TV Review – Game of Thrones Season 1 (2011)
It’s taken me ages to get around to writing this review and though the show will soon be entering its fourth year I’ve finally finished penning my thoughts on the season that started it all. Game of Thrones has oft been described as being, “that medieval HBO show that’s like The Sopranos,” which is rather an insult to both series as though it does share some similarities, the fact remains that the two shows are incredibly different.
Game of Thrones is that rare series that manages to be extremely layered, successfully combing a myriad of compelling, colourful characters within a roiling political landscape where everyone has their own agenda. Many other shows have attempted to be this dense, yet the combination is inherently tough to pull off successfully but Game of Thrones does so in grand fashion weaving a rather unique three-pronged serpentine plot that is altogether engaging without ever sinking into a narrative quagmire.
Based on the fantasy book series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,” by George R.R. Martin, Season one of Game of Thrones introduces viewers to the mythical world of Westeros and its expansive cast of characters who all seem to, in some fashion, come to be linked together in a quest for control of the land. As the series opens a tragedy befalls the current Hand of the King, a kind of caretaker who rules in the King’s name. His death sets a series of events in motion that eventually lead to a Northerner named Ned Stark (Sean Bean) being appointed to take his place and in turn take over the day to day running of the Kingdom while its ruler, King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), partakes in wine, women and song. Needless to say this doesn’t sit well with certain people, yet that is only the tip of the iceberg as Ned begins to unravel a labyrinthine mystery behind his predecessor’s demise leading him to shocking revelations about the throne that will surely reverberate throughout the land.
The series basically follows three concurrent narratives and seamlessly transitions between them with ease. One narrative concerns the political machinations of the Royal Court where Ned Stark now has to come to grips with being in power while those around him conspire to either help or hinder his cause. With Ned now stuck at the capital of King’s Landing attempting to unravel the mystery his wife, Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley) and family deal with the aftermath of his decision to leave them behind as well as a rather nefarious mystery of their own that unfortunately leads to the youngest family member becoming a paraplegic.
Another major plot concerns Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Ned Stark’s bastard son, who leaves his family and heads North to The Wall to join the Night Watch, a group of dedicated soldiers tasked to guard the realm from the mystical creatures that live beyond the fortifications. The final narrative switches point of view to another continent entirely as the last two remaining children of the deposed Westeros King now attempt to rebuild their strength in an attempt to form an army large enough to cross the sea and reclaim their birthright.
There is no doubt that Game of Thrones’ narrative is incredibly dense, yet the series never gets lost flipping through all the characters while also slowly revealing the thick multilayered backstory and how it relates to those in the present. This is an epic tale with its own lore and it is a testament to the showrunners that all this material manages to not only excite but is also intelligible and compelling making the show feel all the more real to the viewer. By taking the subject matter seriously and allowing the series to essentially be wholly character driven Game of Thrones succeeds in creating a rich colourful tapestry where the supernatural and more fantastical elements are easily acknowledged.
Fantasy TV shows set in a kind of medieval era are not at all common and nearly all of the successful ones such as Xena have been much more inclined to feature action and adventure over characterization. Game of Thrones is a prime example of an ensemble piece where there really isn’t a main character that monopolizes the majority of the screen time. The biggest name in the cast is undoubtedly Sean Bean who plays the honorable, Ned Stark, but even he does not tower over the rest of his co-stars and his role in some episodes amounts to only a few minute appearance. Admittedly, there were a few times where I had to rewind in the first few episodes to reacquaint myself with who was who but it did not take long before I could recognize everyone. The reason for this is simple as the series does a wonderful job of showcasing its main cast as each is given sufficient screen time to make a lasting impression, some more than others.
No doubt viewers have their own favourites amongst the cast but in season one there is no doubt that the breakthrough performance here is from Peter Dinklage who plays the imp, Tyrion Lannister. Dinklage manages to successfully take what might have been a stereotypical dwarf character and infuse him with convincing sarcastic wit and a kind of roguish charm which is much needed once the plot begins to plumb the darker emotional depths. His mesmerizing performance did not go unnoticed as he won the Emmy as well as the Golden Globe for Best Supporting actor.
