‘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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