Game of Thrones left viewers with a pretty good feel for its emerging themes by the end of the first season, but a review of any series mid-stream can only represent a snapshot of the times, like passing sentence on a movie or a novel when only halfway through. You’re not really seeing the big picture. All one can do is assess where we’ve been so far since we can’t know where things are going, what lies in store for characters, or what revelations will occur to change our perception of people or past events. TV series continue evolving over the course of their lifetime, an ongoing, ever changing work in progress, which is the advantage of watching television that the movies can’t duplicate though they’ve begun to try with some franchises drawn out over years like Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games.
Though Martin’s novels have been in print since the ’90s, there’s a perpetual, headlong excitement to never knowing where a series might go next, what new directions it might take, facets of character it might illuminate or unforeseen avenues it might explore in order to keep fans involved and engrossed as things move forward. In return for inviting the show into their home and extending it a return invitation week after week audiences are permitted, even encouraged, to participate interactively as it unfolds, blogging or commenting online, using the internet to discuss the way earlier generations did around the water cooler. Social media makes TV shows a shared public experience now more than ever, allowing positive word of mouth to spread like wildfire.
Television has come such a long way since the digital revolution, snooty movie snobs who look down on TV the same way theater snobs once looked down on movies, no longer have much ground to stand on. From a technical and design standpoint, the lavishness expended on Game of Thrones is to die for, with a budget that is comparable to that of HBO’s costly, short-lived Rome. While the women are buried beneath sweeping blond tresses, the men look fantastic in their fur-trimmed raccoon coats. Emmy-winning costume designer Michele Clapton, assisted by Alexander Fordham and Chloe Aubry, has swathed everyone from the North in fringed, dust sweeping capes that certainly impart them a dashing appearance, like Russell Crowe in the opening scene of Gladiator.
The production design combined with visual effects suggesting old matte processes is lovely to look at. Castles and fortifications set against imaginative backdrops have the lyrical texture of painting, making people appear as though they were moving through the airbrushed landscape of fantasy fiction art. Robb’s marching armies and the stretching Dothraki caravans are arranged in aesthetically pleasing patterns with all the disciplined choreography of a military parade. The cinematography by Matthew Jensen, Marco Pontecorvo & Alik Sakharov during season one is big screen caliber. And it fully earns the right to that designation since the fine visual quality far surpasses what one usually encounters on TV. The wintry settings are spectrally beautiful with snowflakes falling like eiderdown and the frigid atmosphere clinging to the trees, giving them a ghostly indistinctness. When the Starks search the dark woods for Arya after she runs away with her dog, their torches light up the sky like an orange haze, much as the torches of the Night’s Watch seem to be swallowed up in the darkness of the eternal night approaching as they recede into the passage burrowed beneath the Wall.
One may feel it to be a waste to expend such attention and care on a series if it’s only going to be projected on a small screen. The diminished pictorial quality would seem to defeat the purpose of the epic scope. But given the demands of high-definition sets these days and the increasing screen size of home entertainment systems, which approach theatrical dimensions in some instances, it can be appreciated almost as much. After all it was pay channels like HBO and Cinemax in conjunction with the burgeoning home video market through which moviegoers developed the habit of catching up at home with big screen releases they’d missed in theaters, so we’ve grown accustomed to appreciating movies regardless of their relative visual scale over the past thirty years. The popularity of streaming videos from laptops and even iPhones means the screen continues shrinking even smaller still.
Game of Thrones is as ornately embroidered as a medieval tapestry and seemed to become more and more finely spun as the series unfolded over the first season. The sprawling canvas deepened, becoming richer and more complex with each episode, creating a fully realized world. But then it had a fully realized source to draw upon and an extended format that allowed it to explore at some length the mythic sprawl of Martin’s fantasy novels. The show is so layered and involved, it’s almost too much to absorb in a one-hour sitting. Little wonder it was adapted into an ongoing series since the television medium affords Martin’s material the only time span that could have done it full justice, even if it does still seem to be spilling over with an embarrassment of riches. The creators try to cram in so much legend and lore, things end up seeming compressed and confusing at times and for the first few episodes you’ll be wishing for a brief geopolitical history and topography map . Though we keep being assured there are seven kingdoms, the first season only makes viewers cognizant of the four key domains it focuses on, namely The Wall, Winterfell, King’s Landing, and the Dothraki land which is separated from the others by The Narrow Sea.
