Game of Thrones and A Song of Toxic Headcanon and Hyper-reaction

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Far from being a fable of heroes or villains, the finale ‘The Iron Throne’ showed what Game of Thrones has always shown – that our leaders are kinda disappointing. We shouldn’t have expected anything else. Credit: HBO

I started thinking about this article between episodes 5 and 6 of the final season of Game of Thrones, and am finishing it after the season finale. Game of Thrones won’t be the only TV show I discuss here, but it will be the main one, and is the one that best exemplifies the phenomena I will be discussing: ‘headcanon’ and hyper-reaction from fans and critics. So for the purpose of clarity, ‘headcanon’ is a term I have seen used to mean fan’s individual understanding of the show they like, and also their view of how it will, or should, end; and by ‘hyper-reaction’ I mean the largely online culture of criticism that is based around a cycle of microscopic viewing, reviewing, previewing, and theorising which manages to be fairly simplistic despite the detail they go in to. It is this recipe of influences which can be so toxic, and which we have seen recently with Game of Thrones.

I do not enjoy fantasy really. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but magical realms of elves and demons and what-have-you has never appealed to me. I think it is because I always enjoy human stories the most and fantasy seems a bit removed from that. Game of Thrones, however, has been a mighty big exception. This show featuring magic, various gods, dragons, and resurrection became one of my favourites ever as soon as Ned Stark’s head left his body. By this time, the reality that this was really a story of personal and political intrigue first, was clear, and the fact that it’s rich setting included such fantasy elements was no longer an issue for me. This slow introduction of fantasy elements is part of what has made the show such a smash hit. Perhaps if the dragons and magic were prominent from the off, I would have been less enamoured, but surely, these elements were introduced as a crucial part of the universe – more pieces on the ever-developing chess board. It was clear that expectations, as well as sentiment, could be thrown away. The game would play out as it would, not as fans expected.

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Ned’s beheading is cited by many as a quintessential Game of Thrones moment that set the scene for the rest of the show. Credit: HBO

I started watching Season 1 in early 2017, between Seasons 6 and 7 and made my way through the show fairly (and increasingly) quickly, until I caught up with the show and everyone else for Season 7. I have therefore consumed the show both as a binge-watcher, and now as an episodic watcher, and these two experiences are different in many ways. Of course watching multiple episodes back to back leaves you with a different experience to waiting a week between episodes, but one specific way I will primarily write about is the ‘quiet time’ between watching episodic shows, the time where all you have is the speculation of yourself and others. A lot has also changed from 2011 to now from the show being a cult hit and there being less of a review/’deep dive’ culture online to now when the show is perhaps the most popular show of all time with countless fans ready to make as many reaction videos, blogs, and tweets about it as possible, either out of love, or good business sense given the traffic the show inevitably brings.

Fandom has never been so intimate, and the intimacy comes in cycles. Unfortunately, the cycle itself and the online output it encourages is almost exclusively harmful to enjoyment of the show.

I am as culpable and vulnerable to it as anyone else. Here is my unofficial Game of Thrones schedule for this season:

1) Watch Episode > 2) Tweet reactions > 3) Listen to multiple reviews of episode > 4) Listen to multiple previews of the next episode > 5) Watch next episode > 6) Repeat.

Mix in to all of this conjecture, predictions, and discussions with others about the overall narrative journey of the show, and thoughts about how it will end, and it becomes all consuming. It becomes something almost apart from the show. This seems to be the case for many people too. People have their own individual view of both how they would like the show to behave and end, of how individual characters should behave and end their story, and how the show and characters will behave and end. This is all independent of the episodes already in the can and waiting to be televised. Viewers are obsessed with all facets of the show, and, like Littlefinger himself, imagined multiple different directions for the show at different times – some they like, and some they don’t. This is what is meant by ‘headcanon’: an imagined version of the show that exists only in the fans mind (and hopes). There is a degree of personal and even emotional investment involved with headcanon. Game of Thrones has done an excellent job of creating several characters we care about or are interested in, that we think we understand and can predict, but this creates expectations for fans that the show cannot possibly cater to singularly.

