Creating Game of Thrones’ Cross-Demographic Appeal through Genre-Mixing Iconicity

Curator's Note

HBO's Game of Thrones achieves cross-medium success for showrunner-producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Their adaptation of author George R.R. Martin's (still-in-progress) A Song of Ice And Fire fantasy books boasts rare combinations of cultural clout and prestige inheritance. Yet closer examination reveals GoT destabilizes traditional audience perspectives on the fantasy genre not only through dense narrative complexity but also through strategical (if not subversive) cross-genre iconic suggestion. In the clips provided, narrative continuity between Arya Stark and Sandor Clegane/The Hound in GoT's fourth season frequently denotes the graphic tenor of "revenger" politics and Spaghetti Western antiheroics made iconic by director Sergio Leone and actor/director/producer Clint Eastwood. 

Arya/Hound scenes largely pay tribute to the Western genre in form and style. Perhaps juxtaposing season four's Two Swords and Leone's For a Few Dollars More draws closest comparison. While the scenes are not exact replicas, they mirror one another through genre-mixing iconicity. Outside the inn, Arya's dour wardrobe strongly resembles the iconic poncho saddled upon Eastwood's Man with No Name. Both scenes emphasize cautious entrance into congested (and contested) spaces, evoking the Western binary opposition between interiority-exteriority which also signifies tensions between civilization and wilderness. Because GoT and spaghetti westerns each traverse narrative norms and conventional rules, interior spaces appear foggy and overstuffed, claustrophobic and ultimately dangerous. A POV scan across each respective room underscores the urban rot that "progress" brings paradise.

Both scenes initially conceals the antihero/antiheroine as saloon surveyor, only to reveal his/her intentions through calculated risk. Leone/Eastwood create tension through silence during a forced game of cards, while Benioff/Weiss stage tension via gameful conversation where each threat signals a bid and raised stakes. The texts thus invert one another through verbal versus nonverbal action. These dueling sequences even pause for final indulgence (smoke/libation) before tension breaks. Once tension peaks, each scene dissolves the myth of interior safety through righteous antihero vengeance and nihilistically styled ultraviolence. Eastwood's revolver puncuates those "Wanted" in the Wild West just as the Hound's longsword punctures those soldiers who want him in Westeros.   

Each scene concludes climactic action with optimistic misdirections of supposed victory. Despite surviving their encounters, the respective antiheroes/antiheroine set off on horseback. These cold-blooded killers exit into oblivion. Particularly for Arya/Hound, the landscape signifies not the Western myth of Utopia but instead the smoldering ashes of Dystopia. Like Leone's iconoclast Western revisionism, Westeros is revealed to be paradise lost.


Very interesting, Garret. Repeatedly I forget and am reminded of how influential the Western genre is and continues to be in narrative creation. It blows my mind every time and makes me appreciate that genre more and more. Your post certainly served as one of those moments. Stephen King's The Gunslinger series melds the genres of Western and Fantasy but the comparison you provide is far more subtle and makes me think of other possible locations of genre mixing in the GoT narrative. For instance, take the two main characters in the GoT scene - Sandor and Arya. The father-daughter relationship between Arya and Sandor is intriguing. Sandor seems to momentarily fill-in for the absent father in Arya's life, although he is not the man she seems to seek out and look up to, as she does with Jaqen H’ghar. However, Sandor serves as an unsolicited mentor to her by exposing her to a hostile (exterior) world and thus enabling her to hone her skills in fighting, survival, and warfare in ways a young woman would not have been able to do in the undisclosed historical setting of ASoIaF and GoT. (As an aside, the domestic (interior) realms Sansa inhabits are also ultra-violent but that is another discussion.) Although John Wayne/Natalie Wood's father-daughter relationship in The Searchers (Ford, 1956) initially came to mind as I was looking for comparisons within the Western genre, I see Sandor and Arya's relationship mirrored more in Ryan and Tatum O' Neal's pairing as Moses Pray and Addie Loggins in Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973) which was an adaptation Joe David Brown’s 1971 book Addie Pray. Moses and Addie's relationship is not defined as father and daughter explicitly in Paper Moon but rather left as a mysteriously unanswered question. While the stated goal is for Moses to deliver Addie to her aunt upon the untimely death of her mother, they experience a multitude of (mis)adventures along the way, many that could be deemed inappropriate for a 9 year old girl. However, their peculiar journey to her Aunt's house plays an integral role in the young girl’s development as an adult, similar to Arya's development as a warrior during her time with The Hound. While both narratives serve as bildungsromans for both female characters who occupy dynamic roles in cinema, the father-daughter narratives compare in ways that I had not thought of before reading your thoughtful comparison of themes found in GoT and Spaghetti Westerns. But I’m left with a question: Are there father-daughter themes in the Western genre that mirror Sandor and Arya’s relationship? I can’t exactly place Ford’s Debbie and Martin’s Arya in the same category and am too unfamiliar with the Western genre at large to pin-point others immediately. Definitely a topic to explore further. *Apologies for the lack of appropriate italics in film and book titles but I couldn't get the formatting to transfer.

