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Game of Thrones – A Fan’s Notes

July 5, 2011

Fantasy. Even the genre’s name sounds like something shameful. It’s escapist, it’s lightweight, it’s unserious. It’s fluffy, for god’s sake. Say its name and a non-reader will probably picture fairy tales, embarrassing stuff written for people who won’t grow up. Alas, I’m afraid fantasy literature does a lot to live down to people’s expectations. The average fan has had to put up with quite a bit. We’ve had to put up with authors so in love with their worlds, they can’t bear to finish or even to move the plot faster than a leisurely stroll. We’ve had to deal with authors employing bait-and-switch tactics turning a fairly straight-seeming fantasy series into a personal soapbox or pulpit. We’re familiar – too familiar – with every trope, every stock character, every plotline. We’ve seen prophecies and quests, legends and lore, final battles and epic journeys. We have seen it all, and yet keep going back for more. To be a fantasy fan is to take to heart the depressing old adage There is nothing new under the sun and lower one’s expectations accordingly.

Fans cherish the memories of their first encounters with favorites – Tolkien, for most; C.S. Lewis, for those of a certain religious bent; Robert E. Howard, perhaps, for those with a violent streak. We know there will never be another Lord of the Rings, but that doesn’t stop us from picking up the latest, thickest installment in an interminable best-selling fantasy series. Every series has its fans, but I often hear even the most ardent fans of a popular series say something like, “It starts really strong, but after about book five it starts to drag.” Somewhere along the way, I came to see that fantasy, as it’s practiced by most writers, is actually something worse than derivative: it’s boring. When I see one of those fat paperbacks with a name like Shadow King or Dragon’s Blade, I’d rather pick up just about anything else. Unless, that is, the book was written by George R.R. Martin.

From the start, Martin seemed to be every bit as aware of the disheartening sameness of modern fantasy fiction as his readers. A Game of Thrones offered us not another clean-scrubbed, morally unambiguous and strangely sexless world, but one that wasn’t afraid to get dirty in any sense. It didn’t glorify medieval life, it showed it as an unglamorous, painful and short existence. It took the shine out of its setting, took off the polish, gave us not gleaming white cities but hives of scum and villainy, everywhere, even where the nominal good guys lived. Instead of giving us a plucky farm boy with a special destiny, we get a ten-year-old thrown from a window for witnessing the queen having sex with her own brother. For years I’ve held this series up as the counterexample, the exception, the first exhibit in the case that fantasy need not be either Lord of the Rings or Dungeons & Dragons, that it could be doing something newer and different if writers cared to and if fans asked for it. I watched it grow through four books – titled, rather floridly, A Song of Ice and Fire, then watched it stall into an endless wait for the fifth. I feared it would succumb to inertia. I took the news of the television series as a good sign, a serious incentive for its author to shake off whatever burdened him and go forward with confidence into the next book, and the next, and on to the conclusion. More, it was being done by the right people. HBO wouldn’t let us down, I thought. I hoped for the best, which I thought would be respectable ratings and a solid, watchable show.

I never thought it would blow up like this.

Suddenly, Game of Thrones is everywhere. People who don’t read fantasy watch it. People who don’t know King’s Landing from Knots Landing watch it. Counting DVR and on-demand viewers, Game of Thrones averaged a robust 8.3 million viewers this season. Ned Stark is on magazine covers. Suddenly, when people talk about the best show on TV, it’s at least in the conversation. It’s certainly unlike anything else on TV. It’s everything I could’ve hoped for, and then some. And people have just gotten a taste of what they’re in for.

Perhaps it’s crazy to think this, but maybe Game of Thrones now has a chance to do for TV what A Song of Ice and Fire did for the fantasy series. If the show remains as faithful to the books as it has, audiences will be asked to put up with much more than they’re used to. It isn’t just that characters die. We’ve seen that before, on The Sopranos and elsewhere. It isn’t just the inordinate amount of sex or that they’ve married sex scenes with exposition to create “sexposition”, a term I find irresistible. The horrific events at the end of the first season have already been called shocking, daring, even groundbreaking, but it really is just the beginning of a chain of events that can only be described as catastrophic for the characters and the world. If the show’s makers remain on course, as I expect they will, they’ll show not just what’s possible in fantasy, but what’s possible on TV in any genre. It seems strange to say that, after a decade of shows like The Sopranos and The Wire and Breaking Bad, but it’s true. It’s an epic in the truest sense, a grand-scale, world-encompassing story that will challenge its makers and its audience. Nobody has even attempted something like this on television before, but so far, they’re doing it brilliantly. I don’t even have the usual fanboy reservations about giving up my precious territory to the masses. Instead, I can’t wait to see what people think of the next season, and especially the season after that – if you thought what happened at the end of the ninth episode was shocking, just you wait.

At least for me, it feels like vindication. Something I’ve championed for years has risen to a higher place than I ever expected. The books I’ve loved are being snapped up by eager new readers, and the long-awaited fifth book drops a week from today, at long last. The characters I’ve known for years are now better-known than just about any this side of Middle-Earth. For once, fantasy fans got everything we could’ve wanted, without giving up anything. And maybe, just maybe, now that people see what the genre could be, we will ask for more.

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