In many ways, Game of Thrones feels like a fitting successor to Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings. Undoubtedly fans of either work are getting a bit tired of the comparisons, understandably feeling that such a point of reference is a crutch for writers or reviews with little knowledge of the fantasy genre outside those tent poles. Still, it has been a while since an adaptation of such a well-received literary work has managed to make such an impact on popular culture. A decade after the release of the first film in Jackson’s trilogy, I think that G.R.R. Martin’s work builds upon the conventions Jackson taught us to embrace so easily. In fact, the celebrated HBO series works so very well because it so radically and gleefully subverts the audience expectations that were so firmly entrenched by Peter Jackson’s fantasy landmarks.
One of the first images in Winter is Coming, the first episode of the show, is of a little girl who has been brutally impaled on a tree branch. “They even killed the children!” a member of the Night’s Watch observes, appalled. Before the first title sequence of the series, Game of Thrones seeks to unsettle and unnerve its audience, to let us know that this isn’t a story that will rigidly adhere to concepts like the immortality of infants. Very few works of fiction are willing kill of children or animals, for fear of upsetting the viewing audience. Those that do very rarely feature the act itself. Game of Thrones does both, with brutal frequency.
There’s precious little romance to be found in Game of Thrones. This isn’t the epic story of good-and-evil, as we’ve been conditioned to expect in a situation like this. People die often, in brutal ways and in petty ways. Children suffer and die. The butcher’s boy is run down by the king’s guard. In the very first episode, we’re introduced to a young member of the Stark household who likes to climb walls and scale builds, despite his mother’s warnings. In any other fantasy setting, we’d expect his skill to come in handy or some point, for his ability to get into tough places to pay off towards the climax of the series. Instead, by the end of the first episode, he has been thrown out of a tall tower and left crippled.
Even those children who aren’t murdered or brutally wounded still suffer by virtue of the harsh social realities. In order to maintain the fragile peace between the seven kingdoms, sons and daughters are routinely married away at a young age. They are treated as bargaining chips and often sent away from home. Even Catelyn Stark, the loving wife to Ned Stark, was herself a young child sent away from home to marry as part of local politics.
It’s not uncommon for younger characters to find themselves carrying an unhealthy burden. While his actions towards the end of the season make it hard to be too sympathetic, young Joffrey finds himself tasked with maintaining the Iron Throne and running the seven kingdoms. With Ned imprisoned in a dungeon, his young son Robb is tasked with mounting a war to rescue him. “He’s just a boy,” Ned insists. Lord Varys responds, “Boys have been conquerors before.”
Indeed, Ned’s attempts to avoid killing a child is arguably what leads to the rapid escalation in the second half of the season. Asked why he told the Queen that he knew of her secret, instead of going straight to the King, Ned replies, “The madness of mercy. That she might save her children.” Varys nods, almost pitying Ned’s honour, “Ah, the children. It’s always the innocents who suffer.” There’s a cruel irony at play here. Ned’s attempt to save the lives of his enemies’ children will cost infinitely more lives in the long term, and will arguably cause even more children to suffer.
G.R.R. Martin’s saga feels like something of a deconstruction of standard fantasy. Even the casting ofin the role of Ned Stark seems like a none-too-subtle attempt to toy with the audience’s expectations. In The Lord of the Rings, he played Boromir. Boromir was the flawed counterpart to Aragorn, the idealised honourable fantasy lead. Aragorn, iconically embodied by Viggo Mortensen, was the man destined and deserving to lead, but whose better judgment and modesty lean against it.
Here, as Ned, Sean Bean seems to have been cast in a similar role. Ned is decent and honourable and compassionate, much like Aragorn. Other characters comment on how he would make a fitting ruler. However, the world itself is so skewed that such virtues of characters do not assure Ned a happy ending. Had Ned been a character in The Lord of the Rings, he would have made a decent companion. Here, as the conspiracies in the royal court unspool around him, he can’t help but seem outdated and out-of-touch. Ned simply isn’t quick or astute enough to manage the Game of Thrones. It illustrates how well G.R.R. Martin picks apart the conventional fantasy clichés.
