Game of Thrones turns 10: What happened to the world's biggest TV show?

George R.R. Martin and HBO have novels and prequels on the way, but a calamitous season 8 finale may have killed off the saga.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
5 min read

It was a TV show, apparently.


Remember Game of Thrones? That niche little show that reached 44 million people across eight seasons? It began exactly 10 years ago Saturday, but HBO and author George R.R. Martin hopes forthcoming prequels and novels will reclaim GoT's pop culture throne. 

Except winter came and went, and it may not be coming back.

Based on Martin's already best-selling fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, the Game of Thrones TV show began on HBO April 17, 2011. No one could have predicted the show's utterly seismic cultural impact. Even if you didn't watch the show, you knew winter was coming and weddings were red.

Even if you knew nothing, you knew Jon Snow. 

Crucially, Game of Thrones proved that even in the age of streaming and constant YouTube and social media distraction, TV could still enrapture a mass audience. The final episode had 13 million viewers tuned into HBO, and more than 44 million people in 173 countries watched each installment by the end of season 8. For eight glorious seasons, GoT showed that appointment viewing still existed. The show won 59 Emmys among hundreds of award nominations, and came to define this fragmented era of television and media.

Then it all went wrong.

The collapse of Thrones' legacy is summed up by the second most popular Thrones-related post on Reddit, a discussion ignited by a (now-deleted) tweet about the show's finale. "GoT was on TV for a decade and had a stranglehold on popular culture," said Twitter user MusketAnna, "and it ended so poorly that literally the moment it ended its cultural influence dissolved. It's amazing."

Reddit, of course, is hardly reflective of the broader viewing public. It's pretty clear the ending of the series inspired a backlash, but that doesn't mean the show was tarnished for all viewers. Thrones inspired endless memes and merchandise, tattoos and Twitter handles -- surely that cultural influence can't just go up in flames like an iron chair remodeled by an angry dragon.

Let's look at how many people searched the Web for news or information about the series, a rough but reasonably reliable indicator of mass popularity. 

According to Google Trends, between 2012 and 2017 "Game of Thrones" dwarfed "Harry Potter" as a search term whenever the show was on air. But by 2020, barely a year after GoT ended, 13 years since the last proper Harry Potter novel, Potter was once again a massively more popular search term. In terms of people Googling the show, Thrones is roughly on a par with Friends, a sitcom that ended 17 years ago.

We're not going to rehash the anger about the finale, except to say that many viewers were stunned and angered to see their favorite characters ending their journeys in less than satisfying ways. Over 1.7 million disgruntled viewers signed a petition to remake the final season, and HBO's 10th anniversary celebrations are overshadowed by lingering season 8 bitterness.

In defense of showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss -- who didn't exactly help their case with tone-deaf comments after the finale -- there's always pressure on a final episode to tie up sprawling stories in satisfying, believable ways. The Sopranos infamously sidestepped that responsibility with its abrupt ending (which in itself pissed off a lot of viewers). The ending of Lost annoyed pretty much everyone who was still watching it. Dexter and The X-Files just kind of petered out. Roseanne and St. Elsewhere went completely nuts.

Most recently, Supernatural came to an end after 15 years and delighted viewers with a fan-favorite romantic pairing -- only to instantly kill off one of the characters and sour the experience for a number of super-fans. You just can't please all of Twitter all of the time.

Cosplayers re-enact Game of Thrones at Comic-Con 2019.
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Cosplayers re-enact Game of Thrones at Comic-Con 2019.

Cosplayers remember the good times at San Diego Comic-Con 2019.

Tania González/CNET

HBO must fervently hope the finale didn't totally incinerate the golden crown. The network still wants to sell GoT DVDs and Blu-rays and T-shirts, not to mention subscriptions to streaming service HBO Max. But disillusioned fans are hardly likely to recommend the series to newbies or themselves pay to rewatch and be disappointed all over again.

And HBO is betting real money on Thrones' continued appeal. Reports reveal at least five "successor shows" are in development, not to mention a Broadway show (hey, it worked for Harry Potter). House of the Dragon is filming right now with Olivia Cooke, Paddy Considine and Matt Smith as old school Targaryens. There's an animated show in development. Deadline reports multiple other Game of Thrones spinoff projects: 10,000 Ships, about warrior queen Princess Nymeria; 9 Voyages, about the voyages of the sea snake, Corlys Velaryon; and a story set in Flea Bottom, the poorest slum in King's Landing. There's also a series potentially based on Martin's novellas Tales of Dunk and Egg. ("Flea Bottom"? "Dunk and Egg"? After coming up with the masterfully evocative "Game of Thrones," did George Martin just forget how to do titles?) Even if they don't all make it to screens, it isn't cheap to make a TV show -- let alone one set in a fantastic realm like Westeros.

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Then there are the vaunted final novels. Martin is working on The Winds of Winter (so he says) and hasn't even started the planned final volume, A Dream of Spring. If the show's ending faced a lot of pressure, viewer reaction ramps up expectations for Martin to not only wrap up his epic tale but also undo small-screen mistakes. Luckily for Martin and his publishers, the books were already bestsellers before HBO got involved. The question is whether the new books and TV shows will reignite Thrones fever or plunge out of sight like Bran Stark out of a window.

On the plus side, networks would kill for the next Game of Thrones, so the past few years have been great for sexy, violent, very adult fantasy shows. Netflix's The Witcher, See on Apple TV Plus and HBO's own Raised by Wolves all show a clear Westerosian influence. That said, some post-Thrones adult fantasy shows like Carnival Row and The Nevers are infused as much with the steampunk DNA of Penny Dreadful. At the height of Thrones' global popularity, who would have even considered Penny Dreadful might have a comparable long-term influence?

It's early days, but I wonder if people will still talk about Thrones in 10 years the way they do about the Sopranos, or whether it'll join the ranks of fondly regarded but rarely mentioned series like Carnivale or Boardwalk Empire.

There's a whole generation of kids called "Arya", and someday we may have to explain to them what Game of Thrones even was.

Still, no matter how you feel about the finale or how the show is regarded, the 10th anniversary is an opportunity to look back at just how important Game of Thrones was to so many people. Remember the twists and turns and shocks, the friends you made among fellow fans, the genuine watercooler moments in a world that doesn't even have watercoolers any more.

No matter what the seasons bring, remember how it felt when winter was yet to come.

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