When the Lord of Light's flames rippled across thousands of Dothraki Arakhs in front of Winterfell, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. That same afternoon, I cheered when Thor's hammer Mjolnir flew into the hand of Captain America at the climax of 'Avengers: Endgame'; because, of course, Steve Rogers is worthy. If you've no idea what I'm talking about, you may want to bail on this article now, but alternatively, you might want to persist to understand the societal danger posed by the absence of a shared pop culture.
What made these two moments special was not just the artistic merits of 'Game of Thrones' and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but also that they were shared communal experiences. They were shared in the narrow sense of physical colocation; in one case my darkened living room with my family, and in the other an equally dark cinema packed with rabid Marvel fans. But they were also shared in the broader sense of collective anticipation of the conclusion of two decade-long story arcs, with HBO matching the global reach of Disney by having the last season of 'Thrones' premiere simultaneously in 170 countries around the world.
My three boys have grown up watching the 20+ Marvel movies that preceded 'Endgame', and to have my generally stoic 14-year-old in floods of tears at the end seemed like a well-earned emotional return for the time and mental energy he had invested in these characters. In the case of 'Thrones', it took my wife and two older kids a while to become addicted, but when they did, they dived headfirst down the rabbit hole of Westerosi fandom to provide living proof that there's no zealot like the convert. So, tickets were procured well in advance and busy schedules were cleared, to ensure that we could experience these pop-culture-defining events together.
Even though my daughter is now hundreds of miles away at college, as the thrumming main title sequence of 'Game of Thrones' erupted at high volume from our TV that Sunday night, she was with us in spirit – and on the family group chat – as she watched with her equally fanatical classmates in Maine.
Having 'Endgame' and the Battle of Winterfell arrive on a single April weekend was peak monoculture that generated an estimated 20 million tweets and a tsunami of memes that dominated the internet. It was also a feeding frenzy for the twin media-industrial complexes of recaps, precaps, reddit threads, twitter after shows and traditional journalists dedicated to dissecting and analysing everything from wardrobe choices to the self-reverential call backs to previous seasons and movies. As these two stories converged towards their synchronised climaxes, the online feedback loop intensified to turn each into an event that smashed viewing records in their respective media.
For that April weekend, fantasy story-telling became live sports. Something truly global, like a World Cup final, that huge swathes of the population sat down together to watch at the appointed hour, because if you had even a passing interest, to miss it was to remove oneself from the zeitgeist. Also, just like in sports, there were innumerable pre-game 'everything is possible' conversations, followed by the inevitable post-game reality checks. That was the weekend when the multiverse of possible conclusions to both story arcs collapsed into the now canonical versions, and everyone had to deal with the disappointment that their cherished theory only ever existed in their heads and never in the screenwriters' notebooks.
What was fascinating was the cultural parity. Blockbuster movies have always been able to create mass communal events and have trained us that doing it in the dark with strangers is an essential part of the fun. I remember standing in the rain as a 16-year-old to make sure I saw 'Return of the Jedi' on opening weekend. Thirty-six years later, my boys and I will buy IMAX tickets well in advance, as the nine-movie Skywalker saga comes to its conclusion in December. For cinema, the cultural danger is not that it stops creating blockbusters, but instead, that it only does that, as every studio tries to emulate Disney and create multi-movie interconnected cinematic universes to the exclusion of big budget Oscar-quality stand-alone stories.
It was meant to be different for television. In the three-channel world I grew up in, TV monoculture was inevitable. Assuming BBC2 was covering a minority interest, then the UK TV-viewing public divided by two created a broadly shared experience around whatever was on that night. But in the world of Netflix, Sky, ITV4, Amazon Prime Video, and an onrushing glut of new streaming services, gathering an audience around the small screen has become increasingly difficult. Outside 'Thrones', it can still occasionally happen, as with 'Bodyguard' in the UK last year. Sometimes these events can even be global, like the 94-country 'Doctor Who' simulcast for the 50th anniversary. But with over 500 scripted TV shows being aired in the US this year, these exceptions seem like a media King Canute trying in vain to hold back the inevitable tide of on-demand video streaming.
