Monday, April 18, 2011

Game of Thrones – Episode 1

If you are a fan of the kind of episode-by-episode TV blogging that’s become extremely popular over the last few years, and if you are looking for reactions to the premiere of Game of Thrones, you have no shortage of places to satiate your needs. Alan Sepinwall’s site at Hitfix. James Poniewozic at Time. Mo Ryan, formerly of The Chicago Tribune, at Stay Tuned. Todd VanDerWerff at The AV Club. There are many more.

So I am going to try something a little different. I am going to write about Game of Thrones every week, and I certainly may discuss my general reactions and provide some general thoughts about the episodes. But the primary thrust of these write-ups will not be a comprehensive (or cursory) review, but a “close read” of a specific scene. Not quite a shot-by-shot analysis (something I frankly do not have the background or knowledge of filmmaking to even attempt), but a close look at a scene in the episode and what makes it work (or not).

The scene from the pilot I will be focusing on is the wedding scene in Pentos. The quick summary of the scene: The exiled princess Daenerys Targaryen has been basically sold off by her brother Viserys to Khal Drogo, a local warlord, in exchange for the support off Drogo’s army of Dothraki warriors. Viserys and Daenerys are the last surviving members of the Targaryen dynasty, and Viserys plans on returning to Westeros to retake the throne that was taken violently from his father 17 years before—hence the need for an army.

What this scene emphasizes for me is what I (after the admittedly piss-poor example of just one episode) am most concerned about in terms of the series. At the same time, it capably demonstrated some of the things that are most encouraging about this series so far. Let’s start with the worrisome bit.

George R.R. Martin is on record in numerous venues as saying that when he set out to write the epic fantasy series this program is based on he was deliberately taking advantage of the “unlimited budget” of novels to craft a story of the scope and ambition he had learned from years in the business would never work on TV. So he created a vast, sweeping story that spanned continents, encompassed hundreds (thousands?) of characters, and featured massive action set pieces, in addition to the frank depictions of sex and violence that TV (at the time) would never touch.

The violence and sex problem was taken care of by the advent of R-rated (hard R-rated) television series being created and aired by pay TV networks like HBO and Showtime. And the scope problem was (partially) addressed by the expanded budget allowed by the new television business model—with shorter seasons, fewer series to budget for, and a pay model almost dependent on spending money and making sure it shows (thereby creating the feel that these were programs worth paying a premium subscription price for), the scale of Westeros was within reach. On top of this, the last decade has seen CGI advance to the point where a creation like The Wall is possible on a TV (albeit HBO-TV) budget.

But is everything Martin has imagined possible on an HBO budget? That’s a question that future episodes (and, especially, future seasons) will address. And yet we do get a hint of it here.

The wedding scene, in the book, is a bit of a set piece. The wild madness of the scene, the “orgy-on-a-grand-scale-feel,” and the sheer scope are intended to be breathtaking. It is meant to be a massive celebration on the part of Drogo’s army of thousands, and hangers-on, marked by a terrifying (to Daenerys) amount of violence and sexual aggression. And yet, the scene in the pilot doesn’t have the scale it needed. Other similarly outsized elements in the pilot work beautifully—The Wall; the entire world of Westeros, as depicted both in the wonderful opening credits and in the landscapes and CGI cities and castles we see; the massive banquet Ned holds to welcome the King. But the wedding feels small—as if it is a celebration, not of thousands, but hundreds. And, yes, this does matter, because the scene is meant to not only demonstrate the horrible position Daenerys has been put in by her brother (a task it accomplished quite nicely), but also the formidable size and scale of the army Viserys has just bought for himself—which we don’t really feel or see, but instead are just told about, with the evidence somewhat contradicting that telling.

All that said, the wedding scene does do a very good job of shorthanding the brutality of this culture. Not only do we see a woman raped on what in our world would be the dance floor of her wedding, we see two warriors fight over her, to the (suitably) violent death. It’s easy to look at the actual killing and wonder if the tawdriness of a visible disembowelment, replete with intestines hanging to the ground, is really necessary. But, as conceived by Martin, it is, for we need the extreme of the violence to really convince us of the fierceness of this newly bought army. What we miss, again, is the scale, the sheer massive size of this army. And that’s a small, but important, detail.

Remaining random reactions
  • My sense from other reviews is that the plot and characters are understandable by newcomers to this world, albeit only if closely watched and perhaps supplemented with some on-line research. As someone who has read the books, I’ll only say that there are details alluded to here (the fate of Viserys' father those 17 years ago, for example) that would be no clearer had you read the books up to this point. Because the books are written from a fairly limited POV of just a handful of characters, including children, a lot of backstory is only alluded to in bits and drabs, and never just provided whole.
  • Apart from trifling minutia (why isn’t Illyrio fatter? Why isn’t Tyrion uglier?), the casting so far is showing no weak links. The biggest revelation so far is Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, who with precious little screen time and few lines manages to paint a fully realized, dynamic character. That look she gives Bran after hitting the bullseye with her arrow? Genius.
  • I was actually a bit taken by the main theme during the opening credits, and am eager to give it a second listen. Nonetheless, that’s one area I expect the budget and timing to affect as well—an epic fantasy series like this deserves a great, epic score, but those are few and far between on TV.
  • My only exposure to Mark Addy had been his amiable acting and wincingly bad American accent on the sitcom Still Standing. Wow.
  • Jack Gleeson as Joffrey gets no lines in this episode, and yet conveys much about the character with just his overall effect.
  • It will be interesting to see how they deal with the direwolves as they grow. That dead mama was large.
 Until Whenever

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