While there’s still the books to come, I wanted to write a special post today about the recent and final season of HBO’s A Game of Thrones. This is a series that has won the hearts of millions worldwide. Somehow, this tale of magic, dragons and castles became the most popular TV show in world at the moment.
Today, I want to talk a bit about how this show became so popular and what that means for the fantasy genre. I’ll then go into how the show ended and how it started to lose sight of what made it popular in the first place.
First of all: How did this arguably niche story about dragons and such become mainstream entertainment? What does this mean for the fantasy genre?
When did fantasy become so popular?
I might be remembering things all wrong, but when the Lord of the Rings films came out, things were different.
As a kid when they came out, I quickly became obsessed and wanted to talk about nothing else. Guess what I saw? People giving me weird looks. That could very well be because I’m strange, but I know that if I went on and on about Game of Thrones today, I’d get a very different reaction.
While Lord of the Rings was no doubt very popular, to a lot of people, the films were seen as a bit “weird and nerdy”. Fans like me were often the odd one out in the group. I knew other fans of course, but would I have found another fan on the opposite side of the playground at school? Probably not. You could even say the same about Harry Potter. I was a weird kid for liking that, but now every man and his dog knows their Hogwart’s House, but that’s a different story for another time.
Almost 20 years after Lord of the Rings, we’ve got Game of Thrones, a success that I don’t think anyone expected.
Whether you like the show or hate it, it has become an interesting anomaly. Fantasy is actually very popular right now. What the hell happened?
For fantasy writers like myself, I think it’s a pretty good sign. Perhaps there is a chance to build this genre up and actually see more success for fantasy writers.
So how the hell Game of Thrones become popular?
I’ve been wondering this for the past couple of years. I think the popularity spiked around season 4/5 maybe. What was it that drew people who have no interest in fantasy into this world?
I have a few ideas about how this show became so popular, although it’s unlikely to be one single reason.
1. The characters
I’d say characterisation is probably one of the strengths of this series. The fact that people have been so upset about certain deaths shows that someone’s done a good job in bringing those characters to life.
Hats off to George RR Martin and to the actors in the series.
2. The story line
With something as huge as Game of Thrones, story line is a bit of a vague concept. There are multiple story lines throughout. Some of us are bound to love some more than others. When I first got into the series, it was the political scheming and outright bitchiness of the Lannisters that was my favourite part.
I think the whole series has done a great job of providing a story line for everyone. They all tell us something a bit different about the characters and the world and how it all ties together in the end. I personally love the setup of multiple POVs rather than one central character. You never get bored, unless you’re reading Bran/Catelyn chapters.
3. The sex scenes
Now, this might be a weird one to add to the list, especially after the first two. However, something I heard a lot of people talk about this as it got more popular. I’ve got a feeling this was a big surprise to people expecting a load of grubby old bearded men swinging swords every episode. That’s what fantasy is, right?
As the saying goes, sex sells and there was plenty of it in the beginning. I can’t say the “sexposition” of the show didn’t annoy me a bit. Only because I felt like it took up way too much time from actually important scenes. However, it did get people talking about the show so I thought it was worth including in this list.
4. The dragons and the magic
Where there is fantasy, there is magic. The opening sequence puts us right into the fantasy part of the show. However, it’s a while before you see much of it again, besides the occasional sprinkling throughout the first season and eventually the dragons coming to life at the end.
So, was it really the magic that got people interested in the first place? Probably not. If you want magic-heavy stories, there are plenty of other options.
I’ve always said, this is very much a human story with magic woven underneath the surface rather than being the central plot point. I think that this was a key factor in recruiting new fans who otherwise don’t like fantasy.
5. The deaths
I think this is one of the things that made Game of Thrones really stand out. George RR Martin has not been afraid to get rid of characters you love. This was a refreshing spin on a story when we’re all used to superheros and protagonists defying death in every scenario. It definitely kept us on our toes and got people talking a lot.
How can you kill off Sean Bean when he’s the most famous actor/central character?
That’s why one of the greatest strengths of this series has been characterisation. It has to be good, otherwise you wouldn’t care so much.
