It wasn’t something I deliberately set out to do. It was a result of a combination of factors – a PhD to finish, lessons to plan, marking to do, the day-to-day demands of running a household. Life, in short, getting in the way of television. I’d seen the trailers, of course. And, as lifelong devotee of fantasy, I was suitably excited by the broody shots of various grim-faced individuals taking turns to claim a throne that appeared to be made of swords, accompanied by the sounds of metal on clanging on metal and the pronouncement that ‘Winter is coming’ uttered in the same dire tones that might be used to announce the coming of the apocalypse.
But due to the reasons outlined above, despite my interest in the series, by the time I sat down to watch the first episode of the first season of Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic in April 2011, the only thing I knew about the series came from the trailers. As the series progressed, those same reasons prevented me from doing anything more than watching each episode. In other words, I had little to no contact with the vast paratextual network that accumulates around television properties such as Game of Thrones. By the time the final episode of season one aired, I realized something curious. My disengagement with Game of Thrones’ paratextual surround created a particular kind of viewing experience. Fuelled in no small way by recent blogs on CST on the subject of engagement with televisual narratives (Stacey Abbott) and also on how we watch television (Lorna Jowett) my experience with Game of Thrones started me thinking about viewing practices in a media environment designed around convergence, to use Henry Jenkins’ much-debated term. But rather than think about intermedia relationships or the extension of narratives across various media platforms and the use of second or even third screens, my involvement (or lack thereof) with Game of Thrones prompted me to pose the following question: what happens to the experience of viewing television when we resist engagement in the various texts that surround a narrative deliberately designed as only one thread of an integrated network extending across media?
Somewhat paradoxically, answering this question involves examining, at least at surface level, the nature of the web into which the television series is woven. Game of Thrones is produced by HBO, the U.S. subscription service familiar for its creation of a brand of television of such ‘quality’ (another much-debated term) that it has somehow miraculously ceased to be television at all. According to its slogan, ‘it’s not TV. It’s HBO’. A great deal of the mainstream press echo this approach in their evaluation of Game of Thrones, where it is frequently discussed as ‘not fantasy’ but as an ‘adult show’ whose associations with ‘real’ history make it capable of appealing to ‘successful, mature, well-adjusted men and women’ – ‘smart, witty, literate people’ drawn from the ranks of lawyers, bankers and PR ‘girls’, as one representative review puts it. While the author of this piece (historian Dan Jones) might think that as a lover of fantasy I am neither smart, witty nor literate enough to respond in full to reviews such as this, in truth I simply don’t have space here to address the full spectrum of prejudice and condescension that the fantasy mode seems to attract (this may well form the topic of a future blog). Yet despite all claims to the contrary, Game of Thrones is most definitely both television and fantasy. Game of Thrones is an adaptation of the first sequence of novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, within a series created by George R.R. Martin. The television series, now in its third installment, mostly concentrates on four aristocratic families – Stark, Lannister, Baratheon and Targaryen – in a story that spans numerous locales as each family becomes involved in the struggle for the ‘Iron Throne’ of the Kingdom of Westeros. Westeros in turn is menaced by the imminent return of a Winter that might continue indefinitely, accompanied by ‘White Walkers’, a supernatural threat yet to be fully defined or explained. Each episode of the ten-part miniseries is so replete with characters, settings and situations that it is tempting to suggest that it is deliberately designed to burst its televisual seams and spill out into other texts.
Of course, this is due in part to the nature of the books themselves, but the potential inherent in a series already expanding into other media (including collectable card games and board games) complete with an existing fan-base and unmistakable parallels with the lucrative industry developing around Lord of the Rings films, could not have been lost on HBO. Indeed, HBO’s pre-broadcast promotional strategy for the first series of Game of Thrones was precisely intended to create a transmedia experience in the form of ‘The Maester’s Path’; a box of ‘artefacts from Westeros’ (including scent bottles to recreate the odours of each region) distributed to an exclusive group of writers and bloggers, one of whom presents an excellent analysis of how the box is intended to feed into notions of authenticity. For those who do not have this kind of industry access, George R.R. Martin’s well-publicized endorsement of the series might encourage viewers who have not read the books to do so, creating a mutually beneficial relationship between the novels and the television series, as those who read the books will presumably go on to support the television show through its intended eight series. For others, there are the digital games, ranging from RPGs (Role Playing Games) developed by Cyanide, a French developer which had originally approached Martin for the right to create the games but later agreed a deal with HBO, who own the licensing, to use elements of the series (voice actors, music, production design) in the games, to social network games and apps such as the ‘Game of Thrones Companion’ that provides maps marked with events in the series and details of the show’s characters.
Yet even for those who do not necessarily wish to engage that deeply with Westeros and its denizens, the structure of the series itself demands a level of interaction with texts beyond the boundaries of the 10 hour miniseries. Characters that feature heavily in one episode might disappear entirely from the next, as the series adopts multiple storylines and follows a large cast through political intrigues, love affairs and sexual assignations, conspiracies, disguises and wars; with the result that it can be difficult to follow while watching the series, never mind after what amounts to a year’s break between each installment.