The barbaric Dothraki and some of the painted ladies in Littlefinger’s whorehouse are the closest the series has come to suggesting Westeros to be any more racially diverse than the Medieval Europe that inspired it. I’ve never understood why fantasies like this, which can take things in any direction they want, generally tend to adhere to the same strict, historical racial schematics of the periods that inspired them, as if they were afraid of suspending viewers’ disbelief, even while they’re throwing in dragons, direwolves and dwarves for verisimilitude. It’s a flaw in the series that seems to have been alleviated to some degree in subsequent seasons with someone having hit on the bright idea that Westeros could use more color. Viewers might feel they need a flow chart to stay oriented and keep track of the epic cast of characters and their tangled past histories and interrelationships. I was hard pressed throughout the first season to keep the many lineages straight. There are more resentful bastards running around than you could shake a Shakespearean staff at. Since we never saw the family all together again, interacting with one another after The Kingsroad, I wasn’t even confident in my count of how many Winterfell boys were intended to be Stark sons, same way I was confused by the number of blond children sitting around the Lannister breakfast table (were they all Joffrey’s siblings?).
The youngest Stark, the six year old Rickon hardly seemed to exist throughout the season, except as an occasional aside so one wonders why the character wasn’t written out entirely, or simply combined with Bran. Far too young to figure in any of the intrigues, I can only assume his role will be beefed up later. In other instances, establishing scenes seem to be missing. We don’t know who the stable boy is who tries to take Arya hostage for the reward, though she seems to recognize him before she pierces him through. And the plot point that the King’s murdered Hand Jon Arryn was the husband of Catelyn’s sister Lysa wasn’t stressed strongly enough. For all their high-flown, flowery language, the scripts are models of economic eloquence for the most part, yet not all dialogues are up to par.
When Tywin orders Tyrion into the vanguard, he feels the need to clarify for us to ensure we understand what’s being said “Me and the tribesmen on the front line?” And no one could save speeches like the one handed to poor Littlefinger while he coaches his whores in how to please men while simultaneously describing how he’d like to f*ck over his betters, literally and figuratively. Which is why the director tries to distract us with the sex, adding a new word to English slang, ‘sextrapolation,’ which was coined by wags to describe this kind of extrapolation overlaid with carnality to keep attention deficit viewers riveted. The Game of Thrones may be played out across two underpopulated continents, but it still seems like an awfully small world given the revelation made to Snow by two of the old Maesters on the Wall concerning their connection to other characters we’ve come to know, which fall too closely on top of one another in the Baelor episode, stretching the long arm of coincidence to its breaking point. Fate seemed equally taxed with the too smooth revelation of who owned the knife used during the second attempt on Bran’s life. Still, the consistent high quality is rather astonishing considering the shifting array of directing and writing talent that works on the series. The lion’s share of scripts were penned by the creators, apart from the Pointy End episode that was written by author Martin himself, Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things, which was attributed to script editor Bryan Cogman, and Jane Esperson’s teleplay for A Golden Crown. A measure of thought and care even goes into the writing of seemingly insignificant, incidental guest stars and semi-regulars, so when they pop up again, several episodes on, we can still be invested in them. The multitudinous characters inhabiting this world are so vividly drawn that one wonders how the producers find time to do them all justice. This is fantasy with some tooth to it, and a proper amount of time is set aside for people to reflect on the wickedness men do, and to change and deepen, sadden and grow. What’s incredible is that the full panoply of characters comprising the show is so fascinating across the board. Because of this we don’t mind the incessant jumping back and forth between all Game of Thrones’ separate, but intertwined threads by editors Martin Nicholson, Oral Norrie Ottey & Frances Parker. Indeed, episodes never drag because something exciting is always happening to someone somewhere, whether it be advancing the plot or simply illuminating motivations. The series weaves pretty seamlessly between its various strands, occasionally using parallelism to make the segue less obtrusive, such as when Catelyn’s hands are cut on the assassin’s knife and the following scene shows Daenerys being bandaged by her handmaidens, her hands blistered from holding horse reins all day.
