HBO series ‘Game of Thrones’ has left a monumental legacy

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 4/9/19 2:09am

As “Game of Thrones” begins its eighth and final season this Sunday, a retrospective examining of the show’s legacy feels inevitable. After all, “Game of Thrones” was never just a popular TV show; its astonishing critical and commercial success has only been matched by the countless think pieces about the show’s impact on the television industry, its approach to adapting George R. R. Martin’s nigh-unadaptable “A Song of Ice and Fire” series and its many, many controversies. Indeed, considering the immense cultural ripple effect of “Game of Thrones,” it’s not shocking that both the show and its legacy are a bundle of interwoven contradictions and paradoxes. Just as the show has been praised for its nuanced female characters, critique of fascist despotism and perceived allegory about the dangers of climate change, it has also rightfully received vociferous criticism, particularly for its often-reckless depiction of sexual violence.

These criticisms of the show form the minefield that surrounds “Game of Thrones” discourse; for every person who watches the show with an unhealthy reverence, there is someone who loathes it without having seen a single episode. To be clear, even though I agree with some of the concerns raised over the years, I know not every criticism lobbed at “Game of Thrones” has been lobbed in good faith, and I don’t believe enjoying a show and recognizing its intrinsic flaws are mutually exclusive. I have always tried to watch “Game of Thrones” with a critical eye, but I also unabashedly concede my personal investment in the characters and their journey. I don’t want to draw false equivalencies here, but no piece of art is without flaws, and navigating how to ethically consume flawed or problematic art is part of the job of any consumer. That said, my personal approach may be a cop out, and I’m receptive to that response.

The aforementioned controversies are helpful for contextualizing the show’s history. Having re-watched the majority of seasons one through seven this fall (I had an off-term, thank you very much!), it’s hard not to notice that the show’s technical quality appears to improve in conjunction with the taming of its more controversial elements. Early seasons have a regrettable tendency to foreground sex, violence and sexual violence, while later seasons are sparse even when it comes to consensual intercourse. Although this may have been what initially gave the show its “edge” in the public consciousness, it now looks tacky, distracting and insulting. By contrast, the technical aspects of the show (cinematography, costume design, visual effects, etc.) have become increasingly ambitious, particularly when they pertain to massive set pieces. Over the years, there have been plenty of murmuring about the blurring lines between the aesthetics of cinema and television. Another flawed favorite of mine, “Twin Peaks,” is an excellent example of this in no small part due to David Lynch’s singularly cinematic vision as a director. Yet “Twin Peaks” was ultimately too esoteric to truly re-shape the industry, whereas “Game of Thrones” has become a juggernaut and the likes of “True Detective” and “Westworld” are its progeny. For some, this is almost destabilizing because it reconfigures the favorite question of film theorists: “What is cinema?” While I’ve always found this particular line of inquiry to be a tad dull, I am certainly curious to see if the “cinema-on-the-small-screen” aspirations continue to resonate after the show ends. 

With all that in mind, it seems fair to assume that “Game of Thrones” continually improved throughout its run (in terms of both maturity and technical quality); thus, its legacy will be entirely dependent on its superior final seasons. Although when revisited the first few seasons can feel quaint and at times misguided, it’s also hard to deny that, on the whole, they constitute more compelling and tightly-crafted television than their successors. Over the years, the show may have learned to focus more on gorgeously staged spectacle and less on sex and violence, but it also lost some of its narrative appeal. This means I have to invite the wrath of fans on all sides by addressing the relationship between “Game of Thrones” and its source material. Having read all five books (out of an anticipated total of seven), I’d agree that Martin’s work is often the origin point of the show’s flaws. But I’d also contend that it still sometimes succeeds in areas where its adaptation falters. As Lindsay Ellis notes in her documentary about “The Hobbit” trilogy, works of fantasy tend to be inherently patriarchal because they rely so heavily on medieval history while failing to insightfully critique the sexism baked into that history. Thus, “A Song of Ice and Fire” is unique among fantasy works in its willingness to internally incorporate a relatively nuanced critique of patriarchy into the very fabric of the narrative. Crucially, this critique is largely facilitated by the intricacies of Martin’s world-building, and thus is best replicated in the show when the adaptation is faithful. 

To be clear, I don’t hold to an ‘adaptations should be 100 percent faithful to their source material’ philosophy; each story is unique and benefits from different approaches. That said, it’s telling that books one through three of “A Song of Ice and Fire” have been so faithfully rendered as seasons one through four and typically possess more complex and engaging storylines. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the dilemma that creators David Benioff ’92 and D.B. Weiss found themselves in. Although I may personally love them, I acknowledge that books four and five are generally regarded as inferior by most fans. Likewise, books six and seven don’t yet exist, necessitating that Benioff and Weiss rely on Martin’s outlines for later seasons. Thus, the slight but noticeable decline in storytelling in seasons five through seven (and eight, presumably) is understandable; the writers were forced to contend with unpopular books and untested outlines, resulting in numerous adaptational liberties. Suffice it to say, much of the nuance that is infused in Martin’s work has been lost because Benioff and Weiss now seem most interested in how to narratively navigate from one knock-out set piece to the next. And indeed, these set pieces are appropriately awe-inspiring, highlighting the ultimate contradiction at the heart of “Game of Thrones.” Although more recent seasons have wisely eliminated the show’s graphic focus on sex and violence and instead have focused on crafting near-cinematic spectacles, the narratives behind these spectacles have progressively weakened.

Yet one also finds a contradiction in the adaptation process itself. On a macro-level, the best episodes are those that hue closest to Martin’s books, but on a micro-level, the best moments in those episodes are often those that have been substantially embellished or are even entirely absent from the source material. Just as Benioff and Weiss have recently struggled to prop up storylines in-between set pieces, they were once excellent at taking a solid skeleton and making all sorts of meaningul improvements. In fact, this is most clearly on display in the first season, which I would argue is the best in the series and was easily the most faithful to its corresponding book. Various scenes that would have originally been impossible due to Martin’s unique narrational structure were added to the season, contributing to the increased depth and characterization. Similarly, many of the actors managed to improve what was already excellent on the page. I still struggle not to see Emilia Clarke when I re-read Daenerys Targaryen chapters. Peter Dinklage managed to turn Tyrion Lannister, a character I found unlikeable, into a fan favorite. Finally, Sean Bean gave the show’s very best and most underrated performance as protagonist, Eddard Stark. Where Martin’s character is distant, severe and a little cold on the page, Bean makes him warm, endearing, and deeply human.

And it is due to these small but important improvements that I can’t advise someone to stick with the books and ignore the show. Martin’s books may feel more internally consistent in terms of quality and content, but when “Game of Thrones” soars, it soars. Moreover, it soars not just in its sweeping set pieces, but also in its quieter and more considerate moments. At times it is an undeniably bumpy ride. But when Benioff, Weiss and company pull of an impressive scene, whether it be a giant battle or simply an emotional goodbye, it makes the whole experience worthwhile. For instance, few scenes in recent film and TV memory are as effective as the death of Eddard Stark (spoiler alert?) in Season 1, Episode 9: “Baelor.” For five minutes, “Game of Thrones” transcends the boundaries of great television or great cinema and just becomes great storytelling. Will moments like that be the show’s legacy, or will it be dominated by the many controversies that have (rightfully) plagued its entire run? I have no idea, but I do suspect that we will continue to actively debate this very point for generations to come. If for nothing else, far less ambitious shows than “Game of Thrones” have risked their status in the cultural discourse for far less.