There really is nothing quite like Game of Thrones, is there? Even in the middle of what is being called the new Golden Age of Television, where path breaking prestige shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Hannibal, Fargo and The Wire have redefined the limits of what can be done through the medium, the complexity of themes that can be juggled in a long-form episodic format, and the intricacies of audience engagement, HBO’s Game of Thrones stands alone, distinguished not just by the cacophony of its unprecedented fan following or by the awe-inspiring scale of its production these days, but also for its unique authorial challenges and, for a popular show of this magnitude, the darkness of its worldview.
Cinematic adaptations of popular and critically acclaimed works of fiction is a long-standing tradition in the artistic community, a sometimes confusing give-and-take between high and low culture, which has produced great movies from middling books (The Godfather), soggy cinema from sparkling literature (All The King’s Men) and brilliant films from wonderful novels (The Remains of the Day). Television, while not slow to the party, has stuck more to adapting collections of short stories like the Sherlock Holmes or Byomkesh Bakshi mysteries, with the occasional novelistic adaptation in a made-for-TV miniseries. But the two formats were seen as fundamentally different throughout the latter half of the twentieth century – TV required long storylines with lots of external action and dialogue, while literature had moved on to a more introspective, complex form of storytelling from the time of the Modernists. Plot was deemed an extraneity in modern literature, neat storylines an abomination which failed to live up to the messiness of life. As Lev Grossman notes in his article, “Good Books Don’t Have To Be Hard“, “Imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up “The Waste Land” and saw that it came with footnotes. Amateur hour was over.” On the other hand, TV was becoming massively popular, the pastime of the masses, its entertainments deemed, at best, fun but shallow. All that changed in the late 90s to the early 2000s with a slew of programming from HBO, including The Sopranos, The Wire, Big Love and Sex and The City, which broke new ground with its distinctly novelistic approach towards deep characterisation, moral ambiguity, thematic exploration and slow-burn payoffs, while literary books, led by writers like Jonathan Lethem, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Lev Grossman, Michael Chabon et. al., began to move in the direction of more popular and accessible genre fiction, like sci-fi, fantasy, graphic novel etc.
Game of Thrones represents perhaps the best example of the synthesis of these two competing philosophies, populism and high art wrapped up in a cocktail of swords, sandals and genitalia. And yet that moniker is a reductive description of the show, because even though it may have started off as a more standard (if better-staged) version of shows like Rome, The Borgias and Vikings, in the last couple of seasons, Game of Thrones, having finally put in enough time behind its characters to make us genuinely root for, or hate, most of them, can finally use those characters to explore complex themes and conflicts – honour and family, destiny and morality, faith and violence. The questions that GoT now deals with are not just related to imperial intrigue, but pertain to more relatable philosophical queries. Like the haunting scene last season where Stannis Baratheon burned his beloved daughter Shireen at the stake in the service of blood magic – there would be no redemption for this kingly pretender, but his actions were emblematic of his unshakeable belief that he was the one rightful ruler of Westeros, and what’s one girl’s life compared to the entire continent? Or one of the most memorable scenes this season – Hold The Door – where Hodor sacrifices his life for Bran and Meera. The idea that not only could someone just chop your head off because they fancied it, but by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, your whole life and personality, from your very childhood, are irrevocably changed and destroyed by forces you cannot even begin to understand, and that fate and causality are tied into such an impenetrable Moebius strip of magic, that there is no escape – that is an idea that strikes at the very heart of free will, and without free will, it is difficult to argue that life has objective meaning. These are complicated questions for a mainstream, wildly popular show to be dealing with – questions that it has dealt with admirably, making brave narrative decisions, interpreting Westeros through a dark, often cynical worldview, best articulated through Tyrion Lannister, who is the closest thing we have to a voice for the show. Of course, by killing off Ned Stark in Season 1, and Robb and Catelyn in Season 3, the show has always shown that it can take the tough decisions, when necessary, but its consistent characterisation and thematic honesty have been noteworthy. Also, to counter the rampant accusations of misogyny towards the show early on, has anyone noticed that every single prominent side in this conflict now has a female leader or co-leader? Ellaria Sand rules Dorne, Olenna Tyrell rules Highgarden, Cersei Lannister sits on the Iron Throne, Yara Greyjoy and Daenerys Targaryen are sailing towards Westeros, and even in the North, Sansa Stark holds considerable power beside Jon Snow – a strong feminist statement from one of the most popular TV shows in the world.
Also it is unique among adaptations in the fact that most cinematic interpretations start shooting only after the books themselves are published (even the Harry Potter cinematic franchise never ran a risk of outrunning JK Rowling’s pace) – in this case, the sixth season of Game of Thrones finally outstripped GRR Martin’s written word in terms of the progress of the story for a vast majority of the characters. This has led to the interesting phenomenon where even avid fans of the books are now in a position to be genuinely surprised by a plot development, something which has happened a number of times this season – in the revelation of the meaning of Hodor’s name, the return of Sandor “The Hound” Clegane, the epic Battle of Slaver’s Bay, the even more epic Battle for Winterfell, and the wildfire-spurred destruction of the Sept of Baelor. Earlier, this was possible only for non-book-readers, who were left devastated by iconic moments such as the Red Wedding. A corollary to this has been that DB Weiss and David Benioff have had to shoulder a lot of the writing for this season completely on their own, with only basic pointers from GRR Martin on the direction of the narrative – this has not always yielded good results. Tyrion’s bantering with Missandei and Grey Worm, and Arya’s thoroughly anticlimactic Braavos arc are glaring examples that the showrunners work best when working off Martin’s prose rather than on their own – nevertheless, the last two episodes, serving up spectacles and secrets that viewers have been awaiting for a long time, served to counter some of that disappointment.
And now, all eyes turn toward the coming of Winter. Finally, all our characters, once geographically isolated, are starting to come together – the next season or two promises epic battles, on a scale perhaps even Game of Thrones has not matched (although the entire season has been opulent throughout). The spectre of the White Walkers looms ever closer, as does the battle of ice and fire that is the ultimate denouement of the narrative. In the meantime, we wait, impatiently, for a show that has captured the public consciousness like few have in recent years, a show we both need and deserve right now. Valar Morghulis. Valar Dohaeris.