With Con of Thrones this weekend, we reflect on how ‘Game of Thrones’ has changed the television landscape and the future of its mark on pop culture.
Some spoilers for Game of Thrones through Season 7 below!
Looking beyond the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones next year, there will soon be no more summers spent watching new episodes of the show. No more Sunday night Twitter reactions to dragons, the Night King, or Cersei Lannister. No more water cooler discussions the next day about what shocking thing the show did the night before or weeks spent speculating on what’s to come next.
As a show that premiered in 2011 and was never a sure bet for HBO, it has dominated the current pop culture sphere in ways similar to major franchises like the MCU, Harry Potter, or Star Wars; something no television show has ever done before. And while there are more than a few shows hoping to take its place, Game of Thrones is a once-in-a-generation type of series that will be sorely missed when it’s gone.
Of course, there are spin-offs in the works, and there are two books that still need to be finished and published, but the TV series itself will begin to feel like a distant memory. That said, it’s interesting to reflect on what that memory will be exactly. Beyond being known as the show with all of the dragons and nudity, what impact will Game of Thrones leave on the pop culture world when things are all said and done?
First of all, Game of Thrones has been unlike anything we’ve ever seen before on television. Actually, the show has been unlike anything we’ve ever seen before on any visual medium, and I don’t just mean in terms of its spectacle. After all, simply having major spectacle is not enough to sustain a show’s popularity during its runtime, let alone long after it is off the air. Game of Thrones has proven itself over the years to be much more than just spectacle. The show has established new ways to think about storytelling and heroism and has opened up the fantasy genre to the mainstream television lineup.
Before Game of Thrones premiered, there hadn’t been a long history of extremely popular classic fantasy shows on TV. Aspects of classic fantasy, in this case, can refer to elements of the genre like dragons, magic, sword fighting, etc. It’s these elements that aren’t typically seen in abundance on premium cable TV shows. There are and have been plenty of popular shows that are fantasy-like but fall more into the sci-fi or supernatural genres. Currently, there are fantasy series like The Magicians and Outlander that are compelling and have strong followings. However, none have quite so deeply embedded themselves into a more mainstream discussion like Thrones has. Even if someone doesn’t watch the show, they’ve probably at least heard of it and understand the gist of it. Therefore, if there is at least one thing Game of Thrones will have a direct effect on, it’s probably the number of fantasy shows that are sure to be popping up on major TV platforms in the near future. The show’s wide success has basically let studios know there is a desire for fantasy on TV, and that they can make large sums of money producing those shows as well.
The series at large has also reshaped the way we view typical serialized television and the role of character arcs in a TV narrative. Perhaps the two most famous episodes of the series, “Baelor” and “The Rains of Castamere” (The Red Wedding), represent this idea. Ned Stark dying in Season 1, followed by Catelyn and Robb Stark’s deaths two seasons later will be looked upon as really groundbreaking moments in TV history. Because the show kills off some of its lead characters near the very beginning and takes the story in an entirely new direction, it forces us to reconsider what a story can be when the hero doesn’t win, and the future seems unpredictable. Plus, for those types of deaths to not only carry such weight and give such a gut-wrenching impact but to actually matter long-term narratively too is remarkable.
By doing this, the series also altered the way in which we view typical hero vs. villain plotlines. In a recent interview from Gold Derby with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister), he practically summed up Game of Thrones‘ stance on heroes and villains in a nutshell. He said, “You don’t really have heroes or villains, and when you think you have one, it turns.”
While the show has Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow who at this point are the “leads,” such roles haven’t always been so clear. There have been obvious villains like Joffrey and Ramsay, but there have also been more complex ones like Cersei and Tywin. There are characters like Jaime who have had excellent arcs from being villainous to heroic. And there are characters who we are meant to root for, like Tyrion, Arya, and Daenerys, who have done some questionable things as well. It’s rare to train your audience to be skeptical, rather than trusting, of all characters, including the ones who seem less evil, but that is exactly what Thrones has done. The show goes to extremely dark places with its characters and their storylines in ways that traditional fantasy would never have thought to. While in one sense the show has many visual elements of classic fantasy, it is far from being a traditional fantasy story. It goes beyond a subversion of a trope, but rather, it completely discards so many tropes.
Of course, most of these complexities and surprise deaths were all things George R.R. Martin wrote in the books long before the show began. However, HBO could have altered them for audiences, as shows often do, but they didn’t. Instead, they gave audiences something especially shocking that was important at establishing the framework of the series. They are things that felt shocking in the first place because nothing of that sort had ever been done on TV before. Thrones has pulled off more than a few brave moves that ultimately expanded what television storytelling can do and the ways in which we follow particular character arcs.
Game of Thrones most of all has done really interesting work at putting female characters to the forefront of the show. In the past, classic fantasy stories have been very male-centric. And while that still could be the case with Jon Snow’s storyline, it’s evident there are many other female characters like Daenerys, Sansa, Arya, Brienne, or Cersei, to name a few, who are just as vital and have as much of a hold on the story as their male counterparts do, if not more so. In fact, most of the leads in the story are female, and if Dany really is the “Prince(cess) Who was Promised” then that truly would be something fresh to see on screen even if it is the more obvious outcome for the show at this point.
This is not to say that the show has always depicted female characters perfectly or always in an empowering light. There are clear issues regarding controversial rape scenes like Sansa’s wedding night in “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken.” That is a particular episode I plan to never revisit. Additionally, aspects of the series like the male to female nudity ratio and how that nudity is used; whether or not it is meant for empowerment or just for the male gaze. Those will be the sorts of things to grapple with when it comes to looking back at Game of Thrones overall.
However, the level of power the female characters of Thrones have wielded on the story is very prominent, along with how they stand as fully fleshed characters in what has typically been a genre abundant with male protagonists.
Ultimately the show’s legacy will always be intertwined with that of the books, and the way in which both mediums accomplished the realtering of how storytelling can operate. And of course, how the show ends next year will have a large impact on the way in which it is remembered. However, even looking back on it now, there are clearly so many other things the show will be remembered for as we think about its mark in pop culture, like its romantic storylines revolving around incest, or it being an adaptation which surpassed its original source material. All of these are things that could fill a book and probably will someday.
While there are sure to be some fans who only remember the crazy spectacle, there will be many who remember interesting character moments. No one will ever forget where they were when they first watched the Red Wedding, or the chills they felt when they first saw Daenerys’s dragons and thought: shit just got real. Looking toward the aftermath of Season 8, and the end of an era, long after its gone Game of Thrones will no doubt go down in history as an underdog that became one of the most compelling and widely talked about television shows of all time.