Game of Thrones, Season 1

Reviewed by Niall Harrison and Nic Clarke

Game of Thrones poster

Niall Harrison:

One of the most interesting ways I've encountered of thinking about words-to-moving-pictures adaptations was articulated by Mary Gentle, in a discussion about the merits of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films. "In some ways," she wrote, "I'm not watching it as an adaptation of Tolkien any more. It's as if Middle Earth is as factual as, say, 15th century France, and I'm watching yet another film-maker's take on the Joan of Arc story." What I like about this way of looking at things—which feels particularly useful to me for secondary-world fantasies—is that it mutes the primacy of the book and asserts the value of considering the adaptation as its own thing, which, in quite a lot of discussions I've had about the merits of Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, has felt like something that needed doing.

As it happens, in the case of HBO's Game of Thrones, in the circle of people I discuss television with everyone has been very keen to make sure I consider the adaptation as its own thing, since I'm almost the only one who hasn't read George R. R. Martin's novels. I've been the control subject, in other words, the one for whom all the surprises have yet to be sprung. Of course, I'm not a perfect control; I've read enough fantasy novels (Martinesque subvariant and otherwise) to be familiar with their conventions, and I've watched enough HBO series to be familiar with their conventions. So I did have expectations: a medievalesque fantasy story on a grand canvas, done seriously and with some sophistication; good production values, respectable acting, and plenty of sex. A series, in other words, that (for better or worse) would be for TV fantasy what Battlestar Galactica was for TV SF. And that is (for better and worse) more or less what I got.

The opening of the first episode, "Winter is Coming," is atmospheric and promising. A few men, leaving a great icy stronghold, encounter a strange being and their doom. The beautiful opening titles brilliantly adapt the staple maps of epic fantasy novels and efficiently give us the information we need to navigate a large and varied world. Then, not surprisingly, we get a parade of scenes intended to introduce us to various characters, first the various Starks of Winterfell—Lord Eddard Stark, his wife Catelyn, and their children Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran and Rickon (and Ned's bastard, Jon Snow)—then some Lannisters in King's Landing—twins Jamie, a knight of the king, and Cersei, wife of the king—and then the king himself, Robert Baratheon, as he visits Winterfell to make Ned Stark the new Hand of the King. So far so good. Then, atmosphere slowly ebbing away, we meet another Lannister, the dwarf Tyrion (and Ros, a prostitute of Winterfell), then get yet more introductions to an entirely separate set of characters, on a different continent, the exiled Targaryen heir Viserys, his sister Daenerys, and the horselord to whom the latter is to be wed, Khal Drogo. Then back to Winterfell to meet Ned's brother Benjen and the king's heir, Joffrey. And then, 45 minutes into an hour-long episode, the message that kick starts the season's plot is delivered to Ned and Catelyn: the previous Hand, Jon Arryn, didn't just die, he was murdered; and apparently by Lannisters, at that. Then we get the wedding of Daenerys and Drogo (and a gift of dragon eggs), and finally cut back to Winterfell just in time to see Jamie push Bran out of a tower window, for catching him having sex with his sister.

The problem with the episode as an episode is not that it has to introduce a lot of characters and information; it's that after the initial Stark family scene, so much of it is so artless. An awful lot of relationships are introduced via dialogue, rather than the way in which the characters are interacting, giving much of the episode a desperately slow and functional feel. After the news of Jon Arryn's death, Catelyn tells Ned, "I know he was like a father to you"; Jamie makes sure to introduce himself as Cersei's brother in their first scene together. But although this is disappointing, it's forgivable as teething troubles. The problems with the episode as the start of an ongoing story are, I think, more serious.

Pretty much everything set across the Narrow Sea is a disaster. Perhaps the kindest thing that can be said about the portrayal of the Dothraki horselords, as the only darker-skinned characters in the series, is that it's deeply unfortunate. They are introduced as "savages"—by the admittedly bigoted Viserys, but with nothing in the first episode up to and including Khal Drogo's wedding-night rape of Daenerys to counteract his assessment—and never become much more than that, their culture little more than an exotic backdrop for the Targaryen family saga. As Drogo, poor Jason Momoa surely has the most thankless role in the season, partly because his dialogue doesn't even get subtitles until we're half-way through, and partly because he has the misfortune to be stuck acting against the two worst performances in the ensemble. Harry Lloyd is unable to make Viserys's whining anything more than cartoonish, while Emilia Clarke's Daenerys is almost entirely affectless except when she's portentous: at the end of "A Golden Crown" (1x06), for instance, when Daenerys declares of Viserys that "He is no dragon," I couldn't help thinking of Halle Berry's infamous misdelivery of Storm's dialogue in X-Men (2000). On top of all of this, from the moment Daenerys receives her wedding gift, it's clear what the final shot of the season will be. Never put dragon eggs on the mantel in the first act, etc.

