Game of Thrones: The Complete First Season (review)

Game of Thrones Sean Bean

Fantasy Reality

[no spoilers!]

I waited to watch Season One of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which debuted this time last year but to which I did not have easy access. It wasn’t that I made a conscious decision to wait — it was mostly about a lack of time combined with that lack of convenience. But I think I was dimly terrified that I would get obsessed with the series. I haven’t read the book series upon which the show is based — that would be A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] — but I am familiar with his work, so I sort of knew what I was in for. And, you know: I just know myself. Epic fantasy given serious treatment over 10 hours (and hence not limited by the time constraints of film). Awesome cast including Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Iain Glen, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The potential for Game of Thrones to occupy my imagination was high.
And that’s exactly what ended up happening.

Of course now I’m glad I waited, because it means I can jump right into Season Two (which began last week), which I’ll do the moment after I get this posted. Now I’ll be stuck plodding along at the infuriating pace of one episode per week, but I have no other choice. I can’t put it off. I’m hooked.

It’s not just that Thones is high fantasy, set in a literally fantastical world physically unlike our own, though it never hurts to be geeky when trying to appeal to me. It’s that Thrones may well be the most solidly confident storytelling I’ve seen on television, perhaps ever. There’s been a lot of talk in recent years of long-form dramatic television as analogous to novels, a notion I find both completely apt and totally thrilling — I can’t believe it took so long for anyone to figure out television could get us to invest deeply in characters that can change and grow over dozens or even hundreds of hours of storytelling. What makes Thrones different from the novelistic TV we’ve been seeing over the past 20 years or so is that it is actually based on not just one novel but a long series (the sixth is about to be published). The grand arc of the story to be told already exists, and has been demonstrated to work. This is unlike most long-form TV drama, which cannot take many narrative risks because the creators cannot be sure how many episodes or seasons they’ll have to tell their story or — as we saw with Lost — the creators simply have no end in mind and are just making it all up as they go.

But here… events that feel bold and shocking based on what we’ve been trained to expect from television pop up regularly. Creators David Benioff (Brothers, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and D.B. Weiss can deploy bold, shocking turns of events secure in the knowledge that such events are not cheap stunts but serve the larger story. And it means that we cannot trust what our instincts tell us about what television cannot or will not do. (Unless you’ve read the books, of course: then you know what’s coming. This is one instance in which I am absolutely, 100-percent glad I had not read the books beforehand. I can’t remember ever being so dazed or upset — more that once! — by TV drama as I was watching Season One of Thrones.) It lends Thrones a sense that anything can happen… much more so than the fantasy setting, which hints at magic and all of its unanticipated possibilities, could ever do.

That unique capacity for suspense and surprise made me love this show… and hate this show, too, for making me care so instantly for its many characters, even the less than honorable ones. In a civilization of many kingdoms and many ambitious people vying for the local thrones and the great Iron Throne that unites them all, there are many, and rarely has there been even a novelistic television show with such a sprawling cast of diverse players, and created so vividly by a uniformly glorious cast. (Even the child actors, particularly Jack Gleeson as the brat prince Joffrey and Maisie Williams as tomboy princess Arya, turn in mature — and thoroughly riveting — performances.) It is a game they are all playing, of politics and personalities, of cultural and familial expectations, of wresting a workable future from the misfortunes and disasters of the past.

The smartness of Thrones is — and this is what puts it in a class with Mad Men, though the two shows might seem hardly alike at all — that it is about pointing out the puppet strings of culture, how they constrain some people and prop up others, how they shape everything that happens. This world is strongly patriarchal, yet women who are clever and ambitious wrest what agency for themselves they can in whatever ways they can. The workability of different cultures is acknowledged. (The way the “barbarian” Dothraki treat the “civilized” Viserys Targaryen is perfect: they do not appreciate his intrusion, and they certainly don’t see him as a savior; they see him an idiot and a fool, which of course he is, from their perspective. This was the sort of thing I complained about as missing from John Carter.) Perhaps most exhilarating of all, Thrones is, down at its most basic level, about the blinders the powerful can have that prevent them from seeing threats to their power. Certain players cannot be ignored, and certain players cannot be thwarted…

All that comes with a delicious icing of weird sex, creatively gruesome violence, and general sense that no holds have been barred. At all. If you missed Season One, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you drop everything you’re doing and catch up. This is among the best stuff ever produced for television.

(My spoileriffic episode-by-episode blogging as I consumed Season One over the course of a single weekend begins here. I start Season Two now…)

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