Another season of the HBO series Game of Thrones has just come to an epic end, leaving a mammoth television audience – and millions of netizens with a penchant for the illicit happiness of near-real-time downloads – with a long, painful wait until they can start marking their calendar for the countdown to the next. Over six seasons, the adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has gripped the global imagination with its tapestry of history, mythology and fantasy. It has become the pop culture phenomenon of this decade since its debut in 2011, sparking feverish speculation about the cast and characters through the intervening period between one season and the other -U.S. President Barack Obama was among the legions who wanted to know if Jon Snow, a much-loved protagonist who ostensibly gets fatally stabbed in the Season 5 finale, would get ‘resurrected’. (Spoiler alert: he was.) In fact, in its latest season the show took Martin’s epic fantasy series into unmapped plot lines. With 26 Primetime Emmy Awards and counting, with at least two more seasons planned, and an official viewership figure of 8.9 million for the Season 6 grand finale, what explains GoT’s critical success and phenomenal popularity? It all boils down to quality, and sheer scale. The series has an enormous ensemble cast portraying warring families across two fictional continents. Its shooting has taken GoT to places as far apart as Northern Ireland, Croatia, Morocco, and the U.S. And its panoramic sweep and treatment of battle sequences have eclipsed most big-screen renditions.
The fantasy genre has anyway always captivated audiences; The Lord of the Rings trilogy early this millennium raked in an estimated $2.9 billion at the box office. But unlike Hollywood, American cable television was historically hamstrung by operating budgets. As it finds newer global audiences through network tie-ups and streaming services, the expanding viewer base has given television programming the wherewithal to rival films in scale and reach. GoT interweaves fantasy with history and throws in malevolence, intrigue, and grisly bestiality to conjure a phantasmagoria that imagines the past as much as recreates it. Its success has even spurred some historians in the U.K. to use the series as an entry point for the young to engage with medieval history, though such an exercise is fraught with grave dangers of misrepresentation; GoT, after all, shuffles across inchoate space and time. Perhaps projecting it into the present – and the future as we don’t know it – might be a more informing exercise. The wanton blood and gore of modern-day terrorism and civil wars make the ‘Dark Ages’ a more apt description for our times.