Hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since Game of Thrones’ premiere on April 17, 2011. I can still remember when Thrones reigned over pop culture, and I used to spend my Sunday nights staying up until two in the morning trying to craft the perfect recap of each episode. I kind of agree with the many people who have said Game of Thrones was the last television show to dominate the conversation, before everything became fragmented into a hundred streaming services and countless niche options.
Like a few other pop-culture behemoths, Game of Thrones cast a huge shadow and spawned many would-be imitators. The Marvel Cinematic Universe led to a dozen copycat “cinematic universes”; Lost spawned a ton of TV shows that went down endless cryptic rabbit holes; The Dark Knight cursed us with a decade of “chaotic-evil dude who has magic blow-everything-up powers and gets caught on purpose” movies. The thing is, people always take the wrong lesson from these successes—they focus on the froth rather than the churn, the tip rather than the iceberg, and what a popular thing turned into over time, rather than what made it popular in the first place.
Here are seven of the wrong lessons that everyone learned from the phenomenal success of Game of Thrones—one for each of the Seven Kingdoms. (I miss writing listicles, can you tell?)
Warning: spoilers for Game of Thrones ahead. If you’re in the sliver in the Venn diagram of “care about Game of Thrones”/“haven’t watched Game of Thrones,” you might wanna stop reading now.
1. Grimness and nastiness are the key to winning our hearts
If you actually go back and watch the first episode of Thrones, you’ll be startled by how friendly and cheerful a lot of it is. People smile. Ned and Catelyn show affection toward their children, and Tyrion and Jaime seem to love each other and to be kind of joyful. Sure, Bran gets defenestrated by the incest twins, but there’s a lot of sweetness as well. Just watch this clip if you don’t believe me:
I don’t think this show would have been beloved if the first episode had been nonstop mutilation, sexual assault, scowling and growling.
2. Viewers still love the “smartest guy in the room”
Superficially, Tyrion Lannister might appear to fit in with the “smartest man in the room” archetype, as made famous by House, Sherlock and certain Doctors on Doctor Who. And I think that the widespread love of Peter Dinklage’s fantastic performance as Tyrion helped give this already-popular trope a new lease on life.
Except that when you scratch the surface, Tyrion is lovable because he’s frequently one step behind his enemies, and wrong more often than right. Season one of Thrones features Tyrion blundering from one bad situation to another, without much of a clue, and he survives by luck as much as cunning. His best moments in season one are ones in which he acts recklessly, slapping Prince Joffrey and joking about turtle soup in front of people who already want to execute him.
And when Tyrion sets his mind to playing politics, he’s never particularly good at it. As Hand of the King, he’s mostly a disaster—he doesn’t work well with the king he’s supposed to be serving, and he wastes all his energy feuding with Cersei and trying to figure out whether he can trust the Grand Maester or Varys or Littlefinger. (News flash: he can’t trust any of them.) His big brainwave, sending Myrcella away for her own safety, results in Myrcella’s utterly predictable death. When Tyrion becomes Daenerys’ Hand and starts giving her terrible advice, it’s a continuation of his previous track record.
Nobody loved Tyrion because he was smarter than everybody else, but because he was funny and entertaining and obnoxious in a good way, and he wore his broken heart on his sleeve.
3. Women are either badasses or victims
Call it the new virgin/whore dichotomy. Ladies can be an Arya or a Sansa—either a sword-wielding murder-vixen, or a naive, weak pawn who gets used and mistreated (until maybe she learns some realpolitik after seven or eight years.) You can also be a ruthless bloodthirsty schemer, like Cersei, which I’d put on the “badass” side of the badass/victim dichototmy—or you can start out as a victim and quickly become a badass, like Daenerys.
Thing is, people seem to forget about one of the best female characters in those early seasons: Catelyn Stark, who is a lot more complex than either of those options can contain. She’s capable of intense ruthlessness, but she also uses mercy strategically, like when she releases Jaime Lannister against Robb’s wishes. Also, I have a huge soft spot for Ros, the sex worker/spy who gets a lot of great moments despite having one of the worst and most exploitative deaths in the show.
