People were mad about the final season of Game of Thrones, and not just because everyone’s wig looked like hell. They complained about plot points, character arcs, thematic development — pretty much everything other than the visuals. As I write, a petition to remake the season entirely has reached nearly 1.4 million signatures. And naturally, plenty of other viewers thought the moaners should calm down and consider why they ever invested so much emotional capital in this nerd shit to begin with.
Whether you enjoyed Sunday’s grand finale, you know who is responsible for it, even if you don’t read the trades or care how the television industry works. That’s because directly after every episode except the finale, as has been the case for multiple seasons, we were treated to the “Inside the Episode” feature, in which showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss offered their insights into the making of the show.
This peek behind the curtains revealed that Benioff and Weiss were the real gods in Westeros, as they explained their decisions about the fate of men and nations with the passion of a dentist excavating a bad tooth. For example, in season seven we learned that Sansa was scared of her sister, because we were shown a clip of Arya threatening her life, followed by Weiss gravely intoning, “I think Sansa is bringing with her a real fear about the idea that Arya might really want to murder her.”
These segments should have been fascinating, given that Benioff and Weiss are at the absolute pinnacle of their field. They’re explaining how they make a piece of art whose cultural footprint has barely any rivals, aside from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Beyoncé. And it’s no mistake to call it art, as the whole purpose of the aftershow is to underline those elements that distinguish Game of Thrones as something that’s worth taking seriously. As the Sansa example illustrates, the showrunners mostly discuss the subtext of various scenes, which demonstrates that the show features complicated characters and a mature, sophisticated approach to storytelling.
But as others have pointed out, during this final, controversial season Benioff and Weiss have not impressed with their performances in the postmortems. Take the second-to-last episode, which featured a number of divisive plot developments. The “Inside the Episode” segment starts with relative promise: Benioff emphasizes that Daenerys’s isolation at the critical stage of the war contributed to her going Sicko Mode. It then sort of goes off the rails, with commentary ranging from the obvious (Arya and the Hound’s final conversation represents the “culmination of their story together”) to the baffling (Varys is Tyrion’s “best friend,” something which must’ve happened off-screen?). It’s hard to see how any of their commentary deepens or enriches our understanding of what we literally just watched. At one point, Weiss says that Arya serves as a “Virgil” figure in the final sequence, guiding us through the Daenerys’ inferno. This is probably the most adventurous either of them get, and it’s a metaphor that, charitably, is in the vicinity of apt.
Needless to say, people have been making fun of them on Twitter. My first thought, though, was that these guys are not alone. Every time I’ve seen a similar, interview-with-the-showrunner-type feature, I’ve been struck by how bland they are. My first encounter with this particular genre of content happened in 2012, when I binged the first five seasons of Mad Men with my wife. Matthew Weiner did a better job than Benioff and Weiss of sounding intelligent, but didn’t really offer anything other than banalities, or a bland fascination with the characters and events that he himself created (“To me, it was such an interesting dynamic that Megan is working with her husband.”).
The actors would join in at points, and honestly do a better job than him, even if they were only explaining the subtext that any moderately attentive viewer would have noticed. The later seasons of Girls had post-episode klatches headed by Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow that actively cut against the received critical consensus on the show — notably that Dunham hated her characters as much as the audience did and was viciously satirizing millennial culture the whole time. Instead, she did things like observe that “there’s a real sad ambiguity” to Adam and Jess’s final reconciliation, while Judd marveled at Driver’s Star Wars fame.
Why do these segments even exist? One imagines that there’s no reason other than to appease the Gods of Content. Peeks behind the scenes, commentaries from writers and directors — these used to serve as bonuses for collectors and completists, enticements to purchase media for home libraries. Now, with digital distribution, everyone can frictionlessly consume this toothless content. But behind-the-scenes material seems increasingly central to our media consumption, as instead of watching the show and discussing it at the water cooler the next day, we get a stream of prestige TV-adjacent content throughout the week, in a process that begins right after the credits finish rolling.
