‘Theory Baiting’: Exploring a Key Factor in the Game of Thrones Final Season Backlash
The richness of the World of Ice and Fire deliberately encourages the viewer to be extremely invested in it’s universe and characters, and come up with elaborate theories and over-analyzations. Eventually, it seems like the thing that drew so many people to the success of Game of Thrones backfired and served as a key factor to one of the biggest backlash events in entertainment history.
I’ve let the end of Game of Thrones and the online backlash against it stew in my mind for a while. The more I think about the final season the more I appreciate it, despite also becoming more aware of its flaws. The backlash itself is particularly noteworthy in the history of film & TV, comparable to perhaps only The Last Jedi, but I would still say on another level entirely. Keeping an eye on the backlash has certainly helped me become more aware of some of these flaws, but at the same time, shown how pedantic and poorly thought out the majority of complaints are.
I wanted to write something down which attempts to identify why people are so upset with the end of Game of Thrones beyond the simple “writing was bad” or “People didn’t get their headcanons” to-and-fro. While I do think a lot of people are upset that their headcanons didn’t come true, I think there is a deeper dimension to this issue which I associate with a phenomenon I’m coining as “theory-baiting.”
The core argument I make here is that since GoT/ASOIAF encouraged the creation of theories, many fans have an inflated sense of their own understanding the text. Therefore, when their headcanons/theories do not come true, they may potentially be able to accept it, however they believe they are entitled to particularly high level of textual support for the different narrative. This expectation is often flawed because it can demand such a level of textual support that would damage the pace and structure of the story. Secondly, this expectation is fundamentally flawed because it reflects their inability to recognise textual elements that didn’t previously fit their headcanon, which can only be fixed through self-reflection, for which such a level of entitlement is not conducive.
There are other reasons behind the backlash, some we discussed in several of our other articles and some I may explore later in this article or in others as well, but I believe “theory-baiting” is a core component and driving force of the backlash.
What is “Theory-Baiting”?
Theory-baiting is when a text is written or portrayed in a way that strongly encourages the audience to theorise about what will happen later in the story. Optionally, a theory-baiting story is often written to bait the audience into making particular theories, only then to subvert those theories by making them untrue, or taking the narrative in a surprising direction.
What does the first part of phenomenon achieve? Several things:
It encourages a deeper consideration of the text by the audience, who become more likely to reread/re-watch in order to find hints and clues that support particularly theories, especially if they fit a pattern of foreshadowing used elsewhere by the author(s).
- The creation of fan-communities dedicated to sharing theories, but also having greater levels of appreciation and discussion of the text overall.
- A sense of accomplishment by the audience for discovering these clues and writing these theories, which further invests them in the text.
- Potentially greater audience reach thanks due to the added value of mystery and intrigue.
And what about the second part?
- The ability to surprise audience members regardless their level of investment in the story
- Twists in the story having even greater emotional resonance due to them happening almost on “another level”.
- Potentially making more original, nuanced and interesting observations about human nature.
- Greater opportunity for the author(s) to teach lessons to the audience, due to them being more invested in the text.
Theory-baiting shares some traits with J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box”, in that elements of a story are included to create a mystery that promotes discussion and theorising, thereby increasing the popularity of and attention towards a text. However Abrams’ has been criticised for including “mystery boxes” just for the sake of increasing popularity, sometimes without even having a reveal planned for the mystery. “Theory-baiting” goes beyond singular elements or “boxes”, but rather refers to the broader nature of how a text is written and/or portrayed.
While theory-baiting is prominent in other franchises, like Star Wars and Harry Potter, I believe it is more prominent in ASOIAF/Game of Thrones than anywhere else.
Firstly, the scale of the story in terms of number of characters, length of the story and the extend of the world-building means that there can be greater connections drawn between characters, events and history than in other franchises.
