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“Winter is Coming” — Josh Reviews Game of Thrones: Season One

March 30th, 2012
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I’ve made various comments, here and there over the past several months, about how much I dug the first season of Game of Thrones, but I realized I’d never really written about it in-depth here on the site.  After recently tearing through the blu-ray release of the first season (in anticipation of the launch of season two THIS WEEKEND!), I figured now was as good a time as ever!

I have never read any of the Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin, but I was intrigued by what I had read about HBO’s epic adaptation.  After a good friend impressed upon me how much he loved the series, I decided to sample the HBO show, last year, to see if it struck my fancy.  I enjoyed the first couple of episodes but wasn’t exactly blown away.  But then something weird started to happen.  I slowly got more and more sucked in, and by the time the sixth or seventh episode rolled around I was good and hooked.  When a major character’s head got lopped off at the end of the penultimate episode, I became a fan for life.

Game of Thrones tells the story of a group of families all warring for power, influence, and control of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.  The titular throne is the “Iron Chair” — the seat of the king of the Seven Kingdoms.  The focus of this first season (adapted from Mr. Martin’s first novel in the series) is primarily upon the Stark family.  In the opening episode, Ned Stark is forced to leave his home in Winterfell (the Northern city his family has apparently ruled for generations) to serve as the Hand of the King.  It just so happens that the King is Robert Baratheon, Ned’s old friend and comrade-in-arms.  Ned was a key player in helping Robert to win the throne eighteen years previously.  But while Ned has little patience for politics, he is thrust into the scheming, back-stabbing world of King’s Landing, the empire’s capital city.  Meanwhile, threats to the kingdom have begun to brew on all sides.  Some sort of supernatural menace appears to be brewing north of the Wall, the humongous barrier at the northernmost tip of the “civilized” realm.  And in the East, the two surviving children of house Targaryen, the family who ruled the Kingdom before being deposed by Robert, have allied themselves with the fierce horse-riding nomads the Dothraki, with the apparent goal of raising a huge army to invade Westeros and recapture the kingdom.

My plot summary doesn’t do any justice to the series’ wonderfully rich, sprawling narrative.  Over the course of the first season’s ten hours, we meet scores of characters, each with their own ambitions and back-story, spanning multiple families and the entire geographic spread of this fantasy realm of Westeros (and beyond).  All of this could so very easily become overwhelming and confusing, but the marvel of the series is that these characters and all of their individual story-lines never compete with one another for the viewer’s focus — instead, they mesh together to form a rich tapestry of stories.  My first time watching the series, there were a few moments in which I was a bit confused as to exactly what the relationships were between certain characters, but that didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the show or understanding of what was going on.  It just made me want to lean forward in my seat and pay even closer attention to each moment, so I could figure everything out.  Upon my second viewing of the season (when re-watching it on blu-ray), I was dazzled to discover all the little details and connections that I hadn’t noticed the first time through.  Clearly taking full advantage of the many thousands of pages that George R. R. Martin has written about all of these characters, the shows’ creators have woven an extraordinary amount of depth into the narrative of the series, depth that is there to be discovered by attentive viewers, and depth that gives this show tremendous re-watchability.

Although this is without question a fantasy story, I was very pleased that there’s actually very little of the supernatural to be seen in the series.  This is a story about human beings, their failings and their conflicts.  To me that’s a huge part of why Game of Thrones is so gripping.  We’re not distracted by a lot of fantasy hookum — it’s the characters and their stories that are the driving force behind the series.  But the fact that these stories ARE set within a completely imagined fantasy world gives the series, for me, an added richness as I marveled at the depths of the imagination that created this world.

(One of the only moments of the supernatural that we see in the entire season is in the very first sequence of the first episode, and I actually think it’s one of the season’s few mis-steps.  The scene worked much better for me when re-watching the season, knowing what would be coming.  But when watching it originally, it set a certain fantasy-world tone that is not in keeping with the rest of the season.  After seeing that first sequence, I was expecting Game of Thrones to be something entirely different than what it actually was.  Thank heaven, the series wound up being FAR superior to what I expected.  But I think it’s an unfortunate tone to strike in the show’s opening minutes.)

I couldn’t begin to list compliments for every single magnificent actor who appears in the season (I’m telling you, there have got to be at least thirty significant characters, and probably another thirty less-significant ones, and there’s not a weak link in the bunch), so let me just highlight a few.  Sean Bean delivers iconic work as Ned Stark that forever eclipses, in my mind, his also-great work as Boromir in The Lord of the Rings. For the last decade, whenever I’ve seen Mr. Bean on screen, he’s been Boromir in my mind.  No longer.  He is now and forever Ned Stark.  It strikes me of pretty much perfect casting.  Speaking of perfect casting, we must of course discuss Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister.  I first discovered Mr. Dinklage in the terrific film The Station Agent (and I also thought he was particularly terrific in the British film Death at a Funeralread my review here), but holy cow this was the part he was born to play.  It helps, of course, that Tyrion gets every one of the series’ best lines, but it’s Mr. Dinklage’s wit and soulfulness that brings the character to such vivid life.

