Hail To The King: How ‘Game Of Thrones’ Became TV’s Crown Jewel

[Disclaimer: This column may have slight spoilers regarding the first episode of the fourth season of Game of Thrones.]

In an age of instant information, massively budgeted small-screen shows have become the few remaining “watern cooler” events. For all that has been said ad nauseam about the Golden Age of television, however, it’s hard to not pin HBO’s Game of Thrones as the current champion.

While many welcome the binge-watching now possible with Netflix shows like House of Cards, the fact that entire seasons are released at once takes away the charm of suspense generated by having to wait in anticipation to see what’s next. True Detective, on the other hand, was an unmatched thriller that would have many at the edge of their seats, waiting for the next installment-but Season One lasted just eight episodes before its conclusion. And while Breaking Bad may have held supremacy over cable ratings for a solid five seasons, its conclusion last fall means Game of Thrones is in the perfect position to dominate our Sunday nights (and subsequent workweeks, sharing spoilers on the show).

As evidenced by Game of Thrones‘ premiere of Season Four on Sunday, this show has a staying power that has not been matched by anything since HBO’s The Sopranos, the cable network’s previous series about power struggles between warring families.

Coincidentally, this season’s Game of Thrones premiere netted HBO’s highest ratings since 2007’s series finale of The Sopranos. The viewership numbers are staggering: a total of 8.2 million viewers (not counting the thousands of pirated live streams) tuned in on Sunday. For comparison, last year’s Season Three premiere only drew some 4.4 million viewers. From the minute-by-minute updates on Twitter to the volume of traffic to HBO, GO’s live stream that crashed its servers (and prevented viewers like myself from catching the initial airing), the event had a particular aura of cultural significance.

Game of Thrones is also a unique case in that it remains so popular despite the presence of decades-old books that essentially double as leaked scripts for fans of the show unfamiliar with George R. R. Martin’s body of work.

Yet, it’s becoming evident that Game of Thronesis nearing a point where all of its characters morph into something more compelling than Martin’s originals. It’s analogous to the moment Walter White became less “Walter White” and more “Heisenberg”-all of the main characters, save for those introduced this season, are at a point where they are too broken to be brought back to their original state. Some may call this a nadir, and following the collective blood-curdling, blindsiding stab-in-the-guts (literally and figuratively) that was Season Three’s “Red Wedding,” it’s tough to argue that viewers can ever treat the show’s characters in the same way.

Sunday’s premiere did more than enough to indicate this with most of the principle cast, from its multiple broken lovers’ trysts to a chilling, revenge-fueled execution at the hands of a certain Stark girl. It’s the messy, chaotic unwinding of the characters that long-time viewers have grown familiar with, and it is magnificently entertaining to see where these interconnecting stories go from here.

Yes, there is a question as to whether Martin or show runners Dan Benioff and David Weiss will end up writing the final chapters of this epic fantasy drama. There are still doubts that Martin can finish the novels before HBO’s timetable of seven seasons is up in 2018, and this will remain a question that will linger over the show.

But for all the surprises that the show throws at its viewers, Game of Throneshas become the gold standard for the network original series. It has grown from an ambitious and risky investment into a boon for its parent network, and no matter how HBO’s crown jewel concludes, there’s little doubt that it’ll do so with higher viewership than those it drew in this week-the numbers will continue to rise.

If there’s anything to glean from Game of Thrones‘ return, it’s that its popularity is open to increase.

The stakes have been raised.