Game of Thrones Review
And you thought fantasy was for kids!
“Backstabbing doesn’t prepare you for a fight. And that’s all the realm is now … backstabbing and scheming and arse-licking and money-grubbing. Sometimes I don’t know what holds it together.”
And there you have the basic rules of the Game of Thrones.
Move over J.R.R. Tolkien, this is the reign of G.R.R. Martin, the latest creator of an all-immersive, multi-faceted universe of fantastical characters, dark and troubled times, hidden destinies, incredible bravery and remorseless treachery. HBO have taken the bull by the horns and lavished this so far six volume series of epic tales with their customarily excellent production values, outstanding adaptive screenwriting (with full approval of the author, who also acts as the show’s executive producer) and exemplary performances from a cast that is to die for. With each season of the show representing one of the books, we commence with Book One, A Song of Ice and Fire … and a more lavish and engrossing chronicle of power, deceit, honour and betrayal you couldn’t hope to see.
With the likes of Spartacus and The Walking Dead still thundering through a nonstop cavalcade of gore and visual taboo-snapping to huge acclaim, and American Horror Story taking the same ethic of mature genre probing in its seedy Hollywood-Gothic stride, there has also been a plethora of high-concept, though emotionally blank and imaginatively-bereft new shows, such as Alcatraz and Flash Forward which struggled to make an impact, whilst the cretinous Camelot died a well-deserved death that couldn’t come quick enough, it remains Game of Thrones, as written for the screen by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, that holds the crown and takes all the glory for sheer breadth, scope, ambition and a level of consistent magnificence that makes every episode a veritable masterpiece of gripping political and sexual drama and high adventure.
Seven kingdoms live uneasily in the land of Westeros. The most dominant families of the Houses Stark, Baratheon and Lannister coexist in a turbulent alliance. Lord Eddard (or Ned) Stark (Sean Bean) is requested by his old friend the King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) to become the Right Hand of the King, his sovereign protector and second-in-command. The Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) however, is a Lannister … and she plots to have her family seize power from her husband by placing her son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) on the throne. But other realms have similar ideas and, even now, are taking steps to overthrow Baratheon and regain the throne for themselves. Ned uncovers a heinous secret and begins to realise the lies that have subjugated the land. His investigation proves dangerous and soon his life, as well as those of his family, is at risk. As cracks appear in the kingdom, the power-base begins to shift and soon Westeros is hurtling towards all-out war. With the threat of an ancient evil arising in the northern wastes beyond the great Wall, and of a prophesised challenge from across the sea gaining strength … the throne seems up for grabs.
And throughout all of this the members of the House of Lannister pull strings, pervert nature as well as justice, inveigle, conspire and incriminate all those around them in the desire to gain control over the entire realm for their bloodline.
So let the Games begin.
Sean Bean. ’nuff said, really. The presence of this northern hero playing, as it happens, a hero from the North, is the glue that bonds this first season and chapter in the saga. Where the Hobbits were playful and afraid in The Fellowship of the Ring and the other characters brought dignity and selfless valour to the pot, Bean brought a very human vulnerability along with a beast-like courage and a depth that hung like a tragic plume of smoke over events in Middle-earth. In Troy he brought a practical and humble quality to his straggly-haired pirate-adventurer Odysseus. As Sharpe, he strutted across the battlefields of the Napoleonic maelstrom with a lewd, womanising crusader that you’d happily follow into the fray at the drop of a hat … and then get drunk, eat a few pies and go wenching with afterwards. He even brought home the blighted psychological fear and physical trauma that Andy McNab must have felt during his “eventful” experiences in Iraq in Bravo Two Zero. This infinitely human quality that Sean Bean is able to produce at a second’s notice is something that people tend to overlook when they think of the Sheffield-lad come Hollywood star. And just as William Munny was the psychological curse/redemption of Clint Eastwood’s screen persona in Unforgiven, Ned Stark becomes the spiritual tsunami that purges Bean of all the broken heroes he has played before. The character goes through the mill a few times, both physically and emotionally, and you can see the inner turmoil raging through his veins in even his many quieter and tender moments of reflection. A good man, a ferociously good man, Ned Stark is faced, almost continually with terrible decisions and dreadful ramifications.
