I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
One of my favorite things in the world is fantasy. The high-level epic stuff: multigenerational, warring kingdoms, paranormal romance, boy and his dragon, girl and her sword, elves, talking bears — heavy, heavy fantasy. I love many things about it, but as I’ve gotten older and life has gotten harder, I’ve found that one of the genre’s most appealing qualities is that it allows you to lose yourself so thoroughly in another universe. It is pure, delicious escapism, and not in the way that video games and alcohol are. A well-crafted work of fantasy feeds you.
All of this is to say, in spite of its various problems, Game of Thrones was very much my shit. And given my attraction to the fantasy genre, you can imagine my shock and despair when I was watching an episode and multiplatinum Grammy-winning global superstar Ed Sheeran showed up.
I remember it well. It was 2017: I was watching the season-seven premiere with a group of friends when Arya stumbles across a group of enemy soldiers. One of them is singing. I recognize that voice, I thought. No, they wouldn’t have. (They did.) And there appeared Sheeran, sitting around a campfire with other soldiers and singing in a strangely self-conscious voice: “For she was his secret treasure / She was his shame and his bliss / And a chain and a keep are nothing / Compared to a woman’s kiss.”
“Whaaat,” I screamed, “Is Ed Sheeran doing here?!”
Arya approaches, “That’s a pretty song,” she tells Sheeran’s character, “I’ve never heard it before.” He turns and faces the camera. “It’s a new one,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. Get it? (I later learned the campfire ditty was called “Hands of Gold,” and it is available on Spotify.)
And still the scene continues, becoming even more cringey. Arya banters and chats with the Lannister soldiers, and it seems like Sheeran’s character has said his piece until he awkwardly tries to butt into the conversation: “Worst place in the world” he quips, an unnecessary addition to someone else’s description of King’s Landing. After that, he holds out a dead squirrel on a stick to Arya, not helpfully but in a foppish kind of way. And then he just stares at her.
His expression throughout is one of blithe amusement, as if he’s making a joke of the whole thing. Even the soldiers in the show seem a little puzzled. I can imagine them talking among themselves when he’s gone to relieve himself — “That guy was a little weird, no? Great voice, great voice. But there was something strange about him. Don’t you think?” And it’s not really Sheeran’s fault he was so out of place — he’s this huge, recognizable star, and the scene was shot in such a way that it screams Look at this big celebrity cameo!
I went fishing once. Bored out of my mind, I began to think of the little fish swimming along pleasantly in their watery world when, all of a sudden, they get yanked out of it and thrown into another, this one a harsh and uncompromising wasteland. I can imagine it’s a dreadful feeling, and that is how I felt seeing Sheeran in this episode of Game of Thrones: like I had been swimming along in my sublime fictional universe before being plopped into a different, much less magical one.
Growing up, I swallowed fantasy content like it was some kind of medicine for my disturbed adolescent soul — it was my greatest source of comfort when I found the world too difficult to cope with. When I got older, I started reading more literature, but I still came back to fantasy in my greatest periods of need: a terrible breakup with a college sweetheart, my first night spent alone after moving to New York. My relationship to it is precious.
I wouldn’t say I was in a desperate state when I watched what is now known as the “Ed Sheeran episode of Game of Thrones,” but I’ll tell you this: It was my first month of life as a college graduate, and the fact that season seven was premiering in July was about the only thing I could be sure of. Then, about 15 minutes into the episode, this cameo happened, and suddenly the rich, expansive — reliable — universe of Westeros collapsed around me and things looked shoddy and false.
It was fan service; it was another display of the showrunners’ crappy writing; but mostly it showed a lack of respect and understanding for the careful world-building that needs to be maintained when you create a universe from scratch. These criticisms of the show, and of the cameo, are not unique: Sheeran famously took a ton of flak for it, largely for the scene’s lack of nuance and its flagrant guest-star feel. But, for me, it was about more than that.
Have you ever accidentally taken a sip of spoiled milk and then found yourself unable to make cereal without giving the carton a little sniff, convinced the same thing will happen again? It’s kind of like that. I still turn to fantasy for comfort, and, for the most part, it does the trick, but there’s always a little niggling feeling in the back of my head. I’ll be watching or reading something, and I’m really getting into it, and then a part of my brain says: Hey, girl, you remember that Ed Sheeran cameo?, and it all comes back. I’m fishhooked back to my burning planet in my garbage country, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
It doesn’t happen all the time, but in our current unpleasant reality, I’ve been thinking about Ed Sheeran in Lannister armor way more often than I’d bargained for. Luckily, though, in revisiting this whole thing, I found a bit of cold comfort after reading that Sheeran’s character — “Eddie,” of course — was vanquished by dragon fire. Now that’s storytelling I can get behind.