Season 5 of HBO's epic fantasy series Game Of Thrones might actually be one of the most controversial seasons of television in 2015. A large part of the discussion surrounding Thrones' most recent outing has subsided since the season ended earlier this year — but it is far from forgotten. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took a lot of heat this year for changes they made to George R.R. Martin's source material, including the rape of Sansa, the butchering of the popular Sand Snakes, and the burning of poor Princess Shireen. But now, another showrunner — no stranger to controversy himself — is weighing in on the matter.
Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof had some choice words for Thrones haters, which he shared with Entertainment Weekly:
I don’t watch television to find things to gripe about, and I think we live in a clickbait-y media culture that exists to pick things apart. [...] I see people pushing against Thrones where it’s like, literally from week to week, someone will say, “This is the most excellent show, this season is firing on all cylinders, it’s never been better.” And then because of one story move — Stannis burns his daughter—suddenly [the reaction is] like, “I cannot watch this show anymore. I’m quitting you, Game of Thrones.” And I’m thinking: “No, you’re not. Don’t be an ass.”
Lindelof, who now serves as showrunner for HBO's The Leftovers, has personal experience in the field of disgruntled fans, with Lost 's finale being one of the most divisive in television history. While certainly not the most hated series finale of all time, there was — and still remains — a vocal contingent of viewers upset by the finale's lack of clear-cut answers. So Lindelof sympathizes with Benioff and Weiss, and admires them for the sheer scope of their effort:
As someone who makes television, I watch that show and I do not know how they do it. I just don’t understand, on a sheer logistical level, of how they’re able to produce that qualitative of a product in the amount of time they have with so many different locations and so many different parts.
Perhaps where Lindelof and Thrones haters diverge the most is in the showrunner's ability to forgive less exciting episodes when they exist in the service of a compelling endgame:
... as a storyteller, if you can make one, let alone two, excellent hours of television a season if you’re doing eight or 10 episodes — an excellent episode by all accounts — I think what people don’t realize is that in order to produce those excellent episodes, there have to be episodes that set that up. There also have to be episodes that begin to—although this is never a storyteller’s intent—make [the viewer] go, “I don’t know, I don’t know about this…” That makes those excellent episodes all the more special. [...] You only need to demonstrate excellence once a season for me to view the entire season as excellent, or the entire show as excellent. And Game of Thrones is able to do it at any one time.
It's true that no one every says, "Well, that chapter of Pride & Prejudice wasn't as good as the last two, so I'm going to stop reading the book now," — so why do people threaten to stop watching a show after one subpar episode? Those who disagree with Lindelof are likely to point out that television is a different medium than literature, and those people would be correct; every hour of a TV show should have a complete and satisfying beginning, middle, and end in and of itself.
But in these days of heavy serialization and binge-watching, those distinctions are becoming less and less crucial. This is exactly the reason why people continue to tune in to controversial shows week after week — not because they're hate-watching, but because they're hope-watching with the idea that somehow each individual underwhelming episode will somehow ultimately be made worthwhile by a satisfying conclusion.
How you felt about Thrones Season 5 probably depends on how closely you align with Lindelof's way of thinking. While some viewers complained that the season got off to a slow start, I would argue that the final three action-filled — and generally acclaimed — episodes wouldn't have packed nearly as big of a punch without the deliberate slow burn of the seven episodes that preceded them. In that respect, I think he's absolutely right.
And yet, I can't help but feel like Lindelof is looking for a solution to a problem that doesn't really exist. Yes, Season 5 of Thrones may have given rise to an unprecedented number of thinkpieces and reactionary tweets; but the show still managed to shatter records, pulling in an unprecedented 8.11 million viewers for the finale, "Mother's Mercy," up 14% — over a million people — from the previous year's finale, making Thrones cable's second most popular program, after only AMC's The Walking Dead.
While it may have felt at times throughout Season 5 as though the masses had turned against the show, the numbers give the lie to that impression. The truth is that the haters and the nitpickers are likely a very vocal minority; just like the only people who actually take the time to review restaurants on Yelp are the ones who had a terrible experience, the people who were tweeting the most about Thrones were the ones who had the most negative things to say. This phenomenon can easily skew public perception, rendering a season that was generally well received as a disappointment in hindsight.
(Case-in-point: Star Trek Into Darkness, which premiered in 2013 to strong box office receipts and rave critical reviews, is largely remembered as a disappointment two short years later thanks to a very vocal minority of fans enraged by the sequel's handling of iconic villain Khan... fans who would go on to vote Into Darkness as the single worst film in the franchise at a Star Trek convention, over such undeniable stinkers as The Final Frontier and Nemesis.)
On IMDb, user ratings indicate that the vast majority of viewers enjoyed Season 5 just as much as the stellar fourth season: its 10 episodes averaged an 8.66 rating, just a hair's breadth behind Season 4's average of 8.68 rating... and well above the show's first three seasons, which averaged 8.35, 8.16, and 8.25, respectively. Season 5's eighth episode, "Hardhome," (which Lindelof referred to as "just as amazing" as Mad Men 's indelible episode "The Suitcase") is the single highest-rated hour of Thrones yet, with a staggering 9.9 out of 10.
So, while I agree that the threat of ceasing to watch a popular show is becoming as overused and tired as the phrase "jump the shark," it won't actually become a problem until people start following through on that threat. People are allowed to react to shocking developments or subpar episodes however they like, including outraged tweets; in this day and age of hyperbole and unfiltered thoughts, I would expect nothing less. And in the meantime, such vitriol is more likely to drive traffic and raise interest than anything else. Judging by the sheer volume of outrage surrounding the "death" of Jon Snow in the Season 5 finale, Thrones is poised to break records once again when even more people tune in to Season 6 to learn the Lord Commander's true fate.
As American showman P.T. Barnum once said, "There's no such thing as bad publicity."
Images: Giphy (5)