As is his long-suffering family of bastards, cripples and broken things. Two young daughters, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (a wonderful tomboy performance from Maisie Williams) fall afoul of the underhanded Lannisters, his young son Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is rendered a cripple by them in the first episode, the opening gambit that sets this juggernaut rolling, and his adoring wife, the strong-willed and valiant Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) must go on her own odyssey of honour and revenge to protect the family name and to keep the Northern flag flying. With a roster of older Starks on the cusp of becoming men, her battle becomes a fine challenge to the imperious Lannister clan.
Another terrific Northern lad is Mark Addy. Now, wrapping himself in cling-film and munching Mars Bars in The Full Monty made his job-seeking reluctant stripper a very sympathetic and likeable character, but parading at the forefront of the Tesco ad-campaign alongside Fay Ripley was a major misstep. And his turn as Friar Tuck in Ridley Scott’s oh-so-forgettable Robin Hood was undoubtedly another, even if he did look the part. So who would have thought that he could go on to portray a wine-swilling, pork-sword-bandying, boastful, lusting King so brilliantly? As the ogreish Robert Baratheon, Addy has found a signature character for which his performance is nothing short of stunning. Earthy, volatile, conflicted and ultimately pathetic and conscience-riddled, there is real grit and thunder to the part, but Addy is able to peel back the tough talk and the brazen bravado to expose the soul of a man who hungered for more but never found the simplest thing that he needed most of all.
And married to the deceitful, lying witch that is Lena Headey’s duplicitous and incestuous Cersei can’t be easy. Headey, so gorgeous in 300, so miscast in Sarah Connor Chronicles is excellent as his foil, his hateful betrothed and the eternal thorn in his side. With the blonde tresses of a Nordic princess and a permafrost scowl she is the Viking bitch-queen of Westeros … and yet even she is able to open up with inner workings and regrets and failed wishes – and not all of her seemingly heartfelt exposés are lies. Blood is thicker than water and her “relationship” with her brother Jaimie Lannister (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau) is the root cause of almost all the dark and dreadful events that conspire against peace in the seven kingdoms. Looking exactly like Shrek’s Prince Charming, Jaimie is a force to be reckoned with. As cutting and agile with his tongue as he is with a sword, Jaimie becomes one of the most cunning of foes in the Game, and yet even he is not the most despised. Oh no … not by a long-shot.
That dirty honour has to go to one of the most courageous young actors around. Jack Gleeson, who plays the simply appalling Joffrey – an Aryan scrote with a face that looks as though it has been moulded from a plastic joke-shop mask – must court trouble whenever he walks the streets, so vile and evil is the character that he plays so damn well. Some of you might recall the annoying brat in Batman Begins who realises that he has just met the notorious Dark Knight and says to him with wide and jealous eyes, “It’s you, isn’t?” Well, after witnessing his horrific antics here, you’ll wish that Ra’s Al-Ghul’s henchman did more than just shove him away in Chris Nolan’s first Bat-outing. All jesting aside, Gleeson is a staggeringly good actor. He must be, because the rest of his cast members all happily report on what a nice fellow he really is off-camera. And yet he can play so horrendous and arrogant a tyrant that you literally yearn for the ability to wrench him from the screen and tear him limb from limb. Slowly.
