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Television Collision: Game of Thrones – Television As It Should Be

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer


And so it has happened. The Season One finale of Game of Thrones has aired and the long wait for more has begun. It’ll be about a year and I am sure I will come back to these thoughts I am putting down right now just before Season Two starts airing to remind myself what I thought immediately after first seeing the show. Because we all know that any amount of time can alter our perception of pop-culture products, hence we talk about them “aging well” – or not.

So what are my thoughts on the first season of a show that has been the talk of the (internet) town since weeks before it even premiered? To be honest, it is a little hard to dissect all the voices in my head, all the opinions I have heard and all the fangirl inklings lurking inside me. The downside of not doing in-depth, weekly reviews of each individual episode will probably be resulting in this attempt at summarizing my thoughts on Season One turning out to be rather epic in length, but let me give it a go anyway.
(For your convenience, I have structured my thoughts with sub-headlines.)

The TV Show vs. The Books

I still haven’t read a word of the books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series and right now I don’t think I want to, although that is not to say the long wait for more stories with Westeros’ characters will not wear me down over the next months and I’ll cave and pick up the books. But here’s why I don’t want to: I don’t think there is much value that can be derived from the debate about the difference between the book and the TV show. Both are designed for a specific medium and a specific audience or mode of consumption at least, hence even though the books and the show tell roughly the same story involving the same characters, they both need to do so in their own way. I have said this before in my podcast a few weeks back, but I truly do believe it is best to separate these two “realms” of the stories – if you will – in your head.

For the producers of the TV show it is advantageous, to say the least, to have a road map in the books, to know where the story is headed (even though the very end is still shrouded in mystery as George R.R. Martin has only finished Book Five of seven). This knowledge of the direction the story takes in the books makes it a lot easier to give the TV show an urgency and a cohesion that is often lacking from other shows, where the creators are making it up as they go along. Or even if they do have an idea of the “bigger picture”, they are at least filling in gaps in the middle as they come across them, always bearing the danger of contradicting themselves or drawing something out beyond audience’s patience (see How I Met Your Mother and the later seasons of Lost).
So the fact that the first season of Game of Thrones is one of the best first seasons of a TV show in years largely stems from the fact that producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had such rich source material to draw from, which was already ahead of them in the progression of the story. From this they could conjure a confident vision of what they wanted their show to look like and which elements of the story to stress and for all intents and purposes they did a great job.

As someone who, as I’ve said, hasn’t read the books, at the end of Season One of Game of Thrones I believe I have a grasp on the characters that were included, on their back stories, their allegiances and their relationships. Yes, I didn’t think I would be able to, but I can tell all the Houses apart, I can name the members of each family, I can even tell you why the Mad King was murdered and by whom and who else was involved in the conspiracy. Can I do this because I am an especially attentive viewer of television and hence other people, who weren’t paying as close attention, can’t (like I have been hearing some people are still confused)? Maybe. But to be fair, it was made clear in Episode One that this show was going to be dense and tight-packed and that often vital information was passed between the lines. This is by no means exceptional for an HBO show, but I fear network and cable television of a certain kind has many brains of TV viewers in a permanent state of dullness and stupor.
This is not Game of Thrones’ fault. If you go back over the episodes on your DVR, you will notice that all information you need to have is mentioned and the smallest gestures can tell you legends about a character. There is also a surprising amount of foreshadowing and the lingering shots of dragon eggs aren’t even what I am talking about.
(I suspect there is even more foreshadowing you can only get when you have read the books.)

The fact that the books are out there is also an advantage to fans of the show though, because nothing is easier than googling the fate of Khal Drogo and find out whether the sun will ever rise in the West and bring him back to Daenerys. We can’t know what George R.R. Martin has planned for the concluding two books he has yet to write, so none of the characters’ stories are definite yet. And we also have no guarantee that the TV show will follow the course exactly. Maybe there will be some characters that won’t die in the screen version, or die later, differently, at someone else’s hands, because another minor character had to be left out. The possibilities are endless and although I get the sense that Benioff and Weiss are both fans of the books and will therefore serve their source material for the show with respect, they aren’t obliged to follow the written word to the letter.

It’s a heinous comparison and one I hate to drag up, but I simply lack fantasy experience to come up with another comparison on the fly, but think of The Lord of the Rings: it is unarguable that Peter Jackson is the biggest fan of those books on this planet. And he treated his source material with all the respect it deserves, but he still made changes. He cut the character of Tom Bombadil and those who never read the books (are there still people out there who haven’t?), that didn’t matter one bit. The story in the movie trilogy was perfectly coherent and compelling without Tom Bombadil. (Granted, I don’t think fans of the books were ever fans of Tom Bombadil either, he was rather tiresome, but that’s beside the point). Jackson also moved the appearance of the giant spider that stings Frodo from the second book into the third movie, because he needed more action on the Frodo and Sam front for that third installment. And it worked.
So I guess I am saying to fans of the book: give Benioff and Weiss a bit of leeway and trust them. They haven’t disappointed you so far, right?

