Creators: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
By Roderick Heath
For much of the past decade, Game of Thrones stood astride the popular zeitgeist as a colossus. Game of Thrones inspired obsessive loyalty and served as a flagship for a much-hailed second golden age of television allowed by burgeoning cable TV and benefiting from the new panoply of viewing opportunities. It became the arch example of a ravenously consumable “binge-watch” programme and dwarfed just about any film rival save the Marvel Cinematic Universe, setting records for Emmy wins and internet piracy. The series was adapted from an as-yet unfinished cycle of novels started by sci-fi and fantasy writer George R.R. Martin in 1991, entitled A Song of Ice and Fire, although the TV version adopted the title of the first entry in the cycle. A professional author since the early 1970s, Martin struggled to gain anything like a reputation commensurate with his ability, standing like other similar talents in Stephen King’s huge shadow. Ironically Martin’s recourse to working in television, including on the Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman vehicle Beauty and the Beast in the late 1980s, equipped him with unusual gifts when he finally decided to tackle the kind of fantasy epic he had loved since he was a kid with a nose in J.R.R. Tolkien’s books: he added an extra ‘R’ to his penname to acknowledge the debt.
But Martin didn’t want to write fantasy as airily mythical, idealised, and Manichean as Tolkien, trying instead to create a deeply conceived, palpable, often terrifying fictional universe governed by many of the same rules as the world we all know. The schism at the heart of Game of Thrones, a work torn between grand imaginative frontiers and a hardnosed metaphorical depiction of humanity’s often terrible march towards modernity, proved both key to the show’s addictive appeal and also the source of the often aggravating sense of grievance it could leave in its wake. Martin, who helped produce the show and wrote several episodes, had wittingly or not composed his novels in a fashion that reflected his TV experience and made them ideal for serial storytelling, with their long, overarching narratives matched to immediate vignettes tethered to the viewpoints of specific protagonists. Game of Thrones was boosted to such epochal success by several coinciding factors. As a tale of familial tribulation and communal fracture, it suited the post-Global Financial Crisis and War on Terror mood and rhymed with the more general portent of climate change and swiftly transforming economies. A generation had been reared on The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter film series and were now hungry for a new fantasy franchise, but were also ready for something gamier and more adult in the genre, and were more prepared to accept the outsized metaphors of fantasy as capable of bearing the weight of serious themes than any mass audience before.
The show was created and overseen for HBO by novelist and screenwriter David Benioff, who had written The 25th Hour (2002) and had explored embyronic aspects of the show in his screenplay for the Homeric epic Troy (2004), along with his fellow writer D.B. Weiss. The TV series pared down the novels’ digressions into exploring the manifold corners of Martin’s fictional universe but still featured dozens of recurring characters and required filming from Iceland to North Africa. Game of Thrones unfolds chiefly on Westeros, a continent on an imaginary world where the length of seasons are capricious, and a long and mellow summer is about to give way to an unknowably long and punishing winter. The chief clan of protagonists, the Starks, were once royalty in Westeros’ north and ruled from their seat of Winterfell, but the seven kingdoms of Westeros had been united three hundred years earlier by the Targaryen family, with a mysterious magical link to dragons and who used those animals to pulverise enemies on the path to total domination. The realm’s seat of royal power, the Iron Throne, was literally forged out of the swords of defeated enemies with a dragon’s fiery breath. The oft-incestuous Targaryens gained a reputation for inherent lunacy, eventually sparking a great rebellion that saw many different great families in the realm join together and overthrow their dynasty, installing Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) in their place. Ten years into Robert’s reign, the King visits Winterfell to ask his best friend and old ally Ned Stark (Sean Bean) to accept the post of “Hand of the King” or chief minister to replace a predecessor who has recently died. Robert is married to Cersei (Lena Headey), scion of another great family, the Lannisters, famed for their deep resources of both gold and political savvy. Robert dislikes Cersei and ruling equally, preferring drinking, whoring, and hunting. Cersei has long since found comfort in an incestuous relationship her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who is the true father of her three children, Robert’s nominal heirs.
The early episodes sketch the tenuous balance of personalities and factions sustained through Robert’s reign, and how his lack of interest in the niceties of kingship sows seeds of coming conflict. Rivals like the Lannister patriarch Tywin (Charles Dance) can accrue great influence through all but subsidising the kingdom, whilst resentments build up elsewhere, including in the old North kingdom, and Dorne, in the far south, for the losses of people and honour they suffered. The friendship between Robert and Ned seems like a sturdy foundation to sustain peace on, particularly as Ned is a deeply honourable and decent leader who has tried to instil his values in his sizeable brood of children and dependents, including sons Robb (Richard Madden) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), daughters Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams), and bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington). By comparison the Lannisters have a reputation for cold-blooded conniving. Sansa is betrothed to Robert’s heir Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), but he quickly proves a budding psychopath. The tomboyish Arya’s unremitting hate for Joffrey is stoked when a playful fencing game she has with a peasant lad leads to that boy’s slaying after Joffrey starts bullying them. Arya also resents Sansa for siding with Joffrey in trying to fulfil her own dream of becoming queen and escape the comparatively dull and squalid northern backwater.
Jaime, labelled “Kingslayer” by all and sundry for having delivered the coup-de-grace to the last, lunatic Targaryen king despite being his bodyguard, seems a glib and supercilious playboy. He pushes Bran off a tower where the boy spies him and Cersei having sex. Bran is left a paraplegic, and after an assassin is killed trying to finish the job, Ned’s wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) has the killer’s dagger identified as belonging to Jaime and Cersei’s younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), often labelled “The Imp” because of his dwarfish stature and penchant for dissolute living. Catelyn has Tyrion taken captive and transported to another region, ruled by her unstable sister Lysa (Kate Dickie). Whilst serving in the capital King’s Landing, Ned uncovers the truth about Cersei’s children and offers her a chance to flee, but Cersei, covertly a hard and vicious operator who fancies herself Tywin’s truest progeny, instead contrives Robert’s seemingly accidental death before having Ned arrested for treason. Cersei tries to arrange a swap of Tyrion in exchange for Ned’s life, but the newly-crowned Joffrey, delighting in power and bloodlust, instead has Ned beheaded. This sparks a furious continental power struggle that sees Robb leading Northerners in rebellion, whilst Robert’s brothers, the talented but glum and charmless soldier Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and the charismatic and gay Renly (Gethin Anthony), informed by Ned of the heirs’ bastardry, each raise armies to make themselves king.