Perhaps the one storyline that we feel the most comfortable with is actually the most ominous and uncomfortable. Kit Harington brings dignity and heart to the role of Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow, leaving the relative sanctity of his half-home to take up a celibate warrior life guarding the northernmost extremity of the seven kingdoms at the Wall as a member of the life-pledged defenders the Night’s Watch. Here, these stone-faced warriors live like virtual monks, sworn to protect the realm from the terrifying things that lurk out there in the snow and ice, things that will journey south when the long and dreaded Winter comes. Snow is the most noble and stalwart of them all – selfless and compassionate, he is also, thankfully enough, exceedingly handy with a sword. John Bradley takes on the loveable Samwise Gamgee sort of companion/soul-mate role of Samwell Turley to the redoubtable Jon Snow … and if you can get past the incredible similarity he has to Peter Kay, then you’ll find that this relationship is one of the most steadfast and endearing.
Journey across the Narrow Sea and he find even more complexly crafted playing pieces in the Game.
There is the human exposition-machine of Ian Glen’s Ser Jorah Mormont, traveller, chronicler and emissary to the fierce nomadic tribe of the Dothraki, and confidante and protector to the new Queen, or Khaleesi. I love Glen’s character, but he does that much explaining about the culture of the horse lords that when he cropped up in Downton Abbey, I actually expected him to whisper in Lady Mary Crawley’s ear at the dinner-table, “You know, the Dothroki pass the sauce from the left hand side.”
Harry Lloyd’s Draco Malfoy-alike blonde fop, Viserys Targaryen, lordly brother to the beautiful Deanyris (Emila Clarke) is yet another dishonourable reprobate hiding behind apparent birthright and assumed status. Given to wild expressions of hilariously stunned effrontery, he is an addictive buffoon of flouncing idiocy. Lloyd does a great job of reducing Viserys to such humiliating levels that his occasional sideswipes and outrages still manage to threaten.
Silent but strong and very intimidating is Jason Momoa as the Klingon-like Khal Drogo, chieftain of the Dothraki. It is hardly surprising that he was the man to take up the mantel of Conan The Barbarian after his deadly and, indeed, nobly barbaric performance here … but so sad to discover that he was pretty much wasted in a film that turned out to be a cinematic turd. Even more so in 3D. Here, though, he is magnificent. Riding around the magically transformed outskirts of what is actually Belfast in nowt but a loincloth and war-paint, he morphs from savage chieftain to one half of perhaps the romantic couple to have graced TV screens since Jack and Vera Duckworth! Nah, but seriously, he may be able to rip a man’s throat out with his fingers and kill a dozen more simply by staring at them with those brimstone eyes, but this is a lover as well as a fighter. And when you clap your own eyes upon his “Moon and Stars”, they are apt to smoulder with infernal desire also.
Ahhh, yes … the flaxen-haired Denearys, a strategic trophy-bride awarded to the barbarian war-lord in order to pertain a blood-hungry legion of warriors hell-bent on reclaiming the throne. Played with emotional vigour and profound beauty by newcomer Clarke, Denearys is the very thing that testosterone was created for. There’s no denying it. The real-life brunette dons tresses of the purest snow and takes the prize for being the most singularly gorgeous woman in this or any make-believe world you care dream up. Even if used as mere set-dressing, she would have made this show compelling viewing, but the fact that she can act – and act brilliantly – is the jewel that shines the brightest in this already gem-festooned treasure-chest.
But there’s even more.
Fantastic whispers-in-the-ear and usherings behind the curtain down in the capital of Kingslanding from Aidan Gillan constantly undermine you. One minute he’s a friend, the next a potential foe. His unerring scheming and goading seems self-perpetuating and yet there is much necessary information dealt out amidst the misdirection and the trivia. A wise man would be able to separate fact from fallacy, or indeed, given that he runs a brothel that caters for any and all tastes, phallacy, but as Little Finger, as he is called, this venerable member of the King’s Council is like Big Brother, the eyes and ears of the realm. We are never sure whose side he is on, nor what it might be that he is after … but Gillan ensures that he becomes a sort of lyrical tabloid bloodhound, full of gossip and tactical slander.
