The first time I quit "Game of Thrones," in the midst of the prolonged setup that plagued season one, it came as a relief. No more referring to "that cute gay prince" (Renly) or "the thousand-year-old man" (Grand Meister Pycelle) in lieu of remembering their names; no more Daenerys brooding over her arranged marriage to Khal Drogo; no more directionless subplots to follow. The second time I quit "Game of Thrones," unable to bear watching as loyalists chattered in my ear about developments on the horizon, it came as a disappointment. The third time, I didn't quit "Game of Thrones." Instead, I learned to love it.
HBO's fantasy epic, created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss from George R. R. Martin's series of novels, has become the watercooler series of the moment. Since the show's 2011 premiere, its Sunday night audience has expanded from some two million viewers to more than seven million, while the excellent fourth season led this month's Emmy nominations with 19. The desire to understand all the fuss over smoke babies, Moon Doors, and Purple Weddings forced me to return to the series this spring with fresh eyes, and it was learning how to watch "Game of Thrones" that finally revealed the series' tremendous strengths.
The scope of its universe, not to mention the fodder provided by Martin's source material, often leads discussions of "Game of Thrones" to treat the series with dreadful seriousness, which the slog of exposition in the early stages -- see the first season's painful double whammy of "Lord Snow" and "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things" -- only served to amplify. Friends warned that unearthing the show's secrets would require nothing less than total commitment; Twitter commentators suggested that any confusion could be resolved by referring to the text; the A.V. Club developed separate recaps for "newbies" and "experts." These are all acceptable ways of engaging with popular culture, but to the uninitiated, "Game of Thrones" may recall the experience of showing up to a college seminar after failing to complete the assignment.
Enduring Viserys Targaryen's whining over his stolen birthright for the umpteenth time suggested, however, an alternate way of seeing the series' fractured architecture. Despite its unflinching Realpolitik and incomparable production value, despite the fervor of those who find no detail in the series too small to parse, "Game of Thrones" is not only a powerful fable of (dis)honor and (in)justice. It's also an entry in the history of that neglected television mainstay, the soap opera.
Indeed, a list of the soap opera's defining elements might be mistaken for a (partial) gloss on "Game of Thrones." Large, ensemble cast with no single protagonist; individual installments divided among numerous characters in diffuse locations; subplots meted out slowly (Arya and the Hound traversing Westeros, for instance), punctuated by shocking twists (the Red Wedding); narrative threads focused on the cruel machinations of wealthy families (the Lannisters); controversial subject matter (rape, incest, patricide); sustained devotion to complex female characters. In a sense, "Game of Thrones" is "Guiding Light" with bare asses and swordplay, and I mean that as a compliment.