SPOILER WARNING – I’M GOING TO TRY TO REVIEW EACH EPISODE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE AFTER ITS U.S. BROADCAST. IF YOU’RE IN THE U.K., AND WATCHING THE SKY ATLANTIC SHOWING THE NEXT EVENING, DON’T READ THIS REVIEW UNTIL AFTER SEEING IT, AS MAJOR PLOT POINTS WILL BE DISCUSSED.
“There’s a king in every corner now.”
After Mad Men last week comes the return of another much-anticipated, highly acclaimed show – HBO’s Game of Thrones, based on George RR Martin’s massive, convoluted fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, is back. It’s got a lot to live up to; its first season was widely touted as the latest contender in legitimising genre television as serious drama, after the likes of Battlestar Galactica and The Walking Dead.
HBO is used to critical acclaim and viewer respect, but I wonder if even they were quite prepared for the smash hit of Game of Thrones’ first season. Fantasy is generally the most looked down on of genres, after even science fiction and horror. The problem really is that JRR Tolkien set the standard with Lord of the Rings, and so many fantasy novels written after that are perceived as pale imitations. Cheap fantasy B-movies (often made by Italians) compounded the problem, with the genre becoming disparagingly known as ‘sword and sorcery’.
I have to admit, I felt much the same. I tuned in to the first episode of Game of Thrones expecting little, and having not read a fantasy novel for years, for exactly these reasons. Ten gripping, complex and violent episodes later, I picked up Martin’s books and devoured all five within a space of months. The TV series is a very faithful adaptation, as the books (at least the early ones) come fully formed as thrilling stories of political intrigue, backstabbing and internecine warfare.
Significantly, the overtly fantastic elements are used very sparingly. There is magic, but not much. There are dragons, but they don’t even hatch until the climax of the first season. And the dead walk, which is a signifier of the real danger hanging over the inhabitants of Westeros – but not often. Instead, the story focuses much more on the feuding Houses of Westeros, in their struggle to gain the upper hand and win outright rule of the country’s Seven Kingdoms. It’s heavily influenced by the English Wars of the Roses – the leading Houses even have names reminiscent of that struggle’s combatants. The more sympathetic, aggressively northern ones are the Starks (York), and the sneering, coldhearted rich southerners are the Lannisters (Lancaster).
The season 2 opener has a lot to catch up on, establishing where all the major players are now after the tumultuous events of season 1, and introducing a few new ones along the way. This opening episode manages that surprisingly well. We get to see what’s happening with almost every main character, along with introducing the oft-heard of but never seen brother of dead king Robert, Stannis Baratheon – technically the true heir to the throne.
Queen Cersei’s incestuous son Joffrey is still ruling at King’s Landing, his capricious madness an uncontrollable factor in her Machiavellian schemes. His hostage bride-to-be Sansa Stark is already learning how best to deal with his unpredictable cruelty, manipulating him into sparing hopeless chubby knight Ser Dontos, who he was about to have killed on a whim. Cersei, used to having control over her spoiled son, has not learned the lesson so well; slapping him for impudence, she’s genuinely frightened as he coldly reminds her that he could have her executed for it. Jack Gleeson is a really nasty piece of work as young Joffrey, with the impulsive nastiness of a Caligula in training.
Thankfully, his uncle Tyrion has turned up at King’s Landing to deputise as Hand of the King in his father Tywin’s absence, and may be able to keep Joffrey in line. Instantly the fan favourite after season 1, Peter Dinklage is still superb as Tyrion, and gets rather more screen time this week than a lot of others. His dry, barbed wit is still very much in evidence, never more so than in the Small Council scene as he takes his place with his outraged sister, Cersei.
In the North, Robb Stark is still waging war for northern independence, with Cersei’s brother (and lover) Jaime as his captive. Obviously heir to the same dry wit as Tyrion, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau continues to make Jaime an intriguing character, and more sympathetic than the standard villain. He’s actually rather more interesting than the conventionally heroic Robb, though Richard Madden is certainly very nice to look at. Robb’s direwolf has grown too; after criticisms that the direwolves in season 1 looked a bit too much like cuddly dogs, this time we see a genuinely huge beastie menace Jaime. It’s presumably a product of the same very impressive CG that realises so many of the series’ settings, but it’s so well done you could really believe it’s actually there.
More CG is to be found across the Narrow Sea, where last Targaryen (and another claimant to the throne of Westeros) Daenerys is trekking across the desert with her newly-hatched dragons. Again, the dragons are used sparingly, in fact we only see one of the three, perched cutely on Daenerys’ shoulder before being locked in a little cage.
What remains of Dany’s Dothraki tribe are struggling through the Red Waste, a parched piece of desert with seemingly no end (actually Malta). As she sends her riders off to search for some sign of life, she reaffirms her friendship with exiled knight Ser Jorah. Seemingly hard to connect to the events across the sea in the first season, this narrative thread is one of my favourites. As a little-experienced actor, Emilia Clarke is stunning as Daenerys, and Iain Glen is reliably good as Jorah. I was a little sad, therefore, that this plot strand only got one scene this week; but with so much to cram in, it’s hardly surprising that some characters get little more than a cursory nod.
