Series Breakdown Rating:
Overall Plot: 7
Spoilers: Fuck yes
Audience Assumptions: Some familiarity
Game of Thrones
With all the excitement of the recent season, one that was both highly anticipated and highly controversial, as well as the pop culture juggernaut this series has become, I thought it useful to revisit the Game of Thrones television series and looking closely at each season. Book fans may be displeased to find that, no, I won’t be comparing the books to the show and explaining why it’s super important that the Dornish guard guy gets his own arc and subplot even though he has fuck-all to do with the series as a whole. Apologies to those who prefer the books, but I probably won’t be doing a review of them any time soon, and if you’re looking for someone who loathes the show for its divergence from its source material, I suggest you search elsewhere — YouTube seems to have an abundance of book apologists these days. I like the show, in the same way I like superhero films. I’m not going to laud its infallibility, but I do want to explore what it is that makes this series so popular and why it’s regarded among the best of current television. And also why it fails to be just that.
Season One – ***
Part One: We’re Not Stealing from The Elder Scrolls, We Swear
I should admit that not only had I never heard of this series before the show’s release, but I hadn’t even heard of the show itself until it was finishing up its second season. I had no idea what it was about, where it was going, whether it was meant to be a mythical version of reality, historical fiction, or as fantastical as Middle Earth. The first episode opens in a clever way with the introduction of the Night’s Watch and the
white walkers ice zombies, immediately resolving what sort of story this is to newcomers: it’s a dark high fantasy set in a fictional place clearly based on medieval Europe, with fantastical creatures and magic that are so separate from the lives of ordinary people, they might as well be mythical.
At the start of the show, things are changing, and these myths are slowly becoming more real, and menacing. This is a common trend throughout the series, but especially in the first season. It’s not especially new, but it isn’t something you see in much fantasy television these days. Heck, you don’t see much high fantasy television these days at all, really.
Part Two: The Fuck Are These People?
I won’t dwell on the first episode long, but it sets up some important plot threads and small hooks to encourage viewers to continue the series. There are the dire wolves, which some might know are real animals that went extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, there are ice zombies, there are sweeping vistas and decapitation, and we also have a few interesting characters. This episode establishes Ned, Jon, Arya, Bran, and Tyrion as fairly complex characters in unique positions relative to the rest of the cast. Each of them is memorable, especially the latter four, and they help ground the conceit that the story will follow multiple character arcs. Over time, other characters bulk up in terms of personality and traumatic backstory, and of course the series has to throw new human fodder at the audiences as it axes off most of its world’s inhabitants. I would still argue that the five emphasized in the first episode, and later Catelyn and Danaerys as well, are the emotional centers the audience bonds to, evidenced by how all but one of these characters are still alive by the end of Season Seven.
Care to guess the season where that one lead character dies?
Ned is of course the main lead of the group, as he undergoes the most personal development and is most directly tied to the main storyline. The series doesn’t take many risks until the second to last episode, when it sets its balls on the table so to speak and parts the head from the body of its ostensible protagonist. While the series would later become famous for this sort of unexpected brutality, I still find Ned Stark’s death the most startling and I don’t think any of the others, including those at the Red Wedding, come close to having as much of an impact on the plot. This is an especially interesting move to make so late in the season, but it effectively sets up consequences that kick the rest of the series’ plot into gear.
Part Three: Yes, But Where Is Wales?
I won’t pretend that the first season of Game of Thrones is perfect by any means, but it is a lot of fun and it shows early on that the show runners have a good sense of the buildup and payoff cycle. The last few episodes feature major developments like Ned’s death, Tyrion becoming the Hand of the King, Robb being declared King in the North, Jon and the Night’s Watch heading north of the Wall, Joffrey inheriting his father’s position and proving to be Westeros’ equivalent of a wigged tangerine, Jaime being captured, and of course, Danaerys hatching her dragon eggs. With all of these exciting developments promising the next season to be spectacular, I think it is easy to overlook some of the show’s immediate flaws.
First, Game of Thrones has an issue with juggling too many characters. While many of them are fun, plenty of the major characters feel unnecessary, and the show often spends more time than it needs to on minor plot threads or characters that don’t undergo much development until much later – notably Sansa, Cersei, Baelish, Varys, Sam, and arguably Danaerys, considering she gets tremendous amounts of time dedicated to her that has little to no consequence to the other characters. This problem gets worse as the series continues until I’d say around the seventh season, by which point the series has so few characters it has no choice but to make them marginally important.
A second issue viewers may notice is the abundance of loose plot threads. While some of these are picked up in later seasons, others remain unaddressed up through the seventh season. Even for loose threads that are eventually tied off, the longer the series takes to address them and the less relevance they have by the time they’re resolved, the fewer audience members there are who will likely remember these threads were left hanging in the first place.
There are other, smaller issues related to the genre. The budget is clearly not big enough yet to show major battles – the only spectacles shown are one-on-one skirmishes or distant CGI castles. The dialogue is choppy and romanticized, though not quite as much as other contemporary medieval fantasy films or shows, and while the score and costuming are impressive, a lot of the cultural elements of the show are lifted and simplified from real-world locations or groups – the Dothraki are clearly Mongolian horse riders, the Wall is an exaggeration of Hadrian’s Wall, the white walkers are draugr and wights (the latter term is even used in the series occasionally), and Westeros is so obviously a facsimile of the British Isles I’m surprised there isn’t a large green island to the west of it supplying the lords and ladies their potatoes.
Ultimately, the first season is probably the most tightly written, but I don’t think it would be nearly as satisfying if it weren’t part of a longer series. It feels very much like a first book in an epic fantasy series, which is essentially what it was written to be.