Number 2: Game of Thrones
‘Game of Thrones’ is a sprawling epic set in the violent medieval-esque world of Westeros, and follows the intertwining tales of the land’s noble houses as they attempt to manoeuvre into contention for its seat of power, The Iron Throne. Comprising a range of branching sub-plots, most broadly the show focusses on: the destruction of House Stark and the lives of its surviving members; the political machinations of the ruling House Lannister; the young and beautiful Daenerys Targaryen, and her attempts to raise an army to challenge for The Iron Throne herself; and the impending invasion of the mysterious ‘White Walkers’ from the land’s extreme north.
Show creators, ‘Troy’ and ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ scribe David Benioff and D.B. Weiss -who had yet to have any of his film treatments picked up- first came up with the idea of adapting the books of George R. R. Martin’s epic saga ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ in 2006 after they became fans of the series. Managing to convince Martin himself to consent by demonstrating their love and understanding of the characters, the show was picked up by HBO and went into development in 2007. Surfing the modern wave of television as the preferred destination for big budget productions and Hollywood talent, the network heavily bankrolled the production – the pilot episode reportedly had a single budget of around five million dollars, and each subsequent season of around ten times that amount. Martin has yet to complete ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and, with two books still remaining, it is entirely possible that the show will end before the series on which it is based. Already gaining criticism from fans of the novels for truncating events, altering the order of certain sequences and editing – sometimes completely – certain characters, it will be interesting to see how this pans out. The author acts as creative consultant on ‘Game of Thrones’, much like J.K. Rowling’s role in the Harry Potter movies, and Weiss and Benioff have been given an outline of how the novels will ultimately conclude so when the show does finally wrap up, before or after Martin’s writings, it will be closely tied to his original vision.
To date, ‘Game of Thrones’ has the largest cast of named characters of any television show – in excess of 240 individuals. Whilst it benefits from a range of recurrent characters that appear either in single seasons or across many, the majority of major roles are filled by talented and well known British actors. Famous faces include: Lena Headey as series lynchpin Cersei Lannister, a scheming, murderous, and incestuous woman, who is mother to the current king; Danish star of Jo Nesbo adaptation ‘Headhunters’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister, twin and lover to Cersei, and a famous and gifted warrior; Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, mother to the world’s only surviving dragons; Charles Dance, as the sinister and scheming Lannister patriarch Tywin; Sean Bean, as head of House Stark, Lord Eddard; and Aiden Gillen, last seen being hijacked by Bane in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, as Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish. In order to fill so many roles, encompassing the full range of ages, Benioff and Weiss also had to recruit a number of unknown performers in key roles. Many of the fresh faces put in excellent performances in the show and have used it as a springboard to greater fame. Standouts include Kit Harrington – now star of Paul W.S. Anderson’s epic ‘Pompeii – as Stark’s son Jon Snow, the amazingly talented Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner as imperilled Stark sisters Arya and Sansa, and John Bradley as Samwell Tarley. In an such talented, deep, and varied cast as this, there are some performances that stand head and shoulders above the others, arguably above almost all others on modern day television; those of Jack Gleeson, Peter Dinklage, Alfie Allen and Iwan Rheon. As young King Joffrey, Gleeson – who has signalled his intention to follow a life outside of acting after his role in ‘Game of Thrones’ concludes – is magnetic. Easily the most despicable and loathsome character on network television, he is one of the series’ most standout villains. Angelic and pretty, his façade masks a cruel and sadistic nature that, rightfully, earns him the hatred of fans around the globe. Peter Dinklage is equally brilliant as dwarf Tyrion Lannister who, nicknamed The Imp, is every bit as cunning and intelligent as his moniker suggests. Arguably the most interesting of the characters, he is loathed and mistrusted by everyone, even his own family, he is also one of the most entertaining of the ensemble. Often light-hearted and fun-loving, he can quickly be dark and introspective; the result of a life lived in the crosshairs of his scheming relatives. Dinklage excels in some of the more personal and focussed of the show’s exchanges; garnering a seemingly endless stream of award nominations, including winning an Emmy, he is rightfully one of ‘Game of Thrones’ biggest breakout stars. Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy also has one of the show’s more interesting story arcs, transitioning between heroic, loathsome and harrowingly sympathetic. It is a testament to the actor’s talent that this unfortunate character is never less than incredibly engaging and, despite being off-screen for large portions of some seasons, he is frequently at the front of the audience’s mind. Iwan Rheon, best known in the UK as outsider Simon in ‘Misfits’, is also outstanding in ‘Game of Thrones’. In a show in which depravity and sadism are commonplace, it is to this young actor’s credit that Ramsay Snow is perhaps the most terrifying of all the characters; charming and handsome, yet cruel and psychotic, he embodies the absolute darkest recesses of life in Westeros.
