Screenwriter Clive Bradley (The Vice, A Harlot's Progress, Trapped) on why Game of Thrones was so good.
*This article reveals plot details*
Game of Thrones was produced by HBO, a company which made its name as a maker of ‘high-end’ TV drama with such shows as The Sopranos and The Wire. The Wire was a highly realist account of the police and drug gangs in Baltimore. GoT on the other hand has, well, an army of zombies and fire-breathing dragons.
What does it tell us about the world today that a magical fantasy set in a reimagined medieval Europe has been such a phenomenon? Most obviously, its appeal lies in its sheer escapism. In a world of conflict and polarisation, Brexit, Trump and what have you, people want to forget their troubles and dream about magic. But while this certainly explains the success of - say - a show like Downton Abbey, all safe nostalgic fantasy of a world where proles and toffs got on with each other, it doesn’t feel very convincing regarding GoT. Equally, its ‘resonances’ (as people in film and television like to call them) with the contemporary world aren’t obvious, either.
The last episode, more than ever before, I think, attempted to draw out some resonances. When, following the death of Daenerys, the council of the great and good got together to discuss who should be king, Samwell Tarly suggested maybe it should be a decision for ‘everybody’. The great and the good just laughed at him (thankfully: for a horrible moment I thought the show would end with a deeply unbelievable commitment to democracy instead of ‘thrones’).
Daenerys’ murder itself had been provoked by her - insane - belief she could liberate the peoples of the world by conquering them; the resonance with the Iraq war and so on is not subtle. More subtly (maybe), Jon Snow asks her how she knows the world she’s fighting for is better than this one. She ‘just knows’. And its her response to his next question - what about all those other people who know? - which convinces him to kill her. She says ‘they don’t get to choose’. But there’s an echo in all this of an argument about the struggle for freedom in general. Holding a Utopian vision for a better world, the scene seems to say, is equivalent to megalomania. Only tyrants have such thoughts; the struggle for freedom can only bring you a new kind of slavery.
It is interesting to compare this to a very similar moment in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The Wish, Season 3), in which the witch Anya asks Giles the very same question: how do you know the other world (the one you’re fighting for) is any better? And he answers: Because it has to be. This is the difference between Buffy and GoT, maybe: one is about a group of activists who’ve seen the evil demons in the shadows and know they have a responsibility to fight them; the other is about politics - in the sense of power.
Daenerys’ story is, maybe, about how power corrupts. There’s another reading - of her whole ‘arc’ - which in a sense is a riposte to the (justified) criticism the character has received in the past. She was, literally, the blonde white woman who came along and liberated black slaves, and whose most adoring followers are these liberated slaves and the Dothraki horde, the people in this universe who are most obviously non-European and savage. It turns out, though, that Daenerys’ story is all about how putting your faith in such people to liberate you is a disastrous mistake. She never was, truly, a liberator: she was a genocidal tyrant in the making. Whether this was the intention of show runners David Benioff and DB Weiss (or George RR Martin, who wrote the unfinished series of books) in the first place, something they decided to do because of the criticism, or just something that happened, I don’t know.
Either way, the conclusion to the saga is that the ‘game of thrones’ leads only to terror and pain, tragedy and death. The surviving dragon, in its first indication of fully-developed independent consciousness, faced with the corpse of its ‘mother’ chooses, rather than take revenge on her killer, to melt the Iron Throne, the cause of all this misery. It’s only when the game - politics, power - is set aside, when the various factions unite against their common enemy, the Night King and his army of zombies - that honour wins out. The player who refuses to set the game aside - Cersei Lannister - pays with her own life and the lives of thousands of others. (Daenerys claims that if Cersei had done the honourable thing and surrendered none of those people would have died, though it’s hard to know if she means it).
I struggle with the metaphor of the army of the dead. Clearly, faced with death, it doesn’t matter how nobly you put aside your ambitions, death is going to win. Perhaps, though, the ‘trope’ here is simpler than that: zombies, always popular, have been extremely popular in recent years, featuring in several TV shows including The Walking Dead, and Z Nation, movies like World War Z, and so forth. They speak to a general sense of quasi-apocaltyptic times, to the uncertainty of the future, to scientific hubris, climate change. At the most simple level, GoT is just keying into that.
Yet the whole story, notionally the driving force for the entire show over eight seasons, felt oddly underpowered. Indeed, the zombies in the end are dispatched in one huge battle - the better to get back to what we really care about, the conflicts between the human characters. Even the fight between the dragons - one horribly reanimated and breathing some kind of ice-fire - was, frankly, not worth my last year’s worth of anxiety.
There’s stuff in all this which ‘resonates’: politics as a game of the untrustworthy, a world on the edge of destruction, even maybe an absurdly optimistic view of who wins in the battle with death. But Game of Thrones must speak to something less easy to articulate.
A big part of GoT’s appeal was its sheer spectacle. Certainly - especially as the series developed - there was CGI with a power and believability which only a few years ago would have seemed impossible; a couple of decades ago it would have seemed like magic. The various worlds depicted here - the different parts of Westeros and its neighbours ‘across the Narrow Sea’ - had an extraordinary verisimilitude. And then there were the dragons, from their appearance right at the end of Season One, emerging with their human ‘mother’ from the flames, announcing that indeed this fantasy series would include acts of magic, to their terrifying immolation of whole armies in Season Seven - and then, of course, cities.