The scene of Snow standing up to his commanding officer is followed by that of Daenerys standing up to her brother for the first time, hitting him back. The season finale, Fire and Blood begins at the exact instant the previous episode ended, making them feel more like one long, conjoined movie meant to be viewed back to back than individual episodes separated by a week long hiatus. Like Griffith’s Intolerance, whose massive Walls of Babylon Game of Thrones’ own great Wall owes its chief inspiration to, all four of its concurrent narrative strands impressively built not so much to a simultaneous climax at season’s end, as an emotionally satisfying assurance of bigger things to come.
Certainly Game of Thrones must rank among the most deftly coordinated shows on TV, requiring the strategy of a military logistician to keep tabs on so many plot lines and character arcs. But Benioff and Weiss proved themselves grand masters at arranging their story boards and maneuvering their chess pieces. With its extensive cast roster, the series has a monopoly on some of the best written parts to be found in primetime, so it’s an absolute toss up as to who among GoT‘s rotating gallery of royal rogues stood out most starkly in its first season. Darn near the entire cast was uniformly superb and deserving of at least a SAG award for Best Ensemble, but special mention must be made of Lena Headey, Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke and Peter Dinklage. A pretty convincing case could be made for any of those four favorites deserving an award for their leading work.
And how in the world would you sort through such a spectacular cast of supporting characters, just about any of whom could be singled out for similar praise. As the first among equals, one would have to draw attention to the consistently exceptional style of Michelle Fairley and child actress Maisie Williams, with Alfie Allen not far behind them in fine quality. After isolated bright spots here and there, he emerged out of nowhere in the last few episodes to put over a persuasive characterization as Theon Greyjoy. I found Richard Madden too self-consciously heroic as Robb for the most part, same way Sean Bean was too noble as his father, but his work as a boy becoming a man and that man becoming a lord and leader, went hand in hand so closely with Allen’s more disreputable turn as foil, they tended to balance one another out.
Among the second fiddles, sounding boards and semi-regulars, Iain Glen as Ser Jorah Mormont, Aidan Gillen as Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish, Conleth Hill as Lord Varys, John Bradley as Samwell Tarly and Gethin Anthony as Renly Baratheon all etched vivid sketches with far less substantial screen time. Game of Thrones, which surpassed the middling critical expectations held for it, has only pandered to the gamer mentality of its core demographic to the extent of issuing itself in an Xbox format, quite literally becoming the Dungeons and Dragons video game superficial familiarity initially suggested the show itself would be. On the downside, it does occasionally seem angled toward more puerile mentalities, with unnecessarily gratuitous thrill kills, Sapphic sex solely intended to titillate and considerable quantities of female flesh on display, a disproportionate amount in ratio to the men, which has received rightful criticism from many quarters over successive seasons. Yet what other show proffers such a wide ranging spectrum of diverse heroines, of all looks and ages, from the scheming, manipulative ice queen Cersei, to the sultry, silver haired, nymph dragon Daenerys, to the tenacious mama bear of Catelyn and the rebellious gender bending of Arya? No other comparable fantasy series produced on a similar scale, not even Lord of the Rings, has juggled such a fascinating array of distaff talent at its center. As Hollywood gives more and more playtime to testosterone-driven, big-budget action blockbusters, movie stars, especially actresses whose characters are regularly shunted to the wayside on the big screen, are discovering that the true quality scripts and challenging roles are to be found on television.
Much as The Lord of the Rings became for the Y2K generation what Star Wars had been for fanboys of the ’70s, George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones has ascended to become in the second decade of this brave new century what J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was to the first, supplanting it in current pop culture consciousness as our preeminent fantasy world entertainment. At the same time George Lucas was trying to relive his past glories by releasing his tired, winded Star Wars prequels, the Tolkien trilogy represented an excitingly fresh take on the fantasy genre at its cinematic peak onscreen, raising the bar for visual effects same way Star Wars had done, with its own landmark, motion capture computer graphics. Nowadays Peter Jackson himself seems to be flogging a dead horse which was satisfactorily said and done a decade back by revisiting his excellent, original trilogy with The Hobbit films. Lightning never strikes twice, so as movies are caught in their own vicious cycle, feeding off themselves like an ouroboros, it now seems left to TV to devise truly original, unique programming by expanding fantasy fiction in undreamed of directions. And yes, Game of Thrones’ debut season may have wrapped on the quintessential fantasy fiction tableaux of a buxom beauty trafficking with dragons, bare breasted and proud, but in its own context, this hardly seemed puerile or gratuitous at all.