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Winter Is Here

How Game of Thrones became the most important show on television

When Game of Thrones premiered on HBO in April 2011, it came burdened with more uncertainties than characters, more doubt than dragons. A $60 million adaptation of an unfinished fantasy series so dense an executioner’s blade couldn’t cut through it? A main character who wouldn’t survive to see the finale? A seemingly suicidal admission by the showrunners that the very best stuff wouldn’t even appear onscreen until a hypothetical third season? Forget the neatly stylized wolves and lions; the show’s sigil may have well been a question mark.

Despite a quick renewal, the considerably more expensive second season also felt like a gamble, like flashing silver in Flea Bottom or seating Melisandre in the no-smoking section. Though the ratings increased, so did the world: Game of Thrones now spanned continents, and its deeply digressive plot meant that the most interesting pawns were often marooned miles from the would-be kings and queens they sought to replace. The sumptuous production — shot, simultaneously, in rainy Belfast, freezing Iceland, and along the sunny Croatian coast — cost a bundle but also bought plenty of audience patience. It was a wise purchase, especially during the free-range hours spent watching Jon Snow sink into slush and play wool-booted footsie north of the Wall. There were times last year when the casual fan had to have felt as bedraggled as a Dothraki in the desert, doomed to wander forever while string-pulling power players in Harrenhal and Hollywood got their houses in order.

Thankfully, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss — proud survivors of both studio-mandated rewrite sessions and suburban Dungeons & Dragons marathons — know that you can polish your dice for only so long before you have to cast them. And so, in “Blackwater,” the penultimate episode of Season 2, hours of story and untold millions of euros finally ignited like so much wildfire. Until then, I had been watching the show like Cersei Lannister at a dinner party: a drink in my hand, a bloodless smirk on my face. But all that time I thought I was keeping my distance — not only had I avoided George R.R. Martin’s books, I could barely spell Qarth — it turns out I was actually sinking deeper. In “Blackwater” I was finally flooded with big-screen bombast that merited the bluster of backstabbing brothers and know-it-all Martin readers alike. It was an unblinking glimpse of the savagery that had lurked beneath every alliance made and promise broken in the battle-scarred Seven Kingdoms. When Ned Stark lost his head it taught audiences that no one, not even stars, are safe. When Blackwater Bay ignited it carried a different lesson: The main character of Game of Thrones is Westeros itself. And, before all is said and done, it will suffer more than Ned’s neck ever did.

For those like me who had been stuck on the wall, deeply appreciative of the show’s ambition but not emotionally engaged enough to go completely Wildling, the true gift of “Blackwater” wasn’t that it rewarded our considerable investment with a long-awaited exclamation point. It was the slow-dawning realization that the inferno where Stannis’s fleet used to be didn’t mark the end of a story, it was merely the prelude to the greater conflagrations to come. And come they do, beginning this Sunday at 9 p.m. ET when Game of Thrones returns for its third season. Though the Iron Throne remains in dispute, the show itself now reigns alone; with Breaking Bad winding down and The Walking Dead still scavenging for brains, Game of Thrones is peaking at the right moment, entering its prime just as its rivals begin to fade. Thanks to its voluminous source material, the show is unique in the way each season is able to build directly on what came before. Freed from the vagaries of network meddling or showrunner waffling, the sheer weight of the story — a millstone in lesser hands — is now an anchor. Even in our current cultural hothouse, where hyperbolic tweets are loosed like flaming arrows, Game of Thrones feels like it has finally and legitimately arrived. There are no more casual fans; to commit to the show now is to care deeply about the intricacies of succession rights and the proper formation of a khalasar. It took time, like winters in Westeros, but Game of Thrones has become cable television’s signature phenomenon.

I’m happy to report Sunday’s premiere is outstanding, a globe-spinning, breast-baring, bug-stabbing blast that nimbly reminds us where we’ve been while hinting at big things to come. But a desire to avoid any and all spoilers has me looking backward rather than ahead. Before donning my chain mail for another 10 hours of Tyrion quips, Joffrey sneers, Jon Snow pouts, and Daenerys BBQs — I’ll be back recapping the show every Monday; consider me if not the Lord of Whispers then at least the Heir to House Snark — it’s worth contemplating the four lessons learned and not learned from the success of Game of Thrones. Because if the show has taught us anything, it’s that those who ignore history are doomed to be overrun by a violent, screechy race of CGI ice zombies.

