On the Firewall & Iceberg podcast last week, Sepinwall broke with form and asked me to give the introductory synopsis for HBO’s new epic drama “Game of Thrones.” He figured that since I’d read a book-and-a-half (and counting) of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” franchise, I might have more luck summarizing the fantasy-but-not-fantasy trappings.
I failed dismally.
The next day, I was on a conference call with Martin himself and I asked him to take a shot at laying out the basics, figuring he must have pitched the premise enough times over the years to have a really simple, one-paragraph answer prepared.
He did not. He said something about it having been described as “fantasy for people who hate fantasy” and made his now-familiar claims about the story’s root in The War of the Roses. He talked for at least five minutes and while I’m sure he improved upon my podcast stammering, he didn’t give a response that I could work with.
The problem isn’t that “Game of Thrones” is excessively complicated or that it’s difficult to understand without a scorecard. I don’t want to give any impression that “Game of Thrones” is an intimidating piece of work to slog through. What it is, however, is vast and uncompromising in scope. HBO has never been afraid to plop viewers down in the middle of heavily populated dramatic realms. Go back and watch the pilots for “The Wire” or “Deadwood” or “Boardwalk Empire” and count the number of characters you’re immediately asked to keep track of. But “The Wire” was grounded in an American urban experience that was at least vaguely familiar, even if you weren’t versed in the specifics of Baltimore’s inner city. And “Deadwood” and “Boardwalk Empire” both relied on a scaffolding of actual history and geography, plus the inclusion of a number of famous historical characters.
“Game of Thrones” dispatches viewers in a foreign land with a foreign geography and thousands of years of foreign history. It doesn’t say “Understand everything this second or your’re going to wind up in a corner muttering ‘Starks and Tullys and Lanisters… oh my.'” What it requires, if you haven’t read any of Martin’s books, is that you have faith in series developers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, This isn’t a “They know best” kind of faith, but rather a “They’ll tell me what I need to know when I need to know it” faith.
Through six episodes, I found that faith well-earned. Benioff and Weiss have taken Martin’s hefy book and translated it with a fidelity that fans are likely to appreciate, while welcoming new audiences with a thematic core that won’t seem so impenetrable. It’s not just a story for fantasy fans. And although I can only speak for my own gender-informed viewing experience, there’s no reason why this should be a story aimed only at men.
“Game of Thrones” is a solidly told yarn that easily overcomes its few storytelling stumbles with exceptional production values and a deep and superior cast that far out-strips any reasonable expectations for this sort of saga.
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OK. Deep breath. I’m going to try to summarize the “Game of Thrones” plot as best I can. It won’t work, but I’ve gotta try.
We set our scene in the land of Westeros. Ruling over the realm with an uneasy grasp is Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), a popular warrior with more interest in drinking, whoring and hunting than ruling. That’s OK with his Queen, Cersei (Lena Headey), a Lannister by birth. The Lannisters may have their eye on the Iron Throne and there’s ample scheming coming from Cersei’s twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and their younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), half as tall, but twice as smart as anybody else.
To maintain order, King Robert turns to old friend Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), guardian of Westeros’ northern realm. Eddard is a man of duty, but he’s loath to depart wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and children Robb (Richard Madden), Sansa (Sophie), Arya (Maisie Williams), Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and Rickon (Art Parkinson). Eddard also has a bastard son named Jon (Kit Harrington), but Westeros isn’t the easiest place for a bastard to grow up and Jon is ready to dedicate his life to military service protecting the mammoth wall that separates Westeros from the barbaric reaches to the Far North, a land populated by all manner of possible urban legends.
That’s not so hard, right? King Robert has a throne. The Lannisters may be conspiring around that throne. King Robert trusts the Starks. There’s a Wall. Our side of the Wall? Good. Other side? Scary.
There’s a little bit more. Across the sea, we find Viserys (Harry Lloyd) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) of the House of Targaryen. The Targaryens ruled before the Baratheons overthrew them. The Targaryens also used to have dragons, but dragons aren’t around anymore, just like magic used to be prominent, but now it’s marginalized and possibly absent entirely. Viserys has sold Dany into marital slavery to Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) a chieftain in a tribe of nomadic horse lords called the Dothraki. The Dothraki have their own language. It’s subtitled. Viserys hopes that Drogo will furnish an army that will allow him to travel back to Westeros to reclaim the crown.
