With another weekend soon upon us, many people are looking forward to another scintillating installment of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones. Myself included. I was hooked after downloading and watching all of the first season over the course of one very unproductive weekend. I followed that weekend by reading all of the books in the span of a month, and now I’m currently waiting for the next episode of Season 2 to drop.
But what makes Game of Thrones so popular? What got me hooked in the first place? There are a number of answers to that, although let me be clear that my forthcoming analysis is of the show, and not the books. Game of Thrones’ popularity stems from its ability to appeal to our baser appetites, as well as our intellect, with writing that is equal parts sensationalism and sophistication.
Let’s get this out of the way first; there are a lot of boobs in Game of Thrones. In fact, there are more than just boobs. And frankly, even when juxtaposed with the sexual elements in the books, it’s a little gratuitous. Sure, some of the scenes are appropriate, and I suppose all of them serve to remind the viewer just what the world in Westeros is like for some of its inhabitants, but this seems more of a narrative convenience than an actual aspect worthy of the degree of exposition it’s given. I'd go on, but the best critique of this is probably this excellent SNL skit.
In addition to boobs, there is also a lot of blood. Although production limitations prevent epic battles from being shown (so far), many characters suffer grisly, violent, and undignified fates throughout the show. On one hand, it’s commendable that the show doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the world, and doesn’t attempt to placate the audience by having preferred characters die in more pleasant manners than those who the audience despises. On the other, it’s still violence and that’s always going to appeal to our tiny little sociopathic ids whenever we watch.
But if sex and violence was all the show was made of, it might be popular (oh, hello True Blood) but it wouldn’t receive the critical reception it has garnered. Game of Thrones possesses some of the best characters in modern television, most notably Tyrion Lannister, Eddard Stark, Jon Snow, Daenerys … I could go on, but I’d sound like more of a fanboy than I already am. The bottom line is that when it comes to characters and the actors who portray them, there are no weak links in this show. Some you will love, others you will hate, but all are compelling.
In addition to the characters, the sociopolitical elements of Westeros — the fictional world in which the story takes place — help captivate the viewer. Characters are constantly scheming to gain more power in this world, and the way these plans unfold — or collapse — creates a sense of suspense, intrigue, consequence, and drama. There is a constant, palpable tension between what characters intend to happen, what the audience wants to happen, and what may actually happen. As one thread of a storyline is concluded, another springs from its end and begins anew. And all this is going on while about 34 other characters are hanging in the background. It’s extraordinarily complex, and given the number of characters and dominions involved, it can be a little tough to follow. But it’s exceptionally rewarding.
The more visceral elements of Game of Thrones might sometimes toe the line of gratuity, but they ultimately serve to bring in more viewers. From there, the characters, writing, and the world itself take over and immerse the viewer in political intrigue, and the mysteries of darker, more mystical scenarios. All of these things combine to make Game of Thrones arguably the best television show on air. Well, all those things plus Peter Dinklage's portrayal Tyrion Lannister. Seriously, if you can’t dig Tyrion, there’s no hope for you.