by James Rivers
It is known: this season of Game of Thrones has been highly divisive, with Twitter ablaze, critics critical and YouTube comment threads unpleasant. The actions by Daenerys Targaryen in Sunday’s episode only added more fuel, ahem, to the fire.
But evidence shows that viewers already had mixed, even lukewarm, views about Dany. And the ongoing online argument, full as it is of heartfelt reactions, involves a fraction of the viewing audience. What does everyone else think? There’s no easy way to know for sure, but there’s a good chance they’re enjoying this final season more than highly engaged viewers.
Entering Season 8, Mixed Feelings on Dany
To go forward in analyzing perceptions of Dany, we must go back: one’s reaction to her torching King’s Landing depends partly on what one thought of her going in. You may recall last spring’s survey of 2,500-plus fans, discussed here and at Con of Thrones. In it, 73 percent of respondents saw Dany as “good,” as opposed to neutral or evil. That’s a good number, albeit lower than most other surviving characters that happened to be measured:
Good-ness aside, respondents were split on liking Dany: She ranked as both the fourth-favorite AND fourth least-favorite character. Respondents were also increasingly viewing her violent actions as not justified, especially executing Mossador and the Tarlys.
The Dragon Queen also fell into the middle of the pack in a list of 29 characters for whom respondents wanted a “happy ending.” She was on par with the late Jaime (64 percent) and ahead of Theon (46 percent – sorry, Petra) and Cersei (5 percent).
But she was well behind most of the 16 alive for the final episode:
Arguments about foreshadowing, abruptness and show quality aside, then, even if viewers largely didn’t expect Dany to incinerate half a city, they also don’t place her on the same plane as most of the show’s other lead characters. Which means that for many, Sunday’s episode may have been horrifying, but the arguable character assassination less of an issue.
Viewer Engagement and Dany’s Actions
Level of engagement or investment in GoT/ASOIAF appears to play a role in perceptions of Dany, but in an unusual way. For comparison, I sliced off the two ends of the “viewer engagement” spectrum:
-“Immersed” respondents, or those who read at least one ASOIAF book before seeing the show and spend a lot of time reading about or discussing GOT/ASOIAF (About 120 people)
– “Isolated” respondents, who haven’t touched the books and spend little to no time discussing the show. (About 185 people)
These are subsets of the “book first” and “show only” groups analyzed last year. The vast majority of respondents fall between Immersed and Isolated; those 2,200 people generally were skewed toward online activity, given the survey was distributed online. The same is almost certainly the case for most “snap poll” type surveys taken after episodes air.
We can break down the above “Percent Seeing Character as Good” chart into Isolated vs. Immersed respondents. Five of the surviving 11 characters had notable differences, Dany among them:
The fact that the Isolated respondents had Dany further up in the “good” rankings could mean her actions in “The Bells” were more stunning to Isolated viewers. But they also named her their favorite character less often than Immersed respondents (8% of the time vs. 13% of the time), so her destruction of King’s Landing may not have otherwise overly affected them.
Viewer Engagement and Opinion of Season 8
There’s an obvious larger question at play here: How do the views of those isolated from Thrones-talk online compare with those immersed in it?
I’d posit that the Isolated folks are more positive toward this season, being less engaged and less apt to spot apparent plot holes and the like. It’s a corollary of Oz’s recent speculation that it may be easier “for viewers-only to take and accept the show as-is” than book-readers.
Many aspects of Dany’s attack have been criticized online, as have other events in Season 8, such as how Rhaegal died and the Winterfell battle plan.
Of course, a number of plots in other seasons were also lambasted in reviews and on social media, for instance the “wight hunt” beyond the Wall. But last year’s survey found that Isolated fans had a far more positive opinion of those denigrated plotlines:
Yes, you’re reading that right: There’s a seemingly absurd 40-point difference regarding how Isolated vs. Immersed survey respondents felt about last season’s Littlefinger/Arya/Sansa plotline. Of the five plots listed, only Stannis/Shireen had equal footing across the groups — but Immersed respondents found it the most effective listed, while Isolated folks placed it fourth.
A similar, if less extreme pattern, holds with how Immersed and Isolated respondents ranked the first seven seasons from top to bottom.
Season 1 and Season 5 were best and worst for both groups, but the others are jumbled. The Isolated rankings are more tightly bunched, meaning their opinions were more all over the map while Immersed folks marched mostly in lockstep.
While those of us highly immersed in the show’s final season virtually (and literally) shout and debate after each episode (Full disclosure: I was initially appalled by much of “The Bells” but have since warmed to it), there’s millions of others who tune in Sunday night or later, maybe text a friend and then forget about Westeros for another week, or year – or after Sunday, even forever.
Evidence suggests the two groups have long had differing experiences with Game of Thrones. There’s little reason to think it’s any different with Season 8.
James, aka Chris Wright, is an occasional WOTW contributor who particularly likes analyzing how people consume media. He once wrote a book about this regarding Survivor. He works as an editor in Washington, D.C.