At the beginning of 2011, I became aware of an upcoming HBO series based on a series of fantasy novels that were apparently very popular. I had never before heard of the A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but it sounded interesting based on the synopsis given by the author, George R. R. Martin. In early April 2011, I saw a fifteen minute preview of the show, which only furthered my interest. Finally, after about three months of waiting, on April 17th my world changed for the better when I finally viewed the pilot episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones series. After about the third episode, I felt that it was my duty to spread the word and convince others to get into this fantastic series, but I discovered that it was far easier to ‘deal out’ this particular geeky show than others. It turns out that Game of Thrones, with its multifaceted story, has something that will attract almost anyone who watches it. Whether it is action, romance, fantastical creatures, complex characters or backstabbing political intrigue, Game of Thrones has it all.
The best way to explain what HBO’s latest hit series is about is to allow the author of the series to do it for you:
Set in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, Game of Thrones chronicles the violent dynastic struggles among the kingdom’s noble families for control of the Iron Throne; as the series opens, additional threats from the snow and ice covered region north of Westeros and from the eastern continent, Essos, across a narrow sea are simultaneously beginning to rise.
Granted, Martin did most of the heavy lifting in terms of story and character development when he started writing the novels over twenty years ago, but to properly and faithfully adapt what came in each of the books to the small screen is a very challenging task. David Benioff and D. B. Weiss had the vision and dedication to take up that challenge, and along with Martin’s help (for one episode per season, anyway) they brilliantly translated the world of Westeros and Essos into a reality. For those who love seeing their beloved fantasy books visualized, HBO’s Game of Thrones is just as good, if not better, as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy or the Harry Potter film franchise.
What sets this show apart from other television shows is the quality of the story, acting and the complete visualization of a world being created. As an HBO series, there are many liberties that the series creators can take that are not always permitted on shows on other cable television networks. Having finished its second season, Game of Thrones remains a dark, deeply complex and intricate story with profound and flawed characters that are just as likely to do something unpredictable as any real person. The level of acting is one of the show’s great selling points. Each character has committed to their role so faithfully that it’s hard not to have a strong emotional connection or reaction to them. Every actor on the show takes their role seriously and is remarkably capable of conveying many complex and subtle emotions wonderfully. Special recognition needs to be given to Peter Dinklage, as he plays a complex and sympathetic character perfectly. His portrayal of Tyrion, and how he deals with the world and his family for poking fun of his physical stature, is mesmerizing – at the same time it subtly reflects how we treat dwarves and others with disabilities in our own society. One must also praise the strength of acting given from the child actors in the show, such as Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), as they all are able to hold their own and carry entire scenes themselves, and are also capable of working off excellently with their more mature cast members. No matter who is on screen, the acting is more than strong enough to capture the attention, love, hate and sympathies of whoever is watching and then make them laugh, feel fear, cry or feel depressed all within the span of one episode.
The well-realized world of the series is another reason for the show’s incredible success. Taking place in a feudal medieval society, Game of Thrones has kings, knights, princes and princesses, fair maidens, noble houses, sacred orders, palaces and castles. Counterintuitively, Benioff and Weiss litter this very dark and adult oriented show with all the aspects of our childhood fantasies. The gowns, armours, swords, sets and locations are so entirely convincing that no doubt it results in adults at work fantasizing about living in that world and being able to take part in all the fun. Furthermore, this world takes place in a supposedly post-magic world in which the magic is slowly returning. That means dragons, dire wolves, sorcerers and dark creatures are coming out of hiding and sparking our imaginations at the same time. Those who watch the show and claim they have not taken at least a moment to wonder which Great House they would want to be a part of (House Stark all the way!), which magical creature they want as a pet, whether they would be a knight or a noble, or decide which castle they would want to live in is either lying or does not know how to have fun.
What further sets the show apart from other television programs is the real-life feel and gritty atmosphere. While the sword fights are fun and exciting to watch, they do not end in a standard heroic or sad way but rather conclude in a very bloody and brutal manner that affects the life of a character forever. The battles, wars and conflicts in this world are not glamorous as we would have daydreamed they would be in our youth, but are as cruel and vicious as it would have been hundreds of years past in our own history. There is lots of death, sex, swearing and backstabbing happening at any time of the show, and all of it drives the characters to do ever more. Death and misfortune in Game of Thrones is not for the least liked or for the most convenient characters – all characters are fair game. Anyone can be killed off, lose their way, and be brought down. Good does not always prevail and bad certainly does not get defeated. This realistic depiction of characters, events and outcomes is what makes the show so emotionally profound and captivating. You are left on the edge of your seat, always worried about your favourite characters and worrying about them being harmed, falling to misfortune or killed in the way you would about a regular person whom you cared for.
The women in Game of Thrones are another aspect of the show that sets it apart from other current programs. Characters like Arya, Catelyn, Daenerys and even the villainous Cersei are strong female roles in the show and drive the plot as much, or more so, than their male counterparts. Their intelligence, determination, self-confidence (mingled with moments of self-doubt) and drive to overcome the obstacles in their path is a sight to behold. These women are fighting against the societal limits placed on them and refuse to let tradition or men force them into a place they do not want to be. Granted there is only so much they can do given this framework, and they do have to accept certain limitations for survival or for their family’s prosperity, but never do they acknowledge that it is okay do for them to have to do so. I am reminded of a scene near the end of the second season, where Cersei drunkenly describes the expectations forced on her by her family and society as a whole. In this scene, as in many before it, one can hear the rage and contempt she has for being forced to do things men are not (such as being married and shipped off), or denied opportunities that are freely given to men (like being trained to fight in a battle). Where other shows just depict their female leads as enjoying living in a restricted format or just blind to it, Game of Thrones describes the cage women have been placed in with disdain so as to illustrate how unfair their treatment in this society – and in our own – is. What makes these women strong and inspiring is their resolve to fight against these restrictions in a patriarchal society, whether it with subtle suggestions or cunning manoeuvring, and the vision of how they survive afterward.
With all the great aspects of the show, there are a few things about HBO’s latest series that could turn people off. The adult content, such as nudity, sex scenes, swearing and blood, makes it clear that it should not be seen by young children or the squeamish. The sex and nudity go a bit further than a typical HBO show. Since the book’s content is so rich, the creators of the series have chosen to give exposition through a character while they are having sex with prostitutes, which has been affectionately coined ‘sexposition’. This exploitative nudity, particularly with the female actresses, can also be too much for people as they are made to give the show a ‘sexier’ feel but do so at the cost of the women. In other HBO shows, there is a more gender equal depiction of nudity, but Game of Thrones seems to relish in only making the women go nude. It has reached such a level of absurdity that Saturday Night Live made a sketch where the one of the consultants on the show was a horny thirteen year old boy. No one is arguing that sex sells, or that it and nudity are a part of life, but in real life both men and women would be doing it as opposed to just the women, and at some point it just becomes tasteless.
HBO’s Game of Thrones adds to the growing understanding that established fantasy series’ are the new lucrative market to tap into and are the genre people want to ‘getaway’ to more and more. This show has something for everyone as it has smart writing, great acting, complex storylines, engaging characters, beautiful magical creatures and sets that leave nothing to the imagination. If you want drama, action, romance, fantasy or politics (or all of the above), Game of Thrones has it all.