Game of Thrones is arguably the most popular show watched in America. It’s the one show you need to watch live unless you want to live in a hell hole without social media, it’s the most pirated show out there, unlike its closest competitor The Walking Dead, it’s actually good and wins Emmys as a result. Despite what recently departed guest star Ian McShane says about the show, it’s not all about tits and dragons.
Game of Thrones was not always the huge ratings behemoth (relatively speaking) that it is today thanks to word of mouth and The Internet in general. It also wasn’t the show that it is today. Based off of an extremely dense series of fantasy books by George R.R. Martin, the HBO show has had a lot of material to work with and adapt to a 10-episode series. In the beginning, we needed time to get to know this world. Martin literally built an entire world and the show spent an enormous amount of time sucking us deeper and deeper into it.
Game of Thrones first sucked in viewers as it subverted our expectation of both the fantasy and fairy tale genres. In the penultimate episode of Season 1, the show’s leader Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark, a man truly noble and wise and a hero (and also played by a pretty famous actor in Sean Bean) was beheaded and killed off forever. It’s story-telling and hero-telling 101- you don’t kill off your hero. Yet Martin and Game of Thrones had no interest in the rule book. Two seasons later, the show brutally killed off its replacement hero- Ned Stark’s son Robb (along with his Mom, wife, and unborn child) at the now infamous Red Wedding. Martin and this show created a world where both the truly bad and the truly good die off- it’s just that the good die quicker. You have to live in shades of grey if you want to survive.
However, this intriguing new world only helped get viewers in the door, and it didn’t always help keep them. Very early on, mainly season 2 and 3, where the show was very clearly leading towards something, but slogged through an extra three in order to get where it was going. The show was perfect for binge watching, but slightly poor for watching week-to-week. Since the show was being released on a week-to-week basis, we have to judge it upon its intended viewing. The combination of introducing characters and entirely new places on the map along with a slog to get to a resolution, meant that the early goings of Game of Thrones were good, but not great.
Then the tide started to shift in Season 4. All of the sudden the show wasn’t just one giant arc, but a series of mini arcs. Instead of a series of episodes that felt like it was a chess-mover beholden to the season as a whole, we were able to watch episodes that were crisper and worked both on its own along with the entire season. Further, it also helped that we were pretty much ingratiated with the characters at this point in the story telling process. Outside of the addition of the one major new character, Prince Oberyn, we knew major plot points and where things were going.
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