A roster of stalwart British thespic talent swells the ranks of this carnival still more. Peter Vaughn, Julian Glover, John Allam, Donald Sumpter and James Cosmo offer advice that could be taken either way, depending upon the direction of the prevailing wind. I love the fact that the tough, iron-fisted commander of the Night’s Watch, the man making Jon Snow’s and Sam’s lives a misery is played by Owen Teale, who once fought one of the longest and most brutal fist-fights ever employed on television … and he fought it against none other than Sean Bean in the adaptation of Catherine Cookson’s The Fifteen Streets. And if you look beneath the grizzled and scarred visages with their tendrils of beards and wastrel hair and you’ll find the likes of Jerome Flynn and Rory McCann, the thug from Hot Fuzz who could only articulate the word “Yarrrp!” Even good old Charles Dance picks up a sword and brings wrath ‘n’ thunder to the story as the embittered and calculating Tywin Lannister, father of a nest of three instinctive schemers.
But across this colourful deluge of talent, one little man casts the largest shadow. Portraying the Lannister “imp” of Tyrion is Peter Dinklage, and to rise above the outstanding quality of this impressive cast is nothing short of a Herculean feat … which makes it so beautifully poetic that the man who sifts most Machiavellian throughout the shadowy intrigues of Martin’s twisted medieval world should be a dwarf. Previously seen as the diminutive business tycoon who attacks Will Ferrell for assuming once too often that he is, in fact, one of Santa’s little helpers in the film Elf, Dinklage steals every damn scene that he is in with a strut, a swagger, a hypnotic Shakespearean brogue and the sheer class of someone who has found his spiritual Macbeth. On-screen, he owns it. Off it, his last sentence still reverberates in your mind, and you cannot wait to see him again. Blessed with brains if not physical stature and fighting prowess, Tyrion walks the tightrope between the treachery of his kin and the smart individuality and honed intelligence that he has over everybody else. He may not be entirely trustworthy, but he has a sense of honour and pride and, quite uniquely in this world, a sense of fair play. Dinklage is a superstar. Without him, the show would still be awesome … but with him it positively overflows with the brilliance of that character, that depth, and that voice.
Ah, yes … the dialogue.
To find the right vernacular, the right vocabulary for what is an older and more fantastical world cannot be easy. To make it then sparkle with wit and passion, and to not have the audience smirk at its theatrical bent is even harder. You only have to listen to the cod-Shakespearean pontificating and wantonly obscene tirades in Starz’s excellent Spartacus to see the difference in quality. Were Spartacus is fun, frothy and comical in its flamboyant intermingling of plaintiff oath, odious blasphemy and amateur Bardian pentameter – and the current Season 2, Vengeance, is actually beginning to grate on the nerves so distracting this verbiage is becoming – Thrones never ceases to enthral with its tongue-twisting dexterity, its wry put-downs and its labyrinth of verbal ensnaring. The combination of eloquence and earthiness grounds the characters in a consistent reality that continually furthers the intrigue, yet never lapses in developing characters and relationships.
There is wicked humour at play too. For what else could it be when you hear an exchange between a Little Finger and a Spider that could so easily have fallen from the lips of The Two Ronnies, yet still retains a searing undercurrent of desperate and dangerous cynicism?
We must not forget that this is fantasy story. With so much political backstabbing and twisting alliances, and such an air of authentic world-building, you would think that bringing in the elements of dragons and the supernatural would perhaps sit uncomfortably beside the Throne. But, just as real as the swords, the horses, the castles and the rust, smut and lust of this fully-rounded, three-dimensional world, these elements are sheathed as skilfully as a well-tempered blade. Dragons are hinted at and will become integral as the story develops into Season 2. Magic exists in a far more practical sense than mere spell-casting. The supernatural is indeed at work … although its infiltration is limited to only a couple of truly shocking sequences … and all of this works just as well as the constant betrayals and revelations.