Much of what happens back in Westeros also feels like it's a long time coming. It's rather obvious from the get-go who Prince Joffrey's parents must be, which means we not only know who killed Jon Arryn but why, which in turn means that watching Ned spend several episodes investigating is rather tedious. Other than providing the excuse for the introduction of yet more characters, which it admittedly does serviceably, all the investigation—or rather, the manner in which it is carried out—tells the viewer is that Eddard Stark is hopelessly out of his depth, which makes it very hard to see how he'll avoid Jon Arryn's fate. Indeed most of the large scale movements of the story are fairly explicit: we start with a unified kingdom, so it will fracture; we follow a good man, who is transparently doomed; winter, as they say, will come. What's left to generate narrative suspense is timing: when will Ned work out the truth about Joffrey's parentage? When will the Targaryens make it back to Westeros? When will the White Walkers appear in strength? And so on. This works pretty well, except when events are too-obviously extended beyond their natural life by a thumb on the scales, as in the case of Bran's tremendously convenient amnesia, or a spanner in the works, as in the Lannisters' clairvoyant decision to move against the king just before Ned solves his mystery.

And yet, particularly on a second viewing, there are things to enjoy even as the tectonic plates of narrative grind away fruitlessly, plenty of individual scenes or lines of dialogue that light up the screen. Any scene featuring the spirited Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) is worth the price of admission, for instance; the one that sticks in my mind is from "Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things" (1x04), when Ned tries to sell her on the merits of giving birth to princes and lords as a life choice. "No," she says, quite simply, quite determinedly. "That's not me." You don't doubt her. Then of course there are her "dancing lessons" with swordmaster Syrio Forel. Miltos Yerolemou seems to have been cast for a different and rather more camp series, but is extremely watchable; and the shift back to Ned's point of view at the end of Arya's first lesson, with the gradual fade-in of battle sounds, is excellently judged. Most scenes featuring Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) also enliven the proceedings, although sometimes as much for the opportunities he offers those playing against him (his arrest by Catelyn Stark at the end of "Cripples" is one of the more powerful scenes in the first half of the season) as for his quips (I do love his attempts to explain to the jailor at the Eyrie that "possession can sometimes be an abstract concept"). Mark Addy's King Robert Baratheon is much of the time too exaggeratedly grizzled for my taste, but gets a wonderful scene with Lena Headey's carefully controlled Cersei in "The Wolf and the Lion" (1x05)—perhaps the season's best single episode—that shifts elegantly from the political to the personal and back again, as they consider how their marriage has held the Seven Kingdoms together. And in the last few episodes, Richard Madden's Robb Stark starts to come into his own, his brief confrontation with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's Jamie in "Baelor" (1x09) a particular highlight, showcasing a sense of reality lacking in his father: "If we do it your way, Kingslayer, you'd win. We're not doing it your way."

What I'm arguing, in the end, is that what interests me about Game of Thrones isn't the story. There aren't many real surprises, and I find it hard to care very much who ends up on the Iron Throne: almost all the potential candidates are horrible human beings, and if by some miracle a non-horrible human being ended up there, it would still be a perpetuation of a grossly unjust system of governance that deserves to be swept away. (A cheap shot, perhaps, but Game of Thrones has managed to raise my political hackles in a way few Euromedievalesque fantasies do. Perhaps more egalitarian politics will start to flower in later seasons; or perhaps the success of Game of Thrones will open the door for more adventurous fantasy tales to be told on TV.) Moreover I don't think the many threads are being particularly skillfully orchestrated. What does interest me—and it is, in the end, enough to keep me watching, although it was touch and go for a while—is the texture of the world, the details and moments that reveal what it means to live there. So my highlight of the season finale was not the appearance of Daenerys's inevitable, strategically-placed dragons, was in fact neither epic nor fantastical: it was Grand Maester Pycelle's performance piece for Ros on the nature of kings.

