In television, it’s extremely easy to label something ‘phenomenal’. The finalists of Britain’s Got Talent show phenomenal talent when performing; the standard of play on Super Sunday is at times phenomenal; even seeing people fail miserably at Total Wipeout is phenomenally entertaining. However few shows, if any, can claim to be a phenomenon in and of themselves.
Game of Thrones, however, wears that moniker comfortably. Season five made its bow on the 13th April in the UK, having already enjoyed a glitzy, red-carpet premiere at the Tower of London. This in itself is unheard of. It takes a special show to replicate the prestige of a Hollywood Blockbuster. Indeed, Holby City’s premiere at Gloucester City Hospital doesn’t come out of the comparison all too well.
So, after four full seasons of deception, realpolitik, conflict and copious amounts of nudity, what shape is Westeros in come season five? Well the opening to the season, The Wars to Come, followed the Thrones tradition of setting out its chess pieces methodically, with each figure gearing up for their own power plays.
The opening episode featured levels of scheming that have become commonplace in Westerosi politics
However, if you listen to interviews with the cast and crew then you get the impression that this season, more than others, will see characters and subplots intertwine. Episode one alluded to this on numerous occasions. Sadly for fans of the show though, this marks the beginning of the show’s end game. If hitherto the warning had always been that ‘Winter is Coming’ (*Gruff, northern accent*), then now equally pressing is the fact that ‘War is coming’.
The opening episode featured levels of scheming that have become commonplace in Westerosi politics. The exchanges between Tyrion Lannister and Lord Varys oozed with intrigue, in many ways framing the whole series. In the far north, Stannis sets in motion his plan to wrestle the north from the Boltons, whilst in the south, the (SPOILER WARNING) death of the true power in the Seven Kingdoms, Tywin Lannister, has rocked the capital. Across the narrow sea, Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, is learning the difference between conquering and ruling.
In weeks to come we will undoubtedly see bold political moves and multiple deaths – this is Thrones after all. However, more than this we will see events that have thus far not occurred in George R R Martin’s books at all. This marks a new chapter in the show, as the creative process is now at times wholly in the hands of showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff. Although for some of the Thrones purists this will be a betrayal of their hours spent poring over the books, it also means that the future of the Seven Kingdoms is now a completely unknown entity, open to speculation and fan theories a-plenty.
If the series’ upwards trajectory continues, then the weeks and seasons to come will only solidify its stellar reputation
For years fantasy fiction was seen as the remit of anoraks and pre-pubescent boys, the kind of genre that always made you think twice about mentioning it in a social situation (if, of course, you ever managed to find your way into one of those). But now, lo and behold, film and television are awash with sci-fi superfans and fantasy fanboys. If The Lord of the Rings was the first iconoclast, then Game of Thrones is the heir to the throne, and is now the vanguard in promoting the genre.
Why is Game of Thrones so successful? Fantasy fiction can never, if we’re being brutally honest, be cool, though Thrones is making a good stab at it (pardon the pun). The simplest answer is perhaps that the show is capable of enticing a variety of people; there truly is something for everyone. There are strong male and female characters, epic action sequences, cutting pieces of dialogue, droll lashings of humour and a smorgasbord of eye candy (Daenerys, Margaery, Sansa, and yes, Jon Snow, to name just a few). Indeed, although there are loose historical foundations to the show, the reality is that it is a perfectly executed piece of escapism.
However, Thrones is also part of a wider phenomenon. For too long critics and viewers a-like have agreed that television is the little brother of film, never capable of replicating the same level of drama. However if you look at the last decade or so, the quality of television is simply jaw-dropping. The advent of the anti-hero with Tony Soprano some 16 years ago spawned such gripping drama as The Wire, Prison Break, Mad Men and perhaps the jewel in the crown, Breaking Bad. The so-called ‘Second Golden Age’ of TV has not just continued, but also developed and adapted to changing social mores, with female led shows such as Orange is the New Black and Veep proving that top draw drama doesn’t need a male, anti-hero lead. The increasing budget parity and willingness of big studios, such as HBO, to invest in small-screen drama is in general closing the gap between film and TV inexorably. Television has time on its side; more hours to form character arcs and fully realise subplots. But more importantly some shows are now capable of replicating the spectacle of the silver screen.
Which brings us back to Thrones. Such set pieces as the Battle of the Blackwater or the Watchers on the Wall prove that the show can deliver when the time for talking is done. If the series’ upwards trajectory continues, then the weeks and seasons to come will only solidify its stellar reputation. So whether or not Game of Thrones has truly succeeded in making fantasy fiction cool, I will still be making the nerdy pilgrimage to the television every Monday night regardless.