When the final credits flashed across the screen for the LOST finale in 2010, I remember thinking that it was going to be a long time before another TV show would be able to have such a drastic effect on the way that I view the world.
Luckily for LOST, it still retains its title as my favorite TV show ever, but only because Game of Thrones is such an elaborate experience that I really can’t justifiably classify it as just a TV show.
To start off: I have not read the books in advance. They’re helpful (and almost necessary) as supplemental references to keep the characters and plot-lines straight, but after watching the first episode and realizing that it had been the most amazing 50 minutes I had ever spent looking at a screen, I figured that I shouldn’t try to complicate it by experiencing pivotal moments from two different media.
Besides that complication, everything else about the show is pretty damn near flawless; this includes the impeccable acting, the elaborate action scenes, the captivating screenwriting, the intriguing setting in which all this plays out (which may be a “fantasy” world by technicality, but one which is strongly tied to true Medieval history and in which elements of the supernatural are utilized more to highlight the human aspects of the show rather than to provide loopholes for the characters), and the total unpredictability of the plot.
Any one of the aspects listed above would alone probably make Game of Thrones my favorite TV show ever, but one additional element forces me to classify it above any ordinary television program: the truth of the characters. Even in some of the most “complex” films and TV shows out there, character development and progression is largely in service of accomplishing the goal of portraying a generic message to viewers (e.g. good actions will always somehow be rewarded, even if in unexpected ways). In Game of Thrones, however, the characters are not created to portray a message; they are created to live and survive in the best possible way they know how. While other TV shows or movies may succeed in teaching me a valuable lesson about how to live my life, they don’t leave me staring at the ending credits thinking “I have never felt more human than right now.” Game of Thrones does. Every episode.
This accomplishment is something that must be experienced–it’s almost intangible, but I think I’ve identified a few factors as to what makes the show so dangerously powerful. The first of these is the complete un-Romanticization of everyday life; the show’s creators will show nudity even when it’s not meant to be erotic, they’ll show Kings relieving themselves on trees in between battles, they’ll show Knights choosing to rape villagers instead of maintaing their honor…if one example of this really stands out to me, it’s the King in one of the first few episodes recounting his first battle experience to an eager listener: “They never tell you how they all shit themselves [when they die]. They don’t put that part in the songs.” While other action movies or shows may elect to soften the ugly sides of battle or life in an effort to highlight “heroic” aspects of the characters (Why doesn’t Jack Bauer ever have to use the bathroom?), Thrones takes an unrelenting look at the characters’ lives, immediately creating a connection with a viewer who realizes that all parts of his life aren’t sugar-coated either. The empathy flows much easier after that’s established.
This empathy, or rather its shocking abundance and depth, is the second factor. The world created by author George R.R. Martin and brought to life by producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss allows for a totally novel mechanism by which viewers can empathize with the characters; by setting Game of Thrones in a time analogous to Medieval times on Earth, Martin allows for full utilization of one of mankind’s most powerful motivators outside of basic survival instincts: the need to feel as though you are not totally alone in a violent, unforgiving universe. In a time before instantaneous global connection, the despair of total loneliness and the feeling of a lack of societal stability were much more easily encountered, and the characters in the show spend nearly all of their time desperately reaching out for something stable to cling on to before they are hurled out into nothingness. This motivation manifests itself differently in every character, but most of them fall under the category of seeking to establish permanent, unbreakable bonds with either “the family name” or with the Gods (the safest places to turn in an unpredictable physical world). The connection of blood or spirit is one of the few things that these characters seem to feel as tangible, and for this reason every action, good or evil, performed by certain characters makes perfect sense to any viewer; there are no good or bad people, they all share common motivators between themselves (and with us) and their decisions are merely the sum of environmental conditions and the ever-present need to feel as though they are not alone…however that can be accomplished. Though many in today’s world don’t always encounter that feeling on a daily basis, the vividness of the scenes in Thrones is enough to allow viewers to put themselves in the characters’ shoes and feel the incredible motivation that such a fearful emotion could create.
This concept directly leads to what I’ve identified as the third and final factor making Game of Thrones exceptional: the fluidity of the characters. Too many times over the first three seasons have I finished an episode filled with sympathy and sadness over the misfortune of a certain character, only to scold myself seconds later when I remember the disgusting atrocities that character had committed not 2 episodes ago. She doesn’t deserve your sympathy, I think to myself–a reflex reaction due to all the TV shows I have grown up watching where a main character will undergo a steady, predictable transition from good to evil, vice versa, or some kind of ambiguous (yet still fixed) intermediate. It took me until the third season to figure out why I kept empathizing so deeply with these unforgivably flawed characters: they do deserve my sympathy. Again, it takes some time to condition oneself to this new mindset, but almost every seemingly evil action in GoT can be traced back to that deep-rooted need to find lasting companionship in such a scary world–characters in the show will act in whatever way necessary to secure that feeling, which is why so many of them seem to bounce between “moral” and “immoral” over the course of the series by modern standards. If a moral action will allow him to carry on his father’s legacy and gain his friends’ respect, John Snow will do it; if an immoral one will earn the trust of someone he’s come to love, then he’ll do that. Characters do not develop linearly but seem to alternate between “good” and “evil”, making for an incredibly interesting and complex plot especially due to the huge number of main characters. These twists, and the understanding of what specific human emotions sparked them, make the plot of the show and the development of certain characters absolutely riveting–and as a result, you’ll find yourself lingering over them hours, days, or even months after first experiencing them.
To fellow viewers of the show, I hope this attempt to describe why it is so powerful will aid you in your never-ending attempts to convince reluctant friends to start watching. To those who don’t watch…please start. It takes more time and energy investment than the ordinary TV show to get the most out of it but that’s simply because it is no ordinary TV show.
Season 4 starts on Sunday. And Winter is Coming. Let’s go.