Ever since Lost ended, taking with it our fan theories and a little bit of our naive optimism, we've seen TV show after TV show try to ape Lost's mystery-hurling format. The Event, Alcatraz, and FlashForward all tried — and failed — to fire our brains and send us searching for tiny clues to piece together their season-stretching puzzles. But there's already a show out there that perfectly engages the media detective in us all: Game of Thrones. And it does it far better than Lost ever did.
Spoilers if you haven't seen season one or read the first book. Otherwise, trying to keep this relatively spoiler-free.
Game of Thrones may not have tropical polar bears or purgatorial dimensional travel, but it has plenty of mysteries, both mystical and mundane. Season one has already given us a couple of the series' less magical mysteries, such as who is Jon Snow's mother? Who sent the assassin after Bran? Who killed Jon Arryn?
One of the great things about these questions is that they have answers. In the books, we've already gotten the definitive answer to two questions, and plenty of hints about the other. And if you watch the television show closely, listen very carefully to the dialogue, and consider the psychology of the different characters, you can glean a pretty good sense of the solutions. The answers may lie in the shadows, but they're not trapped behind some authorial iron curtain. We can solve them (or at least develop convincing theories about them) with the tools that George R.R. Martin and, consequently, the show's writers have given us.
As the series progresses, there will, of course, be more mysteries, and it won't just be questions of political intrigue and murder (although that will certainly be in there as well). The season finale gave us an evolutionary leap in the magic of the Game of Thrones universe (although we did already see a handful of walking corpses), and that magic is only going to get more prominent in the next season. This magic brings with it its own enigmas, which tie into the larger world and its unpredictable cycles of summer and winter, ice and fire — not to mention the connections between certain houses and their animal sigils. Plus, this season we'll see some prophecies, which always contain rich veins of clues and ambiguity.
The online forums discussing A Song of Fire and Ice and the Game of Thrones TV show are filled with rich textual discussions and tin-foil-hat fan theories that remind me of nothing so much as the early days of Lost, when fans would hunt down clues on the Oceanic Airlines website and discuss whether the show was set in purgatory, or entirely inside Hurley's head. There's an excitement in poking and prodding at a show's riddles; we want to engage with the text (or video); we want to feel like the creator put those clues in there especially for us, that they respect us as media consumers enough to wink at us from time to time instead of pulling back the curtain in a single, grand revelation.
The problem with Lost, of course, was that its chief mysteries were ultimately impenetrable. The writers hadn't determined the nature of the plane-napping island, and all of the dominoes that hinged on that one couldn't properly fall. All that rich fan theorizing was reduced to pareidolia. There isn't that sense with A Song of Ice and Fire. After many thousands of words, Martin has more than earned our trust as readers, and even if there won't be answers to every question that crosses our brains, our deep readings and speculations won't be entirely for naught. And there are certain aspects of the universe that would be best left mysterious. We already know that we won't be seeing any gods in the books, and we couldn't expect Martin to unravel the entire nature of the universe. While we came up with a rather extensive, and ultimately unfulfilled, list of questions Lost needed to answer before the end of the show, Martin seems to know what questions he needs to answer and what those answers are. For him, the challenge is how to get to those answers.
But what makes Game of Thrones are far more enjoyable viewing experience than all those dreary Lost clones is that its easy to enjoy without focusing too much on its mysteries. It's easy enough to passively enjoy the richness of the world, the interplay of the characters, and Tyrion slapping Joffrey's smug little face. That's what so many of these TV shows are missing. We don't just want great mysteries to solve. We want great television as well.