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‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Rise of Skywalker,’ and the Challenges of Modern Fandom

Two of the biggest properties of the century wrapped up their stories with critical failures. Why did they fail to stick their landings?

Michelle Rohn

A year ago this week, Tyrion Lannister gave his now-famous speech, Bran became Bran the Broken and the king of Westeros, Jon Snow ventured north, and Game of Thrones came to an end. In honor of the conclusion of the last piece of monoculture, The Ringer will spend all week looking back on Thrones—focusing not just on its final season, but celebrating its entire eight-season run, reminiscing about its host of memorable characters, and pondering where some of them may be one year later.

Quarantining at home for months in a pandemic can, at times, make the plight of Jack Torrance somewhat relatable. Thankfully, unlike the Overlook Hotel’s ill-fated caretaker, many of us can stream TV shows to pass the time indoors (instead of talking to spirits about killing our family members). And one of the benefits of Peak TV is that there’s no shortage of viewing options—even for someone, like me, who gets paid to cover them. And if you don’t want to see what all the Tiger King fuss is about, you can always return to old favorites: Five years after it ended, Mad Men is having a bit of a moment.

There is a certain comfort in revisiting a familiar series, one that can, hopefully, give you a rush of good vibes from a more pleasant time. For some, the go-to series is Mad Men; for others, maybe it’s The Office. My balm is the middle seasons of Parks and Recreation. But of all the shows that may be getting a quarantine boost, anecdotally, it appears Game of Thrones isn’t among them. Despite being one of the most popular shows of all time, I don’t know a single person who has felt an urge to return to Westeros. The Unnamed Temporary Sports Blog—made up of several former Deadspin staffers—put it in such terms: I Wouldn’t Watch Game of Thrones Again If the Pandemic Lasted a Hundred Years.

These days, dunking on Thrones doesn’t exactly make you part of a vocal minority. The prevailing sentiment around the last piece of TV monoculture was anger; it was comparable to feelings held by the sadistic few (read: me) who sat through all eight seasons of Dexter and reckoned with the lumberjack waiting on the other side. Which is to say: I would also not rewatch Game of Thrones again if the pandemic lasted a hundred years. I’d sooner get back into The Masked Singer.

After a truncated final two seasons and a largely underwhelming series finale, Thrones drew the ire of fans and critics alike for its frantic pace and bizarre storytelling choices. We’ll keep it brief, but as a reminder: The series built up the White Walkers for seven seasons, only to have them killed in a single battle in which Theon fucking Greyjoy was arguably the biggest casualty; Daenerys Targaryen’s inevitable transformation into Dragon Mussolini was so abrupt and half-baked it betrayed any sense of logic; it took about 10 minutes for a council to agree that Bran Stark, a stoic weirdo whose finest contribution to the realm was meme-making, should be the new ruler of Westeros because he had the “best story” in a world where his face-swapping sister killed the frozen embodiment of Death and his brother/cousin Jon Snow was the actual heir to the throne. (At least Ser Davos, the show’s best hang, survived to chill on the new High Council.)

The series’ failures were certainly elevated by the sheer amount of scrutiny Thrones received. Every site tackled Thrones because it was a content goldmine; everybody seemed to want to know everything about Westeros and unearth the tiniest details from George R.R. Martin’s source material. At The Ringer we had several podcasts—to say nothing of the countless weekly blogs that the majority of the staff contributed to—dissecting the latest events in the realm. It’s part of why the ridiculous happenings of Riverdale—a truly batshit piece of programming I will never stop following via recaps—happen in relative anonymity but Dany kind of forgetting about the Iron Fleet became an instant meme that could symbolize the haphazard work of David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

Any cultural event that receives this sort of attention is obviously a good thing for (ugh) content creators, and in 2019, Thrones was one of three massive cultural institutions that were not only must-cover events, but ones that reached their highly anticipated endings—the others being the Star Wars Skywalker saga and the Avengers. And with Thrones, The Rise of Skywalker, and Avengers: Endgame having arrived at their conclusions with varying public consensus about their quality, they reveal the different approaches and challenges inherent to satisfying modern fandom.

If Game of Thrones was a high-profile exercise in shoddy storytelling that didn’t meet the audience’s baseline expectations—one that often excelled with subversion and game-changing twists—the problem with The Rise of Skywalker was trying to satisfy everyone at once.

