29/10/2012

Royal Blood: Games of Thrones season one

Games of Thrones season one puts the realism back into fantasy.
For those without either Sky Plus or a lot of spare time, TV series flow by without us ever knowing much about them unless people start recommending them.  The more who shout, the more chance that the rest of us will check out what the fuss is about. There is an inevitable buzz about some shows and few currently burn brighter than Game of Thrones. Many who have seen it wax at length about its brilliance while some don’t like it at all. This polarising of opinion usually means there is something worth watching so I recently took in the first season over the space of a week or so. There are only ten episodes, so it is not the sort of investment you need to make when approaching a 22 part series. The question is did the series live up to its reputation?

It takes a while to get a handle on Game of Thrones. Based on a novel it has the richness of detail that novelists revel in and despite a visual scope that stretches further than most series, large scale encounters are mostly avoided in favour of character led interaction. Not that the series is afraid of a set piece but it chooses its moments wisely to maximum effect and always to serve its players. While billed as fantasy, it is the absence of that genre’s most extreme traits which define the show. When they come they shock more effectively than they would. So nobody flies around, spits fire or waves their hands to deliver bolts of light. In fact the action is very grounded, defined by bad weather, heavy swords and effort. At times it is as much a medieval drama as a fantasy one-if we see a raven it is not a potent of unearthly deeds, it is delivering a message tied to its leg.
The first season then plays out more like a historical drama, the genre from which it borrows a number of plot lines relating to royal power, warring factions, court treachery, changing allegiances and battle strategy. Where it scores above such dramas is in the large number of intelligent characters out scheming each other. Normally you’d expect a few, but Game of Thrones is packed with duplicity and intrigue even if the mechanisms by which the world works are not fully explained. The throne for example seems up for grabs for the person with the most money or the biggest army. It makes for a riveting drama, imagine I, Claudius where half the cast are as scheming as Livia. Feudal systems seem the basis for each of the kingdoms and it is noticeable that, so far at least, those with designs on power seem to have selfish reasons rather than any notion of being a good ruler.
While it all takes place on two continents- Westeros and Essos- of a fictional world, the television show’s design is informed by English history; indeed only the King’s throne made of dozens of swords looks different to things we’ve seen. Far from being unoriginal this allows us to ease into the drama. The designers and writers have at times exaggerated for great effect emphasising how brutal a world this is. So we see tower top cells with open sides, an enormous defensive Wall, very large swords and probably even more blood than is realistic.
Several storylines swirl around each other. The King Robert Baratheon is trying to find out who was responsible for the death of his Hand (a sort of all purpose right hand man with a lot of power) so summons old friend and head of the Stark house in the North Eddard `Ned`Stark to take over as Hand and find out more though what he eventually unearths leads to trouble. Stark is eager to oblige partly because it may help him discover who tried to kill one of his sons. The plot leads him into renewed conflict with the wealthy and influential Lannisters, one of whom he suspects of the crime while another Cerci is married to Robert. Ned finds secrets aplenty at the Kings Landing court, a place where his straightforward behaviour is out manoeuvred by most everyone. It’s a place where little is at is seems personified perhaps in a small scene where the doddery advisor Pycelle turns out to be far healthier than he ever makes out in public.
Meanwhile another claimant to the throne Viserys Targaryen forces his sister Daenerys to marry the chief of the brutal Dograkki tribe intending to use them as an army to further his ambitions. She however has plans of her own involving her heritage as `the last of the dragons` and becomes pregnant. Another of Ned’s sons’ Jon Snow who was born illegitimate heads off to join the Nights Watch, a group of warriors who forsake regular life to defend the kingdom from the Wall, a gigantic barrier that keeps out dangers from the far North. There is something stirring beyond the wall and we are frequently told that “winter is coming”. In a chilling opening sequence in episode 1, we catch a glimpse of the White Walkers, ghostly doll like people who awake only when the season changes.
