(With the seventh season of Game of Thrones upon us, my writing here is getting attention again. If you enjoy this insight, I have a book on the show being released. Check it out!)
In order to understand Game of Thrones, you have to understand its context. But in Thrones’ case, it’s operating within multiple different contexts. The three most important are that it’s made by people in the 2000s prestige television model, based on novels written in a 1990s fantasy literature context, and viewed (and discussed!) in the era of 2010s Peak TV. There are a bunch of other considerations that affect matters, from George R.R. Martin’s writing pace to the casting of the child actors, but the ones I mentioned above are the most critical to understanding the question: “Why is Game of Thrones the way it is?”
First, Game of Thrones is an HBO drama. HBO aired three of the five critically dominant series of the decade in The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood, and a fourth, Mad Men, came from a former Sopranos writer. Only Breaking Bad, last of the big five, lacked a direct major HBO connection behind the scenes.
But in form, Breaking Bad was a perfect match. Prestige television, based on The Sopranos model, had come increasingly to be about a crisis of white, middle-class masculinity, as manifested through the juxtaposition of violent confrontation with normal life, in a world of ambiguous morality or even straight up amorality. Obviously there was variance: Mad Men didn’t use much violence, while The Wire had a much more racially diverse cast and was often uninterested with life outside of the characters’ jobs. On the other hand, The Wire’s focus was almost entirely male — ask yourself if it actually passed the simple Bechdel-Wallace test and see how long it takes you to find an answer. But a background of sex, violence, and examination of human darkness and despair.
Go back to the first season and it’s easy to see how much Game of Thrones was being pushed as the next installment of the HBO drama franchise, with “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth” used by showrunner David Benioff as a simple pitch. And it really seemed like it was for a few episodes: the middle-aged, traditionalist father Ned Stark spending his episodes trying to keep the peace in an unruly kingdom while keeping his ideals intact, at the same time as teaching his unruly daughters to get along — just as Tony Soprano did with his gang and his children.
Of course, we all know how that turned out for Ned in Game of Thrones’ first massive twist at the end of the first season. This was a massive upheaval of storytelling expectations — the main character isn’t supposed to just die — but this is an essential part of George R.R. Martin’s story. A Game of Thrones and its sequels were written in order to combat many of the genre tropes of fantasy in the 1990s.
The fantasy literature genre grew from two main sources. First, the pulp science fantasy of authors like L. Sprague de Camp during the golden age of science fiction pushed the genre through next few decades as collections of individual novels and stories in loosely shared universes. They were often technically science fiction, but filled with what we’d now call fantasy tropes — Dragonriders of Pern being a prime example. It was also heavily woman-oriented, with authors like Andre Norton, Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. (George R.R. Martin’s early works also fit this context.)
The other dominant force in fantasy was the explosion of interest in Lord of the Rings coming out of hippie culture in the 1960s. This was an incredibly popular, but much more rigid form of fantasy based on a hero’s quest to save the world, across a single serialized trilogy, leaning heavily on legendary and mythical sources, particularly Arthurian legend.
In 1977, two releases set this form of heroic fantasy as the default model for the next two decades: Terry Brook’s The Sword of Shannara, essentially an incredibly popular retelling of Lord of the Rings with all the weird academic Tolkien bits sandpapered off. The other was Star Wars, which, while apparently science fiction, dove directly into Campbell’s monomyth, and set in stone the tropes which defined the fantasy genre: farm boy becomes chosen hero, wise wizard mentors, charming rogues, ultimate evil, and so on. The key element added and refined in fantasy literature: deliberate monarchism and celebration of chivalry in faux-European nations. Luke Skywalker wasn’t crowned king of the galaxy, but Garion (The Belgariad), Tomas (Riftwar), and Simon (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn) all rise to a Western European-style throne at the ends of their journeys.
Through the 1980s and early 1990s, trilogies (or four, or five-book series) of heroic fantasy exploded. You couldn’t go to a bookstore without seeing “The Exciting Conclusion of the Gib’berish Cycle!” on every other shelf. It also served as a reassertion of masculinity in the genre: many of the authors were male, as were their protagonists. (Though this was not exclusive, as Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar trilogies demonstrated.)
And then it got worse. 1990 saw the release of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, the first novel of The Wheel of Time. While initially the series looked like relatively conventional fantasy, if one that was longer and had more characters, by the fourth novel it had become something entirely different: a highly-serialized, world-spanning story with hundreds of characters and scattered point-of-view chapters to show every part of the story. Most importantly, it was, to all appearances, never-ending. There was a conceptual endgame, with the heroic Dragon Reborn facing the evil Dark One someday, but the books were in no hurry to get there. (In fact, it took 14 books, 23 years, and the tragic death of the author and his replacement with Brandon Sanderson to reach that ending.)
