Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Game of Thrones 1.01 -- "Winter is Coming"

Hello all, and welcome to Poste the Firste of Chris and Nikki's co-blogging Game of Thrones project. For those clicking over here from Nikki's site, welcome! And for my few readers, if you haven't already, you should go and check out Nikki's blog ... if for no other reason than that she doesn't leave you waiting two months at a time for content, like some people. Oh, and she's awesome. That's another good reason.

But I shall cede the floor here to Nikki and let her introduce herself (she's the one holding the direwolf on the right) ...

Before I launch into my take on Game of Thrones, I should introduce myself! My name is Nikki Stafford, and I write about television over at my blog, Nik at Nite. I’ve known Chris for about 15 years now, ever since we took our MA together at U of T and alienated everyone else in our classes by talking about pop culture like it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. (Well... we weren’t entirely alone... one of our classmates went off and created a little website called Television Without Pity.) I’m the author of several analytical companion guides to TV shows, including Lost, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and others. I’m currently hosting a yearlong Buffy Rewatch on my site, and Chris is one of my guest commentators. I approached Chris a couple of weeks ago and asked if he would provide the informed commentary as the guy who’s read the books, while I just talked about the show itself. I was thrilled when he agreed. So here goes!

It opens with three men on horses, traveling through what appears to be a tunnel made of ice, bolstered by wooden beams. They come out of the other side of what we now realize is a gigantic wall made of ice and snow. They enter a wintry, barren forest that appears to have no life in it whatsoever. You hear nothing but the horse’s hooves and snorts. Except an occasional howl of... something. Giant flakes of snow fall gently, swirling around before they hit the ground. One of the men, who looks like he’s not playing with a full deck, sees a line of smoke, and drops the ground and crawls toward it. When he ventures up over the fallen log, what he finds is horrifying... heads on spikes, torsos, legs ripped off, pieces of human flesh, all laid on the ground forming a strange circle with a line through it. Horrified, he jumps up and turns, only to see a young dead girl nailed to a tree. He runs to the others, and we hear the first lines of dialogue. They argue about what the significance is. One of them is cocky, believing this is nothing to be afraid of, another wants to go back to the wall, and the one who saw it is frantic, siding with the guy who wants to leave. The cocky guy tells the goofy one that if he leaves, he’ll be caught and beheaded, and to get back on his damn horse and keep riding with him. They return to the place where the bodies were... and they are gone. There’s not even a trace of blood on the snow. The three men split up, two of them fearful, the third one striding into the camp as if there’s nothing to be scared of. When one finds entrails in the snow, some large spectre rises up from the trees and slices the cocky guy’s throat. The goofy guy, separated from the others, sees the very girl who’d been pinned to the tree standing in a clearing. She turns her head slowly, her giant dead eyes on him. With the sound of metal on metal, we see the tall, horrifying men racing through the trees, chasing the two fearful men. The goofy guy stops and turns in time to see his companion standing alone as one of the giant men comes up behind him, grabs him by the hair, and beheads him, tossing the head into the snow. The goofy guy falls to his knees, knowing he’s probably next. The screen goes black and the credits roll.

Welcome to the world of Game of Thrones.

Now, where the first five minutes of HBO’s new series might feel like a horror film, the rest of the episode (while still loving its blood spurts and gore) is an epic Tolkien-like piece, closest to Rome in the canon of previous HBO programs. This sprawling epic spans seven realms, all on an isle not unlike the United Kingdom, but feeling more like Middle Earth, with its treacherous areas and beautiful gentle ones. In the north we have Winterfell, watched over by Ned Stark and his wife, Catelyn (played beautifully by Michelle Fairley, who looks remarkably like Joan Allen... so much so that I was convinced it was her for the first two episodes). The landscape is green, but grey and cold. King Robert Baratheon, who rules over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, is in the South, where the sun is always shining through the windows and it looks warm and lovely. The realms themselves seem impossible to follow... or at least they WOULD, if it weren’t for the brilliant opening sequence.