Given similarly short shrift, sadly, were Conleth Hill as oily spymaster Lord Varys, and Jerome Flynn as Tyrion’s mercenary bodyguard Bronn – again a shame, as these too were fan favourites last year. Varys barely gets one line, and Bronn no more than that either. But I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of them as the year goes on. Robb Stark’s mother Catelyn at least gets a whole scene, with actress Michelle Fairley making the most of her limited screen time.
A little more time was devoted to events beyond the Wall, as Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch trekked into the icy wilderness to discover why dead men are walking and attacking people. Robert Pugh popped up as nasty piece of work Craster, who marries his daughters then impregnates them to give him more daughters to marry, and so on. This led to some tense scenes as Craster took an instant dislike to pretty boy Jon (well, to be fair, Kit Harington is pretty).
As Craster, the usually aggressively Welsh Pugh was affecting no less a convincing Northern English accent than the rest of the Watch. More thought has clearly gone into the accents than simply allowing the actors to use their own; aside from Pugh, Night’s Watch Commander Mormont is played by the very Scottish James Cosmo, and he still sounds like he’s from Yorkshire. The more posh Lannisters have cut glass south eastern accents, and would sound quite at home on the current Conservative Party front bench – aside from, perhaps, Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, who for all the excellence of his performance, hasn’t quite mastered a consistent English accent.
Elsewhere, we were introduced to a new set of players, as we cut to the castle of Dragonstone, home to another contender for the crown – Robert Baratheon’s elder brother Stannis. As portrayed by Stephen Dillane, Stannis is a stern, unyielding man, as in the books. We establish this pretty early on with his overly literal pedantry about the propaganda letter to be sent out to Westeros – “strike out ‘beloved brother’. It’s not true.”
Stannis is accompanied by the sinister priestess Melisandre, devotee to a new, fierce religion worshipping the Lord of Light. We first encounter them both symbolically burning the idols of traditional gods the Seven, to the consternation of Stannis’ Maester, who then perishes in a futile attempt to poison the priestess – both drink from the same glass, but only the Maester dies. Incarnated by Dutch actress Carice van Houten (previously seen in Paul Verhoeven’s wartime thriller Black Book), Melisandre is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and has Stannis in her thrall. His more reasonable adviser Davos, played by the reliable Liam Cunningham, is clearly going to have a fight on his hands to moderate her influence.
The usual massively graphic violence was present and correct from the outset, as tournament knights cheerfully slaughtered each other for Joffrey’s entertainment. Also predictably present was the gratuitous sex and nudity for which the show has become
(in)famous. A tour of one of Lord Baelish’s brothels was introduced by yet more instruction in the art of shagging for money, with the participants very much in the forefront of the frame.
This scene led to into the episode’s climactic montage, as Joffrey, concerned by the possibility of the late King Robert’s bastards laying claim to the throne, started his own slaughter of the innocents. It was a genuinely shocking moment when the King’s Guard slashed the throat of that young whore’s baby, one even this series had to leave offscreen. But the mother’s reaction was shocking enough. This was followed by yet more scenes of children being violently killed; proof, if you still needed it, that this is not fantasy for the faint at heart.
But Joffrey can’t get them all. As we saw at the end of last year, blacksmith’s apprentice (and unknowing heir to the throne) Gendry has headed off north to join the Night’s Watch. Gendry is incarnated by the very attractive and personable Joe Dempsie, late of Skins and The Fades; unfortunately, he doesn’t get so much as a line this week. But it’s a good cliffhanger as we see him, together with Ned Stark’s other daughter Arya, heading away from the city amid a stream of refugees.
A sterling season opener this, written by series creators David Benioff and D B Weiss. It hits the ground running, with all the quality, thrills and sometime flaws of the first season. My only complaint would be that perhaps it tries to take in too much, with various characters left virtually mute even if we see them. There again, I was a little disappointed not to see Charles Dance pop up as the arrogant Lord Tywin Lannister, or Gethin Anthony as the pretty (and gay) pretender Renly Baratheon. So clearly, even the writers thought it was biting off more than they could chew to fit in every major character.
I have a bit of a dilemma reviewing this series episode by episode. Because I’ve now read all the books in the series that Martin has written (so far), I obviously know what’s going to happen, since the show is almost completely faithful to the source material. So my solution is this: I’m going to review each episode as though I didn’t know, trying to see it as someone who was seeing the story for the first time. Equally, I’m going to avoid referring to anything that happens in the books after the point the series has reached; I don’t want to spoiler anyone, as I know many people are watching this show having never read the books. It’s going to be an interesting exercise in self-discipline – check back in coming weeks to see how it works out!