by John Saeger
When Game of Thrones resumed on April 14, it was not just another popular series starting a new season. It marked the beginning of the end of the most memorable television show of the decade (and possibly the last watercooler television series ever). This is remarkable because the HBO drama is nothing like we have ever seen before. Despite a fantasy backdrop, the characters and unpredictable story arcs place Game of Thrones in the upper echelon of all-time television series.
George R.R. Martin’s wintery power struggle for the Iron Throne has grown beyond its initial debut as a cult show. Game of Thrones occupies a rare spot in television history. No fantasy series has ever permeated the cultural lexicon like Martin’s universe. It is doubtful that any television series ever will again.
With the decline of network television as a culturally defining medium, Game of Thrones is a viral series unlike Stranger Things or House of Cards. Game of Thrones bridged the broadcast television and streaming eras. It is one of the last television shows that viewers universally watched as it aired. People who missed the initial broadcast had to turn off their cell phones and wear ear muffs until they caught up, lest they got spoiled on the latest plot twist.
It is fitting that Game of Thrones was produced on HBO. The premium cable channel redefined what television critic David Bianculli refers to as “The Platinum Age” of television with groundbreaking shows like Oz, The Sopranos, and The Wire. The finale of Game of Thrones may also be the end of that phase of television history.
At first glance, none of these shows or basic cable contemporaries like Mad Men, The Americans, and Breaking Bad have anything in common with Game of Thrones. The other shows existed in the tangible settings of Madison Avenue, Washington, DC, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Game of Thrones took place in a different kind of world.
There are dragons, knights, and black magic in Westeros, a total departure from any of its rivals. Even popular fantasy contemporaries like True Blood and Buffy tend to at least have some basis in a more relatable setting. Despite its nerd-ish facade, Game of Thrones became a phenomenon because it possessed the most important trait of any television series: great characters.
Bolstered by the preexisting Song of Ice and Fire books, the characters had full backstories amidst the lush history of Westeros. Over seven-plus seasons, viewers bonded with characters who endured personal hells. Fans admired the ferocity of Daenerys Targaryen and the integrity of Jon Snow. Even the bad guys have not enjoyed an easy ride. Jaime Lannister went from being a magnificent bastard to a humbled knight. Cersei Lannister experienced trauma that turned her into a ruthless monarch. No Season Eight character is the same person that they were in the pilot. They all carry deep internal or physical scars that changed them forever.
Within each character lies noble intentions, gray areas, or evil depths. Over time, this dynamic gave the television audience strong feelings towards so many characters. It was also the reason why the Game of Thrones audience expanded into numbers that defy what the fantasy genre normally draws.
The entertainment factor was reinforced by unpredictability. Game of Thrones killed off characters at a soap opera level. Unlike almost any other show, key characters are in constant jeopardy. These surprises went viral. Events such as the infamous Red Wedding cemented a reputation for Game of Thrones as a show that plays by its own rules. It also means that you had to watch live to avoid spoilers.
The randomness of these events is enhanced by their unique timing in the season. Unlike most television series, not everything that defined Game of Thrones was saved for finales. The Red Wedding took place in the ninth episode of its season, the Purple Wedding in the second episode, Daenerys set the khals aflame in the fourth, and Hardhome was the eighth. In hindsight, Bran being pushed from a window in the pilot after witnessing a scandalous act was not an outlier but a hint as to what surprises were to come.
The finales were epic in their own right: Daenerys birthed dragons, Tywin was murdered, Stannis defeated, Cersei staged an explosive coup, and the Wall came tumbling down. All of these episodes made a dramatic statement that hooked the audience for the next season.
Game of Thrones had its warts. Theon’s endless torture sessions and the pointless Sand Snakes left blemishes that approached “jump the shark” territory. Whenever those moments happened, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss managed to counter those lulls with scenes that sucked the audience back in.
Many of these sequences were a byproduct of scale. The production quality of Game of Thrones was defined by events typically reserved for cinema, not the small screen. The CGI dragons, legions of soldiers, and vast armadas were unlike anything else depicted on television. A show like this could not have created events of such a high quality until recent CGI developments, making it an outlier on a production level.
The Game of Thrones production crew raised the stakes each season. Epic clashes during episodes such as “Blackwater,” “The Watchers on the Wall,” “Hardhome,” and “Battle of the Bastards” gradually raised the bar for what we now expect on television. Small screen imitators like The Outlaw King come off as cheap-looking in comparison.
CGI is not the only reason that these battles made a lasting impact beyond the gore. These scenes were filmed with gritty intensity to create realistic depictions of medieval-style combat. Every major battle had camera shots that reveal unexpected character moments. This promoted feelings of intimacy and replaced the high-level action scenes of a blockbuster.
No other series that began in the 2010s dominated pop culture as much as Game of Thrones. Complex family dynamics from the Lannisters and Baratheons added unforseen layers to the series. Even secondary characters like Hodor received tear-jerking sendoffs. Devastating episodes like “The Rains of Castamere” and “Baelor” were the rule, not the exception.
The journey through Westeros rocked the Internet with an atypical number of viral moments. We could never watch the show feeling comfortable that everything would be all right. Something bad was certainly bound to happen, particularly to the good guys. Game of Thrones almost always went too far. This complex emotional package created more memories and talking points than any other television series of the decade because it continually dealt blows and delivered thrills. Heartstrings were not just tugged; they were severed by an ax blade and trampled by Dothraki hordes. It all added up to a run that no other television show has come close to matching, making Game of Thrones the most memorable show of the last ten years.
You can find more of John’s articles on popular culture over at his blog, The Flat Circle.