Nic Clarke:

Any adaptation from book to screen requires a significant narrative switch from internal to external focalization; description that might take paragraphs in writing can be achieved in a single shot, while character insights born of the way this description is couched have to be conveyed through dialogue and visible reaction. Fantasy Wars of the Roses saga A Song of Ice and Fire, on whose first volume the recent HBO series Game of Thrones was based, presents acute problems in this regard; the original novels are told entirely through close-in point-of-view narration, the limitations of which—coupled with communications technology centered on ravens and oh-so-perishable human messengers—are frequently mined for storytelling effect. Characters frequently must make choices based on incomplete or just plain wrong information, or else their prejudices blind them to vital details. These limitations also feed into the saga's broader thematic points: most of the ever-growing cast of point-of-view characters assume that they are the centre of the story, and present what they see and experience accordingly, when in fact the question of which of the great houses of Westeros captures the Iron Throne after the ignominious death of King Robert Baratheon—the central plot thrust of both book one and season one—is far from the most pressing issue for the future of the land. Time and again, the powerful slaughter each other in pursuit of greater power, while those caught in their wake—the vassals, the poor, the wives and the daughters—can only suffer, and much bigger threats gather over the horizon, largely unnoticed.

Structurally, the TV series preserves this aspect of the books, with the apparent climax of the first season—the violence and grief of Ned Stark's execution, and the outbreak of open war between House Stark and House Lannister as a result—giving way, at the end of episode ten, to two final scenes that emphasize how much the real story is happening elsewhere: beyond the great ice-bound Wall in the continent’s north—in the semi-legendary shape of the zombified White Walkers—and across the Narrow Sea—with the emergence of Daenerys Targaryen from her husband's funeral pyre, bearing a trio of hatchling dragons. This final scene in itself represents the end point of a season-long bait and switch; Dany, last of the lineage from whom Robert wrested the Iron Throne seventeen years before, began as little more than a numb device in the schemes of her peevish, half-mad brother Viserys, and then as bearer of the son of her formidable Dothraki horselord husband, Khal Drogo. That Dany is the protagonist of her story is perhaps obvious sooner in the book, where she is the only point-of-view character on her side of the Sea; in the TV series, the viewer could be forgiven for assuming that Dany, like the Stark daughters Sansa and Arya, is more pawn than power player. (The fact that Dany's inner monologue of borderline panic and fragile self-assurances is replaced, in the TV series, with Emilia Clarke's beautiful expressionlessness, helps boost this impression, intentionally or not.)

The other difficulty faced by Game of Thrones the TV series is the sheer amount of backstory, some related directly to the action and some more for the color and depth of the world, that has to be put across. Sometimes this is done elegantly. Two highlights of the type come in episode three, "Lord Snow." The first sees a half-drunken King Robert reminiscing about first kills with his long-suffering Kingsguards Jaime Lannister and Ser Barristan Selmy, in the process goading Jaime into discussing his murder of the previous king (an exchange Jaime wins rather effectively by noting that Rhaegar's last words were "the same thing he'd been saying for hours: Kill them all"). The contrast between the coarse Robert, gone to seed in privileged boredom with only casual abuse of his skinny, nervous squire (another Lannister, Lancel) left to make himself feel manly, and his lean, alert, and self-possessed Kingsguards, speaks volumes of all three characters and of Robert's posturing and wasteful regal style. In the second example, Westerosi exile Ser Jorah Mormont and Dothraki Blood Rider Rakharo bond over the differences between weaponry on the two sides of the Narrow Sea; here is mutual respect, personal anecdote, humor, and concrete information about contrasting forms of warfare, all in a convincingly broken bilingual conversation.