Secondly, there is extensive use of foreshadowing and symbolic language that is echoed in revelations later in the stories, sometimes hidden within the text, but also in more on-the-nose elements such as dreams and visions by prophetic characters such as Bran of the Ghost of High Heart. Examples from the books include Mormont’s crow saying “King” in the presence of Jon Snow, the game played by the Freys at Winterfell and Walder Frey then saying “mayhaps” at the Red Wedding, the Ghost of High Heart seeing a “shadow with a burning heart” murdering a stag, it goes on. In the show this also prominent, such as Jaime saying he’d rather die than being a cripple then drinking with his right hand and the dead stag impaling the wolf found at the start of the story. The show also goes in hard with characters mirroring and/or echoing each other and themselves. Examples include Stannis’ path to the throne foreshadowing Dany’s, Dany’s loss of lover, advisors, people and child in late season 1/early season 2 foreshadowing the loss she experiences in Season 8. Due to the show also including elements such as musical motifs, costuming, cinematic techniques, these also play a part in the theorising of relationships between characters, events and history (good example of this is Sansa’s hair being styled after who is influencing her most at the moment).
ASOIAF/GoT basically provides a style of writing and worldbuilding depth to greatly encourage the writing of theories, even to the point of absurdity (e.g. the infamous Euron == Dario) theory. When the show overtook the books, the show-watching community entered alongside the book-reading community and their styles of theorising became more intermixed. Ultimately, it meant moving into the last 2 seasons, there was a huge presence of theorising in the Game of Thrones community. Due to the breadth of characters and worldbuilding, it was hypothetically possible to make a theory or prediction about anyone or anything that might sound convincing.
The ultimate representation of theory-baiting in both books and show is naturally R+L=J. Jon’s parentage. A parentage mystery is a natural choice for theory-baiting, as seen in Star Wars, and is particularly relevant in a story where ancestry defines power. There are hints in both mediums, from Mormont’s crow in the books, to the snow on the Iron Throne in Dany’s vision (this particular scene is quite noteworthy, as I’ll get to later). It is the perfect example of how the text rewards the fans who delve deeper into the story and look for clues and hints. It’s subversive use, however, is a perfect example of the second optional part of theory-baiting. We all remember how the fanbase reacted when this theory turned out to be true in the “Winds of Winter” episode, presenting the complete opposite image effect of what we’ll see Theory Baiting generate in the later seasons.
Subverting the Theories in ASOIAF/Game of Thrones
ASOIAF/Game of Thrones is particularly famous for its subversion, starting with Ned Stark’s death, and become cemented with the Red Wedding. GRRM has written that his subversion serves as a reaction against the “Disneyfication” of fantasy/medieval history, and that he writing a fantasy/medieval story to more closely align with what he sees in human nature. In retrospect it seems interesting that in writing this subversive story, he’d rely so heavily on such an overused trope as “the secret heir” in R+L=J. The good natured protagonist, who learns wisdom through his struggle from not being amidst royalty and thus becoming a good, wise ruler, is particularly overdone in this genre, from Aragorn in LOTR to Alistair in Dragon Age: Origins.
R+L=J serves as the biggest theory in ASOIAF/GOT because of its central role in subverting the tropes within the genre. Despite people saying “it didn’t matter”, its role in unravelling Daenerys and being a major contributor to a tragedy that led to the death of millions and the first dragon-rider in two centuries, it seems to have a pretty big impact on the story. R+L=J serves to demonstrate the danger of heritage as a determinate of power, leading to the first (believable) step towards democracy at the end of the story and the rise of Bran the Broken as Plato’s Philosopher King.
As mentioned before, the breadth of the world-building in ASOIAF/GOT means that any number of theories can potentially be created about the future of the story and sound plausible, thereby attracting supporters of these theories. This is fine while the story is still taking place, but it means as the story finishes, hundreds of these theories will come crashing down as it is impossible to support them all. Therefore, ASOIAF/GOT was always going to be subverting audience expectations due to the audience’s tendency to migrate towards certain headcanons about what might happen and the extensive number of potential outcomes to the story. Naturally many of these theories might have included “happy endings” for particular characters that didn’t receive them, notably Daenerys, meaning that their theories were subverted.
