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Which Game of Thrones podcasts should you listen to?

We're here for the bad puns and a lot of plot speculation (minor spoilers).

The problem with being able to watch television whenever you want is that there's no set time for discussing it afterwards. You might have arranged your life around the new series of Game of Thrones, staying up late to watch the first episode of series seven at 2am on Monday morning (the time in BST that it premiered simultaneously on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK), but there's no guarantee that your colleagues and friends did the same. "I'll catch up on the weekend," they say as you try and engage them later that day on the subject of Ed Sheeran's weird cameo as a singing campfire chef. "Don't spoil me in the meantime!"

Conversations on social media are similarly fraught with spoiler-based angst. It isn't that surprising, therefore, that dedicated GoT fans are turning to podcasts as a way of accessing instant analysis. Listening to a Thrones-themed podcast has two benefits: it can satiate the desire for speculation and rumour that solitary watching doesn't deal with, and it provides access to a community of other people who want to have the same discussions. In addition, the content of a podcast isn't searchable online, so nobody can complain about being spoiled accidentally. You have to opt in to listen, searching for and downloading an episode, so the only people listening to the show are the ones who want to hear it. It's a safe space.

A brief glance at the Apple Podcasts chart for the TV & Film category confirms that lots of fans are taking this route - at the time of writing, 14 of the top 25 shows are about Game of Thrones.

As I've written about before, podcasts that analyse TV in depth have been around for a while, with popular shows like The West Wing Weekly, Gilmore Guys and Talking Dead gathering big fanbases. Yet there seem to be more Thrones-based shows, and they are collectively charging up the charts in a way I haven't observed around the launch of other series. What is it about this show that had inspired so many podcasts?

Of course, it's partly a matter of scale: Game of Thrones is a huge international hit, and the more people that watch a show, the more people there are who are going to feel inspired to podcast about it. Quite a few of the podcasts near the top of the charts are produced by media outlets, reflecting the interests of their readerships: baldmove.com, geeklyinc.com, The Ringer, the Guardian and Entertainment Weekly all have GoT shows. As a franchise, Game of Thrones is big enough that news outlets report on castings and character deaths like they're actual real-world news, which all provides extra content to be dissected on a podcast.

But there's more to it than that. The show itself is uniquely suited to the podcast form, with its distinct character arcs, sudden plot twists and vast sprawling universe. It is written with the aim of rationing how much information viewers have at any given moment, to fuel speculation and keep us hooked from episode to episode. The chatty, non time-limited format of a podcast is ideally suited to this - hosts can hop between each storyline without the time pressure or need to explain the basics to the lay audience that a conventional broadcast radio show would have. They know they are talking to listeners who already have a high level of GoT knowledge and an appetite for in-depth analysis.

Above all, though, the podcast form is enabling fans to find each other and solving that Monday morning "why won't anyone at work talk to me about Game of Thrones?" problem. Who needs friends when you have headphones?

The five best Game of Thrones podcasts

1. Game of Thrones: The Podcast

Despite the fact that hosts Jim and A.Ron identify themselves as "the Gods of Tits and Wine" on baldmove.com (I know it's a quote from the show, but still, really?), this was my personal favourite. Their "instant take" episode on S7E1 was the most fluent, laidback yet charming one I encountered, and I appreciate their doing a quick reaction episode (for the Thrones junkie who can't wait), followed a day later by a very detailed scene by scene analysis episode that includes lots of listener comments.

2. Nerdette Recaps Game of Thrones with Peter Sagal

Sagal is a beloved US public radio host (even though I've never listened to Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me) and he's a delightful presence on this show alongside hosts Greta Johnsen and Tricia Bobeda. I particularly enjoyed their takedown of Euron Greyjoy in their "Dragonstone" episode.

3. The Citadel from the Guardian / Daily Beast

This podcast hasn't updated for the new series and we're not certain it's coming back for series 7, but I still enjoyed going back and listening to Spencer Ackerman and Laura Hudson's season six predictions, plus their "powerful women and power grabs" episode from earlier in the show's run.

Update: The Citadel is back, with a new home at the Daily Beast. Hear their first series 7 episode here.

4. Game of Owns

This show is a veteran of the GoT podcast space, having been going since 2011. Their episode recaps are a little on the long side for my taste, but they augment their feed with interviews. Recent highlights have included Paula Fairfield, GoT sound designer, and Iwan Rheon, who played Ramsay Bolton.

5. Dragons on the Wall

A straight-forward recap show, but with a swift update schedule and great chemistry between the hosts. Who knows, maybe there will be actual dragons on The Wall before series 7 draws to a close?

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear