“So what should I be watching?”
When you write about television, you get asked this question a lot. It’s impossible to answer. Television has become such a wildly diverse, densely populated planet that asking “What should I watch?” is like asking “Where should I go on vacation?”
I don’t know. Who are you? What language do you speak? What gods do you worship? What do you want out of life?
But ask, “What is the best show ever?’ and the answer is easy: “Game of Thrones.”
There are television series that more people have watched, that more people have loved, series that have more specifically aided our growth as a society, better showcased a single performance or more clearly set a template for other shows to follow.
But “Game of Thrones,” adapted for HBO by D.B. Weiss and David Benioff from the book series by George R.R. Martin, is, and will possibly remain, the only television series that can be truly described as epic.
No other series has ever built such a deeply detailed and far-flung world, with a geography as varied as its social constructs, religions, languages. No other series has propelled such a massive yet impeccably individualized cast through such an impossibly intricate cat’s cradle of story lines that honestly should have collapsed long ago but didn’t.
No other series has so organically grown and changed along with its characters and its audience. No other series has better harnessed the industry’s wild unruly technological advances while never ceding the basic rules of storytelling and the deep human need for coherent mythology.
In story and sweep, ambition and execution, heart and mind, “Game of Thrones” is, quite simply, the greatest show on earth.
Cue the groans and spluttering of indignant opposition. What about “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Breaking Bad,” “ER,” “Friday Night Lights” or “Grey’s Anatomy”? What about “M.A.S.H.,” “All in the Family,” “Friends,” “The Big Bang Theory”? What about (insert your personal favorite show here)?
All great, successful, significant shows, none of which even approaches the visual, thematic or difficulty level of “Game of Thrones.”
But the nudity, the rapes, the brutal bloody violence! The reliance on CG, the cost of all those locations, the shock-value killings! What about all that time wasted in Meereen or the fact that sometimes it takes months to get from King’s Landing to Winterfell and sometimes it takes days?
“Great” is not synonymous with “perfect.” To gauge the power of the show all you have to do is look at the passion and deep obsessive intricacy of the criticism.
No matter how you feel about it personally or politically, “Game of Thrones” is a masterwork, the zenith of the 21st century big bang that remade television.
A big gamble
And yet, when “GoT” premiered in 2011, it was a big gamble, even for HBO. Martin had not finished the “Ice and Fire” series, and in a landscape still dominated by “American Idol” and reality shows, no one knew how much creative innovation television could bear.
While many name “The Sopranos,” which premiered in 1999, as the beginning of the golden age of television, it wasn’t until AMC moved into scripted drama with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” that things got cooking on a large scale. Suddenly, every platform available, from the History Channel to Netflix, began producing “prestige” dramas. There was graphic sex, graphic violence and a willingness to feature characters who did many terrible things.
But an epic fantasy? “Harry Potter” and “The Lord of the Rings” may have proved that, contrary to conventional Hollywood wisdom, people really did like magical stories, but even with the success of “True Blood,” a “sword ’n’ sorcery” series seemed a bit intellectually downscale.
On the plus side, “Game of Thrones” had a built-in audience of devoted Martin fans to anticipate the show and a growing desire for stories that did not revolve around the inner darkness of some random white guy.
On the minus side, there was an audience of devoted Martin fans prepared to pick the show apart plus an increasingly intense scrutiny of any new television series and a lingering snobbery toward any show involving dark magic and armor.
Indeed, when “Game of Thrones” debuted, the New York Times dismissed it and the New Yorker didn’t even bother to review it.
Other critics, myself included, were more positive, even excited, but there was still the feeling that this was a good show for a certain audience. If you hadn’t liked “The Lord of the Rings” or couldn’t bring yourself to use words like “White Walker” in a sentence, this was probably not the show for you.
Then slowly, episode by episode, the show overcame those preconceptions and prejudice. It transcended genre and demographic predictions, reaching an ever-widening audience, solely through its insistence on greatness.
Greatness at all cost.
A cost measured not in money, not at first. Compared with “John Adams,” the first season of “Game of Thrones” was cheap. No, the initial, shocking cost came at the iron price: the story’s lead character.
