Alan Sepinwall wrote a negative review of Sunday night’s Game of Thrones episode, “The Battle of the Bastards,” and spent part of his Monday defending his review to those accusing him of writing negatively as a way to “go against the grain.” The comment section under the review includes a barrage of insults about Sepinwall’s performance as a critic. Fans of the episode did not like reading bad criticism. Sepinwall, in response, reminded fans that his opinion of the episode—and any episode of TV he reviews—shouldn’t invalidate their feelings about the art they love. Later, a person tweeted him that he was the only critic to contribute a “rotten” score for “The Battle of the Bastards” to which Sepinwall replied with his invented #SepinwallCrimes.
I found the whole exchange curious. I remember feeling protective of the shows I loved a few years ago. I’d visit TV sites and blog pages almost cautiously because I didn’t want a more negative review to tarnish my love for whatever episode it was. I didn’t lambast any critics for reacting different to an episode I enjoyed, but their opinion would sort of bum me out about the episode for a few days. I’d think, “Maybe I’m a daft so-and-so. Maybe the episode did have some problems. They are the professionals!” I thought that the fans crushing Sepinwall for his opinion were like me in spirit a few years ago. They love Game of Thrones and probably felt a natural high after “The Battle of the Bastards” and hoped critics would love it as much as them. Validation represents part of it. It’s silly, but it’s a tiny truth. Sepinwall’s the most popular and respected TV critic working today. If he doesn’t like something you loved, you might think you have bad taste or you might think you’re wrong. Again, it’s silly, but TV critics fix the barometer of what’s good and what’s not.
My first impressions of seemed simplistic the more I thought about Sepinwall’s review and the anger over it. I matured as a person and a consumer of arts after LOST ended. Contrary opinions to episodes I liked or didn’t like no longer made me doubt myself. Perhaps, these fans needed to grow up a little. But, no, that’s too easy. Bryan Curtis of The Ringer released a podcast yesterday about the rise of TV critics. Curtis thinks they have superseded the importance of movie critics. Damon Lindelof commented: “You just go, ‘Oh my god, that episode of Game of Thrones, was just—I’ve never seen anything like that. That’s amazing.’ And then you go online and these other critics are basically sort of saying the same thing, but they’re doing such a better job of saying it was amazing.”
Critics, as Chuck Klosterman wrote in his latest book, dictate what we remember as important from a given era. The Hollywood Reporter’s Dan Fienberg described his role in culture as a curator. The opinions of professional critics matters more than the opinions of fans on Twitter or message boards or IMDB ratings. Critical response overwhelmingly praised and loved the episode. Sepinwall stressed in his tweets yesterday the greatness of disagreements but corrected misperceptions about why he disagreed with the majority love of the episode. Neither side will understand the other. Critics already think of fandom as an overzealous and irrational group comparable to fundamentalists in religion, so they will not understand the root reason behind their backlash to a bad review. Fans don’t want to be spoken for—unless it’s positive.
Critical opinion becomes more significant after a show has ended. The Game of Thrones legacy—how critics will remember it—already has been hinted at in critical circles. Vox’s Todd Vanderwerff thinks it’ll be seen as a fad but remembered as a good show which found success because it became a fad/trend. I already wrote about more writers covering the series in April. The Rotten Tomatoes page for GoT episodes runs three pages deep. More writers than I expected covered this season. The New Yorker and NY Times paid two writers recap the show for their site. Not many critics consider it an artful or high culture show, but coverage of the show gets the clicks.
Sepinwall’s review stood out to me because he commended the tremendous technical production of the effects and he criticized the writers for not writing a story to justify the tremendous effects. The effusive praise of the episode centered on the epic scale of the battle, Sansa’s vengeance against Ramsey, as well as meta ideas about the show commenting on itself through Ramsey and the battle representing conflicting fan desires, which is fine. If you’ve got the “textual” evidence to support your arguments, write what you want. I liked “The Battle of the Bastards” but I liked “No One” more, an episode most hated (some even called it the show’s worst ever). Game of Thrones distracts its audience with huge theatrics: shocking twists, brutal violence, and epic battles. The 20-minute battle was produced at awesome scale for TV, but it was replete with the redundant tropes of battle the show had used multiple times in past battle episodes.
The story’s been GoT’s problem for a while. The world’s too big, the characters too many, and the seasons too short. If the rumors about two final seasons with six episodes apiece are true, it’s not enough. Weiss and Benioff have cut characters and plot without abandon in season six. They’ll get there. The majority of critics and fans seem tired of the stalling storylines of the show and would like the show to ‘get on with it’. They have and will continue to ‘get on with it’ and it’ll be fine but also sort of hollow and unsatisfying because the writers are taking short cuts.
Anyway, I think fans feel angry after reading a critic’s negative review because the critic’s opinion will last and form part of the final consensus of the show’s cultural significance/importance.