This being HBO, however, the writers much prefer the idea of combining explanation with nudity. While the sexposition, as fan circles have dubbed it, is both labored and ripe for parody, it does nonetheless show us much about how gender and power, and gendered power, work in this world. There is no such thing as simple sex; power differentials shape every aspect of life in Game of Thrones, and intimacy is ineluctably shaped and distorted by them. Viserys's hot-tub session with Dany's slave girl Doreah, in "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things" (1x04), for example, gives us a sense of the long history of dragons' involvement in Westeros and with the Targaryens, and foreshadows Viserys's demise through the image of molten material meeting skin that, unlike his sister's, is all too susceptible to heat. But this also is one of a succession of scenes in which sex is portrayed as something perfunctory and clumsy and endured by women, and which is used to remind them of their subordinate place. Initially Doreah appears to be enjoying the foreplay, but then Viserys pulls rank, puncturing the illusion that this is a mutually-pleasurable interlude, and emphasizing a clear hierarchy of power that dictates who gets what from the encounter, based on both gender and the exalted social status to which the male head of a great house—the great house—feels entitled.

Dany's relationship with Khal Drogo begins with a wedding-night rape, one that preserves the outline of the book's version of events, but shifts its emotional tenor considerably. In the book, Dany comes to realize (or chooses to believe) that Drogo's repetition of the word "no"—the only Westerosi term he knows—is not a denial of her agency, but an assurance that she can call a halt if she wishes; put at ease, Dany replies with "Yes." In the TV series, however, there is no such comfort to be had; the word is meaningless noise, and Drogo has no interest in Dany's feelings. This change feeds into the problematic othering and exoticisation of the Dothraki, the show's only non-white characters (to date); but it also sharpens the focus of Dany's growth from victim to purposeful leader of men. Dany's subsequent decision to take an active role in her marriage bed, and thus win Drogo's fascination, has echoes beyond her own story, however. These are evoked primarily through the visual language that the series uses for sex, which underlines the hierarchical nature of the act in this patriarchal world through the relative positioning of man (standing) and woman (generally on all fours). Dany and Drogo, it turns out, are one of the few couples on the show who actually face each other in bed, and look each other in the eyes. Peter Dinklage's infectiously snarky Tyrion Lannister, too—the most vivid and sympathetic character in both book and TV series—always faces (and frequently laughs with) his partners. This is a reflection both of necessity—as in the rest of his life, his physical disabilities prevent him from expressing his masculinity and social status in the way of other men—and the fact that Tyrion is a character who genuinely enjoys the company of women, and delights in subversion. There are further layers, of course, of both symbolism and artifice; the women concerned, after all, are being paid to laugh with him.

Much of the time, though, women do not get paid; they are the payment. The series underlines the point with a pair of exchanges in the first episode: first, Viserys shoots down any delusion Dany might have entertained about having a say in her marriage prospects, when he tells her that he would let every single Dothraki in the horde rape her if it would win him back his throne; we then immediately cut to Sansa Stark, watching in a mirror as her mother Catelyn dresses her hair, agonizing over whether or not Prince Joffrey will think her pretty enough to marry. Sansa, beseeching but still not completely hiding her inner spoiled brat, describes this (improbably) as "The only thing I’ve ever wanted," but the truth is that she, too, has little choice in the matter; her betrothal to Joffrey was decided in a private deal between their two fathers, without either party in attendance. The difference is that Sansa has far more illusions than the brutalized Dany does, although in the TV series Sansa tends to come across as sullen and hormonal rather more often than she does as starry-eyed.

Sansa is arguably the character who suffers the most from the TV series's shift away from the point-of-view structure. In the book, we are shown very clearly how Sansa's actions and attitudes are justified within the terms of how she sees the world (chiefly: good and bad are entirely black and white categories, beauty reflects virtue, chivalry is real, and good things always come to good girls), and also see through the exasperated but envious eyes of her sister Arya how well Sansa performs obedient femininity. In the series, however, her defining scenes showcase her petulance and wheedling—the incident in episode two, "The Kingsroad," in which Arya's direwolf Nymeria bites Prince Joffrey, for example, and the subsequent showdown that ends in the death of Sansa's own wolf, Lady—rather than her romantic naivety. It is not until Joffrey brings her a gift and all the right words, in "A Golden Crown" (1x06), and the pair share a first kiss backlit by the most golden sunlight seen west of the Narrow Sea all season, that we get a clear sense of how strongly Sansa believes she is living in a courtly love poem, and how much joy it brings her. There is no equivalent to the book scene in which Sansa meets the King's Council, and its invitation to us to share both her nerves and her glow of achievement as she puts her training—to be witty and flattering to great men—to use for the first time in her life.

