Starring Sean Bean, Michelle Fairley, Richard Madden, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Alfie Allen, Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Peter Dinklage, Sibel Kekilli, Charles Dance, Jack Gleeson, Aidan Gillen, Conleth Hill, Stephen Dillane, Natalie Dormer, Emilia Clarke, Iain Glen, Rose Leslie, Liam Cunningham, and more.
Based on the novels by George R. R. Martin
Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
I’ve written this without much in the way of spoilers, I think, but some of the links contain spoilers for one or more seasons, and I won’t guarantee that comments, if there are any, won’t discuss plot details you may not wish to know. Proceed with caution.
Season 3 clinched it. I’m in love with Game of Thrones. I know, it’s a big shock, falling in love with the show that has been HBO’s biggest success since The Sopranos, and can boast of being the most pirated television property of all time. Still, I can’t stop thinking about it – its tragedies, its intrigues, its characters – and I can’t stop whistling the theme song, so Game of Thrones is what we’re talking about this week. Besides, as always, it’s not enough for me to love a thing (or loathe a thing, for that matter); I have to think about why. So why do I love a show full of death, betrayal, misery, torture, sexual slavery, misogynist language, gratuitous nudity, and wartime atrocities?
I was all set to say that it all boils down to character, but that would be selling the complex plot far too short. George R.R. Martin and the show’s writers have woven together a complex, rich narrative, full of convergences and divergences, cunning revelations and dramatic irony, potent foreshadowing and truly shocking twists of fate. Into this web they’ve suspended so many characters that it is helpful to have a chart (and several fans have, in fact, made them, sometimes with hilarious results). The number of characters doesn’t seem to detract much from their depth, however. Each scene is like a portrait, in which we can see the tragic nobility of Robb Stark, the hard-won strength of Daenerys Targaryen, the unexpected humanity of Cersei Lannister revealed. Each scene shows us the human beings at the core of this world, and how precarious their positions are, no matter what their name or rank. At any moment, with or without help, they could lose their balance and fall.
Game of Thrones is based on A Song of Ice and Fire, an ongoing series of fantasy books by George R.R. Martin, infamous for its bleak setting and unexpected character deaths. The world has had a long summer, but winter is coming, and with it a struggle for the crown of the Seven Kingdoms. Families Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, and others plot, intrigue, and war against each other, while across the Narrow Sea, the last scion of the ruling Targaryens gathers an army to reclaim her kingdom. Meanwhile, far to the north, beyond the great ice wall manned by the Night’s Watch, something ancient and evil is stirring. Winter is coming, and magic is returning to the world. But this isn’t standard fantasy, where heroes never die in vain and magic and faith can save the world. The focus is more on intrigue than mass combat, and more about the monstrous things that human beings are capable of than legendary monsters and black magic. Westeros is a dark, unsettling place, and Game of Thrones is a show that shocks and thrills, and reaches inside to wring the feelings from your heart. It is, in sum, amazing.
It’s probably worth mentioning here that I’ve never read any of the books, despite getting my entire family to read them and receiving multiple recommendations that I do so from friends. With all respect to Mr. Martin, I’m kind of glad I’ve never picked them up. I have nothing to compare the show to except itself, and although I’ve gotten some fascinating insights from people comparing and contrasting the show versus the books, I’m very happy to have Peter Dinklage always and forever be my Tyrion Lannister, and Maisie Williams always be my Arya Stark. Although certain things have been spoiled for me through reading internet commentary or enthusing to knowing friends about characters or events on the show, I’m content coming into Game of Thrones with no expectations, other than, obviously, DEATH.
That expectation has been drilled into me by everyone who has ever recommended the series to me. My brother says he always tells people “Don’t get attached to anyone.” It’s hard to do. Everyone has a favorite, whether it is honorable Jon Snow, roguish Tyrion Lannister, regal Daenerys Targaryen, or dutybound Stannis Baratheon. GRRM himself has said that one of his goals is to make readers (and viewers) genuinely afraid for the lives and well-being of their favorite characters. The story of Game of Thrones is such that no one’s life is sacred. So deeply ingrained in the fabric of the story is this Anyone Can Die premise that even when I knew a favorite character would live (due to spoilers), I watched her approach an impending massacre thinking “No. No, oh no no no.” This is the grimdark fantasy setting of Game of Thrones, where rape is appallingly common, children are murdered because of their family name, and the long dark winter is coming. It’s not a hopeful, happy place. As one character puts it “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
The story feels awash in blood, and most of it, I feel, comes from assassination, execution, and murder. Violence in Game of Thrones isn’t cartoonish like Spartacus: Blood and Sand, or sensational like Braveheart. Instead it is visceral and uncomfortable, providing life and death thrills while also making you cringe, much like another excellent HBO property, Rome. The assassination of Caesar is awful to watch, while Pullo’s battle with his gladiator executioners makes me cheer. Game of Thrones is similar, in that we fear death in this show, but we also cheer to see our favorite characters come out on top and live to fight again, and we hope to see the show’s many monsters and villains receive their just desserts. For instance, I’m pretty sure every viewer eagerly awaits a violent end for Joffrey Baratheon, but I have a feeling that if and when we get it, it will be a mix of satisfying and queasy-causing, not necessarily by the means, but because this show doesn’t differentiate between the deaths of heroes and villains. As the saying goes, there are no good deaths. Only bad deaths and worse deaths.
