Kristen Bell, Madonna, and director Kevin Smith are huge fans. President Barack Obama is so hooked on the show that when he was still in the Oval Office he asked co-producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss to send him advance screeners. That’s not surprising if you consider that from almost from the beginning, when Game of Thrones first aired in 2011, it developed such a cult-like following that Vulture.com named it the series with the most devoted fan base—out-geeking even those otherworldly Star Wars and Star Trek fans.
So what makes a TV series based on George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novels so popular that it’s become a legitimate cultural phenomenon?
“From the first book, the moment where Bran Stark is pushed out the window, I realized I was reading something different from any other fantasy novel,” Benioff told The Telegraph shortly after the show’s first season concluded. “You become so immersed in the characters and develop so much affection for them, and then all these horrible things happen to them.”
Creating fascinating, morally ambiguous characters and then subverting reader/audience expectations was the winning formula for Martin’s novels: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005), and A Dance with Dragons (2011). It’s also the formula that has made Game of Thrones HBO’s most watched series, with an average of 25 million tuning in to each episode during last year’s seventh season.
The “game” involves nine noble families scheming and fighting to control the lands, castles, and ultimately, the Iron Throne of the mythical, medieval Westeros, and that aspect alone holds instant appeal for all fantasy lovers and gamers at heart. Because the characters come from different noble houses, viewers can identify with or cheer for them in much the same way as they did with the Hogwarts’ houses in the Harry Potter series. Yet, it’s not as simple as rooting for the home team, because there are almost as many schemers within each house as there are outside of them.
Early reviewers were struck by complex intrigues worthy of a Russian novel and an ensemble of actors that’s as good as any you’ll see. They also were impressed by the big-screen production values and location filming, and by writing intelligent enough that at least one college—the University of Virginia—now offers a course on Game of Thrones. Even in its latest season, this sophisticated series continues to impress for all of those reasons but Ken Tucker, writing for the BBC, thinks that Martin and co-producer Weiss deserve a large share of the credit. “They were wise enough to add thriller-fiction pacing and exploitation-film nudity to the mix. This kind of graphic naughtiness got the attention of a large audience,” Tucker notes, adding that Game of Thrones, “for all its grimness and brutality, represents a return of old-fashioned escapism.”
Escapism, naughtiness, technical prowess, and literary merit, all in the same package? Yes, but it still boils down to one thing: the characters. They’re often quotable, sometimes inscrutable, but always remarkable. Some are more good than evil (or vice versa), some have more of a personal and social conscience than others, some are caught up in patterns of behavior that viewers can trace through other family members, some are victims while others are victimizers. In the end, nearly everyone seems to be a little of everything and all are pilgrims undergoing unpredictable personal journeys. Awful things—unimaginable to all but Martin and the series writers—have happened to them, but those that haven’t been killed are living proof of Nietzsche’s maxim: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
Peter Hayden Dinklage in Game of Thrones: S7 (HBO)
Season 7 features a convergence of two of the most popular and charismatic characters: Jon Snow (Kit Harington), the bastard King of the North and de facto head of the House of Stark, and Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), self-proclaimed Mother of Dragons (etc. etc. etc.) who is, at heart, as dedicated to being a good leader for her people as Snow is for his own. They share a supernatural bond insomuch as each of them has managed to cheat death through mystical means. That they both seek to vanquish the incestuous Cersei and Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and their coalition is mere ambition compared to the necessity of first defeating the Night King and his White Walker army of the dead that threaten to destroy all of Westeros—which this season evolves as a priority, for as one of the Brotherhood says to Snow, “Death is the enemy: the first enemy, and the last.”
The dwarf Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), who in Season 6 killed his father and king before he could have him executed, now serves Daenerys, and he summarizes another major Season 7 theme:”Children are not their fathers … luckily for all of us.”Even so, it’s not difficult to see the effects of parental acceptance, rejection, attention, or neglect in offspring who struggle this season as much as ever and joust with words as often as swords.
“There are always lessons in failure,” Jamie tells Olenna Tyrell (Dame Diana Rigg). “Yes, you must be very wise by now,” she reponds. His dry comeback? “My father always said I was a slow learner.” Sharp tongues and sharp minds are one of the series’ most savory attractions.
The Season 7 premiere spurred 500,000 downloads on the HBO NOW streaming app that first week, and fans don’t even seem to mind that the cable network produced only seven episodes rather than the customary ten—perhaps because there’s been some speculation that the series might be slowing down a bit to give Martin a chance to catch up. The author, who has published five out of what he now says will be a seven-book series, had to divulge some of the character end-games and main plot threads to Benioff and Weiss so that they could plan ahead. Fans are already impatiently looking ahead to Season 8.
If there’s any criticism to be made of the otherwise strong season 7, it’s that weeks, not days, pass between many scenes, and since so much ground is covered it sometimes feels strained—especially the subplot involving Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) Stark and the conniving advisor/nobleman Littlefinger Baelish (Aidan Gillen). With so many wonderful special and visual effects driving the battle scenes and the rendering of the walking dead and Daenerys’ three dragons in full, impressive flight, it almost feels like nit-picking to report that some of the sequences where Snow leads an expedition in the far North seem to stand out as green screen work—enough to where you wonder if the bulk of the budget went to make the essential fantasy elements look truly fantastic. But because everything else does look so fantastic, such flaws seem minor.
As for the bonus features in the HBO Blu-ray, I prefer condensed interviews, but fans of commentary tracks should be pleased with the 11 that are provided here—even though of the ten actors that participate, Harington and Headey are the only ones who play major characters. Also included here is a 45-minute, two-part look at the work of production designer Deborah Riley and her crew and another feature on the special and visual effects used to create this season’s major battle. For those who can’t get enough of Westeros, there’s a bonus disc in a separate slim-case that offers a (barely) animated history that maps out the sequence of events before the first season but fasten your seatbelts—for all its density of proper names and lineages, it moves pretty quickly. Frankly, it pales in comparison to the spectacular rendering of Westeros that fans experience in every episode.