By contrast, Arya is simply adorable. In this, viewer sympathies are led partly by Ned, who has far more interaction with the two girls than does Catelyn, since early in the season he takes them south with him to the capital, King's Landing, when he is summoned to become Robert's right-hand man. Petulant Sansa is a mystery to gruff Ned; tomboy Arya is much easier for him to relate to, though, with her enthusiasm for swords, and the pair share a number of delightful and touching exchanges in episodes three, four and five. For audiences long since conditioned to enjoy the sort of plucky, kick-ass girl who fires a mean arrow (in episode one, "Winter is Coming") and snaps “Seven Hells!” when her fluffy sister moons over the pretty-but-insufferable prince (in episode six), there is no contest between the two; the script, moreover, gives us little grounds to understand why Sansa acts as she does, besides Ned's after-the-fact—and frankly rather charitable—rationalization of her betrayal of Arya in the direwolf incident.

As this somewhat scattershot discussion—which doesn't even go into the whiny entitlement of Jon Snow, the fine foil provided by plucky Samwell Tarly, or the excellent use of Robb Stark (rather neglected in the book, being the only Stark bar the youngest without a point-of-view to call his own)—illustrates, Game of Thrones is packed with detail and with characters to love and hate. But the pace, at least for the first four or five episodes, lags. Compared to shows like Deadwood or The Wire, which simply expect viewers to keep up, Game of Thrones is perhaps overly cautious when it comes to explaining who everyone is and how they fit into the overall picture. Is it really necessary, for example, to hear Theon Greyjoy's backstory not once but twice? He will be important in season two, it is true, but here he is only a supporting figure, whose personality and relationship with his host-captors, the Starks, is established with eloquent economy in a couple of moments in episode one (his silent, obsequious presence at Ned's shoulder during the execution of the Night's Watch deserter, and his sneering remark to Jon Snow at the finding of the direwolf pups), and his failed attempt, in "You Win or You Die" (1x07), to bully the imprisoned wildling woman Osha, who effortlessly skewers his pretension and his insecurity with a single question ("Why?" when he tells her she should address him as "lord"). This last exchange is an enjoyable moment for another reason: it is one of the few times that anyone steps outside the hierarchical, combative assumptions of this world, and openly questions the importance of all the posturing and the pageantry that occupies so much of the series's running time. Osha, after all, has fled from beyond the Wall; she can tell the real story from the merely loud one, and she wants no part of either of them.

Comments

Posted by Nic at September 6, 2011 10:01 AM:

"No," she says, quite simply, quite determinedly. "That's not me." You don't doubt her.

Here's where we differ. (Okay, one of several places...) It's a nice line, and the actress delivers it convincingly; but I didn't really buy it as something that would be said by a girl brought up in this world as it is otherwise presented to us. That's not to say there aren't characters in the books who deliberately and successfully break the mould - we'll meet a great one next season - but I just don't see where a highborn girl of her age has got such a firm idea that a) there's a different way of living her life (beside becoming a Septa, say), and b) that it's her choice.

Also, "That's not me" is (at least to my ears) a jarringly modern sentiment - not just the phrasing, the whole concept of a coherent self that can determine its own destiny - in an otherwise fairly consistently medievalesque world.

Posted by Abigail at September 6, 2011 10:54 AM:

That's an interesting point about the modernity of Arya's notions of herself and the life she's going to live, Nic. One of the reasons that I've never been able to join in the love for Arya, in either the book or the series, is that she strikes me as such an obviously calculated character - perhaps more so than any character in the book except Sansa and Cersei. But whereas their presentation is calculated to put the reader off, Arya is calculated to appeal, and specifically to the modern reader. I've never been able to get past this sense of her as a type - the plucky tomboy - and see her as a person.

As a more general reply, I'll note once again that I seem to have been ideally situated going into this series. Unlike Niall, I've read the book, and unlike Nic, I didn't care for it. I was thus primed for the slow progression of plot (in fact compared to the book's bloat the series struck me as practically fleet-footed) and not too fussed about most of the changes and reductions made to the book's character work.