I was delighted to see Aidan Gillen (Carcetti from The Wire!!) pop up as advisor-to-the-king Petyr Baelish (nicknamed “Littlefinger”) and wow does he knock his role out of the park.  Littlefinger proves to be one of the most fascinating and complex characters on the show, and the little smirk Mr. Gillen brings to all of his dialogue, combined with the twinkle in his eye, creates an indelible character who I hope to see lots more of in season two.  (Which means, of course, Littlefinger will probably be dead five minutes into the first episode…)  Charles Dance (Alien 3, Gosford Park) pops up late in the series as the head of house Lannister, Tywin Lannister, and he brings great dignity and oily menace to the character.  I was also quite taken by James Cosmo (Braveheart), who plays Jeor Mormont, one of the heads of the Nights Watch (and also the father of Jorah Mormont, another fascinatingly complex character who winds up as a key ally of Daenerys Targaryen).

In my mind what Game of Thrones reminds me of the most is Dune, and I can think of no higher compliment.  With Sean Bean in the lead role, one’s mind immediately starts to compare Game of Thrones with The Lord of the Rings. But the series’ focus on a pseudo-feudal system of warring houses, set amidst a lushly imagined fantasy world, is far more reminiscent of Dune in my mind.  (I wish Dune would some-day be brought to life on screen with as much love and effort as Game of Thrones has been!)

Having so thoroughly enjoyed the first season of Game of Thrones, I am now struck with a major dilemma.  Should I read the books, or continue to enjoy the series as a TV show without being influenced or spoiled in any way by the source material?  I watched the entire Harry Potter film series without having read any of the books.  (Well, that’s not quite true — I did read the first book the day before seeing the first film.  I didn’t really care that much for the book or the film, so I never read any of the others.)  By the time I started to really get into the film series (film five was the first one that really engaged me) I felt that since I’d gotten that far without having read the books, I wanted to continue to experience the films as films.  I suspect that I will someday read the books, but while I enjoyed the entire Harry Potter film series, I’m not in a terrible rush to do so.  But I loved the first season of Game of Thrones WAY MORE than I ever got into Harry Potter. I’m REALLY excited now by the idea of reading George R. R. Martin’s novels.  But in a weird way, I don’t want to have future seasons of the TV show spoiled for me!  I know that’s a backwards way to look at things, but a part of me feels that way, because I so thoroughly enjoyed watching the first season without knowing about any of the plot-twists in advance.

Speaking of plot twists, I of course have to at least briefly discuss the events of “Baelor” (events which I alluded to in my Best TV Shows of 2011 list, even though it wasn’t “Baelor” but rather “You Win or You Die” that made my list…).  As I wrote in that blog, I was absolutely blown away by the guts it took to knock off a certain leading character in that episode.  I absolutely did not see that coming, and the show’s brazenness in doing the unexpected absolutely cemented my love for the series.  (I felt the same way about the shocking death of a character in the first season finale of 24. I had been hugely enjoying 24′s intense, innovative first season, but it was intense ballsiness of killing off a character I NEVER thought would be killed that made me really fall in love with the show.  It would take six long, terrible seasons to follow before I finally admitted to myself that I had pretty much hated the show since the end of season two.  Hopefully Game of Thrones will wind up better than that!!)

In my mind, the only mis-step of season one of Game of Thrones (and the blame for this, as must the credit for the brilliance of the death I was just discussing, should most likely go to author George R. R. Martin, although it’s possible that something went wrong in the adaptation) was the Daenarys story-line.  That whole “I must learn to love getting f—-ed by my brute of a husband” story-line from the show’s first few episodes really got on my nerves.  One of the great surprises, though, of the season, was how much I grew to like both her and Khal Drogo as the season progressed.  So that made it even more dissatisfying to me with the way their story-line ended in the final two episodes.  I’m trying to avoid major spoilers here, so this is hard to discuss (I’ll be VAGUE but NEWBIES BEWARE anyway)… so I’ll just say that I was annoyed by the way Drogo sort of ceased to be a character between episodes.  One minute he’s vibrant, kicking the ass of a young man who dares cross him… then the next minute he’s, well, you know.  Whereas while the demise of the major character in “Baelor” was shocking but still felt somehow right and honest, the fate of Drogo left me feeling “why did I bother following this character for the past ten episodes?”  Something about it just didn’t sit right with me.

But those are pretty much the only (VERY minor) quibbles I have with this magnificent first season.  I really can’t remember the last time I so enjoyed the complete season of a new TV show, and that this was an epic fantasy series makes it all the more impressive.  I have nothing but respect and admiration for the work of show-runners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss.  It’s a mark of how well-made this show is that I’ve written this LENGTHY blog post and all I’ve talked about has been the characters and the story and the actors.  I haven’t once mentioned how fantastic the series looks, how amazing the combination of sets and CGI enhancements are in creating a fully-realized imaginary world, how gorgeous the costumes are, how well-directed and well-edited the episodes are, how absolutely amazing the show’s opening titles are (coming close to, though not beating, the opening titles of Firefly which I so love), and all of the other technical qualities of the series.  It’s clear that Game of Thrones is an enormously expensive series for HBO to mount, but however much money they spent it looks like they spent double that amount.  Every penny is right up there on the screen, with movie-quality visuals every week.  Yes, I wish we had gotten to see some of the big battles discussed in the final episodes, but I understand why we didn’t and it gives the series some place to go to impress us in future seasons.

What else can I say?  If you haven’t tried this series, let me exhort you as I was exhorted: don’t let yourself miss out — track down season one RIGHT NOW, clear your schedule, and dive in.  Winter is coming.

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