I did a highly scientific Twitter poll where I suggested four possibilities and asked people to say why they thought Game of Thrones has become so popular. It’s not research that’ll make it into a scientific journal any time soon but I wanted to know what other people thought. I could only include 4 options so got rid of the sex scenes option. I don’t think it was the sole reason anyone watched it when you can find that elsewhere.
As you can see, it’s a tie between the characters and the shocking deaths. Really they are part of the same thing – characterisation.
Interestingly enough, no one said the magic or dragons. Most of the debate you see online surrounds the characters, the drama and of course the shocking deaths. I like dragons as much as the next geek, but apparently that isn’t the driving factor of the show’s popularity.
Does mean that fantasy still isn’t that popular?
So, does that mean that fantasy isn’t so popular as I thought? Maybe. Or maybe fantasy is much more than just the magic.
Fantasy world building as a whole is really important and George RR Martin is a master at bringing his world to life. But an overlooked part of fantasy world building is what ties it all together – the characters. That’s where this world really excels, in the characters that he created. This, I think, is what really turned the series into the global phenomenon that it is.
Making us care about so many characters is such a hard thing to do. None of them are flat or underdeveloped characters either. We’ve got characters who are honourable, good, innocent, angry, lazy, manipulative, naive, bored, power-hungry, mad and egotistical. Most are shades of several of those.
When I’m trying to write fantasy, I’m very guilty of spending too much time focusing on all the little factual details of my world. The characters always came second. But this is all wrong.
World building makes us believe, but characters make us actually care.
At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how intricate your magical system is if you don’t properly apply that to characters that feel real.
But what about now, after the lowest rated season?
Whatever your feelings on the latest season, it’ll come as no shock to learn that it was probably the least popular.
There were some good moments in it, but overall I feel a bit gutted about how it ended and how the writing became the weakest point of the show.
I think the overall complaint has been that it’s been way too rushed. This is not a story that will benefit in any way by being rushed. There’s a reason George RR Martin is taking so long.
This brings me back to earlier. The greatest strength of this series has been its characters and their development. There are plenty of things that happened this season that would’ve been perfectly acceptable if they had been given the time to develop organically.
I am not necessarily against Daenerys burning King’s Landing but I just don’t think there was enough build up. Everything that’s happened to her has been awful and I think most people would go mad eventually, but we didn’t really see much of that madness. We saw one scene where she didn’t wear makeup and looked sad.
We’ve seen anger from her yeah. We’ve seen her talk the talk a lot. But there’s threatening to destroy a city because your people are starving in the desert outside Qarth, and actually doing it to a city that’s just surrendered.
There’s a difference between killing enemies and burning children alive. This is or should be a huge journey from one mindset to the other but we seemed to have skipped most of that part.
If King’s Landing had only Lannister soldiers in it, then yeah I think she’d totally burn the city down without hesitation. But she knew the city was full of innocents and nothing in her character has told us she’d ever be okay with that.
It’s such a shame because it was such a cool sequence to watch. That look on her face when she’s almost devastated she won’t be getting quite the fight she’s been after, was absolutely nailed by Emilia Clark.
How did they get it wrong?
We know the writers wanted the series over quickly so you’ve got to wrap it up somehow.
I think there’s more to it than that though. I think the show fell short because the writers lost sight of what made this show so popular. Sorry to sound like a broken record but it was the characters we were here for. Unfortunately, I don’t think the writers did them justice.
The season wasn’t just rushed, it had a very clear focus – on subverting all those expectations.
Subverting expectations is commonly quoted alongside Game of Thrones. It’s part of why the show was talked about so much. But there’s a big difference in subverting expectations for the sake of shock value and carefully crafting a story that leads to the inevitable – which also happens to be shocking.
Putting shock value ahead of development is the wrong way round I think.
Shock value vs shocking inevitability
In the beginning, the shocking moments like Ned Stark’s execution, Robb’s murder, Joffrey’s murder and so on weren’t just shocking. They were inevitable.
Ned Stark shouldn’t have survived King’s Landing. He was out of his depth, and bound to be been eaten alive by people far more experienced than him at political scheming.
