Television

Nietzsche's Children Are in Full Survival Mode in 'Game of Thrones: S7'

Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones: S7 (HBO)

Awful things—unimaginable to all but George R. R. Martin and the series writers—have happened to these characters, but those that haven't been killed are living proof of Nietzsche's maxim.

Game of Thrones: S7
David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

HBO

2011-

Other

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.

8

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.