Sarah, thank you for your comments. I agree with you that the Western, while seemingly aged and distilled in excitement as a dynamic film and/or TV genre, casts a deep and wide shadow over many contemporary and nontraditional genres. I certainly see where you are coming with recognizing a potential father-daughter pairing between Arya and The Hound. Indeed, the showrunners have worked such pairings in previously: Arya & Ned in S1 = actual family --> Arya & Tywin in S2 --> Arya & Jaqen H'ghar in S2 --> Arya & Hound teased in S3. In essence, she has received a great deal of attention from male fatherly figures, albeit rough and tumble types of "dads" that for better or worse feed her rough and tumble Self-identity. I see where you are headed with comparing father-daughter combinations within Western film history, but I might note that the spaghetti western as a sub-genre answers a lot of your questions. Again in Sergio Leone's uneven (masterpiece) 'Once Upon A Time in the West' we see Claudia Cardinale's Jill McBain placed front in center in the turbulent male West. She holds an uneasy alliance with Jason Robards' Cheyenne, a character who is both an empathetic mentor and a scoundrel himself. He is easily old enough to be Jill's father, yet he also communicates the torn attraction that perhaps his former Self would have taken her with or without permission. Yet the lesson or Western revision of "Once Upon A Time..." is Claudia's newfound agency and belief in herself as the bringer of life. Contrast this with Arya's growing skill set as a bringer of death. As opposed to the father-daughter motif, the uneasy alliance or "sidekicks" convention works well to describe Arya/The Hound just as Leone (1965) pairs Eastwood with Lee Van Cleef in "For a Few Dollars More.". Notably, Van Cleef posits the same actor/different character who would later play the villain in Leone's (1966) 'Man With No Name' finale, "The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly." One final under the radar mention might be Giulio Petroni's (1967) "Death Rides a Horse," which follows the "revenger" plot closely and serves as a clear inspiration for many of Tarantino's contemporary trademarks. "Death" again stars Van Cleef as a reformed heel who happens to be on the kill list of young gunslinger who witnessed the massacre of his family, only to seek revenge for each of those held accountable. Its eerily close as well, with Van Cleef functioning as the killer's own mentor, and speaks to a much larger interest I have with this particular subject matter. As for Arya's place in the father-daughter dynamic, that is a question I have a longer response to but am developing within a different framework for another essay under review.

Garret, those are some very astute observations. The western genre isn’t my forte, but your post struck me as highlighting something that is evident across the promotion of modern fantasy texts. We’re all familiar with the strategies of those fantasy films and TV shows that attempt to downplay their fantasy aspects and instead promote those elements that help them to stand apart from other fantasy texts. It’s done with the aim of not ‘scaring off’ those potential audience members who would be repelled by the mention of a “sword and sorcery” story. Rather, the promotion of such texts appeals to genre conventions with which a wider audience is familiar. Do you think that the genre-mixing iconicity you identify in the Arya/The Hound storyline on screen is GoT’s way of appealing to the familiar?