Now, as someone who is completely new to the world of Westeros, I devoured the opening credits, watching it again and again before continuing on to the rest of the show. The camera pans over a map of the seven realms as each kingdom rises up, moving like little stop-motion animation pieces and you can see the various landscapes and proximity to one another. The music is sweeping and gorgeous, with mournful violins and big, driving, Gladiator-type music. Once again, HBO has hit a home run with yet another perfect credit sequence.

Speaking of HBO, as I’ve said many times before, the problem with HBO series is often the first episode. The Sopranos left me flat. Six Feet Under opens with a bang (literally) and then was dull for the rest of it. The Wire was complicated and difficult to enter and it took a couple of episodes to really grab onto it. Treme was joyous and musically glorious, but I couldn’t latch on to a single character in the beginning. The cursing of Deadwood was so off-putting I simply couldn’t stick around. Carnivale, one of my fave shows, was bleak and dark and had so much backstory in that first episode that it took a few weeks before I bothered moving to the second. Big Love remains one of the only HBO series that lured me in right from the beginning and never let go. (Actually, Oz would be another.) But, as with Carnivale, the problem with HBO is that it tries to do far, far too much in that first episode. Then the second one slows down considerably and allows us to ease in, and the third one usually grabs us and keeps us there until the end of the series.

Not so with Game of Thrones. My husband and I commented that from the opening sequence, we were hooked. There is SO much that could have happened here by way of exposition, but didn’t. They jump from one person to the next so fast that your head is spinning, and you can’t seem to understand who is who. But they don’t explain it, and just lay it all out there, creating enough sympathetic situations and people that you want to know more. You can’t wait for that second episode because they’ve left so many things unexplained you need to get that exposition that’s been denied. And that’s what makes this opening episode so amazing. So for the n00bs to George RR Martin’s world, I suggest watching that opening sequence a few times like I did, looking at the way each area in Westeros comes to life (funny, despite watching the men go through that wall of ice, it was only in the opening credits I realized just how vast and foreboding that wall is.

And so, the many characters: Arya is one of my favourites, the little Stark girl who sits in embroidery classes while watching her brother take archery lessons, wishing she could do the same. Not that she needs the lessons... she nails the bullseye when her younger brother Bran (who would probably rather be reading a book) fails. Brilliant character, and she only gets better in the episodes to come. Bran is the thoughtful, sensitive boy who would rather climb walls as if looking for something different in this world of mayhem and murder.

Ned Stark is played by Boromir Sean Bean, who is PERFECT in this role. Good-looking but with a weathered face that looks like it’s seen a lot, he exudes bravery, vulnerability, and care. He’s a ruler who sometimes has to be stern, but he has a great love for his family, people, and king.

He has a bunch of other kids, one of whom is a bastard son by another woman. Another boy is a ward whom Ned has raised as a son, even though his father was someone who’d tried to rise up against the king. Sansa Stark is the rather annoying older sister, who is inexplicably in love with Prince Joffrey, and the king hopes to join the Stark and Lannister families by marrying the two.

And then there are the Lannisters. The queen, Cersei, doesn’t do much in this first episode other than just walk around looking morose, but she’ll have her moment in a few weeks. Her twin brother, Jaime, looks and talks EXACTLY like Prince Charming from the Shrek movies (seriously, he stepped off a horse and tossed his hair at one point and I longed for them to show it in slow-mo). ;) And by the way... he’s sleeping with his twin on a regular basis. All together now: EW.

Prince Joffrey is the queen and king’s son, but not only is his hair golden like his mom’s and... her brother’s, he just seems sleazy and a little off. I’m not convinced this kid isn’t the product of inbreeding. (But please, no spoilers from anyone who knows one way or the other.)

And then... there’s the imp. Tyrion Lannister, the twins’ older brother, who is a dwarf and as such, has developed a nasty streak. Played by the always brilliant Peter Dinklage, he’s a sex-crazed, drunken and brilliant character who you simultaneously hate and adore throughout the series. A few episodes in, he’s my husband’s and my favourite character.