The Wheel of Time also never met a fantasy cliche it didn’t like. It didn’t have one Chosen One, no, it had three farm boys with grand destinies. They’re called ta’veren in the novels — the series loves its apostrophized, italicized fantasy nonsense (seriously, try to parse a random plot synopsis). As with much fantasy, there’s a trend of the need to defend Western European-style culture from alien hordes, either human or bestial. The gender politics were also especially bizarre, especially the early books, where women were treated as bizarre, unobtainable aliens of disdain, constantly crossing their arms under their breasts and sniffing at the boys’ antics.
It was also tremendously popular, dominating the genre. The heroic fantasy genre was already a known winner, while the consistent stream of books also allowed readers to lose themselves in a world, just like the loosely connected series of previous fantasy. The hyper-serialization only added to speculation and immersion, adding comics/sports/wrestling style never-ending storytelling to another genre.
This was the milieu into which George R.R. Martin wrote A Game of Thrones. In his original pitch, he’s aiming for a relatively conventional three-book trilogy. But a couple hundred pages into AGoT, the entire story shifts. Conventional fantasy becomes a deconstruction, at almost every level. Most overtly, Sansa’s story — particularly her relationship with The Hound (some of which got transferred to Littlefinger on the show) is clearly about demolishing the idea of chivalry and courtly love as something worthwhile.
“Just as if I was one of those true knights you love so well, yes. What do you think a knight is for, girl? You think it’s all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing.”
This goes wider, becoming an attack on fantasy’s uncritical embrace of medieval European trappings. Tournaments are treated as ridiculous, treasury-destroying farces and inheritance law leads to brutal civil wars. The most othering line of the early going — ”A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair” — is reversed in the series’ most famous scene, a brutal massacre of several heroes and the norms which are supposed to make Westeros better. And chosen heroes? Martin just kills them off.
Martin is also clearly uncomfortable with the gender politics of conventional fantasy, which often tended to posit men and women as technically equal, while at the same time focusing entirely on the men’s stories. He reverses this: women are clearly unequal in Westeros in a legal and social sense, which often manifests as cruelty, but they increasingly dominate the story of A Song of Ice and Fire as it progresses.
Thus in order to succeed to at being a deconstruction, Thrones has to adopt the setting of the things it want to satirize. The series is primarily white and European because it’s trying to say something about the way fantasy treats white, European culture — including its treatment of women.
Now, this is not to say the books succeed entirely, nor that the show adapts them with this in mind. But it’s essential to recognize what George R.R. Martin was rebelling against, and how that defines his story, before criticizing it. It also answers questions of “Why is Game of Thrones the way that it is?” — or rather, it reveals those as the wrong questions. The biggest question is: Why was A Song of Ice and Fire so popular, and why did HBO decide to adapt it and not another fantasy work?
It’s not that Martin’s books were the only novels pushing back against fantasy conventions. Guy Gavriel Kay’s beautiful tragedies of politics toyed with expectations and had explicitly woman-centered stories…but they were all self-contained. Glen Cook’s Black Company novels were as militaristic and brutal…but they didn’t start with the tropes that Thrones upended. Nor was Thrones’ sexual violence and in-world misogyny special: both Melanie Rawn’s Sunrunners series and Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant hinged on rapes commited by the point-of-view characters (Martin’s novels do have rape in the world, but no POV characters commit one until arguably the fifth book, and even that’s Victarion. Who’s Victarion? Exactly.)
No, what made A Song of Ice and Fire so popular was that it appealed on every possible spectrum. Yes, it’s a deconstruction of heroic fantasy, but it’s potentially a straight-up heroic fantasy — just look at how Chosen One both Jon and Dany are. Yes, it’s a counter to the overtly fantasy bullshit of neverending series like The Wheel of Time…but it’s also a neverending series on its own, with a dense, compelling world filled with the sort of history that lets readers get lost in the world. Thrones wants to have it both ways, and it initially succeeded because it could…but this is not sustainable.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of transgression. Game of Thrones depicts all kinds of transgression: incest, murder, rape, betrayal, giant armies clashing pointlessly for bullshit reasons, torture, and so on. Regardless of whether these are done for the right reasons of deconstruction or not, there’s always going to be people who will take it as glorification.
And this leads to the third major context: Game of Thrones the television series doesn’t exist in the world of 1990s fantasy literature, nor is it airing alongside The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire in 2004. It’s airing in the 2010s, and this is the era of Peak TV.
