There will be another TV show we talk about with the same fervor with which we talk about Game of Thrones. There always has been. There always will be.
Indeed, the last cycle of “Will anybody ever talk about TV this way again?” think pieces was a mere four years ago, in the spring of 2015, to mark the end of Mad Men — and that was with Game of Thrones already on the air. The same thing happened in 2013 with the end of Breaking Bad, in 2010 with the end of Lost, in 2007 with the end of The Sopranos ... hell, in 1998 with the end of Seinfeld. We’ve so often thought, “This is it. The end of TV as we know it.” And it never is.
Yet the impending debut of Game of Thrones’ six-episode final season has culture critics feeling a little melancholy for the end of a presumed monoculture. Writers for the Ringer and Vulture and the BBC have all tackled the question of what the future looks like without Game of Thrones — and those are just the first few links I grabbed after a quick Google search.
The idea that anchors so many of these pieces is that Game of Thrones is the last show we’ll all watch together. But the problem with that idea is it automatically limits the idea of “we.” After all, lots and lots of people watch This Is Us or The Big Bang Theory (which is also wrapping a long run this spring) or The Walking Dead together every week.
It also ignores the fact that for a long portion of its run, Game of Thrones was very successful but not yet a culture-defining mega-hit. A lot of people had to get caught up with it later so that we could all “watch it together” now.
So I feel confident in saying there will be another TV show. We won’t really see it coming, and it might air on a streaming platform (though I suspect that the week-to-week episodic schedule that has so often driven shows like this will win out). And it will probably have to dig out from under the sure-to-be-massive amounts of news coverage surrounding the 2020 presidential election. But there will be another TV show we talk about like Game of Thrones.
Yet the end of Game of Thrones does spell the end of something.
The end of Game of Thrones is kind of the end of TV recap culture
If you read the pieces I linked above, you’ll see that they all go to great lengths to admit that, okay, Game of Thrones isn’t the be-all, end-all of the TV monoculture. (Except for the BBC one, which asks whether Game of Thrones is TV’s “last blockbuster hit” — a bizarre notion at a time when TV is only becoming more crowded with big-budget blockbusters, from Westworld to Altered Carbon.)
But if you write on the internet, then this final season of Game of Thrones, like the final seasons of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Lost before it, has the distinct feeling of a going-out-of-business sale. Whatever takes you might have, you gotta get them out the door now, now, now.
And the height of this feeling around the show will inevitably center on the next six Sundays, when its last six episodes air and the TV critics of this great internet of ours fly into action, typing furiously to file their recaps and takes as quickly as possible.
For a lot of current TV critics, the recap is where we got our start. The roster of critics who worked with me at the A.V. Club — where I cut my recapping teeth, and you can bet I’ll be filing upward of 4,000 words on the eventual series finale within 90 minutes of its conclusion — contains the names of critics who went on to major positions at Variety, Vanity Fair, Indiewire, Vulture, and the Atlantic, among others. Suffice to say, recaps are still remembered fondly by critics, even if they’ve somewhat fallen out of fashion among readers.
Additionally, while there are still other TV shows that people anticipate with the same fervor as Game of Thrones, there isn’t one on the air right now where people read absolutely everything published about it in the same way.
Game of Thrones was born in 2011 at the peak of recap culture, and it aired on HBO, a network with enough cultural prestige that even its more minor hits tended to receive recaps. To a very real degree, the show is the last survivor of this particular era, and when it goes, it just might take recap culture with it.
But even if it doesn’t, even if we all suddenly decide to start reading Killing Eve and Big Little Lies recaps (to name two shows that audiences are currently obsessed with), Game of Thrones has something these other shows simply don’t: lore.
Game of Thrones’ roots in a book series gave it a substantial advantage when it came to attracting readers
Writing about Game of Thrones often isn’t even writing about Game of Thrones so much as it is writing about an entire fictional world and cast of characters that encompasses Game of Thrones, which exists not just in TV show form but in book form as well.
I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve been in over the course of the show’s run where someone has asked if there’s something we can write about from the books, tied to the show. At the A.V. Club, we even started doing two recaps of each episode — one for people who’d read the books and one for people who hadn’t. And that tradition continues to this day, even though the show is no longer adapting books, because it’s surpassed its source material.
People who like to read about Game of Thrones on the internet seem fascinated by the world of George R.R. Martin’s books, especially if they never have to read them and can instead read carefully constructed summaries on their favorite websites. That’s an advantage the show has always had over other series.
In contrast, no matter how well any given website’s recaps of The Handmaid’s Tale perform with readers, it’s pretty hard to write a bunch of posts that tie the show to book lore, because the amount of information that Margaret Atwood provides about Gilead is deliberately minimal. Not so with Martin. On top of his Song of Ice and Fire novels, he’s published an entire book of backstory to his fantasy world.
And look, if you want to say that the end of Game of Thrones is the end of a very specific confluence of circumstances that turned this particular TV show into the most reliable web traffic generator this side of a presidential election — sure. I’ll go that far.
The level of backstory and information there is about each and every aspect of Martin’s world is really only rivaled by Tolkien’s Middle-earth and the Star Wars universe. (Also, guess what? Both Middle-earth and Star Wars have TV series in development. Start reading Wookieepedia, everybody!)
But don’t mistake the end of Game of Thrones for the end of a TV monoculture just because it’s the poster series of an industry that will dearly miss the storm of clicks it brings. There will be another TV show. That TV show might even be on the air right now. And when that show ends, we’ll all wonder if we’ll ever have it this good again.