In the Games of Thrones you play to win. And this year nobody has achieved a more glorious victory than the army of online spoilers and leakers who succeeded in ferreting into the public domain many of the crucial plot points from the show’s concluding series – often months in advance.
Arya killing the Night King, Jon stabbing Daenerys , Bran becoming ultimate ruler – each of these devastating twists was out there, hiding in plain view on internet forums such as Reddit. Who ultimately triumphed on Game of Thrones this season? From the perspective of HBO and its obsession with keeping a lid on its grand saga, there can be little doubt that the victory went to its mortal foes – the spoilers and leakers.
“Some people just love analysing things – the thrill is to know if you have the right conclusions,” says Jose Señarís Romay, a Spanish gastroenterologist, TV writer and, under the alias Frikidoctor (slang for “Geeky Doctor”), the Prince that was Promised among GoT spoilers. He leaked crucial details from season six, all of season seven and was set to spoil most of season eight when HBO unleashed its own Golden Company (i.e. the legal department) on him.
His sources are insiders who feel honour bound to smuggle nuggets of information into the public domain. But why would these professionals put their careers on the line in such a fashion?
“Some people are dealing with a secret too big to be kept,” says Romay. “They are dying to tell anyone. They want to share. It’s human nature.”
As Friki says, leakers are typically those who come into possession of dynamite information and who find it difficult to maintain a secret. That’s despite the best efforts of HBO to throw leakers off the trail. Going into season eight the network’s anti-spoiler measures were weapon-grade. Scripts given to cast on iPads erased themselves within hours (Lena Headey, aka Cersei Lannister, had to plead for old fashioned print-outs).
HBO has furthermore utilised “drone killers” to disable drones seen over the set in Belfast, forcing them to land. To be on the safe side crucial sequences were shot close to Belfast City Airport, a designated no-drone zone.
Game of Thrones has also gone out of its way to misdirect the legion of leakers. Tom Wlaschiha, who played Jaqen H’ghar, and Faye Marsay, who portrayed Arya’s nemesis the Waif in seasons five and six, were jetted to Seville – not because they featured in the crucial Dragonpit denouement shot there but to set the spoiler community off on the wrong track.
“Several other actors who were not even in the scene were flown over to throw paparazzi off the scent,” Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran) recalled this week to the Hollywood Reporter. “They were pretty grateful for their free holiday while we shot under the unrelenting sun.”
For the finale, HBO booked every hotel room with a view of the set, and only crew with a special pass were granted access to the live set. One does not simply walk onto the Game of Thrones backlot.
Still, information wants to be free – especially when it pertains to the Jon–Daenerys relationship and Bran’s chances of gaining high office. “Friki" discovered this early in 2016 in his past life as a Game of Thrones YouTube recapper. One day he received an anonymous email from a fan of his channel who claimed to have the inside track on the resurrection of the (supposedly dead) Jon Snow.
The tip-off proved accurate. So he used his contact to forage for further details – and was soon predicting events through seasons six and seven. His notoriety ascended to another level as Thrones fans began translating his forecasts into English and sharing them on the Reddit discussion forum, Freefolk .
Named for the independently-minded Wildlings from Game of Thrones, Freefolk’s unofficial motto is that it does not “bend the knee”. Which means posters are welcome to share spoilers freely – a policy that sets it apart from the fustier, more mainstream Game of Thrones subreddit.
“I like to put it all together,” says Friki. “I’m a surgeon, I have a PhD, I have done my doctoral thesis. I applied these skills to one of my hobbies, which is Game of Thrones. I really enjoy the research – for instance analysing a teaser trailer for a series to find out what’s going on and which things you are going to see later in the season.”
He is far from the only high profile spoiler. Another, with the username “awayforthelads”, essentially leaked the entirety of season seven months beforehand. He revealed Viserion would be resurrected as a zombie. That Arya and Sansa would kill Littlefinger. And he predicted that Jon and Daenerys would be filmed in a romantic clench. The countdown to “boatsex” had begun.
“He posted it on Reddit and said he just wanted to be remembered,” says Romay.
Still perhaps he found the attention slightly too much. Shortly after leaking, awayforthelads, believed to have been based at Game of Thrones’s HQ of Belfast, deleted his account. He has not been heard from since.
Friki, for his part, has a strict policy on sharing information. He does so on YouTube with appropriate warnings. One thing he is against is putting spoilers out on social media, where people can stumble upon them. He also is unusual in that he is happy to be publicly identified.
“I don’t feel I have anything to hide,” he says. “I am promoting the series. People who watch my videos are the most hardcore fans. I’m not hurting HBO in any way.”
He had leaked with incredible accuracy much of seasons six and seven. And he was set to do so again with season eight until HBO forced him to shut down his spoiler channel on YouTube. His predictions meanwhile were becoming controversial in their own right – in particular his claim that Tyrion would go on trial and be executed for treason.
