On April 17, 2011, a fantastical TV series flickered tentatively to life on HBO and swiftly met with critical derision for its endless exposition and plodding story lines. The New York Times disparaged it as “a costume-drama sexual hopscotch.” Slate went further, trashing it as “medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap.”
By 2014, however, Game of Thrones had overtaken HBO’s flagship hit, The Sopranos, and at the end of its eighth and final season, it was a global phenomenon, the water-cooler topic of the decade.
Endlessly dissected online and beloved by everyone from Barack Obama to Snoop Dogg, Game of Thrones closed out the decade as the most popular show on earth, setting a high bar of more than 25 million viewers per episode, a Nielsen-ratified figure that didn’t factor in the countless illegal downloads, which also earned it the dubious accolade of the planet’s most pirated TV show, from South Korea to Kazakhstan. It had come a long way from the 2.2 million—mainly book nerds who had read the George R. R. Martin novels on which the show was loosely based—who switched on for that fledgling first episode.
It is, indeed, incredible to think that a decade has passed since show-runners David Benioff (Troy, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and D. B. Weiss first brought Martin’s bloody and sexually charged weave of kings, queens, feudal plots, brutal warriors, ice zombies, dragons, femme fatales, beguiling sorceresses, wedding-day massacres, and power-hungry aristocrats so luminously to life.
Overnight, we became enthralled by the political machinations that pitted the Lannisters, the Starks, the Boltons, and the Targaryens against each other in a dynastic battle royal taking place on Westeros and Essos.
And we were seduced by the Shakespearean-style episodes that brought into our own homes the complex lives of Cersei Lannister and her brother-lover, Jaime, and made household names out of actresses Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark in the show), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), Kit Harington (Jon Snow), and Maisie Williams (Arya Stark).
Much of the show’s power lies in its affinity with Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian diplomat and political theorist whose hugely influential The Prince, published in 1532, was written for royals including his own leader at the time, Lorenzo de’ Medici. Machiavelli’s answer to the question of whether it is better to be loved than feared sets the tone for Game of Thrones: “It is much safer to be feared than loved,” he wrote, because “love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”
The show rebelled against the tameness of the present day, evoking an alternate universe where fear rules and thrilling audiences in the process.
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Game of Thrones is also the last example of true event television, a shared experience that has been splintered by the onset of streaming. While other shows exist to be binged on in one greedy mouthful, this one had to be watched weekly. The fact that each episode ended on a gory cliff-hanger only boosted its appeal.
And while the critics sharpened their pens after witnessing that first episode, the cast and crew were always convinced they were creating something extraordinary.
Scottish actor Ron Donachie, best known for playing Master-at-Arms Thomas King in Titanic, played the Stark family’s own master-at-arms Ser Rodrik Cassel in Game of Thrones and quickly became a fan favorite during his time on the show. (He was decapitated in Season Six.)
Donachie told me that, ahead of filming, “my only preconceptions were that it would be very high-spec, with great production values and scripts and that there would be more of an ensemble feel to the work than was common with many other networks at the time.” All of which turned out to be true, says Donachie, whose son, Daniel Portman, played Podrick Payne in the show.
“From the read-through on the first day of the pilot, everyone knew that we had a potential big hit on our hands,” says Donachie. “It just sounded great. But no one could have guessed just how enormous it was going to become. And I think the ensemble feel survived the series.”
Donachie credits Martin’s source material as being crucial to the show’s traction and was delighted to befriend the author, whose A Song of Ice and Fire series provided the template for Benioff and Weiss.
“The huge achievement, I think, was to capture a gigantic audience, which wouldn’t ordinarily have been interested in this genre,” he says. “And that’s down to the source material. George may be writing in a made-up world, but his concerns are very much in this one. Internal familial strife and global politics—with a small p—helped to pull people in who might otherwise have given it a bye.”
Ken McNab is a Glasgow-based writer and the author of And in the End: The Last Days of the Beatles