All this auxiliary material diverts our attention towards precisely those things that showrunners focus on: storytelling, thematic development, character arcs. They depend on and perpetuate the notion that prestige TV series are deep texts that reward serious viewing, and that a showrunner’s choices are what makes them so. In this sense, they resemble one of the distinctive literary forms of this decade: the episode recap. Recaps tend to suffer from similar problems as their in-house video counterparts: They repeat what happened in the episode, which can be useful for shows with complicated plots, but more often they offer up some potted exegesis about their themes (“Deadwood is a show about community”). Other elements of a series, like writing, directing, and acting generally get short shrift; the focus remains on the large-scale work of the creators. They evaluate, over and over again, the main task of the showrunner, which is to produce a satisfying multi-season narrative in episodes that are themselves coherent objects of entertainment.
“Inside the Episode” segments reflect the fact that even an audience tends to watch television shows as a sequence of choices by the showrunners, that alongside our reactions to events depicted in a show, we evaluate its showrunners’ performance. Yes, Jon and Daenerys are stupid for their idea of capturing a wight beyond the Wall, but more importantly, Benioff and Weiss are even dumber. After all, they’re really the ones who came up with it, and who expected us to accept it. (Unless, of course, George R. R. Martin came up with it, which mostly hasn’t been the case for a few years.)
If you had paid close enough attention, they imply, then you would understand that every plot point is an imminently justified artistic decision.
The showrunner-centric way of engaging with shows has been developing for some time, in tandem with the rise of prestige television. Earlier decades had their own celebrated showrunners, but their creations were treated more as entertainment rather than purposeful artistic statements. Even when the audience took a show very seriously, as was the case with Chris Carter’s The X-Files, its enthusiasm was for the world depicted within the show, not the people behind it. For the most part, audiences and critics praised earlier generations of creators — Norman Lear, David E. Kelley, Dick Wolf — for stamping their sensibility, and sometimes their organizational skills, onto their shows. The main job of a showrunner was to produce a fun hour of television every week, and keep the advertisers happy — artistic perfection was not the goal.
This gradually changed in the 2000s, when television began to take on a patina of respectability. This began with The Sopranos, which encouraged viewers to take it seriously because of its rich subtext and mature character work. Its finale was an important data point in the trajectory of the showrunner-centric TV era: viewers publicy debated about what had actually happened when the screen cut to black, but also about showrunner David Chase’s decision to end the series on such an ambiguous note. There was also more than a little envy of Chase, who alone knew the fate of Tony Soprano with 100 percent certainty, and refused to confirm theories as the years went on.
This underlined the growing recognition of television series as coherent works of art, and the idea that the key to understanding them lay in the minds and oracular statements of the (mostly) men who created them. Conversely, when Lost — another star show from the prestige-TV boom — ended a few years later, the furious criticism leveled at showrunners JJ Abrams and Damon Lindeloff demonstrated what can happen when a devoted fanbase is bitterly disappointed; this perhaps cranked up the pressure on showrunners to properly finish their shows.
So when Benioff and Weiss monotonously explain the subtext of a Thrones scene, or ground a certain event in the history of the show, what they’re doing is appealing to the cultural merit attached to prestige television, while also presenting themselves for the slaughter. Subtext, complexity, and surprise — these are what separate their shows from mere TV. This should have the bonus effect of serving as a preemptive response to criticism. If you had paid close enough attention, they imply, then you would understand that every plot point is an imminently justified artistic decision. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to pull off the performance required (“Dany kind of forgot about the Iron Fleet”) and they end up looking like two guys who are just sort of winging it. Every week of the disappointing final season, thousands of people were looking for someone to blame, and immediately found it.
That’s the ironic thing about “Inside the Episode” features. The proliferation of content about prestige TV was sustained by the mystique of the showrunner; if television as a medium could produce works of genuine artistic merit, then the men (and they were almost always men) behind them had to be singular talents, our era’s tortured geniuses and mirrors of the complex, extraordinary protagonists depicted in their shows. They were the true stars of the operation, even more so than the performers, which is why we spent so much energy analyzing their choices.
But the fact that this “bonus content” is so insipid, however, only serves to diminish the standing of showrunners and the art they make. It makes shows look less like art, and a whole lot more like just another piece of content: “storytelling” meant to grab the attention, drive engagement, and generate revenue. They show us what’s behind the curtain, but not in the way they intended.