The Game of Thrones fandom, up close and personal


Game of Thrones has been over for months, but still, stories about the backlash to the eighth and final season persist, with cast members still defending the show against its detractors and new stories about HBO responding to that petition that circulated a while back popping up following the TCA spring press tour.

For those of you involved in the fandom when the final episodes hit, you know that it got ugly, at least online. People calling for the heads of showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, people saying the final season ruined the show, debates raging between different camps…I’m not one to say that someone’s opinion isn’t valid, but I think that some opinions — no matter how genuinely held — are better left unsaid when they cross the boundaries of good taste. Basically, feel however you want to feel about season 8, and say it. But going after the people behind the show, inventing insidious motives for them when none exist…that’s getting weird.

So it was with some trepidation that I prepared to go to this year’s Con of Thrones in Nashville, Tennessee. The fans at this event were the hardcore set, the kind who lived and breathed this stuff. Would there be anger? Would the bile I saw online boil over into real life? Were things going to get ugly?

In short, no. Not even a little. The fans at Con of Thrones were uniformly chill about everything, even those who expressed disappointment and dissatisfaction with the final season, which, again, is perfectly okay as long as you don’t step over the line and make things gross and disrespectful. The ONE time I saw some uncomfortable conspiracy theorizing was on a panel I won’t mention, but it was about the deep recesses of the fandom so maybe it was appropriate that this kind of thing turn up there. Mainly, everyone was cool and collected, whether I was interviewing attendees in the halls or they were asking questions of the cast members.

Honestly, it was a nourishing experience, to see so many fans loving and celebrating Game of Thrones whatever their reservations about the final season. Would recommend.

But that raises the question: where were all the fans we saw misbehaving online? Where were the people calling for tomatoes to be thrown at the showrunners, or to have them “burned for their crimes against humanity“? (Yeah, things got dark on Twitter.) Did they change their minds in time for Con of Thrones? Did they just not show up?

Probably not that first one, not with the vitriol still spewing in certain corners. I can believe that maybe the people who really hated the show to the point where they felt the need to get uncomfortable about it didn’t bother to come. But there’s a third option: maybe some bad online actors were there, but just chose not to act that way in person.

I think there has to be at least a little of that, and I for one find it comforting. Look, there’s a lot of online outrage these days, with the backlash to Game of Thrones season 8 being only one example. It’s helpful to remember that as crazy-bananas as that stuff can get, most of the heated rhetoric burns away in the harsh light of day, and while some people act uncivilly online, they wouldn’t actually do it in front of people, where it matters more. That’s not to say online discourse doesn’t matter — you say what you say, whether on Reddit or in person — but online hatred remains…somewhat theoretical, at least compared to hatred in the flesh. Online hatred is still bad, obviously, but it breaks down quickly.

That brings us to the next public Game of Thrones appearance, this time at San Diego Comic-Con the other weekend. Here, there was only one Game of Thrones panel, rather than the dozens at Con of Thrones, but that also meant there was more riding on it. As has been well-publicized, several of the people scheduled to be on the panel — most notably Benioff and Weiss — cancelled the day before. That’s not uncommon for these things, but given the state of the discourse around the final season of the show, the move was bound to be interpreted as a cop-out, although we have no idea at all why it was made. The internet outrage machine cares not for facts or evidence, only feeling.

Eyebrows were also raised when the panel ended without anyone taking questions from the fans in the audience. Did they just run out of time? Probably — this was the final-ever Game of Thrones panel at San Diego Comic-Con and there was a lot to cover. Was it a purposeful attempt to dodge potentially uncomfortable questions? I mean…maybe? It’s impossible to know.

If that was part of the calculus, I think the moderator may have underestimated the audience a bit. As I said, when the audience asked questions of the cast members at Con of Thrones, things never got confrontational or uncomfortable; mostly people just wanted to express their thanks for the work the actors had done, or to ask them questions about their performances. (There was one guy who asked Jerome Flynn about the alleged feud between him and Lena Headey, but there’s always gotta be at least one bump in the road.) Online vitriol dries up when people meet face to face, so I like to think that if the panel at SDCC had taken questions, it would have been okay.

Basically, I came out of these events with a renewed sense of faith in the Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire fandoms. The question now is if the fandom can stay robust enough to get us to Con of Thrones 2020 and beyond. Will Blood Moon provide it with some juice? Or the long-awaited release of The Winds of Winter? Questions for another article.