Also making a huge impression is Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, one of the former King’s siblings who really has the most electric character arc amongst the cast as she transitions from a rather meek girl who, almost nauseatingly, allows her brother to sell her into sexual slavery to consummate a martial bond with a local warlord, yet manages to blossom into a strong woman that takes the bull by its horns deciding her own fate while learning the intricacies of being a noble and just leader.
As a side note, I do wonder about Sean Bean and his portrayal of Ned Stark and if I ever meet him will surely ask whether or not he seeks out roles with a “specific” requirement since, as it stands, I can’t help but feel that he’s somehow the male version of Michelle Rodriguez and the less said the better since I’d rather not put spoilers into this review. Still, Bean does an admirable job playing the “lead” character bringing equal parts gravitas and a kind of mournful visage of a man who really does not fit with the situation he now finds himself in.
There isn’t an acting laggard at all amongst the cast and surely viewers will quickly find their favourites. As a special note the child actors in Game of Thrones really deserve a huge tip of the hat as they all break the stigma of being either criminally underused or being nothing but traditional annoyances for the rest of the adult cast to work around. No such deal here as each one easily is of equal caliber to the more veteran performers around them and it speaks volumes of their talent that they are able to craft compelling characters in their own right. The flashier role here goes to Maisie Williams as Ned Stark’s totally unconventional younger daughter, Arya, who is more of a tomboy than anything else, concerned with archery and eventually swordplay over more feminine activities such as sewing or acting like a noble lady. Although she presents a strong female character she is not the only one as virtually every other actress save one is given much to do other than play the damsel in distress and the show excels in showing how women can gain equal or even greater power over their male counterparts.
That said the huge cast does come at a price that being many supporting characters are essentially thrown under a bus not to be seen for many episodes and oftentimes only mentioned in passing. One such character is Ned Stark’s youngest son who basically shows up in the first episode and then disappears as if magically whisked off to a foreign land. Others such as the King’s younger brother Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony) are shunted to the side so that those not paying much attention will probably forget who he is and what his relationship is to the main characters.
Some supporting characters do get a bit more screen time but they’re only glossed over and have only one remarkable trait to remember them by such as a flamboyant fencer who teaches swordsmanship to Ned Stark’s youngest daughter, Arya, or the noble head of the King’s guard. Still, without having read the books I have no way of knowing if the author spent more time fleshing them out or will return to them in the future but as it stands the main cast basically monopolizes the lion’s share of the screen time drowning everyone else out.
When first announced, I fully expected Game of Thrones to focus more on the traditional medieval tropes of having grand armies fight one another or having tons of action and swordplay but to its credit the truth is the opposite as the focus is clearly on its political intrigue as each faction vies for power. At the same time, though there is the element of the supernatural present, it is almost completely subdued as an afterthought which actually is a boon as it forces viewers to relate to its character interactions without forcing them to suspend disbelief with mystical mumbo-jumbo. No doubt these elements show up in later installments but as it stands the first season really doesn’t dwell on them at all. I’d go as far as saying that the lack of the supernatural actually accentuates the show’s allure as ever lurking threats are far more dangerous when hidden from plain sight.
Being an HBO show the production values are beyond reproach with intricate sets and location shooting that really makes the show feel majestic and epic in scope. Yes, the effects are not on par with Lord of the Rings but that’s not exactly a fair comparison considering the massive difference in mediums and budgets but for what it is, Game of Thrones is remarkably gritty and visually rich in its own right. The set design goes a long way to distinguishing the different factions such as having the Northern areas like Winterfell Castle appear drenched in grey somber tones accentuated by whispers of smoke whereas the capital, King’s Landing, is almost always lit in brilliant yellowish hues and surrounded with lush greenery.
Indeed the series is primarily shot in Northern Ireland and Malta and the assorted scenery accentuates the environmental palette providing some seriously impressive visuals that work hand in hand with the plot, much in the way New Zealand amplified the mystical world of Middle Earth in Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy.