The fragmentation of TV does have its benefits. I recently downloaded Ricky Gervais' 'Afterlife' and watched it while travelling. Instead of the total movie-like immersion of 'Thrones', it was like reading a six-chapter novel; a quiet reflective experience that I may get around to discussing with my wife if the logistics of feeding our dog after her premature death ever comes up in conversation. Niche TV tuned to specific tastes is lower risk, but also lower return. Occasionally, chamber-sized TV projects like 'Fleabag' and 'Killing Eve' will create a cultural moment, but like successful novels, they tend to be Sunday Supplement fodder rather than true watercooler catalysts.
Without a shared collective experience that manages to meld ratings, prestige, and provocation, it's unlikely that TV will be able to play a role in shaping our national conversations. In the Netflix world, the danger is that there is something for everyone, but also nothing for everybody, and that's why I hope the end of 'Game of Thrones' doesn't signal the last gasp of truly communal TV viewing.
As Mark Twain snarked, 'the rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated', and the same is true for blockbuster premium TV. When the last episode of 'The Sopranos' cut to black or when Don Draper in 'Mad Men' combined Californian hippiedom with a carbonated beverage to create Coke's perfect harmony, many critics concluded that we'd never see their like again. Obviously, the dragon-sized shadow that 'Thrones' has cast over current pop culture has driven a Valyrian-steel dagger through those predictions. But that doesn't invalidate the observation that it's getting harder and harder to keep us in the same room both physically and intellectually, yet our ability to congregate electronically and be unified by a cultural lingua franca matters for the health of our society.
Growing up, I was dismissive of people who were obsessed with 'Coronation Street' and 'EastEnders', but I came to realise that the familiar and habitual can act as a powerful carrier wave for national conversations about important issues. From gay marriage to suicide, to the psychological cost of divorce, the familiar beats of sitcoms and soaps operas offer an insidious way of combining the bland with the provocative to generate empathy and broaden understanding. While the normalisation of incest on 'Game of Thrones' may be a little problematic as a national conversation, the shows treatment of sexual violence, gender politics, and the possibility of redemption for the seemingly unredeemable, have demonstrated that populist genre television can be just as challenging as realism.
If TV fragments and becomes another tower of babel like the internet, then we run the risk that we all retreat to our own small screens and create the same self-reinforcing echo chambers that have corroded and undermined our politics. Like it or loathe it, cultural phenomena like 'Game of Thrones' create a public square that, while often opinionated and obsessive, at least has us all in the same space having the same conversation.
When I travel to the heartland of the US on business, I often find myself in hotel rooms that carry Fox News, but not it's leftist counter weight MSNBC, and it makes me wonder what the public square looks like in those cities; and I suspect it's not level. If we allow our entertainment diet to become as splintered as our social media consumption, then we'll continue to eat away at the limited common ground we have left. What makes live sports so compelling is that we can't run to our corners. We're forced to watch our team win or lose on physical common ground. If Rangers could simply choose to play Brechin every week and never face Celtic, Rangers could win the league, but Scottish football would be in even worse shape than it's in today; if that's possible.
So, all hail the TV monoculture. Good luck to Amazon for spending a quarter billion dollars on the rights to develop stories from the 'Lord of the Rings' fictional universe and good luck to HBO with its various 'Game of Thrones' prequels and spinoffs. I truly hope that I'm sitting with my grandkids 25 years from now turning on the virtual reality chips embedded in our brains to collectively experience something akin to the Battle of Winterfell or the takedown of Thanos. If we can sustain the collective excitement that comes from being together in the dark whooping and hollering as flying superheroes punch ugly villains and teenage assassins kill zombie ice kings, maybe we stand a chance of recognising that there is still as much that unites us as divides us.
Oh, and by the way, light spoiler, my money was always on the Stark kids.