in a foreign language, and when the ritual appeared to fail, she and the others in the room filed out somberly. The camera lingered though—Jon’s dire wolf stirred, and then he shot up, eyes wide open, breath in his lungs.
It should have been a triumphant moment for Game of Thrones: a shock on the same level as Ned Stark’s execution, but on the other side of the spectrum in terms of hope. Instead, it was a moment that felt dreadfully predetermined. The question of whether Jon would rise or not had been stripped of any semblance of mystery, and all that was left was a plot point that Thrones had to get past. As the episode cut from Jon’s widened, awake eyes to the credits, I wasn’t speechless—I was rolling my eyes.
Last night, and in the coming weeks, Thrones viewers are being treated to another “big moment,” and it’s likely to be met with the same “well duh” resignation as Jon Snow’s resurrection. If you were on the internet last week, you probably saw some form of the headline, “This Week’s Game of Thrones Promo Hints They’ll Confirm a Major Fan Theory.” That major fan theory is “R + L = J,” or, Rhaegar Targaryen plus Lyanna Stark equals Jon Snow. It’s an extremely well-supported theory, borne in the late nineties by book readers, that Jon Snow is not the bastard son of Ned Stark, but instead the child of Rhaegar (Daenerys’ brother) and Lyanna (Ned’s sister). It’s a theory that has huge implications, that changes the way we view the show’s most important characters, and that may confirm Martin and Thrones showrunners’ endgame. But the fans (at least most of them) have beaten the show to this point.
Admittedly, seeing a young Ned Stark and crew go to battle with Ser Arthur Dayne through the warging eyes of Bran last night was rewarding, and possibly the best part of the episode. But that was due mostly to the scene’s swordfighting choreography, and the compelling reveal that an important Westerosi legend—that Ned defeated Dayne at the Tower of Joy—wasn’t exactly true. There was also the bubbling anticipation of “R + L = J” being verified. That feeling, as Ned climbed the tower’s stairs, was strong. But this reveal, when it does come, can never reach its full potential. This is the biggest plot twist in all of Game of Thrones, but the reaction to having your speculation confirmed can never be as arresting as the reaction to having a life-altering bomb dropped on you for the first time.
For the first three seasons or so, Thrones had its audience in the palm of its hand, or even more accurately, running around like a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off. It was fun, being so completely manipulated by a television show, but we as humans aren’t so good at ceding control, especially for an extended period of time. The cliffhangers and twists that kept coming, turning Thrones viewers into YouTube clips, created a stronger and stronger thirst for knowing. (The death of Jon Snow is probably the moment that this trend reached an apex.) What else are
conspiracy fan theories if not human attempts to explain the unexplainable and assign meaning in the face of the horrifying truth that not everything happens for a reason?
These fan theories are part of mainstream pop culture now—they’ve graduated from the depths of Reddit to the front pages of websites like Vulture, GQ, and yes, Complex. The Game of Thrones audience is being encouraged to try to jump ahead, and in many ways, forced to learn things before the show presents them. After Jon Snow was murdered, the theory engine revved up immediately, and before long, fans—and the websites that allow themselves to become fan theory platforms—had devised countless ways to invalidate what had just happened. But that’s not even the most egregious example of how Thrones’ fanbase is numbing the show’s impact. That was actually pretty understandable, and at least those theories didn’t totally depend on Martin’s original texts, the way “R + L = J” does.
While there have been some hints at Jon’s true parentage in the televised version of Game of Thrones, “R + L = J” is a theory that is literally entirely built upon the words of George R.R. Martin. The theory gained steam almost a decade before the show even started. In this sense, the proliferation of “R + L = J” is merely a spoiler from the book. Fans—and websites—didn’t run amok spoiling, or even hinting at, the death of Ned Stark or the Red Wedding. In fact, pre-knowledge of the Red Wedding was a point of immense pride for bookreaders, something they clung to tightly. Why is it all of the sudden okay to talk about this show in the context of what happens in the books? Are we really in that much of a rush to curb the impact of the show we love so much?
In every review HitFix’s Alan Sepinwall has written over Game of Thrones’ six seasons, he’s left a note demanding that commenters discuss the show only as it happens on the show. “We are here to talk about ‘Game of Thrones’ as a television show,” his plea would go. This morning though, his message was a little different:
Finally, though the show has mostly gone past the plot of the published books, and though our goal is to talk about the TV show and not constantly reference the novels, there is a fan theory about what the Raven is teaching Bran that started among the book readers and has become widespread enough that at least some non-readers like me know about it. Since it's mainly theory rather than explicit evidence drawn from an outside text, I'm not going to say you're not allowed to discuss it here, but maybe step a little lightly for the sake of those who maybe haven't been interrogating the idea for years and years? (And if you're a non-reader who would rather not have a plot twist ruined by educated guessing, read the comments at your own peril.)
Fan theories are no longer a cottage industry—they’ve become woven into what it means to be a fan of Game of Thrones. Whether you like it or not. Merely ignoring spoilers or avoiding comments sections isn’t a complete solution in this case, and more importantly, it’s clearly not something fans of the show are adhering to. Readers dictate content, and the reason these fan theories have gone mainstream—and continue to be published by major entertainment outlets—is that they perform extremely well. Fans want to be spoiled. They don’t care about how blunted the show becomes.
Now, this isn’t a fans-only problem. As showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have a responsibility to respond and adapt to their audience. They should be aware of how voraciously Thrones fans pick apart the show, looking for clues and racing to the finish line—and they should be able to appreciate how smart and invested the fans are. So far, they haven’t done a good job of this. How Jon Snow’s resurrection was shot suggests Benioff and Weiss aren’t prepared to combat the audience’s intelligence. As Matt Zoller Seitz at Vulture wrote, the scene “was conceived and executed in the most pedestrian manner, underplaying to a fault, betting all of its dramatic chips on the mere fact of Snow's resurrection carrying the brunt of the moment's power.” Alternatively, Thrones should have found a way to add panache to the scene, to surprise the audience in some smaller way, since any chance of surprising the audience with Jon rising once again had been eliminated entirely. Another remedy for this problem could have been a matter of pacing—putting Jon’s death at the end of an episode rather than the end of a season, thereby making the cliffhanger a week long, rather than 10 months long.
Take Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot as a counterpoint. In the first season, Esmail and his show never underestimated how smart the audience was. It anticipated that fans would be able to guess its twist, so it cleverly nodded to it in Episode 9 (with the “Where Is My Mind?” music cue) and then upped the ante entirely in Episode 10. Esmail used his basic twist—the one he knew everyone would pick up—as a Trojan horse, and the results were mind-blowing. Game of Thrones could take a few notes.
There’s still plenty of time for Game of Thrones to regain its swagger. Last night was proof that the show can still be compelling, engaging, and surprising. But if the fanbase continues to assert the need to solve everything ahead of time, and the show’s writers do nothing to counteract that urge, Thrones may never be what it once was. Which is too bad. Because I want to be shocked by the resurrection of Jon Snow; I want my brain to explode by the reveal that he was never the bastard son of Ned Stark. And I know for sure that I don’t want to continue to watch this show with a sad resignation, waiting for these big, theorized-upon moments to pass, so that I can once more forge ahead into the unknown.