Beyond the Wall: What makes Game of Thrones so popular?

Jaime Lannister Cersei Lannister Game of Thrones Nikolaj Coster-Waldau Lena Headey

‘Game of Thrones’ finally premieres this week. As the anticipation rises, Beyond the Wall takes a look at what makes the show the cultural phenomenon it has become.


Winter is finally upon us. This Sunday, the fourth season premiere of Game of Thrones will finally be upon us. If you’re half as excited as we are, then we’re twice as excited as you are. There are some awesome things left from the balance of A Storm of Swords, plus it wouldn’t surprise anyone if David Benioff and Dan Weiss started dipping into A Feast for Crows for some material.

But fans of the show who’ve not read the books — you know, the types of fans our spoiler warning is about to ward off — don’t care nearly as much about the source material as we do. There is one very important thing about that category of fan, however: There’s a metric crap-ton of them. The series has opened up the world of Westeros to many more fans than the novels ever did. What is it about the show that is able to turn source material from such a specific genre to a worldwide phenomenon?

If you don’t know why purple is a much more enjoyable color than red, Beyond the Wall is not for you.

Our regular SPOILER WARNINGS are in effect … though admittedly, those spoilers are a lot less severe than they usually are, as we are discussing the show in the context of popular culture and not really delving into specific plot points. But, just to be safe: If you don’t know why purple is a much more enjoyable color than red, you should probably save this article for after you’ve read the novels.

Bob: Let’s call a spade a spade, Ivey, or in this case: a couple of nerds a couple of nerds. It’s no big surprise that you and I, with our nerdish tendencies, are fans of what is assuredly the greatest fantasy series to ever be on television. What continues to amaze me, however, is how many non-genre fans are really getting into Game of Thrones. For crying out loud, my mom is a huge fan. Aside from the unlikely fans in our lives, the ratings for the show continue to increase, and it’s hard to avoid hearing references to the show all around the zeitgeist — jokes in other series, news folks mentioning the show, Madonna dressing up as Dany for Purim; Game of Thrones is everywhere.

Before we head into the new season (and perhaps even bigger ratings), I thought it might be fun to talk about what we think makes this show so popular with so many different people.

Bob: Behind all the pretty costumes and dragons, Game of Thrones is really just a well written soap opera.

I think one of the reasons is the water cooler nature of a lot of the plots on the show. Behind all the pretty costumes and dragons, Game of Thrones is really just a well written soap opera. There are beheadings, betrayals, scandal, murder, war — all the things that have people buzzing Monday mornings. At the heart of the show there are compelling characters and a plot so twisty that the show demands to be watched, and not DVR’ed or streamed or watched later On Demand.

Ivey: Me? A nerd? What do you think I’m sitting here in my Nerd HQ “Nerd” shirt right now or something? (Because I totally am). My mother, however, definitely does not watch the show. Too many beheadings, boobs, betrayals, boobs, scandal, boobs, murder, boobs and war. But I think if she could look past all of the … scandal … she’d enjoy the show to.

It’s funny you reference GoT as being a soap opera. I’d argue that a lot of primetime television — network or otherwise — is at its core a soap opera. But this show shares a trait with the daytime variety, one I don’t think most people make the connection to. You and I — and the millions of fans of George R. R. Martin’s source material — know that the author is not afraid of killing any character or twisting any plot … genre conventions be damned. The Good Wife’s current major arc aside, there’s nothing like that on television today.

Ivey: Game of Thrones breaks all of the rules, and fans love the show for it.

Just look back at early in the first season. If viewers had to guess who the main characters of the show were, that list would likely be headed by (see what I did there) Ned Stark, Viserys Targaryen, Khal Drogo and Robert Baratheon. None of those characters lived past the season finale. Audiences have experienced those deaths and now they have experienced the Red Wedding. They’re about to get twisted up again (having seen the first three episodes and being bound by HBO’s even-more-strict spoiler policy, I can’t tell you if I’ve seen the Purple Wedding … but it’s awesome). Game of Thrones breaks all of the rules, and fans love the show for it.

Bob:  I may have talked about everything that is behind those pretty costumes, but I think they are a huge part of the appeal. Not just the costumes, but the entire production value on Game of Thrones is second to none. I think anything becomes more watchable when it looks so nice.

Production value goes beyond sets and costumes though. Just about everything on this show is impeccable — the casting, the writing, the directing, the plotting, it’s all superior. Truly, when you put all of that together, the show is able to transcend the “fantasy” genre. I think you see it happening more and more on television and in movies. The Walking Dead is doing it to some extent, sending the zombie genre on its head. Comic book movies are doing it on the big screen. Remember when superheroes were just for nerds?

Ivey: I remember those times. It was probably during that same time period where Michael Noble talked about going to SDCC without a quarter of a million people getting in his way. But you are absolutely right about the depth of talent that the cast and crew has. Just look at some the directors this show has been fortunate enough to use: Neil Marshall came in on like five minutes notice, and gave us “Blackwater.” Alan Taylor went from GoT to one of Marvel’s tentpole releases, Thor. And Alex Graves, who cut his teeth directing some of my favorite episodes of the West Wing — and showrunning the criminally underrated Journeyman — is directing four episodes this season.

Bob: Also, the gratuitous amounts of sex and violence don’t hurt the ratings either.

Ivey: Yeah, there’s that too.

Photo Credit: HBO

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