Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Game of Thrones

I have never read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. To be honest I wasn’t at all familiar with his work until HBO decided to build a series around it so I have no idea how the television counterpart, Game of Thrones, stacks up against the novels. I do know that if you like sword and sorcery stuff Game of Thrones delivers the goods but, having said that, I almost abandoned the series on more than one occasion; now that I'm all caught up and through the first season I can happily report that I’m glad I stuck with the show.

Like all of HBO’s original programming, the production values for this series are impressive. Game of Thrones boasts a terrific cast, wonderful costumes and sets and sumptuous locations and photography. I am particularly fond of the stylish opening credits, which sweep over an animated map of the kingdom and are accompanied by an appropriately sweeping musical score. To me they promise excitement, intrigue and romance, which is just what I want from a show like this.

Coming into the series without any prior knowledge of the world or the people that make it up, though, made it difficult for me to get my footing. It’s not that the story is confusing or hard to follow it's just that there's so much of it. So many characters, so much plotting and scheming, so much talk of cool things like dragons and White Walkers but, for those first few episodes, the series feels like a lot of set-up and preamble and the expectation of cool things to come. Which is all well and good to a degree but there was a same-ness to the first half of the season that, at times, made it tedious for me. I liked it well enough but not as much as I wanted to like it. I just wanted the show to get on with it - whatever “it” might be - already.

This is not unlike the feeling I got when I first saw The Fellowship of the Ring. My only previous exposure to Tolkien’s Middle Earth had been the Rankin & Bass animated feature of The Hobbit, which I really liked (I even had the read along with the record book when I was a kid) so I went into the first part of Peter Jackson's epic trilogy armed only with a faint sense of nostalgia and an odd affection for Gollum (don't ask - I don't really understand it, either). I left underwhelmed but hopeful that the next installment would be a better fit for me. Going back and seeing the movie a second time I found I actually liked it because now I knew the characters and could more readily invest myself in their struggles. This was definitely an instance where I think reading the books and being familiar with the world of the story would have helped in the beginning. I feel pretty much the same way about Game of Thrones.

The biggest problem I have with this sort of front-loaded storytelling is simply that it takes longer for me to get attached to the characters, something I realize I pretty much require out of any program I'm going to commit long-term to watching. Keeping everybody's names and lineages straight in my mind takes time away from me forming those necessary emotional connections. For the most part. There were some characters I attached to pretty quickly and they, along with the aforementioned great production values, were the reason I kept watching. Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion is pretty much irresistible from the word go because, by necessity, he must use his wits rather than his might to get by. Plus he’s snarky and charming and sexy and his bravado masks the pain and disappointment that he has suffered throughout his life and all of that is interesting to me. I was quick to love Arya, too, because what’s not to love about a feisty young lady who rails against the patriarchy? It's been done so many times but it's done well here and is helped in no small part by the considerable charms of young Maisie Williams.

Characters who have the least amount of power at the onset are great because isn’t it fun to see how they might gain power and control over the course of a series like this? They also have more room for personal growth and tend to change and evolve in more pronounced, perhaps even profound, ways. I think that’s certainly the case with the character who held my interest the most over the course of these first ten episodes, the one I kept tuning in for when I really thought the show had little to offer me: my number one crush, Emilia Clarke's Daenerys. Oh, how I love this character. Not just because she looks like a live-action version of the Lady Amalthea (though that certainly works in her favor) but because her character arc plays out so wonderfully. I think of all the characters on the show she evolves and changes and grows the most over the course of the season and it is terrific to watch. Clarke's acting is subtle and convincing. She is capable of projecting vulnerability and naïveté but there is steel at her core. I was amazed by both the depth of her character’s thoughtfulness and by her incredible emotional strength. She feeds off adversity and transcends it to such a degree that her story borders on religious allegory. I found the whole thing riveting (and yes, by extension I loved Drogo and her dynamic with him). This was easily the best, most engaging part of the show for me and, because of that, the final scene of the first series made any earlier misgivings moot and could not have created a better set-up for what's to come. Bring on the fire. I'm ready.