Game of Thrones Should Change the Way We Think About Great Television

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May 29 2014 11:44 PM

Game of Thrones Isn’t Just Great Fun

It’s great, period. And it should change how we think about television.

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DaenerysTargaryen played byEmilia Clarke in Game of Thrones.

HBO

Our current “golden age” of television drama has largely been marked by an obsession with realness. Everything is holding a mirror to something, and that something is us, as we were and as we are. Period shows like Deadwood and Mad Men are obsessive marvels of historical detail, while The Sopranos and Breaking Bad offer studies of American families so nuanced we feel like we’re at the dinner table. Even bygone genre chestnuts like Battlestar Galactica are reimagined into cutting-edge geopolitical allegories. The Wire—in my opinion, the best show in history—is the pinnacle of this, a work so rigorously journalistic it’s taught in sociology classes in esteemed universities.

Game of Thrones, HBO’s fantasy series based on author George R.R. Martin’s still-unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire saga, is not like those shows. It is about swords and sigils and dragons and frozen baby-crazed zombies and it is decidedly uninterested in transcending these trappings or ironically critiquing them. As such it represents a strange convergence of hierarchies, a work from a genre (fantasy) not traditionally associated with prestige in a form (television) newly associated with prestige on a network (HBO) most iconically associated with that transition. Game of Thrones is a terrifically fun and immensely popular show, but can a work so flagrantly inauthentic actually be important television?

The answer is yes, and precisely for its unreality, its joyful hostility toward anything like allegory, commentary, or social relevance. Much like Star Wars and Hogwarts and other great Neverlands, Game of Thrones doesn’t hold a mirror to anything. It is aggressively false, a work of far-fetched imagination so intricate and finely realized it becomes compelling on its own terms, disorienting and dazzling us in the ways that only the best storytelling can. This is a show where we cheer on an adolescent girl’s precocious transformation into a serial murderer; this is a show in which a character’s desire to release people from slavery is convincingly rendered as a conundrum. The most recent episode ended with yet another shocking death, a character we’re coming to hate killing a character we’d come to pity, to save the life of a character we’ve come to love. How are we even supposed to feel? Other than, yet again, totally thrilled.

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Often when we refer to art as “escapist” we mean it in a passive sense, some numbing and palliative diversion. Game of Thrones is escapism that actively transports, with virtuosic and unrivaled intensity. Last season’s Red Wedding sequence is one of the most notorious moments in television history, but for all the anguish wrought by its content it is a micro-masterpiece of cinematic storytelling. The gathering claustrophobia of the doors being shut, the strange dread evoked by the invented connotations of an invented song, and of course, the cold and crushing zoom of its final shot, a Russian nesting doll of throat-slitting.

The world of Game of Thrones is an immense one, and in terms of sheer narrative scope the show’s only rival is The Wire itself. But while The Wire built vertically, with each season focusing on a new cross-section of Baltimore, Game of Thrones expands horizontally, characters and locations drifting in and out and entire strands of plots left alone multiple episodes at a time. For a show with such a reputedly sadistic relationship with its viewers’ emotions, Game of Thrones has an extraordinary reverence for our attention span: One of the reasons the show’s traumas are so effective is that they’re so patiently crafted.

And the sadism is overstated, or at least misunderstood. Late in its first season, Game of Thrones took the galling step of violently dispensing with its protagonist, a character we’d been led to believe was the show’s focal point. For all the carnage that’s ensued since, the execution of Ned Stark is the show’s most formative moment, the moment it truly spread its wings and bonded its viewers into a strange Stockholm Syndrome with the show’s universe that’s perversely pleasurable. After all, when nothing is safe, anything is possible. That sense of possibility—so expansive, so outlandish—gives the show its soul, far more than any of its fleshy titillations (overrated, as such things usually are).

It’s tempting to chalk much of this up to the source material, but Game of Thrones has actually gotten better as television the further it strays from the structure of Martin’s books. This is partly attributable to a fantastic ensemble cast with a knack for giving three dimensions to characters that might otherwise have one or two, but also to some of the best screenwriting and direction happening anywhere. “Blackwater,” the climactic episode of the second season and the best hour of the show to date, was penned by Martin himself and might be the most ambitious depiction of war ever on television, a condensed epic of dark, harrowing chaos. In fact, one of Game of Thrones’ most groundbreaking aspects is its feat of adaptation, negotiating thousands of pages of text into episodic film. Grantland’s Andy Greenwald wrote last year, “What we thought was an exercise in transforming a book into television may actually have helped turn television into a book.”

Authenticity is overrated, and has its limits. I’ve heard Mad Men’s clumsy racial politics explained away as “just how it really was” a few too many times by white people who were born in the 1980s, and the lavishly outfitted historical fiction of Boardwalk Empire has now spanned half of the 1920s and is so boring it feels like it’s happening in real time. Tony Soprano and Walter White have more in common with Tywin Lannister than they do with anyone’s actual father or husband or boss, and that’s why we love them, even when we should probably hate them.

We don’t watch TV to look in a mirror, we watch it to look at something else, something prettier or crazier or just completely different. Game of Thrones creates a suspension of disbelief so immersive it feels almost childlike, some great cultural bedtime story for people who thought they were too old for such things. If The Wire is important for what it tells us about urban America and social institutions and the moral failures of late capitalism, Game of Thrones is important for what it doesn’t tell us about any of these things. Instead it tells us is that for an hour each week we can be something like kids again, and for all those letters indicating all those “adult” situations that precede it every Sunday, that’s no small achievement.

Jack Hamilton is Slate’s pop critic. He is assistant professor of American studies and media studies at the University of Virginia. Follow him on Twitter.

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