This core drama obeys a realistically nasty sense of medieval society and its dynastic players, drawn from a number of ready sources. These include Greek and Jacobean tragedy, Shakespeare’s history plays, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius novels and their 1970s TV adaptation, Maurice Druon’s French historical novel series The Accursed Kings, Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle, Michael Moorcock’s fantasy cliché-smashing Elric of Melniboné tales, and The Godfather films, from which it significantly assimilates, and recapitulates in the most hyperbolic terms, the theme of a family trying to operate in a corrupt and hostile world whilst retaining a vestige of honour. Overt fantasy elements are pushed to the far fringes at first, glimpsed in vestigial remnants and hunks of infrastructure that now seem to have no proper use, from dragon eggs long turned to stone and the skulls of the Targaryens’ conquering monsters stowed in a basement, to a colossal wall of ice built to guard the north against supernatural forces, but which now merely stands to hold out wildings, the hard and bitter peoples who subsist in the frozen wastes. The signature touch of white hair that marks the Targaryens pays tribute to Elric and to Melville, imbuing the breed with a hint of the uncanny, of extraordinary power and also a suggestion of innate decadence and inhumanity. The wall is manned by the Night’s Watch, a once-legendary band of holy warriors now mostly filled out by convicted criminals and social refuse. Jon Snow learns this to his shock and shame when he volunteers to serve with them. The very first scene of the series however has signalled something is coming along with the winter, as some Night’s Watch men are attacked by a mysterious and terrifying foe that can induct their own victims into their ranks, as glowing-eyed zombies dubbed White Walkers.
Where most high fantasy aims to create a fabled classical past as it might have been synthesised in medieval folklore, Game of Thrones rather portrays that medieval mentality as still uncomfortably and half-sceptically infused by that past. The first season sets up the essential dramatic tensions and conflicts in relatively low-key terms, the death of the peasant boy presaging a story predicated around portrayals of aristocratic selfishness waged in general contempt for the greater populace. Here the innocent often get ground into so much mince by the machine of statecraft, where some characters defend their prerogatives with unstinting precision and others are confronted by the near-impossibility of getting anything like justice when such forces rule the world, and so must find ways to armour themselves through arts both delicate and warlike. Martin’s youth in the counterculture era informs the pervading spirit of the material in the grand-scale recapitulation of The Who’s famous lyric, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Ned’s effort to operate according to his scruples helps to unleash a near-apocalypse, costing him and Robert their lives, nearly destroying their families, and sparking internecine warfare that convulses across the length and breadth of Westeros. Catelyn and Cersei’s mirroring desire to protect their children and bring their enemies to book similarly fuels the carnage.
Part of the overall narrative’s ingenious thrust was sourced in the inclusion of two major storylines that contrast the relatively petty squabbling of the Westerosi clans with momentous and slowly uncoiling threats, allowing a varied blend of not just plots but types of storytelling. One of these is the inexorable White Walker army, massing in the wait for winter’s start. The other is Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who, along with her older brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), is the last known surviving member of the former ruling clan. Now subsisting in exile on the neighbouring, Eurasia-like continent of Essos, Viserys tries to purchase an army to regain the Iron Throne by essentially selling Daenerys as a bride to Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa), a chieftain of the virile nomadic warrior tribe known as the Dothraki. Daenerys manages to turn this humiliating and violating fate to her own advantage as she deftly captures Drogo’s unwavering love. When Viserys proves too big for his britches Drogo promises him a crown that will make men shudder to contemplate, and promptly has a vat of molten gold poured on his head. Drogo dies when a light wound from a duel is turned into a fatal one by the efforts of a witch from a tribe his Dothraki enslaved, leaving Daenerys with only one great act of faith to ensure the rebirth of her dynasty left to dare. She has herself and the stone dragon eggs that are the last remnant of the breed burned together with Drogo on his funeral pyre, along with the tethered witch. Daenerys emerges from the fire unharmed, proven to be the true Targaryen kind, and three infant dragons hatched and regarding her as their mother.
Daenerys soon gains a fanatical following as she uses her ever-amplified personal legend, and equally fast-growing dragons, to attract adherents and begin assaulting the status quo in Essos. At first with guile and then increasingly with brute force, she captures several large cities with a determination to wipe out slavery, gaining help from freed slaves and obtaining the unswerving loyalty of the Unsullied, a corps of cruelly but effectively trained warrior eunuchs. She attracts loyalists including former slave and translator Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel), and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson), the Unsullieds’ choice for commander from their own ranks. She also has Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen), a former Westeros knight exiled for slave trading by Ned, who tried to regain his standing by spying on the Targaryen siblings but instead finds himself welded in personal loyalty and affection to Daenerys, whilst she is more drawn to the glib but romantic mercenary Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein and Michael Huisman). Daenerys’ following is built on assaulting the malign regimes both on Essos and Westeros, and holds the promise of freedom for the oppressed that Daenerys feels messianically obliged to deliver. But it remains disturbingly contingent on Daenerys’ willingness to unleash brutal poetic justice upon various collectives of malefactors, countenancing such acts as having one enemy and a traitorous handmaiden sealed alive in a vault, crucifying slave owners, and relying on the shared capacity of the Unsullied and her brood of dragons to devastate enemies with no questions asked.