One of the first acts we see is the apparent hero of the story conducting an execution, illustrating the setting’s grim perspective from the outset. What all this gloom and blood establishes, though, is a way for our characters to defy those expectations. The reason the Starks appear to be our central heroes is because their nobility and sense of honor set them apart from the world in which they live. Raised miles away from the bloody intrigues of King’s Landing, the Stark children are largely innocent to the cruelty of the world, although Arya Stark bucks hard against the idea of being ladylike, and Jon Snow and Theon Greyjoy both have their burdens to bear as outsiders within the Stark family. Still, they are as good as people get on Westeros, and establishing them this way sets the characters up to lose that innocence when the “real” world comes knocking, no matter how many times their father warns them that Winter is Coming. However, it also allows them to provide some of the only moments of brilliance, compassion, and nobility in the series, a shining contrast against a bleak and brutal world.
The show finds that compassion and nobility in unexpected places sometimes, too, which is part of its brilliance. Characters who initially appear irredeemable and despicable often shine in unexpected ways, most obviously in Tyrion Lannister, the show’s designated noble rogue, but more impressively in his brother and sister. Cersei Lannister, in addition to being Joffrey’s mother, which is The Worst of All Crimes, wields her power as Queen with deliberate and monstrous cruelty, but she also has these amazing moments of humanity, even in the first season, that keep her from being a complete monster. Her brother, Jaime, is all ridiculous, amoral, gold-plated arrogance when he first struts onscreen, but his sociopathic charm masks unexpected depth. Even Sandor Clegane, called the Hound, while remaining pretty much a self-loathing psychopath from the start, gets his moments of vulnerability and redemption, mostly through his association with the Stark girls. I think this contrast of the horror of Westeros with the human capacity for nobility and grace, all within a single character, is why GRRM writes in such a grim setting. By hurling people against the unyielding darkness of an evil world, he can show us the sparkling stars of humanity against the relentless Westerosi night.
As Tansy Rayner Roberts says, “if your political system is inherently and essentially misogynist and that is essential to your worldbuilding, then throwing a few women into that system to see what cracks first is actually the most interesting thing you could do.” The Seven Kingdoms are that misogynist political system, where a woman’s value is primarily in the alliances she can secure by marriage, and the security of the dynasty through producing heirs. A woman’s children are, almost literally, everything she is, which is demonstrated and explicitly stated by both Catelynn Stark and Cersei Lannister. They are each strong, intelligent women, the pinnacle of what women are allowed to achieve in this culture, and yet their destinies are strictly controlled by the patriarchs of their respective families. On one side of them, we have Olenna Tyrell, the elderly grandmother, so on top of the game she is the defacto head of her family and the only person we hear openly complaining about the sexist state of affairs in Westeros, for which she is sternly rebuked by Cersei. And on the other side we have Sansa Stark, plucked from Winterfell and dropped in the middle of a complex social game, playing without allies, a fourteen year old girl circled by spiders and mockingbirds, lions and wolves. Anyone who feels indifference or hatred toward Sansa rather than pity or admiration must, in my opinion, be watching an entirely different show. Sansa is learning as she goes, and from the most unforgiving of teachers.
I haven’t even touched on some of my favorite characters, women who directly reject their prescribed fates and choose to make their own: Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, and the magnificent Daenerys Targaryen. Bucking the system and yet still subject to it, they are some of the most rewarding characters to watch. All three have loved ones stolen from them. All three are threatened with sexual violence to some degree or another. All three walk a knife’s edge, relying on their cunning, strength of arms, or innate, dragonborn strength to navigate a world that is altogether hostile to them. I get a real sense that GRRM and the writers for the show love these characters – which, for reasons described above, makes me nervous – and are really pulling for them, as they struggle upward against a landslide of shitty dudes, broken promises, and charred bodies. I’m losing my train of thought in my admiration for these characters, so let’s all agree: Danaerys sitting on the Iron Throne with Brienne of Tarth and Arya Stark as her right and left hand. Best possible ending? Somebody draw this for me.
I love Game of Thrones because I can’t stop thinking about it; its character live in my imagination, and its stories fuel speculation and deep thought. It isn’t without its problems, some of which are disappointing enough that I don’t necessarily blame anyone for choosing not to watch. It is brutally violent, female characters are routinely threatened with rape, or the plot finds ways to get women naked while the camera follows them. The world is full of brothels, and nonwhite people who all seem to be treacherous pirates or barbarians. But, in spite of these things, I love the show. The characters are rich, well-rounded, and excellently performed, and the story rewards close attention and consideration with unforeseen parallels and literary depth. I don’t want to say that you are missing out, if you choose not to watch for whatever reason, but…I do feel like you are missing out on one of the best dramas on television.
The third season having just ended, so you have almost an entire year to catch up, if you are behind. HBO would prefer you watch it here. You can also buy Seasons One and Two on DVD.