Game of Thrones finds HBO back on top form, providing an elegant piece of escapist fantasy for grim times.
So, what do you reckon? A vivid, visceral and thrilling spectacle, or silly bread-and-circuses diversion? Profound statement about the modern world, or elaborate myth-making? Like millions of people around the world, I too have been caught up in the drama, but perplexed by what it all means. Never mind the opening ceremony of the Greatest Show on Earth: is Game of Thrones actually any bloody good?
Rather like Usain Bolt somehow smashing the world record at the Beijing Olympics with his shoelaces undone, on first glance, HBO’s hit series seemed like cocksure showboating. Having set something of a gold standard in making original and serious adult-orientated drama over the past decade, HBO has seemed like it is getting bored of late. The network that gave us a number of vibrant reworkings of staple TV genres - such as the police procedural (The Wire), the Western (Deadwood) and the mob (The Sopranos) – recently it’s been seemingly setting itself handicaps.
So Boardwalk Empire reheated the Prohibition-era mobster saga, but with its charismatic lead ‘Nucky’ Thompson played by wiry indie-darling Steve Buscemi. Luck felt like the outcome of a drunken bet to see whether pulp horse-racing novels of Dick Francis could be successfully repackaged using the incoherent dialogue of The Wire and gratuitous equine-slaying of The Godfather. When HBO announced it would be adapting a popular series of fantasy novels – George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire – it really felt like willy-waving of the highest order. Fans of fantasy fiction are hardly famous for welcoming ropey TV adaptations of their intricate imagined worlds; TV producers rarely get big budgets or creative appreciation for making anything involving wizards or dragons.
Yet Game of Thrones, with filming for its third series underway, is a sure-fire mainstream hit. Taking place in the fictional medieval world of Westeros, it offers a rich overview of a society undergoing a profound crisis of meaning. We enter a seemingly straightforward medieval society – where magic and dragons are discussed as real, but long-dead entities – emerging from a civil war where a despotic king was brutally overthrown, but the knight who toppled him is a wealthy fop disparaged as ‘Kingslayer’ for betraying his vows. The ruling king is a drunken war-hero unsuited to the political machinations of court, resembling Renaissance Florence. Our initial sympathies are with the rough-hewn Northerners (led on screen by archetypal northerner Sean Bean) who seemingly scorn power and wealth in favour of community and honour. They are all protected from a harsh northern wilderness by a wall, manned by a team of devoted sentinels called the Night’s Watch. Yet with the fall of the king and the seeming return of magic, the scene is set for the world to be turned upside down.
Part of its success, you feel, is timing. The critical and commercial success of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film franchise made the genre fashionable; video games such as World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy have helped break the cruel stereotype of magical swordplay being for the spotty, virginal teenage boy and the success of an otherwise unremarkable sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, clearly indicates there is a geek-chic goldmine out there. In other words, the cultural landscape has changed significantly since George RR Martin began his ongoing series of novels in 1991 out of frustration with the limited horizons of TV producers (he is currently writing the eagerly anticipated sixth book, The Winds of Winter).
Yet Martin’s books, for their part, have built their reputation on a notably sophisticated approach to the much-mocked genre: offering well-rounded characters alongside very modern sensitivities around race, gender, sexuality and disability whilst still maintaining the requisite amount of sex, violence and magic. Rather knowingly, for example, a core character is a dwarf: but a human one, viewed with distaste by his own family, rather than a member of some fantastical other species.
The success of Game of Thrones on screen, however, seems to result from more than marrying socially acceptable twenty-first-century mores to the high-quality production values, good casting and libertine attitude towards violence, nudity and strong storytelling afforded by the support of HBO.
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Rather like similar HBO outings such as Rome and The Tudors, the series allows us to draw contemporary parallels on patriarchy, the war on terror, power and democracy. But unlike those less critically lauded programmes, it is not answerable to such tedious concerns as historical accuracy. It is therefore liberated to make allusions and references from where it likes, but is answerable only to the logic of its own interior world. This means it has perfected the seemingly brilliant conjuring trick of sounding like it is commenting on both the past and present, without ever having to say very much of substance about either.
Yet, if it is perhaps hollow, it is undoubtedly a brilliant piece of mass entertainment, an elegant piece of escapist fantasy for grim times offering a bit of something for all tastes without ever seeming crass or cynical. It has sanitised fantasy fiction without denuding it; it has artfully taken the ‘guilty’ out of the pleasure of watching the genre. Regardless of whether your love or hatred of the Greatest Show on Earth leaves you yearning for something otherworldly, Game of Thrones is worth investing some time in.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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