Game of Thrones vs. the Binge

Season 8 of Game of Thrones will be premiering on April 14th and what will follow for the next six weeks (only 6 episodes left!) is something I’ve been craving almost as much as the resolution of the series itself.

Sunday will be a viewing party, then the next 6 days will be consumed with online and at work chatter about what happened and what might occur next. Essentially, 6 episodes become a 6-week event. The trick Game of Thrones appears to have pulled off is that it arrived as social media platforms were taking off and before the mass population had adopted binge culture, which is why I believe GoT will be the last of its kind, a truly shared cultural phenomenon. At the moment, the only other show that even comes close is Netflix’s Stranger Things, but where GoT is a full course meal lasting several weeks, ST is a pot of delish mac ‘n cheese, barely lasting a full weekend.

Important note: this article isn’t concerned with the qualitative aspects of these series - I’m simply looking at the why GoT’s cultural impact won’t be duplicated.

Binging is not a group activity

The biggest problem with shows like Stranger Things is how they’re consumed. Netflix, Prime and all current, and future (I’m looking at you Disney+) on-demand providers release entire series in a single day. The exceptions are non-original content for which they acquire distribution rights in different territories. Viewers behaviour, by and large, is to binge in long single sittings. In this way, a new season of Stranger Things (which will be our running example) will last most people the equivalent of a long weekend. This model of consumption is about gorging, not savoring.

As gorgings usually go, these are often solo activities, unless you have a pact with your significant other and have to stretch out the face-stuffing for a full week.

There’s also peer pressure that plays into this gluttonous behavior:  you’re propelled by the need to feel in on the conversation.

Binging does not create anticipation

The rapid consumption leads to another problem on-demand series will never outrun. Anticipation, or lack thereof .

Let's take the example of Game of Thrones season 3, episode 9 *cue Rains of Castamere music - shutter*. There are few (possibly none) televised events such as the final 10 minutes of Rains of Castamere, which is both the title of the said episode and the name of the musical piece it is named after. Part of the effect of that episode is that everyone had to sit with the soul-eviscerating events it closed off with. Honestly, the week of Monday, June 3rd, 2013 must have been a terribly unproductive one. Consider what that might have been had we all been able to skip ahead to episode 10 and at the very least go to bed with something remotely positive in our hearts. The tragedy would have been skimmed over and not internalized, becoming part of a thing people actually struggled with.

Admittedly, people who have come on to the show late have basically binged the series and so have glossed over such events, but at this point the phenomenon around those episodes (there are a few of them) already exists and had we all been able to binge GoT from the get-go, I doubt that would be the case.

Binging cares not for spectacle

I have an anecdote for this one, which I’ve shared with friends as an example of why the current consumption model in antithetical to creating a significant impact on the cultural, but first let me explain why spectacle is special with yet another anecdote.

I love Radiohead. I went to see them live in an outdoor concert for their In Rainbows tour. When they sang Fake Plastic Trees the rain had just stopped and two rainbows appeared in the distance as the sun was setting. The song started and people pulled out their lighters and swayed for what felt like an eternity. Today, I put on Fake Plastic Trees and I am teleported to that moment. Goosebumps. This is essentially the power of experiencing something with a group. This is a shared moment with tens of thousands of strangers. Why pay for concert tickets when you could throw on the album? Why go to theaters when you could (probably) find the movie online and stream it? Because it’s experiential. Next time a good horror movie comes out, check it out in theaters, then watch it at home. The difference is palpable.

Back to my original anecdote.

So this one evening, on way back home from work, I exited the subway onto the street and I’m waiting at the red light like a good pedestrian. Suddenly, I notice out of the corner of my eye this woman holding her goddamn phone up to her face, headphones plugged in, watching the season 7 finale of Game of Thrones. That is the equivalent of drenching a steak in ketchup, microwaving it to death and eating it with fucking chopsticks.

Clearly, this upset me.

Where do we go from here?

It saddens me that Game of Thrones is coming to an end, and part of this is because I really do (obviously) enjoy the show, but another part of it is I’m sincerely bummed that we won’t get these sort of shared cultural phenomenons. Probably.

A caveat - there are 2 shows in development that could inherit the mantle. The first is the yet-to-be-titled Game of Thrones spin-off prequel series, and the second is the still-gestating Lord of the Rings on Prime.

Each of these potential juggernauts will have their work cut out for them. Both will forever be in the shadows of their predecessors (for LOTR, the original trilogy, not The Hobbit). The GoT spin-off will also be coming face-to-face with a new audience who A. has already become accustomed to binging (unlike viewers of the original GoT pilot), and B. are not yet committed to a new cast of characters (unlike viewers of the original GoT finale). LOTR on Prime will have the added hurdle of being (probably) an on-demand series. It’s hard to see how either of these long-form narratives will be able to penetrate into the pop-cultural zeitgeist, but I certainly hope May 19th isn’t my last viewing parting filled with oohs and aahs - in the digital era, being able to share something tangible with a large number of people sort of feels important.

Jorge Chaparro is a Montreal based writer.