Most Game of Thrones characters are, and are celebrated as, morally complicated and hard to predict, but in a culture where predictions are prevalent, people will still do it. They perhaps want to believe they understand the show closely, and even know how it should, and will, end. So when it doesn’t happen in a way they like, something feels amiss, or even missing. I’m perhaps playing pop-psychologist a bit here, but they may even feel their fandom is invalidated. This is where people get defensive, and where at least part of the problem lies.

Let’s take a couple of examples which are being talked about a lot currently:

1) Daenerys becoming the ‘Mad Queen’. Daenerys has had an interesting character journey, from abused sister to powerful Queen in waiting, the ‘Breaker of Chains’, to now, where she has become a murderous tyrant. Criticism has been multiple and emotional, claiming that her turn to ‘mad queen’ has come out of nowhere and doesn’t fit the rest of her ‘arc’* given how much she spoke of breaking chains and wheels of power. It is certainly a disappointment if you admired her, that much is certain, but what it isn’t is unexpected or unearned**. If you view Dany in broad strokes, then yes, the progression seems nonsensical. But remember, the characters in this show all show what George RR Martin calls ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’ – they are morally complex, and situationally torn characters, and as such, can be powerfully human, even in their inhumanity. Look at Daenerys in more detail, and it is clear that violence and strength are always tools near to her. She has incinerated multiple people who she believes has done wrong or got in between her and the Iron Throne, she talks of burning cities to the ground and using ‘fire and blood’, has crucified scores of people, and her advisors are there explicitly to try to curb what are the more vengeful and violent aspects of her Targaryen bloodline. Throughout the eight seasons, it has been made explicit that as much as Daenerys may speak in purple poetry about being a liberator, her primary ambition is the throne, and the possibility of her using violence has always been just below the surface. My personal reading of her is that when she was conquering lands away from Westeros with relative ease, and was receiving the love of the people, she was happy to imagine herself the revolutionary, and maybe even believe it, but when challenged significantly, and when unable to inspire that same love, she was more than happy to choose fear over love if it meant reaching the throne. Even further, when the common people of Westeros didn’t immediately rally to her cause, that was all the excuse she needed to follow her father’s example and ‘burn them all’. None of this is inconsistent. How many times have we seen coups from people claiming to bring some sort of ‘change’ only for them to become tyrants? How many times do we see politicians support both humanitarian aid as well as military interventionism? Bad people rarely think they are bad, and in Dany’s case, I think she has convinced herself that getting the Throne, and the steps she has taken to do so, are absolutely necessary to her cause. The degree to which she will actually break chains or wheels is in doubt though when it’s compared to her wielding power.

Is this a pleasant direction? Absolutely not, but does it make sense? Does it fit? Absolutely. People were shocked and stunned to see the grisly images of her fire bombing of civilians, but that doesn’t make the story bad, it makes it affecting. There seems to be some confusion in this differentiation. Viewers of Game of Thrones should know now to expect a pleasant show with clear saviours or heroes, and getting upset when they don’t get it is astounding to me. Many viewers pictured Dany liberating Kings Landing either with or without Jon Snow by her side, they imagined a peaceful transition of power and a life of happiness and freedom for all. That is rarely the case in real life, let alone this universe, and if you expected that, you were watching the wrong show.

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Perhaps the defining image of the season, and the most divisive. Dany’s fall was foreshadowed, but not enough for some. Credit: HBO

2) Jamie Lannister comforting Cersei as they both died. Jamie Lannister is perhaps the most morally ambiguous character on the show. In the early seasons, he is an infuriating, incestuous golden boy and (attempted) child killer, as well as a ‘Kingslayer’. He’s about as hateful as it gets aside perhaps from his son Joffrey and, later, Ramsay Bolton. But a funny thing happens as the episodes and seasons go on. We spend more time with him as a captive. He loses his hand, explains that he killed the king to save the lives of civilians from a bloodthirsty tyrant, knights Ser Brienne of Tarth, and generally seems to have good intentions. He becomes so close to Brienne that fans started to imagine them together – something that comes to pass in season 8 before he suddenly leaves for Kings Landing to be with his sister/soulmate Cersei. It is true that the rehabilitation of Jamie is remarkable from hated to almost revered, and when Jamie chose being with Cersei over being with Brienne, some fans presumed he must be going to kill her himself. Prophecies and presumed neat narrative arcs drove this belief, but when Jamie instead held Cersei as they died, rather than killing her himself, the consternation was powerful. Fans saw it as the ‘destruction’ of one of the show’s most powerful ‘arcs’. Again, in broad strokes, this makes sense, but in finer detail, and with nuance of reflection, it seems unfair.

