You meet someone; they’re exciting and new, dangerous but safe, and you like them so you decide to get to know them. There’s an element of good, and there’s an element of bad – which makes them all the more attractive – but you still feel like you can trust them. So you do. Then, about nine dates later, they take all the good stuff away, killing the best part of them in front of your eyes. There is no good. They hurt you because they want to hurt you and they tell you, “Look, this isn’t going to be nice or safe and you will get hurt. Over and over again.”
Do you continue to see them?
If you answered yes, you’re either a masochist with a penchant for destructive relationships, or you’re a Game of Thrones fan. This is exactly what the show does in its first season and then unashamedly continues to do for four more.
The thing is, television series and film have always done this and, as audiences, we have experienced pain because of filmmakers and writers wanting us to feel it. The way that Game of Thrones does it is very different.
In the old days, programs had clear protagonists and antagonists. Audiences knew where they stood and when, inevitably, bad things happened to good people, they did not like it. Most screenwriters didn’t want to put the good people in their stories through nine circles of hell for no good reason, which seems reasonable enough.
It can be argued that before Game of Thrones, fantasy television wasn’t doing anything particularly fantastic.
Sure, we had Buffy in the 90s, and Supernatural in the 2000s, but beyond not touching the viewership numbers for Game of Thrones, those series were set in real cities and modern times – arguably making them far more relatable to an audience with an infamously short attention span.
What is it about Game of Thrones that has made it connect so viscerally with viewers? Is it its morally ambiguous, shocking and hurtful format?
At a time when a significant chunk of TV and film content is planted firmly in the science-fiction genre – because, let’s face it, if you have a giant budget these days, it’s going to be spent on something quite literally out of this world.
Viewers were, and continue to be, immersed in a world inhabited by ice zombies, dwarves in brothels, incest, child murder and gratuitous nudity – and that’s just the first episode. We all know that sex sells, and any show – no matter how bad – with breasts flying around willy-nilly, is sure to garner an audience, but it won’t keep them around.
What makes Game of Thrones so relevant and so relatable is that, from the get-go, it implants you in a visually consuming, fantastical world with elements that mirror the ugliest and most beautiful parts of the real world.
It’s got politics, religion, magic, a convoluted history and morally ambiguous characters. Granted, the show has featured its share of ‘good’ characters, but they were swiftly killed off and their whole families were destroyed – the North remembers.
Game of Thrones leaves behind characters that are sneaky, imperfect, wrong, sometimes good, sometimes bad, all with weird motives that we don’t really understand. The characters are quintessentially human.
It is this complexity and ambiguity in plot and character, coupled with an in-depth fantasy world with social elements like religious and political maneuvering and with bad things happening to good people that hurt you deep in your heart that makes this show so addictive. It mirrors and simulates the worst of human nature. It is an abusive show in an abusive world.
Game of Thrones is the perfect example of right place, right time. There is no other time in human history where a television network could have the budget, the technology and be willing to ‘risk it all’ on a show like this. There’s no other time when audiences would accept a show like this, either. Let’s face it, next to the horrors that we know exist all around us and that occur on a daily basis, Westoros is a walk in the park.
Game of Thrones has been so successful because, as a human race, we’re pretty screwed up.
Thank you HBO.
By Yousef Adris