Since the second season of HBO's Game of Thrones is coming up shortly on April 1st, it was a good opportunity to revisit Mark Clamen's original appraisal of the show in Critics at Large when it premiered back in 2011.
|Sean Bean as Lord Eddard Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones|
This Sunday, June 19th, HBO will air the tenth and final episode of the first season of its new medieval fantasy series, Game of Thrones. Based on George R. R. Martin’s popular series of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire, Game of Thrones is HBO’s most ambitious fantasy series to date. With more than 7 million copies of the novels sold worldwide (the fifth of the planned seven books will be published on July 12th), the series was one of the most anticipated shows of 2011, and in my opinion it has more than lived up to the hype. With a strong ensemble cast of veteran actors and newcomers and impressive production values, the show is more than an amazing example of fantasy storytelling, it is quite simply great television.
The series co-creators, screenwriters David Benioff (Troy) and D. B. Weiss, have committed to adapting one novel a season, following the model established by HBO’s other successful fantasy series, True Blood. But unlike True Blood, Game of Thrones offers a much more faithful translation of the novels.With most of the scripts for the first season penned by Benioff and Weiss, the series builds confidently towards its explosive final episodes. The novelistic pacing of this season is ideally suited to the inherent strengths of television: telling a sweeping story, with twenty main characters and dozens of supporting roles, multiple storylines, and grand themes. But despite its epic tenor, Game of Thrones takes its time. Its first episodes serve not only as an introduction to this world and its unique history but, more crucially, to the people that populate it. The series is profoundly and deeply human in the details. Heroes and villains alike are drawn with patience and sympathy. At the end of an episode, it is more often the smaller conversations and interactions that loom larger and linger longer in my mind than the show’s more epic elements. By the time the knives come out in the second half of the season, we are intimately familiar with players on all sides of the conflict, and there is a heartbreaking depth to every drop of blood that is shed.
In this first season, Sean Bean’s Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark is the closest this vast ensemble has to a lead character. A flawed former-warrior, Stark emerges right from the first episode as a loving, if stern, father and a noble leader of his people. It was in fact the textured portrayal of Ned as a father which first drew me into the series. But tasked by his old friend, King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy, The Full Monty) to be his chief advisor, Ned and his two daughters Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) leave behind the rest of the family in Winterfell, travel to King’s Landing, and enter a shady world of courtly politics and betrayal.
|Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister|
And in this world where sexual violence against women is pervasive and where women are often treated as spoils of war or given away as wives for political alliances, it is worth calling attention to the large number of strong and compelling female characters. To list just the two most central: there is Ned’s wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and King Robert’s wife Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles) But newcomer Emilia Clarke’s powerful portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen is also extraordinary, as Daenerys transforms from a vacant, lost child living under the thumb of a near-mad older brother into a woman so aware of her own power that, by the end of the season, she becomes slightly frightening in her own right.
I haven’t read any of Martin’s books, and considering how closely the series plans to stick the plots of the novels, I am grateful for that. I will read the first novel, A Game of Thrones, only after the season finale airs next week. But the richness of the written source material is evident in every frame and every line of dialogue. Filmed largely in and around Belfast and Malta, the settings are visually stunning, and truly unique, owing no doubt to the imagination of the world’s creator, George R. R. Martin. Some of the most awesome elements, which certainly must have been powerful on the pages of the novels – e.g. the 700-foot high defensive ice wall in the far north of the kingdom, King Robert’s dragonfire-forged throne, or the sky cells at the Eyrie (essentially shelves on the side of mountain hundreds of feet in the air where one of our characters is temporarily imprisoned) are rendered with a startling realism.
|Miltos Yerolemou And Maisie Williams|
Game of Thrones has been a real eye-opener for me. I confess that while I am a lifelong fan of science fiction, fantasy novels – particularly epic fantasy series – have rarely been favourites of mine. The requirement that one acclimate to an entirely foreign universe – with its own geography, history, races, and often even laws of physics, presented without even a tacit connection to our own world – often leaves me feeling disconnected from the narrative. This is how, when asked, I explain my personal preference for Star Trek over Star Wars, and the Narnia books over Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
But if I am compelled by Game of Thrones, I am the first to admit that it isn’t because it is an atypical fantasy, but because it is great fantasy. Nothing has frustrates me more than those who praise a TV series in spite of its genre. In those early seasons of Battlestar Galactica, when it was fashionable to describe it as ‘the most relevant show on television’, it was not uncommon for staunch defenders to declare that in the end the series wasn’t really science fiction. After all, they would point out, it was good(as if the two properties – science fiction and quality – were mutually exclusive). But fantasy is in no more in need of justification than any genre. A work is, in the end, only as good as the story it tells. And what a story Game of Thrones tells!
|Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen|
HBO has a long history of producing groundbreaking television. And like its other landmark series, Deadwood and The Wire,Game of Thrones has demonstrated a willingness to break with TV conventions and, for example, when the story demands it is prepared to kill main characters, however well-cast and beloved they are. Game of Thrones pulls no punches, and everything we need to know about it as a TV series, we learn by the stunning final scene of its pilot episode: anything can happen here, and no one is safe. Westeros (like the fictionalized Deadwood and Baltimore) is a rough world: life is cheap and honour is fickle. As one character puts it in a later episode: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
It has been a stunning freshman season so far, and the series has more than earned my commitment to its promised second season. I honestly have no idea what is going to happen next – and in the world of television, that is a rare and exquisite feeling.