Dragon screeching … men screaming … screaming … roars.
These are the last closed captions in the final moments of Game of Thrones' seventh season, my introduction to the series. Yes, I started binge-watching HBO's fantasy show with last season's finale. In an attempt to rebel against the algorithms that have placed Thrones' biggest reveals in front of my face for eight years, I decided to watch the series spoiler-first—learn the bad thing, then learn what caused it. Soon, screeching, screaming, and roars became a transcription of everything I was feeling.
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Of course, this is a prison of my own making. It's a month-long experiment that compromised my understanding of time, my grip on reality, and my relationship with my wife (who wisely refused to journey with me). I could've devoured episodes 1 through 67 in order like anyone else, but I needed to wrest a semblance of control. Because Game of Thrones is perpetually trending, the show has created a monoculture: Legions of recappers, fans, and dragon-flight physicists have clogged the internet with so much about the show that people discuss spoilers as casually as the weather. Watching the series in the order of my choosing was a way to fight back. Thinking about how thoughtless algorithms already dictate cancer diagnoses, dating options, prison sentences, and what information is most valuable makes me feel groggy, helpless. Deciding when and how I'd watch the Red Wedding gave me a fleeting sense of power, liberation.
It also left me wildly confounded—but with a new understanding of the dark soul of humanity.
What is the story of Game of Thrones in reverse? It starts with a pissing match among the beaten and the damned, dueling each other with their dead mothers' and dead fathers' proverbs. Things magically shrink—Jorah's skin lesions, the Stark children, Daenerys Targaryen's dragons, Samwell Tarly's confidence. The graphics get goofier, the tone lighter. The dead mothers and fathers come back to life to repeat their proverbs. Knots disentangle toward a happy ending, children playing in the yard, sewing, and cuddling puppies. (The pilot, like the Season 7 finale, does feature White Walkers, beheadings, and incest sex; some things never change.)
Watching a show in reverse chronology is like eating the Mona Lisa, not the creator's intended use and terrible for digestion. But compared to following the narrative, it is much closer to how we encounter people in adult life, in media res.
My journey also leads me to ask hundreds of absurd questions. Season 6, Episode 10: Who is this pack of dirt-smeared children, and why are they stabbing this old man? Who's blowing up this church with 10,000 gallons of Nickelodeon slime? Why does the sight of this slime make this towheaded boy (King Tommen, I later learn) jump out a window? Season 6, Episode 8: What's this Party City flagship store doing in Essos? (This is the Many-Faced God's Hall of Faces, which, perhaps in a commentary on organized religion, is never quite explained.) Watching Game of Thrones backward is delightfully insane, but by embracing the chaos and becoming a couch-bound Three-Eyed Raven, I begin to pick up on things other viewers may have not.
Watching a show in reverse chronology is like eating the Mona Lisa, not the creator's intended use and terrible for digestion. But compared to following the narrative, it is much closer to how we encounter people in adult life, in media res. We don't meet new colleagues or acquaintances via origin stories with swelling violins or rumbling timpani telling us how to feel about them. We meet them as testy, anxious, or guarded humans with many other quirks tied to unknown histories that require patience to uncover. I meet Cersei Lannister as a wicked widow who's lost three children, Joffrey cold on a bier, and Ned Stark with his head on a spike. I meet dozens of characters at their worst, or at their deaths. Game of Thrones in reverse is like David Foster Wallace's “This Is Water” speech on awareness and empathy, only with gang rape, castration, and furry giants. Constantly I have to ask, How did you get here? Why are you the way that you are? Constantly I have to reserve my judgement and wait for an explanation of someone's behavior, which actually might be a worthwhile lesson for living.
But, as I continue backward, a grimmer explanation emerges: In a world of few freedoms run by impenetrable despots, depravity is ingrained. Brothels are full. People are baked into pies. Hacking limbs feels no different than “a carpenter making chairs.” Even the purest characters have sinister edges. Demure, regal Sansa Stark lingers to watch Ramsay Bolton get eaten alive by dogs, and smirks. That is part of the show's near-universal draw; it lays our world of freedoms surrendered to despots and technology onto a medieval, ornately costumed landscape, and allows us to vicariously live out fantasies of rattling the cage. Short of help from Freud, how else would we explain America's insatiable appetite for crucified people used as trailhead mile markers, hunting women with crossbows and hounds, and swords sliding through sputtering throats like butter?
As algorithms sever audiences into ever more niche segments, Game of Thrones remains the conversation, the fireside chat everyone has huddled around through the Great Recession, the 2016 election, and the Mueller report.
Of course there is much more to the show than that. As much as its dominance is a product of algorithms, Game of Thrones ultimately transcends them. In 2018, even though it hadn't released a new episode since August 2017, GoT remained television's most-watched on-demand show. This at a time when there are hundreds of options just on your Netflix home screen. And that doesn't even include the unwatched masses on Hulu, Amazon Prime, YouTube, or any other service. As algorithms sever audiences into ever more niche segments, Game of Thrones remains the conversation, the fireside chat everyone has huddled around through the Great Recession, the 2016 election, and the Mueller report. Gun control, Obamacare, climate change, the color of a dress , we couldn't agree on anything—but we could all speak the Westeros common tongue.
"In the age of the algorithm, humans have never been more important," British mathematician Hannah Fry writes in Hello World. "Stop seeing machines as objective masters and start treating them as we would any other source of power. By questioning their decisions, scrutinizing their motives … and refusing to be complacent." Experiencing Game of Thrones in reverse was disorienting, maddening, thrilling, and freeing. It allowed me—to continue Fry's line of thinking—to futz with the machine and challenge its power. It took me 67 episodes to gain that control, but it's a lesson Jon Snow imparted in the first episode I watched. "If we don't win this fight," he said, pointing to a screeching, writhing zombie torso, "then that is the fate of every person in the world."
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