Commentary: The beautiful, horrifying, worst yet best show ever that is Game of Thrones
It’s more than gory scenes and captivating odysseys that make Games of Thrones such a stunning success.
SINGAPORE: I’ve got a new weekly item in my calendar for the next two months: Season 8, Game of Thrones (GOT).
Alas, I won’t be able to watch it when the first episode first airs in Asia.
But you can bet after a hard day’s work, I’ll be in front of my television catching the latest episodes.
ALMOST STOPPED WATCHING IT
Everyone who has watched GOT has experienced that moment when they first swear off the show.
For me, that was when Oberyn Martell died a sudden, gruesome death in the heat of a duel he was clearly winning but was caught off-guard momentarily because he got cocky and underestimated his opponent.
He wasn’t even a main character but his storyline of seeking justice for a beloved sister who was tragically murdered was compelling enough for me to feel emotionally invested in his journey.
Still, George RR Martin cannot keep making us fall in love with his characters, then kill them in the most hasty, brutish way and realistically expect us to continue watching.
This tactic of warming you up to a character or two, and then unleashing mindless, savage violence without warning seemed grossly manipulative and cheap.
Worse, it made the viewer feel complicit, as a powerless yet transfixed participant to a horrific string of events.
Many leading female characters in GOT are graphically violated, with more deaths, torture and unspeakable ends peppering each episode.
Much ink has been spilled over whether the gratuitous portrayal of physical and sexual brutality in mainstream television has crossed a line.
And yet, here many of us are, at the entrance of GOT’s final season, clinging onto our Apple TV remotes and waiting in anticipation for the premiere, hoping that all the carnage endured was for something.
HIGH ENGAGEMENT WITH AUDIENCES
So much of the show’s boom, which has seen the audience each episode grow exponentially from 2 million in the first season, depended on this pushing of boundaries to spark conversation and create buzz.
The plot’s political manoeuvring and alliance building spin an intense narrative about family, loyalty and honour in a fallen world.
With 32 million fans across all social media platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, GOT has created a vibrant, almost fanatic yet widespread subculture where viewers take time to dissect the shocking scenes and savour their heroes’ emotional journeys.
GOT’s biggest victory is how it has managed to ingrain itself into the psyche of popular culture, even finding its way into Saturday Night Live parodies, a spoof on The Simpsons, and heaps more lip-synching, stylised mash-ups and videos online.
Rare is the show that becomes water-cooler talk or has had such cultural currency; that GOT has managed to do so despite the ballooning number of alternatives one can watch with the advent of on-demand streaming services, like Netflix and Hulu, is a remarkable achievement.
Its popularity has also been further boosted by a stunning truckload win of Emmys, the most by a prime-time series ever. And Emmy victories have propelled the likes of Mad Men, Homeland and Modern Family into public consciousness.
Surveys too show younger audiences, especially in the US, give credence to critics’ opinions and awards, on top of personal recommendations from friends and family, in deciding what to watch.
A RESHAPING OF THE MEDIA LANDSCAPE
GOT has also given HBO a massive shot in the arm. The GOT franchise is now worth US$1 billion and commands a 30 million-strong viewership in the US alone for each episode.
Despite the colossal challenge mounted by Netflix and the decline of cable television, HBO has seen consistent subscription growth over the last five years.
With its launch of on-demand streaming services HBO Go and HBO Now adding more numbers, it is bucking the trend amidst changes in the industry.
This reshaping of the media landscape is challenging even the biggest names in entertainment, including billionaire Rupert Murdoch who just last year sold off 21st Century Fox’s much-loved cable networks National Geographic and FX.
Apple’s inroads into producing original content and Disney’s announced foray into Netflix this year will also be worth watching.
These media giants are awakening to the rise in demand for not just more television but on-demand video streaming services. Nielsen surveys suggest viewers watch almost double the number of hours of television compared to almost 30 years ago.
Closer to home, the 2016 media consumption habits survey released by what was the Media Development Authority showed nine in 10 of those aged 15 to 34 use online streaming services.
Technological advancement has been an enabler - in offering larger smartphone screens and cheaper high-definition televisions, not to mention enormous personalisation benefits as it serves up content you’re likely to continue watching using your viewing history.
CHANGING THE FORMULA WAS RISKY
Money flows where there is more to be made.
What else explains HBO taking a chance on two then-lightweight novelists-now-turned-big-time-producers David Benioff and DB Weiss and a relatively unknown George RR Martin on a fantasy series?
The folks at HBO made risky bets on GOT.
Many say the show’s period drama epic battle scenes, sprawling cast and picturesque landscapes, which involved filming across Croatia, Malta and Morroco, was a winning formula that explains its success.
With such a vast scale of production, Westeros really felt like a world of its own - but was coming at a cost of US$15 million an episode for its penultimate season.
Another risk: So many dramas employ a tried-and-tested formula – where much-adored characters are put in some level of danger but never really enough to get them killed. You knew deep down inside your hero will survive. Yet GOT wants to give you none of that assurance.
Instead, it breaks the mould to tell the distasteful story of what happens when your best-laid plans get outmanouevred, when promises are broken and a moment of folly brings unfathomable but all-too-real consequences.
That may have worked actually. Its sharp writing comes through not just in season narrative arcs but also in the bad-ass one-liner comebacks, which were huge Easter eggs for me. Here’s one:
Cersei: You’re not half as smart as you think you are.
Tyrion: That still makes me twice as clever as you.
WHAT ARE WE TO DO NEXT?
GOT shows us that the world can be a dangerous one that hangs on a precarious balance, in which preparation, help and luck play important roles.
It’s also a reflection of the shifts in the media landscape where shows must double down on creating engagement and recognising changes in viewership patterns.
The question really is what are we to do after GOT ends? What will we do with our lives after the heroes win and the story is over?
HBO’s answer? A prequel in the works.
Lin Suling is executive editor at CNA Digital News where she oversees the Commentary section.