Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Game of Thrones Season One

Twelve thoughts on HBO's first season of Game of Thrones, about ten years after reading the first book.

(1) This is a major accomplishment on multiple levels, succeeding far more than most television I've seen. I haven't seen better television from the past academic year outside of Mad Men, and unless I'm very much mistaken the show will deserve Emmy nominations on a wide number of counts, especially best Dramatic Series. I highly doubt it will get nominated, though, since there's a lot of precedent for dismissing out of hand unambiguous fantasy from serious consideration.

(2) It also rather dwarfs Lost a number of recent serials shows, with the claims of novelistic television. The pace was very brisk, plot movement changed things irreparably, the larger scenario made sense and transition happened. Above all, the show showed characters paying for their mistakes, with Catelyn's impetuous seizure of Tyrion and Ned's rigid commitment to his honour leading to full-scale civil war and thousands of deaths, including Ned's own. There's an effective momentum in the way things are handled that's very powerful, a willingness to go to very dark places.

(3) The show is relentlessly realistic, in the end. Not just because the fantasy elements are at present relatively minor, but because it deals with political conflict in a way that is very credible on how poorly a genuinely idealistic ruler would fare in a setting like medieval Europe. There's also good things that come from the scale of the setting, showing a degree of interaction among the secondary cast. There's the way Jon is deeply impacted by all the events that transpire yet forgotten by everyone else, the different ways everyone reacts to Tyrion and his abduction, the way that Lannister power is experienced by people across Westeros. The show is very good at following through on its life and death premise fairly, and feels more honest in this matter than any show I can think of outside of Breaking Bad and the Wire.

(4) Above all, the show works in building an alternate setting to our own history in a complex and well-integrated manner. By the end of the season King's Landing, Winterfell and the Wall all feel like real places, and they feel like places with different core atmospheres and social geographies. The Dothraki exploits are a lot more isolated, but one of her close followers is show to be a spy for Varys, and the debate on assassinating Daernys or not does play into the clash between Robert and Ned. In the end it feels like a cohesive region, and moreover one with a deep history. Things like the war against mad king Aerys seem real and close to the present, for all that they haven't been directly seen at all, and Westeros feels like a complex, credible and engaging place, one on the verge of being torn apart by another political clash, in which regular people are disconnected from power yet will be the ones to suffer the most. If the show lacked the compelling storyline it had and just built up the setting, I'd still consider it a major success. First-rate worldbuilding is something that exists in a lot of fantasy and science fiction book series, but is much rarer in television--I'm not sure there's been anything as evocative and richly detailed before. There is a substantial additional pleasure in seeing this fleshed out to life. Ironic, given how much of this epic fantasy series involves monologues, storytelling exposition and quiet dialog, but there is a keen pleasure in itself from hearing characters talk about their shared past.

(5) In the seventh episode Renly gets two important speeches. The second is to Ned, outlining the failings with his refusal to be pragmatic, and flatly denying that Stanis will make a better king just because of birthright. Ned does eventually learn to compromise his honour a bit through kneeling to Joffrey, but by that point with Renly he wasn't ready. Littlefinger and Cersei also made excellent points on the politics of the situation, but both are more obviously corrupt and self-serving, Renly came across as a relatively decent if ambitious man who was a lot more clear-sighted about what needed to be done to prevent vile people from dominating. His first speech was an even more effective deconstruction, challenging Roberts' notion that there was a better past time, emphasizing that the legacy of abuse of power, bloody internal divisions and moral compromises went back a long time. Both very effective statements, forcefully stated. Renly as a character didn't get that much to do this season (and in casting was a little too physically similar to the far more central Littlefinger) but his character had enough believability to support these speeches, which in itself makes him a strong personality in my book.

(6) The Lannisters stand as a pretty effective addition to the ranks of television's crime families. Effectively when you strip through the crown, title and degree of relative wealth they are basically another mafia, focused on defending and expanding their position. I'm not very fond of incest as a plot device, here or more generally, as it seems too easy a way to signal depravity. Except for that, though, things are pretty much note-perfect, from Twyin's business-like longterm pragmatism to Joffrey's utterly monstrous egotism. Even Tyrion, although heroic compared to his family, has a very vested selfishness and privilege built into his identity. Characters like Jaime and Cersei, meanwhile, prove to have a lot more layers and a more compelling history than they first seem to. What's most interesting about the family is the way they work in relation to the wider society and within their own dynamic.

(7) Another sign of how effective this show is at building up its mythology is the way it gives a sense of character's shadows long before they appear on stage. Partly there's the presence of John Aeryn and the mad king, but even more forcefully the significance of Tywin Lannister. When Ned issues the order for his arrest we already have a very good sense of who this man is, the power he holds, the things he represents and the reasons why going after him is virtuous, but also utterly stupid. And then he shows up in the flesh and builds the sense of underlying menace perfectly. There's a similar position with Lord Stanis, yet to feature on-screen, but already a major character with his own well-defined set of interests.