Yes, that’s a lot of information and it spoils absolutely nothing. What you need to know is that in a fragmented kingdom, many people either have a claim on the throne or probably have the mettle to rule. There’s also a scheming eunuch, a brat of a princeling and a small pack of initially adorable, eventually vicious direwolves.
There are dozens of additional named characters, but they’re introduced gradually, with information parsed on a need-to-know basis. If you’ve read the books, you already know. And if you don’t, you’re safer not worrying about things like the relationship between Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) and the Stark family. It’ll be explained when it’s relevant.
“Game of Thrones” is, at its core, about nothing more or less than the nature of power and leadership. Those best-suited to rule often prefer not to, those best-suited to rule in war may not be best-suited to rule in peace, those most likely to be beloved aren’t always most likely to be effective. This is not unfamiliar territory for HBO and I don’t think that’s accidental. Look at the result of the vacuum of law and order in Deadwood and the difference between institutional power and actual clout that played out between Al Swearengen and Seth Bullock. Look at Tony Soprano’s gradual progression through his own crime family and the attempts to unseat him, both from within and without, while parts of his family strived for normalcy or legitimacy. Look at the stratification of business interests — again, tip-toing between legitimacy and crime — in the Baltimore drug trade on “The Wire” and see how that world intersected with the law, but also with the city’s elected and unelected powermongers. “Game of Thrones” takes place in a fantasy world, but the stakes are recognizable.
Every episode pens with a brilliant and changeable map of Westeros, an animated representation of the Seven Kingdoms, its seats of power and the journeys taken by our main characters. The cities rise off of the map, seemingly erecting themselves with gears and other mechanical parts. Castles rise, but they don’t come out of nowhere. They’re the product of meshing pieces and turning wheels. The show’s drama is the grinding of that machinery of power.
Martin’s books aren’t short on action, but they’re much heavier on burgeoning conspiracies, backroom dealings and unsteady truces. This is a character piece, but it’s a character piece that’s punctuated by frequent beheadings, regular trips to brothels and more than a few dovetailing family trees.
Context and history are everything in “Game of Thrones” and Benioff and Weiss aren’t above sticking to Martin’s exposition-heavy prose. We arrive in Westeros at a point of transition — Winter, as you may have heard from the promos, is coming and in Westeros, “winter” can last many years and it’s both literal and metaphorical — and while that means that there are great heroics ahead of us, there are even more stories of lore in the past. And these characters like to talk about the past — their past, but also the kingdom’s past. And they talk and they talk and they talk. One viable approach for Weiss and Benioff to have taken would have involved injecting flashbacks, anything to weave more battles and wenching and visceral excitement into the narrative. But “Game of Thrones” isn’t an action series. You don’t lack for swordfights and spurting blood and a quantity of sex that some viewers will find unnecessary, but moments like that are used as key punctuation in episodes, where the greater tension is being delivered through conversations in which viewers may be hard pressed to trust or embrace either party.
Thanks in part to this exposition, including new and transplanted scenes from Weiss and Benioff, “Game of Thrones” operates in shades of gray. Sepinwall is convinced that Eddard Stark is the show’s hero, but his rigid ethical code and preference for following orders made me distrust him on the page and also on the screen. And you know what? We’re both right and Sean Bean plays both sides, while also anchoring the series with the cultural capital gleaned from the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Peter Dinklage was the epitome of no-brainer casting as The Imp, and he expertly captures the way that being undersized and over-brained makes Tyrion both dangerously contemptuous, but also adeptly empathetic. Mark Addy excels because although Robert has descended into buffoonery, there’s just enough evidence of a larger-than-life figure men would go to war and die for. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jaime is a preening, quick-tempered fop, but the actor finds his humanity in his dedication (probably excessive) to his family and also in his respect for the code which comes from his social station. Even Harry Lloyd’s petulant, sadistic, reptilian Viserys, easily the most one-dimensional and hatable of the book and series’ villains, is driven by a sense of regal entitlement that isn’t really his fault, so much as his birthright.
It would be wrong to say that the men have the only significant roles in “Game of Thrones” or even that the men have the main roles. The title refers to the “game” of thrones, but although the men have the tangible and visible power, the stakes are higher for the women. To my mind, the hero of the series and the books (so far as I’ve read, so don’t tell me if she becomes possessed by a demon or something) is Catelyn, who seems much more capable of balancing devotion to the kingdom, devotion to her family and devotion to her faith than Eddard does. Michelle Fairley replaced Jennifer Ehle in this role and I think that was almost certainly a good move. I’m not sure I’ve noticed Fairley in anything previously, but she has a wearied strength that make her the most “relatable” character in a piece that isn’t always strong on relatability (nor need it be).
