On Sunday, the final season of Game of Thrones premieres on HBO. The six episodes of this eighth season culminate in the hotly anticipated series finale, which will air May 19.
Must I watch them?
Much to my surprise, I don’t want to. As the promotional blitz for this final season has overrun us all, I have found that where I once felt excitement for the valedictory beats of a cultural behemoth, I now feel dread. Dread! Dread like what the Army of the North will feel when they face down the white walkers and … ugh. You know.
Must I watch them? I dread them!
Why do I feel this dread? Well, in part, it’s because I feel fairly certain that the final episodes will be bad. The series has definitely trended in that direction in recent years, and that was while all avenues were still open to Game of Thrones. Now the show must attempt to wrap up an enormous, complicated, long-running story avidly followed by millions in a manner that is both artistically successful and narratively satisfying, a nearly impossible task. (Arguably it’s only been accomplished by two people in human history.) If the past 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that the actual pleasure of watching the end of a prestige television series cannot match the anticipation of doing so.
So must I watch these six episodes, given that they will be bad? I’m sure they’ll have stirring scenes in them and fun surprises. The Mountain will get his comeuppance at the Hound’s big hands, I’m sure. But they’re also gonna blow it. They’ll pack far too much into too short a time, desperately attempting to wrap up as many loose ends as possible. They’ll also nevertheless leave too many of those loose ends dangling. Tyrion will do something stupidly out of character. The big battle will look kind of fake. Cersei’s story will be mishandled, or Arya’s, or Sansa’s, or more likely all three of them. Somewhere in Episode 4 they’ll introduce some new character, and I’ll be like, “Who the hell is that?” and it’ll turn out that he’s not new, he was important for one scene in, like, Season 2, which first aired 100 years ago. I’ll need the internet to explain what’s cool about that.
Or maybe none of those things will happen but a bunch of other dumb things will happen. The show’s canvas is so large, the skein of as-yet-unresolved story threads so tangled, that the likelihood of any of us actually being happy about the way the series ends is essentially nil. And yet! I must give up six Sunday nights for these episodes. Several of these episodes will be as long as an hour and 20 minutes, the precise running time of the Academy Award–winning motion picture Ida—a movie that, as it happens, features a better version of the best death scene in Game of Thrones.
Must I watch?
In some respects, of course, I do not must watch them. America is, for now, a free country, and I am a grown adult. At the exact moment the premiere of Game of Thrones begins, TCM will be an hour into an airing of Gone With the Wind. I also own a number of books and board games. So I could do any of those things instead. I can’t hang out with my wife or any of my friends, because they will all be watching Game of Thrones. My kids don’t watch the show; I guess I could make them stay up late and hang out with me.
As it happens, because of my job, I do must watch the show. For example, the morning after the premiere airs, I am scheduled to record a podcast about the episode. I guess I could just skip it, although that would really leave Sam in the lurch. But the real question I’m asking here isn’t “Must I watch Game of Thrones?” but “Must we watch Game of Thrones?”
All of us. Must we?
It’s not like we won’t watch. To won’t watch is unthinkable. Not only because the human hunger for narrative is so depthless that to never know what ends up happening in this imaginary kingdom would be awful. (There’s always Wikipedia, a great way to learn what happens in cultural products we do not actually intend to experience.) But at this point we’ve sunk upward of 70 hours into this show, most of us, not counting all the time we’ve spent leaving virtual flowers on virtual graves and talking with actual friends at actual watercoolers.
And whether or not this is the last show we all watch together, it’s definitely a show we’re all watching together. And so when something happens, as it surely will, many somethings over and over during the next six weeks—exciting things, dumb things—it would be agony not to be watching along with everyone else, our wives and friends and co-workers. It would be agony to miss it.
So we must watch.
(Some of us have never watched. That was indisputably the right move. Continue not watching. Undoubtedly you’re also not reading. Great. The we in this blog post does not refer to you, and this blog post is not for you.)
I remember, when NBC launched the catchphrase “must-see TV” to describe its Thursday night offerings, thinking what an odd phrase that was. In a way it seemed the reductio ad absurdum of all marketing, the secret message that all advertising wishes it had the authority to deliver: not will you consume our product but you must, in fact, consume our product. Not the interrogative but the imperative. Corporations dream of achieving that level of urgency in consumers, whether it’s explicit or implicit in their messaging. Game of Thrones has achieved it. It is must-see. We must see it. Even those of us who must not see it will see it, on billboards and on Oreos and on the internet. Yes, we must watch Game of Thrones. It will fly in on wings of dragons and incinerate us all, Sundays at 9, 8 Central.