“Motherf____r was wrong,” went one Reddit post ahead of the finale. “There's no way Tyrion's trial goes down next episode in the way he predicted it. … Bitch was wrong. And you all wept that the show betrayed itself. Really?? You…get really butthurt when your trusted leakers turn out to be full of s__t.”
“I got many details right, and everybody who I said that was going to survive did,” says Friki. “I got the actor who played the Dornish prince right, and we also got a Royal Council. But to be fair, I got the context wrong. I thought that Tyrion was going to be guilty and refused to believe that Bran was going to be elected king of Westeros, so I don’t feel completely vindicated.”
As with many Thrones devotees he is aghast at the final season’s swerve into Hollywood spectacle and “shock” twists that don’t feel earned. “About the finale: I expected much more,” he says. “After all this is the ending of the most popular series ever. And no matter how they try to put it, Bran the Broken as king does not make sense.”
Fortunately, he has a place to share his distress – Reddit forums such as the aforementioned Freefolk and “A Song of Ice and Fire”, named after Martin’s sequence of novels.
“Freefolk and A Song Of Ice and Fire tend to be [for] the more 'hardcore' fans,” says one of the moderators of the Freefolk forum, who wanted to remain anonymous. “The people who have read the books and invested a lot of time into the ASOIAF universe.
“The more casual audience [on Reddit Game of Thrones] seems mixed but mostly positive [towards the latest season]. While [Reddit Game of Thrones]is nearly three times our size [2.7 million subscribers compared to 900,000] we have far more comments and posts per day…Our moderating policies allow people to openly discuss the show. “
It was online that the backlash against season eight achieved a critical mass. From there, it spilled into the wider culture. Fans flocked to Reddit to share their disappointment – and discovered they were not alone.
“Forums like ours have provided a virtual "water cooler" place to gather around to discuss the show,” says Elio García, a co-founder of the long-running fan resource Westeros.org and its attendant discussion forums. “And some sites, like ours, have developed a reputation of being more on the critical side and others as more on the supportive side. Fans can find the place that best suits them. “
Garcia and the site’s other founder, Linda Antonsson, are on good terms with George RR Martin and co-wrote with him the 2014 companion book, The World Of Ice and Fire.
“Spoilers are largely a way to skip past the 'journey' and get the gratification of the 'destination',” says Garcia, who stopped watching the TV series in 2015, feeling it had veered too far from the books.
“The show has increasingly been aimed at gratification of viewers, through its devotion to shock and spectacle, so it's no surprise more viewers are focused on these things and more interested in discovering them sooner rather than later."
George RR Martin rarely if ever visits the forums, it is believed. But HBO almost certainly keep a close eye. When Romay predicted season eight would feature Tyrion in chains at the Dragonpit, the Game of Thrones VFX team referenced the spoiler at the Emmys several days later. And after Freefolk posters began to joke that Jon and Daenerys’s lovechild would be named Martha the series inserted a character with just that name – Visery’s assistant at Dragonstone in the penultimate episode.
More ominously, last March Romay, who along with everything else is a writer for one of Spain’s top variety shows, El Hormiguero (“The Anthill”), was visited at his place of work by a lawyer working for HBO. The network pressured him to sign a document agreeing not to spoil further Thrones plot points.
After arguing the point (he turned up at one meeting wearing a t-shirt that read “spoiling is not a crime”) he eventually caved. Because this was a pastime, he did not wish to be dragged into a lengthy legal battle. Nonetheless he remains adamant HBO has no right to stop him spoiling.
“I stopped investigating after that,” he says. “I don’t want to contact any of my sources. I’m not doing videos – why would I compromise them? I’m doing this for the fun. It is just a hobby. If I had to go to court to prove that I should have the freedom of speech to publish spoilers… that would take all the fun out of it.”
The other question, of course, is why fans are so eager for leaks. Why would a Game of Thrones viewer wish to ruin the surprise of what happens next?
“It's another level of interaction with the story,” says a second Freefolk moderator. “It adds layers of investigation and deduction that watching [on its own] does not. At least not in the same way. If there are four different leaks, all saying contradictory things, then figuring out what is legitimate is an adventure in itself. Who doesn't love a good mystery?”
“The people who watch my videos are the most hardcore fans,” agrees Romay. “They cannot wait from season seven to season eight. They want to know something. They come to my to my channels to comment and discuss. Spoilers are the highest form of flattery.”
Still, as with Game of Thrones itself, Romay fears the golden age of leaking may be at an end. “The world of spoilers is being corrupted by online betting,” he says. “This season for the first time I received emails from people willing to pay if I told them in advance, so that they could bet online.
“People are willing to pay money to get that information. And that really is different from leaking for fun. One is selling compromised information to get a benefit. It is obviously a crime. That’s not at all the same as trying to find out things about the series in order to talk about them online.”