There are two things that are certain about Jamie: 1) is that he was indelibly linked to Cersei and had a deep love for her, even when she drove him away, and 2) He was never an uncomplicated good person. Even during his redemption ‘arc’ he was killing relatives, supporting a tyranical regime, forcing himself on his sister, and threatening great acts of violence. If he knew a person, he would generally fight for them, but otherwise, he had no qualms about his actions. I was surprised when he left Brienne in Winterfell, and disappointed in how he did it, but again, I didn’t feel it was particularly out of character. His bond to Cersei, and love for her was so strong, that she would always be a consideration for him, and I believe that once he heard Cersei was about to be in a war, whatever happened, he knew her had to be there, either to stop her from doing anything evil, to save her is needed, or yes, possibly to kill her himself depending on how the situation unfolded. When he makes it Kings Landing, his aim becomes to convince Cersei to stand down and surrender – whether he would run away with her or go back to Brienne is an open question. As events unfold though, he reaches her with the walls crumbling around them and himself mortally wounded. The time for surrender has already passed, so they try to escape, and when escape is impossible, they comfort each other. Whether he quite believes it in the same way he once did, he repeats to her an old refrain that ‘nothing else matters’ and dies as he once told Bronn he wished to – in the arms of a person he loves. None of this means he doesn’t also love Brienne (in a different, less complicated way), and there was also no reason for him to kill or confront her. These were obviously desperate moments for them, and every action and reaction of his made total sense.

*I wanted to add an aside about the term ‘arc’ because I swear I have heard it 1000 times during this season from fans and critics alike. For a show where characters can obviously develop and change, people’s tolerance for this seems to have totally disappeared. I have heard the phrase ‘destroyed their arc’ countless times, and it goes to show how people now understand the show – they have predetermined expectations for every character, and if the destination isn’t the same as they have imagined, or changes course from what they understand, they read it as the breaking of this holy structure of the ‘arc’ – not even imagining that change and development can be part of a larger journey. Maybe Jaimie’s journey isn’t so simple as arsehole golden boy to loved up honourable knight because he isn’t either. People, in fact, are rarely so simple – they can fall back in to old habits, do irrational things, and have special bonds with people even if they are bad people. Jamie’s ‘arc’ isn’t a simple redemption story but the story of a person who has been torn his whole life between honor and immorality, depending on the situation, and who, in the end, reverts not to type, but to Cersei, the one constant in his life. Is it something I was happy about? Not really, but was I surprised that Jamie was drawn to Cersei? Absolutely not. This unthinking use of the word ‘arc’ has not only started to sound like fingernails on a chalk board to me, but is used recklessly and unthinkingly. I think what people mean by it is the journey to change for a character which is gradual but definite, and which they have personally perceived. No character in this show does, or should, however, develop like that. Narrative isn’t simply about change – its how people act or change when they do, and why. It’s not always some clean A to B journey, and yet many of the most prevalent criticisms continue to treat it as such.

** The second term I have taken aside is ‘earned’. Critical fans have been saying of these plots and others that certain moments were not ‘earned’. What they mean by this, I think is, something happening which they didn’t see coming and which they think is at odds with what they understand of a character. That nothing they have seen previously has hinted at a certain action. Not only does this term scream entitlement and arrogance, but it is also incredibly simplistic, asserting that every action or twist must have the ingredients carefully laid out before it. There are times where that is satisfying, of course, but that cannot be the only way to execute drama. Again, as with humans, sometimes actions can come from nowhere obvious, we can be surprised by others or by ourselves when confronted by difficult choices or situations. I would argue that plenty of the shocking moments in this show and others weren’t ‘earned’ in the way some use it, but were still effective. What is more, perhaps such surprises aren’t going against a character, but are instead adding to it. Perhaps your pre-determined feelings for a character are actually constraining the story as well as your enjoyment of it.

Now, despite my righteous typing, I can’t help but feel a little odd about defending such a juggernaught franchise so passionately. So, even-though, on balance, I love the show, I will discuss a few recent aspects of the show I have been disappointed in.

