The show’s hero is led out before a bloodthirsty crowd, bound and accused of high treason against the king. He has made many foolish decisions to get to this point, ironically born from a fundamental decency and forthrightness that otherwise would seem so admirable. But he’s still the hero, played by the series’ most famous actor, and the story has given him an out: exile over execution. Surely, he’ll be banished for a season or two, then slowly work his way back to prominence until he’s once again doing good for goodness’ sake. That’s how this works, right?
Well, that’s how it worked until Ned Stark’s head got chopped off near the end of Game of Thrones Season One, kicking off perhaps television’s last great watercooler phenomenon.
A dozen years earlier, The Sopranos had tossed out many of TV’s unwritten rules with the episode where Tony strangled an informant with his bare hands, the sort of thing that just wasn’t done in the five decades prior. (Both that scene and Ned’s execution were followed by a shot of birds flying in formation overhead.) But in the creative renaissance that followed on the small screen, some notions still seemed sacrosanct, particularly: Don’t kill off your main character, and definitely don’t kill him off before you’ve even finished your first season. Not only did Game of Thrones do that with Ned, but two seasons later, it bumped off his wife Catelyn, son Robb and Robb’s pregnant wife Talisa after Robb had been plausibly established as Ned’s successor in GoT’s dramatic hierarchy. This was a show where the heroes not only lost consistently — they died in brutal fashion, and with them, it seemed, all hope of a good ending to the series as a whole.
And we ate it all up with a big damn spoon.
You can cite all kinds of reasons Thrones became a global phenomenon going into its eighth and final season on April 14th. It operates on a mammoth scale, with production taking place across multiple continents, not to mention visual spectacle the likes of which we never expected from television. It has a wealth of memorable characters, all of them impeccably cast, even if none of the actors were quite as familiar as Ned himself, Sean Bean, when the show began in 2011. But Ned’s execution — and the infamous Red Wedding, where Robb and company got stabbed in the back (and front and side) by supposed allies — looms incredibly large in the HBO drama’s legend. Some of that is the fundamental surprise of it: the idea that, even after The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad and more had seemingly shredded the rule book, there were still places a scripted drama could go that had once seemed impossible. But Thrones was also the right show for a very wrong decade. As our own world seemed to make less sense with each passing year, there was something cathartic about journeying to the fantasy realm created by author George R.R. Martin, and adapted for television by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. The world of Westeros seemed just as rage-inducingly capricious as our own, but it had dragons and giants and magical ice demons.
Thrones (and The Walking Dead, which deployed a similarly nihilist worldview but without coming close to the HBO show’s creative peaks) has turned out to be to The Sopranos and its fellow turn-of-the-century classics what Star Wars or Jaws was to The Godfather, Taxi Driver and Chinatown in the Seventies: a blockbuster that made those earlier sensations look like quaint, boutique hits. It has straddled two eras: the revolutionary period of Tony Soprano’s peers and the overwhelming flood of scripted content that’s come to be known as Peak TV. Arriving a few years before Netflix got into the original series business, it got to be a weekly event in the manner to which we’d grown accustomed. Each episode — in time, each trailer or even publicity still — would be breathlessly dissected, despite the fact that the show’s first five seasons largely adhered to the events of Martin’s books, meaning any fan could have spoiled themselves on the Red Wedding and all the other big stunners just by going to Wikipedia. Yet the series was structured in a manner now familiar from the streaming world, where forward momentum matters above all else as you binge. There are a handful of GoT episodes that stand out as a whole, almost all of them taking place in a single location with a subset of the show’s enormous cast of characters. Mostly, though, each installment is content to play Westerosi tour guide, bouncing from one city and character group to the next, emphasizing individual moments over traditional episodic storytelling.
But what moments! Where most streaming seasons that operate on the “10-hour movie” model tend to get lumpy and slow in the middle, Thrones is able to present enough standout scenes each week — sometimes action set pieces where dragons light armies on fire (which have only grown more impressive with each passing year), but often just sharp conversations between two characters who share a complicated history — to make the approach work. It’s not as consistently great as many of its HBO predecessors, but its highs can be jaw-droppingly high.
This is a credit to the quality control of HBO (which, at great expense, threw out almost all of the series’ original pilot — directed by Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy, no less — and recast several roles when it was clear things weren’t working) and to the rich source material of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, which functioned like the Hydra of myth: Cut off one Stark’s head, and five exciting new characters would appear to take his place. And thanks to impeccable casting, even characters who should have felt two-dimensional in their villainy were granted unexpected depth by the likes of Lena Headey (the coldly calculating Cersei) or Jack Gleeson (juvenile sadist Joffrey).
The books would prove both blessing and curse for Benioff and Weiss. Characters were often parked in out-of-the-way places for seasons at a time because Martin (who wrote a handful of episodes over the years) was saving them for later. The series also had a weakness for treating sadism as drama in and of itself, and too often turned to sexual violence against women as a device for cheap peril, usually without considering the impact of it on its victims.
The series passed the events of the published books two seasons ago. Martin has told Benioff and Weiss his planned ending, but it’s unclear how closely they’ll adhere to it, or if he’ll ever manage to complete the two remaining novels. Though the show had always deviated from the page to a degree, it’s seemed more clearly liberated, for good and for ill, of late. People now get from place to place almost instantaneously, which speeds up the plot and brings larger groups of characters together in a way that’s always served the drama well. But there’s also been more sloppiness in the plotting, particularly in the way that characters like Ned Stark’s brave but stupid adopted son Jon Snow or conflicted warrior Jaime Lannister have survived repeated brushes with death.
It’s perhaps not a coincidence that no major player has died since the show moved beyond the books. Fan service about beloved characters is easier when the fans aren’t already expecting them to be killed, after all. But it also feels like a wise course correction. Too many other showrunners have aped Thrones‘ most superficial qualities, particularly the idea of making shocking deaths — and, more generally, misery for the good guys — a regular part of the dramatic toolkit. But when everything is shocking, nothing is. Two of the most potent sequences of recent GoT seasons, the bombing of the Sept of Baelor and Hodor holding the door, involved death, but the victims were minor characters who had largely outlived their usefulness to the narrative. What made them so powerful was what they said about the characters who survived, like ruthless Cersei, or what they told us in hindsight about the tragic life of someone like the special-needs servant Hodor.
The copying of Thrones will only increase after it’s gone, as others look to take its place. Amazon spent an absurd $250 million just for the rights to adapt the Lord of the Rings books, an exorbitant amount even compared to the reported $15 million (if not more) that each of Thrones’ final six episodes (all of them close to feature-film length) cost to make. But that’s much too literal an approach to trying to fill the enormous void that will be left in the TV landscape when Daenerys, Tyrion, Brienne of Tarth and everyone else either dies or flies off into the sunset on the back of one of Dany’s dragons. It’s not just that any future fantasy epics will be unflatteringly compared to this one, in the same way that the most direct Sopranos imitators suffered quick and ignoble deaths. It’s that the show was grandfathered in from another era when we all still mostly watched TV on the same schedule, one week at a time. Even if we didn’t see it on the exact same day, it was close enough that it was easy to get communally excited about the Red Wedding, or Tyrion’s strategizing at the Battle of the Blackwater, or Cersei being forced to walk naked through the streets of King’s Landing while a nun intoned, “Shame!” again and again.
Game of Thrones was often a great show, but it also came along at a perfectly imperfect time to become a phenomenon. We may never see its like again.