One major theme of the show is that of the repercussions of specific choices and actions, particularly when performed against the evident necessity of a given situation. The kinds of crisis of conscience and acts of defiant agency-seeking that define modern drama are often painted as indulgence in the face of foes who will gladly murder you while you sleep, and yet are eventually validated nonetheless as the only possible answer to such nihilism. Ned and Robb are joined as father and son both doomed by their incapacity to wield cunning and dexterity in concert with moral action, and so are outflanked by more ruthless foes. Arya dedicates herself to the idea of making people face the consequences of their actions, even pushing this to the point of abandoning a wounded man as she feels he deserves a slow death, and later slaughtering a knight who killed her fencing teacher with terrible relish. But when she joins a sect called The Faceless Men to learn their prodigious assassin arts she cannot give herself up to their religious dedication, a lapse that almost gets her killed. Daenerys’ attempts to end slavery constantly collide with the much deeper problem of how to revise the basics of a society, eventually driving her to conclusions similar to Mao and Stalin in her revolutionary course. When a finer quality wins out, it’s usually the cumulative result of long and demanding discipline as well as sacrifice, and the seeds of good deeds take much longer to flower than expedience. Some acts win through in a crisis of the moment but leave a lingering flavour of disgust whilst others seem to fail in the moment and yet offer the possibility of treasured worth. Thus the Starks are nearly decimated in the first half of the series and yet, finally, emerge triumphant.
Around the central dynastic players orbits a host of ingeniously conceived and cast supporting characters. There’s Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), a freakishly large and strong noblewoman who’s taken up a knightly creed without actually being a knight, first introduced seeking a place amidst Renly’s bodyguards. Fate drives her to the twinned tasks of avenging Renly’s assassination and protecting the Stark children, whilst also at first stuck with Jaime’s company and then doomed to linger in love with him. Varys (Conleth Hill) is a eunuch who serves the Iron Throne with his genius for gathering intelligence but considers himself far more loyal to the realm at large rather than any one ruler. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish (Aidan Gillen) is a pimp and plotter who has risen to the royal council, harbouring a secret desire to become King and somehow win back Catelyn, his childhood love, and after she dies, setting his sights on Sansa instead. Sandor “The Hound” and Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane (Rory McCann and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) are husky brothers bound by shared fighting pith and deep mutual hatred, each employed as thugs by the crown. Samwell Tarly (John Bradley) is the portly, timorous scion of a macho knight bullied into joining the Night’s Watch where he’s taken under Jon’s wing, slowly blooming into a man of action and learning who also takes on a wife and her child he rescues from the frozen north.
Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) is a former smuggler raised to knighthood by Stannis who was impressed by his ingenuity, nicknamed ‘the Onion Knight’ for his sarcastic choice of emblem and who serves for Stannis, sometimes to appreciation and often to its opposite, as a voice of earthy wisdom. He loses a son to Tyrion’s explosives during the assault on King’s Landing but later finds himself allying with Tyrion as well as Jon and others as the White Walker threat becomes urgent. Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) is an enigmatic and manipulative priestess for a god called the Lord of Light who influences Stannis with sex and displays of magic, burns sacrificial victims en masse, and achieves Renly’s death through birthing a vaporous magical assassin. Gendry (Joe Dempsie) is one of Robert’s illegitimate sons, a talented blacksmith who briefly becomes Arya’s companion in fleeing King’s Landing, is tapped for his royal blood by Melisandre for her incantations, and eventually finds himself granted Robert’s old titles and lands. During a venture north to head off an imminent invasion by a massed wilding army, Jon has a passionate affair with the garrulous but deadly archer Ygritte (Rose Leslie). The fierce yet strangely likeable Tormund Giantsbane (Kristofer Hivju) eventually becomes Jon’s unshakable ally in efforts to save the wildings from the White Walkers. Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) is the ambitious daughter of another great house who takes Sansa’s place as Joffrey’s intended and happily plays any role, from saintly princess to partner in sadism, to further her aims, backed up all the way by her formidable grandmother Olenna (Diana Rigg). Her brother Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones) is a glamorous knight who is not so secretly queer and Renly’s lover, but finds himself committed to becoming Cersei’s second husband.
The vast number of these and other players contribute to the constantly recapitulated theme of outsiders imbued with contrasting talents and sullen, long-foiled desires that find a stage for realisation, proto-moderns both out of time and place and yet imbued with strange grace for existing within a pre-modern world. A lot of current pop culture seeks to flatter its audience by narrowly illustrating and confirming a progressive sense of history, but whilst Game of Thrones makes is sympathies clear it also muddles easy identification and refuses easy victories, one reason why, despite its fantastical aspects, it rang true for a vast number of viewers. The show constantly indicts a certain brand of stiff-necked and abusive patriarchy as a corrosive force, presenting many septic father figures, like Samwell’s father who threatens to arrange his death if he doesn’t disinherit himself, and the brilliant but self-righteous and coldly domineering Tywin, as figures who try to impose rigorous control and yet again are destroyed by their self-delusion. The ultimate figure along these lines in the show is Craster (Robert Pugh), a wilding who’s carved out a home in the frozen wilderness and fosters a brood of daughters he keeps under an incestuous thumb, sacrificing his boy children to the evil beings who control the White Walkers. Ginny (Hannah Murray), the girl Samwell saves, is one of his daughters. Craster is eventually murdered by mutineers of the Night’s Watch, who also slay Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), their commander and Jorah’s father, during a disastrous foray into the wastes.
One of the more compelling characters in the suffering offspring mould is Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), the son of the nominal king of the piratical Iron Islanders off the Westeros coast, raised as a hostage by the Starks but essentially a member of the family. Theon is initially portrayed as a cocksure bigmouth with no real character. Once Robb kicks off his rebellion he sends Theon to his father Balon (Patrick Malahide) to negotiate his aid, but Balon coldly rebuffs Theon as a foreigner, preferring his much more aggressive sister Yara (Gemma Whelan). Theon tries to prove his worth by instead leading an attack on Winterfell and pretending to kill Bran and the youngest Stark son Rickon (Art Parkinson), substituting the bodies of two slain farmhands in their place. Theon is eventually betrayed and taken captive by a mysterious young man who takes great delight in sadistically tormenting him. This man proves to be Ramsay Snow (Iwan Rheon), the bastard son of Stark loyalist Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton), who has his own deceitful project under way. Theon inspires degrees of disdain, pathos, and admiration in the course of his experience, his fumbling efforts to prove himself worthy of his creed, his pride as a lover and his impotence as a princeling finally, terribly mocked in one swoop when Ramsay castrates him and sends his boxed genitals to his family. By the time Yara comes to rescue him, he’s reduced to such a wretched, servile thing she’s forced to abandon him.