The king is a lifelong friend of Ned’s, and was once engaged to Ned’s sister, who died in some way I’m not quite sure of yet and who he’s been pining after ever since. His wife probably gets her kicks from her brother because the king’s never really given her a second glance.

The real conflict of the show happens when Ned’s mentor, John Arryn, dies and he receives word that he was actually murdered by the Lannisters, who are conspiring to kill the king. Ned is asked to come south to the king’s land, but Catelyn begs him not to go, knowing that the last time he disappeared for a long period of time to follow a king, he came back with a son by another woman.

And then there are the exiles, the platinum haired brother and sister (a duo who are almost as creepy as the queen and her brother), Viserys and Daenerys. Viserys, the simpering whiner, believes he is the rightful king, which he proclaims as he feels up his buxom sister. He forces her into a terrifying marriage against her will to Khal Drogo, the warrior leader of a tribe of horsemen called the Dothraki, whose wedding ceremonies usually consist of slaughter and rape. Awesometimes. But in case you’re watching this thinking it’s taken on misogynist undertones, just keep watching. Daenerys isn’t as limp and quiet as you might think. She is given a gift of petrified dragon eggs at her wedding, and these will be something she looks to for solace in episodes to come.

Throughout the series, you’ll see many people wearing a symbol (I’m sure the readers of the books can speak better to this than I can) of a sword through a circle, and it looks a lot like the image of the bodies splayed on the ground in the episode’s opening. I haven’t figured out the connection, but I’m sure it’s there.

The shocking and powerful cliffhanger of this episode occurs when Bran, climbing the castle walls, interruptuses the coitus between the queen and her brother, who stops and questions the boy, before thoughtlessly shoving him out of the high castle window. Gah!! Will Bran die? Or will he live and tell the queen’s dirty secret? Tune in next week. And now, back to Chris ...

OK, I'm back. I just want to begin by saying that it is an honour to be co-blogging with Nikki—especially on a topic near and dear to my heart. Two topics, really, two epic imaginative spaces that have preoccupied me for years now: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and the dramatic programming on HBO. To have a forum in which to discuss the union of the two was too big an opportunity to pass up. Plus, I’m in awe of Nikki’s prolific, and prolifically intelligent blogging, so I’ll cheerfully hitch my wagon to her star.

As the half of this blogging duo who has read the books, I will be offering my thoughts on how successful the series has been in adapting Martin’s narrative, but I also hope to discuss some of the broader issues of fantasy as a genre, especially in terms of Martin’s vision, and how Game of Thrones does or doesn’t realize that vision (based on episode one, it totally does—but it’s early days yet). And I won’t be obsessing over every elision or change—even with ten hours of screen time to work with, there’s simply too much there in the novel. And besides which, there are inevitably nuances in prose fiction that films simply cannot replicate (and vice versa). Adaptation is always an exercise in translation.

This post, I should say now as a caveat, grew in the telling. I felt compelled to provide some context from which my commentary on the series will proceed; but if all you’re interested in is an avid GRRM fan’s take on the series, you might as well skip it. No worries.

By way of an introduction …

I have been an avid fantasy reader since reading The Lord of the Rings at the age of eleven. Unfortunately, perhaps as well as anyone, as an English professor I see the genre get a bad rap. So it goes with most genre fiction, though I’m pleased to say that amongst the enclaves of younger faculty there is more of a tolerance for it.

Though if we’re being honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the knock against fantasy as escapist, regressive, and nostalgic—and at times egregiously misogynist—isn’t always unfair. The lurid covers staring down at us from bookstore shelves speak to this ambivalence, and it can be difficult to take a novel seriously when its cover art depicts a cartoonishly busty warrior-woman in a leather bustier and boots standing in the middle of a snowy landscape. But authors like George R. R. Martin are living proof that to tar the entire genre thus is to miss the fact that fantasy is increasingly becoming a vehicle for decidedly humanist allegories of power and politics. Knee-jerk condescension or the thoughtless depiction of fantasy audiences as the stereotypical pimply basement-dwelling D&D player ignore the thoughtful, intelligence reinvention of the genre by Martin, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Guy Gavriel Kay, Terry Pratchett, Robin Hobb, Richard K. Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, and many others.