In the final entry of the so-called Skywalker saga, J.J. Abrams and Co. wanted to appease the toxic corners of Star Wars fandom that took issue with The Last Jedi’s own subversive ethos—retconning certain moments of Rian Johnson’s film, like the nature of Rey’s parentage. Instead of letting the past die, The Rise of Skywalker tried to win fans over by nonsensically playing the franchise’s greatest hits.

The convoluted nature of The Rise of Skywalker—in addition to spending half its time undoing what Johnson’s movie set up, there was also the daunting and possibly insurmountable task of concluding a nine-part saga—felt like some corporate-mandated push to satisfy as many people as possible, sometimes to the point of complete incredulity. Do some fans ship Rey and Kylo Ren? Let’s have them make out real quick at the end of the film. Oh, some of you thought Kylo Ren should pay for his sins? Well, don’t worry, he’s going to vanish right after he smooches Rey—also, apparently smooching with your sworn enemy is totally normal platonic behavior, not a sign of romantic interest. Really, the crowded and incoherent nature of this film is best embodied by the fact that a key piece of information about Palpatine’s return, an ominous broadcast the revived emperor sent throughout the galaxy, didn’t make the final cut: It was available only on Fortnite.

If everybody involved with Disney’s trilogy had been on the same page from the beginning, the Skywalker saga could have avoided its chaotic conclusion. For instance, if there was an agreement over whether Rey should be a secret Palpatine (Jesus) or a random person attuned to the Force, her story line would have been coherent enough to avoid ridicule. No piece of pop culture will have a flawless record in the nebulous online discourse; there will always be a dissenting voice or two—some of which might be elevated thanks to Reddit—when it comes to just about anything. Look hard enough and you can find people who hate Breaking Bad, and those who, inexplicably, love Jar Jar Binks. Ironically, Disney’s harebrained attempt to make everyone happy with The Rise of Skywalker produced the one thing the company is truly afraid of: diminishing box office returns.

The solution to Star Wars’ problems was also staring the studio right in the face. Disney’s other huge moneymaker at the box office, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was itself the product of a carefully planned, decade-plus commitment to cinematic “phases” and world-building overseen by Kevin Feige. The MCU might not reach the thrilling peaks of Star Wars or Game of Thrones, but it is an undeniably impressive cultural behemoth that has quickly ironed out any issues—Ed Norton’s Hulk, the more Shakespearean interpretation of Thor—while perfecting its crowd-pleasing formula. Given the MCU’s track record, it’s surprising that Feige will now produce a Star Wars film.

Endgame is a three-hour epic that jumps through different points of the MCU—best appreciated by Marvel completists, because it actually has the balls to revisit Thor: The Dark World—and makes the tacit acknowledgment that the film’s equivalent of an “ending” is really more like a passing of the torch. Iron Man and Captain America might be gone—Black Widow also made a heroic sacrifice, although even she’s still getting a spinoff movie—but the MCU is going into the 2020s as unstoppable as it’s ever been. If the MCU adheres to the rules of serialized television, Endgame is analogous to a star-studded season finale. In fact, now the MCU is going to be TV, once its shows start to debut on Disney+.

The fact that Endgame isn’t actually an endgame is a larger problem with modern storytelling as a money-making enterprise, but at least the MCU is self-aware. As much as Thrones and The Rise of Skywalker were billed as epic conclusions, they really aren’t. Disney will still churn out more Star Wars via Disney+ (The Mandalorian Season 2 is coming later this year) and on the big screen (is Taika Waititi their only hope?) that will expand their universe. Meanwhile, HBO is going to make a Thrones spinoff about House Targaryen—and there’s plenty of material to mine from George R.R. Martin’s universe if they wanted to go in more directions. (I would watch the shit out of Arya exploring what’s west of Westeros, which might be the closest we ever get to a Master and Commander show.)

The key to satisfying modern fandom is understanding that not everyone can be appeased—and knowing that what most audiences seem to want is a never-ending story. (Stranger Things gets it.) One would think that people will, eventually, grow tired of the MCU or Westeros or the final corners of a galaxy far, far away, but that problem has yet to present itself. And if endings aren’t really endings, then the worst thing a massive pop culture force can do is back itself into a corner by pissing nearly everyone off.

Even if The Rise of Skywalker was a disappointing end to the Skywalker saga, Star Wars has withstood large periods of inactivity and sand-centric ignominy through nostalgia and terrific extensions to the canon. The MCU is a theme park that many people haven’t tired of, and shows no signs of slowing down. As for Game of Thrones? Well, now that we know who sits on the Iron Throne after all those subversive twists and instances of bloodshed, I have no idea why I came all this way.