HBO’s Game of Thrones returns this weekend. As fans follow the saga of the Starks and Lannisters heading into a four-decade-long winter, one wonders whether there will there be a moment as startling as the “red wedding” of season 3? And what about Calesi and her dragons?

Season 4 may prove to be Throne’s most watched yet – second only to The Sopranos regarding popularity for HBO. Why is this? What makes this show so fascinating and terrific?

Three game changers.

First – the depth of the story. It’s epic. And grand.

Bayonne New Jersey’s son-of-a-longshoreman George R.R. Martin’s 694-page A Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice released in 1996 immediately became a sensation earning critical acclaim and a Hugo Award nomination. Martin’s tale of seven families set in a world part medieval/part fantasy told through three distinct narratives with multiple point-of-views was writing of the highest order. This was a novel that challenged readers while entertaining them.  Plus, his matter-of-fact twist on fantastical elements like dragons and “magic” was something fresh to the fantasy genre.

It’s no surprise that increased popularity followed each later release of the proposed 7-volume series ( 2 to go). What also followed were more characters, more points of view, and yet more complexity to the story.  Merely attempting to adapt a work as dense as this to the screen was a game changer. The fact that it has not become a true epic fail, it a real credit to HBO and producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss.

Second – the budget – biggest ever for a series.

275 actors per season, international locations, elaborate costumes, and special effects that never seem cheesy obviously cost a fortune. Telling a story this grand, and doing it well, requires an ambitious budget to go with it. HBO is clearly all in spending $5-10 million per episode. The highest of any show in history.

Credit HBO’s checkbook for upping their game-changing ante.

Third – killing off main characters – no one is safe.

In season one when Ned Stark is beheaded, it’s completely shocking and unexpected. For eight episodes he’s been the narrative focus and protagonist of the story. Then episode nine – off with his head! It’s utterly startling. HBO had to actually defend themselves for following the storyline found in the novel as “internet chatter” showed disappointment and outrage.

This was not Trapper John from M*A*S*H going down in a helicopter crash to accommodate an actor’s contract – this was part of the story.  And once this idea that anyone could die was introduced viewers were then on the edge of their seats wondering, “who’s next?”

Good thing because more carnage followed taking with them more familiar characters. That’s the world of Game of Thrones and another game changer.

So set your DVRs and get ready. Season 4 is about to start.

Regardless of whatever happens with the Whitewalkers in Winterfell,  one question remains. Will you watch them one at a time or wait to binge watch them all?

Bonus Commentary

While killing off main characters worked for GOT, I’m not sure it works well for other shows. This year two other series, House of Cards and The Good Wife both took out main characters in unexpected ways that smelt like a bit of an homage to GOT. Hopefully, this stops. What if Dr. House was killed in the first season? Not much of a show there.