Posted by Liviu at September 8, 2011 8:49 PM:

"which means we not only know who killed Jon Arryn but why"

actually you don't since, well you have to read book 3 to find out, but the truth is not quite that simple and just as a small spoiler, the Lannisters had nothing to do with the death of Jon Arryn which was meant precisely to do what it did - bring Ned Star as hand, make him even more suspicious of the Lannisters and make him investigate which would guarantee some kind of civil war after Robert's planned death

As for some of the other objections, well after 5 volumes another small spoiler but neither the Targaryens are back in Westeros (more or less - the more or less requires volume 5 for clarification and i do not want to spoil it), nor the White Walkers appeared

GRRM is subtler than that and I hope he will keep confounding expectations to the end

As for the medieval stuff, that's how it was in our history too with pretty much all kings and queens nasty buggers (including all the celebrated ones like say Elizabeth I) as today's morality goes; that's beside the point imho though

Posted by Astak at September 10, 2011 10:55 PM:

What's with the spoilers? Is it so hard to just let people watch the show? I do not understand the inability to keep from explaining the future plot of the series to people.

Yes, people sill make wrong assumptions. Then, when those assumptions get overturned by the show down the line, they'll be surprised and it will probably add to their enjoyment... Unless you tell them now in order to explain why they are "wrong."

I feel the twinge of frustration as much as anyone when someone gets a plot detail wrong (even if there is no reason they shouldn't by the point they are at in the story), especially when it gets mixed in with a criticism, but that *pales* in comparison with how frustrated I am with people who can't keep their mouths shut. Who in the seven hells do you think you're helping?

Posted by Niall at September 10, 2011 11:00 PM:

Given that I specifically said that I wouldn't be making special efforts to avoid spoilers in the future, I have no problem with Liviu's comment on those grounds. I have some problems with the idea that it's an excuse -- the key problem, that a viewer feels it's obvious who's behind Jon Arryn's death, and thus feels that they're ahead of the characters, and thus gets bored with the plot thread, remains the same whether another version of events is revealed later or not.

(I'll leave the medievalists to comment on "that's how it was in our history too"...)

Posted by Alexander at September 13, 2011 8:12 PM:

Liviu: I'd dispute your notion that later volume retcons and much slower pace are an example of Martin's brilliant subtlety in writing. I'd say they're an example of him reducing the speed of events to sell more books, classic Robert Jordanying. Plus the level of wider manipulation is by the latest book (spoilers) Varys and/or Littlefinger manipulating everything, which doesn't really strike me as more effective writing, it frankly made more sense as a desperate Lannister cover-up than 'aha, my long-range ambitious plans are advancing exactly as anticipated'.

I think the series only works as a shocking, ambitious deconstruction if we're expecting the books to follow close to Sansa's views of the world, and then find it far bleaker and more violent. Which is fine as far as it goes, and Game of Thrones was a shock when I first read it, but it's not exactly cutting edge for ambition. Nor is the fairly faithful series adaptation really likely to go there.

Although off Sansa, one point where I did prefer the series to the book not mentioned above was the last episode, where she definitely considered taking a push at Joffrey. Sufficient reason why she didn't go through with it, but I don't believe that direct consideration was in the book, and it made her a lot more engaging as a personality.

All considered I found it a good season of television with some effective worldbuilding and sharp directing choices. Except for Daerny's plotline, which managed to be rather offensive and incredibly boring at all points, despite remembering it among the more dynamic aspects of the original book. Will be interesting to see where this goes, although if it lasts long enough to keep standards of quality the show will need to start diverging from the series more by series four. At that point poor narrative choices become overwhelming.

Posted by S.M. Stirling at September 21, 2011 4:45 AM:

"it would still be a perpetuation of a grossly unjust system of governance that deserves to be swept away. (A cheap shot, perhaps, but Game of Thrones has managed to raise my political hackles in a way few Euromedievalesque fantasies do."

-- this is a really tiresome failure of imagination. If you can't get outside your mental box and identify with truly strange people and settings better than that, why bother reading SF or fantasy at all?

It's like saying you can't enjoy Shakespeare because he's sexist and anti-Semitic. That says something, but it's about you, not Shakespeare.

21st-century political sensibilities are just -utterly meaningless- in a feudal culture like this.

The questions are not whether there will be a monarchy, but what type of monarch; not whether there will be lordship, but whether it will be 'good lordship' (a technical term in that context) or bad.

