Why 'Game of Thrones' is Really About Reunion, Not Survival
Everyone likes to joke about how Game of Thrones (both as a show and a series of novels) is obsessed with making its fans fall in love with its characters, and then brutally killing them off. From week to week on the HBO show, we nervously watch and hope that our favourite characters will survive to see another episode. And the characters themselves don’t have any illusions about their predicament: we often hear them speak about what must be done or sacrificed for survival.
It’s a pretty bleak outlook for a show. Granted, there have been plenty of other stories that work on the same principle (just look at the theme of survival running through many of the recent Oscar contenders), but as I’ve followed Game of Thrones, I’ve wondered what else is helping draw such huge crowds of fans to the series. Surely it’s not simply the raw, unbridled desire to survive that motivates these characters. There must be something else that compels us to care about them.
Instead, I suspect that what really drives Game of Thrones is the concept of reunion. As each episode unfolds, I find that the stories that thrill me the most are those that tease or reward us with scenes of characters coming together again, after being forced apart for months or years.
Once again, this definitely happens in plenty of other series – just consider how an audience prays that two romantic leads will finally get back together after a breakup on a sitcom. The value of reunions, however, is especially heightened on Game of Thrones, since it spends most of its time chasing particularly isolated story arcs. We check in briefly with characters like Arya, Daenerys, Tyrion or Jon, and we certainly get excited about the miniature dramas surrounding each one. But deep down, we know that when or if these storylines intersect, things are going to get really interesting.
SPOILER ALERT: Beware – spoilers up to and including Episode 4 of Season 4, “Oathkeeper” follow.
Take a look at the most recent episode, which (among other plotlines) featured Bran Stark and his companions being taken captive by the group of rogue men of the Night’s Watch, who are camping out at Craster’s compound. We know that Jon Snow (Bran’s half-brother) is on the way to capture the traitors, but that he doesn’t know Bran is there, too.
Just that simple setup was enough to get me excited about future episodes. In most series, it wouldn’t be the case, but after what feels like two seasons of Bran and company wandering around in the wilderness, the chance at a reunion scene is oddly invigorating. That’s not to mention the tantalizing near-miss at a reunion between Bran and Jon late last season, as Jon battled the Wildlings in the rain without knowing that Bran’s group was hiding nearby.
I believe that Game of Thrones, due its huge cast and gigantic world, is unique in how it dangles this “reunion reward” in front of its audience. It’s like a prize for the committed fans; as if (like the characters) we’ve been slogging through the landscape with the same old crew, and the prospect of new human interactions is more comforting than a feather bed.
Perhaps the best example of the “reunion reward” in Game of Thrones is Daenerys’ storyline. In a show with an overload of individual storylines, Daenerys’ sphere is the most isolated of them all. For the entire four seasons of the show so far, Daenerys hasn’t met any of the other lead characters. But most of the past two seasons have been building towards her reunion with the Westeros storyline, to the point that her first encounter with one of the Lannisters, Starks or other noble families is sure to be explosive.
And yet, since this is Game of Thrones we’re talking about, reunions are also used to torture the audience. I’d argue the infamous Red Wedding from the end of the third season wouldn’t have been nearly as shocking if it weren’t for how the chance for Arya to reunite with her family is so brutally ripped away. Let’s be honest: people die all the time in the series, and a failed meeting like this seems to pack a much heftier emotional punch.
The character reunions that are on their way in the show offer a kind of catharsis - a cleansing sweep of all the insanity that usually comes during a Thrones episode. It proves that there’s more to the popularity of Game of Thrones than the politics, violence, sex and banter that are so frequently cited as the reasons for the show’s success. Specifically, there is a profoundly positive side to the show, a side that can be easy to forget, yet one that probably plays an equal role in keeping viewers coming back - even if they have to sit through another (naked?) execution.
What do you think about the themes in Game of Thrones, and the reasons for its popularity? Is it purely how gritty and survivalist the show claims to be? Or do the reunion scenes have more of an effect than viewers realize? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this post, share it with your friends and followers!