The return of Game of Thrones, back for a fourth season of sword fighting, bed hopping and mud flinging, reminds us once again what a clever gamble HBO took in squeezing this massive production through our TV and laptop screens. Yes, George RR Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice novels, on which the series is based, were bestsellers. But the size of the audience for epic fantasy fiction is a fraction of what is needed to make a profit on television. Martin’s forest-dense family trees of characters – knights in dented armour, damsels in bodice-bursting distress,and a nest of dragons imported from fairy tales – could not have been an easy sell. Legend has it that writer-producer Vince Gilligan sold Breaking Bad to TV network AMC with the pithy phrase, “Mr Chips becomes Scarface.” One imagines the folks peddling Game of Thrones to HBO calling it “The Sopranos with swords”.
It was a risk to build the series around a mythical world like a cracked-mirror reflection of medieval Europe, but executive producers David Benioff and DB Weiss had a clear vision. They were wise enough to add thriller-fiction pacing and exploitation-film nudity to the mix. This kind of graphic naughtiness got the attention of a large audience – and by the end of its third season Game of Thrones was attracting 5m viewers a week. But blood and breasts alone don’t explain why the show became a social media phenomenon. This is because Game of Thrones, for all its grimness and brutality, represents a return of old-fashioned escapism. Game of Thrones invites you to join a world where you can solve your problems with a sword and saddle.
Breaking old ground
In appealing to its audience’s need for escapism, Game of Thrones revitalised a genre that few knew needed revitalising: the sword-and-sandals saga, a once-hardy movie sub-species that gave us serious-minded epics like Ben-Hur as well as primitively-animated Ray Harryhausen monster movies. The sword-and-sandals genre – and its cousin, the sword-and-chainmail medieval epic – often flirted with kitsch and camp. TV producer Robert Tapert tapped into this in the 1990s with Xena: Warrior Princess, playing it for knowing giggles. Game of Thrones also contains some of the swashbuckling flair of 1938’s classic film The Adventures of Robin Hood – Errol Flynn-calibre wit and wordplay fly as quickly as the show’s many severed heads. This particular tone is where the TV series benefits from the fact that Martin is not a literary writer; he’s a wooly yarn-spinner, rolling out a cleverly stitched tapestry of interconnected subplots.
Unlike Game of Thrones’ style of escapism, the typical costume drama is most often based on, and constrained by, historical fact – and facts can be irritating mosquitos circling the heads of viewers annoyed at having to recall stuff they dozed through in school. It’s a tedious reliance upon history that slowed down and sometimes mired the clash-and-duel TV shows that preceded it, such as Rome and Spartacus. Game of Thrones, as a fantasy, is unfettered and free to soar, to spit dramatic fire like the dragons belonging to Emilia Clarke’s Princess Daenerys.
It helps, of course, that Game of Thrones features many fine actors who make their characters so identifiable. Chief among them is Peter Dinklage, whose Tyrion Lannister is a silver-tongued devil with a prodigious capacity for wine, women and revenge scenarios. He absorbs any ridicule of his diminutive height not by getting mad but by getting even – a fantasy for anyone who’s suffered bullies. Dinklage plays him as a Dirty Harry who keeps his hands clean, so clever is he at coaxing others to execute his will. Less well-known actors such as Maisie Williams as the plucky tomboy Arya Stark and Lena Headey as mistress of deceit Cersei Lannister also quickly established themselves as fan favourites. And the presence of esteemed actors like The Jewel in the Crown’s Charles Dance and The Avengers’ Diana Rigg shows how Game of Thrones’ producers are as invested in rooting their series in show business history – and old-school showmanship – as they are in adapting Martin’s elaborately conceived, fanciful history to the small screen.
There is, at root, a primal appeal to this material. Author George RR Martin’s web of characters and lineages may be confusing, but there’s a moral simplicity to Game of Thrones that attracted audiences to it in a way that another HBO show, Laura Dern’s cancelled tragicomedy of contemporary manners Enlightened, did not. If your primary concern is keeping your head – or not being eaten, as in The Walking Dead, another show with a similarly appealing back-to-basics premise – all your other problems and worries seem minor indeed. At a time when people fear upsetting the boss lest they find themselves tossed into a frighteningly small job market, or are scrimping to make the monthly mortgage payment, the escapism of a programme in which bosses can be cut down to size with one precise slash of a sword exerts a gut-level allure. That particular fantasy of revenge and triumph is very real – and we can relate to it. Even if you know you’ll never command dragons to do your bidding.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.