Critic's Notebook: 'Game of Thrones' Will Rank as One of TV's All-Time Greatest Dramas

HBO's fantasy saga will do what most genre series have never done — be considered among the all-time best.
Helen Sloan/HBO
'Game of Thrones'

You may have heard that Game of Thrones is about to enter its last season and that all hell is going to break loose and maybe your favorite character or two — or all of them — will end up dead. There is no end to stories and speculation or theories about what is going to unfold, both boldly and magnificently, come April 14.

The best advice I can give you about this season and the series finale is: Just watch. You can't control the outcome. Reading the tea leaves of teasers and trailers is going to lead you up the garden path.

Beyond that, half the people will hate the ending and the other half will split themselves into atoms debating how it was sort of satisfying but could have been better if X, Y and Z happened. It's better to just be happy you got to see it at all.

Which brings up a question I've been pondering for a while now: When Game of Thrones finishes, how high will it rank among the all-time great dramas?

Answer: High. Very high.

This is really the first time in ages when a new dramatic series ending its run can legitimately be considered for the fictional, keeper of the realm Hall of Fame. More important, it's the first time that a genre series has ever been taken this seriously for placement in the all-time Top 10, perhaps even in the Top 5.

Yes, Game of Thrones is that exceptional and certainly that unique. The only other "genre" series to be a slam dunk on many critic's lists is Deadwood, and that's a Western. Even though it qualifies as a "genre" series, there's nothing paranormal about it other than David Milch's gift for mind-blowing dialogue. A Western is basically any other dramatic series where normal people with mostly unspectacular gifts fit convenient roles of hero or antihero; where the series is judged primarily on its writing and then its acting and successful character development or plotting. Outside of cowboy hats and pistols and a certain lawlessness, the central characters of Deadwood are not too different from the central characters of Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos or The Americans — all of them inarguably Hall of Fame dramas and also my preferred Top 5. 

Game of Thrones, a fantasy series, is something quite different with dragons and other magical creatures, both dead and alive. Historically, fantasy and sci-fi series, particularly those that are not anthologies (ruling out The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror, for example), have never been given serious consideration in the discussion of all-time great dramas.

That ends when Game of Thrones ends.

Prior to GoT, the three genre series that immediately came to mind in a discussion about potentially "great" series and where to rank them were, in no particular order, Battlestar Galactica (the reboot), Lost and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

However you want to rank them is up to you. But I doubt you'd convince a majority of TV critics that any of them would be in the Top 10. Who knows, maybe you'd get a fierce opinion about one of them sneaking in. But in this Platinum Age of television, there's not much room for an excess of unsatisfactory episodes, much less a full-on bad season. Competition is fierce.

On my personal list of Top 5 first-ballot Hall of Fame series, I used a minimum of five seasons as the cutoff point (others would very clearly be willing to include Deadwood and its three seasons, something I'd only consider after the Top 5 picks). What are the next five? I honestly haven't sat down to try to figure out what my personal choices would be other than to state publicly that one of them for sure would be The Shield. After that, I'm not that interested in the fight, but I will admit that Game of Thrones coming to an end is nudging me off that position. I would love to see the last season first, obviously, but I don't think my opinion will swing negatively no matter what. So much greatness is already in the bank. This is a series that is a definite heavyweight contender.

But before getting to its merits and what it has overcome — chiefly, being a genre series — one of the interesting exercises was just the original weeding-out process when considering other genre series. You might get some vociferous defenses of the early seasons of The Walking Dead, but what followed pretty much derailed that train. It's always been highly entertaining and enormously popular, but it's not getting anywhere near the Top 10. Outlander? I'm sure that will have some support and is ongoing, but it hasn't really reached the higher realms. Twin Peaks? Cut away the nostalgia, and that second season was a mess and the third, impenetrable. Doctor Who? Really doubtful. The X-Files? Too inconsistent. Star Trek (and its various spinoffs)? Nope. Besides, really exceptional dramas are not closed-ended or geared to stories-of-the-week. Taking nothing away from those shows, it's hard to really boost into the stratosphere. There's plenty of good or even great genre series, including much more recent offerings like Orphan Black, Humans, The Man in the High Castle, Continuum, The Expanse, The Magicians, Travelers — each with merits but, again, this is about the Top 10 of all dramas, not just genre-based dramas.

