One Game of Thrones fan theory says Bran Stark is the Night King. Another says Drogon flew off to Valyria and laid enough eggs to burn all of Westeros. Theories have made Tyrion Lannister a secret Targaryen, Talisa Stark a Lannister plant, and Syrio Forel the most indestructible fencing coach in the universe.
Everyone has a Game of Thrones fan theory, but what’s going to happen when Thrones is over and all of that analytical energy has nowhere else to go?
Thrones is far from the first piece of media to generate a massive fan theory culture — Lost thrived on torturing its audience with cryptic clues and red herrings, and people wrote actual books on what would happen next in the Harry Potter series. Thrones does, however, have the distinction of legitimizing fan theories as a crucial and expected part of each episode’s aftermath.
While some people watch Game of Thrones and take the plot at face value, the effort to predict the show’s next big twist have become a cottage industry unto itself. During and after each episode, Twitter and Reddit light up with posts from superfans who claim to hold the key to the endgame based on line readings and newly revealed information, and online outlets (including Mashable) publish exhaustive analyses that not only sum up what just happened on Game of Thrones, but what might happen next.
Fueling Thrones’ fan theory culture is the fact that many of its most popular theories turned out to be right. Jon Snow is the son of Rhaegar Targaryen and Lyanna Stark, Cersei did blow up the Sept of Baelor, Daenerys did become the Mad Queen, and Cleganebowl did actually happen. With these, the basic rush of enjoying a television show joined forces with the more personal rush of being proven right — which further fueled fan desire to watch closer, read harder, and predict the show’s events ever more accurately.
On the other side of that coin is what happens when Thrones debunks or veers away from fan predictions, as has happened more often in its closing seasons. In these cases, disappointment with the show’s choices becomes entwined with the humiliation of being proved wrong — a perfect recipe for fan fury. Fan theorists are loud and extremely online, and their discourse can often color what the “public” reaction to any given twist looks like. Viewership and numbers don’t lie, but a cacophonous minority of mad folks is not ideal for studios and showrunners alike.
Even shows as massive as Game of Thrones have something to fear from disappointing fan theorists. After its final episode airs, its current popularity will inevitably transform into legacy, which is entirely determined by its fans.
When the Lost finale failed to live up to expectations, its airwave domination faded into a punchline, as some fans felt like the show’s entire run was a waste of time. Similarly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe recently ended its Infinity Saga with Avengers: Endgame, preserving the first 22 films in the franchise as an artifact that will either be remembered fondly by those who loved Endgame or trashed as worthless by those who felt the story’s conclusion wasn’t worth the effort.
It’s hard enough to write a television show that doesn’t have thousands of fans tearing through its script to find a nugget of viable prediction.
Regardless of how the finale of Game of Thrones turns out, the exhaustive theory culture it created will remain. That culture transformed passive watchers of television into a veritable army that wields textual analysis and imagination like weapons of war, and that army won’t go away after the credits roll. The Thrones audience cut their teeth on a complex, fascinating story packed with foreshadowing and false hints, and they’ve gotten almost too good at figuring their way around the future.
Even if the finale of Game of Thrones is somehow enough to satisfy the majority of fan theorists and its legacy is one of a show that stuck the landing in increasingly turbulent conditions, the larger issue still remains.
Thrones trained a generation of smart, engaged audience members to expect more from their television entertainment. The kinds of people who come up with and popularize the best fan theories are the same people who drive and generate “the discourse,” and with Thrones gone, they’re going to be hungry for something new.
Any TV creator trying to court this desirable fan demographic in a post-Thrones world will have to take into account the fact that their target audience is primed to overthink (and occasionally outthink) any plot twist a showrunner can throw at them. Merely telling an interesting story won’t be enough to satisfy the prophets, who will want something better on which to stake their theories. It’s hard enough to write a television show that doesn’t have thousands of fans tearing through its script to find a nugget of viable prediction.
When Thrones goes, that audience will search for something else to examine and predict, and no one should envy the next showrunner charged with satisfying them. Good luck to whoever it is. They’ll need it.