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Game of Thrones changed television. Not many TV shows can say that but Game of Thrones, unequivocally, can. There had never been a show quite like it in terms of scope, grandeur, ambition and ultimately international commercial and critical success. It broke the mould.

George R. R. Martin first began writing his long-form, magnum opus of novels, known collectively as A Song of Ice and Fire, over twenty years ago before the publication of his first, A Game of Thrones, in 1996. Set in a fictional fantasy world, primarily on a continent known as Westeros, Martin’s prose was at times pulpy and ripe but his reach was astonishing; taking more than a cue from Tolkien, Robert Jordan and Frank Herbert among others, Martin swiftly created a vibrant fantasy world with an incredible amount of detail and depth lurking behind a complicated, exciting and layered narrative.

Despite the roughly five year gap between publication of Martin’s tomes (seriously, the lighter A Song of Ice and Fire novels clocks in at around 800 pages), production companies soon came sniffing around Martin looking to adapt his books into a feature film. Quite understandably, Martin soon made the point that doing A Song of Ice and Fire as a movie would be nigh on impossible, explaining how just one of his books is longer than The Lord of the Rings, which itself was adapted into three enormous movies by Peter Jackson. The scope was just too large. It belonged on TV.

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David Benioff and later D.B. Weiss came into the picture early in 2006 after Martin suggested they work to develop the book series into a TV show, both agreeing HBO would be the best fit. A Song of Ice and Fire differs from Tolkien and another fantasy novel series in the level of quite brutal, visceral violence it exhibits, not to mention lashings of explicit sex. Adult content being the order of the day, they knew A Song of Ice and Fire had to be made on a network who would let them show plenty of tits as well as dragons. HBO lapped it up and a pilot was produced in 2009.

Winter Is Coming became one of the legendary lost pilots originally when, after some disastrous test screenings, HBO ordered almost 90% of the pilot re-shot with numerous cast members being replaced (most significantly perhaps Tamzin Malleson being swapped out for Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen). One wonders though as to the reason why HBO took such a financial gamble on the series that would become Game of Thrones; at the time, fantasy series were not a going concern, a sure thing. HBO were not capitalising on a genre flying high at the movies or even on TV. What they would go on to do is *create* that sure thing with a measure of luck, chance and the alchemy of creative excellence.

Perhaps the series’ quick success, as Game of Thrones upon debuting in 2011 became a rapid fire sensation, comes down to the fact that while it may be technically epic high fantasy, it was an accessible, relatable universe. Half the lead characters were not orcs or fairies or goblins with CGI appendages. We did have a dwarf but he instantly became a fan favourite and wasn’t a burly, axe-tossing beast. Characters didn’t talk in half a dozen near-impenetrable languages, the so-called ‘common tongue’ being English derivations representing different parts of the United Kingdom often. Plus the characters and situations took a recognisable page from the history books we know.

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It’s well known the noble Stark family and the sinister, slippery Lannisters were envisaged as analogues for Martin of the York and Lancaster houses from the War of the Roses in the 15th century, and if you look at many of the places in Westeros and beyond on Martin’s detailed maps, they correspond to our world metaphorically and geographically; the North and the Wall can be seen as versions of Hadrian’s Wall and either Northumbria or Scotland; King’s Landing is perhaps a fusion of medieval London and Rome; while across the Narrow Sea, many parts of Essos feel analogous to Renaissance Venice in Braavos or stretches of North Africa in cities like Meereen or Astapor. Martin’s world takes place almost in an alternate, parallel version of ours, hundreds of years in the past.

All of these oddly familiar elements could well factor into the alchemy of why Game of Thrones struck such a chord with audiences, many of whom previously wouldn’t have touched high fantasy with a barge pole – but how does it account for why Game of Thrones changed the televisual landscape? What is it about Benioff & Weiss’ show that makes it unique amongst television, and a precursor to a brand new Golden Age of television? Money. The bottom line. A major reason comes down to budget and the sheer volume of cash HBO pump into each episode of Game of Thrones. By the sixth season in 2016, over $10 million dollars were being spent per episode, making a ten-episode season cost $100 million.

Consider television over the last thirty years and how the landscape has changed. In the 1990’s, the genre series that changed television was The X-Files, thanks to its sophisticated approach to storytelling, crafting a long-form mythology and breaking out from cult curiosity into blockbuster international franchise, which carved a swathe in modern popular culture. Yet in nine seasons, the season with the least episodes still reached twenty in one year and though later in its run the budget was high per episode, every year still corresponded to a historic television model in the days of cable and chasing syndication which meant for thirteen great episodes, you were guaranteed ten that easily could have been skipped.

The next TV series to help change the landscape and break out into blockbuster territory in the mid-2000’s was Lost, but by this point television was starting to adapt anyway. The X-Files existed in the days where TV was the cheap lesser being to the cinema and the infancy of the Internet in the modern home. By the time Lost debuted, prestige TV on networks such as HBO was already a reality – The Sopranos and The Wire two examples of TV that wasn’t ‘genre’ but were considered by many as being amongst the greatest piece of storytelling ever committed to the screen, irrespective of movies, and shows such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad followed suit over the next few years.

