Game of Thrones: A Brutal Fantasy With Mass Appeal

The fourth in a five-part series about HBO’s new show, which premieres this weekend


HBO’s new series, Game of Thrones, premieres on Sunday. This week, we’re featuring five different takes on the show, which is the first foray into fantasy for a network that has built its programming on grimly realistic stories like The Sopranos and The Wire. Atlantic correspondent Alyssa Rosenberg began the conversation, and The American Prospect’s Adam Serwer and Mother Jones’s Nick Baumann continued it. Now, Amber Taylor picks up the thread:

HBO’s new adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s bestselling series of fantasy novels is yet more evidence that television, not motion pictures, is now where truly sweeping, complex stories are being told. Although I've been an evangelist of the books for years (even going so far as to have spare copies of Game of Thrones for ready lending and conversion), it's heartening to see a fantasy narrative given a respectful and serious airing. Because magic is so peripheral in the early episodes of Game of Thrones, the fantasy trappings are not a long leap from these already familiar to viewers of shows like Rome, The Tudors, or The Borgias. And after they've been hooked by the characters and complex plot, even people normally allergic to swords and sorcery won't be able to change the channel.

As Alyssa observed earlier this week, fantasy too often is dismissed as mere escapism. But recent years have shown that there is a growing appetite for gritty stories like those Martin and HBO are serving up. Martin's books are part of a cresting wave of “hard fantasy” writing that seeks to ground itself in unflinching portrayals of feudalism and medieval warfare. In place of the cardboard-cutout, can't-lose protagonists common to the most conventional epic fantasies, Martin and other writers in this tradition embrace the fact that readers become more emotionally involved with characters who are actually vulnerable. The effect of this is that nobody in these stories, as in life, is safe. We cannot be sure that good shall triumph, which makes those instances where it does—even partially—all the more exulting.

HBO understands this aspect of the books and runs with it. Game of Thrones draws you in not by presenting the viewer with a easily identifiable hero to project one's self upon, but with an ensemble of characters with sometimes sympathetic, often imperfect motives. We are immediately drawn, for example, to Peter Dinklage's wry and pragmatic Tyrion Lannister, even as we are repulsed by the acts of his family, to which he is forthrightly loyal. And Ned Stark, the closest thing Game of Thrones has to a hero, is a loving father who is nevertheless willing to dispose of his children in politically useful but dangerous ways.

Newcomers to the material may struggle. I was grateful when the young men of Winterfell had a shave, as scruffily bearded teenage boys wearing big fur capes tend to blend together. And the demands of adapting a brick-sized novel to ten episodes mean that we get much less coverage of the Lannister clan's history and interpersonal relationships, to the dramatic advantage of House Stark. But even by halfway through the season, we can feel wheels inexorably turning, and the triumph of any one faction would be bittersweet, since even the most scheming family has at least one character whom we long to protect from the coming winter.

But we hope in vain: HBO batters us with the nasty, brutish aspects of medieval life. The depiction of sex in the show is arguably one of its distinctive aspects, and cheesy only insofar as sex is fundamentally absurd. It's very tempting for a premium channel not confined by broadcast Standards and Practices departments to flaunt its ability to show sex and nudity and to use it for titillation, not to advance the narrative or reveal anything about the characters. But none of these scenes in Game of Thrones feels superfluous. Dany, the princess of a deposed and depleted house, is appraised while nude by her brother, like a piece of horseflesh offered for sale, then disrobed by her foreign and intimidating husband: Both scenes make her vulnerability more real than any political exposition.

More worrying is how new viewers will react to the prevalence of incest. Although in the books it is clear that the old royal house echoed stories of Egyptian pharaohs by wedding brother to sister, without that cultural context certain actions could come off as random pandering. One admirable choice by HBO is that its nonconsensual sex scenes are deeply unarousing, in marked contrast with shows on other networks that use a historical setting as window dressing for prurient depictions of rape.

Though many of the most uncomfortable scenes are set among the Dothraki, the nomadic warriors who live a narrow sea away from the Seven Kingdoms inhabited by the Starks, Lannisters, and other game players, I actually found the depiction of that society intriguing. The Dothraki culture is not based on any particular ethnic or racial group, although it has similarities to the Mongols of Genghis Khan's day. But the decision by HBO to create an entirely new language for the Dothraki instead of a mashup of existing ones gives me hope that other aspects of the Dothraki culture will be revealed as part of a thoughtfully crafted whole, rather than a jumble of exoticized tropes. And just as I hope we see more detailed depictions of the religious divisions that percolate within the Seven Kingdoms, with luck we will see more of Dothraki culture than just what a frightened girl would focus upon.

The show does provide one definite guilty pleasure, albeit one also seen in other premium offerings that combine historical settings with dramatic, flawed characters for maximum thrills. Human passions are no less intense today than they were centuries ago, but for most HBO subscribers the stakes are dramatically lower. Kingdoms do not ride on our choices, and few things in our daily lives carry the sort of deadly consequences that confront the Starks. To the extent that we can identify with the many men and women playing the game of thrones, we can channel those passions into a context appropriate to their intensity. If that's escapism, book me a ticket.

Read all of The Atlantic’s Game of Thrones coverage.