When Game of Thrones returns to screens for its fifth season on Sunday night, US time, it will no doubt continue to attract the critical and popular praise that it richly deserves.
DB Weiss and David Benioff’s HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s string of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, has achieved its cultural prominence not because of the vast amount of cash invested in the production and not on the back of the passionate fan base for the books. It’s not even the lucky coincidence of industrial changes in Hollywood television organisation over the past 20 years that have made it more hospitable to signature television, that is, television with strong authorial identity, style and attitude.
No: Game of Thrones is successful simply because it is much better than most other television and, for that matter, most other contemporary cultural output.
By “better”, I mean it reaches a consistently satisfying – often breathtaking – level of achievement as entertainment.
That’s something that is not explainable by merely pointing to its fidelity to the books on which it is based, or its budget. There are many other well-funded television shows that blend history, sex, violence in a genre package, such as Marco Polo, The Borgias, Wolf Hall and Spartacus. The thing is, picking a formula and loading it with cash and a sprinkling of talent doesn’t guarantee critical or popular success: art and culture do not work like that.
What Game of Thrones does best
So what is the distinction of Game of Thrones – what makes it better?
First of all it avoids the temptation to import a bunch of boutique contemporary issues into its narrative.
The women depicted in it, for example, would have little truck with the contemporary feminist tendency to paint women as vulnerable victims in need of legal and state protections against feral men. Daenerys, Brienne and Arya are valiant as lions and cunning as foxes: armies, weapons and courage are their currency. We’ve watched them over four seasons carving out a space for themselves in a hostile world full of pitiless foes.
Its homo- and bisexual characters are not magical emblems of ethical goodness for our edification; its men are not oversensitive metrosexuals in fur.
In avoiding such things, the show sidesteps the self-righteous and pompous tendency of some Hollywood productions to instruct us on how we should conduct our moral lives.
Secondly, Game of Thrones embraces its genre and uses it as a medium for expression.
It was the great philosopher Stanley Cavell who, in his books on Hollywood screwball comedies and melodramas, developed the notion that popular genres in the hands of great artists can be the source of extraordinary accomplishment. Game of Thrones – unlike other critically acclaimed shows such as Mad Men or Breaking Bad – fully revels in its fantasy genre.
More importantly, it draws on the familiar resources of the genre – the magic, the medieval brutality, the monarchical mania for power – in order to do something never achieved in the genre before – even, arguably, by the books. That is, it makes the search for meaning, particularly of those struggling for power and revenge, intelligible in dramatic and spectacular ways.
The threat of the White Walkers, the disintegration and murder of the families of the North, the corruption and debt of the Lannisters; competing religious faiths, one breeding evil the other a strange kind of solidarity and commitment to justice; it shows us what loyalty, lies and betrayal mean when the stakes are mortal not trivial.
Somehow we feel this speaks to our own search for meaning today, but not in an aversive way that suggest the writers have the cocky confidence to provide an answer.
Popular genres resonate in uncertain times
The unravelling of Westeros, as it is figured by some of the finest performances on screen today, resonates with a profound uncertainty about our relationship to our own history and future. And it is through genre and fiction that this intelligibility is achieved. Why? Because we cannot make sense of it, cannot feel its palpable weight for us, through other forms of discourse such as philosophy, politics or science.
Indeed the great Hollywood directors of the 1940s and 50s all used popular genres in this way – think of John Ford’s westerns, Hitchcock’s thrillers, the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray and Max Ophuls.
None of that would matter much if it was executed poorly.
Veteran actors like Charles Dance, Liam Cunningham, Diana Rigg and Ciaran Hinds have never done better work; the standout contributions are Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, Maisie Williams as Arya Stark and Aiden Gillan as Lord Baelish. Dinklage communicates the shifting blend of family resentment with the wit of a well-read intellect. Williams uses her youth as a constant misdirection for her evolving capabilities as a killer. Gillan manages to pull off the feat of never being less than chillingly ahead of us in his political designs while allowing us to glimpse chinks of his interiority that almost humanises him.
A win for ‘complex TV’?
Finally, the credit for making Game of Thrones better than the rest of television must lie with Benioff and Weiss.
In a recent Conversation, piece Jason Mittell made the case for denoting the shift to more sophisticated television drama as part of the rise of “complex TV”, by which he meant narrative complexity enabled by “major shifts in the television industry, new forms of television technology, and the growth of active, engaged viewing communities.”
There are many problems with this notion of “complex TV”: as a criterion of achievement, “complexity” is a quality that is too broad to capture aesthetic specificities. Lots of complex things are quite unrewarding aesthetically – transport and sewerage systems for example. And complex narratives can be irritating, or over plotted.
But what is striking is the demotion, in Mittell’s account, of the creative achievement of individual artists who are given a perfunctory mention at the end of his piece. On the contrary. Without Weiss and Benioff, Game of Thrones would be just another disappointing adaptation – think Harry Potter films – of some fine genre writing.
The tendency of cultural and media studies over the past 20 years has been to avoid judgement and discrimination between the bad, the good and the better, by pretending that everything except the contribution of talented artists is important.
In the meantime, the leading artists of our time – such as David Milch (Deadwood), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Weiss and Beinoff – have got on with the job of making great art for the masses. And herein lies one lesson that Game of Thrones can be said to offer us: without the talent and courage of individuals, no justice and, I would argue, no art, is feasible.