The opening sequence of Game of Thrones has become as iconic as many other aspects of the show: the soaring journey over the world of Westeros, with clockwork replicas approximating its major cities and kingdoms. It’s also a revealing look into how this show is structured. Game of Thrones uses a fragmented kind of storytelling, split among many locations and with its vast and disparate cast on narrative collision courses. Game of Thrones takes place in pieces. We might be with Daenerys and her dragons for two or three chunks of an episode, or only drop in on Bran once, or only offer one glimpse of Cersei plotting away in Kings’ Landing.
The show takes this format from an unlikely ancestor: the soap opera. Soap operas are so called because the advertisers in those early days of television made a sadly predictable calculation about their target daytime audience: housewives, with the TV set on in the background. Naturally, this imagined housewife must be flitting between her many tasks, not really watching the programming but wandering into sight and out again. The women’s attention became fragmented, splintered. The structure of the programming was similarly broken up. Stories flitted between scenes and characters. Interactions were framed in neat pieces of narrative that could be taken in bite-sized pieces. If you’re interested in one character, you can easily watch their scenes and feel a mild sense of disappointment when the show cuts to a last-enticing storyline happening elsewhere but nonetheless entangled.
And in between these fragments of fragments, they advertised household goods to the housewife audience: namely, soaps. Soap operas.
It’s easy to see Game of Thrones as a high-fantasy soap opera. At least for me—watching since season one—it’s been hard to unsee the structure once it came to mind. Will they or won’t they? When will they learn that their lover is really their aunt? Who’s scheming? Who knows what?
Game of Thrones has evolved past the stereotypical soap opera in any number of ways: from budgeting to genre to the quality of the performances. But the bones are there. It innovates from its pedigree.
Now Game of Thrones isn’t unique in this aspect. So many of today’s shows flow from formatting designed from archaic ways of living and thinking—ie, women work at home all day on domestic tasks, they’re interested in cleaning supplies for said domestic tasks, and they will appreciate the thrills of sexual tension and interpersonal intrigue and played-up suspense. Voilà: a show structure for the ages.
What made Game of Thrones’s pedigree stick in my teeth is the content housed by its soap opera structure in 2019. Calling something a soap opera isn’t necessarily flattering. Mostly, it’s the opposite. It’s a traditionally feminine form of entertainment. Soap operas aren’t serious. They aren’t art. They’re trash. So says the kind of elevated cultural capital that gives rise to programs like HBO’s mega-hit. This “high-culture” hit is built on its “low-culture” blueprints.
Those blueprints are also designed for women—undoubtedly no small part of the reason that the soap opera genre was so easily denigrated as a whole. It’s women’s media. It’s fluff. Inconsequential and repetitive and outlandish. Enter Game of Thrones: a show in which sexual assault is used as a go-to plot device for women characters to “grow,” where nudity and voyeurism of female bodies is up to the generally high HBO rate.
But backing up from these popular criticisms, the show also embodies a kind of heavy, old-school masculinity very much at home in the high fantasy genre. I have to sit back and chuckle—with no small measure of bitterness. Game of Thrones has built a phenomenon, an empire. But like an old much-built-up house, you can still find the bones and read a history there. For all its macho violence and innovation, we’re all tuning in to watch a soap opera—transformed from its much-denigrated status as women’s media and into a cultural standard.