Game of Thrones fans might be grumbling about the show as it sprints towards the last episode, but they’re certainly not tuning out.
The penultimate episode of the HBO smash (entitled “The Bells”) boasted the show’s highest-ever ratings, attracting 18.4 million viewers, HBO said in a statement. That’s 600,000 higher than the previous record, set two weeks ago during “The Long Night,” which focused on a series-long promised battle with the army of the undead, and 1 million more than the season premiere.
The 18.4 million figure incorporates streaming and same-night replay viewers. Overnight initial ratings for the episode, which focus on live ratings, came in at 12.48 million, which was also a record.
It’s all good news for HBO as it prepares to air the series finale of its most popular show. While the last few episodes of the show have been divisive among fans—some of whom feel the show is ignoring seasons-long character development, some of whom feel the finale seems rushed, and some of whom are enjoying the show—it isn’t likely that anyone who got caught up in the saga over the past eight years will actually boycott the final episode.
For one thing, there are too many loose ends. While several major characters died in Sunday’s episode, there are likely to be untimely ends for others. And the question of who, ultimately, will sit on the Iron Throne remains unanswered.
Perhaps just as importantly, though, is the risk of spoilers. While fans of the Marvel cinematic universe did a fairly good job of not spilling plot details online as soon as they got out of the cinema, Game of Thrones is a television event—and many fans like to offer running commentary on social media throughout the episode.
If someone’s not watching live, there’s a very, very good chance that any final surprises in the show will be ruined by others online, or at the office the next day.
So far this season, Game of Thrones is averaging 43 million viewers per episode (once multiple repeat showings are factored in). That’s an increase of more than 10 million viewers over the show’s seventh season. And to put that number in perspective, it’s more people tuning in per week than those who watched the series finales of All in the Family, Family Ties, Home Improvement, or Frasier.
While Game of Thrones will come to an end this Sunday starting at 9 p.m. ET, HBO’s hardly walking away from Westeros. A prequel series (starring Naomi Watts), set thousands of years before the events of the current saga, is currently in development. And the show will continue to be a mini-economy for both the network and creator George R.R. Martin.
Martin, in many ways, is the most interesting part of that equation. While Sunday’s finale will reflect how the showrunners believe Game of Thrones will finish, Martin might have a different conclusion in mind for the final two books in the saga—though it’s going to be a while before fans get a chance to read those.
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