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Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

Sweeping across a disquieting clockwork map, an epic score swelling in the background, the opening sequence of HBO's Game of Thrones promises viewers another quasi-historical show. Perhaps in the vein of the Tudors or the Borgias - with a bit of the fantastic added for spice. It is HBO, so we are anticipating alot of skin and carnage. But as readers of the book it is adapted from know, Game of Thrones frequently subverts the expected with a vengeance, karma is constantly thwarted, and the best laid plans crumble to dust.

Based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, GoT closely follows the first installment of that series. Weaving a capacious Dune-like cast of characters into its tapestry and boasting a rich backstory, GoT can be daunting to the uninitiated. But it's quickly apparent this epic is eerily familiar, more modern than medieval in outlook, often painfully so. It is the bastard child of an Arthurian mythology and a realpolitik mindset. The screenplay was adapted by David Benioff* and Dan Weiss, who have been remarkably faithful considering the length of the source material.

Set in a land called Westeros, where winters and summers last years and time seems vaguely out of joint, King Robert Baratheon (played by boisterous, scene-chewing Mark Addy - whose mood swings recall Robert Shaw's Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons) nominally rules over the Seven Kingdoms, a politically divided set of fiefdoms which were once independent realms. Robert led a successful rebellion that overthrew the ancient Targaryen dynasty over a decade ago, and now everyone senses that the throne is potentially up for grabs. With the legitimacy and rule of law the Targaryens enforced gone forever, the realm is choked by those with the money and power to get their way. The Great Houses** have begun scheming to settle old grudges and secure new ambitions. King Robert, perhaps sensing his increasing lack of control, turns to drinking and whoring, hoping his problems will disappear - while his old and feeble assistant, Hand of the King Jon Arryn, tries to maintain some semblance of justice. But when his Hand dies suddenly, Robert is in real trouble.  Realizing he is surrounded by sycophants and enemies, without any true ally, Robert turns to an old friend for help.

Can there be any man with a sense of honor and duty left in Westeros? Is anyone interested in the common good anymore? Only one man can save this situation. Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell, played with icy nobility by Sean Bean, reluctantly accepts the King's commission as new Hand. Bean's Stark is a family man from the hardy northlands, committed to his sense of justice, but tempered with a knowledge of his own past faults. Stark has a loving wife, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), five children by her. . . and one bastard by another woman. Jon Snow (as he cannot take his father's noble name of Stark) lives among the Starks but is not one of them. Jon (Kit Harington) is given no motherly affection from Catelyn, who reviles him as a symbol of Lord Stark's infidelity. With a chip on his shoulder, and having no place in his father's domain of Winterfell, he casts his eyes further North, to the edge of the world, desperate for glory in the fabled Night's Watch. Jon wants to escape the limbo he feels his low birth has placed him in, and wishes to exceed whatever his father had imagined for him.

It is Lord Stark's limited imagination which makes him slow to realize just how bad things have become in the Seven Kingdoms. For the principle blights on the face of the realm are the Queen, played with surprising subtlety by the beautiful Lena Headey, and her rich and unscrupulous family: the Lannisters. Blonde, beautiful, and malevolent, both Queen Cersei and her twin brother Jaime, one of the King's bodyguards, seem primarily interested in the advancement of their own House. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau stars as the unscrupulous, brazen Jaime Lannister. Nicknamed the "Kingslayer," Jaime betrayed and assassinated the last Targaryen king, who he had sworn an oath to protect. His honor shredded, Jaime still belongs to the richest family in Westeros, so he can laugh the nickname off and give the world the finger. The twins appear to be the series' main antagonists.

The twins' younger brother is a dwarf named Tyrion Lannister (not a traditional fantasy dwarf, rather, a little person), cast brilliantly as Peter Dinklage. Though he is supposed to be hideous, Dinklage's roguish mug is rather handsome. But all is forgiven when he delivers the character's infamous knock out lines, that leave commoner and noble alike tongue-tied. As a dwarf, Tyrion is used to being reviled by most everyone, including his own father - but he has learned to play on people's expectations, speaking truth Cassandra-like when others won't or can't, and is probably one of the few sane men in this insane world. Despite his love of whores and his venomous family, he has a sympathy for the lives of the downtrodden and grotesque, as he is one himself. Peter Dinklage brings the perfect blend of snarkiness, empathy, and potential ruthlessness. Ironically, Tyrion's only real ally in the world is his amoral brother, Jaime the Kingslayer.

