6 Reasons Game Of Thrones Works So Well

Game of Thrones7 6 Reasons Game Of Thrones Works So Well

Game of Thrones is back. After the long wait, and countless quips from fans about winter coming and the night being dark and full of terrors and oh my god how have you not read all one million pages of the books, the first episode of Season 3 finally premiered this past weekend, to big numbers. As expected, the season premiere was wholly satisfying, with reviews and reaction ranging from really good to really excellent.

Aside from Enlightened, and even though HBO foolishly cancelled their best show you should seek it out and watch it, Game of Thrones has been the best reviewed TV season of the year so far. It seems fairly easy to see why it would have a large and loyal fanbase with its fantasy elements and heavy promotion efforts by HBO, but it’s rare for a show like this to achieve such critical success.

Genre storytelling is often derided for its employment of cliché and tired tropes meant to satisfy an audience wanting a very specific itch scratched. One of the delights of this show, and the book series on which it’s based, is that it scratches every fantasy itch you could have, but also turns many of the genre’s clichés on their heads and introduces plenty of new and interesting takes on a style of storytelling that could have easily been stale.

I am constantly astonished at how well this show pulls off this adaptation. And a little baffled. Here are 6 qualities Game of Thrones possesses that make it one of TV’s best, and a show that’s only getting better.

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1) It’s ambitiously conceived and expertly executed

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The thing I liked most about Lost was how intricate the story was. There was a lot going on beneath the surface of what we were seeing, and a complex mythology that the show’s creators designed as the show matured that became a relatively cohesive thing. Where Lost lost me a bit, however, was in the actual show, from scene to scene. While I enjoyed the show on the whole, I felt more like I was listening to a bunch of people telling me a story around a campfire or something rather than seeing a story play out before me, if that makes sense. The execution too often did not do justice to the big ideas the storytellers wanted to make real.

Game of Thrones is a marvel because its intricate story is less about an overarching story and more about a plethora of stories woven together to hint at ideas that may be graspable for a moment but are then challenged by something happening to someone else. And it does all this in the midst of creating this world of Westeros and neighboring continents that contains magic and mythical creatures with a medieval vibe. So it takes on the challenge of period elements, fantasy, interweaving hugely diverse storylines, and adapting a beloved group of novels for a television network that demands high quality output. Degree of difficulty matters when you’re evaluating a show, and matters very much to those of us who appreciate art and entertainment that takes real risks, particularly when those risks pay off. That this show is able to satisfy on both the artistic and entertaining ends of things is a testament to the skilled hands of those driving the ship.

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2) The complex web of characters is handled incredibly well

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This show has a ton of characters. I suspect that there are others like myself who kept the handy dandy family tree guide from HBO’s website pulled up on their second screen throughout the first season just to keep everyone straight. The only way I’ve been able to tell many of the characters in the books apart is by imprinting the faces of the performers in the show deep into my brain. And just when I feel like I have a handle on all of them, the show introduces like a hundred new people that I have to get to know and tell apart from one another.

Amazingly, this show succeeds where others have failed. And it goes to show some of the things TV is able to do that movies simply can’t. The most number of plots a movie seems to be able to handle at once is three, maybe four in rare instances. The Lord of the Rings, one of the forebearers of shows and stories like Game of Thrones, had a relatively limited number of characters and stories.

A show can contain far more chapter-style segments, focusing in on a few characters at a time before cutting to another place on the other side of the Narrow Sea. One of the tricks to handling this many faces and names and life stories is pacing: allowing each scene room to breathe on its own, but not letting it drag on so long that we’re just counting down until we get to see Daenerys or Tyrion again.

By and large, this show has handled this issue extraordinarily well. It has also employed an additional trick: taking characters we thought we knew and perhaps didn’t care for, such as Jaime and Brienne, and making their story one of the most compelling of all. There is also the element of subtle changes to the story as it unfolds in the books that keeps the most avid fans guessing and as transfixed as someone watching for the first time. This is remarkable when you think about it.

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3) Its visual aesthetic is perhaps the best on television

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Game of Thrones seems to employ quite a number of cinematographers, more than most shows of this type from what I can tell, but visually it is consistently one of the most rich and vibrantly shot shows television has to offer. Naturally, much of this can be chalked up to the books. A series with the title A Song of Ice and Fire can be expected to deliver a wide range of visual tastes and colors, from the icy exteriors of the white walkers to the red hot fire emitting from the mouths of Daenerys’ dragons. This also serves in a similar way that the variation in visual locations helped keep the different timelines in Inception straight; if any two settings look too similar, we’d be even more confused about who’s who and where’s what and why why why.

Contrast alone though is enough to make Game of Thrones such a visual feast. Like you want to really consume every ounce of what we see in front of you when you’re watching it. It’s completely distinct, allowing you to identity the precise show you’re watching the moment you turn it on. This makes the world seem unique but also much more real, which is important to fantasy. It also contributes greatly to the storytelling, as if there is enough interesting stuff happening for you to just look at, the scenes can take their time and unfold before you become too bored.

