Since its 2011 debut on HBO, Game of Thrones has become more than just fodder for water-cooler conversations, it has become the TV show du jour. (GoT newbies: spoilers follow.)
GoT‘s ascendance to TV titan, however, hasn’t come without controversy — it has been roundly blasted for depicting violence, particularly sexual assault. A few seasons ago, the brutal rape of teenage political pawn Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) by her psycho husband Ramsey Bolton (Iwan Rheon) on her wedding night drew ire and condemnation from public figures, notably Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who declared she would boycott the show.
Protests, however, have not tamped down the show’s popularity. The episode opener of the penultimate season, entitled “Dragonstone,” broke a ratings record for HBO, pulling in 10.1 million viewers. This shattered the previous high of 8.89 million for the Season 6 finale in June 2016. (The 10.1 million figure doesn’t take into account six million viewers who watched the same episode in nontraditional formats, such as DVR and streaming. And let’s not even broach illegal downloads.) Small wonder that in its recent cover story on GoT, Time magazine dubbed it the “world’s most popular show.”
Naturally, HBO is eager to milk its biggest cash cow for as long as it can. Currently, the cable network is exploring four or five spinoffs set in the same fictitious universe, Westeros, after GoT finishes its run next year (or 2019) with Season 8, which will only have six episodes. On its site, HBO is selling a multitude of GoT-related merchandise, including glassware, t-shirts, jewelry, stuffed animals, and replica swords and armor; last month, Con of Thrones, a conference for fans, bowed in Nashville. The agenda featured discussion panels and a few past actors from the show, such as Rheon (whose character was killed off last season) answering questions. (If I hadn’t committed to attending a wedding that weekend, I might have gone to that conference to be among the starry-eyed.)
This leads me to the question: Why is this show so damned popular? Granted, I’m biased but if I can remove the moon dust from my eyes, I would hazard the following theories:
- A tantalizing mix of intrigue, violence, mystery and sex, the show is a splendidly produced, very well acted and cleverly-written adult political soap opera. Set in a medieval fantasy world, GoT has built-in crossover appeal with another hit fantasy franchise, The Lord of the Rings.
- The interpersonal dynamics in GoT abounds in families, be it toxic (a la The Lannisters) or supportive (a la The Starks). This ties in with the basic plot premise in which several noble families are vying for control of the Iron Throne, the ruling seat of the Seven Kingdoms. Most have died trying to conquer the realm, yet in their pursuit we see these families interact with each other in ways that are highly relatable and recognizable. Some snipe at each other; some banter; some express tenderness and solidarity; and some (a la The Greyjoys) end up killing each other or wanting to kill each other; but in the end, they’re all families and we all have them.
- Based on my observations and experiences in life, most human beings are lemmings. For everyone that’s a natural leader or an individualist who heeds the dictates of his/her own heart, there are umpteen others who are followers. If that wasn’t the case, mankind wouldn’t be so easily subjugated by rulers, kowtowing to their every peremptory whim (of course, the threat of violence and mayhem might have something to do with this). Because of this mindless abject worship of what I call the “cult of conformity,” people often become very curious when something or someone becomes popular. I believe that’s the case with GoT. People see the fandom exploding into the stratosphere and they want to join the club or see what the big deal is all about. As the show is very addictive (there’s my bias again) as well as hugely entertaining, they easily become hooked. Then there are also those who pretend to be fans to fit in with the crowd, but I won’t include them in this group because they’re annoying.
- Except for Ramsey and Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), evil boy king and demon seed product of incest who thankfully was poisoned at his own wedding a few seasons ago, most of the characters are not drawn in lurid broad strokes of good and evil. Most are shown to have a point of view. This doesn’t mean, however, the audience will immediately find them sympathetic and weep when they’re inevitably killed off. But rather that the audience is better able to understand why a certain character committed a heinous act and to accept his/her rationale (without wholly forgiving him/her).
- Compare this to the usual dross we see on TV in which a supposedly good person is never allowed to manifest any qualities less than beatific. S/he is always morally unimpeachable, an abstraction of virtue while a villainous character is a Snidely Whiplash or Cruella de Vil cartoon, replete with frozen sneer or condescending cackle. GoT deconstructs these clichés by allowing the audience a peek inside the humanity behind the bad guys and gals, to see them shorn of public bravado and bluster, vulnerable and real.
- Finally, with its dragons, warring families, magic, resurrections and other fantasy tropes, GoT is a wonderful, therapeutic escape from life, which can be difficult to bear sometimes. In this context, as a piece of entertainment, GoT more than lives up to its mission a hundredfold.
Now you’ll excuse me as I go back to the HBO site and buy that dragon pendant. My birthday is coming up.