It’s too bad we call it bingeing. “Bingeing” is panicked pleasure. It’s pleasured shame. It’s disordered snacking. It’s 12 scoops of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Core when one is rumored to suffice. I say too bad that watching multiple episodes of a show in a single sitting has been stamped “bingeing” because I watched “Game of Thrones” for the first time last month — all of it — and none of that judginess captures what I felt.
Over the course of more than 70 hours, I experienced what I can describe only as the civilized rush of acquired conversancy. Describing that rush as a binge feels like a greasy artifact of the early streaming days, when a season of television would appear overnight, and you had the option to watch it once a day, maybe, or scarf it all down. Overnight.
The only way an entire season of “Game of Thrones” appears overnight is if you ignore it. And for about eight years and seven seasons that’s what I did. I thought I was being principled. The show started in 2011, deep in President Obama’s first term, and a feudal fantasy seemed like a complacent retreat. Whatever progress was supposed to look like, it seemed unlikely to be happening in this show’s fictional country of Westeros. But I also didn’t want to repeat the work I had already tried to do with other bleak, saga television, like “The Walking Dead.” Other people were going to have to watch the show for me.
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For most of a decade, I was Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” — actually, it might’ve been worse, since my Wilson would have been looking for other volleyballs to talk to about the Starks and Lannisters and White Walkers. I didn’t exit the island until April 3rd. Who can say why I did it? It’s true that I had been home and disgustingly sick for two weeks. But I also knew the end of “Game of Thrones” was nigh, and I wanted a taste of what the world was likely to be going through these past six weeks. I have friends who’ve created new careers out of their fandom and bottomless expertise. I’ve seen lines wind around the block to hear these people perform live recaps. So I broke down and got in line, too.
For a month, my diet included three or four episodes a day. Some days I watched more, almost entirely in my living room and on a television set. Often the credits rolled with me, by myself, saying “[expletive]” or “[expletive]” or simply nothing because when, say, a wedding suddenly becomes a blood bath, you can’t talk because you can’t breathe.
Toward the end, I sent my friend Alex a picture of Jon Snow on my TV, and he practically smacked his forehead in concern. He remembered what I put myself through watching five seasons of “Breaking Bad” in a few weeks before its finale. He remembered how that show’s mastery of moral and narrative suspense stressed me out. I finished in a couple of weeks, but it probably took a year off my life. To paraphrase Alex: I didn’t watch “Breaking Bad.” I smoked it. Or rather: It smoked me.
But my time with “Game of Thrones,”, while far from stressless, felt closer to reading. It’s based on the first five novels in George R.R. Martin’s series “A Song of Ice and Fire.” So you can actually read this story, too, at least until the production ran out of books. But as I made my way through the show, I spent a lot of time thinking about whose viewing relationship was healthier. It would take as long as a month to read Martin’s novels (yes, people have read them in less), and you’d need more than 100 hours to complete Robert A. Caro’s four books about Lyndon B. Johnson.
Instead of living and dying a little over the span of eight years, my little deaths and rebirths occurred in about five weeks. HBO doesn’t have commercials. Subscribers are part of its bottom line, and this show became a subscription driver. So an excellent piece of pop art — another one — got stretched by the maddening rack of commerce. Of course, I don’t get my five weeks without those eight years. Nonetheless, that’s a long time to carry all of the ardor, anticipation and fury that come with watching this show. And the eternal waits between seasons can seem a cruel amount of time to harbor resentment, as many people apparently do, about the show’s momentary, yet monumental, bait-and-switch from throne-gaming into large digital-looking armies charging at each other; into impalings, decapitations and infernal dragon breath.
More than one person who found out about my compressed viewing window expressed the kind of wistful envy I imagine the people of Westeros will one day lay on the young prophet, Brandon Stark: You remember who everybody is. I do — just about. But I also have no claim on this show. I don’t feel like it’s mine. Eight years of it haven’t lured me into a sense of ownership or familiarity. (I, at least, don’t feel like I’ve known Daenerys Targaryen — a.k.a. “Mother of Dragons,” a.k.a. “Protector of the Realm,” a.k.a. “Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea,” a.k.a. “Breaker of Chains,” a.k.a. Godzilla — long enough to be calling her “Dany” out in these streets.)
It had been fun to experience “Game of Thrones” as a bystander. The things that reached me about the show really stuck. I knew the meaning of “Hodor” before I’d ever seen the character himself. I’d heard about the dragons and the zombies. I knew that somebody saw fit to hire Jason Momoa to plant a flag of molten hotness. The aforementioned blood bath, dubbed the Red Wedding, sounded bad. (It was actually so much better than that — a nightmare achievement in horror-movie terror.) I had been watching the show secondhand and sometimes only because it was on at somebody’s house. The night the punitive religious fanatics made Cersei Lannister walk nude through her own kingdom, I was pestering a date with ludicrousness: Why’s the cast of “Sister Act” singing “shame” at her like that. (Earl, I can now say that I would have kicked me out, too.)
