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Change is Gonna Come

Last night’s Game of Thrones season premier had more than six million views on HBO’s streaming services. Add to this the 10 million viewers who watched the premier through the traditional method of tuning their set top box to HBO and you have a whopping 16 million people watching the same episode of television in a compressed period of time. This number sounds large because it is: not only was it the most-watched Game of Thrones episode to date, it was the most-watched episode of any modern prestige television show. Breaking Bad’s series finale drew 10.3 million viewers, far more than any episode before; The Sopranos’ peaked at 11.9 million viewers for its series finale; and Mad Men drew a paltry three and a half million viewers on its strongest night.

Since its premier in 2011, each Game of Thrones season has averaged more viewers than the last, and there have often been jumps of up to a million viewers between the previous season finale and the new season premier. But only 8.89 million people watched “The Winds of Winter,” last season’s finale, on the night it aired, nearly half as many as watched “Dragonstone.” For the weeks leading up to the premier, the internet went into overdrive, with publications pumping out every possible Game of Thrones-themed article their poor writers could pitch. Now, in the wake of each episode airing, there will be an outpouring of responses (of which this review is just the tiniest drop) aimed squarely at the people who have just watched the episode.

Benioff and Weiss have access to the same responses, and, if “Dragonstone” is any indication, they are continuing their pattern of using the show as a platform to respond to criticism about the show. In doing so, they have changed Game of Thrones from a confident (if adolescent) rebuttal to decades of Tolkein-inspired fantasy into just another piece in that selfsame tradition.

One easily-graspable example of this kind of adjustment is the removal of sexposition from the show’s repertoire. While problematic for reasons both narrative and cultural, the practice of dropping gratuitous sex into an expository scene was integral to Game of Thrones’ identity during its formative years. The term was coined by a reviewer during the show’s second season, and, as “sexposition” became synonymous with Game of Thrones, those types of scenes grew fewer and further between as viewership numbers steadily increased.

Another (gross) example of the show’s shifting mores is Emilia Clarke’s changing attitude towards nudity. Clarke was naked on screen routinely during the show’s first three seasons before putting her foot down prior to the fourth. Then, to everyone’s surprise, she appeared nude again in last season’s “Book of the Stranger.” The circumstances of this shift are familiar to regular viewers: instead of her nudity representing her vulnerability, it was used to show how she had triumphed over her (male) foes, once again emerging unburnt from a fire.

The show started off with a lot of gratuitous nudity, garnered some criticism for it, and the producers (and, in Clarke’s case, the talent) responded by slowly replacing the gratuitous nudity with subtler, more precise versions. Now, whenever you see genitals on Game of Thrones, chances are it has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power, which, while nice from a cultural criticism point of view, represents a fundamental change from the show’s early seasons, during which sex organs were just one spice illiberally added to the mix.

A less explicit example of the show’s creators responding to its audience is the character of Lyanna Mormont. The steely young heir to Bear Island became an instant internet sensation after stealing her scene in last season’s “The Broken Man.” Lyanna’s youthful dedication to House Stark was a wonderful counterpoint to a world full of grown men who are willing to turn on their liege at the first sign of danger, and watching her show up older lords is always enjoyable. In “Dragonstone,” she does a repeat performance, once again precociously shaming her elder peers into conforming with the wishes of the King in the North. The filmmaking in the scene is effective, but it’s a trick the audience has already seen, and her appearance serves as little more than an applause break. Gone are the days when alliances were tested by feuding families and no-win situations were presented to leaders: now, whenever a powerful lord objects to his King’s command, he is put in his place by a twelve-year-old girl.

These changes to the show’s fabric can be described using the term “fan service,” which is to say, content created specifically to appease a subset of particularly dedicated viewers, although, in the case of Game of Thrones, the “fandom” which is being “pleased” is larger and more amorphous than groups to which that term is normally applied. When 16 million people watch a show the night it airs and then some significant portion takes to the internet to analyze its every frame, this “fandom” becomes a real market force on which people rely for their livelihoods. This puts an incredible amount of pressure on Benioff and Weiss to provide a product that people enjoy and want to keep engaging with, which naturally incentivizes them to trim objectionable content while emphasizing the parts that get positive audience reaction. And, despite having benefited from taking bold risks and breaking convention in the past, the writers are no longer in a position where they will take those risks, good or bad.

With “Dragonstone,” Game of Thrones has achieved its final form, an ouroboros-shaped entity that swallows its own audience only to regurgitate it back at itself an hour at a time. Not only has the show’s story reached a point of near mathematical predictability going forward, but its tone has adjusted to meet the weight of expectations placed upon it by its audience. Gone are frolicking prostitutes and good guys getting their heads cut off; here to stay are little girls being the voice of reason and villains meeting poetic ends. Whether season seven of Game of Thrones will be the best yet is impossible to tell, but, after just an hour, the show has finished the journey away from its roots that began last season and arrived at a kinder, gentler, Tolkein-inspired version of fantasy storytelling.

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