We hear all the time that “Winter is coming,” and we are under no illusion that with it will come things of unspeakable evil and cruelty. The bizarre and frightening White Walkers are heralded even as early as the very first scene that we see in Episode 1, in which a ghastly massacre is discovered in the frozen nightmare north of the Wall. Every so often, we are reminded that this world will be consumed by fear and death once the season changes – and seasons last for a very long time in Westeros – and these tantalising portents are enough to chill the blood and to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand tall. “The White Walkers with their packs of pale spiders …” Jeez, that line uttered during a spine-tingling speech from Old Nan (the sadly late Margaret John) to the crippled Bran as he languishes in bed, on its own is enough conjure nightmares, isn’t it? Packs of pale spiders. Man, I hope we get to see this in a later season.
Every episode flows with energy and captivating visual flourish. The Wall, carved from a canyon of ice, with its manually operated lift travelling like a beetle up its vast height. A dungeon decorated with dragon skulls. Sky-cells that open out onto a terrifyingly vertiginous drop. Sweaty taverns and rustic squalor compete with gleaming, jewel-encrusted palaces and immense processions of painted Dothraki are juxtaposed with crimson encampments of medieval armies - barbarism versus chivalry. There's so much to take in, and so many stand-out moments that your imagination is literally engulfed by it all, and images from Westeros linger long within it.
Sex and violence. Want some?
Well, you got it with this. We aren’t in the same league as Spartacus for either, but there is definitely plenty of both to go around. The women are breathtakingly desirable and patently unafraid to flaunt their sexuality. Aiden Gillen certainly had one very lucky day during the shoot, when his, ahem, Little Finger has to tutor his latest two whores, including Ross (Esme Bianco), the finest that the North has to offer, in the fine art of seduction. Over the course of a ten minute dissertation he has them engage in some truly eye-popping girl-on-girl action that bravely depicted as more than mere wanton titillation. But, in the spirit of equality, there is even some boy-on-boy elements thrown into this ribald stew.
The gore and violence can be extreme, and it is well worth mentioning that it is almost all handled with prosthetics, adding yet more practical realism to the grungy, open-air feel of the extensive location shoot. We can squirm at savage wounds and guttings, horribly sharp implements thrust through eyes and other tender bits, a gurgling throat all opened-up and, most memorably of all, a few choice and totally unexpected beheadings. Aye, Game of Thrones is unashamedly adult fare, and challenging at times too.
And now an apology … to composer Ramin Djawadi. My tongue was scathing about his score for Louis Leterrier’s disappointing remake of Clash of the Titans, and I have also bemoaned the Hans Zimmer influence that has loomed large over other works of his. I sincerely doubted that Djawadi would ever be able to emerge from beneath his vast and engorged shadow, and when I found that his name was attached to Game of Thrones, I despaired. But when I heard that main title theme … man, when I heard that … I was immediately captivated, inspired, roused and … well, in complete awe. Hands down, this is the best television theme tune that I have heard in years, possibly even the best that I have ever heard. Powerful, sweeping and exquisitely rhythmic, this captures the essence and the colour and the emotion of the show perfectly. Together with that now classic Emmy Award-winning title sequence that depicts all the realms of the kingdom in an animated clockwork travelogue, this main theme immediately informs you that the show is a bloody and yet beautiful work of art. And his score throughout is often haunting, exotic and elegiac.
With many TV shows that you love and cannot wait to obtain on disc, there is that semi-deflated feeling when you first try to return to them. Because you know what is coming, it can be difficult to find the right groove to properly enjoy the early episodes all over again. But this isn’t the case with Game of Thrones. There is such an immediacy and drive to the story that you are dropped right into the thick of things straight away and then swept along without pause for thought. In fact, the most surprising thing that I found when recommencing the show on BD was just how much ground was covered in the first two instalments. Right from the get-go you are plunged into the dark mire of the Lannister’s skulduggery, the moral testing of the Starks, the strong emotional journey of Deanerys and Khal Drogo … and you won’t want it to end.
This is the best show on TV, bar none.