‘Game of Thrones’ is Christmas: Ubiquitous, Obligatory, and Inevitably Disappointing

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Jon Snow’s dead, Arya’s blind, and Melisandre’s old. That’s the gist of last night’s Season 6 premiere of Game of Thrones, an event that was predictably overhyped since the announcement in early March that this season, HBO won’t be releasing advance episodes. But really, we’ve been waiting for this moment since Jon Snow was stabbed to death in the Season 5 finale nearly a year ago.

The days and hours leading up to the premiere turned out to be more exciting than the thing itself: Star Wars notwithstanding, Game of Thrones is the most wide-reaching pop culture artifact of the moment, a shared experience that’s transcended the domain of geek culture and infiltrated the mainstream. Five years after it first hit the airwaves, Game of Thrones is Christmas, a near-obligatory communal event practically guaranteed to disappoint.

For all the anticipation, the premiere itself was, well, just fine: It answered some questions, advanced a few characters’ storylines, and ended with a twist. But like a kid crashing from a sugar high, I found myself growing bored and tired as the episode progressed. With most of the characters separated by distance and circumstance, following each plotline feels like homework.

In retrospect it was inevitable that HBO would want to protect its precious trove of new episodes; Game of Thrones is not only the channel’s highest-rated series ever, but the most pirated show in the world. With the action in Season 6 surpassing the plot of the books for the first time, it makes sense that HBO would swoop down and block us out like a fierce mama protecting her baby dragons.

As the premiere date inched closer, the frenzy surrounding the new season turned away from the events of the show itself — we didn’t have much to go on, and we’ve been talking about Jon Snow’s fate for a goddamn year now — and toward the eager public’s reaction to the upcoming new episodes. A London tech agency called +rehabstudio made headlines when an employee shared a screenshot of the company’s holiday policy, which offers UK staff a half-day “following the first episode of each new season of Game of Thrones when simulaunched with the US.” (The policy adds, “US staff are reminded not to share spoilers on the intranet until after the show has aired in the UK 24 hours later.”) The internet went nuts over the news that President Obama had requested and received Season 6 screeners; soon after, a journalist filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the episodes. Soon after that, Poynter published an article explaining why her quest would be thwarted.

All of this has likely done wonders for these sites’ traffic: online, anything related to Game of Thrones draws eyeballs like a highway car crash. Do I even care about this? I think wearily as I click on another headline promising secrets revealed. Even if you don’t watch TV for a living, there’s a frightening volume of shows begging for your attention these days, and yet Game of Thrones remains a black hole swallowing up viewers in every demographic. As TV continues to splinter, breaking off into a million little networks and streaming sites and obscure cable channels, Game of Thrones is a comfort, an eternal common ground. Even a magazine like The Economist can find a way into the show while staying on brand. It’s one of very few shows I can watch with family, knowing we’re all caught up; my mom is the proud owner of a “You know nothing, Jon Snow” mug.

HBO’s famous declaration that “It’s not TV” isn’t unique to the cable behemoth anymore. You could say that about any number of non-traditional TV distributors like Netflix and Amazon, which have been churning out original, surprising, award-winning series for years now through a subscription model. It’s logical that HBO is looking for a way to distance itself from the now-familiar rhythms of a big new release by keeping new installments of Game of Thrones under lock and key. A stunt like the Great Screener Obstruction of Season 6 — or like Beyoncé releasing Lemonade , her new “visual album,” live on HBO on Saturday night before Thrones’ premiere — is a power play, a gatekeeper digging in its heels rather than swinging open the doors.

It’s easy to be cynical about this kind of move. Gatekeeper culture was supposed to be dead! Aren’t we all making millions off our YouTube channels? The one-two punch of Lemonade and Game of Thrones was meant to knock us off our feet, take us by surprise. It did, and although neither turned out to be all that shocking (of course Lemonade was a new album; of course Jon Snow is, for now, dead) the rollout of both felt like something new, something akin to Louis C.K.’s surprise email release of Horace and Pete: TV distribution as performance art.

Today, TV is our culture’s connective tissue; it spans class, race, income, gender. People go to bars not just to watch football games, but Sunday night prestige dramas. I’m glad I had to wait and watch Game of Thrones with the rest of ’em. In this era of Peak TV, it can be nice to sit back and let our cultural institutions do what they do. HBO just wants to dazzle us.

But of course, like Christmas, you have your believers and your non-believers. You have your cynics who scowl that it’s all about money and marketing, and the indifferent, the ones who show up for the food and the presents (or, in the case of Game of Thrones, the gore and the nudity). I’ll keep watching Season 6, sure, but my heart’s not in it. I’m a Sunday Christian.