*WARNING: this article only contains SPOILERS from Episode 1 of Game of Thrones.
“Game of Thrones” is my favourite TV series of all time. I may have mentioned that before. And I am not alone in loving it. It is the most pirated TV show on the planet, showing that people worldwide are desperate to watch and keep up to date with the series. Not only does it have the approval of many fans, but it is also beloved by the critics, and has won more Emmy awards than any other TV drama in history.
GoT has made HBO a network to be reckoned with, as well as making them tons of money. Other networks, like Amazon, are desperate to recreate the success of GoT – however, it is not that simple. The success of GoT was unprecedented, as fantasy films and TV series usually have a very niche audience and are rarely profitable, with a few exceptions. Trying to pinpoint what makes GoT so popular is a bit like trying to arrest Melisandre’s shadow demon for murder, but I will make an attempt here.
Given such a broad subject, I went back and watched the first episode of Season 1 of GoT to try and give this article some focus. After all, Episode 1 is where everybody begins (presumably), and based on that decides whether or not to continue watching the series. I haven’t watched the GoT pilot for several years, although this was about my third or fourth time watching it. Despite knowing exactly what was going to happen, I found myself as gripped as I had been seeing it for the very first time.
A Stark Contrast
The first 7 minutes of GoT is unusual in that it shows us a set of three characters that are not at all integral to the overall narrative. This quite literal cold open introduces the element of the supernatural into the story at a very early stage, which is strange because many of the fantasy elements in the series are often not emphasised. The White Walkers, the dragons and the use of magic exist mostly on the periphery of the story, although as the series reaches its final act, these become more prevalent.
Once the now iconic main title sequence has played, the audience is soon taken into the castle of Winterfell, which the Stark family call home. This is the first sign that the series is predominantly a character-driven family drama. In these early sequences, the writers get us invested in the Stark family by showing us the proud mother and father watching their sons practice archery. We also see that they have two daughters, both forced to do needlework inside the castle, but it is soon revealed that the younger of the girls would prefer to be learning archery with her brothers.
There are only a few big name actors in Season 1 of GoT. Of course, today the esteem of many actors associated with the show has increased due to the popularity of the series, but back in 2011, most of the actors were unknowns. Sean Bean (aka Boromir in “Lord of the Rings”) was the literal poster boy for GoT, and he was clearly set up as the character that the audience were meant to follow and to care for. Used to playing minor roles in films (and often times the villain), Bean took centre stage in GoT and showed the talent that would keep people tuning in every week.
A World Beyond the Corners of the Screen
In the first half of Episode 1, there is a scene where the male members of the Stark family come across a dead stag in the countryside. The stag was killed by a direwolf (a large wolf), and the direwolf also lies close by, wounded to the death. Besides the symbolism of this scene (which may resonate for some viewers later in Season 1), the dead direwolf has left behind a litter of six puppies. Ned Stark (Bean) initially wants to kill them all, but his bastard son, Jon Snow, convinces him that it is an omen, and that each of Ned’s six children were destined to have one puppy each.
This hint of foreshadowing may also encourage people to continue watching the series: what destiny awaits each of the wolves? In the case of some of the puppies, they do not have particularly great futures ahead, while others will serve a greater purpose. The point is that we see that this is a world in which prophecies and omens carry some weight. Any successful TV drama should create a world in which its audience can immerse itself; GoT does that on several levels, for instance: when Ned and King Robert (Mark Addy) talk about the death of Ned’s sister, Lyanna.
The reason that some viewers do not decide to continue watching GoT is ironically also the reason that other fans, myself included, get hooked on it. And that is that the story always points towards a universe that extends beyond the corners of the screen. There is a tremendous amount of history and backstory swirling around all of these characters, and it is one of the joys of watching the series, I feel, that it is slowly revealed to you as you go along. King Robert hates the Targaryen family, but he feels very close with the Starks, and the Lannisters hate everyone equally, etc.
Playing the Game with a Handicap
One YouTube vlogger made an excellent point when he said that George R. R. Martin (the author of the book series that GoT is based on) gets you, the reader/viewer, to care about a character by giving them each some sort of handicap. Many of the characters that fans love to watch on GoT are underdogs, and we watch to see how they are going to navigate the world and the problems of life with their handicaps. For example, Tyrion’s handicap is that he is a dwarf. Jon Snow’s handicap is being a bastard, an illegitimate son. Both these designations carry a stigma.
Daenerys Targaryen’s handicap is being a woman in a society ruled by patriarchy. She is controlled by an abusive older brother who then sells her to an abusive husband in order to curry favour with him. Arya Stark aspires to be a knight, but she was born the wrong sex in order to have a hope of becoming one. On top of all this, GoT is also the story of a good old-fashioned murder mystery. In Episode 1, we learn that the former Hand of the King has died, and there is a letter that points an accusing finger at the powerful Lannister family. But who actually killed Jon Arryn?
The mystery will only be finally solved about another 36 episode later, but by that point you will have a new mystery or two to wonder about. And who doesn’t love a good mystery? The final scene of Episode 1 showcases yet another plus that GoT has in its favour: an element of Shock and Awe. In the final scene, 10-year old Bran Stark climbs a tower and witnesses an act of incest between Queen Cersei and her twin brother, Jaime. Jaime grabs the boy while he considers his options. At last, with some urging from his sister, he pushes Bran out the window and he falls to the ground.
Now tell me: after witnessing such a shocking twist, who is not going to want to see what happens next?
And GoT has continued to deliver heart-stopping plot-twists every season for the last six years. The characters which started out in Episode 1 with their handicaps have gone through many hours of character development over the course of the seasons, and this is probably what many long-time fans find most rewarding. Incredibly for a TV series, GoT’s ratings have only increased as the story has gone on. This is definitely the benefit of beginning a series with a broad outline sketched out, where you are aware of your endgame and the destination that you are working towards.
Many TV series work the other way around: they start out with their best ideas, and then subsequently become more and more repetitive and watered down. But in the case of GoT, the best is definitely yet to come.