Now that HBO’s Game of Thrones has ended, we look at the legacy of the series, and how it changed the landscape of television for better or worse.
After eight years, eight seasons, and 73 episodes, HBO’s Game of Thrones has finally come to an end. The series helped establish the era of “Peak TV” and grew from 2.2 million viewers by the end of season one to an initial 13.6 million viewers for the series finale. Even that number has grown and continues to grow with time based on numbers across all platforms. The season eight premiere “Winterfell” has surpassed 38 million views across all platforms. It made Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Kit Harrington and Emilia Clarke household names. The show became a staple for HBO, and led them to open up to more unconventional series including The Leftovers, Westworld, and the forthcoming adaptations of Watchmen and His Dark Materials. So what exactly is Game of Thrones’ legacy, what will it be remembered for, and how did it all come to pass? That’s our question today.
“A Song of Ice and Fire”
The story of Game of Thrones begins with the books. In 1991, after 20 years of writing short stories, novels, and TV series, George R.R. Martin began writing a fantasy series of books inspired by the works of J. R. R. Tolkein, the Wars of the Roses, The Accused Kings and Ivanhoe. Originally planned to span three books, Martin eventually wrote and released five books- with plans for two more in the series. The series, known as A Song of Fire and Ice, has been translated into 47 languages and sold more than 90 million copies. The fourth and fifth books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, both reached the top of the New York Times Best Seller lists upon release.
In the early 2000’s Martin met with multiple screenwriters who were interested in adapting the books into a film. Martin rejected those offers as he viewed the series as nearly “unfilmable” due to the depth and scope of the series. Added to that the amount of sex and violence in the story, and it would be nearly impossible to properly adapt for a major film studio. Then in 2006, writer David Benioff had a phone conversation with Martin’s literary agent and was sent the first four books in the series. After reading the first 100 pages of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the series, Benioff contacted his friend D.B. Weiss and advised him to read the books as he wanted to adapt them for a television series.
Benioff and Weiss met with Martin for a five-hour long meeting in which they discussed the possibility of the series. Winning Martin over with their answer to the question, “Who is Jon Snow’s Mother?” Afterwards the writers pitched the series to HBO, who accepted and acquired the TV and film rights to the books as development on the series began in 2007. The series faced some delays due to the 2007-2008 writers strike, and extensive reshoots for the pilot of the series, which included major recasting and a new director.
The series started strong with 2.2 million viewers and ended with 3 million viewers and two Emmys. Peter Dinklage took home the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor. The first season adapted the first book in the series A Game of Thrones, with season two adapting the second book A Clash of Kings and portions of A Storm of Swords. Seasons three through six incorporated elements of the third and fourth books, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, and began including elements of George R.R. Martin’s outline for the sixth book The Winds of Winter. Season 7 and 8 were then comprised of elements from the outlines for the two final books, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, as well as original material conceived by Benioff and Weiss.
The defining element of Game of Thrones through its first few seasons was undoubtedly the fact that the show wasn’t afraid to kill off its major characters. From Ned Stark to Joffrey Baratheon, and everyone in between, before and after. Game of Thrones thrived on the fact that all men and women can die, that no one is ever safe from being killed off at a moment’s notice. There are some characters who survived thanks to the broader storylines associated with the show. But there have always been major characters taken out at points that we never expected.
The fun of the show has not only been watching to see who lives and dies, but how things change as characters die. For multiple seasons we could follow someone trying to claim the Iron Throne, only for them to be killed by a shadow demon, decimated in a battle they thought they could win, poisoned by someone they thought they could trust. The inherent gap then in the power struggle within Westeros tends to shift drastically, and characters who seemed silly or insignificant to the overall story have then become major players in this epic tale.
The greatest sign of how drastically things could change has been the growth of Tyrion Lannister. When we meet Tyrion in the pilot episode, he’s a drunk that spends most of his time with whores. By the time we get to the final episodes, he had become Hand of the Queen, the right-hand man to Daenerys Targaryen. He became someone who had proven himself worthwhile in a million different ways, and did everything he could to save millions of people when conflict has arisen. Coming a very long way from the trouble making drunk we first met in season one.
“When you play a game of thrones you win or you die.”
When we look back on Game of Thrones, it will be remembered for not only changing the way TV is made, but also the way in which it took it’s time with the characters in the earlier seasons. This was a show about dragons and medieval style knights and battles, but at it’s core was a character driven political drama. One that could have been placed in Washington DC, with the Iron Throne being replaced with the Oval Office, and all of it would have made sense. The show is a testament to the fact that just because something may have a “genre” exterior, doesn’t mean it can’t be something compelling and interesting.
Where the show failed and what it will likely be remembered for more than anything is the way in which it ended, the lack of diversity on screen and behind the camera, and the way in which the story treated its female characters. Many fans have considered the final season a failure, and have fumed over how the endgame played out. In a way this was inevitable because everyone has a way in which they want their favorite series to end. But there were some major missteps along the way. The show became much more focused, in its final season, on hitting the major plot points and not paying off the character moments. Characters made drastic choices that seemed to come out of nowhere. And while some of those were laid out in pieces in previous seasons, the sudden and drastic swings in this final season were too much.
The way in which the show represented anyone who wasn’t a white male character was always problematic as well. It used rape and the torture of women as plot points, and character growth. It barely featured anyone of color, and usually when it did, they were killed off quickly. Even in the final season, the show killed off one of only two black characters, so that the white female lead could become motivated to attack her enemies. It was a frustrating moment to say the least, and a prime example of how the show did a terrible job of utilizing any aspect of diversity it tried to maintain. (Tried in the loosest sense of the word.)
“And now his watch has ended.”
It’ll take time to see how Game of Thrones fares in the landscape of television as the years go on. It will always be remembered as one of the biggest shows on television. Bringing back the idea of Event TV. It helped build up the “Peak TV” movement as everyone “had to watch” each episode each week before it could be spoiled for them. It helped make HBO a powerhouse in an age where TV networks and subscription services run rampant. It made stars out of nearly every cast member. Children have been named for the characters.
Game of Thrones will live on as a major cultural milestone. Even if the finale isn’t beloved by all. And while HBO has plans for multiple spin-off series and prequels, none of them will ever gain the notoriety that this series has. This is the type of series that comes about once a generation. A show that the entire world stops to watch once a week. In an age where everyone binges shows as they’re released in full season formats, and more and more people are “cord cutting.” This is a rarity.
Time will tell if we have anything like Game of Thrones come about again. Whether we have any other shows that stop the world for an hour a week. Whether any other series can gain such an intense and dedicated following. Game of Thrones will forever be known as one of the greatest shows in television, and as time goes on we’ll continue to dissect the series as a whole, and compare other shows to the series, and its success.