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Why Game of Thrones newbies should still give the show a shot

Two of our resident experts on the show explain to a novice why HBO’s fantasy blockbuster matters.

John Bradley and Hannah Murray in Game of Thrones
Time to study up on Game of Thrones.
HBO

The final season of HBO’s blockbuster fantasy drama Game of Thrones begins airing on April 14, and it might seem like everyone’s talking about it. No wonder: It’s one of the biggest shows in TV history, a sprawling tale of wars and dragons, alliances and intrigue. You might never have watched Game of Thrones, but you’re living in the world that Game of Thrones built.

But what if you haven’t ever watched the show? Is it worth diving in now, at the dawn of the final season? Does Game of Thrones have anything to say about the world beyond its borders? What if you’re not usually a fan of fantasy epics? And for those who might want to dip a toe into the world of Westeros, how should they get started?

In an attempt to answer these questions (and more), two of Vox’s resident Game of Thrones aficionados — politics and policy senior correspondent Matt Yglesias and culture reporter Aja Romano — sat down with culture reporter and Game of Thrones novice Alissa Wilkinson to talk about the series’ cultural import and why it matters.

Alissa Wilkinson: I’ve never been a Game of Thrones watcher, but I’ve picked up on a few things about the show over the past seven seasons, simply by virtue of living in the world (though writing about culture doesn’t hurt). I know there are dragons. I know there are a lot of people vying for power, and there’s something called White Walkers, who are ... coming? I’ve heard about Jon Snow dying and being resurrected, and I know there was at least one extremely bloody wedding.

In all honesty, I’m not a big fan of the fantasy genre. I like stories about power struggles and political factions quite a bit, but once you throw in castles and dragons, my eyes start to glaze over. When it first aired, I didn’t even get past the pilot.

However, now that the show is entering its final season, I feel like I should probably be paying attention. A phenomenon this big matters on its own, just as a cultural moment. On top of that, I now realize that there’s so much more happening on Game of Thrones than I previously gave it credit for. (Though, to be clear, it’s not like I ever felt disdain for the show — it’s just that there is so much TV to watch, it didn’t seem to align with my interests, and I primarily cover movies for a living!)

But before I ask too many questions about Game of Thrones, tell me: What is it that you two, as people who are interested in culture and also sort of wonky about ideas, find so compelling about the show? Why should people who “don’t like fantasy” think about watching it anyway? Why does it matter, beyond its status as a bona fide cultural moment?

Matt Yglesias: Let me say that I came to Game of Thrones during its first season, as a non-fantasy person who was only tuning in because I already had HBO and people were talking a lot about it. Now I’ve read all the books, watched the show all the way through twice, have a lot of thoughts about the Targaryen dynasty’s successful experiment with religious toleration, and am still not a person who is routinely reading books about dragons and sorcery.

That’s actually one cool thing about how Game of Thrones is structured — the worlds you’re originally introduced to have relatively few mystical elements in them, and as those elements are introduced, the human characters express a great deal of skepticism about them. It’s a clever way into the fantasy genre, such that in the beginning, you’re saying to yourself, “All this political intrigue is cool, but the magical wall is silly,” and then three years later you have a lot of takes about Bloodraven’s use of sorcery as a tool of surveillance (don’t ask, this isn’t even part of the show).

But here’s the thing about Game of Thrones that, to me, is really special and iconic and important: scale.

Map of Game of Thrones
The world of Game of Thrones is enormous, populated with scores of characters.
Lychnidos/Wikimedia Commons

Game of Thrones is big. The credits sequence is all built around a map because the geography of the show is vast in a largely unprecedented way. And as the seasons progress, they keep needing to change the credits sequence, because as large as that original map is — spanning two continents! — the show gets even bigger. The cast is big, the battles are big, the Wall is big, the dragons are big, everything is big. And you feel the size.

I’ve never seen any other show achieve this kind of expansiveness on a narrative level. Obviously, the literal scope of a Star Trek show is bigger, what with the warp speed travel and all, but those shows always feel intimate in that classic television way. Whatever the problem, the same little group of regular cast members heads off on the away team, and you know the newly introduced crew members are redshirts who aren’t sticking around.

With Game of Thrones, you never know. Seemingly central characters die, seemingly peripheral ones become central, and other people come and go over multi-season arcs. Larger scale is a logical implication of a lot of economic trends impacting the entertainment industry, so shows in general have been getting bigger. But Game of Thrones’ scale and scope is just unprecedented in this regard. A huge moment in the first snippet of season eight footage that HBO released was just that it showed two characters we were introduced to in the very first episode finally meeting. Season eight! Two of the main characters finally meet! That’s how big the show is, and there’s never been anything like it. It’s worth everyone’s while to see what it’s all about.

