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An Audience Divided

HBO’s Game of Thrones has been putting audiences in uncomfortable positions for five complete seasons, and the sixth is poised to continue this streak. From the execution of seeming protagonist Ned Stark to the subsequent series of deadly weddings, Game of Thrones was long fueled by its supposed willingness to buck narrative trends that haunt lesser television shows: no longer could the audience rest safe in the knowledge that a character would make it out of a deadly situation just because the actor who played them received top billing. That dangerous uncertainty was thrilling, and kept increasingly-large audiences tuning in week after week for years.

Yet that audience was always, and irreconcilably, divided. Up until the season five finale, there were two kinds of Game of Thrones viewers: those who had read the books, and those who had not. The former group enjoyed a very different experience from the latter because of their epistemological “advantage,” and often game-changing events (pun intended) were met by this faction with cathartic sighs rather than shrieks of surprise. The proliferation of “Red Wedding reaction videos” on YouTube after that episode aired highlighted this divide between the two audiences. Those in the know sat back and waited the inevitable betrayal while their ignorant companions perched on the edge of their sofas in disbelief as the situation on-screen grew increasingly bleak.

The sixth season of Game of Thrones ought to mark the convergence of these two audiences for the first time. The source material ran dry with the “death” of Jon Snow and the capture of Danaerys by the Dothraki, and from the first frame of “The Red Woman” we are all in uncharted territory. Why, then, does this episode, for book readers such as myself, feel like just so much wheel spinning? The answer is complex, but worth exploring, because it gets to the heart of what the actual difference between the two audiences has been from the very beginning.

The first factor is obvious: while the TV-viewers have only been waiting for the next chapter in the story for less than a year, book-readers have been formulating theories about where the story will go since they finished devouring A Dance with Dragons in 2011, the same year that the television show began airing. Book-readers have had five years to come up with all the various scenarios that will lead to Jon Snow’s inevitable resurrection and Dany’s obvious return to Meereen, neither of which are plots that “The Red Woman” feels in any way interested in resolving. Teasing Melisandre’s new loyalty in a Stannis-free world and confirming that yes, Dany will be taken to Vaes Dothrak to live with the rest of the widows do not feel like plot advancements because they are not. Rather, they are ways of giving TV-viewers information that the book-readers have possessed for half a decade or more.

And that brings me to the second factor, which is what really separates the two audiences from one another. Like J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth, the real treasure of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series is its living, breathing world. The history of Westeros and its feuding feudal lords is as interesting to book-readers as the latest round of battle being done by the Lannisters and Starks because both are so well-crafted. Revelations about how the Baratheons came to power and why the Targaryans fell capture the imagination as much as contemporary power struggles because they feed into one another. The HBO show has done as good a job as it can to bring this world to the screen, but its budgetary and time constraints necessarily mandate excision of vast swaths of world-building that simply cannot play out efficiently on film.

So when book-readers watch the show, their experience is incalculably richer than that of their TV-viewing counterparts, yet they lack the ability to be surprised by any development that has an equivalent in the books. This is not to suggest that one way of viewing is better than the other, rather that they are almost incalculably different. Game of Thrones is two different shows for two different audiences, and even as it enters unwritten territory, the divide will remain. For example, take the scene in which Dany is brought before Khal Moro: for TV-viewers, this scene was incredibly tense, as the different players danced around one another until Dany revealed her identity and the Khal told her what that identity entailed. Yet book-readers have known about the dosh khaleen since they read the first book and so know exactly where the scene is going before it begins, making it somewhat bloodless when it finally arrives.

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The wheels of plot have always ground slowly in Game of Thrones, and pointing out the lack of forward momentum in a season premiere is nothing new. These episodes tend to function as reset buttons, a means of reintroducing each of the major characters and plots and giving them a starting point for the rest of the season. And there were developments in “The Red Woman,” including the burning of Dany’s fleet in Meereen and Brienne rescuing and pledging her allegiance to Sansa. Doran Martell’s murder by the Sand Snakes served to cut the head off a plot of which readers and viewers have been rightly wary since its beginning. And any episode without a Sam and Gilly scene is a minor victory in and of itself. But the writers are at a crossroads with no clear direction forward. They must tread carefully lest they botch five seasons worth of setup that was based on thousands of pages of fantasy writing. Benioff and Weiss are now without a map, and although they have been guided for much of their journey, the weight of bringing us all home safely is now squarely on their shoulders. Let us hope they are up to the task.

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