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How ‘Game of Thrones’ Revolutionized TV

It’s important to trace a historical thread from past to present to set the right context.

As HBO’s “Confirmation” demonstrated, we didn’t just suddenly arrive at our current understanding of sexual harassment. There have been a lot of big and small cases to define what is and isn’t harassment.

The one thing I try to make abundantly clear to students is that historical outcomes were not inevitable. The Allies could have lost World War II at any number of points. The Haymarket Riot could have turned out much differently. Assassins might have missed JFK, RFK, or MLK.

History is not set in stone. There was real risk involved. That can’t always be said for our fiction, at least before HBO’s “Game of Thrones” came our way.


You don’t step into Marvel’s “The Avengers” or “Batman v Superman” and expect the heroes to face serious consequences. Maybe we lose Tony Stark as Iron Man or Chris Evans as Captain America in Phase Three, but there will always be an Iron Man and Captain America, and eventually, a Superman.

(It’s “Unite the Seven” not six!)

One of the brilliant aspects of the comic book series “Fables” is that its characters get their strength from how strong their story is. So Snow White, The Big Bad Wolf and Prince Charming, for example, are virtually immortal due to how well their narratives are known.

When “Game of Thrones” starts back up April 24, we see a show built on the opposite premise: nobody is immortal.

Game of Thrones Season 6: Event Promo (HBO)

(Series spoilers ahead…)

There is real risk in “Game of Thrones.” There are no Tony Starks, just a lot of dead Starks: Eddard, Robb, Catelyn, and Talisa specifically. The television world (those that hadn’t read the books) was shocked when Eddard Stark (played by Sean Bean, arguably the show’s best-known actor) was killed just past the midway point in the first season.

And the shocks kept coming:

… the Red Viper, Grey Wind, King Joffrey Baratheon, Ros, Barristan the Bold, Jojen Reed, Pyp, Grenn, Shireen, Syria Forel. Nobody is safe.

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Even when popular characters are left in limbo, like Jon Snow and Sandor Clegane, there’s a clear path for their return that doesn’t feel like cheating.

We’ve seen the Red priestess Melisandre (and others) bring people back from the dead with magic. Sandor is one tough SOB, and he isn’t dead until we see it on screen.

This is much different than the whole “Is Glenn really dead?” story thread on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and the show’s latest kerfuffle with the evil Negan. That show once had no problem killing major characters off.

“Game of Thrones” willingness to do just that is an important demarcation line in television history. It’s probably changed dramatic television forever.

Could a show like “The Sopranos” still work today? Any show set in a dangerous and violent universe might risk losing its credibility if the series lead is the only one left standing year after year.

“Game of Thrones” has proven that real risk makes for riveting television. It’s also honest in how history actually plays out.

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Remember Batman’s pearl of wisdom in “The Dark Night,” “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

In “Game of Thrones” that’s true, but so is the opposite.

You watch long enough, and you see villains become heroes. Did you hate Jamie and Cersei Lannister in Season One? Still hate them now?

How about Tywin? Or Sandor? Do you still respect Tyrion after killing his dad? (Did you forget his little temper tantrum at the Small Council?).

FUN FACT: Struggling actress Emilia Clarke called in sick to her day job with a catering company to audition for a new HBO show called “Game of Thrones.”

If you know and love history it’s easy to see how a few different decisions could dramatically impact our world.

History is a progression of dramatic moments, both large and small, where men and women who aren’t always such clear cut villains and heroes must make choices.

We finally see that each week thanks to George R.R. Martin and HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”

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