Aja Romano: To piggyback off everything Matt just said, I want to stress that one of the things that makes Game of Thrones significant is that its scale is a common element of high fantasy. (The term “high fantasy” explicitly refers to fantasy set in worlds that are often like our own but which are explicitly not Earth. “Low fantasy” is sometimes used to refer to epic fantasy that is explicitly set on Earth.)

High fantasy series are a huge, thriving facet of literary genre culture — but they’ve essentially never been successfully adapted for television until now. Game of Thrones is only unprecedented as a television series. Its literary counterpart, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, is one of a whole bunch of epic fantasy series with devoted followings that have sprawled across a massive amount of fictional geographic space, spawned many volumes, taken years to write, never been finished, or all of the above.

The scale of Game of Thrones is on par with works like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, or N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy — works that all succeed in part because they bring us as readers closer to understanding something about our own world through the fictional universe in front of us.

Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones is high fantasy, and it has dragons!
HBO

As TV viewers, we’re used to getting these kinds of lessons from science fiction, and have been since the advent of classic Star Trek, and arguably The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits before it. We’re used to seeing ourselves reflected through scenarios and universes that seem slightly disjointed or alien, a step removed from our own.

But in writing A Song of Ice and Fire, Martin (or as he’s usually dubbed, GRRM) based his literary world very closely on the dynastic clashes of medieval Britain and Europe. So when we watch Game of Thrones, we’re essentially getting a broad-strokes history lesson, by way of a simultaneous raven’s-eye view of the sweep of civilization over years of political intrigue and a close-up view of the everyday lives of people caught up in these far-reaching struggles. In between the dragons, Game of Thrones is giving us analogues for Hadrian’s Wall, the Wars of the Roses, the crusades, even Zoroastrianism and Christian monasteries.

These details all work to make Game of Thrones feel more relevant, and more significant, than just about any other speculative genre series that springs to mind. With other fantasy and sci-fi series, you’re usually invested in the drama because you love the characters and enjoy the world-building. With Game of Thrones, you’re invested for those reasons, yes, but also because on some level, you recognize that this story echoes a serious saga of real-world human conquest. No matter how familiar you are with the fantasy genre, or with the many details and side plots from the books that never made it into the show, Game of Thrones feels as high-stakes as anything on TV when you watch it. It feels a bit like you’re watching civilization itself unfold.

Alissa: So that’s a big part of what I find most interesting about the show. It seems to have sparked a lot of debates among commentators, wonks, and columnists about the politics of the narrative and how they do (or don’t) map onto the real world. Which makes sense for a huge show about civilization unfolding.

Does the show reflect geopolitics accurately? If so, how? If not, is that a good thing?

Matt: I always struggle with the concept of “accurately” in this kind of context. Back when I was a business columnist for Slate, I did a series of posts on the economics of George R.R. Martin’s universe that I had a lot of fun with. But I could never come up with a way to make sense of how the extended summer and winter seasons impact the economy, in part because he doesn’t really explain how crop life cycles are impacted by this — and, of course, it’s a made-up story about dragons and ice monsters, so at a certain point, worrying about the biology of staple grains gets a bit beside the point.

But I do think the books illustrate a lot of political themes, and that this carries over well to the show.

Part of the reason for that is they give us some characters who are basically good people (like Ned and Robb Stark) but prove to be fundamentally ineffective as rulers, with what end up being awful consequences for huge numbers of people. It presents a striking contrast with a show like The West Wing (or the even more egregious version of this concept posited by Dave), which basically holds that if we could just get some well-meaning people in office, we’d all be taken care of.

Ned Stark beheaded
Not a great day in Westeros.
HBO

Which I guess is a long-winded way of saying that, yes, I think Game of Thrones is an unusually sophisticated portrayal of political conflict. A lot of the specific plot developments are kind of outlandish (especially once the show starts going beyond the story that’s in the books and rushing), but I could also very much imagine using the series to illustrate a lot of Max Weber’s big ideas about the nature of political authority, the ethic of responsibility, and the concept of politics as a discrete realm of action.

This season two scene with Tyrion and Varys is probably the single most profound discussion of the sources of political legitimacy that you’ll find in television history.

Aja: That scene also illustrates one of this series’ other great strengths, which is that it is deeply aware of the ways history can be changed overnight because of the personalities, flaws, and whims of individuals. There are a number of very involved subplots on this show that essentially end with a character confronting no larger conflict or villain than their own hubris, unwise loyalties, denial, or delusions.

