Valar morghulis: All men must die. But how about “all men must watch” instead?
It’s arguable that the buildup to Game of Thrones this year can only be compared to that of blockbuster films like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Wonder Woman. In fact, Season 7, premiering Sunday, is likely to cement the show’s status as blockbuster TV once and for all.
Of course, Thrones didn’t always hold this status as TV groundbreaker. Its stellar early seasons earned a strong cult following, but most people outside the bubble only knew it as “that dragon show.” Now, the bubble has popped, and the show has swallowed — nay, conquered — pop culture itself.
How did a fantasy drama become must-see TV? How did Khaleesi become a popular baby name (even though, technically, “Khaleesi” is a title, but that's beside the point)?
As Game of Thrones has continued, it’s grown to dominate television by gradually adapting the aspects that made it unique. But this was bound to happen, and the payoff could be a TV wall-breaking masterpiece.
Thrones started out in 2011 as a true-to-form, HBO-original genre series. It was a fantasy show, yes, but the fantastical elements were minimal. There were exciting action sequences, though huge battles stayed off-screen. It had lots of talking, lots of scheming, lots of nudity.
But Thrones was also really good. The fantastical land of Westeros was ripe with historical problems and vices. The players of the game easily earned fan investment, and beautifully shot scenes filled with conspiracies and feuds made for a captivating viewing experience.
Much as with George R. R. Martin’s source material, the true value of the show came from its mastery of subverted expectations. Whoever thought Thrones would follow fantasy tropes lost their heads when Ned Stark lost his. Westeros, as it turned out, was no Middle-earth, and it certainly wasn’t Hogwarts.
This unpredictability gained the show legions of new followers each year, with the real explosion into pop culture stardom following Season 3's infamous Red Wedding. Fans were shook, and they couldn't stop telling their friends how wonderfully devastating this dragon show was.
HBO also seized on the popularity of the show’s stars and key moments to put Thrones all over magazines, collectibles and social media with clever marketing strategies.
Suddenly, the phrase “winter is coming” was understood by everyone — as well as the meme to beat. Little Aryas and Khaleesis were being born around the world. “Is Jon Snow dead?” became the new “Who shot J.R.?”
But with Thrones’ ascension into the stratosphere came the show’s own evolution.
Plot lines, notoriously complex and requiring the utmost attention from viewers, began to simplify. Characters’ impulses and aspirations grew clearer, and the difference between heroes and villains became increasingly black and white. The scale of spectacle on the show exploded (literally). Even once-excessive nudity grew infrequent — and more gender-balanced.
Nudity aside, there are many fans who lament this gradual change and say the richness and finesse of Thrones’ plots has suffered. There is, however, a simpler explanation for Thrones’ evolution: It was always going to happen.
TV series can only be so sprawling, so mysterious for so long. For dramas to remain good, more often than not there needs to be an endgame. Thrones has had its spelled out from the get-go: Daenerys’ invasion and the war with the White Walkers.
With the endgame coming, things have had to wind down. There are only so many layers you can add to the sprawl of characters, and to introduce more players to the game would delay payoff for fan investments.
There are hiccups in the process, of course — Ramsay Bolton and Arya’s Waif were inexcusably flat villains, Dorne’s plotline was botched, and a couple of infamous scenes of sexual violence have sewn controversy — but later-season missteps like those have been the exception in Thrones.
The show has remained true to its character-rich, beautifully shot, expectation-subverting self while evolving, keeping old fans enthralled while also growing the fan base with more-straightforward (and marketable) plots and people.
As it has matured, grown its audience and grown in budget, Thrones has become more than just solid television; it’s a blockbuster on the small screen, with drama and scale in episodic form rivaling anything in theaters.
If it can keep the momentum with a worthy, jaw-dropping payoff, Thrones can redefine the limits of quality television. It could show that enthralling episodic drama can be paired successfully (and repeatedly) with the massive scale once exclusive to the big screen.
If the final 13 episodes of Game of Thrones deliver on the show’s evolution, it will prove that scripted TV is not only capable of reaching blockbuster status — it can surpass it.
Need to catch up on what happened last season? Here are some recaps from last season:
- Bold moves make 'The Winds of Winter' the best 'Thrones' finale yet
- 'Game of Thrones' goes full-throttle with epic 'Battle of the Bastards'
- Think you can predict what 'Game of Thrones' will do? 'No One' makes you think again
- Where there once was happiness, 'The Door' slams shut
- You-know-what finally happened! And so did other things in season six, episode two