Game of Thrones is 10 years old ... and already feels irrelevant
Two years ago, the world was transfixed by the TV fantasy show. Now we see how shallow it was
The Stark family, 2011
The moment Game of Thrones eclipsed the sun and reached peak cultural saturation is engraved in my mind. In April 2019, a week before the final season arrived, I was walking through Dublin’s Dundrum Town Centre and happened to pass a Penney’s window display.
It was as though the Great Tourney of Harrenhal had relocated to south Dublin. T-shirts depicting the “flayed man” banner of House Bolton were arranged in a riotous panorama. Pyjamas adorned with the dire wolf of House Stark jostled for prominence. There were, of course, socks bearing the dragon sigil of the Targaryens, returning from across the Narrow Sea (the Targaryens, not the socks). Game of Thrones was no longer gatecrashing the mainstream. It was the mainstream.
This was just two years ago. And now Game Of Thrones, adapted from George RR Martin’s A Song Of Fire and Ice, has reached its 10th anniversary. April 17th marks a decade since King Robert paid his fateful visit to Ned Stark at Winterfell and we were introduced to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros via that iconic “clockwork map” and Ramin Djawadi’s cello-fuelled score.
HBO in 2011 put its reputation on the line in entrusting two rookie show-runners to bring to the screen an unfashionable fantasy novel (all fantasy novels being at the time unfashionable). And so it can be forgiven for raising quite a hue and cry over the Thrones birthday.
An “Iron Anniversary” was announced in the countdown to April 17th. Highlights include the release of a limited-edition 7 per cent proof Game of Thrones IPA beer (make your own joke about sitting uncomfortably on the Iron Throne) and a new range of Game of Thrones toys.
A revamped Thrones website, meanwhile, offers six playlisted “routes” back into Westeros. “A Path To Fire and Blood”, for example, focuses on Mother of Dragons Daenerys Targaryen, and a “Collection Has No Name” follows Arya Stark’s journey from apple-cheeked cherub to face-stealing super assassin.
It is obviously in HBO’s interest to keep the Throne fires burning. Several Game of Thrones prequels are planned, and a Broadway musical is in the works.
But whatever about HBO, how do the rest of us feel about Game of Thrones turning 10? Is our nostalgia tempered, for instance, by the fact the final seasons are now agreed to have been pretty dreadful?
What, moreover, of the casual use of sexual violence as a plot device? Here we arrive at the awkward truth that much of what made Thrones Thrones is now regarded as problematic. Emilia Clarke, who portrayed Daenerys Targaryen, is one of those to speak out about feeling “pressured” into appearing naked in the show.
“I’m floating through this first season and I have no idea what I’m doing, I have no idea what any of this is,” she told Dax Shepherd’s Armchair Expert podcast. “I’ve never been on a film set like this before, I’d been on a film set twice before then, and I’m now on a film set completely naked with all of these people, and I don’t know what I’m meant to do and I don’t know what’s expected.”
Game Of Thrones’ first episode concluded with Daenerys weeping, unclothed and being forced into non-consensual sex. In 2021, there would have to be a persuasive reason for such a scene. With early GoT there’s a sense it’s there because it spoke to “prestige” television’s adolescent instinct to tick the box marked “edgy”.
“I’ve had people try and explain to me that there need to be constant scenes of rape and sexual assault, because that’s ‘true to the era’, while neatly side-stepping the fact that if we were being truly accurate, there’d be no dragons, and Jaime Lannister wouldn’t have any teeth,” Irish fantasy and YA author Dave Rudden tells The Irish Times.
“Shock value without meaning is empty, and sexual assault is far too often used by male authors [and showrunners] to motivate male characters, with little or no interest in the female character actually experiencing the assault.”
“The first book in A Song of Ice and Fire really is something quite special,” Emily Tesh, author of Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country told me last year when I interviewed her for an article about diversity in fantasy literature. “I don’t know if the TV show really got that. I have to say I stopped watching after the first season, which was the season that adapted the first book.
“I got to season two and the scene where somebody murders a prostitute with a crossbow. And I thought, ‘this was not in the books … This is purely here to be a sort of pornographic violence against women. I don’t need that right now. Or ever’. Somebody made a decision to show this. It’s like a small child showing you a turd.”
What’s strange about Game of Thrones’s legacy is how invisible it is already starting to feel. Two years on from that Penney’s window rippling with Stark banners, Game of Thrones has stepped back into the fantasy wardrobe and shut the door behind it.
Who is to blame? George RR Martin may be planning a multitude of spin-offs through his production deal with HBO. Yet there is little indication he is anywhere near completing the final two books in A Song Of Ice Of Fire itself. And with dwindling hopes of those volumes ever seeing daylight, the Game of Thrones universe feels inert – its cultural footprint fading before our eyes.
“The whole thing reminds me of James Cameron’s Avatar – hugely expensive, went through a brief period of being popular and hugely profitable, but when it was gone, everyone completely forgot about it,” says Gareth Hanrahan, the Cork fantasy author whose Black Iron Legacy series continues with the publication next month of The Broken God.
“There are a few bits that still get referenced – Tyrion, Jon-Snow-knowing-nothing, the White Walkers – but overall it seems to have receded from public consciousness without leaving much behind.”
“A Song of Ice and Fire isn’t the only offender here, but one thing I keep hearing is that readers have become much more cautious about picking up an ongoing fantasy series because several high-profile series have ended up in limbo.
“It’s still not clear when Winds of Winter will come out … And as someone with an ongoing fantasy series, it’s nerve-wracking when readers say ‘I’ll wait until the last book is out’ when the existence of that planned last book depends on the earlier books hitting sales targets.”
For me, feelings about Game of Thrones are tangled up in all sorts of emotions. All told, I estimate spending six months of my life writing full-time about Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister etc. I visited the set in Belfast and hefted Ned’s disembodied head. The locks were fashioned from horsehair which made it incredibly creepy – as did the glass eyes staring out in shock.
Game of Thrones truly got inside my head. During the later seasons, when interest ran at fever pitch, I would get up at 2am to watch the live feed from the US.
And then I would slog until 4am writing about it. On one occasion, after staying up all night doing Thrones, I flew straight to Berlin for a junket. I remember sitting outside the Reichstag in a daze thinking it looked a lot like Winterfell. I was suffering a Game of Thrones-induced fever dream.
This attachment went beyond professional interest, however. At school I was one of those kids who was useless at sport but who could reel off the collected works of Raymond E Feist, Terry Brooks and Tad Williams. Once, when a teacher told us we could bring a toy to class, I’d arrived with the “Red Box” Dungeons & Dragons set under my arm. I couldn’t convince anyone to play – although somebody did run off with my eight-sided dice.
Back then, before the internet, fantasy was on the margins. And then, suddenly, Game of Thrones ushered it into the big time. The world-building, the lore, the sense of wonder –people were genuinely into it all.
This was just an illusion. Game of Thrones finished and everybody moved on. There were new obsessions – Succession, The Queens Gambit, Line of Duty etc – but they were rooted unmistakably in reality.
Where does that leave fantasy? In a better place than might be expected, as it turns out. On April 23rd, Netflix releases its retelling of Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone fantasy sequence. And Amazon is making a $1 billion Lord of the Rings prequel set in the Second Age of Middle Earth.
Potentially even more intriguing is its forthcoming adaptation of Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time – the connective tissue between Middle Earth and Westeros. Might we soon all be obsessing about the fall of Númenor or the machinations of the Aes Sedai?
In my more fanciful moments, I hope that, rather than the end of something, Game of Thrones might be the beginning.