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New Republic - May 21, 2019

It was bound to end this way. Given its colossal success, cultural saturation, and the impossible expectations that come from being “event television,” the Game of Thrones finale was always going to be a contentious affair. The overwhelming response was disappointment—“the worst finale ever,” in this magazine’s howling formulation—but disappointment in season eight has taken on many forms, including what has now, nearly twenty years into the twenty-first century, become a familiar sight: the viral fan petition demanding a rewrite and a brand new season eight.

The petition, started only a few days ago, has well over a million signatures at the time of this writing, and is just the latest iteration in contemporary culture of fans reacting with anger to the perceived mistakes of writers, directors, and show runners. Social media has turned everyone into a critic, and it would be easy to fulminate against the apparent entitlement of a fan culture supercharged by the internet. Taking the long view of this phenomenon, however, it is not anything new—since the advent of technologies that eroded the space between artists and audiences, fans have always made their displeasure felt and sought to sway the direction of a given work. Arthur Conan Doyle famously brought back Sherlock Holmes from his plunge from Reichenbach Falls after audiences showed little comparable interest in his other, Holmes-less work.

Yet there is something worth paying attention to in this latest petition from fans keen to have a creative work made the way that they want it. The comments on the petition are instructive. Amidst the usual griping—the final season is “not Game of Thrones anymore,” it is “garbage,” a “slap in the face”—the most common sentiment is some variation on the disappointment caused by all that has been invested in the show. Fans invested their time (eight years!) and their energy (so many Sunday nights!) and their money (HBO isn’t free) supporting the show—and now they realize, to their mounting rage, that this investment has not paid off. The return has been less than what was expected.

Here then, it starts to become a little clearer what exactly is going on with these petitions. Back in the early 1990s, the American critic Fredric Jameson talked of the collapse in the perceived distinction between the economic and the cultural. As late as the 1960s, Jameson said, it was still possible to argue that the cultural occupied an autonomous space, outside of or in some way distinct from capitalism. But in an era of franchise entertainment and increasingly homogenized cultural production, where films and television and even books are judged as successes based on the money they bring in, such a space is increasingly unthinkable.

So it’s not a surprise that, as the economic and the cultural have become increasingly interlinked, these instances of fan protest have become more intense and more protracted. They reflect the ways in which it has become impossible to think of any popular culture outside the logic of capitalism. At the center of this matrix is a certain kind of consumer: the fan who is invested, both literally and figuratively, in the product cum work of art*.*

Culture has become a commodity that the audience is invited to purchase—and, given the way in which cultural objects are serialized, franchised, and spun off into expanded universes, the purchase is an ongoing investment. To entice a purchase what is needed is a stable, reliable commodity that promises a certain return. So studios and production companies focus-test and demand edits and revision if the commodity under production seems at risk of not making an adequate return. ...
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