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How ‘Game of Thrones’ Has Changed TV For the Better

It’s the biggest thing on the small screen – and no other series has so thoroughly rewritten the rules of what a TV show could accomplish.

“Bad people is what I’m good at,” Tyrion Lannister once boasted, and the man wasn’t kidding. Over the past six years, Game of Thrones has introduced us to more outrageously bad people than any drama on television: killers, liars, tyrants and thieves. It’s brought Westeros alive as a fantasy world where a conscience is a luxury nobody can afford – not even kings. HBO’s epic fantasy blockbuster is gearing up for the seventh season, with the eighth and last chapter already on the horizon. That means we’ve got just 13 more episodes to spend in Westeros, with all the bastards, cripples and broken things in this story. It is the winter that never stops coming, the door that will not hold, the wildling drama that permanently blew up the rules of what people thought was possible to achieve on TV. No show has ever been so brilliant at badness. We’ll never see the likes of it again.

When George R. R. Martin began writing his fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, he was already scheming to make it unthinkable for anyone to try a film version. He wanted his novels to create a world too complex, too bloody, too extravagant, simply too big to capture onscreen. Fortunately, he failed. Game of Thrones has kept making and remaking TV history by translating Martin’s vision – all it had to do was ignore all the formulas of how television is supposed to work. Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have even ventured beyond the novels at this point, pushing the story into uncharted territory, where not even seasoned fans of the books can guess what climactic ending is coming. Just like Margaery Tyrell saying she doesn’t want to be a queen – she wants to be the queen – Thrones set out to be the TV epic.

More than anything, it’s the characters that make the show thrilling year after year. Westeros is full of unforgettable heroes and villains – except virtually all the heroes also double as villains, betraying both their lovers and kingdoms in the blink of an eye. Anybody can get killed off, any time. Beloved characters get hacked to pieces, often by other beloved characters. Long-simmering subplots take years to explode. Saying the word “whore” once too often in the bathroom can get you killed. So can giving a dramatic speech in the middle of dueling a guy nicknamed “The Mountain.” Having too many feelings at the wrong moment gets you churned into a bloody pulp. Revenge. Guilt. Political corruption. Sexual conniving. Stacks of corpses. White Walkers. Dragons. Weddings that turn into bloodbaths. Rampant nudity and lethal one-liners, often at the same time. Monsters you spend years rooting against – except when they get killed, you realize none of the problems have gone away.

From the beginning, it seemed crazily ambitious, aiming for wide-canvas world-building. By the second season, Cersei Lannister was already quipping about how she couldn’t keep score of all the pretenders to the family throne. Back in the day, this kind of size and scale was attempted only by blockbuster miniseries like The Winds of War, built to last for just a few star-studded nights. But Game of Thrones has sustained this pace for 60 hours and counting. 

As the seventh season begins, the ruthless Cersei now sits on the Iron Throne, after lighting the blaze that burned up the Sparrows as well as her sultry daughter-in-law. (Damn – we’ll miss you, Margaery.) Jaime Lannister got back to King’s Landing just in time to see his sister/lover’s coronation, after their last living child jumped out of a castle window to his death. Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, sets sail with Tyrion as her Hand of the Queen. Jon Snow rules as King in the North, after winning the Battle of the Bastards. His long-suffering sister Sansa Stark resolves a few problems in her marriage by feeding Ramsay Bolton to his own hounds. Arya Stark proves that revenge is a dish best served cold by feeding Walder Frey a pie baked from his sons’ flesh, before slitting his throat. And the white raven from the Citadel has arrived at Winterfell, which means the long-running warning has finally come true: Winter has arrived. In other words, everything up to now has been the easy part.

Game of Thrones famously came to HBO with the elevator-pitch premise, “The Sopranos in Middle Earth.” It reached far beyond the hardcore fantasy audience, with its upscale production values, high-grade cast and literate dialogue. But because it didn’t compromise on the fantasy element, or water down the complex plot, the hardcore George R. R. Martin fans came along with all the newbies. GoT has always taken plenty of inspiration from classic HBO crime sagas, though more than any other show, it’s The Wire that seems to be always looming large over the series – from Littlefinger (even slimier in King’s Landing than he was as mayor of Baltimore) to the moment when the Hound tells Arya, “A man’s got to have a code.” (Omar and the Hound would have a lot to say to each other about the subject – and maybe also about the dangers of getting too close to armed children.)

But like those classic dramas, it’s shot through with the emotional heartbreak that lurks behind all the action. Every character has an unspeakable history of pain and grief they carry around under their armor – and they’re liable to tell their tale anywhere, from a bathtub to a brothel to a battlefield. Everybody has an eye on the Iron Throne, even though it has a history of ruining and ravaging anyone who dares to sit on it. The Lannister siblings are the dark heart of Game of Thrones, haunted by the sinister legacy of their loathsome patriarch. There hasn’t been such a royally dysfunctional trio of aristocratic siblings since House Drummond ruled the world on Diff’rent Strokes.

Over the course of 60 hours, the show has kept juggling so many narrative balls in the air. It’s lost its way often – particularly in Season Five, when it began to sink into self-parodic shtick. As George Lucas cynically put it in the Seventies, “Emotionally involving the audience is easy. Anybody can do it blindfolded. Get a little kitten and have some guy wring its neck.” Thrones has come close to taking this game plan literally, often substituting children or pregnant women; it was a shocker to see a major character in the very first episode toss a little kid out of a castle window. But it came to seem like a tiresome routine. By the time Stannis Baratheon gave his daughter a affectionate hug, you could just instantly see through it as a cheap ploy to make you guess how many episodes she had to live before he killed her in cold blood. (Five, as it turned out.)

Some of the narrative stumbles have been forgivable lapses, like the much-maligned Dorne interlude with the Sand Snake sisters, who uttered groaner lines like “You want a good girl, but you need a bad pussy.” But where the series really gets into trouble is when it falls back on the principle, “When in doubt, pick any random female character’s body to use as a dartboard.” Benioff and Weiss have insisted on sexually abusing female characters who don’t get assaulted in the original novels – most notoriously the scene where Jaime attacks Cersei next to the corpse of their dead son. In the novel, it’s a consensual sex scene; the TV version turned it into an out-of-nowhere rape scene neither character ever mentioned again. (Maybe they forgot?) It was an ominous sign of contempt for the viewing audience’s intelligence.

Still, GoT bounced back last season by wisely toning down the shock treatment and going for more complex horrors. It was one of the finest seasons yet – from the spectacular Battle of the Bastards to agonisingly intimate moments like the tale of Hodor, as we found out how the lovable giant got his name in a mind-warp trauma that nobody understands. Game of Thrones can blend big moments and tiny moments like nothing else on TV. Six years after it invented a whole new style of TV storytelling, the show keeps dropping fresh surprises. It was the first of its breed. And as is already clear, it’s also the last. Here’s to the next and final phase of this unimaginable, impossible epic. Winter has indeed come.