Photo by François Philipp.

“You excited for Game of Thrones?!” I’ve been asking this ever since I saw the first ad for season three last Thanksgiving, and I’ve been asked it myself more than a fair share. The answer, of course, is always a resounding yes. The overwhelming majority of my friends watch the show, and every new commercial caused an explosion in my Facebook News Feed. So when the third season premiered on Easter Sunday, the minute I finished my homework (around 1:37am) I huddled around my computer with two friends and opened up HBO GO. After a brief opening scene the opening credits started to play—with that incredible theme song I’d been humming all day—and I felt a big, silly grin spread across my face. My wait was over.

And then I slept through most of it.

It wasn’t a continuous sleep, which might have been all right—at least that would have been fulfilling. Instead it was forty-five minutes drifting in and out, catching a couple lines from each scene before fading away until the next. As the closing credits rolled my friends expressed their enthusiasm and I stupidly mumbled my agreement. At that point I was mainly annoyed that I’d missed out on fifty-four minutes of actual sleep. I idly wondered if I should rewatch it before viewing the next week’s episode (I’ve read the books, and was able to construct most of the plot details based on what little I saw). And I realized that I couldn’t keep carrying my dirty little secret any longer: I don’t love Game of Thrones.

I mean I like it, but my opinion of the show is not quite as high as my rabid fandom suggests. What I’m obsessed with, however, is the show’s very existence, and its ensuing popularity. The popular conception of fantasy is that it is either geared toward children (and thus overly simplistic), written by Tolkien, or both. And to be fair, that conception covers a lot of the fantasy I’ve read over the years. But the success of Game of Thrones proves there is an eager market for gritty, ethically complex media of any genre, even one traditionally associated with nerdy males. The show is a victory for smart dialogue, layered characters, intricate plotlines, and moral ambiguity. If only that’s all there was to it.

The show shares the pros and cons of the source material, and author George R.R. Martin is not without his flaws. First and foremost, sometimes he can be kind of a gross old pervert. The level of sex and gore found in the books (and therefore the show) verges on self-parody. Before you dismiss me as some weak-stomached prude, I am not suggesting they avoid eroticism and violence altogether. Indeed, some of the most explicit scenes are actually quite powerful. I recall a scene from season one in which Littlefinger, the Master of Coin and owner of several brothels, coaches two of his whores to pleasure one another. His “coaching,” however, is a veiled monologue about his own ambitions—Littlefinger was not born into significant political power, but he has maneuvered his way closer and closer to the top by giving his higher-ups what they thought they wanted. He teaches his prostitutes how to gain full power of a situation while allowing their customers to think they remain in control, and we realize that he has been doing the same thing to the king and other high lords. The show has used ridiculously over-the-top sex to reveal that Littlefinger is even smarter than we thought, and just might be the only character who always knows exactly what he’s doing. I am totally in support of such intelligent portrayals, and in its defense the saga has a lot of them.

What I am less okay with are the parts where exiled young queen Daenerys is randomly naked because apparently there hadn’t been enough boobs recently for Martin’s or HBO’s tastes. Or, to cite an example from season three’s premiere, when Tyrion Lannister (a devastatingly witty but perennially disrespected dwarf) sends a messenger to fetch his friend and employee Bronn. The messenger interrupts Bronn in the late stages of foreplay with a prostitute, and it’s a funny enough gag. However, for no particular reason we are treated to a prolonged depiction of said foreplay before the messenger arrives. It is wholly irrelevant to the plot and clearly existed for one reason only: to say, “Hey, thanks for coming back to another season of Game of Thrones, here are some boobs to show we’re still cool.”
The problem with this is that it makes the show feel like a guilty pleasure, like some juicy, sex-filled soap opera. It may be juicy and sex-filled, but the majority of it is so intelligent. Whenever Tyrion, Littlefinger, or Tyrion’s sister Cersei speak, we are witnessing some of the cleverest, most layered dialogue on television. When things get R-rated, most of the time there is still so much more going on beneath the surface. Episode nine of season two, “Blackwater,” is essentially just one long battle scene, but it’s one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen. There’s horrible violence galore, but it serves a purpose, to convey the wild, senseless brutality of war. Every character reacts to the conflict in a unique and believable way, and the expensive visuals function to immerse us more fully in this world. So when the blood and women become too indulgent, it feels like a betrayal, both of its viewers and of itself. The show is pandering to its audience when it should simply stand tall on its own strengths.

I admit there are boring segments of the books, but the pace of the show avoids these for the most part—we do not need nipples and guts thrust in our faces nonsensically to keep us interested. It is the sensical nipples and guts that attract us.

Fantasy is a difficult genre to pull of in a mature and convincing manner, and I do commend HBO for what has been, overall, a successful attempt. It would appear they are happy with the show’s performance, because they are converting another adult fantasy masterpiece—Neil Gaiman’s spectacular American Gods, which I finally read last intersession—to the small screen later this year. I hope it enjoys similar accolade; it has been legitimately exciting for me to be able to talk about these books, formerly a relatively niche interest among certain friends, with everyone I meet. So I remain a fan, and still hold high expectations for these next two seasons. They will largely be based on the third book, A Storm of Swords, a 900+ page tour de force in which Martin overcomes his penchant for self-indulgence—bloated plotlines, objectified women, one-dimensional side characters—and delivers a breathlessly exciting, thought-provoking, unsettling and yet deeply satisfying epic. I could not be more excited to see it brought to life.

I hope that, throughout the adaptation process, HBO remembers that graphic content for its own sake makes for a campy, trashy B movie (which, yes, I concede can be a lot of fun and still of decent quality). But using graphic content to supplement ambitious, intricate storytelling? Shoving sex and gore in our faces to remind us that even in a world of magic and dragons life is always still messy? Swinging from the highs to the lows of the human condition, reveling in the baser moments but remaining smart enough, like Littlefinger, to always know exactly what it is doing? That’s what these next two seasons of Game of Thrones can be, and I for one will not be content with just another pleasant diversion on a Sunday night.

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