Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Game of Thrones: Winter is Almost Here

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on June 15, 2011. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

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 battle lines are drawn 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 was one of the first aspects of the series to draw me in. 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
Though the cast of Game of Thrones is uniformly impressive, two characters have emerged as my personal favourites: Tyrion Lannister, played to the hilt by the incomparable Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent), and Ayra Stark, Ned’s youngest daughter. As a spirited tomboy with ambitions of battlefield glory and honour, Arya gives the viewer a unique perspective on the political intrigue of the capital city, and William’s portrayal brings a sweet humanity to every scene she is in. Dinklage (whose only foray into episodic television was a starring role in the CBS’s shortlived sci-fi drama Threshold in 2005) shines here as Tyrion, the black sheep of the powerful Lannister family. Tyrion is a truth-teller and a survivor, whose dwarfism has caused him to be classified, in the words of his father, as “the lowest of the Lannasters.” Tyrion is also insightful, witty, and profane – as only an outsider can be. But it is entirely to Dinklage’s credit that the character has such charm and undeniable sex appeal.

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 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
And from a television standpoint, the series may have one of the best opening sequences in HBO history. Every episode opens with a dazzling animated map of the world, accompanied by an epic, sweeping, and cinematic score (composed by Ramin Djawadi). The opening at once calls us back to the show’s roots in written fantasy fiction (which regularly provides maps in the front and back flaps of its books), while dramatically pulling us into a new world. Moreover, the map itself changes slightly with every episode, adding new points of focus as our story takes us further and further into the wider world of Westeros and beyond.

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 – has often left 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
In nine episodes, viewers have been introduced to an entire universe – a world with its own social mores, history, and even weather – that screams foreignness with every frame, but portrayed with such care and confidence that it is a strength, and never a weakness. The stark realism of the series balances against the alienness of its setting, and only serves to give its creators more sophisticated control of their universe. (Allowing, for example, the powerful implication that seasons don’t work the same way in Westeros as they do here – and being able to subtly detail the generational consequences of this fact.)

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.