“They wouldn’t have shown it if it didn’t have some significance, right?”
So states Andy Greenwald during the opening episode of “After the Thrones,” HBO’s new half-hour after-show devoted to discussing all things “Game of Thrones.” Well, not all things. Read on its own, the above question could open a discourse regarding the past foibles in an imperfect series (and what series is perfect, other than “Friday Night Lights”?). But instead, it’s passed over in favor of more praise. And praise is sneakily abundant in the premiere episode of Bill Simmons’ first production for HBO.
On the one hand, of course it is. It’s an after-show. “After the Thrones” is not a review of “Game of Thrones,” so they could praise Alliser Thorne and The Night’s Watch — a.k.a., Jon Snow’s murderers — if they so choose. Co-hosts Greenwald and Chris Ryan are not providing critical analysis of the episode that aired hours before, despite operating as critics outside of this show (at least part-time for Ryan) and being described as such in the press release for this show. Instead, they’re filling the role of Chris Hardwick on “Talking Dead,” Dave Holmes on “Bates Motel: After Hours” and Chris Hardwick again on “Talking Saul”: Hosts whose job is to offer insights via background, context or clever asides on the scripted hour of television that stimulated the “need” for an after-show.
They do it very well, but that doesn’t make the new series any less dangerous.
“After the Thrones” operates much like a video version of online recaps, and there’s a reason Indiewire doesn’t write recaps. (We write reviews.) While Greenwald and Ryan’s commentary is detailed, articulate, entertaining and thoroughly researched, it’s also permanently absent a devil’s advocate. No one is going to question whether what happens each week on “Game of Thrones” was good or bad. They’ll only be asking how it affects the show going forward, and what those decisions mean in the diegetic context of Westeros. It’s a safe space for fans who don’t want to hear anything negative said about their favorite show to only hear the praise they crave — deserved or not.
While a safe space sounds nice, it’s actually the opposite of what fans need to seek out, especially if they’re devoted enough to read or watch recaps every week — even good recaps like this one. After opening the show with a quick introduction and general reaction, Greenwald and Ryan introduce a map of Westeros that (quite handily) points out where all our favorite characters currently exist in the vast reality of “Game of Thrones.” Moving east to west on the map, they discuss what happened with each character and come up with theories as to what those events could mean for the future. It’s all quite helpful for anyone who doesn’t have the time to plot out such details on their own, and Greenwald and Ryan make the catch-up session as entertaining as it is informative with their quick wits and concise banter.
It’s only when they introduce cute segments like “Who The Fuck Was That?” and “Ask the Expert” that viewers might say, “Wait a minute…” In the first segment, Greenwald and Ryan name Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) as the week’s overall “winner” (because, as they point out, so few people actually get a win in the game of thrones). They’re right, of course, in that Davos had a stand-out episode, immediately earning the audience’s empathy by rushing to Snow’s side before anyone else and, after grieving a fallen leader, trying to keep his mission alive. The hosts also point out how Davos may be one of the few true heroes left, having (to the best of their recollection) not gone back on his word or killed anyone for selfish reasons.
Praise is heaped upon him, but what’s missing is the criticism. That’s not to say Davos, specifically, deserves to be criticized. Instead, we should be talking about what his actions meant to the narrative; what they mean outside the narrative; whether his arc proved to be entertaining, informative, or a waste of time; if the show’s writers found an effective channel for the audience’s grief, and whether or not this was the best route to explore the big question of, “Is Jon Snow really dead?” In essence, they’re saying all of this was great, but they’re doing it by citing sources within the fictional world of “Game of Thrones” instead of the actual world where it’s written, produced, directed and acted out by real people.
And again, I feel the need to point out that this isn’t a strike against “After the Thrones,” per se. Its mission statement is not to be the authoritative voice of criticism on “Game of Thrones.” Yes, it irks me slightly that they’re using one of the Internet’s favorite critics in a role that many may mistake for actual criticism — early on, Greenwald even makes a “disclaimer” that he has no knowledge as to Jon Snow’s fate when he’s predicting his return because, hey, he’s getting paid to host an HBO show — but those issues are largely shut down by the duo’s aptitude for the gig and obvious adoration for this series.
In terms of HBO and Simmons’ partnership, “After the Thrones” is a perfect fit. For Simmons, it’s very much in his post-“Grantland” wheelhouse, making it a strong first outing with guaranteed traffic. The aforementioned proliferation of after-shows makes this a safe bet for both parties, but more than that, it offers additional exclusive content for HBO’s on demand services. HBO NOW is ramping up its originals department to compete with Netflix (and justify its price tag), meaning “After the Thrones” functions as an inexpensive two-tiered advertisement — for HBO NOW and for “Game of Thrones” — as well as new original content. The fact that it premieres first online speaks to the future of the medium in general, as networks move away from the traditional linear TV model. Just don’t lapse on the idea that HBO is now not only making an effort to control what you watch and how you watch it, but it’s also trying to control the reaction.
For as much as the series makes sense from a business standpoint, it’s the risk to consumers and thus the culture at large that’s worrisome. One of the most important elements surrounding the medieval ratings juggernaut that is “Game of Thrones” is its impact on such a substantial chunk of TV viewers. What you watch for an hour frames an hour of your life, and if you let that hour turn into hours, plural, by reading, watching or discussing that content, then it’s even more important to consider multiple frameworks.
If “Game of Thrones” makes a mistake — like they have so many times in regard to female representation and violence toward women, let alone a forgivable error like producing an episode that’s just OK — “After the Thrones” allows viewers to keep their heads in the sand when they should be encouraged to do the opposite. With recaps dominating site traffic and after shows becoming bigger ratings draws than many original scripted series, what’s to become of critical thought — not only amongst professional critics, but the public at large? It’s as useful as ever before, in a time when, arguably, it’s ignored more than ever.
It’s perfectly fine for TV to be fun. Just don’t sleep on the hidden significance.
(And, on a wholly unrelated note, here’s a link to Indiewire’s first “Game of Thrones” review featuring four — count ’em, four! — critics from various backgrounds all contributing their independent praise and condemnation of this week’s episode. If you watch “After the Thrones,” just promise me you’ll read this, too.)
“After the Thrones” streams on HBO NOW, HBO GO, and HBO On Demand affiliates on Mondays starting at 3am ET.