And so our watch begins. From now until at least early April, audiences will have to wonder about the further adventures of Tyrion, Arya, Sansa and Bran. “Game of Thrones” signed off Sunday with another thrilling conclusion that packed surprises, sadness and visceral excitement into its slightly longer than usual running time.
Many shoes that have been hanging around for quite some time finally dropped (Arya’s coin, Stannis’s destination, Bran’s three-eyed crow). And during a season in which the show surpassed “The Sopranos” as HBO’s most watched ever, a season in which many critics doubted the show’s ability to maintain an audience after the infamous Red Wedding, delivering an action-packed and crowd-pleasing finale was exactly what show runners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss needed to do.
One of the more notable features of not just the finale but also the penultimate episode was a willingness to incorporate large-scale visual effects on a level usually associated with major motion pictures (and their corresponding budgets). The final episodes treated us to giants ridding mammoths, a castle siege to rival “The Two Towers,” Daenerys sadly leashing her dragons, a swarm of Harryhausen-esque skeleton warriors (the most expensive scene in the series), a firebomb-throwing elf, a druid-like residence in a tree, and the old fashioned display of two really big people beating the ever-living crap out of one another (and one awesome prosthetic ear).
In its early seasons, GoT often used its budgetary limitations to its advantage, playing the outsized fantasy as the backdrop to small, human moments. But as the show has gotten more successful and HBO more confident in its product, they have been more willing to spend for spectacle (probably beginning with Season 2’s “Blackwater”). And with each season it becomes clearer that this is not television making, but film-making on an epic scale.
Film, on the other hand — as in the kind we still go to movie theaters to see — is pushing further and further into the realm of spectacle. The sort of low-key, shot on a budget, quirky relationship dramedies that ruled the 1990s indie scene are basically dead on the screen. The Mumblecore movement of the 2000s offered another avenue for this type of film-making, but increasingly the question became, “Why go the hassle and expense of going to a movie theater to see a couple arguing about love?”
As such, the films that land successfully in the theater tend to be giant spectacles — the superhero movies, the alien invasion movies, the disaster movies. Movies became something that you paid to gawk at, but as the ability create “gawk-worthy” moments on television increases (and we all have bigger and fancier home entertainment options), the question will once again come up: What’s the point of going to a movie theater?
Cineastes will of course argue that the social aspect is an important part of theatergoing, but that has not been enough to save old fashioned coffee shops and book stores.
Consider this: While the ability to produce something on the scale of, say, “The Lord of the Rings,” with its elves and dwarves and magic kingdoms, may still be a decade or two away, it’s not inconceivable that something like the Harry Potter series, if it were to begin production today, would run on HBO rather than the big screen. (On the flipside, in creating a unified cinematic universe Marvel is essentially making a television show with very short seasons and long wait times between episodes. No wonder they chose Joss Whedon, a master at serialization, to helm the flagship feature.)
So as Season 4 of “Game of Thrones” ends with another master class in cinematic grandeur, we’re left wondering if “cinematic” is even the word we want to use anymore. Author George R.R. Martin has deservedly gained a reputation for mercilessly killing his characters, but his final victim may very well be the multiplex.
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