1. This Is Now HBO’s Flagship Show

HBO has never been shy about touting its own exceptionalism. Not even in his Oscar-and-ego-fueled heyday would Harvey Weinstein dream of running an ad campaign build around the slogan “It’s Not Movies; It’s Miramax.” Yet for a decade or more that’s exactly what the cash-rich peddlers of Real Sex and Dream On did. Even now, humbled as it’s been by the recent triumphs of former doormats Showtime and AMC, HBO still carries itself like the only game in town. In fact, it considers its game to be based in an entirely different town: The Sopranos and Sex and the City went off the air ages ago, but HBO still uses their East Coast swagger to boost its artistic bona fides. There’s a reason why Season 2 of Girls got a premiere party considerably larger than its ratings. And it’s the same reason the network would do almost anything to make the splintering Boardwalk Empire the standard-bearer for its current era. Let the left-coast latecomers haggle over budgets and creative control! HBO has Fran Lebowitz on its invite list and feels comfortable calling Scorsese “Marty” in public.

But not even the strength of the network’s legendary Rolodex can deny the obvious: HBO’s lavish Manhattan lifestyle is being underwritten by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, a ragtag duo of nerdy sellswords bunkered down with their action figures in a West Hollywood bungalow. Adding to the crow-eating — and I’m not talking about what the White Walkers most likely did to the remains of Qhorin Halfhand — is the way Game of Thrones wound up on HBO in the first place. It was Carolyn Strauss, the entertainment president axed a few years ago for the failures of Carnivàle and Tell Me You Love Me (and the cardinal sin of passing on Mad Men), who championed the project from the get-go, bulldozing the entrenched skepticism that full-on fantasy could ever be a reality for HBO’s bottom line. The giant party — replete with giants on stilts, along with lutists, bar wenches, and the same seared-ahi tuna salad cups I hear they serve in Pyke — the network threw last week in Los Angeles was the first such fete held for Game of Thrones, despite its evident popularity. It was also the closest thing to an admission we’re likely to get that Maesters Plepler and Lombardo, the current network heads, are very much aware their dragonstones were saved by the same Lady in Black they’d deposed from the Iron Throne back in 2008.

2. And It Might Not Be an Outlier

If the cloak rental budget for last week’s party alone didn’t tip HBO’s hand, its recent development slate most likely did. The network’s business model has long been prestige; for a project to be considered, let alone green-lit, a boldface name must be somewhere on the call sheet. Despite her zeitgeisty buzz, Lena Dunham didn’t get Girls on the air; the involvement of Judd Apatow did. Gone are the days when relative unknowns James Gandolfini and Peter Krause could topline pilots. In their place are breathless press releases about Dustin Hoffman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Matthew McConaughey. This star-driven model helped steer the network out of the slide caused by button-pushing, audience-ignored misfires like John From Cincinnati and even the low-rated, highly regarded Deadwood. Unlike the serfs in broadcast, HBO never begins airing a series until every frame of film has been shot. The presence of a headline-and-eyeball-attracting celebrity helps offset that enormous cost ahead of time.

Game of Thrones turns this policy on its head. The mostly British cast is uniformly unrecognizable outside of armor and/or filth but is also uniformly excellent. What calmed network nerves during midnight bouts of agita — Benioff and Weiss had never before written for television; Game of Thrones has arguably the biggest price tag and unquestionably the most direwolves of any series ever filmed — was the knowledge that the story, usually the most unpredictable part of any endeavor, was already established. HBO could send Benioff and Weiss off to Malta in 2010 without so much as a road map because everyone involved had a clear view of exactly where they were headed.

There’s a similar strategy now at work across the drama department. When HBO tosses cash at twisty, critically adored books like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (the main character is TIME) and particularly Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers (about those not taken up to heaven in the Rapture), what it’s really doing is investing in stability. Shepherded by Damon Lindelof and recently ordered to pilot, The Leftovers appears to be a perfect marriage of artistic license and financial due diligence.1 The subject matter is big enough to challenge and excite both the network and an A-lister like Lindelof, but the preexisting material removes nearly all the doubt associated with such an ambitious project. In that, it’s comparable to what the major movie studios have done of late, relentlessly harvesting scraps of movie meat from the well-picked-over skeletons of comic books and video games in the hope that audience recognition, no matter how faint, is worth more than the time it takes to sell them on something new. Imagine green-lighting the next Lost, only instead of winding up with FlashForward or, I dunno, the actual last season of Lost, you could breathe easy, safe in the knowledge that those in charge know exactly what the smoke monster is from day one?2 That’s the thinking on display over at A&E, where the pre-sold idea behind Bates Motel is fueling early ratings success. As more and more networks dip their toes into scripted waters, look for large-scale adaptations to become more the rule than the exception.