Theon’s capture and initially inscrutable suffering is one aspect of the show’s third season, which, with its jolting twists, served at once to disorientate a growing viewership but also sank the hooks of addiction more deeply. The malicious cunning reaches an apogee in the episode “The Rains of Castamere” where Robb tries to restitch his alliance with sleazy, aged, petty potentate Walder Frey (David Bradley) after breaking a vow to him to marry one of his daughters, having instead taken the smart and lovely foreign healer Talisa (Oona Chaplin) as a bride. During a feast of reconciliation, the Freys, in alliance with Bolton and with Tywin’s covert backing, suddenly attack and slay Robb, Talisa, Catelyn, and much of the Stark army, in an atrocity quickly dubbed the Red Wedding. This act of treachery nonetheless seems to virtually end the civil war and leaves the Lannisters in apparently firm control, as Tyrion and Tywin have already beaten off Stannis’ seaborne assault on King’s Landing. Arya, in the custody of the Hound who wants to ransom her back to her kin, barely escapes being caught up in the Red Wedding. Her near-crazed hunger for revenge begins to manifest as she recounts a list of enemies to slay before sleeping at night, and keeps starting fights with factional goons the Hound has to finish. Despite the fact he’s one of the names of Arya’s list for his role in killing the peasant boy, the Hound feels a near-paternal responsibility for the Stark girls, only to be left to die by Arya after he loses a duel after a chance encounter with Brienne. Arya refuses to go with Brienne, instead heading to Essos to join the Faceless Men, one of whom, Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wlaschiha), she encountered as a prisoner and whose stealthy talents in killing helped save her, Gendry, and others from a sorry end.
Martin took inspiration for the Red Wedding from events in Scottish history, although his explorations of its ramifications echo back to Greek tragedy, forging a kind of anti-Alcestis. The series charts the devolution of social and civic mores in Westeros to the point where all scales for measuring decency are broken. This theme is borrowed from I, Claudius in particular, with Joffrey and Ramsay representing the kinds of fiends who revel in the power they can indulge when such limitations dissolve, in the same way Caligula did in I, Claudius. More importantly, the Red Wedding’s bloody shock and Theon’s gruelling torture signalled a series that didn’t exactly have reassuring its audience in mind, and fulfilling Martin’s credo of trying to undercut the clichés of his chosen genre and truly portray a world completely lacking the kinds of soft landings provided by modernity and well-knit civilisation. Game of Thrones is always wise on a dramatic level to leaven the often punishing tone with flashes of droll humour, particularly from Tyrion, whose forthright tongue slashes holes in egos and pretences across two continents. At the same time, the longer arcing plotlines point towards dates with destiny in a manner that contradicts such self-detonating narrative mischief. The show sometimes even offers sourly funny inversions of its own clichés. Tyrion relies on sardonic man-at-arms Bronn (Jerome Flynn) to serve as his champion in a trial by combat to escape Lysa’s clutches in the first season, but is condemned in the fourth when he nominates the vengeful Dornish prince Oberyn Martell (Pedro Pascal) to fight The Mountain for him in a similar situation, only for Oberyn to lose the duel in a manner at once dismaying and blackly comic.
Tyrion is the show’s heart, played with true brilliance by Dinklage. Tyrion, hated by his father and sister because his mother died giving birth to him but held in bonds of affection to Jaime, has a humanistic mind to which he adds, when Tywin decides to make him Hand of the King whilst he’s busy fighting the war, a talent for ruling and Machiavellian plotting. Long used to indulging bought sex and wine to compensate for his failings in physical and dynastic stature, Tyrion is often regarded as the real monster by the populace, blaming him for crimes and misdeeds actually committed by Joffrey and others, whilst Tyrion desperately tries to conceal his one vulnerability, the prostitute Shae (Sibel Kekilli) he’s fallen in love with and manages to conceal in the royal castle by posting her as the captive Sansa’s handmaiden. Tyrion’s inspired and valiant defence against the attack of Stannis’ force is overshadowed by his father’s charge to the rescue, and he’s soon faced with many humiliations, losing his post and being forced to marry Sansa, whom he dedicates himself to protecting from Joffrey’s harassment. When Joffrey is fatally and gruesomely poisoned at his wedding to Margaery, Tyrion is blamed, and he soon realises he’s going to be framed by Cersei and Tywin and is devastated when Shae helps get him convicted. Jaime helps Tyrion escape with Varys’ aid, but before fleeing Tyrion sneaks into his father’s chambers: when he finds Shae in his bed he strangles her, and then shoots his father on the toilet with a crossbow.
Tyrion’s swerves of fortune and many goads to such homicidal rage and his attempts to live with himself after are charted with a precise sense of emotional calumny, his actions entirely understandable and yet once again damaging to what he means to protect: leadership of the Lannisters is left in Cersei’s tender care. Whilst talented in some of the same ways as her father and younger brother in plotting and manoeuvring, Cersei lacks Tywin’s cool sense of proportion and tries to make up the difference with unswerving bloody-mindedness and a tendency to mistake the needs of her ego for sovereign necessity. Her one saving grace is her maternal care, a grace she is relentlessly stripped of when Joffrey is poisoned and her daughter Myrcella (Aimee Richardson and Nell Tiger Free) is slain by Oberyn Martell’s lover and bastard daughters in revenge for his death. Margaery deftly pivots to marry Tommen (Dean-Charles Chapman), Joffrey’s decent but naïve younger brother, so Cersei, desperate to rid herself of the Tyrells, fosters a fanatical religious group that crops up in King’s Landing called the Sparrows. This sect is led by a saintly and shrewd former merchant turned monk (Jonathan Pryce), who proposes to cleanse the kingdom of its sins. Cersei arms the Sparrows and gives them power to seek out and prosecute the immoral: she get what she wants when Margaery and Loras are imprisoned but realises her terrible mistake when they arrest her too, whilst convincing the new king to support them. Cersei weathers her own perfect humiliation in being forced to walk from the Sparrows’ abode back to the royal residence, naked and abused by a gleeful crowd.