Dany’s “madness” is another particular area of theory-baiting which needs to be mentioned here. Targaryen madness is written in the story in a way that promoted discussion in the fanbase about whether Dany would “go mad”. This is particularly prominent in the book-readers due to their access to Dany’s inner monologue. While the story didn’t exactly subvert the theory here (as they did with R+L=J), it used these story elements in a subversive way by turning Dany into an anti-villain, which is not particularly common in this genre, nor in broader fiction. The point of this subversion was to demonstrate the risks of idolising leaders, for even those who may seem like heroes can turn out to be villains. In order to achieve this subversion the show it demanded the story maintain the illusion of her heroic qualities for as long as possible, while limiting evidence for her villainy in sub-text or by giving her plausible deniability for any potentially villainous actions. This writing means that it would reward those who theorised about Dany’s fall by noticing evidence for her villainy in this way, while subverting the expectations for those who considered her to be a hero and making a strong comment about humanity in this subversion.
Melisandre actually serves as a perfect metaphor for the viewer/reader that makes theories and is overly invested in a particular character. They both use subtly hints hidden throughout visions and texts, and their worldview is completely shattered when their theories don’t pan out and favourite character falls. Prophecy in ASOIAF/GoT is particularly subversive in how it reflects the theory-baiting nature of the story in being fickle and panning out in unexpected ways. I do love this, as it shows how ASOIAF/GoT relates to the viewer on an even deeper textual level and reflects within the text how we relate to, support and are disappointed by our favourite characters, just like in real life.
Headcanons, Popular Theories and Theory-Baiting
This leads us to the crux of this essay, which links the backlash to the show to particular communities that would have been particularly affected by this method of storytelling. Critics of backlash have said those who were upset are upset because “they didn’t get what they wanted” or “wish-fulfilment”. I don’t think this is particularly fair. Many of these upset fans have responded by saying “It wasn’t what happened, but the execution”.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think that’s fair either.
The culture of theorising communities shares a lot with fandom shipping. It can result in the segmentation of the fanbase into groups that promote a particular theory or a particular ship. I saw this especially in r/asoiaf in the years I was still active there (2012–2015ish). Most interestingly, I saw a divide over the “mad queen dany” theory, where some people supported it, but some people said that they “hated it”. People said they hated other theories, like the “Targaryen Tyrion” theory. While the latter didn’t come true, both are examples of how the community were unwilling to say “I disagree, let’s see what happens” but rather indicated they would dislike the story if certain theories came true without willing to consider how the texts might support these theories later down the road.
When people are especially invested in a particular theory they may be more likely to ignore storytelling elements that don’t fit their headcanons about what will happen. This is especially true after what Dany’s turn. While there can be a legitimate debate over “was her turn justified enough”, there was a particularly vocal aspect of fans that were in denial about the storytelling elements, character development and, yes, foreshadowing, that other people were considerably aware of. Even after Tyrion explicitly explained the point of Dany’s character — that we were willing to excuse the problematic nature of some of her actions due to the victims of those actions — people continued to be in denial. The problem here is that it wasn’t the entirety, or even the majority of the fanbase that were particularly critical of the decision to make Dany into a villain, it was most prominent among Dany fans. They had become so invested in their headcanons, theories and predictions about her character that they had ignored and/or forgotten the evidence of her villainy and were unwilling to reconsider their appraisal of her character.
The unwillingness to reconsider the appraisal of the story is also key here. I was quite annoyed with how the fans reacted to this season as it came out — particularly with the example of “booting the snoot” with Ghost. People were surprisingly angry about Jon’s casual farewell to Ghost, denouncing the writing of that moment despite later in the season he coming back and bonding with Ghost as a symbol of his identity. What I see here is that the theory-baiting nature of the story had resulted in many fans assuming they knew the story better than the writers of the show. This inflated self of understanding meant they felt they could criticise storytelling elements as they happened, rather than being willing to wait until the end of the show and appraise it then.