“Peak TV” is typically used to refer to the idea that there’s so much television out there today that it’s impossible for anyone to keep track of it all. Alongside is the idea that there aren’t any shows that “everyone” is watching — except for Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. And while Peak TV is usually used to describe amount of TV being produced, there’s a peak discussion of television: almost every show has a niche, and that niche will shout about it. Another side effect of diversity of shows and diversity of people discussing those shows is that on-screen diversity is more discussed than ever.
For example, the CW’s The 100 is a series that hasn’t had more than two million viewers since its beginning. But for a few weeks this year, it dominated conversation about television. Why? Because a show that had once promised a strong, lesbian relationship with its main character decided to kill off a queer character, and in so doing, engaged in a cliche that devastated many of its fans. The 100 managed to capture a difficult zeitgeist — but in so doing, it set itself up to be picked over with a fine-toothed comb. Game of Thrones has always been in that zeitgeist.
This collision of different contexts isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it drives much of Thrones popularity. Each has their own fanbase: fantasy geeks, TV critics and the people who read them, and social media fandom. These, of course, were the three key groups who acted as ambassadors for the show early, pushing it from niche TV in its first season to arguably the most popular show in the world.
But these three groups all have their own distinct nits to pick, and without examining other contexts, these can be incredibly annoying. The book fan versus TV fan divide is one that’s painfully obvious and well-worn (and if I have to hear “the show is spoiling the books!” as often as I think I will, I’m going to be driven to drink).
One of the more frustrating examples: TV critics who don’t understand fantasy, yet feel compelled to comment on it. The most famous example of this was the New York Times’ review of the first season, which is one of the worst pieces of TV criticism I’ve ever read. (“I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first.”)
But it’s not just the cartoonishly bad criticism that faces the issue of not getting fantasy. This interesting and provocative essay in the L.A. Review of Books on the rape controversy in Season 5 of Thrones is undone in the end with lines like this: “…but both these sequences kept returning me to the question: whose fantasy is this? Who is the implied watcher, the implied fantasizer?” Imagine analyzing a new Radiohead with “But does this both rock and roll?” Again, it’s a good essay, but uncritically treating Thrones as fantasy incarnate sets my teeth on edge.
Or there’s this famous Medieval POC — a wonderful resource — post, which argues that creators are responsible for their creations. I agree with almost all of the conclusions of the post, but it’s frustrating because it uses Thrones as its example despite, I believe, the text of Thrones clearly demonstrating that it also agrees, just from an internal deconstruction point-of-view instead of an external criticism. (The process by which a satire of the norms of the fantasy genre became the new norms of the genre is astonishing and frustrating — and one that I’ve seen happen with things like Tarantino films and Watchmen in other media.)
Yet it’s not like these criticisms are without merit. The creators of Game of Thrones also struggle with these multiple contexts, and their struggles are often direct causes of the story’s controversies. For the author, George R.R. Martin, the issue is this: how do you take a series whose momentum is based on sabotaging how stories are supposed to work…and then make the story work? His inability to answer this successfully is, in my opinion, the most likely cause of his later novels taking three times longer to come out than his earlier ones. There isn’t an answer, I suspect, and diminishing returns are inevitable.
For the television series, it’s more complicated. The crucial question is this: How do you take a story that’s written as a deliberate repudiation of 1990s fantasy norms and make it work, twenty years later, with an audience that didn’t necessarily grow up with Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan novels? The story is generally strong enough that it’s managed to survive and thrive; the failures of the Starks are not just reversals of fantasy convention but overall storytelling convention. But the longer the series goes, the less able it is to draw upon such clear subversions.
The instincts of the showrunners, Benioff and Weiss, always seems to aim toward 2000s prestige TV and the examination of human darkness. Hence the most controversial scenes are often direct deviations from the novels, and usually involve sexual violence: the Joffrey prostitute torture scene of Season 2, the Theon torture of Season 3, Jaime raping Cersei (or not?) in Season 4, and Sansa’s rape in Season 5. These are arguably the four most controversial subjects in Game of Thrones, and every single one of them is a deviation from the source material, but one that technically makes sense within the context of adaptation. But “makes sense for television” isn’t the only metric for success — many of the criticisms they’ve faced for these scenes are totally warranted.
But with all this — and clueless corporations trying to cash in on grand tragedy — is it any wonder that the discourse surrounding Game of Thrones is so utterly exhausting? Fans try to defend it by describing it as history, critics reply by demolishing that argument without acknowledging its place in fantasy, and the showrunners blithely rampage through a story it’s still unclear they fully understand. There are a few critics who get it — this Sonia Saraiya piece at Salon is remarkably refreshing for understanding how and why Thrones exists as it does. But for the most part, Game of Thrones is a consistent content generator in more wrong ways than right…and one that’s gonna be here for years to come.