Illustration by Jeff Versoi

THIS SUNDAY, Game of Thrones returns to TV. Well, if you're rich enough to have HBO, it'll return to TV. The rest of us will watch it using... less traditional methods.

Game of Thrones was the most pirated television series of 2012 and 2013—and arguably the most talked-about show in recent memory, edged out perhaps only by Breaking Bad and True Detective. That statistic is pretty impressive proof of what the show has managed to do: Get just about everybody invested in a story about knights and kings and princesses and dragons. (Even if they don't like dragons.) Logically, Game of Thrones shouldn't be a mainstream cultural phenomenon—it should be a painting on the side of your cousin's van.

For all its acclaim, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series, on which Game of Thrones is based, doesn't stray far from the author's roots as a genre writer. When he wasn't teaching, Martin spent the '70s cranking out short stories for pulps like Analog, Fantastic, and Galaxy, and his high-concept stories—inventive and weird, graceful and haunting—made him one of science fiction's best authors. But it wasn't until his ambitious, deadly serious A Song of Ice and Fire began, in 1996, that something remarkable started to form on the fringes of pop culture. And it wasn't until 2011, when HBO took a gamble on Game of Thrones, that a worldwide audience—primed by J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books and Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings movies—was ready to take the plunge into Martin's intricate, sprawling fantasy.

Game of Thrones' showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have both streamlined and sped up A Song of Ice and Fire's narrative, but they haven't dumbed it down: As proudly lurid and giddily gruesome as it can be, the show remains one of the smartest shows on TV. Thanks to singular characters like quipping schemer Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and vengeful moppet Arya (Maisie Williams), and to Martin's obstinately bleak worldview, Game of Thrones not only thrills with spectacle (just about every episode offers both boobs and dragons), but resonates in unexpectedly realistic ways (just about every episode reminds us that not only should we never trust those in power, but also that we'll all die pointless deaths, with the most honorable among us doing so first).

Like the best entertainment, Game of Thrones both distracts and disquiets. Whether it's books or TV or film or theater, art like that doesn't come along very often—which means it's worth paying attention when it does. Even if you don't like dragons.

More Game of Thrones Issue Articles:

Get It Straight!

Spoiler: Winter Is Coming

How to Improve Your Dragons

Books! Versus! Show!

The Erotica of Westeros

  • Cover art by Boris Vallejo