this essay is about Game of Thrones, sort of, but it contains zero spoilers for Game of Thrones other than that the final episode sucked (it sucked!!!!!!), and is just as much for those of you who have never watched, or cared about, the throne game.
More than anything else, perhaps, the phenomenon of prestige television at the beginning of the twenty-first century is about the fear of Sunday night. My friend Emily once tweeted “What’s it like to be a grown-up’ ‘Well, sweetie, the existential malaise that sets in on Sunday night is so common there’s a name for it.” The tweet refers to the term “Sunday Scaries,” a cloyingly cute phrase that refers to a deeply chilling collective emotion. The Sunday Scaries are the heart of prestige television, the thing that defines and powers it, and what has made it matter beyond the specifics of any one show. Game of Thrones is a show about dragons and wolves and incest and murder and swords and patriarchy and boats and hairstyles and colonialism and death, but it’s really a show about Sunday nights.
Logically, one might assume Sunday Scaries only apply to people with Monday - Friday, 9 -5 jobs. As a freelancer with nowhere different to go and nothing different expected of me on a Monday than on a Sunday, Sunday Scaries shouldn’t be able to reach me. But capitalism doesn’t work like that. It is a mood, a shadow covering over the sun, the chill down your spine walking past a graveyard. As Sunday night rushes toward its inevitable bedtime, I still feel that my hiding place is about to be discovered, that a grace period is suddenly over. On the brilliant, recently concluded bleak comedy You’re the Worst, the central characters establish a ritual called “Sunday Funday.” Sunday Funday is as stupid as it is relatable, so much so that by the time the show’s final season finished, real people had adopted Sunday Funday, providing a thriving hashtag of brunch spreads and afternoon champagne bottles on instagram. For the majority of the series, not one of these characters has a true office job, the kind of thing that would genuinely make Sunday the last gasp of freedom before the claw of work and obligation. But they invent Sunday Funday anyway, in part because they’re all dirtbags, desperate to feel important and always grasping to be made part of things that have no reason to include them. They make up a stupid song (“Sunday Funday / Better than a Monday”), and a ritual about being reckless and drunk all day, to take up the space at the end of the weekend.
But Sunday Funday is about more than wanting to be included in everyone else’s malaise. Feelings are more slippery than the circumstances from which one might assume they arise, and Sunday Night is a feeling, more than a time slot. You’re The Worst was a show about depression and anxiety and PTSD and the irrational things our brain chemicals and our accumulated traumas drive us to do; of course it focused on Sunday as an emotion. The problem with anything good is that it ends, and the dread of its ending calls up other endings and other losses, until all the dread of anything that has ever been temporary, of any worry about which we could do nothing, crowds into the small hours at the end of the weekend. Sunday night is a depression nap, is going out instead of fixing your problems, spending your last $20 so that you don’t have to think about how it will feel when it is gone. There are all manner of monsters waiting on Mondays, and going to a job is only one way to plummet back into the small and itchy horrors of real life. Sunday nights are all these confrontations, these dug-out trenches, and Sunday nights are prestige television.
The Sopranos, the Beowulf of prestige television, premiered on January 10th, 1999, a Sunday night. Game of Thrones premiered on April 17, 2011, a Sunday night more than ten years later. It was almost immediately compared to The Sopranos by critics, praised by a phalanx of essays explaining how this show was so much more than the escapist Ren Faire trash about dragons it might immediately appear to be.
But, of course, Game of Throne *is* escapist Ren Faire trash about dragons. It’s not The Sopranos for any reason other than that lots of people die violently on both shows. It’s the joke when you say “sword” and pronounce the W. It’s astoundingly cast (the true heroes of Game of Thrones are the casting directors), beautifully acted, occasionally well-written (once upon a time anyway), sumptuously designed, and staggeringly expensive Ren Faire trash, but it’s still sword with a W. And yet the same people who obsessed over The Sopranos and Mad Men with all their men-wearing-hats-in-dim-light cultural legitimacy, obsessed over and wrote serious criticism about and tweeted endlessly about the tits-and-dragons show in the exact same way. Everyone, it turned out, was a huge nerd, and everyone had always been a nerd.