And that brings us back, inevitably, to Game of Thrones. You can take up the BSG, Lost and Buffy causes in a lower rung, but GoT is a legit contender up in the highest of highs.

A lot can be said about its more overt strengths — depth and breadth of story and scope, enormous scale and ambition. But I think it starts first and foremost with David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and their writing. It has to. If you are blindly nerded-out to all things sci-fi and fantasy, you are probably never going to understand how everybody else furrows brows in judgment about, you know, that kind of dialogue. Oh, cop slang and mobster-isms are accepted, but once you start talking about fables and fairy tales and dragons and knights, everything you say and do will be under a microscope. Genre writing is dismissed for lots of reasons: too fanciful, too corny, too nerdy, too Lords and Ladies and gilded role-playing nonsense.

The greatest achievement Game of Thrones should get credit for is coming in hard with a story (no small thanks to George R.R. Martin) that was epic, had gravitas and was littered with bare-knuckle realism in the writing. You can nitpick all you'd like in certain areas pertaining to that — but you could do the same thing with The Sopranos and Deadwood. Making the Game of Thrones idiom a thing of respected beauty is forever going to be its most valuable trait.

After that, the aforementioned story, scope, ambition and vast scale are absolutely key elements, with a masterful sense of cinematic language passed between multiple and diverse directors (a thing it does get a lot of credit for but can't be overstated). Visually, Game of Thrones is glorious; its stage design remarkable. Martin's origin story and character development gave Benioff and Weiss a leg up, but they took that gift and embellished it, made it their own and consistently developed it. A largely impressive and memorable cast helps, which allows for the excellence of the whole to overshadow the weakness of certain parts.

The ambition alone in Game of Thrones— to be densely elegant, epic and serious — has always been a favorite element to me, even when it worked against the series in large parts of some of the middle seasons. There were so many characters and so much story that it bogged in the muck of character minutia, leaving viewers with a minute or two with this character, 45 seconds with another, etc. My biggest frustrations in the middle seasons came from wanting the immensely immersive experience to somehow shake free and take off in a mad scramble of creative flight. But it was rarely dull or misused in those times as it inched the stories of so many a space or two forward. The series was always all-in on the larger story, even getting ahead of Martin's own books. 

The payoff of the later seasons — and certainly, for this coming one — was worth the drawn-out moments.

The greatest dramas tell deeply rooted stories with multiple characters over the span of five or more seasons. Like a brilliant novel, the payoff is both in the journey (even if, at times, it doesn't feel like it) and then the conclusion. There is something about the relationships that Hall of Fame-worthy series have with their most dedicated fans that the conclusion is always the most divisive. I think it has a lot to do with loving a series so much you don't want it to end; identifying so closely with characters who will die or maybe not have their stories settled to your personal satisfaction, that it leads to some frustration or disillusionment.

Endings are hard. Look at, in particular, The Sopranos, Mad Men and even The Wire, from my list of the Top 5. So many fans still talk about those final seasons or those series finale episodes. To think that Game of Thrones— of all of them — will avoid such a fate is ridiculous. It will probably be the most contentious one when the dust settles.

I have faith in Game of Thrones, not merely to give me the ending I want (because I don't honestly know what I want that to look like, open as I am to multiple versions), but to give me an ending that honors my investment of time and loyalty to it. I trust that I'll get an ending to think about, to dissect, to probably relish. Few series, particularly as the Peak TV era got more and more packed with delectable offerings, commanded the kind of attention that Game of Thrones did and still does. That is a series you watch on the day and at the time it comes out. Maybe there's no higher honor these days.

The ultimate honor, however, I'm absolutely sure of — Game of Thrones will always be justifiably discussed in the upper echelons of the greatest dramas of all time, whether inside the Top 5 or just outside of it. Let that shake out over time and on individual lists. But no serious critical analysis could push it out of the Top 10. And as a genre series, damn, that's an unrivaled achievement.