By Amanda Farrish
Game of Thrones is a runaway hit for HBO and attracts a much wider audience than epic fantasies usually do. Game of Thrones is certainly a special show with complex storylines, countless complicated characters, and a respect for its audience’s intelligence. But its external trappings—its epic scope, its sword-and-sandals action, its underhanded, scheming characters and their political machinations—are nothing new for HBO. Only a few years earlier, Rome shared these elements. But, while it was a modest hit, it did not draw the same numbers as Game of Thrones. Why? What’s different about Thrones and the era it airs in?
Rome can be viewed almost as a precursor to Game of Thrones. Like Thrones, Rome’s stakes are insanely high; the fate of the world hangs in the balance behind every decision the characters make. Personal character arcs are writ large on the world stage. Sons rebel against fathers and brother against brother to usher in a new world order. Brutus’ assassination of Caesar is both personal and political. Same goes for the war between Antony and Octavian in Season 2. Octavian is motivated to crush Antony by both his quest for imperial dominance and his childhood resentment of his stepfather.
Similarly, Stannis and Renly’s battle is fueled by both the older brother’s unyielding insistence on the laws of succession and the younger brother’s desire to foil his brother’s plans. Likewise, Daenerys only becomes a player when she’s able to throw off her brother’s abuse.
The worlds at stake in these shows are both familiar and alien. Rome is of course based in actual history, while Westeros is only inspired by medieval Europe. Both worlds are foreign, yet recognizable: the settings may be a far cry from our world, but both worlds are populated by very real human characters.
Even these people are recognizable types repeated across both shows. Atia is a forerunner of Cersei, an ambitious, entitled noblewoman frustrated by the limitations of her gender. Cicero is a master politician and manipulator in a way that is repeated by Littlefinger and Varys. Octavia and Sansa are both learning to navigate the political arena as their trust in those around them dissolves. None of the potential rulers for either Rome or King’s Landing are an ideal choice, but they’re all complicated, fully realized human beings.
So why is Game of Thrones the bigger hit? What is it about the people of Westeros that is infinitely more fascinating than the Jullii and Junii? The answer might lie in the show’s unpredictability.
Unpredictability is built into the very DNA of Game of Thrones in a way that it is not a part of Rome. Like the books upon which it is based, Thrones relies heavily on the subversion of the audience’s expectations. Ned Stark begins the show as the audience’s proxy into the world, a generally good man reacting to an alien world of courtly intrigue. In another show, he would be the main character for the entire series and we would navigate the world through him. In Rome, he’d serve the same purpose as Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. He’d be a perpetual outsider in the same way they and the audience are.
But in Game of Thrones, this isn’t the case at all—Ned Stark is beheaded in episode 9 of Season 1. His death subverts every expectation the audience has of the show. It leaves us in the same situation as his children—adrift in the universe of the show without guidance. If a boy king can kill Ned against the advice of his council and his mother, suddenly anything can happen in Westeros.
This instinct to subvert expectations is carried throughout the show. The Red Wedding is the most obvious example of this, but it also occurs on multiple levels throughout the show. Jon Snow’s highly prized honor should keep him from breaking his vows, but he falls for Ygritte anyway. Littlefinger appears to be the most trustworthy of the small council, but he betrays Ned when it serves him. Margaery Tyrell’s sweet demeanor hides a cunning political operative.
This unpredictability of plot opens up the characterization to immense possibility. The characters’ reactions to unthinkable events become the crux of the show. For example, Jaime Lannister’s bravado and cruelty melt away as soon as he is a victim of cruelty himself. His anguish at his maiming immediately makes him a more complicated and sympathetic character than the man who threw a child out a window with a quip.
The sense that anything can happen permeates every episode of Game of Thrones and keeps the audience guessing. At any turn, anything can happen and, in the aftermath, any character can reveal who they really are. The show is a constant, unrelenting surprise, which keeps and draws a wide range of viewers, even those who’ve read the show’s source material. Westeros is a world of chaos, in Littlefinger’s words, a ladder that men must either climb or fall from.
Rome, by contrast, was a far more straightforward show, both by nature and design. Of course, Rome is based in historical fact, while Game of Thrones is not. The audience knows that Brutus and Cassius are going to assassinate Caesar and that Antony and Cleopatra will eventually kill themselves.
This natural predictability prevents Rome from achieving the same sense of subversion as Game of Thrones. But Rome also wasn’t designed to foster the same sense of chaos. The characters’ motivations are much more clear and constant. Even surprises, like adult Augustus’ lust for power, are foreshadowed, in this case, in Octavian’s sense of entitlement.
While an excellently executed show, Rome lacks the sense of mystery and excitement that Game of Thrones has. The fact that you don’t know what will happen on the next second of Game of Thrones, let alone the next season, is a large part of its appeal and its continued success.
The chaotic nature of Game of Thrones is only possible in the age of the anti-hero drama and mega-cast shows. The proven audience appeal of Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Walter White primed audiences to root for the Lannisters, Targaryens, and Greyjoys. Shows with large ensembles, like Lost and Heroes, paved the way for the countless characters of Westeros.
Thrones’ unpredictability sits at the intersection between the anti-hero trend and large ensemble shows. On Thrones, the villain can suddenly become the hero and the hero can just as suddenly be gone forever. A minor character in one episode can be the main one in the next. The show’s successful because its suspense has found an audience that was ready to watch it. On the other hand, Rome was well-made, but is a relic of an earlier era of television drama, even now, only a few years after it ended.
Amanda Farrish is a professional communicator and amateur pop culture writer based in Connecticut. Her previous work has explored television commentary and criticism. Her claim to fame is an appearance on Jeopardy! in 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @ACFarr.