Throne For a Loop

Spoiler for last night’s Game of Thrones (which sometimes seems like – and this is a compliment – HBO’s answer to Downton Abbey, with even fewer contractions but more beheadings) after the jump:

The big twist last night seems to have really brought into focus the gap between people who watch Game of Thrones after reading the books, and those who are coming to it “unspoiled” as it were. In a sense, both groups were kept in suspense, but in different ways. For people who hadn’t read the books – undoubtedly the bulk of the show’s audience – this was an opportunity for the writers of the show to pull off an even more disorienting twist than Psycho. (Though in both cases the strategy is similar: cast a character who is going to be killed off early with one of the biggest-name actors in the project, creating the impression that he or she is safe for most of the project’s length.) The marketing for Psycho tipped us off in several ways, even if we hadn’t read the novel, that something bad might happen to Janet Leigh. The promotional department for Game of Thrones was able to make it look like Sean Bean was almost unambiguously the star of the show. It’s a case of HBO’s hugely effective promotional department being used for artistic ends.

For Martin readers, all that promotion arguably created some suspense of a different kind: those viewers knew what to expect, but might have wondered whether the show would change or at least delay the fate of Bean’s character. (Novel-to-TV-series adaptations are becoming increasingly common, but some – including True Blood – are happy to make changes and keep characters alive if the audience wants them alive.) Both sets of viewers are left admiring the audacity of the writers, for different reasons: for the “newbie” viewer, it’s unheard-of for a show to kill off the apparent protagonist in the middle of the first season, and Martin fans are pleased that they didn’t chicken out.

That’s why I think, apart from being the right choice artistically (if only because fidelity to the books is part of what gives this particular show its style), it’s probably also the right choice commercially. Given that the success of HBO’s shows depends on drawing a line between their product and that of broadcast or basic cable, Martin’s story provided them with a perfect opportunity to re-establish their brand: not only are they the network that provides the nudity AMC and FX can’t give you, but they’ve proven willing to do something that won’t be happening to Don Draper or Walt White any time soon. The people who might stop watching because Bean is gone will be dwarfed by the people who appreciate HBO for doing this.

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