Lost managed to become a TV phenomenon in an age where the internet by now was booming with message boards, chat zones and as it reached older age, the advent of social media with Facebook and Twitter beginning to launch. It wouldn’t be considered prestige television but it became a modern water-cooler series in the same manner, with a blockbuster budget and genre stylistics which became more apparent as the series went on (and admittedly the viewing figures dropped as a result). Despite a sizeable budget and talented, often well known cast, Lost itself at its peak was churning out twenty-four episodes or more a season, still cleaving to the traditional television model.

Arguably, the equivalent phenomenon of the 2010’s has been Game of Thrones. It began a year after Lost ended, just at the point the television model was beginning to forever change. Netflix was on the horizon with streaming services, and very soon their own production company which launched with the US remake of House of Cards. Amazon Prime followed suit, as did Hulu and several others, all producing content, all buying up old and new television franchises and projects. Television itself was becoming prestige with the model shifting toward less episodes per season but a greater amount of money and time invested in ten to thirteen episodes, often on cable where there were less restrictions than on traditional networks or via streaming production houses.

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Changes in cinema also led to the phenomenon truly born with Game of Thrones. Television has by now become the province of what would, historically, have been mid-budget movies. Movie studios now only green light two kinds of pictures, certain exceptions notwithstanding; the lower budget, indie picture that can be made from $0 to around $30 million, or the mega blockbuster anywhere from $150-300 million dollars. Studio logic dictates that if they spend less on an indie and it fails, they haven’t lost much, and if they invest heavily in a known, familiar property, the rate of return could be hundreds of millions. The $70-80 million dollar movie no longer exists. Its considered too great a gamble for too low a return. That’s where TV now comes in.

Many of the earlier seasons of Game of Thrones came in at around $60-70 million dollars for ten episodes of serialised storytelling that could, effectively, comprise a ten-hour movie with often cinema-level effects, film actors who can be afforded, and top range set design, all for the price of what would have been a mid-level movie. Via HBO on cable, then factoring in international sales abroad of the show and subsequent home video sales, it’s almost a guaranteed rate of return. Game of Thrones has been HBO’s biggest ever success because they invested what would have been a movie budget, in the old days, per year, and built a new water-cooler show which did what the aforementioned show didn’t.

Put simply, it became a prestige blockbuster. At only ten episodes, all produced to the highest quality and festooned with a legion of familiar faces from movies and TV, both British and American, Game of Thrones became event television in perhaps an even bigger manner than Lost or The X-Files. Like those shows, it entered pop culture; memes, gifs, Snapchat filters, cosplay, conventions, t-shirts, slogans – you name it, Game of Thrones had it, and most people at least have an awareness of the series even if they don’t watch it. Billboards advertising its return were all over cities, just like a summer blockbuster would be. When Game of Thrones returned, it was on an equivalent level of a new James Bond or Marvel or Star Wars movie.

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That rarely happens on television, and Game of Thrones arrived at just the right time to capitalise on the boom of social media, of half a dozen different platforms and a level of audience engagement that eschews even what Lost was capable of a decade ago. People became enormously invested in a story, in all honesty, most people have a good idea what the ending of might be. Unusually, and unlike something like Lost which was maddeningly unpredictable or The X-Files which was maddeningly oblique, Game of Thrones telegraphed where its always been heading from day one, thanks to the complex themes and character arcs which steadily had been constructed by Benioff & Weiss, under Martin’s guidance, since the beginning.

Game of Thrones on the face of it was a show about empires, about Kings and Queens and brave warriors and a terrifying supernatural foe. High fantasy with hundreds of characters all weaved into a tapestry which often left people asking one question – who would sit on the Iron Throne of Westeros by the time the final episode aired? It was, in many respects, the wrong question. Game of Thrones was more a series about the instability of feudalism in a world where capitalism is collapsing, where insurrection is fomenting, and gender roles are vastly beginning to change. The point of Game of Thrones, and possibly A Song of Ice and Fire, was that by the end there will be *no* Iron Throne at all. Not in the way we understand it, at least.

This perhaps is another reason the series struck such a chord, because there was a remarkable, contemporary set of parallels that could be drawn to our own world amongst the highborn, lowborn and those in-between within Game of Thrones. Systems that have existed for hundreds of years were crumbling; not just the embers of rebellion which brought down a dynasty multiple generations old, but capitalist failings across Westeros. The common people of King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, had a starving population who ended up embracing religious fundamentalism out of hate for their elitist rulers; the richest family in Westeros, the Lannisters, were running out of the gold resources they used to sustain their wealth and were in massive debt to the Iron Bank of Braavos, the strongest power in the known world behind the pomp and ceremony of the grandstanding royals who play their power games.