Posted by Abigail at September 21, 2011 10:47 AM:

If you can't get outside your mental box and identify with truly strange people and settings better than that, why bother reading SF or fantasy at all?

This makes for an interesting contrast with your comment on Adam Roberts's review of Red Plenty, posted a mere hour after this one. Here, Niall is wrong for imposing Western liberal values on a medieval setting; there, Adam is wrong for not imposing Western liberal values on a Communist setting.

It's like saying you can't enjoy Shakespeare because he's sexist and anti-Semitic

Leaving aside the many problems with this analogy (most of the settings of Shakespeare's plays are contemporary to the time they were written while A Song of Ice and Fire is not; George R.R. Martin is no William Shakespeare), surely you're aware that there is in fact a huge volume of discussion on just these issues? The question of whether - not how, but whether - to stage The Merchant of Venice after the Holocaust could fill volumes on its own.

More importantly, Niall isn't expressing a blanket inability to connect with historical settings and viewpoints. His phrase - as you yourself quoted - was that "Game of Thrones has managed to raise [his] political hackles in a way few Euromedievalesque fantasies do" (emphasis mine). Personally, I think that both the book and the series court this reaction (the latter perhaps more than the former), and though I would quibble with how successful they are at it (again, I think the series does a better job), it is plainly untrue to suggest that the core question of either one is "not whether there will be a monarchy, but what type of monarch; not whether there will be lordship, but whether it will be 'good lordship' (a technical term in that context) or bad."

Posted by Dan Hartland at September 21, 2011 5:57 PM:

There's obviously a debate to be had about this show's politics - but I'm not sure it's this one. I think the show has far too contemporary a voice to attempt to ignore how objectionable the political system of Westeros is to our modern sensibility; at the same time, this is the world it is telling stories about, and therefore the show must be dedicated to the necessary heavy lifting (courting our sympathies, weaving in competing voices) to get us past those objections. That the first season doesn't quite manage to persuade us to do so is probably how we've winded up in this comment thread.

Contrary to Niall and Nic, I think that Arya is actually a problem here: she is so clearly inserted as an audience identification figure that the real job of the show, to encourage us to inhabit the alien mentalities of its less accessible characters, can be under-played. The series will have trouble maintaining its momentum through however many seasons it hopes to have if it relies on the 'Arya technique': I was already beginning to lose patience with many of the characters by episode ten, and a second season will require a better balance between, for want of better words, sympathy and empathy.

Posted by Jean Lamb at September 25, 2011 1:30 AM:

But Sansa is tougher than people think; when she looks at her father's head at Joffrey's urging, and then says, "How long do I have to look?" you can tell that Joffrey is not expecting anything but more sobs and pleading--and is, in fact, somewhat disconcerted that Sansa answered him like that.

And her future fate is clearly forecast by the Queen of Thorns; if Sansa survives, this may well be what she becomes.

Posted by Derrick Bonsell at October 3, 2011 12:56 AM:

I don't think it's Game of Thrones job to tell us about the gross injustices, but rather to get us thinking about them.

Although in all honesty, it was just written to entertain. Our society has no problems portraying violence in all sorts of media, and not only that, but people actually enjoy it.

Had GRR Martin's series not been popular, much for that reason, would we have seen the show?

Posted by Amy at November 18, 2011 3:34 PM:

First, let me start by saying that, for me, what I loved about the series is that I have been able to convince every one of my anti-fantasy colleagues to watch it and every single of them has since become addicted. It is the first epic fantasy TV series that I think has passed into the mainstream.

Since they've watched it and loved it, I have since managed to convince some of these anti-fantasy individuals to read the books. For me, this has been such a vindication of my genre.

Secondly, I personally loved the series. The first book has definitely been the most enjoyable part of the series so far and, I think, the series lived up to it. I loved the intro, I loved the casting and I loved how it appealed beyond a normal fantasy audience.

Thirdly, and more appropriately in response to the review, I honestly think that the first reviewer's criticism [whose reviews I often do appreciate] based on the lack of social justice in the series total unhelpful. Based on the review, this is not his type of fantasy. That could have been conveyed in one paragraph. Then, people with similar sensibilities could avoid the series.