As Ned Stark, lord of Winterfell, Sean Bean was the biggest name and star of the show (with Peter Dinklage a close second). Ned dies early in the books, but no one expected Weiss and Benioff to sacrifice their leading man, at least not in the first season.
But they did.
The beheading of the headliner was the biggest TV shocker since since J.R. got shot or Monica slept with Chandler. Then, as other main characters lost limbs or lives, it became clear that “GoT” was not playing by the traditional rules of engagement, which said, “There are secondary and tertiary characters for a reason — kill or maim them, but leave the leads alone.”
Then, in the midst of Season 3, on the night of the show’s infamous “Red Wedding” scene, “WTF?” TV was born. All those network concerns about audience comfort and engagement be damned; “Game of Thrones” would kill its darlings, and our darlings, if that’s what it took to tell a ripping good story.
A feminist pivot
I am a fan of fantasy, which has made watching “GoT” both easier and more difficult. I had no prejudices to overcome; I’d rather talk White Walkers than dirty cops any day of the week. But I also knew how difficult epic fantasies are to sustain, having seen so many bad ones. (Sci-fi went through a Very Bad patch.) When a show’s main characters include a dissolute but wise dwarf prince, a doe-eyed bastard consigned to sentry duty on some mile-high wall, a crippled boy having visions of three-eyed crows and a beautifully fey “mother of dragons,” it takes only a few missteps to send the whole thing into the abyss of parody.
There was plenty of parody to begin with, on late-night and the Internet. Some of it justified — the “naked women as props” ethos that began with “The Sopranos” hit new levels of exploitative gratuitousness — and some of it not. War is a bloody, god-awful business, as is rape, murder, poverty and oppression, and television has been far more guilty of sanitizing than celebrating them.
Violence is meaningless only if you don’t show the consequences, and “Game of Thrones” is all about consequences.
Amazingly, there have been very few missteps. Martin has been praised for his attention to detail, which is a matter of life and death when it comes to world building, and Weiss and Benioff have been just as precise, even as the show ran out of original source material.
More important, they and their writers understood the cardinal rule of television: It is all about the characters. Even as their budgets increased to jaw-dropping amounts (from an average of $6 million per episode in Season 1 to a reported $15 million per episode in the final season), allowing them to create all manner of eye-popping spectacle, they realized that the show’s real power comes from neither fire nor ice but its people. The look on Arya’s face when she hears that both Jon Snow and Sansa are at Winterfell. The moment Jaime tells Brienne the truth about why he became the Kingslayer. The dark banter between Tyrion and Varys.
“Game of Thrones” pushed past all previously acceptable levels of gore and torture, sometimes making it difficult to watch. But why should war be easy to watch?
Like our own world through much of its history, Westeros is a brutal, male-dominated place in which violence is a sign and privilege of power. All sorts of horrible crimes are committed in graphic detail, including rape, sometimes in the marriage bed, and those rapes became a troubling hallmark and a turning point for the show.
After Sansa was raped on her wedding night by Ramsay Bolton, many criticized the fact it had been shown and the way the act was depicted. Weiss and Benioff directly addressed the reactions several times and, according to one writer at the time, took the criticism to heart as they moved forward.
Into what became an increasingly feminist show.
As with the books, the series is, in the largest view, a meditation on power — its allures, its limits, its cost, its true meaning — and as the show outran the books, power in Westeros became increasingly female-centric.
As we go into the final season, what began as a battle between many kings has become a showdown between two queens, both of whom have been abused, physically and emotionally, by men.
Intentionally or not, “Game of Thrones” has managed to mirror a very modern resurrection of female empowerment, from the #MeToo movement to the increasing feminization of Congress by embracing the epic archetype, only to stand it on its head.
But the real and ruthless greatness of “Game of Thrones” lies in its willingness to explode the myths of heroism by telling a story in which there are no truly pure intentions, no untainted leader, no easy resolutions.
There is no Ring of Power here, no single act that will ensure the survival of the living world. There are only people with varying abilities making choices that are often flawed, or desperate or ill-informed.
So what show should you be watching? It really doesn’t matter who you are, what language you speak or what gods you worship.
You should be watching “Game of Thrones.”