It’s one of the most popular television shows in the world (it’s certainly the most-pirated) and one of the most expensive. Each episode sends shockwaves all over the internet, and those who haven’t seen the latest episode yet try to find refuge from spoilers that are suddenly everywhere. Going on any pop-culture website when you aren’t caught up is just asking for trouble, really. The latest season has been the most action-packed season yet, and there’s still three episodes left, including the climactic ninth episode that is often the most jaw-dropping of the season (previous ninth episodes have included a nasty wedding, an epic big-budget battle and a surprising execution. What could possibly happen this year?).
But why exactly has this become such a big hit? What is it that makes Game of Thrones so popular, so appealing to such a wide audience? Even those who normally turn their noses up at anything that has a whiff of fantasy about it and respond to any mention of Lord of the Rings with a dismissive eye-roll have been hooked by this show. If you haven’t seen the show yet and have somehow managed to avoid hearing or reading about any big events that have happened in it, congratulations. Let’s have a spoiler-free look at what made Game of Thrones such a huge phenomenon.
For starters, it’s from HBO, which is as close to a sure-fire seal of quality as you can get for a TV show. It also helps that the fantasy elements of Game of Thrones tend to be fairly minor at first. They become more prominent over time, but the focus of the show is mainly on political intrigue, family rivalries and children being forced to cope with increasingly-dire circumstances, so viewers who aren’t fans of fantasy get pulled in by all the character drama. There are devious back-stabbers, scheming manipulators, a lazy king, a spoiled, malicious prince, primitive barbarians, a reluctant child-bride, incestuous twins, and an honest man trying to do what’s right. This man is called Ned Stark (Sean Bean) and he is the closest thing this show has to a relatable protagonist.
There are a staggeringly-large number of characters, each with their own history, motivations and complicated relationships, and it takes a while to get to know these characters, understand who’s related to who, what they’re doing, why, and why that’s important. Some are mysterious, some are intriguingly complex, some are easy to sympathise with, others are immensely hate-able, some are heroic, some are bastards (in both meanings of the word). The show flings lots of character names, locations, and bits of exposition at you and expects you to keep up, it demands your full attention at all times and it’s easy to get confused at first. Thankfully, there’s Ned, our hero, our anchor, to stop us feeling completely lost at sea during this difficult period. We may not remember what his third son’s called, or what a Khaleesi is, but we know Ned and we know what he’s doing, so we can get by for now.
Introducing all these people and explaining the history of Westeros takes time, so the show is a bit of a slow-burn initially, but things pick up pace considerably by episode five, and there’s plenty to get the audience hooked.
The show has millions of dollars to spend, which means it can have huge sets, battles and special effects that would make feature film directors jealous, with a great soundtrack to match.
Despite the vast number of actors, there is rarely a bad performance amongst them, with Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage and Maisie Williams being some of the highlights, so it’s not difficult to care about these characters and their struggles.
The show’s storytelling is epic in the true sense of the word. The intricacy and the scope of the plot is really impressive, as the writers juggle dozens of plot-lines and character arcs from all over the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, with many of them developing and colliding in surprising ways. The show, and the book series that it’s based on, delights in taking typical fantasy tropes and twisting them into something completely unexpected.
As I said earlier, the day after a Game of Thrones episode airs, the internet is flooded with reactions, theories, and occasional bursts of incoherent outrage and shock, and it’s easy to see why. Game of Thrones is packed with shocking twists, cliffhangers, brutally-sudden deaths and awesome spectacle, making it one of those shows that people feel compelled to tell all their friends about, like Breaking Bad or LOST. Like those shows, each episode is feverishly anticipated and there’s a sense that anything could happen next.
However, unlike Breaking Bad and LOST, some people know exactly what’s going to happen next. The Book Readers. You may know one in real life, you’ll find plenty on the internet. The ones online carelessly drop plot points from books that have yet to be adapted by the show all over the place. Comments sections on news articles, under the video of a trailer on Youtube (not necessarily a trailer for Game of Thrones either), all over reddit, bloody EVERYWHERE. Often in all-capital letters, too, just so you don’t miss them. How thoughtful.
So be warned, if you haven’t watched the show and intend to, tread carefully, for the ‘net is dark and full of spoilers. Joke’s on them, though. In a couple of years, the show will catch up to the books and work with brand-new material (the author has told the show-runners how his series will end, though he hasn’t finished the last two books yet) and soon the tables will turn and the show-watchers will know more than the book-readers.
Another warning – Game of Thrones has gained some controversy over its gory violence, strong language and gratuitous nudity. If you’re squeamish, if the sound of someone saying ‘fuck’ makes you wince, if the sight of a nipple makes you start furiously writing a letter to the Daily Mail urging someone to ban this sick filth, then perhaps this isn’t for you.
Beheadings, stabbings and throat-slicing are common, and f-words fill the air. Critics invented a new word, ‘sexposition’, to describe the way a Game of Thrones character would frequently relay some important exposition during a sex scene. The writers clearly didn’t think anyone would pay attention if a character starting monologuing, so they put some boobs next to him just to make sure we did.
This lead to much ridicule and criticism from reviewers, and it arguably reached its nadir during a scene where mysterious manipulator Littlefinger spoke at length about his past, his view of the world, and his desire to be with Catelyn Stark. Meanwhile a couple of prostitutes were, er, practicing their craft on each other in the foreground, and Littlefinger even interrupted his monologue to give them tips and advice.I don’t know about you, but I think if you spoke to anyone after that episode and asked what they thought about Littlefinger’s scene, I don’t think the first thing they’d say would be ‘Well, I thought his monologue was fascinating and really helped me understand his motivations.’ I think they’d probably say something like ‘He was talking?’.
It got a bit silly, and this was toned down for later seasons. Or maybe I’m just desensitised to it by now and don’t notice any more. Who knows.
The show’s opening theme is also worth mentioning. It’s a grand, orchestral earworm that accompanies swooping shots of an intricate cloth-and-clockwork map of Westeros and Essos, where the camera pauses to look at the locations we’ll be visiting in the current episode. It’s awesome.
That’s as much as I can say without going into specific plot details. It’s a huge, complex political drama that happens to be set in a world where there’s whispers of the supernatural and the magical, where dragon eggs exist and there’s something a bit spooky lurking far in the North. But no-one’s really worried about that, they’re more concerned with becoming the next king.
Game of Thrones season four is airing on Sky Atlantic, Mondays at 9pm. Seasons 1 to 3 are available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Sky’s On Demand service.