Winter is coming, the hype has just begun, and the questions don’t stop, or at least this insistent one — who will die? But as we approach the final season of “Game of Thrones” (starting Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO) there is still one lingering question that’s so obvious we’ve barely paused to consider it: Where did this devotion come from?
Each of the 67 episodes over the last seven seasons have been seen an estimated 30 million times, certainly many of those repeat viewings. No TV series since “Lost” has stirred such obsessive fan speculation about the endgame, no TV drama since “The Sopranos” has so completely commanded — make that overwhelmed — the attention of the culture at large.
But winter must come, all games much end, and all series must wrap. What was it about this strange, complicated, gorgeous enterprise that made us fall in love with dragons, one dragon mother and the immortal (for now) Jon Snow?
For some of us, love came easy. For others, love came late. There were reasons for that. “Game of Thrones” wanted us to work. The language was archaic, the character names a letter-and-word salad. “Game of Thrones” wanted us to think about ourselves and about our place in history. TV, you’ll agree, doesn’t always want us to think. With “Thrones” we had to think hard.
“Game of Thrones” wanted us to feel. Beloved characters lost their heads and weddings turned red. Feel-good was never the intention. But feel what?
“Game of Thrones” especially wanted us to see, which is why repeat viewings were rewarded. They were kaleidoscopic, their meanings shifted and enriched with each turn of the lens. To see was to believe, but especially to understand. To see just once was to miss half the show.
Lots of TV series want us to do this, few succeed, yet this one did beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, except perhaps the two who adapted it in the first place. TV neophytes David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were pals in college who spent time in Ireland where much of the series was filmed and where — by osmosis or dedicated study — they absorbed their literary lodestars and a mythic, heraldic past. They knew they had a special confederate in George R.R. Martin — a product of Bayonne, New Jersey, no less — and the rest of the world was about to find out just how special.
While a mountain of words, Martin’s still unfinished “A Song of Ice and Fire” nonetheless drew meaning and power from beyond those words. Television proved the perfect corollary for his vision, just as the big screen had been for “The Lord of the Rings.” On-screen, words became images, images became symbols, symbols became a fantasy dreamscape that sought interpretation. It’s one thing to read about a dragon, or three-eyed raven, quite another to see one, or two (or three), another thing still to see them for what they represent.
“Game of Thrones” certainly wowed us but the wow factor was always transactional. The buy-in was to submit to something beyond those dazzling TV images — just off-screen and out of sight, buried in our collective subconscious, an elemental part of us.
Martin made certain of that, his TV partners too, because so much of this was based roughly on real world analogues, specifically the War of the Roses, a 15th century bloodletting between the House of Lancaster — Lannister on ‘GoT’— and House of York — Stark — over the power vacuum left behind by a mad king, Henry VI. There was a mad king in “GoT” too, who died before the action unfolded but who stalks this world like a malevolent ghost, seeking justice through an heir who will exact it for him — Daenerys Targaryen elected herself to that challenge.
The furious cycle of vengeance begat more violence, plunging Westeros into its own version of a Hundred Years’ War. It was Stark versus Lannister versus everyone else — a meaningless, internecine brawl between the seven kingdoms where victory was elusive and everything had been reduced to and by Cersei Lannister’s brutal calculus: “Power is power.”
“Thrones’” historic antecedents seemed both ancient and modern, remote and familiar. That the Iron Throne distantly echoed the Iron Curtain was hardly unintentional. The dragons themselves had effectively become “death, the destroyer of worlds” — J. Robert Oppenheimer’s chilling pronouncement of the coming nuclear age.
“Game of Thrones” meanwhile had vaunted literary ambitions, unusual for any show because that sort of objective is usually reserved for something with pages. Not here. Martin long ago declared his fealty to the William Faulkner decree that novelists must write about “the human heart in conflict with itself.”
“GoT” thus declared its fealty in the opening scenes eight years ago. “Look,” Bran Stark was commanded, as his father dropped an ax on the head of a deserter from the Night’s Watch. “Your father will know if you haven’t looked.”
Look. Watch. See. Those were both the dominant metaphors, and also the viewers’ mandate. Foreshadowing became foresight. All you had to do was pay attention — or look into your own divided heart.
Talk about “wow” factors. “Game of Thrones” quite simply has earned our love.