Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Overview: GAME OF THRONES, Season One; blood, boobs, blades & beheadings

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

I decided against reviewing Game Of Thrones weekly because it felt like writing about the show would require too much effort—at a time when there was a lot of TV to cover. Most of what I review, regardless of quality, has to be inherently fun for me to write about, and GOT didn't strike me as a fun show to review. At least not in its first half, when everything was new and it was enough of a challenge to remember people's names and familial associations. It was also apparent that most other blogs were reviewing GOT—many with the benefit of in-depth research, or having read George R.R Martin's novels. I'd probably have spent most week's just recounting the scenes I liked, the scenes I didn't, and grumbling about the pace. It also didn't help that US online coverage of the show felt so prolific that I was faintly bored with GOT before it aired! The level of pre-show coverage was overkill, and I didn't feel like adding my thoughts to the already enormous pile of criticism.

But now the ten-part first season's over, so I thought I'd chime in with some broad thoughts about how GOT progressed, improved and developed over the months. I think it's safe to say that the first five episodes were tough for GOT newbies to get through: a combination of measured pacing and the fact it wasn't clear what the show was actually about. HBO clearly hoped the audience would be as patient as they were with The Wire, but with a medieval fantasy drama it's obvious many people expected thrills and spills from start to finish, and that's not what GOT was about.

Maybe that's why Daenerys' storyline proved so popular, because it was one of the few that was instantly comprehensible and empathetic—the story of a sweet flaxen-haired girl forced into an arranged marriage with a brooding tribal warlord, at her creepy older brother's request, as part of a plan to forge a foreign alliance and reclaim her deposed family's royal crown. In a sea of stories awash with unspoken history and unclear motivations, it was driftwood to cling to as you struggled to recall the names of Ned Stark's many children.

But since episode 6, things shifted. With a half-dozen hours under your belt, it became easier to identify individual characters (if still not always by name), and keep more of the subplots distinct in your mind. I'm not going to claim everything suddenly became crystal clear, because I'm still not au fait with a few things, but it definitely got easier to digest.

I also got the distinct impression that reading about GOT between every episode helped burn events into your memory, so it all becomes much easier to deal, but I'm of the opinion that shouldn't be expected of a TV viewer. If a TV show doesn't work simply by watching its broadcast episodes, that's a failing. GOT did find a way to work, by and large, but there were still areas that confused me, or relationships that soured for reasons I quickly forgot about. Fortunately, it's the kind of show that throws in bloodthirsty spectacles like horses being beheaded, a murder involving smelted gold, and tongues being yanked out of slashed throats, to keep you glued.

The performances were exceptional across the board, with a particularly impressive group of child actors—particularly Maisie Williams as tomboy Arya and Jack Gleeson as the despicable Prince Joffrey. Peter Dinklage also had a blast as Tyrion "The Imp" Lannister (imagine Family Guy's Stewie in a He-Man wig), and relative newcomer Emilia Clarke was a revelation as the aforementioned Daenerys. And that's before you get to the bigger names like Sean Bean (reliably gruff and charismatic as Lord Stark), Mark Addy (surprisingly engaging as King Robert), and Lena Headey (brilliantly devious as Queen Cersei). Plus, it was just fun spotting various small-screen actors in third-tier roles—like Clive Mantle (who once played Little John in Robin Of Sherwood) and Jerome Flynn from Soldier, Soldier as... well, a soldier.

It also helped that GOT takes place in a fictional universe, as the show can do two things: play things straight to sell its sense of Middle Ages authenticity, but also involve wondrous things occasionally—like the dizzying "sky cells", or an enormous skull of an extinct dragon. And there are signs of numinous beings on the other side of the gigantic ice Wall that's been built to keep dark Northern forces at bay because Winter Is Coming. The way this season's built towards showing us more fantastical things (a "zombie" surfaced in episode 8, Daenerys' was shown to be flame-retardant, a life was saved through witchcraft, the birth of baby dragons) also worked really well.

The slow-burn that threatened to overwhelm things gave way to a relative stride from episode 7, heading towards one of the year's most shocking and unexpected climaxes in the penultimate hour. I won't spoil it here, but it was a death that was utterly shocking and brave. It also made me consider the different experience fans of the books must be having, in contrast to TV-only viewers like myself. Established fans (who are entire books ahead of events here) have the pleasure of seeing their imagination come to life, and undoubtedly an easier time comprehending details of the stories, but the big surprises just can't be working. For that reason, I'm glad I didn't read the source material, and I don't intend to read ahead before season 2 begins next spring. The fact the story's being told with a TV series that's earned fan approval is enough for me to accept this drama as my preferred method of delivery. It's the Harry Potter dilemma on the small-screen—only this time cries of "the books are better!" aren't so prevalent. I'm sure there are things the books are doing better than this adaptation, but I'm a TV/film obsessive first and a bookworm second.

The sense of place is also incredible. Filmed across Ireland and Malta, you never once give that any thought. This is instead the fictional realm of Westeros through and through, in the same way New Zealand became Middle-earth. A clever combination of location filming, gigantic sets, clever CGI extensions, and old-school matte paintings, helped created an entire world that's a pleasure to visit every week. The authenticity in sets, costumes, and assorted paraphernalia sold the whole show's concept extremely well. It was wonderful just to bask in the production.

I'll avoid spoilers for the people who are planning on buying the DVD box-set, but suffice to say the final two episodes were particularly brilliant in how ruthless they were with the cast—although, of course, it's George R.R Martin who should be congratulated for the story's successes. It was in these later hours where the cumulative impact of spending so much time with the characters paid off, as you found yourself having an unexpectedly deep reaction to various deaths and developments. The climactic montage also set up a variety of events that will inform season 2, which should be a more immediately gripping year because we now know and understand these characters. Plus, many of them now have something worth fighting for, which wasn't the case for the majority of season 1.

From what I've been told, George R.R Martin's first novel is the weakest of the ongoing saga, so I'm now giddy with the thought of what the future might bring, as the game of thrones continues...