ASU media studies professor — and 'GoT' fan — discusses the HBO juggernaut's impact in advance of its final season starting April 14
Editor’s note: Winter is coming. As are spoilers. But to be fair, the show has been out since 2011, so if you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
So said Cersei Lannister to Ned Stark in the first season of HBO’s ultra-successful adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s acclaimed book series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” And on “Game of Thrones,” Ned Stark — and plenty of others — have already died.
It remains to be seen who will win, but one thing is clear: The end of the omnipresent award-winning series will leave a gaping pop culture hole.
The final, six-episode season premieres on April 14.
In preparation for dragons and direwolves monopolizing our global attention for the next six weeks, ASU Now talked with Kevin Sandler, an associate professor of film and media studies in the Department of English and a self-proclaimed “Game of Thrones” diehard, about the show’s impact, how TV is changing and who he thinks should sit on the Iron Throne in the end.
Editor’s note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Question: So you’re a fan of the show?
Answer: I love the show. It’s the only show I watch. I have a lot of kids (laughs). So obviously I don’t watch a lot of TV because “Game of Thrones” isn’t on very often. But I will watch it the night that it comes out, all the time.
Q: The final season of “Game of Thrones” feels like an event. How has on-demand, streaming and social media changed the way that we communally experience TV events?
A: With the rise of binge-watching, it’s harder and harder to make a case for somebody to be somewhere at a particular time and get excited about it. When you start to have the option of when and where and how and with whom you get to watch something, that control over that consumption will inherently transform the kind of stuff that gets made — and the way that networks respond to such new technologies.
At one time, everybody was watching “Friends.” Everything changed around the year that ended. The networks had to deal with this upstart place called Netflix in ways that they didn’t have to deal with upstarts in the cable world when people started doing original content.
With “House of Cards” and the growth of binge-watching — that was soon followed by “Orange is the New Black” — quality came with it. You’re not going to binge something that isn’t good.
So we’ve got cord-cutting. We’ve got binge-watching. We’ve got streaming services. We have handheld devices. A series of things that gives greater control across a number of platforms by a bunch of different groups, disrupting how things used to be.
Q: That’s one thing about “Game of Thrones”: You need to watch it every Sunday night or miss out on the conversation. Do you think eventually that Netflix kind of user control will force the traditional weekly series model out?
A: Well, you still have a lot of people who watch TV in the regular way — the people who grew up on those models, including me, I’m almost 50. But you’ve got the 60-year-olds, the 70-year-olds, the 80-year-olds.
And the traditional ad-supported broadcast models, which are now supported through ratings that not only are live, but live-plus-3 and live-plus-7 ratings — so you have Nielsen adapting to time shifting. And that enters into the way that ad rates are calculated. So that won’t go away soon. Broadcast shows are very broad, and there’s still an audience for broadness, for things that aren’t particularly challenging, per se, or that are familiar.
Obviously, that will change eventually. But you still have advertisers who need to reach people. And those are car companies and movie companies who really spend a lot of money on reaching people. That’s really the only mass form of advertising delivery that exists today: broadcast television.
Q: What do you think is behind the massive success of “Game of Thrones”?
A: What HBO has demonstrated is that to make something an event, it’s no different than making something an event at the movies: It needs to be quality. It needs to be high production value. It needs to appeal globally, maybe something that is less geographically situated or culturally located, hence something like “Game of Thrones,” fantasy genres and so on.
(Add to that) having the kind of global networks in terms of, say, ownerships of various systems and partnerships with which you can launch something all at the same time. … This is what Netflix does. How do you expand your reach and be able to pay for all this content? … They can launch it almost simultaneously in different languages across all their markets. HBO remains relevant because they can do that same thing with “Game of Thrones.” Those global connections make something an “event.” It kind of gives it a bigness, a spectacularity and expansiveness. That’s eventizing something. … (They) keep it secret, build momentum, don’t let any details come out — so you have to see it.
Because obviously a lot of shows don’t do that. They try. But they don’t do it.
Q: “Game of Thrones” is reminiscent of when you’d watch must-see TV on a Thursday night and that’s what everyone was talking about at work the next day. How is social media changing the experience of talking about “watercooler” shows?
A: It’s funny, I remember teaching the watercooler (concept) when that term came about. You didn’t want to be left out. … In order for things to be really popular, especially when you have like 500 series that are on — for people to commit themselves, they want to know that they can experience it not just on other platforms, but in a lot of other types of contexts.
Q: With the way that we’re now consuming media, do you think there will ever be another show that is this big of a juggernaut?
A: Of course. Did anyone think that something would be as big as “The Sopranos”? And then along comes “Game of Thrones.” The scale and the achievements of “Game of Thrones” is just extraordinary. It’s hit its series of road bumps, particularly with its sexual violence, and rightly so, but the achievements of the actors and the directors and the screenwriters and the budget and the creative freedom — it was a leap of faith. But there always will probably be something. Somebody will discover something.
Q: Do you think that collectively people seek out that kind of cultural touchstone?
A: People still, I believe, want to have that kind of collective experience that is shared, whether it’s in a theatrical space or a more amorphous global space, (knowing) that they are not alone. … There’s something very appealing to watching something alone at a very cheap price point, but there still is this kind of need. The movies that we see on screen are tapping into that cultural need on a big grand, glamorous scale that is broad in its stories and expansive in its universes and speaks not to one culture but to many. Anything apocalyptic — whether it has to do with climate change or authoritarianism or aliens coming — that’s what is at the theaters today.
Q: The television series is now “off-book,” having outpaced its literary source material. How does that affect the show?
A: We know from the last season that without a book to adapt, it became quite challenging for the filmmakers to tell the tale. Trying to compare media is really a tricky thing. Obviously they want to resolve it in a way that’s going to satisfy as many people as possible.
(But) a lot of the viewers don’t really care about the books. … What they’re dealing with in any climactic season is tying up the loose ends, making sure it’s satisfying and that the characters — whether they die or they live — are justly served, setting it up for these prequels, not destroying the brand and delivering on what you expect.
There (are) so many storylines. Sansa has gotten short shrift. Arya got short shrift last season, because we had to get Jon and Daenerys together, and you’ve still got the Greyjoys … So bringing this all together and having to deliver something spectacular, I think character gets lost. I think logic gets lost. And it is a tough balance to do when you know you’ve got to end it.
Q: Who do you think ends up on the Iron Throne at the end?
A: To me the story of “Game of Thrones” is that it’s a story of women coming to power after being abused and tortured and raped and this is what happens. And so, I believe that it’s Daenerys and Jon, or just Daenerys.
I’d like to say it seems so obvious, and I hope they don’t do the obvious. But Daenerys is a standout character. Her story arc has been privileged among all others; her choices, both positive as well as those that have backfired, have been at the core of the last few seasons. Something that doesn’t include her on the throne doesn’t make sense for all the time that has been spent on her. That would be the only satisfying ending. It needs to be surprising, but it needs to be satisfying.
So Daenerys. Or maybe the White Walkers. (laughs)
Top photo: Kit Harington (left) and Emilia Clarke as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen on "Game of Thrones." Image courtesy of HBO