But after a couple of weeks, it was sobering to notice how the world teems with nasty Cersei Lannisters and useless yet poignantly pathetic Stannis Baratheons. I was imagining “Game of Thrones” musicals, featuring illogical love ballads (“I Sent You a Raven”) and body-rocking breakup jams (“Dracarys”). Watching the show this way means you do miss the trading-card, live Twitter, water-cooler aspect of the experience. Maybe Diana Rigg’s Lady Tyrell was the talk of the nation during her too-brief yet spectacularly wise, exceedingly dour run. But I never heard a word about her. (And, to repeat: I knew who Hodor was!) Anytime someone asks who my favorite character is, I usually choose her. She was a master player of the game, an O.G., and yet doomed because her ruthlessness and murderousness lacked the necessary touch of evil. She wasn’t gangsta enough.
In little more than a month, I absorbed the show’s abysmal cruelty and rousing bellicosity but also its ethereal tenderness, gallows wit, and thrillingly robust sexual hunger (I’d like to note what the lust-bucket kingdom of Dorne rhymes with). And given the dismal wonder lavished on the brown characters — a collection of either worshipful, sniveling, savage, or largely faceless, voiceless, and penis-less human sacrifices — there was plenty of time to consider whether the men who made this show were really the best people to speculate (courtesy of a reportedly still-in-the-works HBO series), about a United States in which slavery was never abolished.
And once there are no more books to adapt, most of the detailed discourse and sophisticated depiction of brinkmanship, backstabbing and governance vanish. The gradual shift from William Shakespeare to George Romero feels irreversible, like the kind of TV that comes more naturally to the makers of this show.
Basically, this isn’t television freighted with complex psyches or ideas. “What’s it about?” “Power!” And yet it’s about power the way Italian cooking is about tomatoes.
I got the sweep of war and romance; world-building previously preferable with cards and dice; a fantasyland in which a queen’s psychotically enraged entitlement and not unjustifiable arrogance (Daenerys Targaryen, “Freer of the Damn Slaves,” too) can break your heart. I got a world in which endless supplies of horses and armored men colliding with one another, the constant death, not infrequently achieved its own “Guernica,” its own invasion of Normandy, and, as recently as the penultimate episode of this final season, its own climax from Alfonso Cuarón’s “Children of Men.” I had so given myself over to this place that when Cersei corrects a man by saying, “Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls,” I seriously considered jotting it down and taking it to a tattoo parlor.
Maybe several years of this would have culminated in an actual tattoo.
So here I am, days away from the end of it all, ambivalent. The thrill of my conversancy has given way to a kind of sheepish chagrin. I’ll watch the finale with some friends, people who’ve been with “Game of Thrones” since “Winter Is Coming,” all the way back in April of 2011, when the audience was a fraction of its current size. Even though no one’s called my express education a stunt, it does feel, in even supposing that I might have watched it “better,” that I’ve been stunting.
I do believe that we mischaracterize what it means to experience television now. Where, for a viewer, should the shame of a binge begin? Perhaps at the point at which we permit the networks and streaming services and media who cover them to shame us, to reclassify viewership as consumption. I think eight years is too long, not to be devoted to a television show but for the companies who make our TV to milk that devotion, the way, for decades, film studios and the owners of certain professional sports teams have.
What delighted me about my initial weeks with “Game of Thrones” was how private the experience was. I still got to be in “Cast Away.” I read criticism about the show listened to podcasts and watched videos, all of which could be as entertaining as the show itself. But I never had to suffer disappointment or resentment. I never underwent the urge to have a take. I was just excited — because the show could do that to you.
But once I was caught up with the rest of the planet and ready to watch the third episode of this final season (the notoriously underlit White Walker massacre), where did that leave me? Standing around the proverbial water cooler, getting exclamatory, emotional and aggrieved about, say, being denied a shot of Daenerys’s face as she commits mass murder. And yet I still feel kind of apart. Five weeks is enough time to achieve familiarity but probably not enough to become a true fan. Hence my chagrin. There are no restraints in a binge, but there can be some guilt. Maybe you gobble up a season of television in a day to be among the first to say you did. But what if you gobble it up in a month to be among the last? What if I was sky-high on “Game of Thrones” and returned to earth? The feelings other people are coming with to Sunday’s finale will be heavier than mine. They’re bringing the hope and dread and glee of a multiyear investment. I’m bringing wine.