As a result, a veritable cottage industry of guides, ranging from the aforementioned app to books and websites, allows viewers to keep up. In addition to the usual plethora of articles, reviews and press-releases that accompanies series marked by HBO as ‘event-status’ programming, there are also podcasts and a weekly ‘Fan Show’ that airs just after episodes are broadcast on Sky Atlantic, which your Sky+ box will helpfully record when you set up the series link for the show itself. Furthermore, the dense narrative structure of the series encourages repeat viewings, facilitating sales of the series in the DVD and Blu-Ray market, where they are released with their own guides, character profiles and ‘making of’ documentaries.
All of which constitutes only a few threads of a vast and complex web of texts and products, official and otherwise, that has grown up around Game of Thrones. At first through circumstance, and later through choice, I have resisted entanglement with most of this material. This is unusual for me, not just because I am an academic who researches media, but because a large part of my enjoyment of television comes from navigating the welter of detail and trivia produced as part of what Barbara Klinger refers to as a ‘feedback loop’ between media industries and consumers (Klinger, 2006: 73). While such information might once have been considered the domain of the devoted fan, it has become increasingly mainstream. This is particularly true in the case of a series like Game of Thrones, which demonstrates how event-status television transmutes into event-status transmedia storytelling. My attempt to resist the intertextual network of Game of Thrones, therefore, may well prove futile (ok, ok, I admit it, I read the first book!), which begs the question – why even try?
The answer lies in the experience of television generated as a result and the surprising discovery for me that in the case of this particular series, the pleasures of resistance have begun to outweigh the perils. I’ll begin with the perils. Perhaps in acknowledgement of the multitude of ways in which viewers can keep up with the series, or as a means of encouraging repeat viewings of previous seasons on DVD or Blu-Ray, each season of Game of Thrones begins with little or no explanation of what has gone before. As a result, when the second season began on Sky Atlantic on 2 April 2012, I spent a great deal of episode one trying to work out who Stannis Baratheon was, the details of the previously unmentioned (as far as I am aware) religion he follows, and just how the priestess of this religion fits into the overall picture.
My confusion was no doubt exacerbated by Sky’s excision of the ‘previously on . . .’ insert at the beginning of each episode, but it does illustrate the potential dangers of structuring a television show in this way in that it risks alienating viewers new to the series. As one reviewer puts it, ‘parachuting’ in to the series with little prior knowledge ‘felt like tackling War and Peace. In Russian. In the dark.’ Even into season three, I remain ‘in the dark’ about some of the plot strands in the series and as a consequence, am perhaps less emotionally involved in the fates of a few of the characters than I might have been had I investigated their roles more thoroughly through the numerous guides available to me (I still do not fully understand where Melisandre, the red-haired priestess of the new religion, comes from nor how she relates to the rest of the world). Narrative confusion is one of the more obvious perils of resistance; less obvious is the loss of the particular pleasures obtained from the feedback loop between industry and audience. An extreme, and often unintentional, result of this loop is the development of plot spoilers. Henry Jenkins discusses the pleasures of spoilers at length (Jenkins, 2006: 25-58) but for me, the enjoyment of knowing a particular plot point in advance comes from anticipating its arrival and in observing the reactions of those not ‘in the know’ (mostly my spoiler-hating husband). In other words, part of the magic of television for me has always been in knowing what the tricks are and something about how they are achieved.
For those of you who have not yet watched Game of Thrones and who are following your own path of resistance by attempting to avoid spoilers, now would be a good time to stop reading, because having no knowledge of spoilers brings its own pleasures, ones which I had almost forgotten. In season one, the death of Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) came as a massive surprise, the like of which I’ve not experienced since the ‘Luke, I am your father’ moment in a pre-spoiler Star Wars time, when little or no information was to be had on films before their premiers for a child growing up in a small town on the southern tip of Africa, as I was. Major plot points such as Stark’s death are obvious spoilers, but the satisfaction to be gleaned from the unawareness of smaller moments that might not necessarily be classed as ‘spoilers’, but might be foreshadowed in the books or in articles on the series’ design and use of digital effects, should not be underestimated. The appearance of the dragons in the final episode of season one is a perfect example. The visual reveal of the dragons was one of the most magical moments in television for me, simply because I had no previous awareness of their existence.
Lack of any kind of foreknowledge also re-introduces a tension specific to episodic narratives. Although we do not watch the series as broadcast but save up two episodes at a time, there is still pleasure to be gained from the anticipation of waiting at least a week until the next episodes can be viewed. With no prior knowledge and no points of comparison to be drawn from other texts, simply observing how the numerous plot strands unfold and intertwine has made me realize that on some occasions, not knowing what magic tricks will happen or how they are done can be just as enjoyable as being in the know.
It is not my intention to suggest that there is a particular virtue in resisting the increasingly complicated tangle of transmedia narratives and their paratexts. However, my experience with Game of Thrones illustrates that, stripped of at least some of the webbing of intertextual and intermedia relationships, a different kind of televisual experience emerges, one that for me, at least, holds a kind of nostalgic appeal. It also serves as a reminder that not every viewer will choose to become involved in the numerous texts and paratexts that accumulate around a series like Game of Thrones. For them, as for me, there are pleasures to be found in television just for the sake of television. I for one can’t wait to see what the coming of Winter brings.
Debra Ramsay is a part-time tutor at Leicester University. Her doctoral research examines war, memory and media through contemporary representations of World War II in American film, television and games. She is the author of articles on the impact of DVD and Blu-Ray technologies on the relationship between history, film and television, and has also written articles on the First Person Shooter and the memory of World War II.