From Ice and Fire
Television must cater to the demands of its audience—which are often for more violence, gore and sex. If Mob movies are performing well at the box office, television had better make a Mafia show. And now that fantasy is again all the rage, we should expect to see prop swords and leather pantaloons. HBO apparently believes its audience knows best, rewarding us with the prodigiously bloody, extremely popular fantasy series Game of Thrones.
As a cable channel that makes money from subscriptions, HBO requires no content approval from advertisers. The network can exploit as much violence, sex and profanity as an audience wants, which, it turns out, is a lot. In its 1999 series premiere of The Sopranos, mobster protagonist Tony Soprano has graphic sex with his mistress and recounts lewd dreams to his therapist; his nephew, meanwhile, shoots a man in the head. For TV aficionados, it was like leaving Plato’s allegorical cave of shadows and seeing not reality’s potential but television’s. Nearly 12 million people watched the finale of the show’s six-season run; only NBC’s reality show America’s Got Talent had more viewers—an impressive result considering NBC was broadcasting to roughly 80 million more homes. The attraction wasn’t all nudity and gore, however. In creative ways only films had managed before, The Sopranos considers complex family issues and a tradition-bound subculture dealing with a rapidly changing world. Its creator, David Chase, took risks. In the pilot a flock of ducks migrates out of Tony’s swimming pool, provoking in him such feelings of isolation that he has a panic attack. Imagine pitching that to a commercial network in 1999.
A slew of explicit genre shows sprang from The Sopranos’ success: HBO followed it with foul-mouthed Wild Westerners in Deadwood (2004–2006), randy ancients in Rome (2005–2007) and scarcely clad vampires in True Blood (2008–present). Game of Thrones seemed a natural successor, tackling the sword-and-sorcery genre with gratuitous bravado. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut once quipped, “If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us,” and Thrones fulfilled that primal principle with a beheading early in the first episode. Nonetheless, the premiere performed only fairly in the Nielsen ratings. Critics approved, however, complimenting Thrones not for its ubiquitous sex and swordplay but for its artistry and well-acted, complex characters. The show’s first season was nominated for 13 Emmy Awards and two Golden Globes, including best television drama series. Peter Dinklage, playing the witty, cunning, lecherous dwarf Tyrion Lannister, was particularly well received. Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker declared he’d be “gobsmacked” if Dinklage didn’t win an Emmy. Dinklage did win, for outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, and also took home a Golden Globe.
Some may remember the CBS series Beauty and the Beast (1987–1990), a modern-day retelling of the fairy-tale classic, with the Beast (played by Ron Perlman) living in labyrinthine tunnels under New York City. It is romantic, slightly sappy philosophical television. George R.R. Martin wrote frequently for the show before he began enchanting readers with his epic book series of blood, incest and betrayal, A Song of Ice and Fire, in 1996. Sapped of all the sappiness of Beauty, the novels offer a bleak Dark Ages outlook on human interaction. Even so, Martin’s storytelling style remained ripe for television plots, as HBO affirmed when it green-lit the TV adaptation, titling the show after the first book, Game of Thrones. Martin has signed on to write one episode each season, yet fans and HBO executives alike may wish the Falstaffian-built 63-year-old author would focus more intently on his unfinished Song of Ice and Fire books. The 2007 death of best-selling fantasy writer Robert Jordan before he could complete his Wheel of Time series weighs so heavily on genre buffs’ minds that Martin has already informed Thrones’ creators about how he generally plans on ending the story…just in case.
The title of the HBO series Game of Thrones refers to the competition between treacherous opposing family dynasties for the monarchy of a medieval fantasy kingdom. Whenever a character manages to take the throne (an uncomfortable seat forged from swords), he also becomes the symbolic “game” in the quest. The king at the series’ start, for example, Robert Baratheon (played by Mark Addy), dies suspiciously in a hunting accident. But the theme of rulers as targets is nothing new. Take the unlikely trip from Thrones’ land of castles, dragons, armored warriors and endless winter to suburban New Jersey, home of HBO’s Sopranos. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a crime-family boss, and during the first season his own uncle attempts to assassinate him.
Ironically introspective for a career criminal, Tony recruits Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) to analyze his many parental issues. Characters in Thrones have no such therapeutic outlet—except for maybe conquering a realm, as in the case of the murderous, incestuous Lannister twins, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Cersei (Lena Headey). Instead, they engage in violent displays of emotion with little self-reflection. In both these high-stakes worlds, contemplative feelings are safe only on a psychoanalyst’s couch.
The 1980s was a golden age for sword-and-sorcery films: a time ripe for the orgies, bloodbaths and reptilian shape-shifters of Conan the Barbarian (1982) and haunted by the pantsless, breastplated Tom Cruise of Legend (1985). The genre went dormant during the 1990s, but Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) reignited the fantasy flame. Fellowship and its two sequels earned $2.9 billion at the worldwide box office, broadly opening the way for HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Special effects for fantasy films have vastly improved since the 1980s: Compare the twitchy computer-generated Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies with the two-headed stop-motion monster of Willow (1988). But the human element often remains the bigger draw. In Fellowship English actor Sean Bean plays Boromir, a selfish, untrustworthy, scruffy protector of little Frodo, the hobbit endeavoring to battle an enormous evil. Boromir betrays Frodo but finds redemption from his shame when he sacrifices himself to save his companions. In Thrones Bean plays the kind of man Boromir might have matured into: the fiercely honorable and even scruffier Ned Stark. Stark’s style demonstrates Thrones’ grittiness, a departure from Fellowship’s self-conscious polish.
In The Lord of the Rings innocent Frodo Baggins crusades across Middle-earth to defeat the all-seeing master of evil, Sauron. Like many works of fantasy, Rings is a good-versus-evil tale. HBO’s Sopranos draws no such clear lines, with its cast of violent characters humanized into shades of gray. Consider the episode “The Second Coming,” in which Tony Soprano viciously curb stomps Salvatore “Coco” Cogliano for making lewd comments to Tony’s daughter. A father’s anger is understandable, but Tony’s reaction is psychotic.
David Benioff, writer of HBO’s Game of Thrones, dubbed his show “The Sopranos in Middle-earth,” seeking to add moral ambiguity to the fantasy genre along with the internecine family clashes. Even if comfortable with characters’ unpredictability, Thrones fans may fidget at the thought of a series ending as infuriatingly ambiguous as that of The Sopranos, in which the fate of a major character is unclear. They may prefer a Rings-like ending: Frodo, burdened by the wounds of his journey, sets sail for the Undying Lands. This may or may not be a metaphor for death, but at least the picture doesn’t cut out before the climax.