Perhaps it goes without saying that, on this point, A Song of Ice & Fire is Exhibit A. GRRM’s world is notably free of both Aslans and Saurons; it is a world sketched in shades of grey, with deeply nuanced characters possessing familiar ambitions, fears, and desires; where power is not something tangibly manifested in a ring or a sword or a suit of armour, but which is a shifting and fluid thing that all the key players blunder after with varying degrees of gamesmanship. In other words, if the word is not too contradictory in this context, it is a deeply realistic world.

And that is what makes it perfect for HBO. Having only watched the first episode, I hesitate to make confident predictions; but if the series keeps on with the faithfulness to GRRM’s vision it displayed last Sunday, then its byzantine narrative web will be intimately familiar to any devoted viewer of The Wire or Deadwood; its plots and conspiracies, to say nothing of its epic scale, will evoke echoes of Rome; and the centrality of family as both site and source of personal identity and strife will resonate with fans of The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. One question I have heard voiced is why HBO should seek to depart from the tried and true naturalistic power of the shows just mentioned (a question that elides the ongoing presence of True Blood, but never mind) in favour of embracing epic fantasy? The simplest answer to that it hasn’t—Westeros may be another world, but the closer you look, the more familiar it becomes.

At any rate ... on to the first episode.

There will inevitably be many points of departure between the books and the television series, but this first episode seems to promise that they will mostly be superficial. So during the opening sequence as Ser Waymar Royce, Will, and Gared ride through the tunnel at the base of the Wall, my instinctive inner protest that “Hey! That tunnel shouldn’t be straight through the ice, but crooked, with many inner gates along the way!” quickly gave way to me geeking out over the image of the Wall itself as the three rangers emerged. The entire prologue unfolds differently than in the novel: the dead wildlings aren’t ritually mutilated, Waymar Royce actually faces down the White Walker—vainly, of course, but it’s a brief moment of respect for an otherwise petulant lordling—and it is Gared, not Will, who escapes only to be executed.

But these are trivial points. The television prologue maintains the same spirit as the novel’s, with the same conflict of personalities at work. The visual realization of the Haunted Forest is … well, haunting, and the emergence of the White Walkers and the wights/ice-zombies their victims turn into is suitably terrifying. If I was going to quibble, it would be on two points: first, the “White Walker” we see is notably un-white—and far from the lithe, pale terrors GRRM describes, it seems more like a hulking and monstrous barbarian. And secondly, in the novels the name the White Walkers go by is the “Others.” But I suppose that might prove a little confusing in the post-Lost television landscape.

The point here being, I suppose, is that this is more or less what we can expect: certain liberties taken, but the spirit of the novels carefully hewed to.

For those who haven’t read the books, take the time to watch the credits carefully—if you’re anything like me, having a mental map of a fantasy world helps orient you, and in this lovely credits sequence they lay out the basic geography of Westeros and the proximal relationships of the different narrative threads. (If you want a more specific or exhaustive map, there are many online, such as here). But they are also a small masterpiece, as are many of HBO series’ credit sequences—something of a lost art on network television, where these days they are often elided entirely to make room for more ad time. Here we move across continents to the key places—Winterfell, King’s Landing, Castle Black, Pentos—zooming in from our gods’-eye view to see them rise, toy-like, as a series of gears and cogs that bespeak the conspiratorial gears that grind away throughout Martin’s intricate narrative.

