Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Here be dragons

Even those who despise the mythical creatures dig Game of Thrones' fantasy fare

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You can probably divide pop-culture audiences into people who like books and movies and TV shows with dragons in them and people who prefer their entertainment to be totally dragon-free.

That second group tends to take the Puff, the Magic Dragon line: Children might like playing with dragons, but then they grow up and become preoccupied with real things, like suburban adultery and office politics and world wars and police investigations. From this point of view, stories about dragons are nerdy and silly. They're for people who hold Star Trek-themed weddings and attend Renaissance fairs.

Game of Thrones, the HBO series that just finished its busty, bloody, blazing third season, challenges the traditional line between realistic drama and epic fantasy, between prestige projects and geek-bait genre fare. And its phenomenal success suggests that dragons might be moving into the mainstream.

Since its 2011 debut, the Emmy award-winning show has gathered good reviews and even better ratings. (For HBO, GoT's ratings are second only to those of The Sopranos.) And the series has been insanely buzzy since the infamous The Rains of Castamere episode aired June 2, unleashing a social media fireball that included YouTube montages of reaction shots and a Twitter account, #RedWeddingTears, devoted entirely to fan venting.

GoT is also the most pirated show on TV.

So, how did even anti-dragonistas get caught up in this crossover hit? First off, GoT is a bit of a gateway show. When the series starts, most of its characters believe that dragons are extinct and that tales of magic and sorcery are told to frighten children. There's a lot of swordplay, but there's also grit and gore and an unrelenting sense of the arbitrary nature of life in a chaotic, disintegrating feudal world. If you squint a bit, GoT could pass as one of Shakespeare's more homicidal history plays. Or at least an episode of The Tudors.

By the time dragons show up at the end of the first season, magically born to Daenerys Targaryen, the red-hot Mother of Dragons, many of us are fatally hooked. We don't care that we are now expected to believe in dragons. We don't even care that they look like weird, scaly computer-generated effects.

That's because so much of the show feels not just familiar but real. Dragons aside, this quasi-medieval multi-character universe isn't the usual good-vs.-evil fantasy fable but a shifting saga of Byzantine subtlety and complexity. Honourable characters often get a lot of people killed, while cynical pragmatists end up saving the day.

Tyrion Lannister is a fan favourite, though he serves the interests of his appalling family, while the pretty but bland Sansa Stark has been derided as "the Taylor Swift of Westeros."

With betrayals and alliances, feuds and intrigue, and with tragic collisions of dynastic interests and family affection, it's not surprising that show co-creator David Benioff has described GoT as "The Sopranos meets Middle-earth."

Not everybody is going along. GoT has been called a "medieval man show." It has been attacked for its exploitative levels of violence and nudity. Not a week goes by without arterial blood spray of some kind, and the show is so unabashedly porn-y that a critic coined the term "sexposition" for those scenes in which characters explain subplots while performing graphic sex acts.

Still, GoT has enough density that these issues can be debated. Take the charge that the show has "a woman problem." It has also attracted a large contingent of female fans. And while it's true that almost every woman in GoT is either a lady or a whore (like, literally), the series is packed with flawed, ferocious female characters who fend for themselves at the edges of male authority. Online magazine Slate publishes the Game of Thrones Lady Power Rankings after every episode, tracking the rising and falling fates of women under patriarchy.

Lists and charts are helpful, since GoT challenges the notion that fantasy characters and stories are predictable and formulaic. GoT doesn't so much flout genre rules as stab them repeatedly in the stomach. This season's penultimate episode, popularly called One Wedding and Four Funerals, stomps on the treasured fantasy trope that one good guy might go out in an act of heroic sacrifice but that good will ultimately prevail.

Average life expectancies, even for GoT's main characters, are ruthlessly 15th century. The series indiscriminately slaughters not just warriors but women, children and dogs. Yes, GoT even breaks the cast-iron Hollywood decree that one cannot kill dogs. (OK, technically the fatality is a dire wolf, but it's furry and faithful.)

GoT wraps spectacular fantasy trappings around a hard core of truth. Next to it, some of those posh period dramas that also air on Sunday night start to look a little soft. We tend to think of Mad Men as "realistic," but it relies as much on costumes as any sword-and-sorcery epic, and its recreation of 1960s Manhattan is more than a bit mythic. And Downton Abbey, with its benevolent aristocrats and grateful servants? Now there's a fantasy.

Game of Thrones might have dragons -- and witches and ice zombies and giant wolves and a few other outlandish things -- but in its own strange way, it feels real. Those dragons might just be leading a crossover charge for the fantasy genre.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 D12

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