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Arya’s interaction with this white horse seemed silly and didn’t lead to anything. No one said the season was perfect. Credit: HBO

  1. While I defended the way Jamie gravitated to Cersei and dies with her, one element I was disappointed in was how he left Ser Brienne. As easily as I believe his continuing love for Cersei, I also believe in his different kind of love for Brienne. Their scene together in an pool in an earlier season is one of the most emotive scenes in the show and that as well as the rest of their time together sells their bond well. So when they finally spent the night together post-Long Night, it made sense. Their real feelings mixed with the post-battle energy makes that completely believable. However, him leaving her the next morning felt a bit flippant, even if it wasn’t. To sleep with Brienne then leave her feels cold in a way that doesn’t fit him I think, and seemed to rob this hugely honourable character of some of her dignity. The same story without the sex would have been better I feel. While Brienne eventually found herself in a strong position as the first female head of the King’s Guard and so wasn’t defined by Jamie, it would have been nice to have seen a bit more from her rather than her dutifully updating his pages in the Book of Brothers.
  2. With regards specifically to everything up until the finale, and especially to do with the Battle of Winterfell, while I presume Bran was doing a lot more than was shown, it feels like his role until the finale was less memorable than it felt it would be before the season. He seemed like he was going to be a crucial chess piece in everything, and even if he is, that hasn’t really been shown. Some mystery is necessary, but not even knowing basically anything about his role in the grand scheme of killing the Night King is a bit much. Obviously more is revealed when he assumes the throne, and with regards to that, there is some interesting mystery – i.e. did he know/intend to be King, and will that be a good thing or the protection of a status quo?
  3. The closing scenes of episode 5, with Arya escaping King’s Landing were a little over the top for me. Her escape cut alongside The Hound’s final defining battle was a nice bit of storytelling given their connection, but once it was over, her being seemingly the only survivor of the attack, completely alone save for a white horse to help her escape felt like gilding the lily. This is especially the case now episode 6 has aired, and it became clear that not only was Arya not going anywhere, but the horse was never seen again. What, did she just go up the street? It’s really a small thing, but this may have been the most egregious moment of the season.
  4. The way The Hound spoke to Sansa about her rape bothered me. I should stipulate that I don’t share the common criticism of this scene that it wrongly attributes Sansa’s maturation to her rape at the hands of Ramsay Bolton. I think that was always a short-sighted and a simplistic reading of the scene where I saw it as a moment for Sansa to show that probably the worst thing that ever happened to her would not be something that would define her. This is also Sophie Turner’s reading of the scene according to a recent interview. Naturally, it was part of a series of tragedies, which also included her experiences with Cersei and Littlefinger, that helped shape her view of the world from innocence to experience, but it was never portrayed as something ‘beneficial’ to her. What I did find troubling, however, was the way The Hound spoke to her about it, about her being ‘blooded’ violently. I thought it was needlessly raw and harsh, even for a character like the Hound, and I don’t think it achieved anything really.
  5. Most importantly, the one thing which I think has unquestionably somewhat damaged the show, and which I think the vast majority of people agree on is that even if the events make sense and are entertaining, they seemed to happen in a rushed fashion, without much of the quiet time or breathing space which allows for extra development and contemplation. While I am still enjoying the show, I would enjoy it even more with this extra storytelling time, watching people on their journeys to their battles and making plans; and in the case of those who claim to ‘hate’ the show, that might have been enough to improve their experience. This was especially the case with Daenerys’ short reign in the final season. While the writers and actors portrayed her tunnel-vision for power and delusion that she was doing ‘good’ well, I would have liked more time to see her in the triumphal aftermath of her sacking of the city. I think this would have built more tension with regards to the fate of both her and Jon, and the lack of this did take away a little from an excellent conclusion for them.

One caveat I would add to this is that it makes sense that at a time of climactic wars that the action becomes quicker and more packed together than at times of intrigue or relative peace. A show should be able to change pace at times. Nonetheless, it is still undoubtable that this show and the last two seasons needed more episodes and more time left for contemplation. This part made a great show a little weaker.

YT Criticism

There is plenty of simple and dismissive clickbaity content on places like Youtube. Credit: Youtube and these channels.