And for anyone who doesn’t find the colors and tones and compositions as interesting as others, there is an impressive concentration of boobs per episode to sustain your ocular attention.

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4) It somehow cultivates a strange emotional attachment

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This one is less tangible than some of the other things this show has going for it. I think it’s a result of the characters being so rich and entertaining that we grow to like some of them very much. Perhaps it’s just a thirst for escapism and pure fantasy that we don’t get to enjoy as much as we’d like. But the fever around the return of Game of Thrones this season was rather strong. The anticipatory buildup was prolonged by HBO’s decision to push back the premiere from January to the end of March, but that just gave them more time to promote it even more and work us all up to a frenzy to see what was going to happen with Arya and Jon Snow and everyone else. They were able to send custom boxsets to their favorite Twitter celebs and get some viral marketing that way (how many episodes of Enlightened could the price of those customized things have produced? Whatever I’m not bitter!).

It didn’t hit me until I saw the cold (like, super cold) open featuring Samwell picking up where he left off at the end of Season 2 and then the opening theme music hit and I was watching the interactive map animation so closely and my heart sank when I saw Winterfell reduced to smoke and rubble. That’s when it hit me: my relationship with this show may not be entirely healthy. But there’s something about the power of a show like this that creates this level of weird attachment (and on the flip side, extreme levels of rage for the more villainous characters). Maybe someone else has the answer for why this is; all I know is that it’s there and it’s embarrassing but what can you do.

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5) It’s like Lord of the Rings and completely not like Lord of the Rings

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Matt Zoller Seitz of Vulture gave Game of Thrones the highly appropriate label “Lord of the Rings with gonads.” This may be the most perfect description to anyone unfamiliar with the show, being both literally and figuratively applicable (although the show could use more balls to balance out the boobs if they’re interested in equality). The LOTR comparison is useful because it provides the template on which this show rests to an extent. You have fantastic elements, mythological creatures, individual characters with special powers, varying degrees of light and darkness. The acting style is similar—mostly British accents so you know it’s old and serious stuff, somewhat stagey at times, lots of speechifying and rallying of troops.

The contrasts are fascinating, though. Game of Thrones has a couple of great moments that illustrate this difference perfectly, just an episode apart from each other. Last season we saw Theon give a stirring speech to his Ironborn men, only to be knocked out by the back of his head with the perpetrator concluding “let’s go home.” Then, before the Battle on the Blackwater, Tyrion gives a rousing speech of his own to his men, punctuating its lofty eloquence with basic candor: “Those are brave men outside our door… Let’s go kill them.”

It’s a show that takes these medieval sensibilities and fantastic elements that often turn stories into these sweeping epic tales of valor and nobility and makes them relatively realistic and complicated. Lord of the Rings is not a tremendously ambiguous tale. Game of Thrones is this style of story in a post-Sopranos moral landscape, where black and white morality is treated as absurd and the good don’t always prevail, while the corrupt seem to enjoy the greatest success. This is much more reminiscent of the world we live in, in a surreal way.

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6) There are plenty of surprises—no one is safe

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Anyone who made it through Season 1 of Game of Thrones faced the stark (yeah, I know) realization that all men must die. Folks who were expecting it to be just like Lord of the Rings were swiftly rebuked when the show took the alternate universe version of Boromir and made him good and honorable and (do I even need to warn about spoilers at this point?) lopped off his good and honorable head. Those who have read through the third book and know what’s in store for the upcoming couple of seasons have an even greater idea of how crazy and unexpected things can get in this George R.R. Martin universe.

This is exciting for an audience because things are happening with a reasonable level of frequency that makes our jaws drop. And it’s not always just in the what but in the how. The wildfire moment from last season had been telegraphed by many earlier scenes but seeing the spectacle of it really was something to behold the first time we all saw it. So it’s exciting, but it’s also thematically resonant for the series. As point 5 tried to convey, this is a universe that does not adhere to the typical fantasy trope of a great battle between good and evil, with good prevailing because it is good. This is a world more like our own in a way, with death being handed to people seemingly at random, striking when we don’t expect it just as often as when it’s anticipated. The concept of fairness and death, death as a form of justice, is out the window.

And beyond death, even just a friendly maiming or disfiguration or immense embarrassment and reduction by those who once held extremely high standing in the kingdom to lowlier statuses—this all happens with no regard to who deserves it, who has set actions in motion that led to their own demise, whose tragic flaw led them to suffer their tragic fate. Just when it seems like it might, we get the rug pulled from beneath us. Because the world doesn’t actually work that way. In the real game of thrones, the only useful rule is that the winner gets to live. And no victory is permanent. Everyone loses at some point.

The television adaptation of Game of Thrones captures this spirit beautifully. With the most exciting book in the series set to play out over the next two seasons, it shows no signs of letting up. The cold winds ride on.

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  • TonyaGee

    I agree with all you’ve said ( and I think you were ok with the spoiler about Ned losing his head.)

    This show is as addictive as Red Hot Blues.

    Thanks to HBO for continually supplying us with “appointment television”…
    Sunday nights– be there or be square.