And it is not long before we encounter plots and secrets. The fugitive Will is captured and executed by Ned Stark (Sean Bean) himself, vainly attempting to warn his captors of the white walkers. Back at the Stark stronghold of Winterfell comes dire news of the death of Jon Arryn, Hand of the King, and former mentor to Ned. And worse yet: the king is riding north with all his retinue to be the Starks’ royal house guest, certainly determined to make Ned his new Hand. But before this, we have a glimpse of where one major narrative thread will unfold: King’s Landing, the capital city of the Seven Kingdoms. Cersei Lannister, Queen of the Realm, and her twin brother Jaime let it be known that Jon Arryn knew something that could have put their heads on pikes.

One of the things that deeply impressed me about this first episode is the deft touch it had in telling the story. There was a refreshing lack of lengthy exposition (never something HBO series tend to go in for), and character traits that GRRM develops over chapters the director economically introduces in brief conversations, or a series of looks and gestures. A case in point, and probably the best example of what I mean: Arya escaping her embroidery to put an arrow in the bullseye of the target her brother Bran aims at. That moment clarifies the fraught place both have in their family in terms of who they are, what is expected of them, and what they desire for themselves. Bran here is brooding and thoughtful, at pains to please his father; Arya, escaping the shadow of her beautiful, feminine sister to show her talents for the masculine arts.

It is exactly this deft, economical touch that makes me wonder if Troy Patterson at Slate actually watched the advance DVDs he received before he wrote:

There are unscalable slabs of expositionistic dialogue clogging the forward movement of the story. Sonorous and/or schmaltzy talk substitutes for the revelation of character through action. There is the sense of intricacy having been confused with intrigue and of a story transferred all too faithfully from its source and thus not transformed to meet the demands of the screen.

Um, what? I suppose it’s possible that in future episodes the series shifts gears in favour of length, sententious history lectures about the Seven Kingdoms, but somehow I doubt it (those don’t even really occur in the novels, where they would not exactly be out of place). Similar to the atrocious NYT review by Ginia Bellafante, Patterson seems to be approaching this series with a pre-formed sense of what all fantasy must be like, assuming that if GRRM writes fantasy then it must ape Tolkien’s often absurdly elevated diction. The only “sonorous” speech I can recall from the episode are actually moments of ceremony—Ned Stark pronouncing Will’s sentence of death, and King Robert formally asking Ned to be Hand of the King. Other than that, the language is pretty straightforward and often profane. Really, there’s more sonorous and elevated diction in Deadwood (a lot, really).

But I digress. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge what are, to my mind, the two single greatest contributing factors to this show’s success: first, the scenery; and second, the casting.

The sheer look of the show is breathtaking, as is the scale. The renderings of the Wall, Winterfell, and King’s Landing—both in terms of their look from a distance and their textures and details up close—have been superbly done. While, as I mentioned above, GRRM’s world notably lacks the epic characters of classic fantasy (or, indeed, classic epics), it is nevertheless epic in scope, and the visuals the series produces are more than up to the task.

In terms of casting, watching the roles get filled over the last year and a half has been the biggest point of excitement for myself as well as, I imagine, many other diehard fans of the books. There have been no missteps. The one actor who gave me trepidation, I will admit, was Mark Addy—he seemed too happy and often gormless in previous roles to play King Robert, but he carries it off beautifully. Sean Bean is of course perfect in the role of Ned (though I should admit to being biased on this front as a long-time Sharpe fan), and Michelle Fairley—not an actress with whom I was previously familiar—does an excellent job in capturing Catelyn’s complex character: her heartfelt yet guarded love for Ned, her abiding sense of being out of place in the north, her protectiveness of her children, and her antipathy to Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow. The look she shares with Jon, looking down into the courtyard, is another great example of how the series manages to communicate character without unnecessary exposition.

The performance that most blew me away was Peter Dinklage as Tyrion—which makes me happy, as Tyrion is one of my favourite characters, one that really demonstrates GRRM’s talent for subtlety and nuance. But that being said, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau matches him well as his brother Jaime. The scene when Jaime blithely walks in on Tyrion and the prostitute, and their banter, is quite true to the spirit of their relationship in the books. Jaime himself is very well-played, with Coster-Waldau displaying the easy arrogance and amused indifference of Jaime Lannister. The final scene when Bran accidentally sees him and Cersei in coitus was pitch-perfect: Jaime’s reaction is amusement, not fear, and when he looks back at his twin, his grin says “Can you believe this kid?” And then—“The things I do for love,” shoving Bran out, without a measurable change in his face. Not cruel, but also not caring that he probably just killed a child.