Of course, in a world as deeply flawed as Westeros, even Ned’s honour is a vice and flaw rather than an endearing character trait. We’re introduced to the character brutally executing a deserter who brings word of trouble beyond the North Wall. In any other fantasy tale, the character’s news would earn him a stay of execution. Ned’s honour forbids such pragmatism. “He swore an oath,” Ned states. “It’s the law.” Although, it should be noted that Ned is still honourable. “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” As his son states, “Our way is the old way.” Rather than presenting it a romantic and nostalgic reflection, Martin instead suggests that Ned is simply losing step with the rest of the world, and can’t keep up with the conspiracies and machinations of the other Houses.
In a way, perhaps, Ned is a relic from what the characters refer to as “the Age of Heroes.” It’s referenced throughout the series, and developed in the handy narrated and animated histories that are incorporated into the blu ray release. Indeed, I’m quite fond of the blu ray’s “complete guide to Westeros”, which allows the user to pause the action on screen to hear various characters narrate sections of history from the perspective of their own House. It gives a lot of texture to what’s unfolding on screen.
Of course, writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss do an excellent job in tying such background information into the show itself. Everything the viewer needs to know to understand the events unfolding on-screen is explained in dialogue or implied through irony throughout the series. The narrated excerpts of the history of Westeros instead work to contextualise the story and to allow the viewer to make all manner of connections that were only really hinted at before, as well as developing notions and ideas only touched upon very briefly. They provide a sort of folklore history for the continent.
Watching these sections, for example, it becomes very clear that Game of Thrones is set quite a while after we would expect a fantasy epic to have been set. The land has already seen the “cataclysmic doom.” It has been generations since dragons scoured the landscape, and since the children of the forest were wiped out by aggressive tribes of men. Such stories are fondly told, and memorised through myth and song – idealised versions of the past.
We join Game of Thrones in the wake of what seems to be some fairly epic events. “The mad king” has been murdered, a rebellion seizing the throne and his heirs forced into exile. It is a time of peace, but also uncertainty. The rebellion and the war might have provided fodder for an epic fantasy adventure in its own right, but G.R.R. Martin instead offers a more interesting exploration of a culture in the aftermath of such upheaval.
“Our purpose died with the mad king,” Robert Baratheon laments. On the other hand, Tywin Lannister identifies the uncertain present as providing the opportunity to shape the destiny of Westeros. “The future of our family will be determined in these next few months. We could establish a dynasty that would last a thousand years… or we could collapse into nothing, as the Targaryens did.” It seems that many character long for simpler or more heroic times.
Of course, the show shrewdly suggests that such myths themselves deserve deconstruction. When the King longs for the good old days, his younger brother challenges him, “Which days exactly? The ones where half of Westeros fought the other half and millions died? Or before that, when the Mad King slaughtered women and babies because the voices in his head told him they deserved it? Or way before that, when dragons burned whole cities to the ground!” It’s clear that the fantasy history of Westeros was just as brutal as the version we are watching unfold. It just seems romantic because we aren’t actually watching it – just as I’m sure that the poets and writers would somehow convert the grim and sordid events we’re watching into the stuff of legends.
Belief itself in those mystical arts is fading as Westeros seems to be on the verge of a more rational age. “There are some maesters who have earned a link forged of valyrian steel,” one section of history explains. “This signifies knowledge of the higher mysteries, also known as magic. Only one maester in a hundred possesses this type of link, as this field of study is frowned upon in the order. It is possible magic may have existed for a time, long ago, but most consider the higher mysteries to be long gone from this world.”
Of course, some of the old myths and beliefs still endure. Westeros seems to be home to two main belief systems. One seems quite similar to pagan beliefs, but it’s being replaced by “the seven”, “a single God with seven aspects” – not unlike the Christian Trinity. The Night’s Watch still keeps vigil at the North Wall, but there’s a sense that mysticism and magic have long faded from the realm. When Jon Snow insists the Night’s Watch still serves a valuable function, Lord Tyrion explains what it defends against. “Against grumpkins and snarks and all the other monsters your wet nurse warned you about. You’re a smart boy, you don’t believe that nonsense.”
The heirs to the House Targaryen live in exile following the death of “the mad king”, and yet they still claim to have the blood of the dragon coursing through their veins. Asked by a prostitute if he has even seen a dragon, even Prince Viserys dismisses it as ridiculous. “The last one died one hundred years before I was born.” It seems, especially relatively early in the season, that Game of Thrones is set in a world inhabited by humans. Humans who have, perhaps, killed off the magic and mysticism that used to exist around them.
