Game of Thrones: the fantasy for everybody –

Posted: Monday, April 07, 2014

The show’s American creators, David Benioff and D B Weiss, admitted last month
that they send preview DVDs to President Obama. “One perk of being the most
powerful man in the world,” they wrote to Vanity Fair magazine, “is, yes,
you get to see episodes early.”

A call to Downing Street failed to discover if our own Prime Minister will be
tuning in to the fourth series, which was given the red-carpet treatment by
Sky Atlantic when they “premiered” it at 2am yesterday, exactly the same
time as it aired in America. However, David Cameron must recognise all too
well the political back-stabbing in the show, if not perhaps the beheadings
and the lashings of gay sex.

Indeed, Julia Gillard, the former Australian prime minister, revealed
yesterday that the programme reminded her of her time in the hot seat. “I
first felt the addictive power of Game of Thrones when I was… living in a
world where power was also pursued relentlessly, albeit far less
colourfully,” she wrote in the Guardian. “The staff who worked with me most
closely talked in a language I didn’t understand, discussing the Wall and
the White Walkers, the Iron Throne and dragonglass. Drawn in, I binged on
series one over three days… and devoured the second and third as soon as I
could. Fiction and reality started to collide. Returning to my office after
an aborted coup in March 2013, I was greeted with posters of sword-fighting
with the slogan: ‘What do we say to the god of death? Not today.’ ”

The series is loved by everyone from Madonna, who Instagrammed a picture of
herself in a costume borrowed from the show, to Mark Zuckerberg, who
reportedly holds Thrones-themed barbecues serving goat and “obscure animal
parts”. Yum. So what is the show’s appeal? What on this earth is it even

Thrones is a fiendishly complicated thing, peopled by umpteen characters in
several lands. It is set on the fictional continent of Westeros (and, to a
far lesser extent, Essos), where several dynasties (or “Houses”, as families
are known) are fighting for control of the totally terrifying-looking Iron
Throne. There are the Baratheons, the Lannisters, the Starks. There are the
Greyjoys and the Tyrells and the legendary Targaryens, who once kept
dragons, but have now been exiled across the Narrow Sea. Beyond The Wall (a
giant slab of ice in the far north of Westeros), are the feral Wildlings and
possibly the sinister White Walkers, or the “Others”, as they are also
known, a group of humanoids last seen 8,000 years ago, when they invaded
Westeros, bringing a winter that lasted a generation. The Wall is guarded by
a rag-tag band of criminals and bastards known as the Night’s Watch. Are you
with me at the back?

If it sounds utterly ridiculous, then that’s because it is. Indeed, it is
astounding that the books took off as a television show – the original pilot
made for HBO is said to have been so bad that a Hollywood producer told
Benioff and Weiss that they had a “massive problem”.

But HBO stuck with this strange programme that is filmed almost entirely in
Northern Ireland and filled with washed-up British soap actors who now find
themselves wildly famous on both sides of the Atlantic. “We ended up writing
[HBO] this letter,” Benioff revealed, “explaining why this would work in
terms of: ‘This is what you guys do, whether it’s taking the cop show, with
The Wire, or gangster shows, with The Sopranos, and making them dirty and
re-inventing them.’ No one had really done fantasy in that way.”

Both the books and the TV series move at a glacial pace – hardly the greatest
sell. Characters disappear for entire novels or half a season – there is
none of the fast-paced development we have come to expect from, say,
Breaking Bad or The West Wing. But what Thrones does have is interesting
characters who are neither bad nor good, people who do terrible things but
for whom you still feel sympathy.

Peter Dinklage, who plays the star of the show, the hard-drinking, womanising
dwarf Tyrion Lannister, says that this was “something I had never come
across before, especially in the fantasy genre, which I still refuse to call
this, even though we have dragons. It turned the dwarf stereotype… on its
head. This character, Tyrion, was a complete human being. Shock!”

There is also sex, lashings of it, and more bare breasts than in your average
copy of Nuts. But somehow it never feels misogynistic. Interestingly for a
prime-time TV show, the most powerful roles are almost all women – the
fiesty Arya Stark; the wicked Cersei Lannister; best of all, the mother of
Dragons, Daenerys Targaryen.

But what Thrones really has going for it is plot twists, and buckets of them.
Characters who you think are integral to the story are bumped off, in the
most horrific ways. Almost nothing happened in the last series and then, in
the penultimate episode… well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it has
gone down as one of the bloodiest, most shocking scenes ever on the small
screen – the sort of “event television” that networks give their right arms
for (and one character actually did).

Martin has not finished writing the books – another two are due, though there
are fears that the television series will soon overtake him. To get round
this, Martin has given the show’s producers a rough idea of where everyone
will end up. And that is perhaps the biggest appeal of Game of Thrones: in a
world of spoiler alerts and internet leaks, this is one of the few
programmes where we genuinely don’t know what is going to happen next.
Although you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be pretty darn
exciting. Whatever it is.


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