Game of Thrones now poised to beat The Sopranos record
With a world of blood, sex and intrigue to catch up on, Will Lawrence recaps just what makes GoT one of the most-watched shows in the world
the third season of Game of Thrones established the fantasy romp as HBO's most popular show currently airing in America – its US viewing figures only just falling short of The Sopranos' 14 million-per-episode average. The creators of the Game of Thrones TV show actually pitched their serial as "The Sopranos in Middle Earth," and its ever-growing fan-base will likely ensure that the forthcoming fourth season topples the mafia show from its long-held perch.
"There are assumptions that people who like fantasy are computer geeks but I've met the most unlikely people who are fans," says Coleraine-born actress Michelle Fairley, whose character, Catelyn Stark, suffers a shocking fate in the most recent season.
US viewing figures show that more than 40pc of the Season 3 audience was made up of women, which defies the stereotype associating fantasy narratives with teenage boys.
"There are lots of issues for women to engage with," continues Fairley, "like how do you find your place in this world? What do you have to do and what choices do you make in order to survive?"
The show is populated with interesting female characters. Alongside Catelyn Stark, audiences have enjoyed her beguiling rival Cersei Lannister, the ungainly yet strong and noble Brienne of Tarth and the artful, impish Arya Stark among many others.
"It's a great drama and it keeps you on the edge of your seat," Fairley says. "It also surprises you. No one stays alive for too long in this world."
Her own character, a series mainstay up until the infamous moment known as the Red Wedding, is a case in point. The creators can be cruel.
The swords-and-sorcery series was developed by David Benioff – who wrote the screenplays for the feature films Troy, The Kite Runner and X-Men Origins: Wolverine – along with novellist Dan Weiss, who wrote the critically-acclaimed Lucky Wander Boy. The duo draw the narrative from A Song of Ice and Fire, the on-going series of best-selling novels from George R R Martin.
Martin's narrative unfolds in the continent of Westeros, the author distilling his world from a blend of North European history and myth, borrowing from the post-Roman British dark ages, Icelandic saga, and the murderous high intrigue of the late Middle Ages.
The uninitiated might think of the bloody, mud-splattered saga as akin to the English War of the Roses, with dragons and a spot of magic thrown in.
"The size of the sets and the sheer numbers of extras are unlike anything I have ever seen on television before," says Iain Glen, a series veteran who plays Jorah Mormont, a faithful companion to the would-be ruler of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen, the dragon queen played by Emilia Clarke.
The show's lavish production values are vital to its success. Fantasy is popular in the cinema, courtesy of the J K Rowling and J R R Tolkien adaptations, but Game of Thrones has seen the genre conquer the small-screen as well.
"Part of the show's appeal is that while it is portraying a mythical past with these elements of fantasy in there, it is very well done and has a real plausibility about it," continues Glen.
Martin is said to have drawn much inspiration from the political machinations that wheeled around the Wars of the Roses, the sporadic bouts of conflict that erupted between the English houses of Lancaster and York in the mid-to-late 15th century.
This gives Game of Thrones a gravitas that many fantasy shows lack. Viewers who are usually slightly sceptical about this genre have found that the show is full of tropes and characters that vie for their attention.
Indeed, the series plays like a particularly artful and ferociously violent soap opera, juggling the wants and needs, fears and phobias of dozens of major recurring characters, whose numbers increase with each passing season.
The creators are not afraid to kill off these major players either, a tone set towards the end of the first season when the series' standard-bearing character, Ned Stark, played by The Fellowship of the Ring's Sean Bean, met a surprisingly early end.
Audiences should not have been that surprised, really. After all, this is the series that during its first season cast the wonderfully handsome and desirable siblings Cersei and Jaime Lannister as incestuous lovers, before seeing the latter pick up a loveable and principled child and hurl him from a tower window.
Indeed, it was this moment in the first novel in the series, titled simply A Game of Thrones, that grabbed the attention of the TV series creator David Benioff, who says that it was the first fantasy book he'd picked up in 25 years.
Up until that point, he expected to ditch the book after around 100 pages. "But when Bran gets pushed out the window," he recalls, "all of a sudden, I was hooked. And then the Red Wedding!"
The Red Wedding, which unfolds in the last season, is synonymous with all that is so intoxicating about Game of Thrones. It is an unforeseen, brutal and unflinchingly authentic moment, which is expertly acted and beautifully executed.
A slew of people die, including two of the series' mainstays, Robb Stark, the King in the North, and his mother, the aforementioned Catelyn (who in the books returns as a member of the undead). The death and horror that run so freely throughout Game of Thrones only add to its appeal. Thus far, Martin has written five books in the series and the show could catch up with him before he is done. He is writing the sixth novel, The Winds of Winter, and plans a seventh, A Dream of Spring.
Martin says that the final chapters in the TV series might require a movie-sized running time and budget to finish the job properly, as the books – and the dragons that feature therein – keep growing in size.
The fourth season corresponds, roughly, with the second half of Martin's third book in the series, A Storm of Swords, which was so long that it had to be split into two seasons, though even fans that have read the book will enjoy a few surprises no doubt.
Unlike the narrative structure of the early seasons, which build towards a climactic set of events, the new season looks set to play out at a faster pace, with a series of climaxes springing up through the year.
"The storylines expand further with each new book," says actress Sophie Turner, who stars as Sansa Stark.
"Therefore it's inevitable that each season gets bigger and more epic. I think it's great." The show's ever-growing audience undoubtedly agrees.
‘If you thought this had a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention...’
Death stalks the screen in Game of Thrones and no one (no matter how high up in the credits their name appears) is safe. Just consider these memorable passings for example…
Sean Bean’s upstanding warrior lord is beheaded in Season One on the orders of the cruel boy-king Joffrey. It is a shocking moment that foreshadows the turmoil and bloodshed that is to come.
Barbarian leader Kahl Drogo crowns the treacherous Viserys with gold. Unfortunately for the would-be king, the gold is molten.
The formidable chieftain of the Dothraki people is incapacitated and slips into a coma from which he will not awake, bringing about the end of his reign. His loving wife, Daenerys Targaryen, suffocates him with a pillow.
The gallant King of the North (and son of the aforementioned beheaded Ned) meets at untimely end during the defining Game of Thrones moment, the Red Wedding, where this series mainstay who has survived from Season One is stabbed through the heart by a trusted ally.
Heartbroken when she witnesses the murder of her son Robb, the equally long-serving Catelyn Stark herself commits murder by slitting the throat of Joyeuse Erenford before she too is quickly dispatched in the same pitiless fashion.
Another high-profile victim who was sacrificed during Season Three’s infamous Red Wedding, Robb Stark’s pregnant queen is repeatedly stabbed in the stomach, a moment that exemplifies the show’s brutal tone and utter lack of sentimentality.
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