Four Letter Nerd

Comparing Game of Thrones to the Greats

No one can deny (well at least with any credibility) that Game of Thrones is an immensely popular show that has added to its numbers with every shocking death. Every season, one episode (and usually more than one) breaks the previous high for the series in ratings. And Game of Thrones is also the most pirated show of the last three years (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/29/most-pirated-movies-tv-shows_n_6390490.html). So much like porn, GoT finds a way to make money despite also being available to large numbers of people for free.

But like most popular shows in this age of endless internet conversations about them, it’s not just enough for many to look at Game of Thrones as another good show. In fact, most criticisms I’ve heard or read about the show (other than the “they didn’t do that in the books!!!!” crowd) are not “this show is bad” as much as they are comparisons to “better” shows (It’s no Breaking Bad or “It’s no Sopranos”). So in that vein, I want to take GoT and compare it to the three shows I most frequently hear as being the best of the modern dramas (and possible ever): Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and The Wire. I won’t be ranking the shows in a straight up one to four ranking, but instead I will go deeper, ranking the shows in 6 different categories that, in my opinion, make those shows better than the rest. Now, a 3rd or a 4th ranking doesn’t mean the show is bad in the particular category. Each of these excels in each of these categories when compared to an ordinary show. They just might not be the best when compared to other classic shows. And I promise; no copouts. There will be no ties (of note: I’ve left out the Walking Dead, a show that pops up on a lot of lists and is extremely popular, but I’ve not seen. If you think it, or any other show should be included on this list, please explain why in the comments section).

Characters

  1. Game of Thrones
  2. Breaking Bad
  3. The Sopranos
  4. The Wire

I believe this is the category that truly set Game of Thrones apart from the beginning. I know of few shows whose characters stir the emotions of the viewers (both positively and negatively) so strongly. Though the producers of Game of Thrones have an unfair advantage being able to use Martin’s characters from his books, they still do a brilliant job (mostly) staying true to what they are in the text (which not every adaptation of a book has done a good job with, have they Peter Jackson?). Now Breaking Bad has its own set of fantastic characters with Walt, Jessie, Saul, Gus, and Mike (who’s even better in “Better Call Saul”). And while the characters in the Sopranos are 3rd on my list, I have to give props to the show for being the first “Shades of Grey” drama (no, not in the whole domineering book/movie thing, but where your protagonists are not always wholesomely good morally). The wire comes in 4th because the show’s premise is “The System” more than it is the characters.

Tyrion Lannister, played brilliantly by Peter Dinklage, is one many great characters featured on Game of Thrones.

Writing and Direction

  1. Breaking Bad
  2. The Sopranos
  3. The Wire
  4. Game of Thrones

I personally think Breaking Bad is a step above all other dramas in the history of television when it comes to this. The way Vince Gilligan connects each part of his five season drama, aligning every dot from start to finish has not been equaled. Of course, I’m a guy who wants all my questions answered (still waiting Lost!!!). So for those who don’t care as much about that, you might choose the Sopranos here. Any show that can humanize the Mafia the way the Sopranos does is doing exceptional work behind the camera. And The Wire is not that far from either of these two. Truth is, none of these shows would be getting mentioned without the excellent direction and writing. But Game of Thrones is not quite at the level the other three are in this area.

Vince Gilligan: The creator, head writer, and executive producer of Breaking Bad.

Realism

  1. The Wire
  2. The Sopranos
  3. Breaking Bad
  4. Game of Thrones

The Wire takes the top spot here with its five season inspection into the issues that plague inner city America (and  with the recent issues in Baltimore, the show’s setting, have proven it to be more accurate than even originally thought). The in-depth, balanced look into all facets from the criminals, the police, the politicians, the schools, the parents, and the media gives the viewer the realization that, much like real life, not every ending will be a happy one. I placed the Sopranos second here because of the acclaim actual mobsters gave the show for its realistic portrayal of mafia life. Breaking Bad is amazing, but I doubt any of our chemistry teachers became the top drug kingpin in North America and Europe. And while GoT does have the very realistic medieval times politics of noble houses and ill-fated conclusions for many of its characters, I cannot put a show with dragons, zombies, wargs and fireball throwing children ahead of realistic portrayals of American life.

Shocking Moments

  1. Game of Thrones
  2. Breaking Bad
  3. The Sopranos
  4. The Wire

No one throws a punch to the gut like Game of Thrones. Whether it be “The Red Wedding,” The Purple Wedding,” Ned Stark’s beheading, “The Red Viper vs. The Mountain,” or Jamie Lannister losing his hand as the show fades to credits (and that’s not to mention the end of season events from this past season), none of the other shows leave you gasping for breath and questioning life the way Game of Thrones does. Breaking Bad boasts its own set of awesome moments, though not all of them are as unpredictable as the deaths in GoT are. The same holds true for the Sopranos. Most deaths in the Sopranos (with a few notable exceptions) are inevitable (though causes of death can be shocking). And the Wire doesn’t deal much at all in shock value. So while it is last on the list, it does not take away from the quality of the show.

