It’s a freak of nature that “Game of Thrones,” with its fire-breathing dragons, subzero zombies, and “Mad Max” drag is a TV colossus. A genre show, of all things, has won our game of Peak TV, along with a record 47 Emmys, including three for best drama. As the HBO series begins its final, eighth season on Sunday, its intense popularity is an anomaly wrapped in Dothraki leather inside a fur-lined cape.
By colossus, I mean that the series has won lofty ratings — a remarkable 30 million viewers see each episode — and miles of fanatical press for seven seasons. All levels of media have devotedly covered the show, from Vanity Fair and the New Yorker to TMZ, whose photographers hound the stars on their coffee runs. Even the president rode the bandwagon — to HBO’s distress — when he tweeted “Sanctions Are Coming” about Iran, borrowing the show’s typeface and defining phrase, “Winter Is Coming.”
And by colossus, I also mean that “Game of Thrones” has become the sole scripted heir of “appointment TV,” that vanishing phenomenon where viewers see a show at the same time, or in the same week. There aren’t many series left that inspire an audience to watch en masse on a network’s schedule, instead of on their own timetable. News, reality shows, and live events — notably the Super Bowl — still compel, but most scripted shows sit waiting in the digital ether to be binged when convenient. “Game of Thrones” has grown a vibrant mainstream community, far beyond its Reddit core, that’s always on the same plot page at the same time, postulating between episodes about the next big twist. It’s a good thing: Dense and intricately plotted, “Game of Thrones” works best at a weekly pace.
How is it that a quasi-medieval fantasy series occupies such a vaunted position? We’re not talking “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men,” or “Breaking Bad” here; they were straight-up dramas about characters of this world — the kinds viewers most easily recognize. We’re talking about a brand of storytelling, with thwacking swords, animal-skin clothing, and dark priestesses who birth smoke monsters, that rarely arouses mass passion and loyalty on TV. We’re talking about Daenerys Targaryen literally walking through fire, and Jon Snow literally rising from the dead. It’s atypical to find a genre series on the yearly awards circuit — except, of course, in the special effects and costuming categories.
For me, a longtime fantasy-phobe, “Game of Thrones” has managed to redefine fantasy by exceeding its limits, just as “Deadwood” turned the Western genre into a kind of Shakespearean dramaturgy. I adore the show. I found the first of “The Lord of the Rings” movies as gripping as the front of a box of “Lucky Charms,” but “Game of Thrones” has a moral complexity lacking in a genre that too often breaks down into good versus bad, dark versus light. The show has a bleak viewpoint, with Westeros a fractured continent pulled apart by the baser instincts of its inhabitants. Good guys don’t automatically prevail as they might in other fantasy tales — we saw that first in season 1, when the heroic Ned Stark was beheaded as both of his daughters watched.
I know it may be a cliché in this post-“Sopranos” TV world, but moral complexity makes the show and its characters more relatable, relevant, and engrossing. And I suspect many others are drawn by the same muddy realism. The personal ambiguities of the characters and the political struggles in the kingdoms of Westeros are expertly laid out by the writers, with the novels of George R.R. Martin as their guide through the first five seasons. These dramas have their roots in those of our own more civilized world; King’s Landing might as well be Washington, D.C. (I’ll leave it to you to decide who’s Trump, who’s Pelosi, and who’s McConnell.) “Game of Thrones” is largely about personal and political power — who has it, who wants it, who deserves it, who’ll ultimately get it — and that feels as pertinent as anything on “Homeland.”
Also pertinent: The treatment of women. “Game of Thrones” is as far from a fantasy fairy tale as it can be in most ways, but especially in its approach to its female characters. The world of the show is primitive, and excruciatingly violent. It gives us human nature at its coarsest and most naked — which is riveting, if at times gross, what with the deaths by crossbow, by guillotine, by fire, and by hot melted gold. The show has been specifically criticized for its violence toward women; notably, in 2015, upset by the rape of teen bride Sansa by the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill tweeted that she’d no longer watch.
But the oppression of women is a central premise to the show, just as it is in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which also portrays a dystopia for women that is driven home by disturbing and unforgettable details. It’s one of the themes that has kept me absorbed, as the central female characters — among them Sansa, Arya, Daenerys, Brienne, and Cersei — have become far more layered through their misfortunes than the men on the show. They are strong survivors, and they are ascendant. Their story arcs, as they’ve refused to succumb, have been among the show’s highlights. If “Game of Thrones” at times panders to the male gaze with signature HBO nudity, it also gives that same male gaze unforgettable images of female empowerment.
And ultimately, this fantasy-phobe has embraced the idea of the Night King and his Army of the Dead, even though they are among the more fantastical elements of the show. They’ve been lurking in the background for most of the series, like an existential threat to all the other storylines, a clock ticking throughout all the human drama. It won’t matter who has the throne if these ice zombies from the North prevail. They represent death, and, while some in Westeros live as if those blue-eyed monsters don’t exist, they do,
and they are coming for everyone.
Is “Game of Thrones” going to start a wave of fantasy on TV, the medium famous for trying to copy success? It hasn’t yet, and it probably won’t — although HBO is going to try, with a few spin-offs in development. No matter what category the show falls under, it is an extraordinary piece of work, singular in its rich characterizations and in its visual realization. “Game of Thrones” will not be easily duplicated. It is one of the most dynamic stories of our time, no matter what time it’s set in.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.