We ask a culture expert to answer us just one question: how on Earth did Game of Thrones get so damn popular?
Game of Thrones gets a bad rap. Well, no, let’s qualify: Game of Thrones gets a bad rap from people who don’t watch Game of Thrones. To those who watch it: it’s akin to being part of a holy cult, where the three cornerstones are vengeance, violence, and giving a name to your sword. To those who don’t watch it, they’re still relying on the same now eight-year-old tropes we first used to beat it with: “Game of Thrones, right? The one where the lad bangs his sister?” And unfortunately the answer to that is “yes, Game of Thrones is the one where the lad bangs his sister. But he does it for a reason.”
We’re now staring down the barrel of GoT: eight seasons, 73 episodes, five books, an uncountable number of deaths (the last tally, in 2017, put the death toll at 174,343 – which doesn’t include the epic Battle of Winterfell (season eight, episode three), the longest battle in GoT history). Thrones has evolved from ‘two families who only half-like each other quietly tussling for the crown’ into something denser, richer, layered with prophecy and lore. There’s an entire undead army slowly marching south, and an eight-foot zombie knight, and a kid who can plug himself into a network of blood-crying trees so he can see the future and the past, and an ageless witch who keeps accidentally setting children on fire. There are dragons and there are entire made-up fantasy languages that are heavy on the tongue clicks. Everyone has a name – ‘Bran’, for instance – as well as a mediaeval nickname, like something inscribed on a lost grave – ‘The Prince Who Was Promised’, ‘The Red Viper’, etc, etc.
In short: it’s quite a hard thing to take seriously, even for someone who, well, takes it seriously (I recently got into watching a very serious, very niche YouTube channel that gravely recaps each episode and links them back to both the official and unofficial books – and one of the episodes recapping the episode was longer than the actual episode it was about).
But Game of Thrones is big business: as of the final season, each episode cost around $15 million to make; the fantasy epic eclipsed The Sopranos as HBO’s most popular-ever franchise; and the series itself was estimated to be worth over $1 billion to its network, not least because, since its inception, it’s brought in 50 million more subscribers. For years, GoT was the most pirated TV show on the internet, but showrunners saw that as a net positive: more people pirating the show would inevitably lead to more people subscribing to the channel it was from. Time-Warner boss Jeff Bewkes called the widespread filesharing “better than an Emmy”.
So how did Game of Thrones get so popular, in such a short space of time having first aired only in 2011? Well, one reason is that HBO wanted it to be. It’s a premium-level television show that has always had millions of dollars pumped into the production and promotion of it, and it looks like a very beautiful film. That’s the cynical answer, though. It is, after all, built on a much-loved series of fantasy books that have sold millions since their introduction in 1996. (An aside: author George R.R. Martin has relished his pivot from “fantasy author whose beard looks like it contains fungus” to “celebrity auteur”, so much that fans of the books – the nerds to end all other nerds – have grown resentfully impatient of him not finishing the final book in the series because he’s been too busy wearing suspenders on various red carpets.)
It’s also very, very well done. “The stuff that was the hardest sell – the fantasy elements, and the magic, and the dragons – crept in very slowly,” says culture journalist and Game of Thrones master Chris Mandle. “It wasn’t polarising to people in the way it could have been.” The season one twist – it’s been eight years now, so I think I can tell you – of killing off what seemed to be the main character stunned audiences (Google ‘ned stark death reaction video’, if you don’t believe me), and touchstone episodes – The Red Wedding, Hardhome, The Mountain and The Viper – quickly became cultural moments. After eight seasons, the more ludicrous fantasy elements could be overshadowing the series as a whole, but instead Game of Thrones is going from strength to strength.
“TV shows are like pop stars,” Mandle says. “If you want to be successful and have longevity, you can’t put out all your best stuff too early, before anyone cares. So the model for a show to be successful is like Thrones; simmer away and become urgent, essential watching three years in, and you’ll reap the rewards. Whatever comes next would be wise to follow that format.” And, wherever possible, open with a sequence of a lad banging his sister. For some reason it just works.
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