I read the Game of Thrones books on a series of planes, in the summer after the fourth season aired. I have relatively serious flight anxiety that only seems to get worse as I get older, and one of my defenses against it is hefty fantasy novels meant to block out reality the way blackout curtains block out light. As my block-out-the-light goal for fantasy books goes, ASOIAF are very good fantasy books. I was almost fully able to forget that most of the flights and airports, turbulences and small seats, over the course of a thirty-plus-hour trip, were even happening at all. Not all reading is this kind of reading, the kind where the world falls away, the kind that a certain type of bookish person often talks about as the pinnacle of the experience, reaching back to lonely childhoods in which books were an escape to a kinder and more welcoming world. This kind of reading, however, with its dive through a door to elsewhere, is its own emotion, and it is the same emotion as binge-watching a prestige television show.
About seven years ago, an ex and I spent an entire day inside together neither fucking nor fighting, the only time this ever happened or would ever happen, in our relationship. Sometime in the late morning, one of us said, “let’s watch an episode of Game of Thrones,” which neither of us had at that point seen. It was the day before the second season premiered. We put on the first episode of the first season, and the stupid song played, and the little 3D model of a map spread across the screen, swooping and sliding to delineate the space of a made-up universe, and then we sat there for ten hours and finished the first season by the time it got dark outside. I still remember, in a way as visceral as a smell or a taste, how good that long day felt, how it seemed that we had won, that we had defeated the demanding and unloving world that lurked beyond the windows. Then we ran out of episodes and went to bed, and the next day I went home, and we watched the second season once a week every Sunday night, along with the rest of the world, unable to access the relief of that long lightless escape, but showing up every Sunday for a fractional hit of it, to sniff at the memory of the one time it had worked.
The problem with binge-watching is the same problem with wanting it to be a holiday all the time. The more we consider a show serious, the more it feels permissible to drown oneself in episode after episode of it, to use it as an excuse to stay home sick from the world. It is logical that a show about dragons and swords would feel more escapist than most other things, and that viewers would want some larger permission to dive into that warm bath. It is not that we are all nerds so much as it is that we are all rightly scared of what is waiting outside our windows, out there where the television can’t reach, where everyone knows both that dragons are not real and that they rarely can be defeated.
For eight years, people have taken Game of Thrones far more seriously than it merits, and it has been a joy to witness, more often than not a joy that far outpaced any joy the television show itself offered. Sometimes calling art serious is just a way to give ourselves permission to escapism, a way to pretend that our hiding place is actually our office. The cultural legitimacy of Game of Thrones better equipped it to protect one’s face from Monday morning. All prestige television shows are the same genre, and that genre is Sunday night.
Game of Thrones is over now. We’re all free to go back to our lives. It sucked (we can all agree on that, right? That that final episode, and this season generally, sucked?), but that’s not the point. For a long time now, Game of Thrones has been a placeholder, an empty center. Its point has been to talk about it, to feel about it, to focus a Sunday around it. The noise and ritual around the show has been large enough that it was not necessary for the show to be good, and hardly necessary for it to exist at all.
A friend said that this was the end of an era, that Game of Thrones was “the last show America is all watching together.” This may be in reality an overstatement; it has always been true that far more people aren’t watching, and have indeed never seen one episode of, Game of Thrones, than are watching it. But it is true that this show calls back, even over the small space of not quite ten years, to a different time, and a different way of consuming media. It is an echo of a moment when things like prestige television were more of a monolith, and reactions to them slightly less fractured, when the structure of social media and television viewership was still such that people could sit on twitter on Sunday nights and watch a show together in real time.
The same friend who said this used to abruptly leave whatever she was doing on Sunday evenings to go home and watch Game of Thrones with her roommate, with whom she had watched every episode. Sunday night television from the era that gave us Game of Thrones, back before the phrase “prestige television” was a joke, was about the desire for routines and returns, home and stability. More than anything, prestige television, and Game of Thrones in particular, may be about the human tendency to mistake habit for love. Stability can be a kind of escapism too, losing in repetition the awareness of one’s larger and less manageable surroundings, setting tables and arranging deck chairs, Sunday Funday, better than a Monday. Something will replace Game of Thrones on Sunday nights, but it won’t ever quite shut out the light as well as this did. Our own world will still be waiting beyond it, patient and hungry, a perpetual Monday morning.