This opening and the references give a feeling that something is simmering beyond the machinations of the main characters. When a corpse brought in to the Nights Watch castle comes alive and attacks people it is striking because of how little fantasy elements have been used since the opening.
That is all only the tip of the iceberg; each plot unfurls unexpectedly and it soon becomes clear that one of the series’ signatures is its willingness to kill off some characters that seemed quite important while other seemingly supporting roles become pivotal. To talk of heroes and villains is too simplistic though you could say that Ned appears to be the main character basically on the side of right though by no means always. Pleasingly nobody starts making predictions of omens or portents; instead history is used as an indicator as it is in real life. Things happen not because of some soothsayer but because someone meets a bloody end due to not paying enough attention to what is going on. There are decapitations aplenty always accompanied by generous sprays of blood. Anything mystical is kept at a distance for most of the time.
The series is populated by a superb cast who relish the opportunity. It seems almost unfair to single people out but there are exceptional performances from Peter Dinklage as the pleasure seeking, tricky and often amusing Tyrion Lannister, Lena Headley as Cersei Lannister, all exterior calm and internal rage. Michelle Fairley is superb as Stark’s wife Catlyn who struggles to keep her family afloat and Maisie Williams as Stark’s youngest bold and brave daughter Arya.  Also there is an outstanding turn from Sean Bean who’s Stark is weighted by solemn gravitas and grounded by a sense of fair play. The cast is almost entirely populated by British actors some of them of considerable vintage- including Julian Glover, Peter Vaughan and James Cosmo who all give terrific moments when on screen.  Most surprising is the fact that the elderly and children’s roles are well written and played; the vibrant script- and presumably the original novel- ensures everyone is treated with equal attention.
The series clearly has a budget that forbids the depiction of huge battle set pieces but it suits the narrative. A vivid sense of place is easily created with the locales and relatively simple touches like hair colour or clothing. We only see a couple of skirmishes and when a battle occurs, creating it for us to see is avoided by a simple, cheeky conceit involving Tyrian.
If all the complications of the throne room are too much, Games also plays as a more straightforward heroic epic and for that follow the Starks. Ned, as mentioned, is not without flaws but seeks to do what he feels is the right thing all along. It is significant that the moment he doesn’t- acquiescing to declare public allegiance to KingJoffrey- is the moment he gets his had chopped off. Brother Rob is also an upstanding hero; initially an uncertain twenty something seemingly left behind when his parents, two sisters and also Jon depart the homeland of Winterfell, his bold response to their predicament at Kings Landing leads him to be declared “king of the north” by the end. Jon Snow himself is also a heroic archetype, played with just the right balance of humility and attitude by Kit Harington, though his plot is less dramatic at least until a corpse goes on the rampage.
If you want to wallow in the duplicity, then the Lannisters are for you. Blond haired and well dressed they look like pop stars but behave like the Borgias though with an icy Charles Dance as their father, it’s not surprising... Moving around more than anyone else- Tyrion seems to pop up everywhere- Peter Dinklage is expert casting managing to sprinkle wry black humour as he cavorts through life. By comparison the Dothrakki are less complicated but more mystical and it is here that the non fantasy devotee may find themselves a little bored. Stick with them though because it is worthwhile.
Author George Martin has said he is pleased at how faithful the series is to his novels and it is this depth and attention to detail that makes GOT so convincing and enjoyable. The dramatic moments are plentiful unlike some fantasy or historical dramas and there are moments when you can only gasp at the bravado of Martin’s full blooded storylines.
The problem being a phenomenon is that people have approached the show wanting to love it or hate it. If you watch it without either expectation you are most likely to be bowled over. It is ambitious, clever, intriguing and dramatic in equal measure. Though it was first shown 18 months ago, this first season and probably most of those that follow will in all likelihood remain classics, to be watched by successive generations and spoken of in hushed tones some thirty years hence. Like the seasons it depicts, Game of Thrones could last a very long time.
 

 

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