The religious and spiritual motifs in Game of Thrones are, like its politics, generally cynical but also more disjointed and curious, and it highlights an area where the show is fails to offer a coherent sensibility despite leaning heavily on the mystical throughout. The Seven Kingdoms exalt the nominal modern religion of the Seven, a group reminiscent of the Greco-Roman and Norse pantheons, although many still also hold to an older creed more closely connected to a shamanic sense of natural forces. Those forces prove to have been destabilised millennia before through human pressure, driving the “Children of the Forest”, figures akin to the Dryads of Greek myth and the Green Men of Celtic, to create the first White Walkers and possibly also cause the mysterious imbalance behind the distended seasons. The sight of Daenerys after surviving her husband’s funeral pyre, naked and cradling her dragon offspring, is one that might have come right out of some ancient folktale, one radically at odds with the structured, socially reflective faith of Westeros. In further competition is the monotheistic faith of the Lord of Light practiced by Melisandre and fellow ‘red priest’ Thoros of Myr (Paul Kaye), who is also a member of the Merry Men-like Brotherhood Without Banners, who inconstantly try to fight for the peasantry. These two priests prove to have the ability to revive the dead through invocation to their deity, a seemingly definitive capacity for miracle that nonetheless remains confusing even to those revived.
Various motifs, like Melisandre’s penchant for the auto-da-fe and the Sparrows’ righteous warpath that targets the powerful but likes singling out gay men and wilful women, evokes the darker side of medieval Christianity and doesn’t entirely fit with the generally pagan mores of Westeros, stretching to encompass such commentary. The narrative coldly undercuts any sense of certainty in spiritual power and justification in fanatical conviction when Melisandre convinces Stannis to save his failing campaign against the Boltons by sacrificing his young, disfigured daughter Shireen (Kerry Ingram) to the Lord of Light, Iphigenia-like, only for the spectacle to cause half his army to desert in disgust, leaving the rest to be hammered by Ramsay. The closest the series gets to defining the meaning of the flashes of the miraculous is when the Hound grimly notes of the Lord of Light, “Every lord I ever fought for was a cunt, why should he be any different?” This nonetheless does hint at an amusing metatextual joke, as the Lord of Light’s purpose in reviving the dead is conflated with authorial prerogative. By rights Jon, who gets assassinated by some of his fellow Night’s Watchmen who revile his attempts to make compact with the wildings, should die as the result of his choices as per the series convention, but the plot still needs him, so arise, spunky Lazarus. Likewise the slow process that sees many different and far-flung characters slowly drawn together to battle evil is informed by a wry conflation of a divine plan with storytelling felicity.
The show is more confident and coherent in wielding the symbolic as well as narrative potency of the more clean-cut fantasy elements, which are ultimately far more palpable as expressions of human and natural phenomena. The White Walkers encapsulate an evocation of existential threat applicable to just about any great danger up to and including death itself, presenting a foe so frightening that it demands unity, trust, and unselfish heroism, the things that just happen to be sorely missing from Westeros life. Daenerys’ dragons describe at first the formidable strength located in a more ancient ideal of society then the henpecked feudalism of Westeros, as devices that can unite tribal peoples behind a god-ruler fuelled by a sense of divine mission, but also by series’ end cunningly link such atavistic power with nuclear weaponry, the most modern expression of such potency. They’re also tethered to Daenerys’ psychology as surrogate children and functions of her psyche, as a woman who sustains herself through initial degradation and later tribulation through conviction she is destined to rule, but also wants that conquest to have meaning, meaning she seeks to fulfil in freeing slaves and punishing the iniquitous. As she attempts to get down to the finicky business of actually ruling cities she captures, she locks away the dragons or lets them fly off, essentially castrating herself and trying to ignore her most prodigious talent, for unleashing destruction and wrath. Eventually, when she’s obliged to wage war with the dragons let loose in their full, mature fury, it seems like a heroic moment of revealed power, but also symbolises the tipping of a balance in Daenerys’ mind towards a darker conviction that in the end her might makes right.
Bran’s story sees him gifted with great psychic abilities, like the ability to enter the bodies of animals and people, which emerge after his paralysis. After being driven away from Winterfell by Theon’s attack, he follows a recurring vision northward with the aid of his hulking manservant Hodor (Kristian Nairn), a man who’s plainly not an idiot and yet can speak no word other than his name, Osha (Natalia Tena), a former wildling and Stark servant, and Jojen and Meera Reed (Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Ellie Kendrick), another seer and his huntress sister who obey the cryptic urge to help Bran. Bran finds himself anointed to take the place of the “Three-Eyed Raven” (Max Von Sydow), an ancient oracle who stands as the interlocutor of the human and natural worlds and receptacle of all memory past and action present. Bran’s storyline is less incident-driven and more subtly conceived than much of the rest of the show, and is even absent from a whole season at one point, and its purpose doesn’t entirely become clear until the very end. In the meantime he presents a tempting target in the war against the White Walkers and their terrifying, seemingly unstoppable commander, the Night King (Vladimir Furdik), who wants as death incarnate to annihilate what Bran contains.
Bran’s story links his evolution to a pantheistic concept of a world unified on a fundamental, natural level, but the connection between it and the other spiritual motifs is never clarified, a disappointment given the seemingly great expanse of time available to the series: it’s hard to shake the feeling the show, and through it Martin, wants his cake and to eat it. Nonetheless it pays off narrative-wise when Bran has to flee the invading White Walker force, requiring Hodor to jam shut a door and give Bran and Meera time to escape, his constant utterance revealed to have been sourced in the literal order to hold the door communed into his head as a teenager by Bran, indicating his entire life has been subsumed to the purpose of protecting Bran and sacrificing himself in this moment. A potentially silly culmination that nonetheless reaches for and achieves operatic force. Bran’s new awareness lets him easily solve hidden mysteries, allowing him to indict Baelish for his many crimes, and uncovering the great truth of Jon’s real parentage. But it also renders him a veritable void of personality, to the point where Meera abandons him in grief after realising the Bran she knew has essentially died.
