Creators: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss; based on A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin
Cinematography: Matthew Jensen, Marco Pontecorvo & Alik Sakharov; Editing: Martin Nicholson, Oral Norrie Ottey & Frances Parker;Production Design: Gemma Jackson;Costumes: Michele Clapton;Score: Ramin Djawadi
Stars: Sean Bean (Ned Stark), Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen), Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister), Kit Harington (Jon Snow), Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister), Mark Addy (King Robert Baratheon), Richard Madden (Robb Stark), Jack Gleeson (Joffrey Baratheon), Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark)
I know I’m way late to this party, but thanks to three free months of pay cable granted me gratis for being such a loyal FIOS customer, I recently started catching up with Game of Thrones, the hour-long HBO fantasy series, the first few seasons of which are available for download on premium pay-per-view. I never considered myself a fantasy fiction fan before. Maybe it was all the lewd illustration art featuring barely concealed buxom beauties suggestively brandishing heavy swords and surrounded by leering dragons. I was fool enough to believe this geekish world of Dungeons and Dragons was strictly for the enjoyment of horny teenage gamers.
However the horror and sci-fi genres are among my favorite, and fantasy worlds tend to touch on both in the periphery, so I thought I should give Game of Thrones a chance. The rabidly devoted, international fan base that has turned it into a cult TV phenomenon combined with the considerable level of critical acclaim it’s been accorded, tended to suggest it was something out of the norm. Having finished the first season, I now understand why the series is considered a gateway drug to the fantasy world subculture. I suspect I might be a closet gamer as well and am now seriously considering wading my way through one of George R. R. Martin’s thousand plus page novels on which the show is based. Creators David Benioff & D.B. Weiss took the first book in the series both as the basis of year one as well as for their TV title.
Game of Thrones concerns the epic battle for control of the mythic medieval kingdom of Westeros. Claims have been staked by the relatively decent, noble house of Stark as well the conspiratorial Lannister clan of royal usurpers who are determined to hold on to the empire’s fabled Iron Throne by any means necessary. Meanwhile other threats to the realm are arising in the frozen North where an ancient evil dormant for thousands of years has been awakened, as well as across the Narrow Sea to the East, with the last of the deposed Targaryen line scheming to end their exile and reclaim the crown stolen from them by enlisting the aid of the savage Dothraki tribe along with fire-breathing dragons. The forces converging on Westeros appear to be amassing from all corners of the earth, as if representing the cardinal points of a compass, so it somehow seems natural that a guardian should have been appointed as feudal lord to oversee each direction the wind blows, north, south, east and west, like the witches of Oz. The medallion encasing the opening title sports four Cherubim faces, being decorated by the flagstaff animals from each of the noble family crests – a stag (Baratheons), a wolf (Starks), a lion (Lannisters), and a dragon (Targaryens). In the way it creates its sprawling, self-contained mythic/magical universe governed by its own strange logic, Game of Thrones has the surface sheen of graphic novels, comic books, Xbox video games but it’s grounded by the dark resonances of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies. This series is a mature fantasy for grownups, one worthy of Wagnerian opera and not since Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, or at least Peter Jackson’s Rings trilogy, has such a mystical world of sword and sorcery, nereids and dragons, knights and necromancy graced a screen. This sprawling, Tolkian universe the series’ creators dreamed up owes much to the Lord of the Rings films in concept, complete with the presence of Sean Bean, a Middle Earth-like kingdom under imminent assault from a diabolic evil, characters wearing long white wigs that impart the impression that they’re remnants of an Elvish race, the fate of the realm hanging on the shoulders of a pint-sized hobbit no one takes seriously, and the familiar theme concerning the corrosive effect of greed and power. Similarities aside, the benefits of being fantasy and hence answerable to no one for its logic, is that Game of Thrones can incorporate as many inspirations and asides as it chooses without being bound by the tiresome constraints of historical accuracy the way other impressively mounted period-set series are, like Showtime’s The Borgias, Starz’s Da Vinci’s Demons or Reign on the CW.