If there’s someone on whom the jury is still out, it is Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister. She looks the part, but plays Cersei with a sadness that I find somewhat out of step with the Cersei of the novels. I get no malice underneath her words and actions—she seems to be playing her as if she mourns the loveless state of her marriage, rather than someone with her own plots and ambitions. When Robert spurns her, and later openly flirts with a servant girl, it hurts rather than irks her. Perhaps that malice and ambition will emerge later … I hope so, otherwise she won’t be a particularly interesting character.

Across the narrow sea … our exiled Targaryens Viserys and Daenerys, Magister Illyrio, Ser Jorah Mormont, and of course Khal Drogo. Presumably they’re going to give Emilia Clarke as Daenerys more to do than stand and look forlornly at things. I wasn’t able to get a good read on her in this episode, mainly because she did not do or say much. She makes a lovely Dany, and the terror in her eyes the closer she comes to consummating her marriage to Drogo is heartbreaking … but I look forward to the Dany who evolves as she gains confidence. By contrast Harry Lloyd’s Viserys get that character’s arrogance, cruelty, and childish petulance exactly right. My favourite moment is when Khal Drogo, having been initially presented with his presumptive bride, rides off without saying a thing. “What’s wrong? Didn’t he like her?” Viserys protests, his voice going up into a whiny register.

I never quite imagined Khal Drogo being quite that beefcake, but aside from that, actor Jason Momoa (soon to be seen as Conan the Barbarian) certainly looks the part.

All in all, a very promising start to the series. I’m sort of chomping at the bit for Ned to get to King’s Landing, as the piece of casting I most anticipate is Aidan Gillen. Tommy Carcetti as Littlefinger? Too perfect.


Chadwise said...

Great read. I enjoyed both of your insights. I'm super stoked that there seems to be another person with as much love for Arya as myself. One small thing that did disappoint me was that in the novel when Dany first gets the silver mare she hops on it and rides, rides hard and fast and without care. I was hoping for that scene to make an appearance in the television series, if only to get a feel for the alien land she's in. I think that particular part of the novel is when the seeds of confidence begin to show in Dany and thought it was important. I have high hopes and expectations for A Game of Thrones and the first episode did not disappoint

Derek said...

Both great reviews. It's an interesting way to approach reviewing the series. I have read the books and I agree pretty completely with Chris. I found it very interesting reading Nikki's blow-by-blow review from a non-reader's perspective. I am trying to forget as much as I can about the books so that I can be as surprised as I can by the show. I must say that my lack of shock and surprise is made up for in many of the things mentioned in the reviews: cast, stellar performances, spot-on scenes, production values, and so many other mind-blowing things. I look forward to reading your future reviews.

Nikki Stafford said...

Ooh, Chris, your post was so much prettier, with all the pictures! I meant to add more, and then didn't. Next week I promise to be more illustrative. Of course, in my tiredness, it might be pictures of Opus the Penguin, but hey... winter, right?

So here's a question for the readers, and perhaps it's a question much better asked at the end of season 1, but are there any moments where you wish you hadn't read the books so you could be surprised? My main concern about watching the show before reading (for I DO plan to read them) is that the show has now formed the picture in my head of each person, rather than allowing the books to do it for me. That's always unfortunate.

Chris in NF said...

Nikki: I'm less wishing that I hadn't read the books than relishing seeing the reaction of the n00bs to GRRM's surprises.

I can think of exactly one moment I am SO looking forward to seeing your reaction to. It's the moment readers all realize "Fuck. This dude's serious."

Ice and Fire readers, you all know the moment I mean.

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