Game of Thrones: The epic fantasy that has viewers gripped
Why everyone is hooked on a show that breaks the golden rules of television
Recently, I’ve found that I can’t go for a pint without losing hours of my life. It’s not the booze. It’s that every time I go out, someone insists that I really should be watching some must-see television series or other. Homeland, The Bridge, Smash: my digi-box is bursting at the seams. Yet there’s one series, above all, that keeps coming up: Game of Thrones, HBO’s ultra-high-budget swords-and-sorcery epic, now midway through its second series on Sky Atlantic. All sorts of people – after mumbling about how fantasy normally isn’t their kind of thing – are confessing that they’re addicted.
What’s the secret? Partly, it’s the big-name cast: Sean Bean, Charles Dance, Roger Allam. Partly, the plot: a surprisingly realistic, adult exploration of political power, and the horrible things people do in pursuit of it (it’s no accident the show’s been called “The Sopranos in Middle Earth”). And partly because it’s packed with enough intrigue, nudity and bloodshed to make the Borgias look like the Waltons.
Yet there’s something else about Game of Thrones that I find especially fascinating: it breaks two of the most fundamental rules of television. The first is that George R R Martin, upon whose ongoing seven-book sequence the series is based, rejoices in doing horrible things to his characters, especially the ones you like. There’s no correlation between merit and reward, but plenty of abrupt reversals of fortune and sudden betrayals.
In the first season of the television adaptation, Bean, in the lead role, plays the paterfamilias of the Stark clan as a man of unflinching honour. He ends up with his head on a pike, and his family scattered and brutalised. (And trust me: it gets worse.)
More interesting than what the show does to the audience’s sympathies, however, is what it does to the structure of television itself. At the moment, it’s still at an early stage of the books, with only three or four narratives running simultaneously. That will soon change: Martin’s plots are relentlessly centrifugal, hurling the characters out of any comfort zone they might establish.
At the start of the series, the reader/viewer is led to believe that he will be following the story of Ned and his children as they try to unite the kingdom against a terrible, mystical threat from the frozen north. Instead, the protagonists are separated, thrown about the map like pinballs in a machine. Kings are toppled with clockwork regularity; new characters constantly appear. And this is what makes the television show such a fascinating experiment.
Every other series, whether it’s a critical darling like The West Wing or lowbrow pap such as Made in Chelsea, has a central, consistent core. It’s about the same group of people, usually in the same place, doing the same thing. When you switch on a serial such as CSI or EastEnders, you know you’ll be getting a slice of a recognisable formula, a cleverly constructed variation on a familiar theme.
Even in more sophisticated shows, the characters might grow and develop, or even die, but the story will still be framed as essentially that of a single family, or office, or town. The Wire tried, by changing its setting every season, to tell the story of a city. But it still kept a core of characters, and made sure to have a few moments of cohesion and reflection when the police would gather in a bar to celebrate or mourn.
Heroes, like Game of Thrones, featured a variety of characters spread across a continent. But there was always the reassurance that every year, the goodies and baddies would come together for a ratings-grabbing, dramatically cathartic finale.
Beneath the fantasy trappings, Game of Thrones is something altogether more ambitious: an attempt to tell the story not of a family, or even a country, but a world. Its episodes are chunks of a sprawling story told across thousands of pages of text. In trying to transfer that to the screen, without running up against the viewer’s inbuilt sense of what a television series should actually be, its creators are doing something more ambitious than many realise.
It will be fascinating to see whether they can keep their new fans with them – and whether anyone else will have the courage to follow in their footsteps.
Game of Thrones is on Sky Atlantic HD on Mondays at 9pm