If we spied a golden chariot drawn by polar bears it would hardly seem out of place here, and because Game of Thrones is not hampered down by the onus of historical fact, we’re free to respond as irreverently as we choose to. If the medieval past, the myths and legends of several cultures and the remnants of classical antiquity had been thrown into the sky during a windstorm then refracted through a glass darkly you might come up with something similar to Game of Thrones’ colorfully diverse tapestry. In fever dream fashion, Martin has swirled the history of the world into his own dark, dystopian alternate reality so that it all seems strangely familiar while at the same time utterly surreal. The author’s meticulously detailed universe harkens back to some fairytale time set in the indeterminate past when sorcery, superstition and the dark arts still held sway over people’s lives. In Game of Thrones, primeval figments of the imagination like dragons are proven to be real but so rare as to have been believed extinct at one time (“What happened to all the dragons? I was told brave men killed them all.”). Moreover, they share the land with vicious direwolves, which were quite real on our own planet some 10,000 years ago but have been gone good and all ever since. Still, their evocative name certainly suits the gloomy atmosphere. Game of Thrones’ time-collapsing associations are akin to our own childhood concept of the world in which we hadn’t yet developed any conscious chronology to differentiate the various human epochs from one another. The entire history of the world seems to be happening here simultaneously.
While the primary influence was the High Medieval Period in Europe, given the relative cheapness accorded life and the bawdy sexuality everywhere evident, the primary events could be set anytime between the Dark Ages through the Renaissance. Some of the variations on fact don’t stretch the imagination far enough, such as a maiden wearing a necklace where a golden cross would normally be seen, the beast suspected of killing a stag in the pilot episode being referred to as a mountain lion when all we hear of thereafter are ‘shadowcats,’ and milk of the poppy to disguise the obvious fact that what is really being used to dull people’s pain is opium. Though an elaborate, entirely invented language has been created for the Dothraki to speak, the way familiar words are twisted to no feasible purpose, like Maester instead of Master, Benjen instead of Benjamin, Joffrey instead of Jeffrey, Ser in place of Sir might be attempts to mirror Old English, or may simply be ornamental flourishes. Maybe George Martin, who serves as the series’ co-executive producer and is contracted to pen one episode per season, just likes being diff’rent. Absorbing and compressing allusions to everything from King Arthur’s court and the knights of the Round Table to Beowulf, The Song of the Nibelungs, Henry VIII, The Twelve Caesars, Norse Sagas, the Great Wall of China and the emperors’ Dragon Throne, the Age of Exploration, Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes, and jousting tournaments during which all that seems missing is Robin Hood, at times Game of Thrones smacks of Renaissance Fair.
Heedless to the threats hammering at the gates from without, the honorable Starks and unprincipled Lannisters restage the dynastic struggles of the Wars of the Roses for the throne of Westeros, but their standoff also carries intimations of the American Civil War with its clear juxtaposing of north and south. Only here it’s the North that debates succeeding from the Union and declaring its own sovereign king. “We give the Northerners too much power,” despotic little heir apparent Joffrey fumes while hopping mad, “They consider themselves our equals.” The allusion to English past however is aided immeasurably by the medieval armature and the mélange of British accents, which have been contrived by the diction coach to correlate as closely as possible to the physical placement of Westeros characters and their corresponding locations on a contemporary map of England. Everyone talks like the Beatles and the word ‘bloody’ proves a choice epigram even in the lexicon of these alternate times. I kept avidly waiting for someone to slip up and call the eldest Lannister ‘Jaimie, me boyo,’ outing themselves as Irish.
The collective name of Martin’s original book set, A Song of Ice and Fire seems just as suggestive of Scandinavian ballads and epic long poem via the Icelandic landscape that title evokes, dotted with volcanoes and glaciers. It’s an impression augmented in Game of Thrones by the cultured South’s view of Northmen (as in Norsemen) as provincial, backward barbarians. The fundamental contrast between hot and cold is embodied by the White Walkers, who hibernate beneath the permafrost for millennia and the fire-eating dragons, who are similarly thought to have gone the way of the dinosaurs, if they ever existed at all. The polar extremes these primordial forces represent give one fair indication why their clashing worlds are at war with one another.
Fire and ice has been carried over into the show’s visual conception as well, being directly reflected in the climes of the differing geographic regions around which scenes are set. There’s the frozen North, the sweltering continent of Essos across the Narrow Sea and the temperate Middle Kingdom that everyone is fighting for control over, painted in the warm glow of some sundrenched coastal city on the Mediterranean, with castles that look as open and airy as Italian villas. The balmy weather of upper Westeros, around the Stark’s ancestral estate of Winterfell, is frequently shrouded in mists, fogs and sudden downpours, coming as it is to the end of a decade long summer. The first season was predominantly shot in Belfast, Ireland with additional location footage in Malta, Iceland, Morocco and Scotland, and such extensive globetrotting makes sense considering much of the material mines our store of English and world history.
