When Game of Thrones kicks off its final season Sunday night (available only on Crave), it does so with the trailblazing fire of more than three dragons behind it. Over seven (soon-to-be eight) seasons, the series broke standard TV formats and turned viewers’ expectations on their heads, all while winning the most Emmy wins for any dramatic TV show in history and become a full-on phenomenon in the process.
From sweeping landscapes to killer storylines and everything in between, here are seven ways Game of Thrones has permanently changed television.
1. It killed off the face of the series in season one
When Game of Thrones premiered, Sean Bean was the series’ biggest star. While fans grew to love the likes of breakout stars Kit Harington, Lena Headey and Emilia Clarke, Bean was the face of the series both in the promotional arena and on the screen itself. His morals set the tone for the Stark children we now know and love (what’s left of them), and he was the obvious “good guy” we were supposed to root for against the evil Lannisters.
And then they went and chopped off his head. The hero didn’t even make it through the first full season, which was a signal to viewers everywhere that anyone could die at any time, good or bad.
2. TV but make it bigger
For a sense of perspective, a generous TV budget back in 2011, when the series debuted, was roughly $3 million per episode. Game of Thrones nearly doubled that by spending $5 million per episode at the outset, a number that swelled to $15 million per episode in its final season. But the dollars were more than visible onscreen.
With that kind of cash, the creators were able to tell big stories on an even larger scale, while bringing all of George R.R. Martin’s fantastical worlds to life. More importantly, that ambition and budget proved that movie quality narratives could play out on the small screen—a fact we may take for granted now that we’re firmly in the golden age of TV.
3. Next-level CGI
A significant portion of that kind of impressive budget goes into the CGI that enables creatures like giants, direwolves, Wights and dragons to come to life in a realistic and emotional way. Yet even with all of that money, the powers that be make tough decisions about what to include and when. Fans noted the absence of Jon Snow’s direwolf Ghost in “The Battle of the Bastards,” for example, when producers chose to use their budget to have Wun Wun the giant lock fists instead.
In terms of game-changing techniques, bringing those creatures (along with giant walls, explosive fires and beautiful castles) to life was huge—not to mention seriously expensive. GoT raised the bar considerably and TV in general is better because of it.
4. Battles that last an entire episode
We’re used to prolonged, some might say overlong, battle scenes in action movies, but they pale in comparison to some of the epic battles Game of Thrones has fought. To this day, Season 2’s “Blackwater” remains an episode to phone home about, and we remember holding our (icy) breaths for the entire duration of “The Watchers on the Wall.”
In both instances, many of the characters we deeply cared about were fighting for their lives—death was imminent in several cases. The stakes were always high and the good guys didn’t always win, but the show took its time, showcasing every single one of those brutal highs and lows along the way.
5. Content for a mature audience
We’re hard-pressed to think of many shows that include full-frontal male nudity, let alone male nudity and brutal castration scenes. Then there are the controversial rapes, the amusing brothel scenes and the varied sexual trysts, all of which have been thoroughly dissected by fans over the years.
As for the violence and shock factor? Where to begin. Pushing a child out of a window to his supposed death in the pilot? You’ve got our attention. Feeding a mother and her newborn to ravenous dogs? Okay. Raping your sister as she mourns over her child’s dead body? That happened. Baking your enemies into a pie and feeding it to their unaware father? Check, check, check and check.
While some of these scenes still haven’t left us, there’s no denying this show has never been afraid of pushing boundaries. Now, so many series try to follow suit but never forget the bloody path forged by GoT.
6. Going beyond the books
Martin is notorious for taking his time writing the tomes on which the series is based, so much so that he has yet to release the final two installments in his seven-novel saga. And so when the Night’s Watch killed Jon Snow for aligning with the Wildlings, the moment marked an intersection we’ve never really seen with TV or film before: the adaptation catching up with—and surpassing—the source material.
No longer having the books to turn to has resulted in an even more impassioned fanbase and wild speculation about various theories and outcomes. While some of those longstanding theories (Jon Snow’s parents) have proven true, others are TBD heading into the final season. That success and communal fan-building is unprecedented as no one on the outside knows where the story is going.
7. Fantasy and sci-fi for everyone
The ingredients for a celebrated TV series are varied and mysterious, but good story, great characters and hitting something at just the right time are all but necessary. Game of Thrones hits all those notes, despite the fantastical nature of the series. Too often, sci-fi and fantasy have been lumped into niche viewing for hardcore audiences only who already have an affinity for the genre. Sure, this isn’t your average, cop, lawyer or doctor drama but guess what, people are watching it and critics love it, with the series earning a 94% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. With an average 30 million U.S. viewers per episode by its seventh season, it proved that people will watch something different and unique, and devour it passionately—as long as it’s good.
Catch up on seasons 1 to 7 and then tune-in for the Season 8 premiere on Sunday, April 14, 9 p.m.ET, available only on Crave.