The first time I quit “Game of Thrones,” in the midst of the prolonged setup that plagued season one, it came as a relief. No more referring to “that cute gay prince” (Renly) or “the thousand-year-old man” (Grand Meister Pycelle) in lieu of remembering their names; no more Daenerys brooding over her arranged marriage to Khal Drogo; no more directionless subplots to follow. The second time I quit “Game of Thrones,” unable to bear watching as loyalists chattered in my ear about developments on the horizon, it came as a disappointment. The third time, I didn’t quit “Game of Thrones.” Instead, I learned to love it.
HBO’s fantasy epic, created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss from George R. R. Martin’s series of novels, has become the watercooler series of the moment. Since the show’s 2011 premiere, its Sunday night audience has expanded from some two million viewers to more than seven million, while the excellent fourth season led this month’s Emmy nominations with 19. The desire to understand all the fuss over smoke babies, Moon Doors, and Purple Weddings forced me to return to the series this spring with fresh eyes, and it was learning how to watch “Game of Thrones” that finally revealed the series’ tremendous strengths.
The scope of its universe, not to mention the fodder provided by Martin’s source material, often leads discussions of “Game of Thrones” to treat the series with dreadful seriousness, which the slog of exposition in the early stages — see the first season’s painful double whammy of “Lord Snow” and “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” — only served to amplify. Friends warned that unearthing the show’s secrets would require nothing less than total commitment; Twitter commentators suggested that any confusion could be resolved by referring to the text; the A.V. Club developed separate recaps for “newbies” and “experts.” These are all acceptable ways of engaging with popular culture, but to the uninitiated, “Game of Thrones” may recall the experience of showing up to a college seminar after failing to complete the assignment.
Enduring Viserys Targaryen’s whining over his stolen birthright for the umpteenth time suggested, however, an alternate way of seeing the series’ fractured architecture. Despite its unflinching Realpolitik and incomparable production value, despite the fervor of those who find no detail in the series too small to parse, “Game of Thrones” is not only a powerful fable of (dis)honor and (in)justice. It’s also an entry in the history of that neglected television mainstay, the soap opera.
Indeed, a list of the soap opera’s defining elements might be mistaken for a (partial) gloss on “Game of Thrones.” Large, ensemble cast with no single protagonist; individual installments divided among numerous characters in diffuse locations; subplots meted out slowly (Arya and the Hound traversing Westeros, for instance), punctuated by shocking twists (the Red Wedding); narrative threads focused on the cruel machinations of wealthy families (the Lannisters); controversial subject matter (rape, incest, patricide); sustained devotion to complex female characters. In a sense, “Game of Thrones” is “Guiding Light” with bare asses and swordplay, and I mean that as a compliment.
Watching the series as a lushly appointed soap, thus absolved of the obligation to consider each piece of the puzzle with equal intensity, allows the roundest characters to shine. Jon Snow (still) moping atop the Wall, making me wish Ygritte had sent that arrow straight into his neck? A chance to reply to an email or two. Brienne of Tarth in the bear pit, or Olenna Tyrell sniping and conniving from her seaside perch at King’s Landing? Rapt attention. I learned to love “Game of Thrones” by learning to forgive its sins, or at least to ignore them, and focus instead on the skillfully drawn depths of certain characters.
Indeed, the continual improvement of “Game of Thrones” over the course of its four-year run is the result of embracing, rather than erasing, its operatic bona fides. Though renowned for the scale of its violent set pieces, the series functions most effectively in the realm of cloak and dagger, whittling away distractions until all that remains is the human stuff of power and powerlessness. Even now, “Game of Thrones” intermittently falls into the old pattern of substituting the epic for the interesting — no monument in Mereen can counteract Daenerys’ stasis, and no amount of death can enliven the monochromatic endlessness of “The Watchers on the Wall” — but at its best, as in this season’s “The Mountain and the Viper,” “Game of Thrones” comes to resemble a tapestry. It hones in with a magnifying glass on a handful of threads and thereby discovers the texture of art.
Though named for the trial by combat with which it concludes, “The Mountain and the Viper” ranges from the North, where Ygritte (Rose Leslie) spares Gilly (Hannah Murray) and her infant son during a Wilding rampage, to Mereen, where the attraction between Missandei (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Grey Worm (Jacob Anderson) continues to blossom. (The ongoing tedium of the arc involving Ramsay Snow and Reek/Theon Greyjoy, respectively played by Iwan Rheon and Alfie Allen, is best forgotten.) At the heart of the episode, though, two brilliantly constructed exchanges — more attuned to the gradual evolution of character than to the forward propulsion of plot — elevate the series to new heights.
In the first, a trio of elders at the Eyrie interrogates Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen) and Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) about Lysa Arryn’s untimely death. Panic flashes in Baelish’s eyes, as he’s guilty of Lysa’s murder, but Sansa’s calculated performance of tearful vulnerability saves his skin, wins his admiration, and displays the hard-won wisdom of a young woman exposed to her fair share of savagery. Nothing much happens, and yet in a few moments the entire tenor of their relationship changes. The almost imperceptible smirk Baelish flashes as he begins to understand her gambit, like the dark confidence Sansa exhibits later, descending the stairs in a breathtaking black dress, is the sort of precise, illuminating detail that “Game of Thrones” deploys in its moments of repose, something no grand battle in the series has yet to match.
The same could be said for the conversation between Jaime and Tyrion Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Emmy nominee Peter Dinklage, superb as ever), which emerges as a terse statement of the series’ bleak view of human endeavor. In Tyrion’s dim cell, the camera close to their tired faces, the once-estranged brothers come to an understanding of each other by way of their failure to understand someone else: late cousin Orson Lannister, a simpleton whose constant smashing of beetles has haunted Tyrion for years.
“Piles and piles of them, years and years of them, how many countless living, crawling things, smashed and dried out and returned to the dirt?” he asks. “So what do you think? Why did he do it? What was it all about?”
Jamie’s halting reply, “I don’t know,” concisely expresses the brutal truth of the series’ inconceivable body count. For all the invocations of gods and laws, of traditions, lineages, and oaths, the relentless smashing of living things that marks their society and ours is without reason, a kind of collective madness.
It is in contrast to these interludes of quiet, then, that the spectacle of the titular death match proves so exhilarating. The punctuation of the shocking twist works by dint of the slow burn that precedes it. And so when the surprise arrives in the episode’s final seconds, with Oberyn Martell’s brains splattered across the terrace and Tyrion condemned to death, the cruel cut to black appears a modern take on the soap opera’s dangling “To Be Continued…” Tune in next time, the moment promises, as the world of Westeros turns.