Game of Thrones, and the art of knowing nothing

Game of Thrones, and the art of knowing nothing


We’ve come to the end of season six. So people have had over five years to catch up. Yet so, so many have refused. They’d rather lurk the internet, hunting for spoilers to scream about and rail against.

So here we try the impossible. Twenty questions about Game of Thrones, that explain it all, but leaves you knowing nothing.

Spoiler alert: We might not succeed.


Why are we watching a fantasy TV show?

Because of Lord of the Rings. Because those books had been grooming a vast, but largely unseen, fantasy fan base for years, before the movies blasted the genre into the mainstream.

So is it just Lord of the Rings for TV?

Not exactly. It doesn’t have beings like elves and orcs, which represent good and evil. Most of the creatures in Game of Thrones are humans, and therefore morally ambiguous. And because Game of Thrones actually has women it can also have sex.

So it’s a more modern version of Middle Earth?

Well, it might not be that either. The point of Lord of the Rings is that the quest can only be completed by pure of spirit, salt of the earth hobbits (that is, humble English country folk). But Game of Thrones is obsessed with the 1%. Nearly all the main characters are nobility. Even Daenerys, on her quest of liberation, achieves success not from an inner strength, like Frodo Baggins, but because she’s from a royal family with some inherited magical connection to dragons.

Do fantasy stories ever end?

No. Not really. The third installment of the Lord of the Rings is still going on down in your local multiplex. Even though you left the theatre years ago, Frodo is still saying goodbye. And that Tolkien trilogy gave us an abridged version of Middle Earth. There are plenty of other books and stories, plenty more dwarves and ents.

And it need not be because obsessive writers take the lands they create too seriously-Terry Pratchett created Discworld and never left it, writing 38 books on the back of a turtle. In much the way Star Trek can go on and on, discovering new life and new civilisations, a fantasy novel just needs to make its world bigger, by just sailing further from Westeros in this case. Because Westeros is just a continent on a world that could stretch on forever.

How is it going to end when they are forced to end it?

There’s a trick in the name. The book series is called a Song of Ice and Fire. It’s only the first book in the series that’s called Game of Thrones. So the story isn’t strictly speaking about the battle for the Iron Throne.

And the actual story holds no mystery.  A Song of Ice and Fire is about frost giants in the north and fire breathing dragons in the south, by its own admission. So the conclusion is in the title: the dragons are going to destroy the frost giants, or something similar. Everything else is relatively incidental to this conclusion. So there.

Where is it set?

It’s generally assumed the story is set in a fantasy version of medieval England during the War of the Roses. And in the first season this seems plausible, because Ned Stark speaks with a northern, Yorkshire accent.

But if Westeros is Britain, then Kings Landing would be London, which it most certainly is not. It looks like it never rains, the people are tanned and the clothes are exotic. As a location it’s Dubrovnik, and in inspiration it feels a lot more like ancient Rome-it actually looks thrown together from the discarded sets of HBO’s Rome drama.

So perhaps it’s more likely, through accident rather than design, that the period of upheaval is actually the Year of the Four Emperors, which followed the death of the mad emperor Nero, than the War of the Roses. Certainly, the lands to the east seem easier to identify as the empires of Perisa or Egypt than France or Holland. And the mental association we make between the wall and Hadrian’s Wall, makes more sense in the context of it being the limits of the Roman Empire.

Is that not too specific?

Well, yes. It’s obviously a hybrid of many inspirations. So a shout out too to the Maurice Druon series, The Accursed Kings, dealing with the French monarchy of the 14th century. Martin has described the series as a major influence. Vladimir Putin is also a big fan of the French books. So you can be sure it’s a series with hardcore political intrigue.

Who is the star?

Tyrion Lannister was the star, until season six. He is the only character to appear in the three story flashpoints: the Wall, Kings Landing and the east.  But he has faded into the background over the last season, making the real battle, not for the Iron Throne, but to be remembered in TV history as the show’s primary character. That title is wide open to be claimed in the next two seasons.

Who are the good guys? Isn’t it all ambiguous?

Not particularly. The Starks are all good. And the Lannisters seem half good, half bad-indeed when you do the maths, the family is more good than bad. The Tyrells are generally agreeable. While the bad Targaryens are more alluded to than seen.

So in fact, no family is entirely bad, but some are entirely sympathetic. People in this world are far nicer than the show likes to let on.

Does it promote unrealistic body images?

The men are what you might expect. There’s a drunken dwarf, the Hound who has half his face burnt off, a couple of ugly eunuchs, an inbred king, and generally most of the men are pock marked or weather beaten. Which is realistic for men in a middle ages setting. And that’s pretty much how women should look too.