Have you ever seen a dragon?
Dragon gone, Khaleesi.
Everywhere? Even in the east?
No dragon. Brave men kill them.
- Daenerys and her ladies in waiting
The early episodes of the series seem determined to avoid entering the realm of the mystical or the magical. Viserys Targaryen claims to have the blood of the dragon, but is still brutally murdered using molten gold. “He was no dragon,” Daenerys coldly comments on her brother’s death. “Fire cannot kill a dragon.” When we are introduced to Lord Tyrion, it is made clear that he is not a fantastical dwarf than one might expect to see in setting like this, but just a normal person affected with dwarfism. The closest we come to actually seeing a dragon during these episodes is in the form of three fossilised eggs, that could quite possibly be fake.
It’s only as we reach the end of the season that the magical elements begin to become more apparent. In the last few episodes, the Stark children have prophetic dreams that foretell a great loss. Drago is wounded and forced to seek the help of a witch doctor. Daenerys gives stillbirth to the “stallion” that will mount the world. Still, the show seems quite reluctant to commit. Although we’re told that Daenerys’ baby was reptilian, we only hear it second-hand. Although the witch doctor inside Drago’s tent makes unnatural noises, the camera cuts to black before we can see what is going on.
Indeed, it is only in the very last scene of the show that the audience is shown irrefutable evidence that this is a world where magic still exists. It’s to the credit of G.R.R. Martin and the writers working on the show that they are far more interested in the human stories at the heart of the show than in any fantasy trappings. Core to the heart of the series is an endearing pragmatism – the idea that if you move people to a fantasy setting, it doesn’t make them better or more honourable. There were always crooks and schemers and greedy people, it doesn’t matter when or where you set the story in question.
If the gods are real, why is the world so unjust?
Because of men like you.
- Jaime Lannister and Catelyn Stark
Most of the fantasy narratives that conventional audiences would be familiar feature a clear delineation between good and evil, when one might argue that such a contrast is often more ambiguous in real life. The producers have described the show as “The Sopranos in Middle Earth”, and it’s not a bad description at all. Game of Thrones might take place in a mystical realm, but its characters and their motivations are all fully developed and well-realised.
Everybody is a hero in their own particular narrative, and most people would arguably cast their own life story in the mould of the iconic “hero’s journey.” Consider, for example, Lord Petyr Baelish. Ably brought to life by wonderful Irish actor Aidan Gillen, Baelish is cast as the trickster in the tale, the character who can’t be trusted, and who is playing all sides against the middle. Yet the character still looks back on his young crush on Catelyn Stark and casts himself as the romantic hero, the underdog fighting for her affection against a caste system.
On discovering that Catelyn was to marry Ned, Baelish seemed to consider himself the young upstart fighting to save her from an arranged marriage. “So I challenged him to a duel,” he explains. “I mean, why not—I’d read all the stories. The little hero always beats the big villain in all the stories. In the end, she wouldn’t even let him kill me.” He explains, “Do you know what I learned, losing that duel? I learned that I’ll never win, not that way. That’s their game. Their rules. I’m not going to fight them. I’m going to fuck them. That’s what I know.”
Even the show’s designated bad guys all have their own motivations and understandable goals. It’s great to see Charles Dance again, especially in a role that allows him to sink his teeth in. Lord Tywin Lannister is rather effectively introduced skinning a deer, just in case you hadn’t gathered enough about the character from the way that other cast members had talked about him. He’s the force driving the conflict in the series, with most of the kingdoms in his pocket as he marches to war against the Starks. We’re told of the heinous acts he committed against his youngest son, Tyrion. He seems deliciously vile.
And, yet, despite all this, Twyin Lannister has his own internal logic and motivations that make sense in the context of the series. “Your mother’s dead,” he tries to explain to Jaime. “Before long I’ll be dead, and you and your brother and your sister and all of her children, all of us dead, all of us rotting underground. It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on. Not your personal glory, not your honor… but family. You understand?”
In fact, one of the best aspects of the blu ray’s complete history of Westeros is that it embraces this sense of perspective. Key events from the history of the region, those alluded to in dialogue, often receive multiple “viewpoints” – allowing us to see how each of the Houses might interpret particular events. Viserys Targaryen, for example, insists his family “were love by their subjects, and admired far and wide as the greatest dynasty in the history of the Western World.” In contrast, his family and dynasty are portrayed as a bunch of mad invaders in the narratives from other houses. “Someday you’ll sit on the throne and the truth will be what you make it,” Cersei tells her son. In history, as in all things, Westeros is pragmatic.
