What if the the most poignant, intricate, or emotionally revealing story ever told was also the funniest? What if There Will Be Blood was hilarious? What if a movie came out that was informative, thought-provoking, moving, and roll-on-the ground amusing? There’s no moment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where we stop and get the emotional core of King Arthur or the geo-political intricacies of the Middle Ages.
Hardcore Game of Thrones, available via the Earwolf Podcast Network’s premium Howl service, gets awfully close. It’s a parody of Dan Carlin’s wonderful Hardcore History. Here, a fake Dan Carlin explains the overwhelmingly complicated history of Westeros.
For 18 straight hours.
There are a lot of Thrones fans like myself who are simply never going to read the books. My schedule doesn’t budget much reading time, and I almost never read fiction. But I enjoy HBO’s television adaptation. Or, I should say, I used to enjoy it, before I listened to Hardcore Game of Thrones. Now I’m obsessed.
Usually when a film or TV program is based on a book, the people who read the book tend to prefer it. This seems especially true for George R.R. Martin’s series, partly because it features endless intricacy of a fictional world. Co-creator and voice of the Hardcore podcast Alex Berg is especially firm on this point.
“If you watch season 2 of Fargo, one of the things that show does really well that George R.R. Martin also achieves in his books is tell a complex story from multiple characters viewpoints effortlessly,” Berg tells the Daily Dot. “It was a limited series, and they didn’t have to give any of the actors concessions towards future seasons. So there were characters you would follow intimately as if they were the main character of the story for an episode or two episodes or three episodes, and then when their part of the story is done or it’s not important anymore, they sort of fade away and maybe you don’t see them for a couple episodes or now they’re just supporting characters.
“For Game of Thrones, part of the reason half the season is such a slog to get through, is because in order to keep someone like Emilia Clarke employed on the show—this is just how contracts work—they have to promise her she’s going to be in eight episodes out of 10. So when you have that type of pressure effecting the creative process, you can’t do what the books do. Watching the show, you can feel the scenes that aren’t being written for any creative purpose, they’re being written for a contractual purpose.“
And this is why, he says, the HBO series just doesn’t compare to the storytelling experience of Martin’s books.
“You can feel that discrepancy, but if you’ve never read the books, you might feel that some episodes may be simply a little disjointed, but you don’t realize what you’re losing out on,” Berg says.
By creating a brilliant 18-hour campfire story about Game of Thrones history in the style of Dan Carlin’s pop culture-tinged history lectures, Berg and co-creator/head-writer Jason Greene have created a sense of being so thoroughly caught up to speed that the listener’s FOMO urge to read the gigantic books famous for toiling over the details of weddings, food, banners, and regal lineage begins to melt. At the same time, the rabbit-hole curiosity increases.
“Maester Carlin” even gives us an impassioned urge to read the books and not to be satisfied with “secondary sources” like the television series. But this is a weird paradox Berg and Greene have created because they’ve essentially synthesized an 18-hour CliffsNotes so engrossing and fun that it makes the listener excited for an exam they would ace if proctored by TV watchers but flunk if administered by true fans of the novels.
What would beatnik culture’s legacy be if every recording of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl had been erased, but a YouTube video exists of Gilbert Gottfried reading the entire half-hour poem in his impersonation of Jerry Seinfeld? Could that become the main way that people experience the beats moving forward? Would all the emotion and imagery of bohemian life in the early ’50s be lost by the wayside? Would the resulting irony highlight themes of white privilege? Would you reach the 25-minute mark and realize that you’ve never previously absorbed more than the iconic first line of Howl, and that it’s actually sort of interesting?
Hardcore Game of Thrones has changed the old question—“What did you like better, the movie or the book?”—to something new: “What did you like best? The book? The TV show? Or the troubadour’s oral tradition?”
One thing that Berg reiterated from his SplitSider interview is that while the TV show is great at capturing “big moments,” it doesn’t particularly handle the smaller moments quite as well. Listening to him, one gets the sense that Berg considers watching the show somewhat of a chore. And certainly we non-book-readers have experienced this sensation—especially when characters you love are getting mercilessly slaughtered.
“Last season watching the show felt like they would have two or three really good episodes and then seven or eight episodes that just felt like connective tissue, they didn’t really do it for me,” Berg says. “But the episodes that were really great were really great! The battle of the Blackwater was a great episode. … But what the books do so well is make you see how those the big moments are just the piling up of all these tiny inevitable moments. The whole reason that the kingdom is so unstable is because of Robert’s rebellion, because someone gave someone a fucking flower at a tournament. That gets glossed over.”
If Hardcore Game of Thrones acts as methadone for people with too much ADHD to sit and read, Berg and Greene have cursed their listeners with the sense of knowing what we’re missing out on. There’s something neuroscientist Sam Harris refers to as “the bandwidth problem.” There are only so many hours in the day to absorb as much content as we possibly can. The resulting bottleneck forces us to make impossible decisions about a virtual and endless triage of information and entertainment. I may know that I don’t have time to reasonably prioritize all zillion pages of the Song of Ice and Fire books, and now that I’ve consumed Hardcore Game of Thrones I simultaneously need to a little less, but want to so much more.
This cognitive dissonance is disturbing, and it’s just one of the many things disturbing about how good Hardcore Game of Thrones is.
Another is that HGoT makes the listener realize exactly how madly lovable Dan Carlin is. When you first experience his perspective-altering World War I series (“Countdown to Armageddon”), you almost tend not to notice Carlin himself. His storytelling is so engrossing that he becomes a conduit between you and a great big world of political macro-psychology and emotional micro-psychology to which you were never before privileged. And so Hardcore History usually becomes the new favorite podcast of anyone who finishes an entire episode, but you don’t think of it in terms of loving Carlin himself.
Then you listen to HGoT and you begin to realize that not only is Carlin an incredibly quirky and nuanced personality, but he’s also a once-in-a-generation talent. It’s like loving the Beatles and then seeing a Beatles tribute act that moves you to tears. The result is you love the Beatles even more. Because of the emotional nuances in the music that you may have never noticed, but also for the fact that someone helped articulate your own feelings with a love letter to the source.
Critics have opined that the mainstream is disappearing and culture is becoming terminally niche. Hardcore Game of Thrones is about as niche a thing as I remember encountering. But for anyone sitting in the middle of the incredibly specific Venn diagram with Game of Thrones in one bubble and Hardcore History in the other, Hardcore Game of Thrones is a walk-off grand-slam. It’s written with an astounding level of depth and subtlety toward both its sources. After the first 10 minutes of laughing nonstop, you’ll peel your jaw off the floor, and you won’t laugh again for the entire mesmerizing 17 hours and 50 minutes—nor will you want to. The competing desires for comedy and storytelling will fall away, leaving a sensation of awe and a singular thought in your head—this exists.