But no one wants to watch ugly people sex. So the women are Hollywood hot. Whatever time the men exist in, the women exist in a time of moisturiser and spin classes.

So it engages in the exploitation of women?

Hmmm…HBO gets around the exploitation accusation by using a seemingly strict 20 to 1, straight sex to gay sex ratio. Having two men in bed together means they’re not just exploiting women. It’s a unisex exploitation, so not really sexist at all.

This makes Game of Thrones perhaps the first show for which straight men are delighted to see gay sex. Because it means there’s going to be much more straight sex, or at least sex involving women, for balance.

Is it overly dramatic? Overly arch?

Yes. People are always very ominously warning that winter is coming. As though everyone else doesn’t know this, as though everyone else hasn’t lived through it, as though the last winter wasn’t only nine years ago, which it was.

Lord of the Rings has this flare for the dramatic too. For example, the black riders, the ring wraiths, are to be greatly feared. Or so everyone says, so everyone insists. But when we finally come face to face with them, it turns out they run away from fire, are afraid of water and are easily killed if you just use a sword and a play on words.

In much the same way the white walkers are to be greatly feared at the start of Game of Thrones, but become easier to beat the better you get to know them. While dragons, the creatures which everyone bigs up, can be frightened off pretty easily, particularly at the moment in season five in the arena when they would have been pretty useful.

How popular is Game of Thrones?

The highest selling fantasy franchises are the ones that got the blockbuster Hollywood treatment: Harry Potter, Tolkien and Chronicles of Narnia, in that order. Next down are the fantasy series that have sold about 80 million copies worldwide, Wheel of Time, Discworld and Game of Thrones, in that order. So you’ll probably notice that you’ve heard of all of those, except one.

You mean there’s yet another fantasy series?

The Wheel of Time was a series started by Robert Jordan in the 90s that was supposed to be six books, but sprawled into 14. If that sounds familiar. The last two books of the series were finished by someone else when the thing people fear will happen to George RR Martin happened to Robert Jordan. He died.

So why did Game of Thrones get the TV treatment?

Money. Discworld and Wheel of Time don’t lend themselves to a TV adaptation because they use too much magic, and are therefore too expensive. Though there have been limited attempts to adapt Pratchett before, and now Wheel of Time is in pre-production as a challenger to Game of Thrones.

It’s fantasy. Why isn’t there much magic?

In Lord of the Rings one of the narrative approaches of Tolkien is to limit the use of magic. Generally it is only wielded by one magical being against another. So Gandalf flashes something from his staff at a balrog and a ring wraith but, out of seeming politeness, just uses a good old fashioned sword against orcs and goblins.

Tolkien knew a narrative collapses if any problem can be solved by waving a wand. It’s the difference between mature writing and Harry Potter.

Likewise, it is rarely used in Game of Thrones. And though Thrones wouldn’t be on the same illustrious level as Tolkien, it also benefits from creating a world understood through blood, sweat and steel. Characters are killed with swords and poison, not spells. And they stay dead. Usually.


But aren’t TV dramas these days just like long movies?

Not really. Sustaining repeated viewing is a pretty important part of the prestige of a movie. True classics do get better every time we see them, up to a point. But it’s unclear if this standard will ever be reached by TV drama.

Dexter, Homeland, House of Cards, Lost, True Detective, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, rely in no small part on the audience not knowing, but desperately wanting to know, what happens next. Once we know, half the reason to watch it again is gone.

So is ‘Spoiler Alert’ a TV term?

Predominantly, yes. Movies are generally unafraid of revealing plot points. They can’t worry too much about this trap, because so very many movies are based on true stories.

To make a few cinematic Spoiler Alerts: The Titanic sinks (Titanic), Nixon resigns (All the Presidents Men), and, ya know, Facebook was a success (The Social Network). That list goes on and on. So generally movies are about the journey. And contrary to what Netflix and HBO are trying to convince us, the best writers and directors still primarily work in cinema, making the journey worth revisiting.

But surely being a TV show suits Game of Thrones?

Yes. Because tv is a much more nimble art form, if only for one simple reason: it can kill characters off. You can’t kill off movie stars in movies. You can sometimes, but it generally goes against the whole branding concept of having movie stars in the first place.

But TV stars still aren’t particularly ‘famous’. Mainly because TV hires cheaper actors, who have no real existence outside the show. The cast of Game of Thrones are trying to spread out into different work, but ya know, so did the cast of Friends in their day, and not much came of that in the end.

So it’s still uncertain if the character turnover of Game of Thrones will ultimately mean the show is forgotten over time, because once we know who dies, and when, we may have no need to watch it again. But it is in the unique position of being a fantasy story that can be told with a TV budget, that couldn’t be told as a movie anyway.