Friday, August 5, 2011

Last "Game of Thrones" Post, I Promise

So now I've spent the better part of two posts rambling through paragraphs of meta about what makes "A Game of Thrones" so special, and what it may mean for the future of the fantasy genre. Yes, we know it's important, I hear you cry, but is it a good show on its own terms? Can a non-fantasy fan enjoy this? Oh, hell yes.

Clearly the biggest challenge in adapting "A Game of Thrones" was the sheer scope of the story. There are well over a dozen important characters introduced in the first episode, and long stretches of dialogue to fill us in on backstory and relationships at every turn. It takes some time and effort to sort everyone out. Eventually the characters break off into separate groups, start scheming against each other, and it's easier to track the various threads of the story. In the first season, the major POV characters are Ned (Sean Bean) and his family dealing with intrigues at the capitol of King's Landing and at home in Winterfell, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) at the Wall with the Night's Watch, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) on his various travels, and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) whose story unfolds totally unconnected to any of the others. The show's writers, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, do a great job of balancing all these pieces of the plot, and making sure to include enough action and excitement to help break up all the exposition. The first two installments are mainly spent introducing characters and setting up later events, but people come to blows and Ned ends up carrying out executions in both hours.

What got me through a lot of the earlier episodes was this wonderful momentum that the series maintains. With every character the series follows, there's always a sense that something big and monumental is going to happen in the future, a larger conflict that everyone is preparing for and moving towards. The entire saga of Daenerys rising to power among the Dothraki is fascinating, but I always got a little extra jolt of excitement whenever I remembered that she was going to cross the sea eventually to go to war with all the other characters in Westeros. With the child characters, like Arya (Maisie Williams) and Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), nobody needed to explain that they were going to grow up and become important players in the future. Even with the storylines I didn't have as much interest in, like Jon Snow at the Wall, they served as an important reminder of problems that were brewing in the background, that the other characters in the series were going to have to deal with eventually. Is it all going to come down to Daenerys's babies versus the White Walkers in the end?

Yet though we have a good idea where some of these big storylines are heading, there's never any guarantee how more immediate events are going to play out, or the fates of specific characters. "A Game of Thrones" managed to surprise me several times over the course of its first ten episodes, killing off at least three major figures who I expected were going to be around for much longer, and having a few characters make big moves I thought were much further off in the future. When the action kicks into high gear, which happens around episode five, it's amazing how fast the situation escalates and how fast the status quo goes to hell. "A Game of Thrones" is still playing the long game with many of its story arcs, but the week-to-week developments are very satisfying to follow.

After the writers, the show's best asset is its cast. Kudos to whoever put together this ensemble. There are so many good performances, from Sean Bean as the conflicted Ned Stark down to the minor players like Aidan Gillen and Conleth Hill as the king's councilors. The standout, however, is Peter Dinklage as the dwarf Tyrion Lannister, a character who is so much fun to watch every time he's on screen. This is a guy who has survived in the bloody world of Westeros by being able to fast-talk his way out any situation, which he demonstrates time and time again in the series. I also cheered for Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Tagaryen on every step of her journey from powerless exile to fearsome queen. And then there are the kids, who are so good at getting you to love or hate them. Maisie Williams' tomboy Arya is everyone's favorite, but Sophie Turner and Jack Gleeson should get equally high marks for being such magnificent little brats.

As I've said before, the production values are great. There are a lot of special effects in the mix, but most of these are related to making the environments look grander and building CGI castles and cities that don't really exist. More important are the set designers and the costumers and the other production people who consistently make all the different realms of Westeros and the lands beyond feel like real places up close. This is really where "A Game of Thrones" distinguishes itself from so many other fantasy productions, going for more medieval grit and more realism, while never looking cheap for an instant. The scenic beauty shots and occasional character animation are all very nice, but it's the little things like props and lighting just the right amount of dirt on Arya in a crucial scene that tend to make the biggest difference.

I did have a few problems with "A Game of Thrones." Chief among these is the Dothraki people, who I've been told come off much better in the books, but the series has reduced to your usual swarthy, noble savage stereotypes. The Dothraki are among the only non-Caucasians we see in the series, and to have them all portrayed as superstitious brutes got really awkward. And while I'm happy that the creators had so much leeway to show sex and violence, which plays an important part in several storylines, they went overboard with the female nudity. Did any of the male characters ever get naked in those brothel scenes, I wonder? The only ones I remember are Viserys (Harry Lloyd) and the Lannister kid.

More fundamentally, with so many characters in play, it was inevitable that a few got lost in the shuffle. I didn't figure out who Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) was until someone else literally stopped him and demanded to know who he was. And I lost track of the King's brother, Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), in the last few episodes. Is he coming back next year? Surely he's not dead already?

Maybe I should go and read the books, as so many others are doing in search of answers. I got quite a lot of the first season spoiled for me before I saw any of the series, so I might as well join the crowd. Or I could just wait until next spring when the show is due to come back for its second season. Did I mention it's been renewed for a second season? Between this and "Breaking Bad," it's very strange to be looking forward to television shows again.

But I like it.

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