This happens whether or not a character is explicitly vying for power, survival, or something in between, and the result — apart from the occasional outcries of millions of Game of Thrones fans when their fave “loses” the game — is that you can see an equivalent of history’s many footnotes about certain minor characters playing out in front of you en route to the broader lessons that shape the world. You can also see how the fates of these many “minor” characters sometimes trigger seismic events long after their deaths. The geopolitics might not map onto Earth’s own geopolitics perfectly, but the interpersonal politics couldn’t be more sharply or shrewdly drawn.

Game of Thrones is also, along these same lines, very wise about the isolating nature of political battles, and the struggle to create meaningful and lasting social bonds in an environment that’s often rife with complete savagery and mistrust. (One city council position is literally Chief Gossip.) The show has multiple characters who are entirely devoted to using their political wiles to outlast everyone around them (“Chaos is a ladder,” one states), while family bonds are often depicted as the only sure source of loyalty anyone can rely on — and even those are frequently weak.

White Walkers
Winter is coming.
HBO

Yet despite all this, over the show’s many seasons, the story gradually breaks down these ideas, revealing to us that the characters who have the greatest chance of emerging from this years-long melee alive are the ones who choose to forge bonds of trust, mutual respect, and a common wish to work together for the greater good of humanity. (Insert climate change allegory here.) It’s a subtly progressive trajectory for a show that has frequently seemed regressive — but that’s the benefit of being able to watch a narrative of this size unfold over such a long time.

Alissa: Okay, then. If you were recommending to someone like me a few things to read or watch before the final season premieres — other than the show itself, and the full-season recaps — what would you suggest?

Matt: As you know, the search engine optimization gods have ordered up tremendous amounts of Game of Thrones content all across the internet, so the challenge really isn’t finding something to check out so much as sorting through the endless pile.

The best place to start, of course, is with Vox’s coverage!

There’s a YouTube account called Alt Shift X that has little video explainers of basically every Game of Thrones plot point under the sun that happens to strike your interest, and its basic nine-minute “Who will win the Game of Thrones?” video cuts right to the core issue. I find that I can never keep track of everything that’s going on in the show or the books, so the Wiki of Ice and Fire is an invaluable companion.

Aja: I confess to frequently falling down YouTube rabbit holes with Game of Thrones, which means I’ve watched a lot of the Alt Shift X videos as well as Civilization Ex’s history series, which gets a little dry at times but is ridiculously thorough, and actually interesting, if you want to really make sure you’re getting all the details the show either glossed over or left out.

Or, if you want a broader, more recent, and more colorful history lesson, I really like this history and lore series, which is a series that narrates Game of Thrones’ history as lore told by various characters.

And while it’s not essential reading to understand the show, I definitely think it’s helpful to understanding the A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fandom and how it’s evolved over literal decades now, so I’m going to toss in a self-rec for the oral history of the most important Game of Thrones fan theory (that actually came true!).

Game of Thrones
There’s so much going on in the show that it’s hard to just jump in and watch a random episode. (For instance, what’s going on with this guy?)
HBO

Alissa: One last question. In your mind, what is the single best — or your most beloved — episode of the show, one that everyone should watch?

Aja: This is ironic because I just compiled an essential episodes guide explicitly cautioning viewers against trying to choose just one episode to serve as an entry point for the show as a whole. You really can’t, because there’s just too much to take in — and the “best” episodes will likely make no sense to a newcomer!

But with those caveats, I think season two’s climactic “Blackwater” is about as close to a great all-purpose Game of Thrones episode as you can get: It’s a great battle episode, full of spectacle and shock, and a great showcase for one of the show’s most beloved characters. It’s a fan and critical favorite, but it’s also just an enjoyable, high-stakes deployment of everything the show does best.

Matt: The tedious literalist in me wants to say you should start with the first episode, because Game of Thrones is really not a show that gives you bottle episodes, and the plot sort of defies summary.

But I’m going to go with “Baelor” from near the end of season one, because that’s the episode that showed me I wasn’t watching the show I thought I’d been watching.

Both Martin and the showrunners have a tendency at times to take their story in egregious, off-putting directions under the guise of showing they can be “dark” and “serious.” But “Baelor” is actually serious drama. Things don’t unfold in line with conventional plot tropes, goodness isn’t always rewarded, and, meaning well isn’t nearly enough to actually accomplish good things.

Game of Thrones is special television because it’s proof of concept that high fantasy on a grand scale can be brought to the small screen. As a book series — and as a story — it’s much less special in that regard. But “Baelor” captures something that is special and important about the underlying story, as well as demonstrating the craftsmanship with which it was adapted for HBO.

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