Whilst ostensibly a hybrid of high fantasy and political drama, there is little doubt that ‘Game of Thrones’ is at heart a genre show. Thematically it has much in common with horror whether through the veins of black magic that infuse the series, the use of sexual abuse and rape as a means of exerting power, or even through the overriding arc of the supernatural ‘White Walkers’, genre fans will immediately find much to latch on to. With further rumblings in future seasons of necromancy and the undead, there are no signs of its genre connections abating any time soon. With such a long running show audiences are drawn to the characters, both positively or negatively, which gives the fate of many a real emotional heft rarely seen in the genre. Much is made about the pervasive nudity in the series, much like the ‘Spartacus’ franchise before it, but it is the show’s graphic sexual scenes that are most shocking. Sex in ‘Game of Thrones’ is a violent, brutal, and often non-consensual affair, and in keeping with its bleak tone at various points, rape is a common occurrence; in a show in which even minor characters are willing to go to any lengths to achieve some measure of power and influence, it is little surprise that this occurs, but it is always both shocking and emotionally disturbing. The show has received criticism from some quarters with allegations of both sexploitation and misogyny levelled; both of these are unfair however. The nudity is graphic but it is appropriate in context. This is a world in which life is cheap and populated by people for whom their own success, the attainment of their own desires, is the only end. The sexuality of the show’s adult female characters is as often used as a weapon as it is violently exploited and to accuse the show of misogyny is absolutely unfair.
‘Game of Thrones’ is astonishingly violent too, and gorehounds will find much to love in the show’s many fight sequences. Large scale battles are vividly and graphically portrayed – ‘The Battle of Blackwater’ in Season Two and ‘The Battle of Castle Black’ in Season Four stand comparison with any theatrical release – but it is our attachment to the characters themselves that mean many of the most memorable and emotionally weighty moments of violence are the smaller ones. Genre fans will find these moments of cruelty most familiar – the fate of Theon Greyjoy, and many others, leave a nasty, if darkly entertaining, taste in the mouth.
‘Game of Thrones’ is constantly surprising and main cast members die suddenly and regularly; whilst the internet is a minefield of unhelpful and unwarranted spoilers especially from those who have early access via Martin’s original texts, the more the show progresses, the more it deviates from them. The characters themselves are a step beyond the usual too; good and bad do not exist in Westeros. Even the most horrendous of characters have the most noble of intentions and, within context, their actions are entirely justifiable. Archetypes and stereotypes are destroyed, and difference is ostensibly derided, but thematically appreciated. The world the show creates is a fantasy one; the various tales it tells are so riven with horrors that it is doubtless one of the finest genre shows ever put to screen. Endlessly bleak, graphically violent, emotionally draining and horrific, for horror fans to dismiss ‘Game of Thrones’ is a crime; the sheer amount of bloodshed alone would bring it into contention to qualify for this list. Add the bleakest of themes – child abuse, demon worship, sexual abuse, torture, patricide, incest, infanticide – to the most memorable characterisation, the most vividly created of worlds, and one of the most talented ensemble casts ever assembled and ‘Game of Thrones’ stands as one of the finest shows, horror or otherwise, ever made. In fact, it would be the finest genre show in history if it wasn’t for…