Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On the Inside Looking Around: Or, Why Game of Thrones Is So Compelling

Game of Thrones is one of the most popular shows on TV, and the crown jewel of HBO's premium cable empire. At first glance, it is exceptionally hard to tell why. There are dozens of characters all with vastly different names. There is a huge backstory that is incredibly important to the plot but it's only ever touched upon here and there in the series. And, after the 9th episode, there is no clear cut protagonist. It's a mish-mash of various points of view alternating by 4-7 minute scenes. And yet it's extremely popular. Which begs the question: why? The answer can be boiled down into three words: proximity to power.

The primary reason why television is inundated with cop, lawyer, and doctor shows is because very few people are cops, lawyers, or doctors. And these three professions have outsized importance in daily life. Watching these shows is voyeuristic. The viewer gets to see one area of influence and power at a very personal level. Game of Thrones takes this concept, supercharges it, and then adds an immense amount of drama.

Perhaps the most basic description for Game of Thrones is that it is the story of a group of dynastic families and their struggle to gain and maintain power. And the show is at its best when the scene is just two people talking to each other. But the reason why it's so compelling is because, more often than not, those two characters belong to powerful aristocratic families and their thoughts and actions influence the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions.

After a President leaves office or some great economic calamity passes, there is always a demand for some kind of postmortem analysis, Hollywood style. In another HBO production, Too Big To Fail, it depicted the efforts of former Secretary of Treasury Hank Paulson to avert the next Great Depression as financial markets go into freefall in the summer and fall of 2008. Most of the scenes show Paulson in the room with many very powerful policymakers and CEOs. A movie about the effects of the recession affecting some worker don't get made because we can see that in real life. But very few of us ever get to sit in one of those meetings where a handful of people determine the fates of millions.

What makes Game of Thrones different from that kind of voyeurism is that it's removed from reality and history even as it heavily borrows from both. Too Big To Fail was a postmortem. We already knew what happened. When Game of Thrones went through with (SPOILERS) the main character's execution (SPOILERS), it completely upended the audience's expectations for a regular TV series. Suddenly, the stakes were upped in the most dramatic way possible. Anything could happen.

But the apex of GoT's first season wasn't a series of chaotic and unforeseeable events. The narrative concluded in an entirely predictable way if you could observe it outside the lens of a TV show (where audiences have expectations already baked into the pie). You were essentially witnessing history in the making from the best seats in the house. That is what makes Game of Thrones (and the books it's based off of) so remarkable.

The world building is absolutely incredible, and no stone gets left unturned. Every aspect of life is filled in and explained. There is an incredibly deep backstory. Aristocratic families have extensive family trees, official mottoes, and depict people in a very realistic manner. The common people have drinking songs, superstitions, and different accents that distinguish them from highborn characters. Every city has a founding story. Every castle has its own legend.

When the author or the show's creators depict a meal or a family crest or some weapon of historical origin, they're building a world. They're making you invested in the world. And because you're invested, you care what happens next. And what happens next is going to be determined by the decisions and actions of a very small and very powerful group of people. And you're by their side, able to see them in their element at the decisive moment where everything changed. Suddenly, it becomes incredibly easy to understand why so many people love to watch Game of Thrones.

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