Winter is Coming: People still care about Game of Thrones, and here’s the proof

Robert Oliver
9 min readJul 15, 2021

This article was originally published on on July 11th, 2021. You can read the original upload here:

Daenerys at Dragonstone.

In the aftermath of era-defining cultural events, narratives form and mutate. The Beatles’ split was pinned on Yoko Ono; Limp Bizkit took the blame for the Woodstock ’99 riots; myths of L’Arrivée d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat (an early silent movie shown in 1896) terrifying audiences stood firm for a century. You’re probably thinking of other examples I haven’t remembered.

As a viewing public, we enjoy these stories, not because we want to deliberately obscure pop culture history, but because they’re convenient half-truths that provide us with plausible explanations for difficult emotions and allow us to navigate the intense feelings that pop culture generates. If something in the world of art and entertainment shocks our systems, it’s only natural to seek out perspectives that justify our instant reactions and confirm our nascent rationalizations and biases. Sure, sometimes these narratives aren’t entirely true, but their existence isn’t immoral or uncommon.

“Nobody cares about Game of Thrones anymore”

When Game of Thrones concluded its run in May of 2019, a lot of narratives formed around its polarizing final season. The HBO fantasy drama had, across its eight years on air, become a phenomenon. It broke worldwide viewership records, Emmy awards piled up, and critics were awestruck. To many, it represented the peak of Peak TV, the “last watercooler show” in an age of fractured viewing habits.

So of course the eighth and final season was watched intently. And when episodes like “The Bells” and “The Iron Throne” left millions disappointed, the world demanded answers. Two million super-fans even signed a petition demanding a remake. And in the absence of any concrete movement there, the public devised its own narratives about the final season of the show, and about its legacy.

Of the narratives that formed immediately after the series finale, a handful still get talked about to this day. Some speculate that creators and showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss rushed the ending so they could work on a series of Star Wars films for Disney, while others insist the pair couldn’t make a good show without George R.R. Martin’s source material. But these can’t be proven, either because of a lack of evidence or because determining a story’s objective quality is impossible.

But two years on from the series’ controversial ending, a narrative that can be easily disproved with a quick Google search still rumbles on, unchecked and unquestioned. If you spend any time in corners of the web dedicated to big TV and film franchises, you won’t have to go far to find somebody saying some variation of “Nobody cares about Game of Thrones anymore,” usually with an attendant discussion about the ending being so underwhelming that it obliterated all previously established goodwill for the series, rendered the story redundant, and resulted in the show’s immediate cultural death. In fact, just last month, Collider published an entire 800-word article supporting this theory without offering any evidence as to whether it was actually true.

Facts disprove this narrative right off the bat. According to Parrot Analytics, Game of Thrones was the most-watched (and most-pirated) TV show across streaming services in 2020. An analysis of British viewing habits revealed it was the second-most popular show during the pandemic. Blu-ray sales for season 8 were the highest for TV boxsets in the United States in 2019, and the fourth-highest in 2020. Twitter has listed Game of Thrones season 8 as the second most-discussed English language show on the platform, after Grey’s Anatomy. It has also received more Google searches in the last 12 months than competitors like WandaVision, Rick & Morty and The Mandalorian, despite a lack of new episodes. In a baffling irony, that Collider article was part of “What is Ten May Never Die,” a series of pieces on Collider marking the show’s 10th anniversary. A lot of people may not like the final season of Game of Thrones, but the plain data shows that they still talk and care about it. A lot.

Why does this false Game of Thrones narrative persist?

Now, I could conclude this article here with a hefty mic drop of hard facts, but that would only half-finish the job. Because even though the data proves that people are still interested in Game of Thrones, it doesn’t explain why this narrative continues. The extreme and absolutist notion that “Nobody cares about Game of Thrones anymore” definitely needs to be tossed away, but something about it fascinates me, and not just because the claim continues to be shared despite a wealth of solid, contradictory evidence. What is the root cause of this narrative’s popularity? What human emotions are behind it?

One theory I’m working on is that the claim still spreads because our interpretation of reality has been heavily distorted by the structure of social media platforms and online content aggregators. Our experiences on Twitter, for example, are never accidental. Twitter is run by an algorithm that deliberately pushes us towards content that provokes strong enough emotional reactions to keep us coming back. You may only be reading this because Twitter detected a provocative headline and steered you here. But as far as the algorithm is concerned, there’s nothing sexy about raw streaming data, so it’s not worthy of your attention. Until an online culture magazine turns that raw data into clickbait, the algorithm can’t frame it as an attack on your belief system. It doesn’t want to tell you that Game of Thrones‘ viewing figures are simply “moderately healthy”, as opposed to world-dominating, because it’s not dramatic. If it can’t give you one extreme, it will make sure you believe the other: if it can’t tell you that absolutely everyone watches Game of Thrones, it will keep telling you that absolutely nobody does.