Also, Cersei, Arya, and Daenerys have a lot of nuance in those early seasons—my favorite scene in season one is where Cersei and King Robert process their relationship and they both seem sad about how things turned out. Daenerys has a complicated romance with Drogo. And Arya is at the mercy of baddies, almost as much as Sansa, after Ned Stark dies.
4. There are no good people, just fools, bastards and monsters
This kind of goes with the stuff about nastiness and the smartest dude in the room, but it’s worth discussing separately. People who only remember the last few seasons of GoT are probably left with the impression that the show’s characters are either hopelessly naive, or somewhere on the spectrum between rotten and awful. But the slogan about “Winter is Coming” was always a warning that at a certain point, harsh conditions will force people to make horrifying choices—even without a zombie army and a despotic incest-loving queen.
When winter hasn’t arrived yet, you can still be kind, forgiving, and generous.
And a lot of the appeal of the early seasons of Thrones is watching decent people try hard to make things better, and in some cases succeed. I bad-mouthed Tyrion above, but he does succeed in rooting out some of the corruption in King’s Landing. Daenerys does accomplish some good things, in between her lapses into white savior-hood. And Ned Stark’s death hits so hard because he’s a genuinely good man, who’s shrewd except when he’s placed in a context where he doesn’t fully understand the rules.
If good people never succeeded in doing justice, Game of Thrones wouldn’t have been nearly as addictive (or as good) as it was for most of its run.
5. War is fun and awesome and we love it
One of the things that I love about George R.R. Martin’s books is how profoundly anti-war they are, and how many ways they drive home the notion that battles over power, even with the best intentions, are almost never worth shedding the blood of ordinary people. I’m sad the TV show never found time for great moments like the full Barefoot Septon speech, but it still dramatized the utter garbage-ness of war in many ways.
The show eventually became famous for its elaborate, brilliantly-staged battle scenes, whose sheer hugeness made war seem thrilling. But I’m partial to the first couple of seasons, in which budgetary restrictions meant that battles were shot with a narrower focus that conveyed just how bewildering and upsetting it is to be in the middle of a melee. Think Tyrion cowering while swords and arrows whoosh all around him.
6. Complexity is automatically interesting
Remember how the first episode of Game of Thrones starts with a long text crawl that explains all about the Seven Kingdoms and Robert’s Rebellion and the difference between King Aegon the Usurper, King Aegon the Unworthy, and King Aegon the Unlikely? Me neither.
Game of Thrones hooked us with its characters, who largely belonged to a few families and (apart from Daenerys) all started out gathered in one place. Then slowly, carefully, it started unspooling all of the excessively fancy world that Martin had created. Plus, all of that backstory was interesting because it mattered—it informed the current events in a way that was compelling, rather than just being pointless ornamentation. Nobody wants to be forced to cram a thick syllabus of twenty different kings and their food preferences just for its own sake.
7. Shocking events are an end in themselves
There used to be a thing called a watercooler, around which people would gather and talk about last night’s television. I’m not sure what it was—I think maybe if you were gambling with water, the watercooler would show up and try to kill your lucky streak?
Anyway, Thrones was very good at getting us all to obsess about the various colors of wedding, and all the other decapitations and things…
But it was also very good, especially in its prime, at making us care about people before they got beheaded or caught up in the Teal Wedding or whatnot. And for a long time, the shocks were unexpected because they weren’t a regular occurrence.
This article was originally published at Happy Dancing, Charlie Jane Anders’ newsletter, available on Buttondown.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of Victories Greater Than Death and Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, the first and second books in a new young-adult trilogy, along with the recent short story collection Even Greater Mistakes. She’s also the author of Never Say You Can’t Survive (August 2021), a book about how to use creative writing to get through hard times. Her other books include The City in the Middle of the Night and All the Birds in the Sky. Her fiction and journalism have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, McSweeney’s, Mother Jones, the Boston Review, Tor.com, Tin House, Teen Vogue, Conjunctions,Wired Magazine, and other places. Her TED Talk, “Go Ahead, Dream About the Future” got 700,000 views in its first week. With Annalee Newitz, she co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.