And so it will end.
On May 20, around 8 am IST, the curtains will come down on Game of Thrones after eight incredible years. The show’s multiple hashtags will trend that day like never before and the Internet will break.
The medieval fantasy drama is a cultural phenomenon and, in terms of the television landscape, so far ahead of the rest in popularity that the gap to number two is as wide as the Dothraki grasslands.
The roll call of achievements is impressive. Most Emmy wins for a television drama. A fan base to rival Star Wars. A global reach unlike anything attained by a television show. Plotlines that call for mental vigilance and are more twisted than an overdone pretzel. All dovetailing to make the audience lose their minds, completely and regularly. To quote everyone’s favourite dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, “It’s embarrassing, really.”
Yet Game of Thrones is not a show without critics, who point to the brutal violence and gratuitous sexuality. Truth be told, there have been some horrific moments. The first controversial event—and the one that set the wheels in motion for the show—was a boy being pushed out of a tower window by the man he had just seen in an incestuous act with his twin sister. In another, a priestess burns an innocent little girl at the stake so that the girl’s father, who is well aware of what’s happening, has a better chance at claiming the Iron Throne. There’s another where a girl is raped during her wedding night and her childhood friend, who’s been brutally tortured and too broken to help, is forced to watch.
Most of these scenes were, predictably, met with reproach. But producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss have not shown to be the type to embrace the subtle. They keep it as ‘real’ as possible, and when scenes present themselves to shock the viewers, dial it up to eleven. Perhaps they were seeking a response, which was unfailingly accorded, even if most were unfavourable.
But it is true what they say about works of art; there’s nothing worse for them than to be ignored. Game of Thrones has never had that problem.
Of course, it would be a disservice to even hint that the show’s success is founded exclusively on nudity and gore. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, the series of books from which the drama is adapted, is a wonderful tapestry of detail, and layered, three-dimensional characters. Further, beyond the visual elements brought to life by the limitless magic of CGI, the thickest vein running through the drama is the ‘human’ element or, rather, the consequences of the innate evil that lurks in us—lack of order, radicalised faith, constant thirst for power.
How about the show’s relevance to the real world and current global events? The parallels are uncanny. Think of the dragons, creatures that breathe fire hot enough to melt stones and burn castles to the ground. The only thing stopping their reckless use is their mistress’s conscience. Yet, her ancestors have used them before, with terrible consequences. Ring a bell?
Then there’s the matter of a 700-feet tall, 300-mile long wall of solid ice, built with the help of magic to separate the uncivilised folk from the realm. This massive structure also keeps at bay (at least it did till the end of last season) an immeasurably greater threat than anything politics or man can muster—the army of the dead. The city folk dismissed this particular threat as fantasy. But the dangers, as viewers of the show knew, were real. An allegory of global warming, maybe?
Additionally, Game of Thrones does a fine job turning established tenets of television storytelling on their heads. “I want the reader to feel that no one is ever completely safe, not even the characters who seem to be the heroes,” wrote Martin in his original pitch to his book publishers. The producers of the adaptation have stayed mostly true to the books. In television terms, it was taking a massive risk.
How would you explain beheading Ned Stark, the patriarch of the show’s most beloved family and the de facto hero, before the first season was over? Twenty episodes and two years later, they killed off Ned’s wife and his first son at the infamous Red Wedding, and put a dagger in the pregnant bride’s tummy as a bonus. Viewers cringed but came back for more. Perhaps they tuned in just to see if their favourites would survive another episode.
Game of Thrones has not done away with tropes altogether. As the series turns into its final stretch, the established male and female leads have walked the rags-to-royalty path—Jon Snow, king in the north of Westeros, began the show as a bastard of Ned Stark; Daenerys Targaryen, dragon queen, was sold off to a warlord by her brother in exchange for an army.
Over the next few weeks, parts of the world will stop for this heady cocktail of realism, fantasy and subversive storytelling. The lives of millions will revolve around what happens in fictional Westeros. Reality, morals and convention will be on the backburner. Many will cheer if Jon Snow and his aunt Daenerys Targaryen see their incestuous relationship through to the show’s end. We will hold our breath as a child assassin strikes names off her kill list. We’ll go on Twitter and fight over which character is right and which deserves to live or die. To quote Tyrion Lannister again, “It’s embarrassing, really.”
When Martin, tired of Hollywood, decided to write his book series in 1991, he would never have envisaged its effect on society two decades later. Similarly, Benioff and Weiss were novice producers when they took on the project. Even for established HBO, this was a shot in the dark. It’s true that the show got lucky with wonderful source material and brilliant performances by the likes of Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey. But perhaps the foremost reason for its worldwide success, besides the novelty of the genre, was its timing. Game of Thrones happened in an age where social media was growing rapidly into the undeniable global influence it is today. If the show was released around the time Martin wrote his books, there would no Twitter or online forums to keep interest simmering. Also, adult television did not have the acceptance it does today. It would just not be the same.
It’s debatable if Game of Thrones is the greatest drama ever. It may not even be the best HBO has given us; The Sopranos and The Wire are mighty fine television. But unlike any fare of the past, it’s the perfect mix of cast, performances, and a little help from external forces. A kind of a perfect storm. Chances are we will never see its like again.
Aziel Karthak is a writer and editor.