My second theory comes from a suggestion raised by culture critic Asher Elbein. In his essay “Skeletonizing Culture,” he recalls how thousands of websites spent years “flooding the zone” with a mountain of Game of Thrones content — podcasts, recaps, reviews, news and leaks, listicles, clickbait. But when season 8 was widely criticized, those same websites suddenly flipped and instead began flooding the zone with articles about why season 8 was a disaster. Spend 10 minutes browsing the relevant spaces and you’ll see just how many websites published hundreds of pieces detailing the same handful of complaints about the finale. Analytics would have shown editors that more emotive, extreme content increased traffic on their websites during May and June of 2019. By that point, Twitter’s algorithm will have already twisted public disappointment into anger by bombarding people with reasons to be infuriated — and in a media landscape where online publications are fighting an eternal battle for funding and readership, several of them played the game to stay ahead. Elbein notes that this widespread, repetitive negativity resulted in “the same criticisms [getting] trotted out everywhere” and saw the “critical and audience consensus [slam] shut.” A feedback loop preserved the idea that audiences rejected the entire series after it cut to black and simply stopped caring. Nobody else got a word in.

My third theory is more of a question: What if there’s actually a degree of truth to the narrative? By accusing algorithms and feedback loops of allowing falsehoods to propagate, and by throwing an arsenal of facts at faceless dissenting voices, I’m also guilty of falling prey to my own biases and relying on carefully selected half-truths. The truth is that the full story of any major cultural event is often made up of dozens and dozens of these little half-truths. Misogynist rockers blew his comments out of proportion, but John Lennon did imply that he chose Yoko over the band; Limp Bizkit were a convenient scapegoat for festival organizers who carelessly chucked thousands of teenagers into danger, but Fred Durst did ask the crowd to ‘Break Stuff’; the audience didn’t evacuate the theatre in horror, but they were very disturbed by the Lumiere brothers’ short film. It’s a problem when the media fixates on the tiniest of half-truths simply because they’re the sexiest, but that doesn’t mean they can be completely ignored either.

Grappling with the ending of Game of Thrones

Despite a handful of reservations, I enjoyed the conclusion to Game of Thrones. It didn’t move me or satisfy me to the same degree of earlier seasons, but it was still, on the whole, a surprising and emotionally rewarding experience. Over 73 episodes, it asked us, “How far is too far when pursuing the greater good?” And then it gave us the answer by displaying the horrific consequences of conquest and the generational trauma inherited by children of war. It built a breathing world of family politics and medieval violence, titillated us with beautiful bodies and gratuitous sex, kept us addicted with impossibly large spectacles and grand prophecies, and then purposely burned everything down in double-quick time while holding its own audience accountable for the final tragedy. Whichever way you slice it, that’s bold television.

The problem is that boldness is often a double-edged sword, and the sentiment amongst fans these days is that, while believable on paper, in practice Benioff and Weiss’ grand tale ended with a whimper. The negative reaction hit the show’s reputation hard, and it might have affected its legacy too.

I recently asked subscribers of the principal Game of Thrones subreddit if season 8 had made them more likely, just as likely, or less likely to recommend the show to their friends. The overwhelming majority (65% of voters) said that, after season 8, they felt less likely to pass it on. “It was the show I [used to] recommend to everyone,” one user replied, “Now, I don’t talk about it that much.” Another user said, “It was a huge part of my life, but season 8 was so disappointing that it actually upset me.” Among users who said they were just as likely to recommend the show, several admitted that they inserted caveats: “I recommend the show but apologize for season 8.” A slim minority (4% of voters) said they were actually more likely to recommend the show to others these days, but the overwhelming feeling was one of disillusionment, that a show once regarded as imperiously perfect for so long had crashed to earth so suddenly and so thoroughly that numbness and apathy had set in. Maybe it was easier for these people to lose interest, or pretend they don’t care, than it was to admit the ending broke their hearts.

To better interpret the numbness and apathy, I revisited a quote by Sam Adolfo, a clinical psychologist and Game of Thrones fan who voiced undead Viserion and undead Ned Umber on the show. She drew a comparison between the fandom’s reaction to season 8 and the stages of grief: “At first, there was a lot of denial that [the TV ending] wouldn’t happen in the books. Then there was a lot of anger, like, ‘Fuck Game of Thrones, fuck Dan and David’. Then there was a lot of depression, and people thinking ‘I’ve wasted all this time.’”

The numbness and apathy in those Reddit comments indicates that the active, online fanbase is still very much in the depression stage. New fans and casual viewers (people who became fans during the pandemic, and people who don’t seek out further discourse on the web) will keep the show’s general popularity healthy. But the deep emotional connection to the show experienced by a lot of super-fans has been damaged, and might result in fewer friends sharing it amongst themselves and fewer parents sharing it with their children. This will have a knock-on effect as the years go by. The claim that “Nobody cares about Game of Thrones anymore” is false, but there’s a strong possibility that season 8 has resulted in people caring less about the show than they used to.

However, Adolfo opined that “[the fanbase] will reach that final grief stage of acceptance” in the future. And a handful of high-budget prequel series might be the perfect tonic; the spinoff show House of the Dragon is getting a lot of buzz, and its Twitter page explodes whenever they post a promotional still. Even Benioff & Weiss’ next project, a Netflix adaptation of Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem series, is drawing attention from people who swore they would never trust them again.

And if George R.R. Martin ever publishes The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, we’ll be in for years of painful discourse and misguided comparisons between his ending and Benioff and Weiss’. All of this is to say that a juggernaut the size of Game of Thrones can’t be killed, even if it isn’t thriving as it once did; not when it’s already supplied an endless stream of memes, references, and zeitgeist-piercing twists, as well as an inescapable influence on 21st century television. Once you sustain an audience of hundreds of millions, cultural dominance becomes the default setting. People might care less than they used to, but for years to come, one way or another, we will always want more of Westeros.