In this it is the culmination of an era of television (and its ‘streaming-on-demand’ offshoots) which has partly depended on technology, both in production (lifelike CGI) and the experience of watching (big, widescreen, digital TV sets). Alongside that was the growth of the ‘boxset’ - though now largely superseded by online streaming, iPlayer, etc - which encouraged what’s become known as ‘longform’ drama. Of course we’ve had television dramas stretching over years in the past; but there’s something in the seriousness - the quality - of high-end dramas like The Sopranos, The Wire, and then Breaking Bad, and so forth, which has rightly been felt as a revolution in television. Thus something like GoT - an epic story following a very large number of characters, demanding very high levels of attention and devotion from its audience.
The second part of its appeal - more, ultimately, than its spectacle - was its cast of great, three-dimensional characters engaged in complex, unpredictable stories. There were characters to love and to hate; but even the most hateful felt believable and human. And its unpredictability was key: this was a show that by the end of its first season had beheaded its most famous star (Sean Bean), whom we had come to expect - following the conventions of television drama - would be our hero throughout. Indeed, this viewer was convinced for a while that the magic would kick in now and Ned Stark would somehow be resurrected, and it took a while to understand this simply wasn’t that sort of show. (Of course, when his we-then-thought-bastard-son was murdered several years later, magic did kick in, and by this time my conviction it would do so was well-founded).
Similar such shockers were to follow, usually (especially) in the penultimate episode of each season. It seemed the gloves were off: none of our favourite characters were safe. Though in fact this was largely an illusion until Season Eight (there were certain characters I think it was always unlikely they would kill off), it helped enhance one of GoT’s other winning elements - the sheer adrenaline rush, the ride.
To be clear, this is distinct from the spectacle. It was to do with our attachment to the characters (and different viewers felt strong attachments to different characters; for me, probably because I just love dragons, it was always Daenerys Targaryen). Rarely, I think, is a TV show quite so stressful to watch. Even towards the end, when so much had been ruined and lost in those terms, it was stressful: I wear a ‘fitbit’, which tells me my heart rate, and in Season Eight Episode Five, when Daenerys turned up on her surviving dragon, I was so stressed that either or both would be shot out of the sky, my pulse was 125.
In short, as entertainment, GoT proved pretty remarkably successful, with all the ingredients good, entertaining drama should have (characters you want to watch, emotional depth, and an unpredictability grounded in the logic of the story and the development of the characters).
In the end, its last season was widely panned (though opinions seem more sharply divided on the final episode itself); there is even an online petition to have it remade, better. Starting, I would argue, with Season Seven, the show began to sacrifice one element which secured its appeal - the characters and the logic of their stories - to the other, the spectacle. Once you’ve had an army incinerated by dragons - awesome though it is - the bar is so high that the need for greater and greater spectacle becomes overwhelming. Add to that the need both to resolve the various stories and to surprise its audience (who have been speculating endlessly about how it will end), and the showrunners, I think, faced a pretty thankless task.
But they allowed the spectacle to take over, whether because they thought it’s what the audience wanted, or because it’s where they wanted to go. And the final season was skewered by this choice. You can imagine the discussion: someone observes that - especially after over an hour spent combating thousands of deadly corpses - what really needs to happen is that King’s Landing needs to burn. Imagine what that will look like! And once you’ve had the thought… The climax - specifically, actually, the penultimate episode - has to have the biggest spectacle, the most awesome CGI of all, and it’s hard to think of something better than burning King’s Landing to rubble. And, well, you’ve got this dragon…
There are other options, in fact, than having Daenerys turn full-on genocidal psycho, though not many. (The dragon could have gone rogue? On second thoughts, in that scenario, Daenerys would have had to kill the dragon, so no!). The complaint that this was out of character seems wrong to me - Daenerys Targeryen had committed a number of atrocities in the past (as Tyrion helpfully reminded us). But as a decision, an act, it felt rushed - and dictated by the need to have the inferno more than the logic of the story.
There is no doubt that Game of Thrones has changed television forever, proving that the ‘small screen’ can match the movies, now, for sheer CGI-based spectacle (assuming of course that you have the budget). And, like much contemporary television, it seems to me to render movies - which seem inordinately long if they teeter on three hours - curiously stunted. Game of Thrones tells one story over 73 episodes; and still, fans think the climax was rushed. This is closer to the novel, in a sense, that it is to the movies.
Maybe the movies hold a stark warning, though. In retrospect it’s often said that Stanley Kubrick’s weird and enigmatic 2001 was a turning point in film history, because its special effects were so revolutionary. With Star Wars less than a decade later we had the birth of the blockbuster, so that now a huge amount of movies are megabuck superhero and/or SF spectaculars (or they’re low-budget indies - it’s the middle-costing film which is becoming extinct). Perhaps in retrospect we will think the same of Game of Thrones - all TV will be judged on its CGI. I think the dismay provoked by Season Eight suggests this is not so: television audiences will not tolerate the level of intelligence-insulting drivel you get in, say, Aquaman. I hope that’s true - that Game of Thrones is a mark of the continuing ‘novelisation’ of great television, rather than a step on the road to banality.