3. Give the People What They Want

Much of the high-minded talk concerning television’s recent Golden Age has been borne aloft on a secondary assumption: that intelligent creators and viewers have flocked to the small screen precisely because the movie business abandoned them. But the long-term takeaway for viable counterprogramming can’t merely be for TV to recycle the antiheroes and outlaw attitude of ’70s and ’90s cinema. Audiences don’t flock to the multiplexes to see The Lord of the Rings or Iron Man because they’re schlock. They go first because the desire for blockbuster genre storytelling is very real; they go back again and again because the very best of these popcorn indulgences are actually good.

Game of Thrones triumphed not because it contrasted with mainstream fare but because it complemented it. So far, TV is unable to unseat cinema for sheer spectacle — although “Blackwater” and even some establishing shots in this Sunday’s premiere have come close. But what makes it a viable medium is its ability to tell long-form stories, to build worlds, not merely threaten them with destruction. David Benioff’s initial pitch was for “The Sopranos in Middle Earth,” and that’s exactly what he’s delivered, a widescreen epic as unafraid of nuance and depth as it is of nudity and gore. Interestingly, it’s due to a lack of interest in the former that The Walking Dead Thrones‘s closest comparison in terms of attempted TV fan service and sprawling source material — fails. It turns out a zombie apocalypse actually works better on film, where a savvy storyteller can focus on the immediate horror, not the slow, stumbling denouement.

4. Seasons Change

Committing to adapting a single George R.R. Martin book — or, as is the case this year, half of a single book — each season allows showrunners Benioff and Weiss to focus on the more intricate challenges of adaptation: pacing, dialogue, and the subtle awareness of when to add scenes and when to take them away. It also frees them from the obligation of a more traditional season-long “arc.” Matthew Weiner famously begins each season of Mad Men with a line or an image that will inform everything that’s to come — Don’s bare feet in Season 3, simmering civil unrest in Season 5 — and then proceeds to burn up every single idea he has in his head for the soused suits at Sterling Cooper over the next 12 hours. It’s the old network hack’s mentality: If you save something for future seasons, the odds are you’ll never get the chance to use it at all. On Game of Thrones, characters are free to while away hours, even entire seasons, on the periphery. The story lines move forward and dig deeper as the episodes progress but rarely circle back and almost never pause for reflection. When I asked Benioff and Weiss if it was possible to infer any overall intentionality to the upcoming 10 episodes, they sneered. “Themes are for eighth-grade book reports,” Benioff told me.

As a critic, I find this frustrating. But I also recognize that this sort of thinking is on the rise. House of Cards, Netflix’s recent experiment in high-class nihilism, was also constructed not as a traditional television show but as a multi-part, limited series. Because Kevin Spacey and executive producer Beau Willimon were both contracted for two seasons, they were free to ignore nearly every rule of episodic storytelling. Individual hours didn’t go from A to B, but rather from C to D and on toward Z. There were no cliffhangers or dangling chads, and the emotional heart of the series was stilled with two hours remaining. The finale, when it arrived, wasn’t a jarring stop but rather a leisurely pause. Willimon, like Benioff and Weiss, has the luxury of taking his time because he knows exactly how much time he has.

It’s an attitude mirrored on the other side of the screen as well. Binge-watchers care little for how their meal is coursed out; all they want is to dig in. And Game of Thrones is particularly delicious when devoured in bulk. There’s little tonal variance between the hourly installments; everything is equally good. In fact, it’s the rare show that’s probably better served by such gluttony: Less time away makes it harder to mistake your Sansas from your Sandors, your Lothars from your Lorases. Game of Thrones is proof that more and more people are coming around to David Simon’s way of thinking: The drug war is a racist and failed institution Individual episodes aren’t works unto themselves but rather chapters in a carefully crafted novel. More than sex pirates and smoke babies, imp slaps or jokes about Littlefingers, this may be Game of Thrones‘s most enduring legacy. What we thought was an exercise in transforming a book into television may actually have helped turn television into a book.

Filed Under: Game of Thrones, HBO, TV

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Andy Greenwald is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ andygreenwald

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