Andrea, thank you for the comments and inquiry. Iconicity is definitely part of the broader strategy that TV dramas draw from in the ever-increasing competition for audience space and cultural buzz. While I agree with Sarah's earlier comments that GoT actually evokes numerous conventions across multiple genre formats--a critical observation I explore in an upcoming book chapter on GoT fandom--it definitely works as a strategy to "hook" viewers less inclined to tune into fantasy texts. Indeed, I see the Arya/Hound scenes as strategically bookmarking the final sequence of the season three finale as well as this scene that concludes season four's premiere. The televisual space that these scenes occupy run close to overlapping with HBO's non-fantasy programming, where viewers might be tuning in early for Boardwalk Empire or a film or some other entertainment with traditional narrative expectations. At the same time I also see the Western theme as a strong through-line for Arya/Hound throughout season four. I view the temporal location of the scenes as a both/and convenience for the producers. "Appealing to the familiar" to use your words, definitely functions as an attention getter, but often in subtle ways. It is as if the non-fantasy viewer cautiously recognizes the value of the entertainment without being able to identify the "why?" of it. Furthermore, although we associate the American Western film genre as "realistic" to a certain extent, the structure of film iconography and cultural mystique in Westerns represent historicities every bit as mythological as GRRM's revision of Medieval Europe.

Great post, Garret! Your comparison to the western is a particularly astute one, and it also strikes me that one of the other motifs that emerges is of order vs. chaos. What particularly interests me about "GoT," though, is the way in which there doesn't really seem to be any re-establishment of order. This is hardly surprising, given HBO's penchant for reinventing older genres and exposing the sex and violence that often lurks just beneath the surface (this also happened with "Deadwood" and "Rome"). Furthermore, I'm also interested in Arya as the figure of the loner. What makes her so compelling as a character is the fact that we identify with her, even as she is a part of the very forces of chaos that threaten to completely undo what remains of political order in Westeros.

Thomas, I appreciate your feedback and parallel perspectives at play. Order versus chaos is certainly a popular trope in contemporary televisual drama mediascape. We see frequent failed attempts at restoring "order" (or perhaps sanity?) across multiple fronts, including "GoT", "Sons of Anarchy" and "The Walking Dead." With each case, the fall toward chaos closely echoes currents of nihilism that arguably suggests deeper socio-cultural concerns. Sarah touches on these deep-seeded "concerns" with her comments on your Wednesday post, and while I concur there is a dramatic emphasis on potential white male anxiety (I recommend Amanda Lotz's (2013) 'Cable Guys: Television and Masculinity in the 21st Century' for a broader examination of such gendered phenomena), there are clear signifiers that point toward greater disparity beyond what I identified in my masters thesis as a "'perceived' decline of white male privilege" played out in post-millennial popular culture. You are keene to point out HBO's taste for salacious content, especially embedded within their luxurious period epics. I think this also speaks to Andrea's question about genre-mixing and mass audience reach. It seems relatively straightforward that at least a part of HBO's executive staff feels the need to "overcompensate" content with newfound gratuity as both a motif of brand extension (no pun intended) and as a failsafe for attracting certain viewers (we might refer to this audience niche as "clientele"). Shameless HBO peer pressure toward excess was admitted by GoT director Neil Marshall in a podcast given to Empire magazine in 2012. Finally, I agree with you that Arya functions at her core as a loner as she is, after all, represented by the [dire]wolf. We identify with Arya because she claims agency in a world where the rules are written to remove her of such claims. I think her ability to overcome--human survival is a dominant theme on television right now--hardship is a quintessential quality of Westerns but also a fundamental mythological trope of the human condition. Indeed, the chaos encircling Arya takes many forms and resonates clear concerns the "average viewer" might have of his/her own present and future in a post-global landscape that seemingly shifts as frequently (and turbulently) as the characters of GRRM's world.

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