Last spring, I broke up with Game of Thrones. Yes, we all know that the show is notoriously difficult to love, but for five years, against a veritable flood of unforgivable affronts, I somehow kept the faith. At their best, shows like GoT are virtuosic: Characters pirouette gracefully among countless subplots with such ease that devastating moments like the Red Wedding feel purposefully orchestrated, as though invisible puppeteers (David Benioff, D.B. Weiss and George R. R. Martin, in this case) were moving pieces into position for a greater ultimate payoff. It’s why the books and TV series have already garnered a large and fervent fan base, its influence nearly unprecedented in our historically fantasy-phobic culture — this new world we had been drawn into was breathtaking.
But in the final moments of last year’s crushing finale, I felt that last bit of edge-of-your-seat anticipation in me circle the drain. Gone was my faith that this horror parade of rape, murder, and shame would lead to anything meaningful, or even worth waiting for. Sunday’s Season 6 premiere won’t be hurting for ratings, surely — the same episode that left me cold was watched by a record-setting 8.1 million people — but this year I have a feeling I won’t be the only one publicly throwing in the towel. Despite the show’s mainstream success, it’s only a matter of time before GoT’s creators start feeling the long-term consequences, whether in the form of tepid reviews or a trickling-away of social media-fueled enthusiasm — or if we’re really lucky, a petering-out of those precious, otherworldly ratings. Maybe that’s why GRRM is stalling?
In decades past, quitting a show like Game of Thrones would have been a huge sacrifice, an act of protest that would have had measurable effects on my social life — there were few, if any, shows to replace it with at the water cooler the next morning. But these days, given the deluge of entertainment demanding our attention at every waking moment, the mechanics of quitting a show has become increasingly routine. I’ve said a bitter goodbye to The Walking Dead (one can only take so much uninterrupted ennui), The 100 (killed its best characters, ruined the others) — you could even say I’m in the middle of some extremely drawn-out divorce proceedings with Harry Potter.
Before, creators could really only register unhappiness like mine by measuring ratings or sales, or by reading angry fan mail; even then, who really cared what we thought, as long as we kept buying or tuning in? (It was rare for fans to rally enough momentum to move the needle with the stories they loved — you had to be extremely dedicated to pull it off.) There was, for all intents and purposes, no difference between “fandom” and “audience.”
Obviously, though, things have changed. The internet has had a revolutionary effect on the creator-consumer relationship. It’s mostly been a boon to both parties: Writers know the terrain they’re working in better than ever and can raise their profiles through engaging with their most dedicated audiences, while fans can find their tribes and voice their concerns directly to the people who make the things they love—or at least put them in a very public forum. We’ve never seen an era so rife with the voices of fans; fans are shaping these franchises nearly as much as writers and showrunners are. For better or worse, it’s tipped the scales, making it nearly impossible for creators not to notice the concerns of those who adore and sustain their work — even if, like George R. R. Martin and GoT’s producers, you enjoy enough mainstream success that you can laugh in the face of your most adoring fans.
At the same time, it’s made for a fruitful era for creators. Now that Hollywood and the publishing industry have a better idea what the public wants, not to mention better ways to deliver it, it’s a lot easier for more franchises to find (if not mainstream, then at least concentrated) success. And that’s great for fans too — your chances of finding one that really gets you have grown exponentially. That distinction between “audience” and “fandom” can be key: An audience comprises people who turn on their TVs or fire up Hulu every couple weeks, but a fandom makes GIFs, Tumblrs, cosplay wardrobes. Franchises can survive on either — or, if you’re as lucky as the Game of Thrones crew, both.
But that’s where things start getting sticky. Whether you’re a fan or a showrunner, nowadays winning — be it garnering artistic and commercial success or a consistently rewarding fandom — is a question not of gatekeepers’ tastes but of pure supply and demand. As the number of potential obsessions skyrockets, the patience of those willing to dedicate themselves to a TV show or book series becomes an increasingly precious commodity, especially among franchises that rely primarily on niche fandoms: fuck up, and we’re gone — but not before launching a Twitter campaign to shame you.
In that way, the form of betrayal we feel when a show kills off symbolically important characters or strays too far from its original premise is brand-new, because now it actually carries weight. It has crystallized a bargain that fans have always believed in, but that creators have long been able to flout. So it follows that when the creator breaks the covenant of trust with fans, and gets sloppy or cruel or just flat-out changes their mind, it creates these moments of outrage and betrayal that can now have a real impact on a franchise’s survival. (Fans don’t have to follow the same rules themselves, of course; fan fiction is a vibrant, humming sub-industry created specifically for breaking them.) Now, when creators play fast and loose with the worlds they gave us, it doesn’t have to just hurt us anymore. Where before we had to sit down and take it, now we can shout back.
In that light, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I’ve broken up with the creators of these worlds rather than with the worlds themselves. Quitting means that I will remember Westeros and Hogwarts and zombie-infested Atlanta fondly, as they were, not as the sloppy monstrosities they will no doubt become.
Devon Maloney is a culture writer living in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Grantland, Vulture, and The Los Angeles Times, among others.