I personally think the idea that all fantasy books are flawed because they don't have modern sensibilities of freedom, and consequent desires to change the system, totally silly. For the bulk of history and even in our world today, most people don't share modern, western values. Most systems have been overthrown by one elite replacing another [even in Rome when the system passes from 'imperial' to 'democratic', its more about reallocating power at the top], rather than by mass uprising.

Also, changing thinking takes time. Take feminism and Mary Wollstonecraft. She clearly was one of the earliest feminists and yet her arguments are completely inimical to the arguments of modern feminists. Thinking changes slowly and changes in systems take even longer.

People living in a medieval environmnent are not suddenly going to wake up one morning with twenty-first century, western ideas to overthrow their oppressors. Somewhere in the series, George RR Martin makes some point to the effect that the common people, struggling to survive, probably neither know nor care who rules them, and most likely just want them to stop fighting. That strikes me as being entirely likely in that type of society.

I personally find it far more believable, as often happens in fantasy, that one elite replaces another and nothing really changes for the man on the ground, than that an entire system is overthrown. This is far more rare in human history.

Posted by Alexander at November 20, 2011 7:13 AM:

Amy:
[i]I personally think the idea that all fantasy books are flawed because they don't have modern sensibilities of freedom, and consequent desires to change the system, totally silly.[/i]
And that would be an issue if either of the reviewers had expressed anything like that, which they didn't. What is it about Game of Thrones where any political discussion produces fans that insist objection to the series has to be caused by polyana naivete? Easier to setup a thoroughly exaggerated strawman that can be knocked down than the more substantive criticisms that Niall actually made.

Posted by Martin at March 19, 2012 12:33 PM:

I am in the same position as Niall of being a control and I found most of the same weaknesses, particularly that the opening of the first episode over-promises, it is clumsy and coddling and everything over the Narrow Sea is dreadful. But perhaps I was expecting less than him. As Nic says, this is clearly not in the High HBO tradition of The Wire and The Sopranos but rather the Low HBO tradition of addictive tosh like Rome and True Blood.

I think the biggest problem for the programme (and one which I imagine will increase the longer it goes on) is the conflict between the feudal setting and the modern sensibility required for this sort of blockbuster entertainment. You can get more sass and attitude in five minutes of True Blood than the whole of Game Of Thrones. Which is why Tyrion Lannister is everyone's favourite character.

It is likewise why Arya Stark is so refreshing when she is on the screen. I can certainly see that she plays into an all too familiar tomboy stereotype but I'm less sure than Nic that this has to be read anachronistically. It is pretty clearly established that Winterfell is not the court: less sophisticated, less oppressive. The Starks already have a daughter who wants to play princess, I don't find it so hard to believe that they would let her climb trees and shoot arrows and play with the commoners (at least until she goes through puberty and the tyranny of marriage has to assert itself). Calculated for the modern reader but perhaps the modern viewer needs this?

I watched the series in two episodes sittings and got through the whole thing in a week. What kept me coming back for more was the colourful, compulsive soap opera that HBO does so well with a splash of extra worldbuilding thrown in. I also didn't find it as predictable as Niall, mostly because I found the pacing so unpredicatable.

It is so desperately uneven though: stereotypes rubbing shoulders with real characters, scenes of subtlety next to clichés, space for the viewer to read into the story and then they are clobbered over the head. Niall singles out Robb Stark's confrontation with Jamie which displays the bare minimum of common sense we would expect from the character. That we have a little internal cheer when he delivers the line suggests that our expectations are rather low. I wonder how sustainable this is.

I really liked the way the credits reveal more of the world map only as it becomes relevant. I also like the fact Daddy Lannister was kept off stage so long and the King's older brother was never seen at all. But then we have Theon Greyjoy stranded between background bit part and real character. Likewise, what is with Bran's three-eyed raven dream? We have it three times with no pay off when surely just the once would have sufficed. It doesn't seem like a text the writers as a group have perfect control over.

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Niall Harrison (niall.harrison@gmail.com) has reviewed for publications including Foundation and The Internet Review of Science Fiction.

Nic Clarke lives in Oxford, U.K., where she lectures on medieval Islamic history, and continues her project to assemble the world's largest pile of books-to-be-read. She also reviews for SFX, Vector, and Cascadia Subduction Zone, and spends too much time wittering on at Eve's Alexandria.