Amanda Boldenow and Lisa Mahoney speculate upon what makes Game of Thrones, the HBO series based upon George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire so popular worldwide. Disclaimer: spoilers for those who haven't seen the season five premier.
On the Season Five Opener
Lisa Mahoney: Critics complained that George R. R. Martin's fifth book wanders, taking characters on adventures that don't change their trajectories. The Season 5 opening episode of GOT cut to important character developments, in some instances more concisely than George R.R. Martin's books. Mance Rayder's end, for example, not only propels his story forward faster, it alters Jon's path from that set out in Martin's books. And, according to internet rumor, Tyrion is to head on a straighter course to Daenerys. No poling around on rivers? Good. Speeding up his meeting with Daenerys makes sense because Tyrion has already committed two actions that change him, killing Shae and his father, which make it necessary that he atone by seeking out Daenrys.
Amanda Boldenow: I haven't read the books (I know, shame), so I go into the show blind. This opener excelled at getting me excited for the season, and I'm not sure I could love Jon Snow more than I do right now. He's the most ethical character with power on the show, and just put himself in extreme risk by following his conscience rather than his duty in putting Mance Rayder out of his misery. Granted, knowing what I know of Martin's world, Snow just doomed himself. Only the good die young! One really interesting thing about the show is how it focuses on the de-evolution of characters. In literature and film, we usually, we see characters evolving toward their higher selves, making changes for the better. Throughout the show, we've seen the characters come out swinging with the cruelty club with rigid adherence, or we've seen "good" characters devolve into their worst selves (Tyrion's murders, for one example of many). I'm very worried for "Dark Sansa," but also have high hopes that she'll give Ramsey Bolton all that he has coming, based on what I've seen in this season's trailers. This may be the first time I've ever rooted for "good" characters to do "bad" things.
LM: Whoa, what about Jamie Lannister? He's on his way to redeeming himself, isn't he? I think Martin's vision offers some hope, here. Pay attention when Jamie looks at his name in the big history book recording the deeds of the members of the Kingsguard. Jamie desperately wants something good recorded about him there for posterity, something that will overshadow the "Kingslayer" moniker. What will he do to achieve it?
AB: The show ruined Jamie for me when he raped his sister. I'm told that's not in the books, and I'm still disturbed by that choice. The directors deliberately took us back there with Jamie and Cersei alone with Tywin's corpse, and it seems like Cersei still hasn't forgiven him. In her view, he should have been the one man who didn't exert control over her, and he betrayed that. Not that I'll ever be in Cersei's corner, but Jamie was in the wrong. Speaking of Cersei's corner, she's my Joffrey this season. I hope she finally gets some pay back for all of the terrible things she's done to people. I'm devolving as a person/fan - bad stuff happening to people? Oh yeah! Go Margery Tyrell! Be your sneaky self.
LM: I love that she's "your Joffrey" for the season! But maybe I am giving Jamie too much credit based upon what I know about him from the books. In any case, I'm encouraged by the phenomenal worldwide popularity of this HBO series. A top network trusted the intelligence of their audience, and they're being well rewarded. HBO risked committing millions of production dollars to original material with multiple, intricate story lines; dozens of three-dimensional characters, most of whom fail or die; and seven seasons of episodes, and the viewers love it! It validates the detailed world building and demanding storylines of this and other great fantasy series like The Wheel of Time and Dune.
AB: It seems to be leading to other high-budget, risky shows. Netflix's Marco Polo comes to mind, although I was quickly lost within that show and stopped watching. The fact that I wanted to watch means something, though. I think viewers are hungry for epic fantasy and richly imagined historical fiction. When the plot and characters deliver, the combination is gold. I'm so glad HBO took the first step. Now, bring back Firefly.
So Why Does a Saga That Includes Dragons and White Walkers Feel so Real?
LM: I was thinking about why the series seems so realistic despite certain elements, like dragons and an army of walking dead, which remind us we're in another place and time. It is the unshrinking portrayal of the characters' motivations - the dark and the light - which creates realism, dark though it may be. Fantasy and science fiction that really stick with you share some characteristics with certain pivotal moments in history that have fascinated historians and students for hundreds of years. Consider, for example, the similarities between Tudor England, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and A Song of Ice and Fire. Besides movies and TV shows, millions of adoring readers and viewers, and thousands of pages of fan fiction and art, here are some other common elements:
- Power-hungry rulers who feel entitled to abuse the power of their positions
- Rivalries and struggles between established religious and political leaders who desire the riches of the church and want to put their own people in powerful positions within the church hierarchy
- Strong female leaders who claw their way to the power society ordinarily denies them, and resist marriage to cling to it, or use their sons to gain it
- Ascending new religions and a rich, old religion bent on eradicating them. Rulers questioning or replacing established belief systems foment rebellion even among commoners generally unaffected by coups d’état.
- Machiavellian machinations, broken or secret treaties, and spies
- Potential saviors hampered or helped by human weaknesses such as illness, disfigurement, or addiction (Tyrion or Edward VI, anyone?)
- Marriages arranged for political ends, and the jealousies and bitterness they create
- Lusty rulers carrying on affairs, even when it risks toppling them (need we mention Henry VIII?)
- Convoluted interconnected bloodlines and battles for political power based on tenuous claims to birthright (The reader really needs the dozens of family trees in the back of the books to keep track.)
See what I mean? History or fiction, the same things fascinate us: the hunger for power, risky sexual attractions, the twisting of religion to gain power or wealth, sexism, human weakness….
AB: The combined efforts of Martin and the script writers really nail the complexity of human behavior and motivation. That attracts audiences of all tastes. Cersei's flashback was a great look into her motivations for some terrible choices, but I'm not even sure it was necessary. When in season four Oberyn Martell talked about how Cersei treated Tyrion as a baby because she blamed him for their mother's death, that was humanizing enough in itself. The flashback simply confirmed that she's a life-long meanie who makes poor decisions for short-sighted reasons (revenge). The complexity of the characters again makes me think of the unique trajectory of characters devolving into the most villainous versions of themselves. Humans do that, and Martin's characters are remarkably human. I think we each have a little (or a lot of) villain in us, and sometimes it's just a matter of the right circumstance to bring that terrible version of ourselves out into the open. Martin is expert at pushing his characters into those circumstances, and I think part of our thrall in watching is in wondering what would we do if we were there? We do the same thing with history: it's easy to look back at the decisions of people and rulers and judge based on modern ethics and what we know of the outcomes, but there's always that niggling wonder about ourselves: if we would have been different? I call it the "Would I have been a Nazi?" quandary. In my mind's ideal narrative, I'm Sophie Scholl. Would that be the case if I'd really been there? Who knows. It's a little scary to think about - the full spectrum of own character. I prefer to speculate in the lighter side, but Martin lets us all take a romp through the dark side. In Game of Thrones there's the protective barrier of fiction, and it feels safer to say "Heck yeah I want to see Arya take out some names on her list!" I can't say I was sad that Grandma Tyrell poisoned Joffrey. I just typed that I'm glad a kid was poisoned. Martin has made me a villain in thought! In this scenario, I can't say I'm sorry.
LM: We could go on, but let’s watch Season 5 of GOT (or see a movie about Elizabeth I or read Shakespeare's Henry VIII) instead. Sit back and see these concepts explored in more depth on Sunday night!