However, as it turns out, the Kingslayer did not kill all the Targaryens. Across the sea, the proud but penniless Viserys Targaryen (played a bit over the top by Harry Lloyd), survivor of a defunct House, plots to bring it back to power. By marrying his little sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to a Mongol-like warlord, he plans to use this warlord's hordes to invade Westeros, bringing fire and vengeance. But the seemingly meek Daenerys, who has lived her entire life in fear of assassins and the abuse of her brother, is about to show that she too can be strong.

Reflections on Season 1

Overall the cast is superb, and even manages to bring in quality child actors for the Stark kids (Isaac Hempstead-Wright as woobie Bran Stark comes to mind). Other notable performances: Lena Headey(!), who brings depth to a character she could easily have made into a one-dimensional harpy. She quietly dominates as Cersei Lannister, and brings a regal quality to this femme fatale character. Her cold-fury style is the medieval answer to Double Indemnity's Barbara Stanwyk. Tragically, the Queen has the instincts of a mother but a suspicious, cruel heart. Alfie Allen's Theon Greyjoy is appropriately unctuous as Lord Stark's ward (read: political risoner). The Greyjoys, incidentally, with their piratical instincts, kraken heraldry, and weird cult of the Drowned God are a pretty obvious homage to H.P. Lovecraft. Finally, Aiden Gillen incarnates the indisputably charming, Machiavellian Master of Coin known as Littlefinger.

Two issues I had with this beginning season, so far. The first is the fairly flat performance of Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark, who will be a major character in the next season. The second is the new relationship dynamic between the king's brother, Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), and Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), which in the books was much more discreet. It appears to be far more obvious in the televison series. The new focus has made Renly into a reluctant, submissive character, and Loras Tyrell into the dominant instigator of his ambitions. This is a whole new characterization - and although it seems to be working so far, it might be a problem in season 2.

Since events in this series occur in many distant environments, the set designers took care to make the locations distinct. I never had trouble immediately discerning which of the three main storyarcs was being followed (the harsh white climes braved by Jon Snow at the Night's Watch, the palmy luxury of the capital city, or the Targaryen's exotic exile in Pentos, and later the grassy plains of the Dothraki). I think the choice to make some episodes center on one sphere of events while ignoring others has mixed results. On the one hand, it helps keep the narrative brisk and uncluttered, but it may leave viewers who've skipped an episode reeling, as they'll have missed a great deal of plot developments. I do appreciate the way that new characters are introduced by defining actions instead of being assigned informed attributes by dialogue, which is often a problem with adapted works. For example, Arya Stark's (Maisie Williams) introduction as a tomboy was deftly done.

Despite its reputation, Game of Thrones is not filled with brutality for the sake of giving offense, of being "dark" or "edgy." With Martin, it's all about the delivery of defied expectations, of anti-climax, preceded by build-ups brimming with potential. This bait-and-switch quality pervades his work. His tone is elegiac, but at the same time, ruthlessly realistic. As one world-weary courtier explains to an ingenue who still believes in chivalry, virtue, and knights in shining armor: "Life is not a song, sweet one. You may learn that one day, to your sorrow."

In this world of might makes right, fantasy is robbed of its escapist qualities. Tropes such as the "Damsel in Distress," "the Rightful King," and the "Ancient Prophecy" are all ripped apart, and then, miraculously, resurrected in interesting ways. Timeless issues of family, honor, and warfare are addressed, and often with a great deal of dark humor. The violence is HBO, and this is medieval warfare, so the queasy can expect some high octane nightmare fuel. For the rest of us, it's all decapitated horses and eyeball gouging. With magic used sparingly, Game of Thrones creates an air of wonder sometimes more akin to magical realism than fantasy.  This sense of real danger surrounding magic is rare in some of its fantasy cousins, in which spellcraft can become as mundane as picking up the groceries. The idea that the dead still dominate the lives of the living is a recurring theme in the story. Despite their best intentions, everyone is dancing on the strings of the past. Some of the characters cope with this dilemma the same way we do:

They tell each other stories.

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*Benioff is the author of City of Thieves (Hitler's name for Leningrad), a book about the 2 1/2 year Siege of that city.  Like GoT, despite its grisly setting, the book is actually. . . pretty funny.

** HBO has set up a nifty website to distinguish the Great Houses, which might come in handy for those having difficulty keeping track:
http://viewers-guide.hbo.com/game-of-thrones/#!/guide/houses/

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