It was canny of the creators to call their series Game of Thrones rather than identifying it by Martin’s far more marketable Ice and Fire title, because it serves just as strongly as a controlling metaphor for the show. The competitive thrill of forcing your opponent’s hand and the art of one-upmanship is carried in that very name, same way the court intrigues and resulting battle of wits are insidiously interwoven into each episode as if played out on an imaginary chessboard set with kings and queens, rooks and bishops, knights and pawns. The game theme becomes a reoccurring motif throughout the first season. For instance, when discussing political maneuvers with a fellow foreign dignitary, Lord Varys (Conleth Hill) states “This is no longer a game for two players.”
As Robb, the eldest Stark son formulates a plan of attack with his military strategists, it’s no coincidence that their battle map is decorated with paper weights that cause it to resemble an oversize chess board itself. It looks similar to the Emmy-winning title design that comprises the opening credits, set against a 3-dimensional atlas that whirs to life with gears and springs like pop up storybook art. Pinning all the additional realms we’ll visit that night, it’s accompanied by Ramin Djawadi’s thrumming score, which suggests the melancholy strains of traditional Scandinavian ballads as practiced by strolling troubadours.
As the sitting king Robert observes, politics have devolved into a glorified game of cat and mouse. “Our purpose died with the mad king. Now we’ve got as many armies as there are men with gold in their purse and everyone wants something different… We haven’t had a real fight in nine years. Backstabbing doesn’t prepare you for a fight and that’s all the realm is now, backstabbing and scheming and ass licking and money grubbing.”Imagine the Tudors in a clash of wills with the Borgias and you’ll get an idea of the sexualized political roundelays determining the fate of nations here. This series frequently recalls a line from The Lion in Winter concerning the sociopolitical role of sex in history.
The Machiavellian machinations of Game of Thrones may put viewers in mind of that movie, in which medieval England was presided over by a petty family of ruthless royal monsters as much as it does Dangerous Liaisons in its depiction of court life as a glorified form of playacting. Participants disguise their true natures behind masques of virtue while one’s real self and mercenary motivations are kept safely concealed. Varys states that when he travelled with a group of strolling actors as a boy, they taught him each man has a role to play. “The same is true at court. I am the Master of Whisperers. My role is to be sly, obsequious and without scruples. I’m a good actor, my lord.” Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover) similarly behaves as though he were old and doddering before the court when he’s just as spry and alert as any man half his age, as he demonstrates when alone in his chambers.
By pushing the otherworldly elements, which viewers are reflexively inclined not to take seriously, to the periphery of the action the fantasy is elevated to the level of historical tragedy, complete with free bleeders for the battles and real tears and wailing for the defeats. This is Dungeons and Dragons for those with Shakespearean inclinations. GoT has no qualms about going medieval on us and the violence, which is depicted with graphic fidelity, repeatedly emphasizes that the ‘game’ these competitors are engaged in is far from child’s play. The deadly jousting tournament drives home how much is at stake when losers forfeit their lives. Mounted much like Roman Games staged for the Circus Maximus to bankroll the local economy with an influx of tourists, this celebration gives the great a chance at glory and the lowly a respite from their woes. “The common people pray for rain, health and a summer that never ends. They don’t care what games the high lords play,” and exhibitions like these are used as opium for the masses, distracting them from their more immediate concerns, keeping them complacent by temporarily dulling the pain, while the important games of state determining the forces that will shape their lives are played out elsewhere. In a mordant moment of black comedy, spectators who have gathered anticipating a colorful, courtly display are witness instead to what all the beautiful poems on chivalry and knighthood left out.
In silent horror they see one contestant meet a messy, ignoble end as he chokes on his own blood, his throat having been pierced by the wooden shards of his opponent’s lance. Game of Thrones goes to pains to undermine war games as well, by pointing out that there is no glory in death on the battlefield. The romance of war is deglamorized in a well-delivered soliloquy where Robert recalls his first kill and how no one ever mentions the unpleasant realities (“They never tell you how they all sh*t themselves. They don’t put that part in the songs…”). When the king waxes nostalgic about the good old days, his outraged younger brother Renley objects.
Reminding him that those were the same times when the mad king was burning untold numbers alive and dragons razed whole cities to the ground, it’s not something to romanticize about in retrospect. The Stark uncle Benjen (Joseph Mawle) will later elaborate on the theme, sobering Tyrion with the news that half the Night’s Watch Rangers he’s been watching train will die north of the Wall so plump little lords like him can sleep in safety. Robb likewise acknowledges the cold, hard fact that soldiering is no glorious adventure when he must send two thousand of his troops to their graves. Reassured that “The bards will sing songs of their sacrifice,” he sullenly concedes, “Aye, but the dead won’t hear them.”