Robb Stark made a huge series of errors even though he was winning, of course he was betrayed. He took honour for granted and assumed no one would dare do the dishonourable thing of killing a guest he’d already pissed off.
Joffrey was hated and surrounded by people much smarter than him. Is it any wonder he got poisoned?
These plot points were set up gradually and they paid off in a way that made complete sense. They just happened to also be shocking because we weren’t used to it. If Ned Stark had died in season 7 instead, we wouldn’t be as shocked because the story would’ve established that the good guys can die too. That’s not necessarily a bad thing that must be avoided at all costs.
Arya killed the Night King. Fine, there had been a lot of training leading up to it but she didn’t seem to use any of that training really. She wasn’t a Faceless Man, she just jumped out of thin air.
We all thought it’d be Jon, but we got Arya because it surprised us, not because it made any sense. I definitely think Arya should’ve killed one of the big villains because she’d worked hard for it. I would’ve much preferred Arya kill someone actually on her list though, someone we’ve been waiting for e.g. Cersei.
Yeah sure, Jon killing the Night King would’ve been predictable but it also would’ve been inevitable after all the build up. Shock value alone cannot support a massive series like this.
Jon’s wasted character development
I’ve never been much of a fan of Jon Snow, only because I personally don’t like characters who always do the right thing. That probably says a lot about me.
However, I felt like his character was totally wasted. We had a huge build up, lots of character development, the guy was literally raised from the dead and revealed to be the heir to the Seven Kingdoms. Surely all of that meant something?
Instead, his only purpose was to kill Daenerys. His interactions with the Night King and the fact that he was raised from the dead to fight the dead – nothing. His dragon-riding antics – nothing. He’s heir to the throne – nothing.
Sure, we’re surprised at where his character went, but really, I think it’s more disappointment.
Making Bran king was shocking. Tyrion’s speech isn’t just to convince the characters, because we needed it just as much and it really didn’t sell it to me.
“Who’s had a better story than Bran?” Literally the guy who was raised from the dead to supposedly save the world. Since when does having an interesting background make you able to lead six kingdoms? Bran’s also a child. He’s shown no leaderships skills, no reasoning skills. He’s done absolutely fuck all and watched everyone around him keep him alive or die trying to save his mystical ass and for what? So he could rule?
I don’t think Jon would’ve made a good king either to be honest because he has the same traits that killed Ned Stark. But it would’ve made a whole lot more sense to at least consider the guy for the job.
Social media story telling
I think the obsession with subverting expectations came at the expense of good storytelling. The popular tastes for action, badass scenes, shock and fire took priority over the character building, world building and the lore that fantasy fans liked in the first place.
I’ve seen a few people refer to the recent writing as “writing for the social media factor”. The kind of thing that gets everyone talking about it on Twitter and I’d say that was a pretty fair statement. The writers have misunderstood their audience because all they’re seeing are the tweets and memes going viral about big scenes.
So they think “we need bigger scenes, more action, more badass stuff”. We need more Bronn and Lady Mormont. Those things are fine, but when they don’t make sense, they lose their impact and meaning.
Perhaps in a way, the fact that it got so popular was its downfall.
Where does this leave us?
It’s fair to say the writers had an impossible job. Turning this massive series into a satisfying ending would’ve been an insane amount of pressure.
I’m not that upset about how it ended, I’m just disappointed at how it got there. The clear missing piece of the puzzle was simply a matter of time.
On a lighter note, there have been undoubtedly fantastic moments in this show and I’m glad a fantasy story has had such a wide reaching and lasting impression. The show writers have created something amazing and I honestly think they could’ve done a better job which is why this was so disappointing.
Overall, the actors did an amazing job and there was some great cinematography and music. I’m still not over that shot with Daenerys and Drogon unfurling his wings behind her. So cool.
The ending is certainly bittersweet, perhaps not in the ways we thought. It’s been quite a ride. I’ll probably do a follow post to this about what I liked about the series and what we can learn from it as fantasy writers. There’s a whole lot to say on the subject!
In the meantime, are you satisfied with the conclusion? Why do you think it became so popular? Please feel free to share your thoughts or your mini Game of Thrones review in the comments below!