Television

The Only Good Thing Left About Game of Thrones

A fan base more creative than the show.

Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones
Sansa Stark has made some hard-to-explain decisions in the show.
Helen Sloan/HBO

I am a crabby consumer of Game of Thrones. I thought the last season made even less sense than the one before it, and that was saying something. Without the books to guide them (and crib notes from George R.R. Martin a poor substitute), the showrunners seem cavalier about the sorts of details and conversations that once made the show’s legendary world building feel rich and lived-in. As budgets bloated and the show grew increasingly reliant on spectacle, they let everything from magic to black boxes to blank stares fill in for plot gaps that directors and writers just couldn’t be bothered with: “I think we were straining plausibility a little bit, but I hope the story’s momentum carries over some of that stuff,” said director Alan Taylor of “Beyond the Wall,” in which Daenerys’ continent-spanning rescue flight has become yet another thing fans just have to accept. This is maddening, but what really gets my goat is that my irritation exists at one remove: I’m basically experiencing it on behalf of the communities I’ve watched dissect their merry way through the enormous cast of characters and convoluted narratives over the years. I have, in other words, become invested in the fans’ investment.

What makes Game of Thrones special isn’t the show itself (in my jaded opinion). It’s that people can’t stop talking about and puzzling over it together, and in this particularly fun-starved moment of history, we shouldn’t undervalue the privilege of seeing thousands of people come together to discuss something with a bubbly intensity that rarely devolves into fury or threats or genuine harm. This isn’t always true within fan communities! Some fandoms are harmful—back in 2013, Anna Gunn wrote about the experience of absorbing the vitriol of Breaking Bad fans who idolized Walter White, despised her character for getting in his way, and wished the actress herself dead. Star Wars and the original Ghostbusters turned out to have some of the most toxic fans on the planet. But Game of Thrones fandoms tend to be theoretical, nerdy, and more obsessed with map details than patriarchal archetypes. They analyze visuals. (Did you notice that the Night King’s symbol looks a lot like the Targaryen sigil?) They come up with fabulously weird theories. (Is Bran the Night King? Is the Night King a Targaryen?) They scour the opening credits for hints. Sometimes they even find them!

I have long resented the show for failing to live up to a fandom this intense—in part because I’ve watched over the years as fans have tried to paper over shoddy writing with elaborate explanations that would fix obvious and egregious plot holes. It’s an act of love, really. And fun. It irks me that we still don’t know why Sansa didn’t tell Jon the Knights of the Vale were on their way—instead letting him risk getting killed several times over without realizing reinforcements were coming. Good suspense; bad sister. I have argued that this decision makes Sansa either Dim or Evil, and that the show never followed either option, instead hoping you’ll forget that whole setup thanks to her cathartic defeat of Ramsay Bolton. It bothers me that Arya’s confrontation with the Waif ended in her defeating the Waif (whom she’d never beaten) while grievously wounded. That whole sequence was distractingly impossible. Ah, the fans argue—but maybe Arya is the Waif in some interesting subconscious way that reflects the completion of her training! Or maybe Arya died and the Waif has taken her face!

I also don’t know a) why Tyrion would come up with the insane “wight-kidnapping” plan to “persuade” Cersei or b) whether he actually thought that would work. It seems unlikely, and while it also seems weird that he’d engage in a stupid plan in an extremely long con to help Cersei—and put her heir on the throne—I find that fan theory more enjoyable than the slim fragments of reasoning the show is giving me. (Maybe Tyrion flipped on Daenerys for good after she executed Randyll and Dickon Tarly—whose decision to die for Cersei surprised me, especially since Randyll didn’t think much of her and had been in her service for just a few days. Or maybe Tyrion’s being sneaky and betraying everyone, and maybe that’s why he looked bummed when he saw Jon and Dany hitting it off. Maybe Sansa was too quick to dismiss his late-season smarts; perhaps he’s just pretending to believe Cersei will send her troops but needs to act dumb to convince Daenerys that reinforcements are coming. Maybe he likes Jon and doesn’t want to see him with the villain he thinks Daenerys has become. See how easy it is to keep going?)

I have too many questions about this show that I suspect it can’t answer. I don’t know why Arya got away with drinking the Faceless Men’s water when only those who truly believe themselves to be “no one” survive that. (She clearly doesn’t—the closest “no one” in the family is Bran. What exactly are her powers?) I’m not sure why some characters (like Beric and Benjen) experience serious losses, whether spiritual or physical, after resurrections, but others (Jon) don’t. I’d like to believe the show knows what it’s doing with Sansa and her relationship to Cersei. I’d like to know that the show hasn’t forgotten Jon’s plan, at the beginning of Season 7, for girls and women to help mine dragon glass and train for battle. “Everyone aged 10 to 16 will drill daily with spears, pikes, bow and arrow,” he says, and clarifies that he means everyone: “Not just the boys. We can’t defend the North if only half the population is fighting.” I haven’t seen any sign of female soldiers training. (You’d think Arya would be spearheading that initiative, no pun intended.)

But the fan community reconciles me to these omissions or oversights because, without the sloppiness, the audience wouldn’t be able to embroider upon the show with far more interesting possibilities. And the show responds well to that pressure: This season, in response to fan queries, finally addressed the question of what the dragons eat. (“Whatever they want.”) I don’t know whether Tyrion is a Targaryen, but I like reading people thinking through what it might mean. I don’t know or even care whether Jon Snow is Azor Ahai, but I deeply appreciate how worked out this theory is, and how much people discussed it. Gendry is not Cersei’s child, but I enjoyed seeing fans test the idea and reject it. This theory about Littlefinger’s endgame is interesting and pretty well thought out, even if most of it didn’t happen. Having not read the books, I’ve nevertheless found the fandom’s efforts to reconcile Lady Stoneheart’s storyline with the show fascinating. And the uber-theory, that Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, was both worked out in advance by fans and evaluated for how much it might actually matter in practical terms. That’s helpful, now that the theory is confirmed to be true. The question, then as now, was how much this rather technical revelation would change things. After all, when everyone is going to war with each other and dragons are involved, is whatever Sam and Gilly found in an old book going to change anyone’s mind about what should happen next or who should run things? In this respect, the fans are way, way ahead of the show, and at this point, I mostly watch so I can see what the fans are saying about it. I want them to get what they want.

Look: The pleasure we take in spinning out elaborate, unproven theories in order to “connect the dots” can skew ugly, and it has. It’s a tendency that has also underpinned the worst conspiracy theories about Newtown or even Sept. 11. I’m willing to believe that we can’t completely control these wild imaginative impulses. We’re suspicious and creative and paranoid creatures, and our interpretive energy lands on whatever we happen to be looking at, whether it’s real or fiction. And as much as I wish fans had a worthier subject than Game of Thrones to pin that attention on, it’s nice to see that faculty being used the way it is: for play and for fun. For collective sense-making. It’s deep, analytical, silly, creative thinking about a show that could use the help.