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‘Game of Thrones’: How HBO Made the Cult Fantasy Novels a Mainstream Obsession

The HBO drama became a mainstream hit thanks to the careful way in which its fantastical elements were introduced.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Hbo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886225bj)Emilia ClarkeGame Of Thrones - 2011HboUSATelevisionLe trône de fer

“Game of Thrones.”

Hbo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Whether you’re on a first date or launching a new TV show, the safest possible strategy is this: Keep your crazy on the down-low.

As HBO’s “Game of Thrones” comes to an end, it’s worth looking back at the magic trick it pulled off from the outset: never letting its genre fiction roots — Dragons! Murderous smoke babies! Faceless assassins with multiple faces! — outshine its compelling, and frequently heartbreaking, dedication to character development.

In fairness, viewers can’t say they didn’t know from the beginning that some weird stuff was going to happen on this show. The opening sequence of the pilot episode, “Winter Is Coming,” features three men of the Night’s Watch scouting beyond the Wall that protects Westeros from the terrors of the North, two of whom are killed by strange undead creatures (soon to be well known as the White Walkers).

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Hbo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886225k)Richard Madden, Isaac Hempstead-WrightGame Of Thrones - 2011HboUSATelevisionLe trône de fer

“Game of Thrones.”

Hbo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

However, after that first appearance of blue-eyed zombies, the thrust of “Thrones'” narrative focused not on the threat of magic, but on the complicated interpersonal battles for power occurring between the different factions of Westeros. Rewatching the pilot on the eve of the show’s return, what stands out is the skillful way in which character is defined — no mean feat, given that there are easily over a dozen important figures introduced over the course of the first hour — as well as the undercurrents of drama which unite certain characters and have others at odds.

And while hints of the fantastical exist all throughout the first season — largely in the often-ignored warnings of invaders from beyond the Wall to the North — it’s not until the final moments of the Season 1 finale that executive producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss deliver a moment of pure supernatural wonder: Daenerys Targaryen walking into the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre, and hatching three baby dragons into a world where they’ve been theoretically extinct for years.

It’s a jaw-dropping moment, but let’s never forget: The shocking finale of the pilot hooks around a 10-year-old boy (who’s already been forced to watch the beheading of a man by his father earlier in the episode) getting thrown to his supposed death after catching the wife of the King and her brother going to Pound Town. What’s made the show so compelling to its massive audience isn’t just the epic-scale battles, but moments like these, which horrify even as they fascinate. From its inception in George R.R. Martin’s novels, “Game of Thrones” always had fantasy tropes in its DNA, but in these early episodes especially, the real drama was always rooted in character. And by the time magically pregnant witches were giving birth to smoke baby assassins in Season 2, the audience was hooked.

“Game of Thrones.”

Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

Which is why, ultimately, the show found Emmys success right from the beginning. It’s not as if the Academy was immune to the charms of genre storytelling before “Game of Thrones.” Looking at the modern history of the Outstanding Drama Series category, voters were surprisingly open to stories that weren’t just about lawyers and doctors. All the way back in 1991, the first season of “Twin Peaks” and the second season of “Quantum Leap” were fellow nominees, and just a few years later the final season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” would also be recognized. Right after that, “The X-Files” maintained a four-year streak of nominations, succeeded by “Lost,” which won the award for its first season, and was nominated for Seasons 4-6 (after an unfortunate creative lull in Seasons 2 and 3). Even shows like “Joan of Arcadia” (2004), “Heroes” (2007), and “True Blood” (2010) were nominated at one point.

However, all of these shows — with the exception of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — kept at least one foot in the real world, and even “TNG” put forward relatable human stories in the context of a starship’s travels. Meanwhile, “Game of Thrones” has taken the same track, but, y’know, with dragons.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Hbo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886225u)Jerome Flynn, Peter DinklageGame Of Thrones - 2011HboUSATelevisionLe trône de fer

“Game of Thrones.”

Hbo/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The more clear precedent for “Game of Thrones’s” success in being acknowledged as a premium drama is perhaps the “Lord of the Rings” saga, which years earlier had hooked fans into its epic tale of good versus evil. But the difference is that “Lord of the Rings” was just that, an epic but one that lacked real consideration for daily life; “Thrones” meanwhile let its world feel fully realized in a way only possible when writers have dozens of hours of screen time to fill.

Many critics have put forth the idea that “Game of Thrones” might be the last show that truly unites the general television audience around the figurative and literal water cooler, as streaming platforms change the very nature of how we watch TV. It’s sad to think about that tradition dying, but the fact that this one show still unites us is fascinating for those who have always loved genre storytelling, and have wanted to see it acknowledged on the same level as more expected premium fare.

For the nerds who grew up reading paperbacks during recess, escaping into fantastical worlds to ignore the taunts of bullies, the mainstream acceptance of “Game of Thrones” represents vindication — that just because a story has a dragon in it doesn’t mean it has nothing to say about the world, and that great television can happen when you embrace the magic and wonder that great fiction, fantasy or otherwise, can deliver.

“Game of Thrones” returns for its eighth and final season April 14 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. 

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