This lack of introspection and self-reflection was also prominent among Stannis fans, among which I was one. After season 5, many fans were utterly outraged about Stannis burning Shireen, continuing the long-running circlejerk that “D&D done Stannis dirty.” It is true that D&D portrayed Stannis differently in the show than in the book, and this was cause for entitled book readers to say that they were “butchering him”. This was especially prominent after he killed Shireen, where many Stannis fans on r/asoiaf called it character assassination, and refused to believe it being in line with his character. Yet even after it was revealed that GRRM intends for Stannis to burn his daughter, there has been very little proof of self-reflection or introspection about how they understood Stannis and even have tried to argue that it would been done without Stannis’ knowledge, directly contradicting GRRM. What really got my goat is that many Stannis fans didn’t seem to realise that in by making Stannis less sympathetic and more morally problematic in the show, it better justified his character arc in killing Shireen. It seems such a simple resolution of the problem these fans had with Stannis in the show, but their heightened sense of their own understanding means they are more likely to deride something against their headcanon as bad writing rather than reflecting on the story as it comes out. Stannis was surely not as popular as Daenerys or Jon Snow, who’s fans caused a major uproar that echoed through social media during the final season. But the reaction to Stannis’ actions among his fans was surely another little preview to an effect we will see in a much larger extent later on.
The heightened sense of ones own understanding is a key issue in a text with theory-baiting. Theory-baiting encourages fans to delve deeper into the text, but that results in a raised ego as fans of a text. So when the text does something surprising that contradicts their theories, it might be interpreted as an attack to their identity as a devoted fan. In order to appear reasonable they may say “it wasn’t what happened, but the execution”. But the problem with this type of fan is that they are already ignoring evidence or interpretations that exists due to their own investment in their theories. They may offer suggestions of what could have been done to make it more reasonable, but these suggestions seem to lack self-awareness and understanding about how they might affect the text in other ways. One example of this was Arya killing the Night King, which naturally subverted/ended a LOT of Night King theories. Despite Arya’s arc being narratively and thematically associated with death, and her skills as an assassin being emphasised in the episode, and the only examples of White Walkers being killed earlier in the story being due to surprise and/or stealth, some fans found it unreasonable. I saw some fans argue that they should have shown Arya approaching the Night King, or having some other kind of distraction, showing no awareness that doing so would have completely destroyed the tone and tension of the scene. Many fans also claimed that the motive of the Night King wasn’t explained, despite it being showed and stated pretty bluntly in Season 6 and even extended in “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” — they refused to believe that was the motivation because it didn’t fit the narratives.
So here’s the thing about people saying “It wasn’t what happened, but the execution”. I find myself sceptical of these arguments because the levels of textual support these fans seem to be asking for is frankly unreasonable, significantly affecting the pace and tone of the story. It seems more likely many fans make these demands to soothe their egos about being wrong, which is sadly unnecessary because the story was meant to be subversion — it is OK to be wrong. I say this as a fan who is obsessed with this show, made many theories (many turning out to be not true). I instead have been happy to be proven wrong, because that is why I first fell in love with this series.
Fundamentally theory-baiting can risk the creation of a community that is unlikely to exhibit the necessary self-reflection and introspection to truly understand the point of a text. If there is any true failure of ASOIAF/GoT it is leaning to hard on this style of story-telling, which inhibits the ability of the audience to absorb its observations about humanity. Nonetheless the prime fault lies in the viewer who is when faced with a confusing storytelling element is more likely to assume “bad writing” than “maybe I’ve missed something.” The fault lies with the viewer who when their favourite character does something surprising is more likely to assume “character assassination” rather than “maybe I misunderstood this character”. The fault lies with the viewer who immediately says “D&D don’t understand the story” rather than realise that since they don’t know the ending, they don’t understanding it completely either.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau once joked that Season 8 should be remade if all the 1.5 million who signed the petition could agree on what should happen. In a nutshell that really captures the problem with the backlash. The theory-baiting nature of ASOIAF/GOT means that among the backlash there are thousands of headcanons that would all demand unnecessarily large amounts of textual support for any particular direction of Season 8. There was always going to be a huge backlash against Game of Thrones’ ending, because either it would subvert theories and expectations as it always would, thereby annoying entitled fans, or write a bloated, slow, poorly-paced, wish-fulfilment ending that would be actually bad television.