May 17 (UPI) -- When millions of viewers settle in for the epic finale of the world's most popular TV show on Sunday, they will witness the end of an eight-year cliffhanger. Will Game of Thrones fans be able to handle it?
Besides grieving beloved characters -- slain with an abandon never before seen on television -- fans have become so emotionally invested in the story line that disgruntled ones are petitioning for a rewrite.
It's no wonder many won't make it to work on Monday.
A poll by the Workforce Institute @kronos found 27.2 million Americans will skip work, arrive late or at least be less productive. Some 20.4 million said watching Season 8 has caused them to miss work or perform poorly.
Based on George R.R. Martin's best-selling A Song of Fire and Ice novels, which debuted in 1996, HBO's Game of Thrones was written and produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The medieval show has won 47 Emmy Awards, more than any other drama in TV history. Last week's episode drew 18.4 million viewers, though Mashable reports it was also pirated 50 million times.
The show has a whole other life on social media, where reaction to plot developments is swift.
Watch it live or be left behind -- or worse, have the next big moment hopelessly spoiled. Last week's episode proved especially divisive among fans vying for their favorite character from the seven kingdoms to win the Iron Throne.
Some felt the show's trademark unpredictability has faltered in the final episodes. Others argue that if you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention.
Even if you don't watch it, chances are you know all about the show and its dragons. Game of Thrones references have become embedded in pop culture. It's been parodied on Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street. Its characters have been styled into Funko Pop and inspired many a cosplay costume. Merchandise abounds. Thousands of newborns have been named after Thrones characters, with Arya, Tyrion and Khaleesi among the most popular.
Game of Thrones charted a new course for TV narratives with the shocking death of its hero at the end of Season 1. After that, fans knew they were onto something different, even for HBO, with its history of groundbreaking shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.
Thrones took graphic sex and violence to new levels. Whole families were slain (i.e., the famous "red wedding" episode). Women were raped and tortured. Children were injured or killed in barbaric fashion. There was incest, nudity and so much evil.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., vowed to stop watching after a central character, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), was raped by the villain Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon) in Season 5. McCaskill denounced the scene on Twitter as "gratuitous... disgusting and unacceptable."
Fans were upset because the story line departed from the books, which had Bolton assault a secondary character, not the young heroine Sansa.
The show -- filmed in Europe with an enormous, international cast -- has gone to extraordinary lengths to keep its secrets.
Kit Harington was quietly squired to and from the show's Belfast set in an effort to keep fans from learning the fate of his character, Jon Snow, after a Season 5 cliffhanger. Snow was ambushed, stabbed and left for dead, leaving audiences to wonder for months if he survived. (He was magically revived in Season 6.)
HBO also took great pains to make sure screenplays didn't leak.
"I have six scripts on my computer that I can't open because of all the security levels on it," Liam Cunningham, who plays Ser Davis Seaworth, told reporters at New York Comic Con in 2017.
Beyond the books
Despite the show's critical acclaim, negative reviews intensified from Season 6 onward, when the show moved beyond the books, leaving Benioff and Weiss to continue based only on outlines Martin had crafted for future novels.
About 500,000 people signed a Change.org petition this week, demanding the final season be remade by "competent writers."
At issue are character decisions, plot points, the lighting for a crucial night battle scene and the egregious oversight of a modern coffee cup left in a scene inside a castle mead hall.
Weiss and Benioff told EW.com in March that they want the show to be satisfying, but they understand they won't be able to please everyone.
"We want people to love it," Weiss said. "It matters a lot to us. We've spent 11 years doing this. We also know no matter what we do, even if it's the optimal version, that a certain number of people will hate the best of all possible versions."
Martin expects his book series to include at least two more lengthy volumes, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Release dates have not been set.
The author this week shot down reports claiming he finished the books long ago, but agreed not to publish them until after the show ends.
"It makes not a whit of sense," he wrote on his blog. "Why would I sit for years on completed novels? Why would my publishers -- not just here in the U.S, but around the world -- ever consent to this? They make millions and millions of dollars every time a new Ice & Fire book comes out, as do I."
He noted that the jobs for the network and writers would have been easier if he had finished the books sooner.
"I assure you, HBO and David & Dan would both have been thrilled and delighted if The Winds of Winter had been delivered and published four or five years ago... and NO ONE would have been more delighted than me," Martin said.
Meanwhile, TV networks have been trying to replicate Thrones' success. Amazon is working on a new Lord of the Rings show. Other attempts, like Rome and Vikings, have failed to capture a similar audience.
HBO is hoping to replicate its success with several spin-offs, including one currently being filmed, starring Naomi Watts.