Pesach Is Coming: What Game of Thrones and Seder Night Share

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Game of Thrones.Credit: Yes/HBO
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Last Monday, at 4 a.m., we were in sync with the civilized world. Well, not the whole world, and not all civilizations, but with those for whom “Game of Thrones” is the whole world, for whom the knowledge of what happens there – whatever “there” (and “then”) means – is all the civilization they care about.

For those of you who do not know what I’m rambling on about (and until fairly recently I was as “uncivilized” as you may have felt reading the paragraph above), “Game of Thrones” is an American fantasy drama television series created for HBO by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. It is an adaptation of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” George R. R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, the first of which is titled “A Game of Thrones.”

It all happens in the fictional Kingdom of Westeros, where noble, multi-branched and bloodthirsty families struggle for control of the Iron Throne. The time is some unspecified past – meaning that there are no laser beams, guns or smartphones – roughly around the Middle Ages (or middle kingdoms), with the two main fighting clans being the Lannisters and the Starks. If you seem to sense here some resemblance to the Lancasters and the Yorks, you are not much mistaken, but bear in mind that Benioff, Weiss, Martin and HBO are no Shakespeare, (and he had no dragons in his history plays; no actor was eager to play one in the Bard’s days, most probably), even if the Wars of the Roses by any other name does have the unmistakable smell of success.

The third season saw the figures on average gross audience (including all repeats and on-demand viewings) rise to 14.2 million, making the season the second-most viewed of any HBO series, after the fifth season of “The Sopranos,” which obtained 14.4 million viewers in 2004. The fourth season was eagerly awaited ever since the last episode of the third season was aired in the U.S. on June 9, 2013, before 5.9 million viewers. The first episode of season four was broadcast in the U.S. on April 6 and aired simultaneously in Israel on the Yes OH channel on April 7 at 4 a.m., thus putting Israeli fans in sync with their American counterparts.

I’m not going to delve into the intricacies of the many plots and sub-plots (it all happens during a decade-long summer, with a terribly cold winter threatening to follow: Think the current climate change crisis.) Nor will I go into the characters, not only because there are more than 250 credited parts in the series, but because they get maimed, mutilated and killed at a frightening pace, and may appear and disappear while you blink. And also for fear of spilling a spoiler, for which I myself might be in danger of being killed by an enraged fan.

The fan base of this fantasy series is part of the fun, since it has an exceptionally broad and active group of followers. Writers cited by the BBC attributed this success to the rich detail, moral ambiguity, sexual explicitness (and nudity, male and female, of course), and the epic scale of the series as well as the novels.

When new seasons were broadcast, they were available only through HBO or its affiliates, and in many countries not at all. This delay in availability contributed to its being the most-pirated TV series of 2012 and 2013, putting “Pirates of the Caribbean” to shame. One episode was downloaded about 4,280,000 times in 2012, a number about equal to that of the broadcast viewers. To counteract piracy, HBO announced in 2013 that it intends to make its content more widely available worldwide within the week of the U.S. premiere; hence the early 
morning broadcast in Israel this week.

Which brings me to an interesting coincidence: “Game of Thrones” began again a week before the Passover Seder, which means, in Hebrew, “the order” (or ordeal, as in any other family affair). The whole point of attending the Passover meal and reading the Haggadah at this particular time – this coming Monday evening – is that all Jewish communities all over the world partake of a festive meal while retelling the story of a miraculous redemption and making the idea of a global Jewish village a reality. That – and the parallel need for Christians all over the world to celebrate Easter at the same time – was behind the effort of both faiths many years ago to coordinate the lunar and solar calendars with all those extra leap days, months and years.

Having everyone in a country, or even better, throughout the world, glued to their TV sets at the same time was – and is – the aim of TV producers and TV networks and channel executives since television began. That is the heart and soul of “ratings,” the new rule and ruler of world culture. And it was within the reach of TV. But now, with the invention of video recording and various services allowing for legal (and mainly illegal) downloads that can be viewed at leisure whenever and wherever the viewer may be, the ratings are fractured and fragmented. Having watched the first episode of the fourth season of “Game of Thrones” at the same time as parishioners in the U.S. could have given you a foretaste of retelling and reliving the story of the Exodus from Egypt with so many Jews all over the world.

And by the way, the apparent failure of the movie “Noah” notwithstanding, the plot of the Hagaddah could have served as a basis for a fantasy series. As a matter of fact, one could have rephrased the whole of Jewish history as an “unending Game of Thrones.” But even without that, at the Passover table we are supposed to recline in our chairs, as if on a throne, with Elijah the prophet vying this year for the vacant chair at the Passover meal with Jonathan Pollard, as envisioned recently in an Amos Biderman cartoon in Haaretz.

So, let the Games begin again.