By Kahini Iyer Apr. 20, 2021
It’s been 10 years since the first episode of Game of Thrones aired. It was like nothing anyone had ever seen on TV. Yet the series has not lived up to its initial promise of joining the glorious pantheon of enduring fantasy franchises like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Somehow you don’t want to keep going back to it.
For those who have paid even cursory attention to Irish actor Sean Bean’s career, his appearance on our screens is always enough to send off the alarm bells in our heads. Bean is a popular face in genre shows and movies, instantly recognisable as the duplicitous Boromir from The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Bond villain Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye (1995), Jack Ryan villain Sean Miller in Patriot Games (1992), and mad scientist Dr Bernard Merrick in The Island (2005). In all of these roles, Bean’s characters have died. So strong is the association between Bean and gruesome mortality that the actor has now sworn off such roles.
Maybe it’s because Bean is so good at playing the antagonist who must be defeated in the end, or maybe his deaths are so dramatic they stick with us; this is, after all, the man who took a solid six minutes to properly die after being shot through with arrows by Orcs. And yet, no amount of preparation was enough for the moment ten years ago when Bean, playing Eddard “Ned” Stark in the first season of Game of Thrones, was beheaded on the orders of his own son-in-law, King Joffrey.
With the killing of its most consummate good guy — and, as viewers thought, our heroic protagonist — GoT cemented its reputation as a show where anything could happen and spoilers really mattered. Lavishly mounted by HBO, it featured dozens of characters and literal armies of extras, massive cinematic landscapes, towering castles, and sumptuous setpieces — all of which were like nothing anyone had ever seen on TV.
But this series wasn’t just about eye-watering budgets; its impeccably detailed writing slipped seamlessly into a new era of prestige programming, heralded by masterpieces like Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Add to that the brutal violence and sexuality that could not have made it onto a regular network, and you had the ingredients for the biggest fantasy pop culture sensation since the halcyon days of Harry Potter.
For several years, Game of Thrones continued down this road, amassing an ardent following. Diehard and casual watchers alike know which Great House they would belong to (Martell here, RIP), while quotes like “I drink and I know things” have become the stuff of mugs, memes, and T-shirts. Theories about what would happen next on the most shocking show ran rampant, creating an entire online cottage industry. Giving out spoilers was a betrayal that could end a friendship; watching “The Red Wedding” together could solidify one. Soon, GoT had a cult that went miles beyond the original, still-unfinished A Song of Ice and Fire novel series by George R. R. Martin. Started in the ‘90s, each tome in Martin’s seven-part epic is thick enough to kill a White Walker, and the final two volumes have not yet been completed.
Despite this, the show has funnelled thousands of devotees towards the intimidating books, just as the mammoth The Lord of the Rings film adaptations opened up Tolkien’s eleven hundred-page, 70-year-old oeuvre to a wider public.
Despite this, the show has funnelled thousands of devotees towards the intimidating books, just as the mammoth The Lord of the Rings film adaptations opened up Tolkien’s eleven hundred-page, 70-year-old oeuvre to a wider public.Some fans fear that due to Martin’s advanced age, the ending of the novels will never be known. The TV series, however, called it quits in 2019 after seven action-packed seasons, with showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss developing their own version based on hints from Martin. Up until the last two seasons, Game of Thrones was an artful condensation of the novels, faithful to their spirit if not to their specifics. And yet, when it came to deviating from Martin’s story, the showrunners rapidly lost the plot.
Suddenly, a hero like Jon Snow could be saved from certain death simply because he was a hero, and Bran Stark, with his visions of the future, could be conveniently used when a complex plotline has written itself into a corner. His larger arc as the Three-Eyed Raven is never explored, and neither is Jon Snow’s dubious parentage that has plagued viewers since GoT’s pilot episode.
Much has been written about the failure of the Game of Thrones finale. These are just of the few loose ends that the series spooled out slowly over dozens of episodes and disparate plotlines, before trying to bring them together lickety-split and ultimately leaving them untied. The rushed last season, most agreed, was the equivalent of having too much sabzi for the last bite of roti: messy, unfinished, and unsatisfying. Rather than being remembered as one of the greatest fantasy offerings in recent times, a decade on from Sean Bean’s most momentous death, the legacy of Game of Thrones is now one of disappointment. Was it fair to expect any series, however amazing, to live up to the kind of hype that was placed on the shoulders of Game of Thrones?
Was it fair to expect any series, however amazing, to live up to the kind of hype that was placed on the shoulders of Game of Thrones?
Perhaps not — but now that the dust has settled and we have the luxury of looking back, it’s worth asking whether the series has lived up to its initial promise of joining the glorious pantheon of enduring fantasy franchises. Harry Potter, for instance, has seen a good twenty years of widespread fame, and still has enough zealous admirers to support an endless barrage of ancillaries ranging from Broadway plays to theme parks. One would think The Lord of the Rings had been exhaustively covered by a movie franchise that takes an entire weekend to marathon, but an upcoming series is coming this year. The threat of sequel saturation, it seems, has not actually caught up with us yet, as we continue to bask in the nostalgia of revisiting the stories we’ve loved.
And this is also where Game of Thrones stumbles. There is no comfort to be found in Westeros, no pithy statements on good vs evil, light vs darkness, Jedi vs Sith. Its lessons on humanity are not designed to give us the hope that sustains long after we’ve read and watched. Just like Sean Bean, it doesn’t matter in some ways how good the show was. It was always destined to die.
Kahini spends an embarrassing amount of time eating Chinese food and watching Netflix. For proof that she is living her #bestlife, follow her on Instagram @kahinii.