Game of Thrones paints a portrait of an amoral world in which it’s treachery and deceit that profits one most, while the honorable and upright are exploited or crushed. As the series’ creators Benioff and Weiss state, good deeds never go unpunished here. The southern state of Westeros is the domain of the immoral, unethical and blatantly corrupt, where no one, male or female, knight or squire, plays by the established rules of the game. Indeed rules seem to exist merely as a standard to measure how far afield of them participants fall. Protesting that the Knight of the Flowers would never use cunning to win the joust, “Ser Loras would never do that. There’s no honor in tricks,” Sansa, the eldest Stark girl, proves she has much to learn about the way this cold, cruel world actually works. As Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aidan Gillen), the realm’s Master of Coin points out, there may be “no honor but a lot of gold.” He knows whereof he speaks, having spent a lifetime seeking to amass it by hook or by crook along with the respectability a full purse confers. Littlefinger was once taken in by the romance of chivalry himself, trying to prevent the love of his life from marrying another man by challenging him to a duel, trusting in lore that the little hero will always defeat the big villain. Finding that such happy endings only exist in fairy tales, the traumatic life lesson taught him that he’d “never win, not that way. That’s their game. Their rules,” compelling him to find an alternative path to success.
This same concept, concerning the rules of engagement, is picked up a few episodes on, during Tyrion Lannister’s trial by combat in which his chosen champion Bronn (Jerome Flynn, the two-fisted policeman from the BBC’s Ripper Street), knowing he can’t win against the professional Eyrie knight in a fair fight, instead employs ambush and guerrilla tactics. Exhausting his heavily weighted down, fully armored opponent rather than standing still and fighting like a man, he openly concedes that he doesn’t fight with honor, shrugging in agreement and gesturing to the dead man who did. When captured by the opposing army, Jaime tries appealing to the Stark’s renowned nobility by challenging Robb to a duel to determine the outcome of the war and spare countless lives. Rather than being taken in by such self-defeating notions of valor Robb speaks reason, “If we did it your way Kingslayer, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way.”
While the covetous are willing to put their lives on the line to possess it, uneasy lays the head that wears the crown. King Robert for instance assures old friend Ned, Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), that he’s no more secure in his position than anyone else in the land, noting that there are still those who call him usurper and would happily unseat him, placing the previous Targaryen dynasty back in power. Trying to convince her warlord husband Khal Drogo that he should help her win back the kingdom for the sake of their son, exiled Targaryen princess Daenerys, last of her line, can’t get him to grasp the concept of a throne. Without a comparable word in the Dothraki language, she’s forced to mouth it in English, describing it to him as “a chair for a king to sit upon… or a queen.” The creation of this vaulted Iron Throne is recounted in mythological terms, as having been forged by the breath of the greatest dragon from the swords of the vanquished; a thousand of them melted together like so many candles. But the pragmatic nomad puts everyone’s grand delusions about this glorified hunk of tin into better perspective when he observes that a real king “does not need a chair to sit upon. He only needs a horse,” to charge into battle. Though all the drama and backstabbing is waged over it, the way Drogo puts it, the Iron Throne hardly seems worth fighting over. Jaime likewise refers to it with scorn, sacrilegiously sneering “How many kings’ asses have polished it I wonder?”
While everyone fantasizes about what they would do if king, there seems no real fulfillment in ruling, not even in Lord Stark’s new appointment as ‘Hand of the King,’ a sort of Lord Protector to serve as Robert’s right-hand man, administering to practical matters and the business of state, occupying the highest seat in the land when he is away. Despite the exalted title, Ned is no more than a fixer, cleaning up the king’s messes and picking up after him. “What is the line?” Jaime quotes, “The king sh*ts and the Hand wipes.” GoT’s jocular title is entirely misleading since the sport of musical chairs characters engage in for possession of the throne is anything but fun and games. There may be cheaters and those who try to keep their hands clean and conscience clear, but the cardinal rule of this game, as Queen Cersei points out to sworn adversary Stark, is “You win or you die. There is no middle ground.” The constant warning that Winter is Coming is joined by Robert’s equally ominous assurance that there’s a war brewing. “I don’t know when, I don’t know who we’ll be fighting, but it’s coming,” and we can’t wait to see who’ll be the last man left standing, or rather sitting.