In particular, these sections provide a lot of interesting detail about the strange relationship that King Robert Baratheon maintains with both House Stark and House Lannister. Ned Stark took offense to the brutality with which the Lannisters seized the Red Keep. Baratheon is more pragmatic, accepting that there was a lot of blood shed and loss. “Still, what Tywin did was for the greater good.” He curses “Ned, with his damned Northern honour” for objecting. Tywin Lannister offers his own justification. “Our means were brutal, but the results speak for themselves.” To Lannister, the murder of Targaryen children was necessary to prevent any challenge to Baratheon’s claim on the throne.
Pragmatism is a necessary virtue in Westeros. Captured by the Starks, Jaime proposes to end the bloodshed with a one-on-one duel between the pair to resolve the conflict. He claims to want to save thousands of lives, but Robb recognises that his approach isn’t based on honour, but on his own likelihood of success. “If we do it your way Kingslayer, you’d win,” Robb concedes. “We’re not doing it your way.”
Lord Tyrion spends most of the series caught in various awkward situations, trapped inside machinations he can’t quite understand. And yet he proves far more adept at staying on top of things than Ned does, because Tyrion is far more willing to adopt a pragmatic response to a situation – rather than one based on honour. “If the day ever comes when you’re tempted to sell me out,” he tells Bronn, “whatever their price, I’ll beat it. I like living.” Part of me suspects that Tyrion does so well because he isn’t concerned with winning the eponymous game of thrones, but just wants to live.
Even the politics of Westeros are dictated by reality rather than principle. Lord Joffrey suggests that the continent might have been better ruled by a single king rather than through the seven smaller kingdoms answering to the Iron Throne. “The North cannot be held,” Cersei tells her son, explaining how the current system works and why such autonomy is tolerated. Still, such realism also involves harsh observations, and leaves no room for trust. Cersei explains, “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.”
Lord Tyrion even adopts such a straight-forward view of the distinction between the ‘civilised’ people living south of the North Wall and the “wildlings” on the other side. Tyrion sees no tangible or inherent difference between his own blood and those of the brutal savages up north. “I believe that the only difference between us and the wildlings is that when that Wall went up, our ancestors happened to live on the right side of it.” It seems that the series agrees with him, as the people of Westeros are shown to be capable of great acts of brutality and violence to one another, for all their civilised society.
However, despite all this relative realism and the grounded approach to fantasy, Game of Thrones hints at a coming supernatural threat facing the entire continent of Westeros. We’re told of monsters who live beyond the North Wall and of the “shadowlands” outside Dothraki control. The first episode finds a deserter claiming have seen monsters heading towards Westeros. The series also suggests that there’s strange migration from north to south. “There are no Dire Wolves south of the Wall,” one of Ned Stark’s sons states, as they come across the carcass of one. Osha, a wildling captured inside Stark territory, is convinced that a threat is coming. “I tried telling your brother, he’s marching the wrong way. All these swords, they should be going north, boy, north, not south.”
Do you think your brother’s war is more important than ours? When dead men and worse come hunting for us in the night, do you think it matters who sits on the Iron Throne?
- Joer Mormont
However, as with the rest of the fantastical elements in the series, the writers use it to serve their observations on human nature. While the Night Watch might be finally preparing to face the threat from these forces, the rest of Westeros is far too concerned with their own petty political games to even notice. Their own petty politics trump the “greater good” or even the greater threat approaching from outside. Baratheon warns his old friend, “There’s a war coming, Ned. I don’t know when or who we’ll be fighting… but it’s coming.” It seems that the families might have a desperate case of mistaken priorities.
In a lesser series, one might expect the families to put their swords down and fight side-by-side against the threats amassing outside their borders. Game of Thrones, however, is far too shrewd for that. Even if the Delgathi horde were to cross the ocean, led by Daenerys, and even if the North Wall were to crumble, I suspect that the plotting and scheming and conspiring would barely miss a beat. After all, despite the fact that this series unfolds in another world, the characters are only human.