The show’s more satirical edge evokes a wry despoiling of the familiar motifs of the medieval morality play, particularly in the way characters like Tyrion and Varys contradict common depictions of physical deformity and peculiarity as markers of bad character. Dinklage had played Richard III on stage before being cast in the role, and Tyrion resembles a take on the Crookback king rendered according to a revisionist impulse, whilst Varys mocks the common figure of the untrustworthy eunuch. Arya’s training with the Faceless Men puts her in contact with a group of actors whose play converts recent history into fitting melodrama but also reproduces a version of reality both the current wielders of power and the audience with its inbuilt prejudices fondly wishes were correct, where Joffrey was a fair and noble king slain by his grotesque and malevolent uncle, and political and social truths work in the same way as feudal banners, clear in symbolic import. Game of Thrones undoubtedly attracted a great amount of its audience through its willingness to offer lashings of sex, bloodshed, and vulgarity in a gaudy manner denied to much contemporary big-budget cinema, freely exploiting the flexibility of subscription television in this regard as opposed to the mass audience aim of current Hollywood. The show took a lot of sardonic criticism in its time for an approach to plotting labelled “sexposition,” often having characters explain themselves and situations whilst fornicating enthusiastically and otherwise.
One much-mocked example in the first season when Baelish schools Ros (Esmé Bianco), a newly-arrived northern lass joining his brothel, in the fine arts of seduction sexual and political, is actually a rather smart and feverishly erotic illustration of the theme of power applied through the deft use of puppetry, an art Baelish is dedicated to. That said, much of the bawdiness seen in the series does prove forced and impersonal, although to its credit it tries to be even-handed in servicing the audience, most gleefully in portraying the bisexual orgy Oberyn and his paramour indulge, and it also taps it for some humour value, as when Tyrion is bewildered to find his squire Podrick (Daniel Portman) a sexual prodigy after buying him an interlude with prostitutes as a reward. The sexuality exists in constant relation to violence, which borders on the genuinely off-putting at times, particularly as Joffrey gets his brutal jollies with prostitutes, in Ramsay’s torment of Theon and, later, Sansa, and sequences like one where prisoners are killed by bored Lannister soldiers who contrive to have live rats eat through them, a genuinely Sadean touch. The idea of violence as a universal trait is certainly at the core of the series, sometimes an art wielded with purpose and discrimination and at other times just a way of releasing boredom and frustration for men weathered well beyond empathy, but always with a fervent sense of its ugliness.
Arya’s storyline contends with her efforts to transform herself into the perfect engine of violence, applied with a surgical skill and in accord with the precise arithmetic on the moral abacus, as she evolves from a rough-and-tumble teenage girl delighting in learning swordplay for its own sake with a vague ambition to avoid becoming another castle lady, to a brilliant, rather frightening killer who nonetheless achieves a level of self-direction and freedom none of the other characters gain. Amongst all the characters on the show Arya has the widest purview on the horrors unleashed by the war, spending time amongst slaves and then as the oblivious Tywin’s servant, experiencing disillusion on all levels save faith in a personal god of vengeance. Her spell with the Faceless Men sees her eventually rejecting their amoral service to Death as an anonymous and disinterested “many-faced god.” This puts her in lethal conflict with a fellow waif (Faye Marsay) whose motivations may, or may not, rhyme with her own but are not accompanied by any scruples or sense of empathy. Arya is punished by Jaqen for her refusal to follow orders by taking her sight away and forcing her to learn to fight the waif blind, a gift that ironically allows Arya to defeat her later in a true duel as her foe, who delights in indiscriminate death, has never broken the rules and therefore never been trained this way. Arya’s return to Westeros is announced in the most sublimely Jacobean fashion when she slaughters Walder Frey after fooling him into eating his sons baked into a pie, before then taking on Walder’s appearance and poisoning all his underlings at a feast.
Sansa, by contrast, seems for much of the series to be the most passive and hapless of the Starks, paying the endless price for being, in Arya’s view, a pretty airhead with princess fantasies. Joffrey takes delight in forcing her to look upon her father’s severed and impaled head. She’s eventually sold by Baelish, after he spirits her out of King’s Landing, to Ramsay as a bride, despite his affection for her, to buy Ramsay’s good will. The heartless scion rapes and tortures Sansa, eventually rousing Theon from his traumatised state: he helps her escape whilst Ramsay cleans up Stannis’ army. Sansa, robbed of any last remnant of her naivety, soon evolves into an imperious force in her own right, even making a deal with Baelish despite knowing what he is to help save the day when she and Jon lead an outmatched army against Ramsay. Ramsay’s end, with Sansa feeding him to his own hungry hounds, is another pure Jacobean moment. The series is ultimately, despite its ambiguities, most essentially a cracking good melodrama replete with bad baddies and breathless last-second rescues. But it also tries to complicate its morality to a bracing degree. The series constantly tries to imbue its many moments of relished payback with a note of discomfort as we see once good people, however justifiably, pushed into similar zones of subterfuge and cruel relish as their tormentors. It votes its many devils like Tywin and Cersei, Baelish and Ramsay, flashes of sympathy in comprehending how they’ve been formed by their eternally dogging and unanswerable desires. A figure like Olenna, as ruthless, murderous, and Machiavellian in her way as any of her enemies, nonetheless comes across like a positive character for her assured sense of just ends and distaste for posturing of any kind.
Notably, the narrative repeatedly extracts payment for redeemable characters who do evil things by robbing them of precious things, particularly body parts. Jaime is the most successful of the series’ ambiguous characters. Introduced as a golden boy nonetheless held in contempt by all and sundry for his killing of the “Mad King,” a man who casually tries to kill Bran whilst fucking his own sister and strangles a cousin to escape the Starks’ clutches, Jaime nonetheless is slowly revealed to be a complex man capable of great decency, and whose deeds reflect the often impossible positions he’s thrust into: he killed the king to save King’s Landing from general immolation, and made the choice to protect his own family rather than the Starks. His road movie-like travels with Brienne, tasked with taking him back to his family, sees him forging a genuine camaraderie with her, and his attempt to save Brienne from being brutalised by some Bolton goons who capture them results in his getting his sword hand hacked off. Jaime, greatly weakened as a fighter but shocked into a new gallantry, saves Brienne again and dedicates himself to trying to head off ill fate, freeing Tyrion and heading off to try and save Myrcella, before eventually committing himself to the battle against the White Walkers despite Cersei’s refusal to help.
