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June 15, 2014

Why 'Game of Thrones' exploded this season

“Game of Thrones” went cosmic this season.

Sure, 18 million viewers (18.4 million to be exact) is a lot of viewers — the most of any HBO series in history, surpassing “The Sopranos” just this week. But you know on a personal level that something has weirdly changed when you hear a guy on the subway next to you talk about the introductory course in High Valyrian Dothraki he’s taking online.

Why do shows suddenly alter the world we inhabit? This indisputably happened during the fourth season of “Game of Thrones,” which wraps tonight at 9. Today, a quick primer on why “GoT” has become aeksio — Dothraki for lord and master — of pop culture.

IT ZIGGED, THEN ZAGGED, FROM THE BOOK: The fourth season has largely followed events depicted in “A Storm of Swords,” the third volume in George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” upon which “GoT” is based — but there have been many minor departures, too. Yes, this has happened every season, but this season: much more. From a viewer/fan standpoint, that’s good in a couple of ways. Obviously, plot and narration can be condensed in the editing room to make the whole more TV-friendly (which happens each season), but showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff have added new elements, stories and scenes this year. These tend to keep fans familiar with the books guessing, but also serve to reinforce the alluring idea that “GoT” inhabits a slightly separate universe from “Ice and Fire.” The implicit message, therefore, becomes: Don’t expect the exact outcome you all think is coming.

THE FOURTH SEASON IS BASED ON A HUGELY POPULAR BOOK: “A Storm of Swords,” published in 2000, remains a fan favorite for many reasons — notably it is probably one of the most cinematic books of the series, which I suppose is just another way of saying that a lot of wild and interesting stuff happens. (The volume that follows, “A Feast for Crows,” is the least favorite, so Weiss and Benioff have an interesting challenge next season.) Because “Swords” is so popular — and it is as fun to read as to watch — then it stands to reason that the resulting season should be as well.

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