HBO deserves great credit for bringing Game of Thrones to life. It looks absolutely fantastic. The production design and special effects are outstanding, and it’s amazing to think that a show looking this good can be brought to life on a television budget. There are a few obvious moments where the budget might have prevented the show from actually showing a particular set piece or action sequences (such as a massive battle in the penultimate episode), but I think it takes a great deal of skill to acknowledge that you simply can’t show something – rather than simply trying and failing on an unrealistic budget.
The writing is absolutely top notch. David Benioff and D. B. Weiss do a great deal of the writing, but have done a fantastic job bringing the show to life. Even G.R.R. Martin himself contributes an episode to the show, and seems to have been quite involved in the production of the show. As noted above, the characters and themes are all handled superbly, on par with the best of the HBO shows. Much like The Wire, Game of Thrones is very much structured like a novel for television, with the individual episodes serving as chapters in an overarching story. That seems strangely appropriate given the source material.
Much like a novel, the early episodes move quite slowly – but never boring. They introduce characters and settings to the audience, playing out relatively simple dilemmas and revealing the truth to us as Ned Stark embarks on his own inquiries into the death of the Hand of the King. Of course, the identity of the murderers is uncovered in the first episode, but Ned’s inquiries familiarise the audience with the setting and the characters. Doing so over the first couple of episodes allows us to get to know the people involved and the angles they are working before things get out of hand.
This, much like in The Wire, allows the second half of the season to increase its momentum dramatically. From about the fifth episode, the revelations keep pouring in and the show gathers the momentum of a runaway freight train. I watched the episodes over the course of a single day, but you couldn’t have pried me away from any of the final four cliffhangers. I almost dread watching the second season spaced a week at a time. The blu ray picture is absolutely fantastic, and the collection is lovely.
Most of the cast is superb. Peter Dinklage deservingly picked up an Emmy for his work here. Michelle Fairley does an excellent job as Catelyn Stark, and it’s awesome to see Charles Dance in a nice role once again. Iain Glen brings a wonderful sense of restraint to a supporting role as an exile living amongst the Dothraki Tribes, and Aidan Gillen is suitably slimy as a powerbroker within the royal court. I have to admit, though, I found it quite strange that Jason Momoa was relegated to the end credits. I know he didn’t have a lot of dialogue, but was a huge presence in the first season.
The show has, admittedly, come under fire for it’s “sexposition”, the tendency to feature plot exposition during sex scenes. While the more prudent views come from extremes, quite a few legitimate critics have dismissed the nudity as “gratuitous” or “excessive.” I, personally, have no problem with it. This is, after all, a deconstruction of romanticised fantasy – so it plays to human vices in settings where we might not expect it. There is, after all, an abundance of violence to match any of the flesh on display.
Besides, there’s something thematically potent about the characters spending so much time naked while still wearing their own masks and titles. In one sequence towards the end of the season, an old maester is rambling after a visit from a prostitute. She cleans herself up as he goes off on tangents about various rulers, keenly aware that she’s probably being paid to inform on him. Once she leaves, and he’s alone, the old man leaps off the bed and does some rather energetic exercise… before resuming his hunchback pose before leaving the house.
The point of this scene is clear, and it wouldn’t work without the nudity: even in the most intimate of circumstances, the characters still play the roles they’ve created and still have to hide their weaknesses. To win the Game of Thrones, you need a particular kind of armour. The armour that remains on even when you are entirely naked. A lot of other “intimate, but not really” scenes require the nudity and sex to illustrate how careful one must be.
Game of Thrones is a wonderful addition to the HBO schedule. I think it’s shaping up to be a genuine classic, and an illustration of just what can be done on television these days. This sort of large-scale epic fantasy would have seemed impossible only a few years ago, and it would have been difficult to imagine it being handled well even as it might have become technically possible. Game of Thrones sets a standard for fantasy on television.
Fantasy is a genre often unfairly cast aside and dismissed. as somehow “less worthy” than more grounded or contemporary drama. I think the highest compliment one can make to Game of Thrones is to suggest that it rather brutally and effectively smashes those sorts of prejudices and taboos. It’s a show that is good enough to make people who would never think of watching fantasy to talk about it and engage with it.
That’s one hell of an accomplishment, and I can only think of one other major franchise to have tone that within the past twenty or so years. Yes, that is another comparison to Lord of the Rings, but it’s quite a complementary one.
You might be interested in our other Game of Thrones reviews:
- Season 1
- Season 2
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