Game of Thrones transformed the TV landscape—and brought fantasy to a new, literary audienceby Lucinda Smyth / July 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
On paper, HBO’s Game of Thrones should be automatically classed as naff, low-brow television. With lurchy shock twists, gratuitous nudity, wooden acting, gimmicky celebrity cameos, and hammy Olde Englyshe dialogue, there’s more than enough here to offend anyone’s tastes. (Despite a budget of $10 million per episode, the special effects are also laughably camp.) Yet last week’s season premier drew 16 million viewers in the US, many of whom then went to the internet to publicly post their opinions. Game of Thrones is not only the most-watched show on TV—it is also the most talked-about. And, crucially, it is consistently talked about in a way that is usually reserved for highbrow fiction.
If you stumble upon a Game of Thrones blog late on a Monday night, you won’t just find nerds salivating over Daenerys and the latest plot developments. The scope and detail of their insights are extraordinary: obscure references to Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Tudor history abound; character analyses are stuffed with winks to Kierkegaard and Sartre. It’s not just the internet who speaks in this way, either. In 2013, John Lanchester penned a 4000-word paean to the series in the London Review of Books. The University of Glasgow is now holding an introductory course entitled “Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Politics, Power and War”, with a primary focus on game theory, but also “bringing in Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau” for good measure.
Some backstory may be necessary here. The HBO show is based on a series of novels written by George R.R. Martin, the first of which was published in 1996. With three more books following over the next ten years, and the ageing Martin churning them out at an increasingly slow pace, fans’ relief was palpable when HBO acquired TV rights in 2008. (The producers have been told how it ends.) The first episode aired three years later. Martin kept publishing, but not fast enough, so the TV series is now ahead of the novels. In this sense, the highbrow critical reception is particularly interesting: while scif-if and fantasy addicts are renowned for their obsessive attention to detail, TV watchers aren’t. Ten years ago a fantasy series on television with this much intellectual heft would have been unthinkable. So what’s happened?
To answer that question, two things need to be understood. The first is that TV is now taken seriously as an art form. The last fifteen years have seen an extraordinary rise in quality shows, with an extremely positive critical and financial outcome. Critic Ian Leslie has neatly summed up the new status quo: “TV is the place to go if you want to make money and art at the same time.” Money doesn’t ensure good art, but it does help with taking risks. In the case of TV most of these risks have paid off, with a rich tapestry of brilliant shows receiving serious critical attention. Breaking Bad, Narcos, Making A Murderer, The Handmaid’s Tale, Stranger Things, Black Mirror have all solicited praise from the likes of the LRB, the Atlantic and the New Yorker.
The second thing we need to understand is how a fantasy series like Game of Thrones has come to be taken seriously within this new landscape. Despite the efflorescence of quality TV drama, sci-fi and comedy, fantasy generally remains either frowned upon or ignored. Perhaps this is because there isn’t the mainstream audience for it: while people who don’t class themselves as fans of, say, crime will still tune into Line of Duty or read Gone Girl, fantasy shows are mostly the preserve of fantasy fans. Lanchester writes: “It’s as if there is some mysterious fantasy switch which in many people is set to ‘off.” The fact that Game of Thrones has managed to fire up this switch in the mainstream is astonishing on its own. That it is taken seriously is another matter.
The Sopranos provides a significant clue as to how this happened. While critics bicker about where to draw the start line for the new TV Golden Age, most people point to HBO’s drama about a gruff gangster called Tony. When the show aired in 1999, Tony Soprano was the kind of character no one had seen on TV before. Richly drawn, psychologically complex, morally questionable (but undeniably likeable)—audiences were instantly hooked, and their reaction was proof that viewers wanted more than the simple story lines and cardboard characters they were being fed. That set the ball rolling. Since then HBO gems have included The Wire, Boardwalk Empire and True Detective.
In light of these stellar credentials, it’s important that HBO is the network behind the Game of Thrones series. The Sopranos’ final episode aired in June 2007; the network announced it would be adapting Martin’s novels in 2008. With a three year gap between the announcement and the airing of the Game of Thrones pilot, publicists had enough time to hype the show as a Sopranos replacement. Rather than pitching it as a fantasy series like Merlin or The Borgias, it was habitually referred to as “the Sopranos with swords”. This effectively distanced the show from any nerdy baggage and propelled it towards Serious TV. At the same time, it was also announced that George R.R. Martin would write one episode per season. So everyone was happy: fans of the books approved of Martin’s involvement; fans of highbrow TV were intrigued.
In his 2013 LRB piece, Lanchester admits that he was initially turned on to Game of Thrones when someone described to him it as “The Sopranos meets Lord of the Rings”. It’s revealing how far that comparison travelled. It’s also revealing that people in Lanchester’s circle were discussing the show in the first place. Bring up Game of Thrones at a dinner party and you’ll immediately divide conversation between those who don’t watch it, and those who do and want to talk about it. One of the crucial aspects of the show, and surely another reason for its highbrow status, is this discursive quality. Game of Thrones rewards viewers for watching longer, and for paying more attention while doing so. Though you might initially become hooked by the instant gratification of shock and sex, once you’re embroiled you start to do your own research. You might read an article or two, or look at the memes. Then you might tentatively scroll through the program’s subreddit. Before you know it, you’re ripping through the blogs, demolishing the six-book series in one sitting, burrowing into Tudor history to see if it offers any clues, and booking a flight to Glasgow.
The impulse to have detailed conversations comes as a result of the show’s complexity as well as its narrative structure. Game of Thrones is not just similar to The Sopranos in the sense of being a morally complex drama about fractious families. It’s also because it bucks the narrative conventions we are used to seeing on television. Main characters are killed off routinely, and without grandeur. And just as we don’t know who’ll die next, we don’t know who we’ll like next either. This is the really rebellious aspect of the show: as Lanchester points out, character arcs in popular culture are so clearly defined that once a certain ‘likeability’ has been established, the audience tends to side with them until all conflicts are resolved. (Even House of Cards’ central antagonists are fairly consistent in this respect.)
With Game of Thrones, it’s not so simple. Even vicious, incestuous, amoral child-killers like Jamie Lannister are afforded complexity. The season seven premiere provided another good example of this: The Hound, one of the show’s most ruthless characters who once mugged a charitable father and daughter and left them for dead, returned to their house years later to find their corpses. With something resembling remorse, he buried their bodies and murmured an awkward prayer. Suddenly the internet was ablaze with affection for him. Fleshing out the human qualities of even its least likeable minor characters: this is what good literature does.
Something else that good literature does is hold up a mirror to nature. Game of Thrones currently does this better than any other show on television. After the annus horribilis of 2016, House of Cards feels a bit stale; Black Mirror is heavy-handed; The Crown is twee. One of the benefits of medieval fantasy like Game of Thrones is that you can draw parallels at a safe remove. The essential instability of the show, along with its ugly twists, its pervasive fear, its brutality and moral relativism, its mixture of hopelessness and magic: all this resonates powerfully in a climate of terrorism, new technology, and economic uncertainty. Even the cheesier elements (ooh, white walkers! An invincible army of Icemen coming to wipe us out!) are rescued by pertinent metaphors (climate change). Once that’s recognised, it’s not hard to understand why so many of the discussions surrounding Game of Thrones are highly philosophical. They are a natural response to a three-dimensional, ethically complex, eerily familiar world. Like everything, Game of Thrones has to end, and with only two short seasons to go, the conclusion is nigh. Winter is here.