However, be warned that being an HBO show also carries with it a ton of sex and violence never to be seen on network television. Make no mistake, when I mention sex and violence I don’t mince words as there’s a ton of naked women, mostly from the waist up showing their ample bosoms yet there are also a few full-length shots of both genders. As for the violence quotient expect a ton of arterial spray spurting in every direction and many severed appendages to go flying around.
Unfortunately, if excessive coitus and blood turns you off then Game of Thrones might just not work for you unless you can find some sort of PG-13 edited version somewhere. Both elements never truly come off as being gratuitous as the violence actually gives the show an inherently raw brutal feel to it and the sex/nudity is usually explained in some fashion although one can make the observation that oftentimes the camera lingers too long on the nubile young bodies. Like other HBO shows, although it should be common knowledge by now, Game of Thrones is meant for adults and woe betide any parent who allows their young kids to somehow watch it as there are bound to be many moments which will lead to some “colourful” dinner table chats.
Along with the sex and violence, Game of Thrones is blessed with an incredibly dark storyline where betrayal is as common as taking a piss and the “good guys” don’t always come out on top even if they are on the right side of the law or morality. The point cannot be stressed more as part of what makes Game of Thrones fly higher is precisely because it has the gumption to display characters in shades of grey and that everyone has both towering strengths and glaring weaknesses oftentimes within the same trait. It is simply electrifying to watch the ebbs and flow of power take place as characters appear strong and commanding in one scene only to have the rug pulled out from under them in the next.
Also, the show is serialized much like the series Lost in that missing one or two episodes is simply not recommended as the plot twists and turns are far too many to count which ensures viewers will be confused to no end if they did not see the previous installments. This obviously is no problem for those watching the show on DVD/Blu-Ray or digital delivery but it still needs to be said that every episode counts and that there is no such thing as “filler” that you find on numerous other shows. With only a ten episode season time is of the essence and there is no such thing as a superfluous scene as every shot, action or word relates in some ways to either building character or propelling the story forward.
Game of Thrones is that rare series which lives up to the hype. Filled with wonderful realistic characters and a focus more on their interactions over action the show can often feel inherently dense yet it weaves all of its elements like a well-oiled machine creating an electrifying final product. This is the type of show HBO has become famous for yet it manages to soar to even greater heights precisely because it humanizes and makes accessible to all a genre which typically is criminally neglected in both TV and film, that being fantasy which takes place in a kind of medieval era. The only medium where fantasy enjoys huge popularity is in books so it comes as no surprise that the show is based on one such successful series. I have not read any of them but after watching Game of Thrones I’m definitely more inclined to make it a priority to do so.
With deep layered storytelling, a captivating setting and characters to both root and howl against, Game of Thrones is simply one of the best shows on television and one hopes that it manages to maintain this high level of quality for the coming seasons. Highly recommended.
**** out of ****
2011, USA, 600 Minutes, HBO, R
Screenplay by D.B. Weiss, David Benioff, Bryan Cogman
Based on the books by George R.R. Martin
Produced by Mark Huffam, Frank Doelger
Executive Producers David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Created by David Benioff, D.B. Weiss
Series Original Music by Ramin Djawadi
Series Cinematography by Matthew Jensen, Alik Sakharov, Marco Pontecorvo
Sean Bean: Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark
Peter Dinklage: Tyrion Lannister
Lena Headey: Cersei Lannister
Maisie Williams: Arya Stark
Emilia Clarke: Daenerys Targaryen
Michelle Fairley: Catelyn Stark
Iain Glen: Jorah Mormont
Kit Harington: Jon Snow
Sophie Turner: Sansa Stark
Kristian Nairn: Hodor
Alfie Allen: Theon Greyjoy
Jack Gleeson: Joffrey Baratheon
Richard Madden: Robb Stark
Isaac Hempstead Wright: Bran Stark
Rory McCann: Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau: Jaime Lannister
Aidan Gillen: Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish
Charles Dance: Tywin Lannister
John Bradley: Samwell Tarly
Conleth Hill: Lord Varys
Jerome Flynn: Bronn
Joe Dempsie: Gendry
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