Why was Game of Thrones so monstrously successful?
In the 2010s, the most illegally downloaded, bootlegged TV show was Game of Thrones. Being on HBO in America and Sky in the UK, it was not as widely and freely available as many viewers would have liked. So in the spirit of some despotic ruler from Westeros (rather, in the spirit of the Lannisters who always paid their debts), they decided to take what they thought should be rightfully theirs and rip it off the internet.
So what was it about Game of Thrones that made it such a hit on TV and BitTorrent, as well as the darling of the media? The question is being asked again as the prequel, House of the Dragon, hits the similarly restricted screens. In The Independent, Nick Hilton writes:
The creators of House of the Dragon … know that the success of Game of Thrones was built on blood and boobs, bludgeonings and beddings.
Hilton goes on to say that House of the Dragon, despite any handwringing about the moral excesses of Game of Thrones, is more of the same.
People will be burned to a crisp by winged beasts and eaten alive by crabs. There will be illicit affairs and orgies and incest. This might not be Game of Thrones but it is the world of Game of Thrones, and for all talk of creating something more progressive, the show understands that audiences love the moral wilderness of Westeros at its most regressive.
Is that why people liked Game of Thrones? Was it the blood and the boobs? I’m not so sure. Although those memorable scenes and outrageous moments have great impact, they only have resonance because of the characters. And the characters and relationships are much underrated.
It’s not as if “blood and boobs, bludgeonings and beddings” are hard to come by these days, especially if you’re prepared to download them on the internet. So why download the Game of Thrones bludgeonings and beddings? How did this show leave its rivals dying and bleeding out in a ditch?
There can be only one reason: the characters.
I watch it for the characters
Given the sexual content of Game of Thrones, saying you watch it for the characters makes you sound like those who claimed they read Playboy for the features. But those were the days before the internet, which gave you all the bits of Playboy you wanted, without the window-dressing. I’m sure that plenty of annual subscriptions of Sport Illustrated were sold so that the Swimwear Edition simply arrived and needed no explanation or excuses.
Given that most of the media now resembles the Sports Illustrated Swimwear Edition, the stand out features of Game of Thrones are not the scantily clad harlots, but the characters. Some of them are rather serious and bland, but not many. And you need a few of those serious bland ones anyway.
No man, dwarf or eunuch is an island
Characters do not exist in a vacuum. No man is an island. Characters exist within relationships, and these really came to the fore early on in Game of Thrones. I’ve heard the reason was a happy accident. The story is told that the Game of Thrones pilot, which itself was reshot after the original version was found wanting, was not long enough. More scenes needed to be shot to pad things out. The result was a few extra simple scenes in which a couple of characters just talked to each other.
Whether there is truth in this story doesn’t much matter. The fact is that for me, and I think for most viewers, even if they don’t realise it, the most compelling part of the show is the bits with two characters just talking, revealing their true motivations and passions, along with the lies that they tell themselves and each other.
This is crucial. After all, it is only when we have sympathy for the characters and begin to root for them, that we care about whether they are involved in ‘The Red Wedding’, or put on trial, or forced to fight to the death, or decide to shoot their father with a crossbow whilst he’s on the toilet. Game of Thrones gave us those characters, and those motivations, passions and lies.
It’s the same with Stranger Things. The good versus evil story is great. Kids on their bikes are basically saving the world. But the real pull are the relationships, especially the one between Steve ‘The Hair’ Harrington and Dustin.
We like spectacle and monster. We like jokes. But we love characters. People think they like sitcoms because of the funny jokes. Jokes do need to be funny. But you build an audience with characters. After all, we are relational beings, image-bearers of a Trinitarian God.
The best character
It was clear from the start of Game of Thrones that the best character was Tyrion Lannister. He is the clear head in a mad world. He can see that the continual lust for power from those around him will only lead to eternal bloodshed, but what can a despised dwarf like him do about it? The whole show is arguably his quest to do the right thing, when it is rarely in his personal interests to do so. (In so doing, he perfectly follows a Judeo-Christian ethic, but that’s one for another time.)
In the process Tyrion forms beautiful and comical friendships with a devious eunuch called Varys and an uncomplicated bodyguard called Bronn.
Other unlikely odd couples emerge, taking us through entire seasons, like The Hound and Arya, Jaime and Brienne, and the rather beautiful love between Gilly and Sam. That’s what I was watching for anyway.
Another good book
The fact is that we are drawn to characters and stories. That is why God’s book to us isn’t a list of commands and some doctrine. It’s mostly story. And stories within stories. Stories about a storyteller who tells stories – as well as being the hero of the One Big Story.
Every story has a twist. Game of Thrones had some great ones. No-one was safe. Your favourite characters, those who really didn’t deserve it, found themselves on the wrong end of justice and were killed. One particularly graphic one in God’s book is The Beheading of John the Baptist.
I mention that one because we’re so familiar with the biggest, grimmest story of injustice in the Bible, we can barely see it (hint: Easter).
We shall see how House of the Dragon unfolds. But, of course, that House is already under attack from the mighty Amazon and its Rings of Power. More on that another time.
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