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Game of Thrones depicted a world, much like our own, which was unsustainable. Conspiracies were rife. Self-proclaimed Kings fell under the weight of their own ego, or mistrust, or mistakes on the field of battle. Fake news ruled, with the perception of truth more important than the reality of the world around certain characters – Cersei Lannister was perhaps the most pointed example of this, a woman who created and reinforced her narrative time and time again, even as her world was destroyed around her. Seemingly powerful characters constantly ignored truth or reality staring them in the face, or the real threats they faced; be it seemingly extinct dragons across the sea or the undead hordes to the north. It was a world and a system on the verge of constantly breaking.

A strong feminist beat coursed through the heart of Game of Thrones, too. Though it was accused of rough treatment of its female characters (Sansa Stark’s treatment at Ramsay Bolton’s hand in Season 5 in particular), the truth is that Martin’s saga is all about the emancipation of women. Steadily across the series, women were shown to be both the mental and physical superior of men who have a strong sense of entitlement based on laws and truths which have been manipulated and skewed across the years. Daenerys’ rise to become a powerful, slave-emancipating Queen following her family’s destruction is the most keenly observed (even if by the end it turns tragically sour), but Sansa’s turn from willowy princess to vengeful lady, or Arya’s path from scared young pup to ruthless, faceless assassin are two other examples. Heck, even the darkness of Cersei’s journey allowed to her seize power.

The rise of women also paralleled the rise of numerous other elements across the tapestry. Good things didn’t happen to good people in Game of Thrones but Martin’s story is very much about wronged individuals reclaiming their identity; you have Sansa determined to reclaim the Stark name, as does Jon Snow; Bran concealing his identity as he heads north to face his mystical destiny; Arya grappling with her own battle as to whether she can become ‘no one’, even down to existential crises faced by morally dubious characters such as Melisandre or The Hound. It’s about people taking back what is rightfully theirs, finding a restoration of justice, of honour and, ultimately, of truth.

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The return of magic was another major factor as to the show’s success. Game of Thrones had very carefully drip fed the increasing supernatural elements into a show which began much more focused on rough, tough talking characters lopping off heads and having lots of sex, and by the advent of Season 7 contained giant dragons burning fleets while being ridden by Daenerys, time travelling psychics and ancient White Walker vessels of the apocalypse raising legions of undead who wouldn’t be out of place in The Walking Dead. Unlike Lost, which for many took bizarre left field turns into magical supernatural fare, Game of Thrones naturally escalated these elements amidst a world where as systems and orders self-destructed, ancient wisdom, practices and truth rose to the surface.

Game of Thrones remains one of the key, seminal series in television history. Never before had such a project been attempted, with a gigantic cast to service character development, filming in half a dozen countries to depict a vast amount of diverse ecological landscapes, titanic budgets to realise movie-level effects and cinematography, and a grasp of mythology, theme and subtext which, even when the show is as ripe and pulp as some of Martin’s Bible-sized books, was never anything less than engrossing to both devoted TV fan and casual watcher.

And the most amazing part? The show outpaced the books, in an unprecedented move. Martin’s series still has at least two books to go, and Season 6 covered major events from his upcoming book, The Winds of Winter. Season 7 headed into territory from that novel and his final book, A Dream of Spring, which Season 8 likely gave us a major taste of. Quite what that means for Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire is uncertain but, as ever, finding out is going to be an enthralling, magical experience.

Winter is finally here.

Check out our detailed reviews episode by episode of the series:

Season 1 (2011)

Season 2 (2012)

  • The North Remembers
  • The Night Lands
  • What Is Dead May Never Die
  • Garden of Bones
  • The Ghost of Harrenhal
  • The Old Gods and the New
  • A Man Without Honor
  • The Prince of Winterfell
  • Blackwater
  • Valar Morghulis

Season 3 (2013)

  • Valar Dohaeris
  • Dark Wings, Dark Words
  • Walk of Punishment
  • And Now His Watch Is Ended
  • Kissed By Fire
  • The Climb
  • The Bear and the Maiden Fair
  • Second Sons
  • The Rains of Castamere
  • Mhysa

Season 4 (2014)

  • Two Swords
  • The Lion and the Rose
  • Breaker of Chains
  • Oathkeeper
  • First of His Name
  • The Laws of Gods and Men
  • Mockingbird
  • The Mountain and the Viper
  • The Watchers on the Wall
  • The Children

Season 5 (2015)

  • The Wars to Come
  • The House of Black and White
  • High Sparrow
  • Sons of the Harpy
  • Kill the Boy
  • Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken
  • The Gift
  • Hardhome
  • The Dance of Dragons
  • Mother’s Mercy

Season 6 (2016)

  • The Red Woman
  • Home
  • Oathbreaker
  • Book of the Stranger
  • The Door
  • Blood of My Blood
  • The Broken Man
  • No One
  • Battle of the Bastards
  • The Winds of Winter

Season 7 (2017)

  • Dragonstone
  • Stormborn
  • The Queen’s Justice
  • The Spoils of War
  • Eastwatch
  • Beyond the Wall
  • The Dragon and the Wolf

Season 8 (2019)

  • Winterfell
  • A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms
  • The Long Night
  • The Last of the Starks
  • The Bells
  • The Iron Throne

13 thoughts on “Game of Thrones – (Series Overview + Reviews)

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