While these aspects of the show left me cold, it is important to see them in the context of the wider show. If they lower an episode’s stature from ‘masterpiece’ to a more tempered ‘excellent’, that is fine, it’s the ability to properly critique. Unfortunately, in a world where the ‘hottest takes’ and most eye-catching thumbnails, released to the public the quickest grab the attention, and clicks, this kind of nuance is not encouraged in online criticism especially. Saying that you enjoyed Game of Thrones except for a a few moments or plot points is probably a more accurate, but less attractive read in a place where binary reactions are the most common currency. So you see videos with titles like ‘Game of Thrones rant’ or ‘Why Game of Thrones sucks now’ and so on and so on, and people watch, and these criticisms become more widespread. In some cases I believe this leads to something of a self-fulfilling prophesy that the writing will be bad or the ending unsatisfying before the final episode has even aired. If you create a framework of negativity, it’s hard to see the show in a more nuanced and truly critical light.

This is especially infuriating when criticisms feature calling the writers of the story ‘stupid’, ‘nonsensical’, or ‘lazy’, like these professional screenwriters are clueless iconoclasts while these amateurs could just write it perfectly themselves. I’m all for democratizing writing and criticism, but these criticisms rarely come with viable or interesting alternatives, and indeed, usually when they do suggest something, it’s dull, without nuance, or has similar problems to what they have complained about. Again, there’s no need to over-defend these writers, and they aren’t flawless, but I think if people consider what they would do instead of what was written, it would show them the delicate balance it entails and maybe temper some of the nonsense I have outlined.

It must be said that when there is such a groundswell of opinion, there may be something to it, and that the greatness of the writing is undermined by the fact that it couldn’t convince the fans that what it showed was better than their headcanon. That said though, I really worry that the (sometimes financial, in the case of Youtubers and other critics) encouragement of this obsessive prediction/breakdown/review culture is becoming more influential. The media we are consuming is being swarmed by multitudes of opinions that really clouds the experience. Yes, I am aware you can avoid all of this, but it can be difficult to if you’re genuinely interested. Ultimately, this is not an attempt to convince disappointed fans that they are wrong or anything like that, and even if I don’t understand it, if you don’t like the show, then fair enough.

An extra effect of this is that there are a lot of mediocre shows that end up getting lauded almost by flying under the radar of this same criticism. Rather than being adventurous or subversive, they play it down the middle, do it well, and so don’t leave themselves up to much specific criticism. In the context of hyper-reaction described above, something mildly pleasing and inoffensive can have it’s quality inflated simply by virtue of not rattling any cages. Any show that can do this consistently may be able to get enough momentum to encourage the opposite reaction from fans and critics. The other side of the negative clickbait coin is a trend towards overly-complimentary content, describing safe, decent shows as ‘masterpieces’.

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Shows like Stranger Things and Westworld play simple tunes and get lauded for it. Credit: GoldDerby, HBO, Netflix

There are many, many examples of this, but the two most prominent are other recent smash-hits which have been received far more positively than Game of Thrones: Stranger Things and Westworld.

Stranger Things is a visually entertaining show featuring talented cute child actors playing a story which is not only pretty shallow ‘monster of the week’ fayre, but even worse, effectively repeats the same story in it’s second series. It dines out on there being a big audience for 80’s nostalgia, and this mixed with the other elements has made it very appealing to a large audience. In terms of the depth or layers of story, it can’t compare with a show like Game of Thrones, for all it’s faults. In fact, nothing is special about it at all, but nevertheless, it is lauded as a great show.

If you’ve ever read a ‘philosophy for beginners’ book or taken a beginners philosophy class, or even if you haven’t, you will be familiar with the major themes of Westworld. Part of my lack of reaction to Westworld is that it is fundamentally not a human story, it is about, almost exclusively, robots and artificial intelligence. This is, admittedly, a personal bias, and even though a story featuring artificial life forms can meaningfully reflect on human life, this show does not. Again, it is interesting visually, and certainly not poorly made or acted while trying to elucidate on the nature of consciousness, self-determination, and sentience. Critics and online reactors fall over themselves to laud this aspect of the show like that’s anything, frankly speaking, original, interesting, or particularly intellectual. It relies very heavily on countless timelines and the fact that anyone could end up being revealed as a robot, or ‘host’. When you do this, no action really has impactful consequences because any action can always be overturned with a plot twist. The risks and the stakes are low. It tells the story in it’s stylised way, while still effectively playing it down the middle, and again, this can be enough to establish it as a quality show.

