The sunk cost fallacy means I am doomed to watch Game of Thrones to the bitter end

The show is a relaxing irony-free zone in a wearingly postmodern world. The nearest GoT gets to being ironic is the long sequences devoted to smelting.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Why am I still watching Game of Thrones? I wish I knew. I quit the books years ago, after the rapes had piled up to such a degree that I winced whenever a blameless tavern wench was introduced. I judge myself for persevering with the television version, which is now in its eighth and final series.

In the most recent episode, various knights were celebrating their victory in the Battle of Winterfell with the kind of swords-and-sandals fantasy clichés that Terry Pratchett was skewering two decades ago. “Quaffing is like drinking, but you spill more,” he wrote in Wyrd Sisters. Here there was plenty of quaffing. A giant wild man slopped wine all over his enormous beard. People were slapped on the back in a hearty fashion that made them splutter. The threat of drinking songs hung heavy in the air.

In fact, the last few episodes have functioned as an extended infomercial for alcoholism. Booze: it numbs the pain of sleeping with your sister, or arguing with your girlfriend who’s also your aunt. Only if you’re a bloke, though. Daenerys, Sansa and Arya barely let so much as a white wine spritzer pass their lips, while every man in Game of Thrones abides by Pratchett’s definition of a hero: “Suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.”

Then again, I think I understand the appeal. The show is a relaxing irony-free zone in a wearingly postmodern world. Everything else is clever, or self-aware, or attempts to defuse criticism by providing a simultaneous metanarrative. The nearest Game of Thrones gets to irony is the long sequences devoted to smelting. (Come to think of it, that’s another Pratchett joke. “Sergeant Colon did know the meaning of the word ‘irony’. He thought it meant ‘sort of like iron’.”)

I enjoy Game of Thrones precisely because I don’t really care who wins the Iron Throne, and I live with a man who spent the battle of Winterfell rooting for the Night King. Frankly, Daenerys looks no better than any of her other tyrannous inbred ancestors – where is this series’ Stoneface Vimes when you need him, to chop her head off and found a democracy? – and Jon Snow should be reported to the RSPCA for abandoning his dire wolf without so much as a goodbye hug.

Everyone involved in the military tactics is a moron who deserves to die. See: the decision to simply watch the undead throw themselves on to the burning trenches with casual curiosity, rather than shooting them. Or the dragon-killing arrows, which are all mounted in a fixed position on the front of the boats, suggesting one obvious way to avoid them. Go round the back, barbecue them all, you’ll be home in time for the One Show.

A few years ago, I learned the useful economic concept of a sunk cost. The idea runs like this: yes, I’ve already paid for a Now TV subscription to watch the series. But I’m never getting that money back. So why sacrifice my precious time, too, out of sheer bloodymindedness?

Unfortunately, as the horrified faces of classical economists when confronted with the whole of human history will testify, we rarely act rationally. The close cousin of sunk costs is the “sunk cost fallacy” – throwing good money after bad, or in this case, hoping that the next shot of a badly CGI-ed dragon will retrospectively justify all the ones I’ve already sat through. Economists call this “escalation of commitment”, and it explains why I will inevitably find myself burning through the Game of Thrones prequel, any spin-off buddy movie featuring Arya and the Hound, and a disturbing amount of Jaime/Brienne fan fic.

This is a personal, moral failing. Completionism is a terrible tendency to indulge, particularly in a world of rampant commercialism and endless opportunity. When I started reading Harry Potter, I felt as though I’d signed up for a manageable series of books. Now I realise I’ve pledged myself to a never-ending universe, in which the guy who fixed the Dursleys’s boiler will one day have his own origin story movie. I’m not complaining – the content is good. I just wish I’d known how much of it I was agreeing to care about at the start.

Still, I’m getting better. Last year I left a play at the interval for the first time. Before, I’d told myself that it would be unfair to do so (and I’m contractually not allowed to if I’m there to write a review). Then I remembered this immortal exchange between Will Self and Richard Littlejohn, over the latter’s 2001 book To Hell in a Handcart.

“I’ve read 200 pages of it and that is a 200-page recruiting leaflet for the BNP,” said Self.

“Well, you can’t comment until you have read the other 200,” said Littlejohn.

“Why?” came back the answer. “Does it suddenly turn into Tolstoy?”*

The play I was watching had featured bin bags and blank verse spoken backwards in the first half. There was simply nothing a second half could do to atone for the horror. It was not going to turn into Tolstoy. Particularly since it had started off as Shakespeare.

I think this is the best way. Even when it’s something you’re enjoying, junk it the minute it becomes a chore. Life is too short. I remember reading the first five chapters of 100 Years of Solitude and thinking it was a masterpiece of literature. Then, suddenly, I tired of the repetition and the fact everyone was called José Arcadio, and I put it down. I have never regretted that decision.

So, why can’t I quit Game of Thrones? Here’s the real reason. When the news is so relentlessly miserable, it’s nice to have an hour a week where nothing bad happens to anyone I care about.

*Later in the discussion, Littlejohn claimed: “I don’t set out to be Tolstoy. It is a much more complex book than that.”

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 08 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Age of extremes