"Winter is Coming." That's the common slogan of many a character in "Game of Thrones," an epic fantasy series now in its third season. It is set in the cold land of Westeros, and, weather-wise, it seems to mirror our own U.S., over which there still hangs an extended, climate change-induced chill. Beyond that, "Game of Thrones" seems to graft medieval and fantasy dressings onto situations and interactions that reflect our own society. Therein may lie just one of the many reasons for the series' massive popularity. Or maybe people just really like dragons and a good swordfight.
Based on the excellent book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, "Game of Thrones" is named after the first entry in that series. The story focuses on members of noble houses caught up in a civil war for the Iron Throne, upon which whoever sits may have rulership over the series' Seven Kingdoms. Meanwhile, a humanity-crippling winter is on its way, bringing with it menacing beasts from the North, known only as "the Others." The show chronicles the interactions and battles of these characters, and is filled with drama and political intrigue.
"Game of Thrones" has obtained an exceptionally large fanbase and piqued the interest of critics who usually give fantasy the cold shoulder. There was a Game of Thrones exhibit held in New York from March 28 through April 3, to which thousands flocked to examine props and swords, meet some of the actors from the show, and have a chance to get their picture taken while sitting upon the Iron Throne. Meanwhile, Tumblr is chock full of "Winter is Coming" memes and images of the series' 'dragon mother,' Daenerys.
The show has won eight Emmy awards (and been nominated for 16 more), a Golden Globe award, and a Hugo Award. The Season Three premiere earned 4.4 million viewers - an all-time high. It is the most heavily-pirated series in history, with the Season Two finale receiving 4.3 million downloads - and the series' channel, HBO, isn't even mad.
"I probably shouldn't be saying this," said HBO director of programming Michael Lombardo, "but it is a compliment of sorts. The demand is there, and it certainly didn't negatively impact DVD sales. Piracy is something that comes along with a having a wildly successful show on a subscription network."
For many years now, some critics and viewers have dismissed the fantasy genre as exhausted and irrelevant. But, to be fair, even fantasy lovers may be growing tired of the done-to-death sword-and-sorcery format, which almost religiously follows the themes of J.R.R. Tolkien; they may, as well, be entirely uninterested in the sappy, "Twilight"-esque teenybopper fantasy that Hollywood has been putting out these past few years. "Game of Thrones" adheres to neither of those conventions.
Dispensing entirely with a clear-cut 'good vs. evil' theme, this series' characters are flawed and morally ambiguous. Critics have jokingly called them "the Sopranos of middle-Earth," and perhaps with good reason. A single episode is filled with love, death, betrayal, sex, and war, with magic serving as more of a subtle backdrop to these elements. The series is as harsh and grim as its winters, and may thus speak especially to young adult viewers who have grown up in a time in the U.S. that is all too similar in tone.
Viewers, after all, aren't looking for morally upstanding long-bearded wizards anymore. The days of camp and wonder are over, and "Game of Thrones" is certainly reflective of that. Where many fantasy-based worlds serve as forms of bright, magical wish-fulfillment for viewers, this series' land of Westeros offers a sense of realism, at least where societal practices and human interactions are concerned.
Though still an epic fantasy series, it is in many respects also a love letter to historical fiction. The Guardian compared, for example, Westeros to real-world England during the War of the Roses, in that a land was unified by a single throne, yet houses fought over who would sit upon it. Martin also cited Maurice Druon's novels about medieval France as partial inspiration for his series.
It is this mashup of semi-realism, hat-tipping to political history, and unabashed acknowledgement of the dark side of humanity, that has skyrocketed "Game of Thrones" to the point of critical acclaim.
With George R. R. Martin currently working on the latest entry in the book series, The Winds of Winter, the obsession with "Game of Thrones" shows no signs of slowing down.
Photo: Game of Thrones' 'dragon mother,' Daenerys Targaryen. Game of Thrones Facebook page