‘Game of Thrones’ Triumphs in Breakout Third Season

Bada-Boom! Epic drama now ranks behind only 'The Sopranos' among HBO hits

Like “The Walking Dead” and “Downton Abbey,” the third season proved to be a breakout year for “Game of Thrones” from a commercial perspective. And now that viewers have had a chance to absorb last week’s events and turn their attention ahead, “Red Wedding” or not, there’s no reason to anticipate the honeymoon ending any time soon.

For whatever reason, the epic adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s books has fallen into a familiar pattern. (And if you’re not up to date, warning, SPOILERS AHEAD.)

As a colleague pointed out, huge events have taken place in the penultimate episode each year — the beheading of Ned Stark, the battle for King’s Landing, the by-now-infamous “Red Wedding” episode — followed by what feels like a palate cleanser, setting the table for the season to come.

Nevertheless, there was an awful lot to like about Sunday’s finale, almost all of it of a smaller, more intimate nature. In that regard, nothing topped the melancholy exchange between Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and his sister Cersei (Lena Headey), with him tartly asking her in regard to birthing her monstrous son, “You have children. How happy would you say you are?”

Still, there was also Young Arya Stark (Maisie Williams, an extraordinarily gifted child actor) exacting a small measure of revenge for her brother and mother’s deaths; and the spectacle of Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) being embraced by the slaves she’s liberated.

Showrunners David Benioff & D. B. Weiss have made juggling the show’s dizzying roster of characters appear almost effortless, while weaving more magic and grandeur into the storytelling without losing any of the personal touches. As I’ve stated before, that combination might set HBO apart from its premium rivals more than any other commodity — not because the program is alone in the fantasy space on TV, but because its cinematic flourishes simply dwarf anything else in the genre.

It’s fair to say the results have been a surprise (albeit a pleasant one) even to HBO honchos. Leading into Sunday, this season’s premiere telecasts have been averaging 4.9 million viewers — roughly double its first year — with the gross audience totaling 13.6 million, per HBO data. That’s not only a 46% surge from season one, but establishes “Thrones” as the second most popular series in the service’s history, behind only “The Sopranos.”

Not long after the program premiered, HBO execs were asked somewhat indignantly at the TV Critics Assn. tour whether they would pledge to see the show through all of the books. At the time, the question sounded vaguely absurd: Who in TV commits to multiple years of anything?

Now, there’s reason to wonder whether seven seasons will feel like enough, especially with questions as to when Martin will finish his literary opus.

Such hand-wringing brings to mind those who expressed their anger at the show in the wake of last week’s episode, after watching several beloved characters bite the dust. While slightly more detached viewers can roll their eyes — as if it hasn’t been pretty well established that Westeros is a tough neighborhood — the passion the show provokes is real, and palpable.

For HBO, it also means several million people will be unlikely to cancel the service so long as “Thrones” flies under its banner. For those fans, next spring can’t come fast enough — and as the Lannisters would attest, that kind of power is worth its weight in gold.

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  1. Daenerys Targaryen freeing the slaves of Astapor has got to be one of the most powerful scenes in television history. Although the introduction of so many new characters meant some might feel less attachment to them, seeing Arya make her first kill and other developments keep me interested and very excited for the next season.

  2. BC says:

    What a dud of a finale. Never do a filler episode for a finale. No, I don’t require gore and war, but I do require ample screen time for characters who are remotely entertaining. Instead we got dreary Stannis for 30 minutes, moping around in his dreary castle…dud. Then broken record Theon and his overacting torturer. How many needless torture scenes do we need to get the point across? Here’s a clue….less than 4. Jamie shows up in King’s Landing, which has great potential and drama but yet nothing happens. While I didn’t need the Red Wedding again, in truth it was the only really big and incredibly sad event this very subpar season. The producers really built this season up. It didn’t even sniff the expectation level of greatness. Maybe you should drift from the story more and keep it more entertaining. Or maybe its time to let those producers who act so infallible by defending every scene/action, drift off into the sunset. I loved season 1, liked season 2 and felt season 3 was unloveable. I still have faith it can be the best show again on cable or otherwise. Just hope this show hasn’t jumped the proverbial shark.

  3. Dan says:

    Wow…I wholeheartedly DISAGREE with this article!
    I can definitely agree that the third seasons of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead do have one thing in common…they both SUCK!
    At this point I am sure that the books are better than the TV show (isn’t that usually the case?). For the first two seasons I really had no reason to read the books, as the series was doing just fine keeping me entertained and looking forward to the next episode. However, after 11 weeks of 9 scattered, meandering plots, I am sort of over the whole thing.
    Yeah, perhaps I will read the books. but one thing is for sure, I definitely won’t be looking forward to season 4.

  4. tom says:

    The show is maybe 1/100th as good as the books. It changes too many things and never in good ways. It leave out way too much (always the cost of turning a book into a TV show or movie). And because it’s HBO it’s ridiculously obsessed with being naked and/or bloody all the time. Books are pretty good. TV show is meh

    • notTom says:

      The content issue is extremely debatable and overall, your opinion. If you don’t think the show is good you probably shouldn’t ever watch TV.

  5. Michelle says:

    The show is phenomenal. Albeit different from the novels, but isn’t that a good thing? If you read the books then you know what is going to happen, and you want a little surprise. Also, if you have read the books you know that there is sooooo much going on that there needs to be a bit of editing in order to get the point across, not to mention telling the story in the proper order. The show keeps me guessing and gives me something to talk to other books readers about, like the differences, the similarities, the reasons behind the changes, the interpretation of scenes and characters, and what we anticipate for next week/season! Also, it gives me the chance to entice those who have not read the books to give them a chance because they are not exactly the same… Its like True Blood versus the Southern Vampire Series… but a little more tame!

    This past season has been interesting and I have enjoyed the changes. They all make sense. I am interested to see how the next season is going to play out… and though the Red Wedding was intense, I am most looking forward to Joffrey’s wedding to Margery, as well as the return of Peytr Baelish… The acting on the show is wonderful and it is true, Maisie Williams is the star of the show! I would like to see her nominated for an Emmy in next year or so… Especially since I know what should happen with her character.

    Fingers crossed for another great season! And many more to come. Just keep the writing top notch and by all the gods, old and new, don’t jump the shark!

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