In the final week of the eight-season run of “Game of Thrones,” even as the HBO series devolved into a torment of gaffes — a Starbucks cup and plastic bottles in view, overwrought yet hollow symbols, a series of spectacular continuity errors — we were still trying to salvage meaning. We clung to the cliffhanger ending of the penultimate episode: Arya Stark wanders a city of cinders, trying to save innocent women and children from being doused with dragon flame from above. Struck by tumbling rocks and epiphanies — murder is bad, monarchy loves murder — the ash-covered Arya staggers to her feet, looks over and sees a lone white horse, mane wafting. Slowly, she approaches it, calms it and rides away on it as the credits roll.
Fans churned out a flurry of interpretations of the scene on Twitter: about how the horse got there, what it foreshadowed, previous horses it echoed, who was inside it (was it Trojan?), where Arya was going. None of it mattered: In the finale, Arya comes striding through the rubble on foot, horse lost to the winds of plot closure. But out of this most trivial of the show’s blunders, a meme was born: a 33-second clip of Arya’s equine encounter soundtracked with the remix of “Old Town Road,” the viral earworm released in December by Lil Nas X.
As Arya walks among the flames toward her steed, we hear the twangy notes of Nine Inch Nails’s “34 Ghosts IV,” the sample that grounds the song, then Billy Ray Cyrus’s raspy croon: “Yeah, I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road/I’m gonna ride ’til I can’t no more. …” The beat drops, in sync with the horse’s gallop, as Arya rides off and Lil Nas X begins to rap: “I got the horses in the back. …” The effect is a melancholy rise in tension, then a pivotal break: momentum, freedom, the triumph of the decision to ride.
In paleontology, sometimes a very thin layer in a rock formation can signal a profound break in time, like the K-T boundary that marks the extinction of the dinosaurs and divides the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras. The Arya’s horse/“Old Town Road” meme is a kind of artifact of a great media shift, marking a transition between a passing away of certain visual forms, like prestige television, and a new flourishing of online forms like the meme.
This particular meme captures the spirit of the hashtag #DemThrones, which was created in 2012 — its exact provenance is the subject of debate — as a space for black fans to deliberate and commiserate about the show. It soon exceeded its scrappy hashtag and became a phenomenon. HBO even advertised its final season using #DemThrones — a cynical co-optation, given how the show treated anyone with dark skin (as exotic savage, white-savior dependent, sexual object, cannon fodder). But the beauty of #DemThrones was how black viewers both excoriated and embraced “Game of Thrones,” reading it for filth while lovingly adopting its minority characters as heroes — like Daenerys Targaryen’s commander Grey Worm and her adviser and handmaiden, Missandei.
How did fantasy, this whitest of literary genres, plagued by a history of eugenicist and racist ideas, produce this unlikely, fierce standom? Perhaps for the same reasons that “Old Town Road,” which Lil Nas X describes as a “country trap” song, climbed to the top of the charts. For one, artistic gravity is shifting from creation to reception and from sole authorship to crowdsourcing. A meme is a collective form. Its indexes of value are speed, popularity and wit rather than originality in any sense. #DemThrones cares neither for individual genius nor for fidelity to a “master text.” And Lil Nas X is a genius of splicing and circulating forms, not inventing them.
A 20-year-old musician from Georgia who used to run a Nicki Minaj fan account on Twitter, Lil Nas X promoted “Old Town Road” with what he calls “ironically hilarious” memes like the “Yeehaw Challenge,” which soon went viral on the social-media platform TikTok. In short videos, TikTokkers lip-sync to the song’s opening bars in their regular clothes and jump up in the air, then land on their feet as the beat hits, magically decked out in cowboy gear. Lil Nas X appealed to the country star Billy Ray Cyrus on Twitter to help sell the track. And when the song was pulled from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, on the putative grounds that it did “not embrace enough elements of today’s country music,” Cyrus hopped on a remix to add “authenticity” — whistling and whiteness, basically. It isn’t back on the country charts, but it has been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for weeks.
We’ve seen the inverse with “Game of Thrones.” When George R.R. Martin failed to deliver on his vision for the show fast enough and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss took over writing it, the idea of authorial intention went out the window quick as Bran Stark. The maddening king of fantasy was deposed; the oligarchy of the writers’ room presided. But the curtain lifted for fans, too: Now we know the show is less the product of a grand creative plan and more a matter of production schedules, haggling screenwriters and celebrity influence.
If there’s no ultimate authority, then a fan can TikTok his way into becoming a star, and we, the viewers, can start a Change.org petition demanding that HBO remake the final season of “Game of Thrones.” Many laughed at this petition — pah, millennials! — by challenging its 1.6 million signatories to make a better work of art themselves. But you might say some fans already did, and it was called #DemThrones: a messy, smart, popular vote that many enjoyed more than the show. And so, midway through the final season, the filmmaker Barry Jenkins tweeted: “The satisfaction of finishing the episode and loading up #DemThrones.” And so, shortly after the finale aired, Arya Stark herself, the actress Maisie Williams, tweeted: “just here for the memes.”
We assume that completion is to art as death is to life: You can see what it all meant only when it’s over. Incompleteness was key to #DemThrones, however. When “Game of Thrones” was still running, each episode could potentially coincide with anything: with the Portland Trail Blazers’ defeat of the Oklahoma City Thunder, with the 2020 presidential race, with a country trap song. Now that the show has aired in full, this random, hilarious meme machine has been superseded by an older, creakier interpretive machine that can make sense of, say, the visual echoes of its opening and closing episodes. Paid cultural gatekeepers are already carving the epitaphs.
All around us, meanwhile, new media forms like the Arya’s horse/“Old Town Road” mash-up continue to break formal ground. They may lack the duration and durability of classic works of art — they may be harder to Google or revisit — but they’re the more telling artifacts of our zeitgeist. “Game of Thrones” thought it knew what was good, but #DemThrones gave us the freedom to wonder, along with Jon Snow: “What about everyone else? All the other people who think they know what’s good?”