Catelyn is far from the only female character whose concerns go deeper than just who is sitting on the Iron Throne. Westeros is a vast kingdom and there are vast cultural differences between the Northerners and Southerners. The contrast between Fairley’s Catelyn and Lena Headey’s Cersei is embodied by the actresses with much more clarity than Martin could ever write. Headey looks younger and more rested than Fairley, an apt representation of the different lives lived by their characters and their different backgrounds. But Headey makes Cersei both calculating, but also nuanced in ways that go beyond what’s on the page.
The third major female character, Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys, is the one most likely to be embraced in certain circles and reviled in others. The sexual politics — “rape,” really — she encounters through her marriage to Khal Drogo make her early scenes difficult to watch and the character’s arc — female empowerment through sexual mastery — are a bit predictable and sometimes feel exploitative due to the camera’s presence in capturing Clarke’s naked body. [The storyline is also hampered by Jason Momoa being trapped in the series’ lone unplayable role. Khal Drogo is a cartoon in the books and he’s a cartoon here and no actor could have played the role naturalistically.] Any reservations I might have otherwise had were alleviated by Clarke’s superior performance, which makes the accelerated journey from innocent child to knowing woman feel organic, however heightened and silly the world of the Dothrakis is.
There have certainly been subsets of fantasy literature and film in which female power was something to be feared or detested, but in “Game of Thrones,” the women are the glue and the men are often stuck in a bellicose version of a penis-measuring contest.
Going forward, much of the series will hinge on the young characters, which put a lot of pressure on the casting directors secure the proper child actors to play the Stark children. There’s no doubt that wide-eyed Maisie Williams is the big discovery as tomboy-ish Arya, while Sophie Turner does a fine job of rendering Sansa’s princess fantasies without making the character as detestable as she sometimes is in the book. On the older side, Richard Madden, Kit Harrington and Alfie Allen hold their own with the more experienced performers.
One eventually might just list everybody, but I also quite liked Iain Glen as Jorah Mormont, Aidan Gillen as Littlefinger and Rory McCann as Sandor Clegane.
Most of the acting choices have been made to keep characters in line with their representations in the books. I expressed minor reservations in the podcast about what I felt was a new interpretation of one particular character and multiple commenters chimed in, without my even saying which character, and explained that the interpretation was very present if you read between the lines (or maybe just read with a greater attention to innuendo). So if that’s the case, the dedication to the book is verging on slavish, albeit with some details transplanted and rearranged to flesh out a couple characters sooner.
When “Mildred Pierce” premiered, I criticized it for excessive devotion to James M. Cain’s novel at the expense of storytelling in a different medium. Benioff and Weiss and the cast and the production’s expert technical crew haven’t fallen into the same traps for a variety of reasons.
For one thing, there’s just too darned much in Martin’s novels. The first six episodes of “Game of Thrones” are all lengthy, but they’re not two hours apiece. Despite all of the storylines and all of the characters, there was never a point at which I felt like something really crucial had been trimmed, nor were there many cuts I noticed without thinking hard about it. Is that a reflection of how padded Martin’s writing is at times? Perhaps.
A bigger reason why fidelity in one instance (“Mildred Pierce”) is deadening and fidelity in another (“Game of Thrones”) is liberating has to do with the relative difficulties of visually realizing a Glendale pie shop in 1930 versus visually realizing an imagined kingdom in an imagined time. Using locations and also liberal quantities of CG, “Game of Thrones” depicts The Wall, The Eyrie and the scope of Westeros in ways that are astounding if you’ve read the book and problem still amaze if you haven’t.
I’m not going to deny that there are episodes of “Game of Thrones” that tend more to the side of “too talky” than was necessary, where Benioff and Weiss could have easily boosted the momentum with some liberal dialogue-trimming. I’m also not going to say that every second of “Game of Thrones” feels entirely fresh and sui generis. Martin is working within a genre tradition and aspects are derivative, or at least familiar. But I look at the dense source material, at the cast of hundreds, at the myriad intersecting storylines, at the extensive reshoots between the original pilot and the air version, at the number of pivotal roles filled by relative neophytes, at conspicuously evident budget and it’s a wonder “Game of Thrones” works at all. But it doesn’t just work. It’s smart, well-acted, often thrilling, frequently breathtaking, consistently entertaining television.
And I apologize for taking so many words to try to endorse it.
“Game of Thrones” premieres on Sunday, April 17 on HBO.