Robb, Catelyn, and Talisa before the events of the Red Wedding.

Single Episodes

  1. Breaking Bad
  2. The Sopranos
  3. The Wire
  4. Game of Thrones

As I’ve been reflecting on the great shows and Game of Throne’s place with them, I’ve come to the conclusion that when it comes to individual episodes, GoT does not match up. The reasons for this are not the quality of the episodes themselves, but more the multiple directions and stories that each episode contains and the essential importance of knowing everything that happened from the beginning. Also, Game of Thrones spends a lot of time setting up big moments. So the stuff between those moments can be slow, repetitive, or boring (especially season 4 and 5). The wire has a similar dilemma to Game of Thrones, but breaks down by seasons, each one telling its own unique story.

Breaking Bad and the Sopranos, on the other hand, excel at producing individual episodes that stand on their own and can be enjoyed even without the knowledge of earlier installments. Of course, the prior knowledge helps. But the episodes encompass and express their own stories in a way the format of shows 3 and 4 on this list does not allow.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini).

 

Ending

  1. Breaking Bad
  2. The Wire
  3. The Sopranos

Obviously, this is an incomplete for Game of Thrones. But I felt the need to include it here because of the impact the ending or final installment of a show can have on a series. For many years, Dexter was a strong candidate to appear on this list. But its ending (or possibly the last three seasons of it) really hurt the overall impression of the series. Lost is another that falls short of these others despite some excellent dramatic television thanks to a questionable conclusion. So while I compare Game of Thrones to these other shows now, it will have to stick the landing if it wants to stay here. And no show stuck the landing like Breaking Bad. Not only does Breaking Bad make number one for its final moments. Its entire fifth season was spectacular. Did Vince Gilligan leave any questions unanswered in that last season? I still can’t think of one important question that wasn’t resolved. The Wire tied up its ending very nicely as well with each character taking a new place in the continuous cycle they’ve been in since the show began. It doesn’t measure up to Breaking Bad’s ending because the final season as a whole took a while to hit its stride.

The Sopranos ending is what Lost wanted to be. The now famous fade-to-black conclusion is a hot topic of debate to this day. But one thing the Sopranos had going for it was David Simon (the show’s creator) never promised to answer all our questions. He commonly left stories unresolved. Characters also disappeared from the narrative without a real conclusion to their arcs. So The Sopranos ending fit in much better in this context than Lost, whose viewers anticipated far more answers than they received when it was over.

The final scene of the Sopranos, which ended 8 years ago, is still talked about amongst viewers to this day.

In Conclusion

Lord Littlefinger, when he was a politician in Baltimore.

 

While I strongly discourage creating some formula using these numbers, it does clearly show that I consider Breaking Bad the greatest show of all time. Gilligan’s show was 1st or 2nd on 5 of the 6 categories, including 3 number ones. But aside from that, I really wanted to compare each of these shows, being sure to exhibit and emphasize their individual strengths. For the Sopranos, though it didn’t get a single number one, is the most balanced of the shows not finishing last in any of the categories either. Game of Thrones, on the other hand, seems to take the philosophy of Ricky Bobby, coming in 1st or last in every category. But the two number ones are enough, for now, to make Game of Thrones comparable to the other great shows of this golden age of television we are currently experiencing. But the final verdict for Game of Thrones has yet to be written. For as previous shows have shown us, a poor conclusion can change the legacy of a previously great drama.

Breaking Bad (left), The Sopranos (top right), and the Wire (bottom right), all finished on top of their games. Will Game of Thrones follow suit?

That wraps up my season five coverage of Game of Thrones. I hope you’ve enjoyed the recaps and I look forward to continuing to write about the goings on in Westeros. Be on the lookout for analysis here after the Game of Thrones presentation at Comic Con. I also hope (and hope is the key word) I will have a sixth book to read and talk about between seasons.

Here are the links to the other articles I’ve written for the end of season series:

Season Finale Recap: http://www.fourletternerd.com/game-of-thrones-season-5-episode-10-recap-a-mothers-mercy/

Season 5 Review: http://www.fourletternerd.com/game-of-thrones-full-season-5-review-the-dilemma/

Season 5 Obituaries: http://www.fourletternerd.com/game-of-thrones-season-5-obituaries/

Season 6 Preview: http://www.fourletternerd.com/six-things-for-season-six/

 

 

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Jeff Merrick

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