Game of Games

Spoilers ahead.

Game of Thrones, HBO’s enormously successful epic fantasy drama, enters its eighth and final season on April 14. Audiences love the show so much that YouTube videos of people reacting to its biggest moments at a Chicago bar regularly rack up more than one million views each.

The show’ growth into a hype juggernaut has been slow but steady. Every season has beat its predecessor’s ratings, with the final episode of S7 racking up about six times as many viewers as the show’s pilot.

It helps that the show is super binge-able. It’s almost designed for nerdy couples or college fraternities with a couple of hours to kill each night for a month or two. Complex plot lines take years to resolve while dozens of named main characters die, come back to life, change allegiances, and die again. Those who got into the show earlier get to watch their friends be bludgeoned by the show’s emotional moments, while the newcomers are buffeted by more than 60 hours of emotionally hyper-vibrant characters and Lord of The Ringsy conflicts, played out in a way that tickles the brain with its complexity but offers no lack of people to cry over, laugh at, cheer for, or curse at.

The show’s wonk-friendliness also makes it a rewarding source for internet writers and bloggers to analyze, and I’m no different. Since season 6, I’ve organized a betting pool among friends for predicting which characters will die each season.

As much fun as the betting pool is, it’s a product of how the show has changed over its nearly decade-long run. I’m not the first person to opine that Game of Thrones has moved from an intensely character-focused, low-magic fantasy drama into an epic action-adventure series with massive CGI dragons and at least two two big-budget fight scenes per season.

This isn’t by definition a bad thing. It’s partially inevitable: as the show reaches its end, plot lines must be pruned or tied together, the cast dwindles to its most important characters, and whatever conflicts roiled in the past must come to a head. And I think David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are basically doing a great job making compelling television out of thousands of pages of dense, pulpy fantasy books.

The show used to be written based on the content of the books, and that made the earlier seasons more dialogue-focused and slow burning by design. Books spend a lot of time inside the heads of characters and on the sound of wind in the trees. We don’t just hear Robb argue to Catelyn and his advisers why he had to marry a non-Frey wife. We hear him recount, half-crying, how he led an assault on a fortress, found a beautiful princess in distress to rescue, and was “comforted” by her after the battle — and his clumsy, earnest teenage passion is contrasted by Catelyn’s cold, calculating inner thought that he could have at least picked a maiden with broader shoulders.

For me, the show’s most compelling elements are its morally gray and imperfect characters and scenes with simmering, tense, often anachronistic dialogue. Those have slowly taken a backseat to ‘the good stuff,’ like morose Jon Snow hacking apart ice zombies and Dany flying in on fire-breathing dragons or delivering epic Twitter-rant speeches to her enemies and subordinates.

I think season 5 is the most perceptible moment when the show started this change, and it’s no coincidence that this is also the moment when the show begins to diverge majorly with the books (esp. in regards to Stannis’ controversial decision making in battle for Winterfell.) But seasons 6 and 7 have really given us a show experience that feels sort of like Sunday night football. It’s geared for big groups of people, moments of cheering or jeering at the screen, and tug-of-war conflicts between the good guys and the bad guys.

Again, that’s not a bad thing. Watching your home team play a close but trailing game only to eke out a win at the end is really, really fun, even if you know next to nothing about the rules of the sport (like me anytime I watch sports with friends.) It’s just a fundamentally different experience than watching a slow-burn drama about Robb struggling to balance his emotions and sense of personal honor against his pragmatic, military promise to the Freys, or Arya’s lonesome travels with Sandor Clegane as they both show us how a person learns to emotionally distance themselves from the pain they inflict on others.

I’m excited to see the show’s swan song, and I remain impressed by how well the time and money poured into it have produced a mostly consistently great show (forgetting moments like Arya’s story in Braavos and the Sand Snakes.) And I just hope that other show writers see the kind of deliberate, subtle writing that made the first few seasons so great and incorporate it into their future fantasy / sci fi projects.

(I’m looking at you, Hyperion TV adaptation writers)

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