The Dark Side of 'Game of Thrones' on the Internet 

What the Angela Lansbury casting rumor says about the way we talk about 'Game of Thrones.' 


Last week, there was a rumor circulating that Murder, She Wrote’s Angela Lansbury was going to have a role in Game of Thrones Season 7. It turned out to be false, though by the time it was debunked, it had already spread faster than Varys can teleport from Meereen to Dorne. Now, a disproven casting rumor is hardly a matter of life or Trial By Combat, but this story exemplifies the oddity of what the Game of Thrones internet following has become. And, curiously enough, it’s a case of life imitates art.

Because Game of Thrones is the biggest show in the world — in viewership, scope, and prominence within the cultural zeitgeist — everyone and their mothers want to devour every shred of information. The problem: Because everyone is talking about it and because we’re all in the race to beat millions of others to the punch, verification can fall by the wayside. Who cares if HBO or Lansbury’s people had yet to confirm? The story is out there, so make like Ser Pounce!

The media is not to blame. Game of Thrones is unique in the sheer number of voices populating the echo chamber. In order to be heard, you need to be especially weird or sharp — though sometimes that falls by the wayside too. I recently met a fellow writer who did a freelance stint for a major publication. They asked him to write a recap of a Season 6 episode despite him never having seen the show; he didn’t give a flying fuck about it.

Perhaps I’m naive, but that boggled my mind. Would you have someone who had never cracked the spine on a Victorian-era novel give a lecture on Dickens? It’s a disservice to the audience to assume they won’t detect a writer’s lack of background knowledge on the subject. And yet, I couldn’t blame this guy for doing his job, nor could I blame the publication for wanting to join in on the conversation.

The spread of misinformation in Game of Thrones coverage echoes that present in Westeros itself: Everyone is standing on a different street corner trying to be heard, and the people don’t always know who to listen to — whether it’s a Red Priest or a rumor about the existence of White Walkers. When Sam visits his family in Season 6, it reminds us that even noble, educated families think White Walkers are just heresay. How do you know what to believe when half the information floating around is accurate and the rest is questionable?

In Season 6, we also saw how information regarding what happened to Ned Stark got distorted as it traveled across the sea in play form.

Game of Thrones coverage wasn’t always like this. Jon Snow’s death at the end of Season 5 accelerated the frenzy and set a precedent. Just as Kit Harington’s every haircut and minute facial expression were analyzed in the year between Season 5 and 6, so is every potential plot point and casting rumor now.

Now, this isn’t to blame showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss either: With The Winds of Winter nowhere to be seen, they had no choice but to end where the last book did, perhaps hoping George R. R. Martin would stick to his deadlines and release the next installment in time for the show.

And so, this fascinating, strange series of events in which adaptation overtakes source material has had a domino effect on the Game of Thrones conversation. It’s not just a show. It’s a tidal wave to run ahead of. It’s a movement to join. It’s an ongoing conversation about how large-scale storytelling works.

Like the story itself — which began with the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens — the conversation around Game of Thrones began as deceptively straightforward, as if it was just another television show. But it’s not, and there’s no easy way to address the elements that people find frustrating. Benioff and Weiss in particular talked about how the production has changed, with code names and the eliminations of paper scripts.

“It’s crazy enough to be the person crawling through the bushes in Northern Ireland with a telescopic lens taking pictures,” Benioff said. “But the idea that people want to go to sites and find out those spoilers … it’s like if there was a website called Last Pages of Great Books, would you read that?”

But it’s a self-perpetuating cycle: Entertainment outlets will cover it as long as readers want it, and fans will look for it as long as the show keeps moving ahead of their favorite book series — a fascinatingly unprecedented pop culture phenomenon — or as long as they keep pretending characters are gone for good. There’s no easy answer, unless Daenerys comes to break this wheel.

The flurry around the Lansbury rumor underscores how Game of Thrones coverage is a chaotic, often lawless arena — but perhaps it’s the only style that’s appropriate for this entity that’s more a force of nature than a show.

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