Why do Game of Thrones Fans Care so Much about the Ending?

The ending of Game of Thrones last week was a true spectacle and cultural event. Even in The Netherlands, cinemas screened the last episode, drawing many fans to the theater. Avengers: Endgame, Veep, and other endings premiered at roughly the same time. Endings are meaningful. Especially in the case of Game of Thrones, endings raised debates. Some felt that during the last seasons, the characters and writing were not that strong. A petition was even released. You might wonder: Why do fans care so much? I did research on complicated franchises and how fans interact with them, and let me repeat my findings in a nutshell.

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1. Texts Never End Today, which Triggers Complex Fan Behavior

If there is one thing that the recent revivals of shows such as Arrested Development (2013), X-Files (2015), Twin Peaks (2017) and  Downton Abbey (2019) – to name but a few!- shows us, it’s that stories don’t end.  This rise of revivals and nostalgia projects runs parallel to the rise of transmedia storytelling. Stories are continued in many different official forms – comics, games, apps. I am not surprised that fans by now think that this is the norm.

Because texts are revived continuously, fans might feel they are entitled to remakes. To some extent, this phenomenon is normal. In Japan it quite often happens that an anime adaptation continues with a different ending than the manga, when the original manga is still in production.  This phenomenon has led to more “faithful” remakes of many shows, including remakes of popular anime such as Full Metal Alchemist and Sailormoon. See how similar this is to Game of Thrones? Perhaps fans apply the same cultural logic to Western, live-action; we can get a new Game of Thrones as long as George R.R. Martin signs off and HBO pays up.

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2. Feelings and Affective Reception are Crucial in Fandom

In my work, the relation between characters, fans and media is crucial. This is not rational (distant) reception but what I call affective reception: “The media experience of fans is embodied and affective, which has consequences for their sense of identity.” This reception is “felt, embodied, and personal” as I write in the conclusion.  Ultimately, the difference between a fan and casual viewer is one of intensity and self-identification (“This text is important to me”). Affective reception is  deeply emotional, phenomenological and even embodied. Characters are quite often the trigger for deep emotions, not just love, but also hate, jealous, disappointment or nostalgia. Sometimes a text doesn’t feel like the authentic text anymore. This is when segments of Ghostbusters, Star Wars and Game of Thrones fandom lash out (“This text is important to me, but this is not my text”). Nostalgia, in other words, can become totemic and toxic.

Closure is a key term here. We want complete endings that fit a text and in which all questions are answered. If closure “fails” (e.g. a side-character’s plot line is never resolved, a character behaves out of character), audiences might get upset (see the chapter on Glee in Productive Fandom). Affective reception is deeply related to our identity. Characters represent a part of our identity and correspond to processes of becoming, such as aging or sexuality.

On a personal note – I saw endings and revivals of shows that I would have never expected years ago. My favorite cartoons, Hey! Arnold and Darkwing Duck, got an ending after decades. These are the shows I wrote fan fiction about during my teens. I craved for a feeling of finality; for narrative closure. While fandom gives us the pleasure of closure, it meant a lot to me to see ‘official’ endings and revivals.

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2. Fans feel Emotional Ownership

Affective reception might be about feelings, but can lead to real entitlement; a sense of ownership. After all, as a fan you have considered the characters and story to a great extent. I am not surprised some fans feel that they know Game of Thrones better than the show runners. The petition is a great example, it literally states:

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have proven themselves to be woefully incompetent writers when they have no source material (i.e. the books) to fall back on. This series deserves a final season that makes sense. Subvert my expectations and make it happen, HBO!

Speaking of emotional, economic and legal ownership in light of this petition, Greenway writes in The New Republic :

‘Pop culture doesn’t need fans—but it could use more fandom. At its best, fandom is a playful, participatory, and dialogic engagement with a work of art—exploring it, remaking it, rewriting it. Fandom tends not to see the text in dogmatic terms, but as a mutable creation that lends itself to multiple interpretations.

That being said, I think the discussion is a lot more complicated than a binary of transformative (fan-driven) and affirmative (official, canonical) remakes. Because of the cultural and economic ecosystem, in which fans and producers increasingly mix, ownership becomes complex. In a time of fan-driven media (and trolling), fans feel that they can make demands. From Mass Effect 3 new ending and Rick & Morty’s sauce were the products of fan campaigns, and companies delivered. But it also seems that the line between fan activism and hate/trolling is becoming more thin these days.

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3. The Industry Increasingly Courts Audiences

Today’s media landscape is increasingly fan-driven. Fans are viewed as brand ambassadors, influencers, co-creative partners that can be “crowdsourced”. No wonder then that fans start to make demands. When the trailer of the new Sonic movie was released, audiences were very vocal about the character design (ew, Sonic has human teeth!). Due to the design debacle, Sonic had to be replaced and the movie was pushed back to 2020.

I am not surprised about the criticism towards Game of Thrones and other endings, because the industry courts fans continuously. Through transmedia stories and marketing, they make inner fans feel appreciated. The past seasons, Game of Thrones was heavily marketed and its dedicated audiences took notice. Wired poignantly states the marketing was “spreading like greyscale“. Tons of products catered just to the loyal fans and casual fans, from marketing ploys such as milkshakes to Daenerys-inspired perfume collaborations.

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4. The Audience Keeps a Text Alive or Post-Object Fandom

Stories do not end these days, but even when they do, fans keep them alive. Firefly is a perfect example – its fans (“browncoats”) tried to bring the show back and eventually got the movie Serenity. As you can read in my book Productive Fandom, the audience kept The Verse of Firefly alive in many ways since then, from LARPs and role-playing to fan fiction and rebuilding the ship Serenity in virtual worlds. Rebecca Williams writes about these phenomena in Post-Object Fandom. This type of fandom happens after a text has ended or a transition has happened (e.g. creator Sorkin leaving West Wing).

Like I stated earlier, fandom is identity work. Engaging with post-object fandom ‘offers a way to preserve that sense of established self-identity, not just as a fan, but as the broader cultural self who was embodied across the period of fandom’ (Williams, 2015: 44). In the collection Everybody Hurts, different fan scholars (including me) contributed case-studies of endings and transitions. I can really recommend picking up this book if you are fascinated by the current media landscape and fan culture.

Considering today’s franchises, the Game of Thrones petition does not surprise me. It was not the best ending, but endings of TV shows often are not. It is difficult to keep up expectations and shows often “jump the shark”. I am curious though how fan/producer relationships will enfold the coming years. Like we see in the cases that I mentioned,  some companies will cave to fan pressure, and others might not.

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