There’s a brief respite from all the crudity in the crude Tina Fey and Amy Poehler comedy Sisters where, to illustrate what a bad time three uninvited party guests are having, we see them “enjoying” a night in with Game Of Thrones (HBO, Sky Atlantic). The buttoned-up host, Maya Rudolph, tells one of her guests off for referring to Prince Joffrey actor Jack Gleason by the actor’s name (“did you know he was the little boy in Batman Begins?”), reminding her that by breaking the spell “you’re not allowing yourself to live inside the fantasy world that they’ve so lovingly crafted for us.” The other guest is reminded of the “no phone policy”, and it is also revealed that they’re drinking alcohol-free wine, they have to take off their shoes, and there are further “rules”. The message is: all the fun is happening somewhere else.
To love GoT is to denounce “fun” in the traditional sense. It is by definition hard work. You can’t casually watch it. (I’ll never forget the moment on The Culture Show when Lauren Laverne challenged David Simon over the unfriendliness of The Wire to the casual viewer, to which he mischievously replied, “Fuck the casual viewer.”) Rattling on about the new, sixth season, which began in the middle of the night here, but which I watched in comfort the evening after, to Andrew Harrison, Matt Hall and Jude Rogers on the inaugural Bigmouth podcast, I was shocked to discover that Jude follows the saga’s progress by reading online episode guides so that she can empathise with her GoT-addict partner, but doesn’t actually watch it. Having sat on the Best International Programme Bafta jury a couple of years ago, I watched Game Of Thrones literally divide a room, almost down the middle. Jurors – the great and the good of British TV – either loved it, or hated it. It didn’t even make the shortlist that year. Which is an ignominious fate akin to something Ramsay Bolton might cook up for one of his best friends, considering it is regarded by many people as the greatest current show on television. This is how many.
Correction: that’s how many people legally watch the show on HBO in the States. Beginning with 2.2 million (already a jackpot for cable), it has grown to around 8 million and holds steady. It’s illegally watched by millions, and even though I have nightmares about creative people not being recompensed for their labours, I do like the way certain executives on the production are sanguine about torrents and piracy – after all, it’s illegally seen by superfans, who may well invest at other stages in the product.
Sorry, did I call it a product? Game Of Thrones is a way of life. I’m wary of using words to describe it, as Clive James has done that, at length, in the New Yorker, and it’s free to read online. There’s rarely any point writing about something Clive James has written about. But what I will say is this pertinent thing: Episode One of Season Six, The Red Woman, was perfectly adequate. It did the job. It moved things along a bit. It was an episode of Game Of Thrones. What other show that you love to death would you let get away with just getting from A to B – and sometimes not even get to B? There was once an entire season that was just about getting from one place to another place, but that’s broadly the gist. The Red Woman picked up the ball moments after the end of Season Five, Mother’s Mercy, with a dead Jon Snow in the snow and panic on the ramparts of the Wall, Sansa and rebooted Greyjoy on the run from Bolton, Jamie sailing into King’s Landing with a shrouded Myrcella to reunite with his sister-bride the subdued but vengeful, Margaery in the clink with the “confess” woman (“Confess”), Jorah and Daario in search of Daenerys, and Arya on the streets with those cataract contacts in. Stuff happens: a spear through the back of the head, timely intervention by Brianne and Pod, and a terrifying revelation about Mellisandre being the most memorable. But still we fixate.
Clashes of kings, queens, princes, princesses, high priests and priestesses, lords, ladies, knights, witches, white walkers, wildlings, bastards, eunechs, wolves, crows, dragons, at least one imp and at least one Queen of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and of the First Men, Queen of Meereen, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains and Mother of Dragons … a cast of thousands, a vast geography that literally requires a map, umpteen castles, keeps, longboats, dungeons and catacombs, and one iron throne that has borne many a bottom in its time. Clive James was put off by all this guff – and so, on past form, should I have been – but it wins you round with sheer commitment to a set of fat books that millions have read, but which no longer provide a handy guide, as the TV series has overshot author George RR Martin’s text. It’s on its own now. We’re fixating without a safety net, and the “readers”, as I think of them, may no longer lord it over the rest of us, whom I think of as “viewers”. It has been a grand struggle for succession, and the “viewers” are in the ascendant.
If you want eye-popping detail, and witty insight, you simply must follow Sarah Hughes’s Guardian episodes recaps, and – if you can bear to look – the comments beneath. Sarah is the one true queen to those of us who take off our shoes, forswear our phones and live inside the fantasy world that they’ve so lovingly crafted for us.