The show’s incredible production values often pay off in truly impressive spectacle, particular in the episodes directed by Neil Marshall, maker of cult works like Dog Soldiers (2002), The Descent (2005), and Centurion (2010): his “Blackwater” in season 2 and “The Watcher on the Wall” in season 4, where Jon emerges as a great leader figure as he and the Night’s Watch fight off the wildling horde, are superior in filming and dramatic tension to most blockbuster movies in the past decade. A terrific action sequence in a fourth season episode sees Meera, Jojen, and a Bran-possessed Hodor battling off a gang of animated skeletons, paying cutting-edge tribute to the famous climax of Jason and the Argonauts (1963), whilst the thunderous climaxes of the seventh season depict Daenerys using her dragons to great effect against earthbound foes both living and dead. Game of Thrones eventually ran into a great deal of vexation and disappointment from viewers as it reached its final seasons, with many finding the last in particular hurried and flimsy. To my eye, the show’s wobbles come rather earlier, around the fifth and sixth seasons, as so many of its driving plotlines demanded resetting or replacement following the fourth, and several elements are set up only to be left hanging, all whilst still trying to maintain the same sense of velocity. Tyrion and Varys’ journey east to meet up with Daenerys and seek employment with her, whilst Daenerys herself is obliged to flee political enemies and is snatched away by the Dothraki, opens up great new vistas for these characters.
And yet this hemisphere plays out in a herky-jerky manner, failing to build storylines as effectively as before, and resolving with Tyrion picked to be Daenerys’ Hand without much good cause. That said, these seasons still offer some very effective movements, including Jon’s murder and resurrection, and the climax of Cersei’s conflict with the Sparrows. The latter is dealt with in an aptly megalomaniacal manner as Cersei blows up the cult and sundry other enemies in one colossal blast, finally achieving agency to match her willpower but also foiling herself, as the spectacle drives Tommen to kill himself in grief. Cersei becomes queen in her own right and sets about ruling with an iron hand, allying with Euron Greyjoy (Pilou Asbæk), a charismatic and well-travelled rogue who has murdered his brother Balon and driven Yara and Theon into exile, and falling pregnant to Jaime again. Season 6 concludes with Daenerys and her entourage and army finally arriving in Westeros, taking over Stannis’ old castle and making punishing war on Cersei’s forces. Her awesome campaign is forestalled as Jon comes to her and asks for her help against the White Walkers, and the two handsome young monarchs quickly fall in love, although the underlying tension of their political mating remains rather less pliable.
Game of Thrones ultimately ran into a problem of expectations in a narrative that built its initial appeal around willingness to confound expectations. And confound it did. Ned, played by the nominal series lead and best-known cast member, doesn’t survive the first season, and subsequent plot strands zigzag with roguish energy, managing the tricky task of satisfying without doing so obviously. Joffrey’s sticky end, the object of fervent wishing from both other characters and viewers, not only comes with an unexpected jolt of pathos but also invests a host of new story reverberations. Yet most of Martin’s desecrations of plot actually service his longer games, like clearing away relatively superfluous or over-familiar and stolid characters like Robb and instead obliging the survivors to enact stranger paths to victory that make their eventual triumphs all the sweeter. The TV series moves from being a reasonably intimate political thriller where no-one is safe to a spectacular fantasy war epic where all your favourite characters are pitched in together. One risk, evidently, lay in continuing the series past where Martin had reached, especially considering that many of the best scenes in the early seasons had been copied almost verbatim from the books. But sooner or later the storyline had to deliver on its most essential promises, or dissolve into a mass of self-defeating gamesmanship, or else a total embrace of anarchism. The dichotomy here perhaps accounts for why Martin has failed thus far to resolve the novel series.
That said, I didn’t really feel upon watching the series right through that the later seasons represented any precipitous drop in quality. Rather on the contrary, they deliver as both spectacle and drama and manage the unenviable task of focusing such a sprawling tale to crucial focal points. Some aspects do certainly feel ungainly, like the blinding speed with which Euron builds a powerful new fleet and the way he seems able to make it turn up anywhere by surprise (Asbæk’s outsized performance in the role does however give the later episodes a jolt of much-needed roguish energy). But the degree to which they hurt the show has been often ridiculously overstated, and I’ve seen some other promising series of recent years that bellyflop far more painfully. Perhaps it’s an indication of where pop culture is these days, preferring the open road of narrative rather than firm conclusions and attendant ideas. Game of Thrones remains propulsive and underlines its cumulative concepts and messages lucidly. One significant aspect of the show’s overall sweep is the way it takes up Thomas Hardy’s dictum that character is fate. Figures like Ned and Robb die precisely because they cannot act against their inner natures. Whilst most of the characters experience transformations of one form or another, such evolution is more a function of the inner person than something imposed from without. Jaime emerges as a weirdly heroic figure and yet cannot finally escape his bond with his utterly hateful sister. Daenerys tries to describe a legend and an ethical scheme for herself that flies in the face of her actual proclivities. Tyrion finds something close to a faith in dedicating himself to Daenerys but ultimately finds his cynical, honest, defiant self is ultimately worth more. The younger Starks, who grow up in the course of the series and so are formed by their reactions, can be said to be forged by such circumstance, and even then their eventual personas reflect where they’ve come from. Most pointedly, all are ultimately left to act out their own pathologies once the great existential business of defeating the White Walkers is dealt with.
Jon is the most traditional hero figure, sent down from heaven’s central casting with his defining sense of eternal psychic conflict (compulsory for a proper modern hero) matched to a consistently valiant and honest outlook, as well as his emo-dreamboat good looks. The show takes some time to make a real case for Jon being at all interesting, partly because his growth process is from a callow youth who’s talented and well-trained in fighting to one with authentic and genuine self-reliance and wisdom. Jon proves himself in the course of nominally betraying his vows to fulfil them, becoming one who constantly attempts to act on his most honourable and humane impulses even whilst never shying away from the risks he faces. Those risks run from standing up for Samwell at the outset to eventually making compact with the wildlings, and his strength, both in body and in mind, ultimately sustains him where many others fall. His punishment is to be robbed of nearly all he holds dear. He falls in love with Ygritte and then Daenerys but his dedication to the greater good ultimately costs each woman’s life, and at the end he is left the same man, ruefully aware of the punishing nature of identity and duty in both the immediate and philosophical senses, bereft of home if not purpose, as he was at the start. He’s not blessed with levels of impossible wisdom, either, assassinated by his comrades and suckered in by Ramsay’s sadistic showmanship in their epic grudge match “Battle of the Bastards” to the point where he almost blows the battle. The theme of facing consequences is returned to in the very climax of the story where Jon prepares with equanimity to burn in a fiery blast from a dragon’s maw in fair payment for a foul deed, perhaps the first person in the saga to ever face up in such a fashion.