(8) Not everything about the show works, though. There's all the naked women, for one thing, with so much open flesh shown around characters delivering exposition that it becomes practically a parody of itself, as well as by far the shallowest element in the show's appeal to viewers. The worst scene in this vein was the episode seven Littlefinger and two prostitutes scene, as you mentioned before. It went on and on, and was utterly dumb on about every level: why is one of the wealthiest men in the kingdom taking time to micromanage two of his prostitutes? Why is he risking everything by indicating in so heavy-handed a fashion that he's going to turn on Ned? Why does the show feel this necessary to setup his later betrayal, when the foundation for it had been laid pretty clearly already?
The scene in the finale with Roz and the Maestor was almost as bad, given neither character had, unlike Littlefinger, ever been important. It makes up for it a little in how utterly and openly bored Roz is at his diatribe.

(9) There's also the Daernys plotline. I have to say, this still doesn't work for me, seeming by far the weakest part of the show, an entire subarc that's not at the same level of writing, characterization, realism or basic interest. I don't see the ending as compensating for the problems I had with this earlier on, while there's stronger moments in her arc there aren't very many of them. Vaerys' death and the emergence of the dragons doesn't in itself make up for twenty scenes of relatively arbitrary violence, or become invested in Drogo and Daerny's relationship. I always knew his death was coming, but unlike Ned's I was actively looking for to it, as he had minimal appealing traits, and wasn't an interesting variant of human evil in the way that Joffrey or Lannisters more generally were. I also don't see any particular acting strength in this, save for the presentation of a couple scenes Emilia Clarke seems to play most scenes as overly blank and one note, not adding to the relatively basic dialog the series provides. She's the character that suffers the most from the loss of internal narration, I'd say, to expand on her adaptation, intelligence and more appealing qualities.

(10) There's another way of thinking about in, in comparison with Jon Snow. Jon was also one of my favorite characters from the novel, who I found far less impressive in the series. There's also a similar pattern of him following a more cliched story arc, and existing in a way that's largely isolated from the rest of the storyline and peripheral to the setting, which also contains the most direct supernatural legacy. Yet for all that Jon's storyline does work a lot better for me this season than Daerny's, for a couple reasons.
[a] it is closer integrated to the main fate of Westeros, Jon regularly hears of and is effected by events to the South. In contrast while Westeros activates spies and assassination, nothing that happens in Westeros beyond that is reported to Daernys, and it doesn't seem she'd care if it did. The disconnect is more considerable.
[b] Taken on its own terms as something of a show within a show, the Wall is a lot more interesting than the Dothraki land. It's better in atmosphere, creepiness and a sense of history, as well as being integrated into the history of Westeros' undesirables. The Dothraki are defined as being without real culture, and just exist as a crude barbarian caricature.
[c] The Wall features better people, the only community that is able to have some longer term perspective and to genuinely try putting duty above family. In contrast Daernys has minimal real connection for people, and her growing into more self-confidence and personal power is synonymous with her mobilizing the Dothraki to murderous aggression. Daernys seems considerably more morally blind in the series compared with the book, and with far less justification, to the extent that she is shocked Robert tries to have her killed when she was actively planning to invade Westeros with an army. She encouraged Drogo to move on the attack, with him explicitly rallying his forces with a call for rape and enslavement, accordingly her effort to halt some of the atrocities seems fairly half-hearted and inauthentic ethics. Basically everything that the witch said to Daernys was true, which works as a deconstruction of her heroism, but makes it very difficult to be invested in her. Arguably she's worse than the Lannisters across the season, since for all their abuses they mostly want to defend their current position of power. Darenys has the option of living out her life in comfort away from larger politics, but is focused on claiming the thrown, through an invasion of slavers and thugs that will kill tens of thousands of people at a minimum.

(11) I think there's a general joylessness over the universe, which has good and bad elements. It definitely plays into the realism of the setting, and the real bite given to the political intrigue. Life is nasty, brutal and short for people that are nobility, and even the most ethical of the upper-class individuals give no more than a brief moment of regret to the death of commoners as they needlessly occur, such as with Ned's minimal reaction to the butcher's son being killed. There's a socio-economics at work with that which plays very well with the whole aesthetic and plot. At the same time, though, it's a bit of a cheat. Grim as things were, it's not like there wasn't any fun in medieval Europe, but in Westeros no one except Tyrion and his crew seem to feel that way. That's part of the many reasons why he's easily the most appealing character, but it's an approach that could be taken a bit more widely. Does no one else in this world ever relax, engage in non-sadistic humor, play drinking games? There are ways of broadening the horizons of presenting other characters, and they're not taken, which shrinks the horizon of the show more than it needs to. This becomes a problem as the whole tendency of the series is to have things get progressively worse, more and more brutal even when it seems the characters can't fall any further. However at present there's not that much in the way of of good times to fall from.

(12) Another issues that's a bit weaker than it could be is on the Stark family themselves. On the whole what's been done with them is very strong as individual characters, although there seems to be some problems with storycrafting of both Bren and Jon which will hopefully improve as they're given more to do. (Special note of praise to Sansa, who went through some the period of wide-eyed naivete to a very effective portrayal of a crushed, disillusioned hostage). What's missing is a real sense of the family as a unit, how all the children related to each other, their dynamics to the extent the Lannisters operated. There are also broader political questions involved with them, as to the extent that Stark's unyielding honour translated into a over policies of justice and gain for the population at large. We don't have as firm a confirmation on many of the abuses common to the villain houses, and that makes the moral ambiguity of the piece a bit less effective than it might otherwise be. Still, that's a problem that's largely behind the series at this point, given how thoroughly the family is shattered.