When anything is hyper-criticised – in this case, TV shows – and any perceived inconsistency is treated so unforgivingly as ‘bad writing’ or ‘stupid’, it limits the parameters of ‘successful’ television, and  discourages shows which genuinely experiment and explore the human condition and complicated human stories. People act like characters are algorithms who would only act in certain specific ways and would always act logically, and if they don’t behave within these parameters it ‘doesn’t make sense’, is ‘stupid’ or ‘bad writing’, or heaven forfend ‘BETRAYS THEIR ARC’. I’m not saying these people are always wrong when they raise talking points like this, but that their approach to criticism and review is fundamentally flawed. When you hold characters, and plotlines, to higher standards of consistency than you do real people and real life, you are heading for problems. Sometimes people do weird, stupid, or out of character things; sometimes they learn and change, and sometimes terrible or unexpected things happen to you. If a TV show can show this in a realistic way, that is something to be treasured, and I believe that Game of Thrones is a show that regularly does that.

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Dresden, in the aftermath of the Allied Forces. Credit: Business Insider

If you think Dany the liberator burning King’s Landing to the ground is unrealistic, look in to the history of the Dresden bombings the sequence is largely based upon. Game of Thrones is an anti-war show, and for a fantasy show featuring dragons and the un-dead, it is one of the most accurate portrayals of the evils and madness of war you will ever see on television.

Similarly, with Jon, in the context of the finale, people seem confused about why Jon needed to be revived and/or discovered to be a Targaryen and/or why he didn’t end up on the throne as the ‘rightful’ king, because they don’t feel his ending was appropriate given these plot directions. In answer to the first question, I suggest that his being the one to kill Dany was fairly significant and justifies his resurrection having meaning. As for the second question about his heritage, their contention seems to be that the tension this created with Dany didn’t come to pass because she seemed keen to rule with him during their final scene. This is another simplistic reading – even lovesick Jon Snow could see that this was her way of neutralising the threat he posed by making him complicit, and that no one could control her expansionism. It was the basis for much of the paranoia she had towards him, and what’s more, it is a good example of how the show doesn’t treat every ‘arc’ as some clean journey of destiny. Just because Jon was a Targaryan, it doesn’t mean him on the throne is the only plausible result, and in fact, given that a Stark ends up assuming the throne anyway, it probably was a hindrance to that outcome. Answering the final question is easier. Jon never wanted to be King, and what’s more, the Greyjoys, Unsullied and probably more didn’t want him as King due to what he did to Dany. What’s even more is that the different houses decided that a monarch should be chosen, not a role that should be simply inherited, so his claim by inheritance meant nothing anyway.

As Tyrion, and others in the show, have said, a good compromise is when no one is really happy. I think this is a line emblematic of the show’s message. War is terrible and corrupting and our leaders are disappointing and corrupted. Yes, Westeros progressed from a monarchy to an oligarchy, but a democracy is some way off; and yes the existential threats to life are gone, but will life be better for everyone. Time will tell. In many ways though, it’s more of the same. Again, this is disappointing, but then again, look around you. How many radical progressives hold any power? Society craves the status quo. If you expected a revolution, you’ll be disappointed, but in a world where Theresa May is about to be replaced by another flaccid Tory or an impeached Trump would be replaced by Mike Pence, can you really call that disappointment unrealistic?

Ultimately though, who cares? As I said earlier, I know I don’t need to seek out the opinion of others about the shows I like, and I’d go further to admit that it is strange to continually listen to the opinions of people online that I don’t agree with. That said, it is perhaps the curse of the invested fan. I enjoy listening to people discuss the things I like, and in this case, it has become habit. Aside from that, it worries me that the general discourse around shows is becoming increasingly influenced by hyper-reaction and is even bleeding in to mainstream criticism, and ultimately in to the consciousness of the screenwriters themselves. I just hope that writers don’t start to write shows with this kind of criticism in mind because it will just lead to more mediocrity which people will laud at the time but won’t ultimately have much of an impact. As with everything, I would rather we have art which tries to do something special, and doesn’t necessarily please everyone than art that is successful by playing it safe and relying on crowd-pleasing tropes and aesthetics.

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