But Daenerys is the one figure whose sense of inner being is most thoroughly assaulted as her “children” are killed along with her most loyal friends. The key to her sense of mission as the anointed Targaryen, her great salve, is voided when she and Jon learn that he is in fact her nephew, the secret offspring of her long-dead older brother and Ned’s sister. Daenerys’ crisis is then enacted on city-levelling terms, in a bitter punch-line that underlines the dubiety the narrative always warned in regarding self-nominated heroes and dynastic rulers claiming divine right. Before that, Daenerys is seen at her most gallant as she puts aside her own mission and joins the Westerosi in the great fight against the White Walkers around Winterfell. Jon and his comrades have already tried to convince Cersei to help in the fight by capturing and exhibiting a White Walker, and Daenerys loses one of her dragons to the Night King’s ice lance in trying to rescue their raiding party. The Night King is able to induct the dead dragon into his force, using its power to break through the Wall. The great climax to that aspect of the story comes half-way through the final season in “The Long Night,” a unit of action brilliantly orchestrated by director Miguel Sapochnik, one that struggles to deliver a strong piece of spectacle despite the way an inherent aspect of the battle is blizzard-furled chaos, the army of zombies attacking on the ground whilst the dragon-riders do battle in the sky. Jorah and Theon die most heroically in the last stand of humanity before cold fate, and the Night King makes his remorseless march up to a solitary and exposed Bran in a sequence of excruciatingly well-sustained, mournfully-scored tension, also a particular highpoint for series composer Ramin Djawadi.
Some complaints about the later seasons had validity but also often tended to smack of a common brand of that’s-not-what-I-would’ve-done fan whine. Many, for instance, felt that the task of felling the Night King was Jon’s anointed story duty, and I can understand the feeling of dashed expectation in that regard. But I also see the sense in the task falling instead to Arya, who takes out the ghoulish avatar just as he’s about to slay Bran and end the memory of mankind: Arya answers malign force with precision and guile, down to the witty flourish of deception and legerdemain she executes to take him down. This also accords with the whole course of Arya’s story: such a triumph sees Arya finally besting death itself after rejecting its amoral worship, giving final coherence to her story after her many dances near the edge of nihilism. Jon has his own arduous task in the end, as he’s faced with the necessity of supplanting or killing Daenerys to save the world in general and those he loves in specific from her decimating will. Criticism of Daenerys’ disintegration is again worth hearing out. Whilst the show certainly forewarns of such a turn and provides plenty of indicators that no matter how stable and decent a member of her clan might seem they contain the seeds of monstrosity, there’s a remarkably short space between her riding heroically to the rescue on her dragons to her incinerating large swathes of King’s Landing essentially as a gesture of answering dominance aimed at Cersei after the rival queen captures and executes Missandei.
Nonetheless Daenerys’ psychology is intriguingly reminiscent of the main character in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), another self-made champion mixing intense neurotic revulsion for death and suffering driven to prove master of it by dealing it out, swaying from extremes of messianic heroism to base atrocity. The fiery wrath she unleashes on King’s Landing, a city she sees as essentially filled with collaborators in her father’s death and in Cersei’s murderous reign, comes after an excellent piece of wordless acting from Clarke as you all but see her soul crack in two, and serves as her “No prisoners!” moment. The great juggernaut of mutual destruction finally sees Cersei and Jaime dying together as Jaime tries to pluck his sister-lover out of the collapsing citadel, already mortally wounded from a fight with Euron over territorial rights to Cersei’s womb, and The Mountain and The Hound tumble together into roaring flames after Sandor forcefully dissuades Arya from killing Cersei. Arya is left to try and survive the apocalyptic flames shattering the city, the last and most terrible tableau in her witnessing of war and terror and one where her talents are utterly dwarfed by a new kind of impersonal annihilation. Full-on fascist parable hatches out as Daenerys holds court with the Unsullied arrayed in Nuremberg-esque rows and Tyrion passes his firm but impotent judgement by throwing away his Hand of the Queen pin. Tyrion nonetheless gains a kind of victory as he convinces Jon there’s no alternative to his slaying Daenerys.
Jon finally commits the deed to Daenerys’ blank-eyed shock as the embrace in the ruined throne room. Her last remaining dragon melts down the Iron Throne – who knew dragons had such a great sense of dramatic irony? The image of Jon clasping Daenerys’ lifeless body nonetheless returns us to the realm of classical myth fit for the last act of a Wagner opera, an act of violence committed in the name of love that both entirely shatters and rebuilds the world’s moral crux. Bran is eventually selected by the new Westeros potentates, including Sansa, Samwell, Davos, and Arya, at Tyrion’s suggestion. Again, having Bran finish up king rankled many viewers, but it makes sense, once more, in terms of the series’ underlying metaphorical sprawl. Bran, all-seeing and all-knowing and scarcely caring about it, represents the arrival not of democracy or consensus in Westeros, but of the great trade-off that is modernity, encompassing phenomena like the internet and the surveillance state, coolly imposing order and promising peace and safety at the expense of privacy and unmediated liberty. The few remaining characters who prize their autonomy and indeed embody the very concept must as a consequence must past out over the margins into myth. Arya heads west to find the world’s edge, and Jon, exiled again to the Night’s Watch, treks into the frozen north with the wildings with the strong hint he’ll become their new leader. The best thing that can be said about Game of Thrones is that, love or loathe its conclusions, it manages the task of stitching such a rich and sprawling drama and its attendant ideas into a grand tapestry, and yet retaining the authentic pleasures of good pulp storytelling.