But this was not the point I wanted to make. Although one more thought on that whole “converting books into a TV show” dilemma: what if George R.R. Martin takes another five years to finish Book Six and then another five to finish Book Seven? The TV show will have long caught up with him then. What are they going to do? Lap him?

The Accomplishments of the TV Show

My point was: Season One of Game of Thrones was one of the best first seasons of any TV show ever. It hit the ground running and it never let up. At the same time though, after viewing the finale, there is the definite sense that we aren’t in fact watching the story we thought we were watching at all, which is a big reason why the non-book-savvy TV audience was so outraged at the end of episode 9, when Ned Stark was beheaded. In the traditional world of TV, viewers are accustomed to the fact that shows are upfront about what they are about, they don’t pretend and lie to us and viewers felt that Game of Thrones had lied to them. They thought they were watching the story of an undoubtedly good-hearted, if painfully naïve, honorable man suffering through a baffling amount of injustices, immorality and intrigue only to ultimately (maybe after ten seasons), put on his red cape, er… climb the throne, I mean.

This was not the story Game of Thrones was telling. This was not the story the books of the A Song of Ice and Fire series were telling either. Ned’s death scene in the books, I am told, came as just as much of a shock. But maybe we were being even more naïve than Ned to believe he could ever make it out alive. Think about it.
A side of me though can relate to the outrage and the anger that results from having your heart broken like that by a TV show. I confessed a few weeks ago my infatuation with Sean Bean. My binge of All Things Bean still hasn’t ended, every day I watch a film or an episode of a TV show he starred in. But in that same confession I also theorized that Sean Bean is too fine an actor for his own good, which is why he ends up being killed all the time.
In an interview with HBO, D.B. Weiss said: “Sean Bean is one of the few people I’ve ever seen who can convey gravitas with the back of his head.”
He was talking, of course, about that emotionally gruesome shot of Ned’s bare neck, just as it was about to be sliced through WITH HIS OWN DAMN SWORD! (You see, I am outraged too!)

Once again Sean Bean had to provide that air of melancholic poetry and play a character who had to be so memorable that his spirit would echo on through the rest of the story still to come. That outrage upon his death many were feeling is precisely the kind of emotion that must be going on inside every single member of the Stark family upon these events. So what better way to engage an audience than to have one of the most beloved actors in all of geekdom – who also brings legions of female fans with him, always a plus for any production – play the one guy you want to see win and then kill him off? You cannot make the sense of loss more literal and more visceral for a TV audience. It was a genius move to cast a guy with a big name like Sean Bean and cradle uninitiated TV viewers in the false security we have acquired from years and years of watching shows where the central character, the Big Name Actor, was always, always safe, hence any real sense of danger and menace was removed a priori.
Seldom do the external factors and their external results sync so beautifully with the internal factors and internal results on TV shows as they did here. The result was glorious, exciting TV that finally engaged us on levels we had forgotten we could be engaged on with a TV show.

The Emotional (Non-)Journey

Or did it? Cory Barker of the excellent TV Surveillance site/blog recently penned a column entitled: “Kingdom of Disconnect: On Ambivalence with Game of Thrones”, in which he admits that his main (and often only) reaction to each new episode or twist of the show is merely “Cool!” On an emotional level, he doesn’t feel engaged by the show (he explains this far more eloquently than I can summarize here) and to a certain degree I can understand that.

As much as Game of Thrones is about Big Stories, as in words like honor, courage, loyalty and so on are thrown around ad infinitum, the show (and the books?) doesn’t trade in tear-jerking. It trades in pathos, no doubt, although not the sappy, “I am going to give a ten minute speech about how much I love you” pathos, but the pathos that is at work every time any nation goes to war, the pathos soldiers need to believe in when they embark on a mission, the pathos that is the very foundation of any story of the magnitude the great fantasy writers are telling. You have to believe in any and/or all of the Big Concepts, like honor, to follow along on the journey. If you don’t believe, for example, that a son should stand for his father’s actions (and crimes), then the disconnect with a story that is based on such principles is immediate and rather deep.

So there are parts of the story I feel a disconnect with too. I don’t believe in “an eye for an eye”, so while my immediate gut reaction upon Ned’s death also may have been “Let’s avenge him and have Joffrey’s head and Cersei’s too, while we’re at it”, about five minutes later my head would have started to kick into gear and I would argue more along the lines of “Let’s not stoop to their level, let’s be smart about this and outwit them instead of just marching our soldiers to their own deaths”.
Which characters or storylines a viewer relates to is inseparably connected to what life experiences they bring to the table and there is only so much work the writers of a TV show can do to try and persuade you to relate to a character that may not immediately draw your affection. If writers try too hard, you end up with the mess that was Thirteen’s storyline on House, and we wouldn’t want anything like that tarnishing something as awesome as Game of Thrones, right?

The only other option then is to accept that there are characters you won’t relate to, even though you can tell you are supposed to or are at least offered the opportunity to do so. For example: I know many have taken a liking to Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister for his wits, his humor and the fact that he has many obstacles to overcome. We always like to root for the underdog, right, even if he is a Lannister? Personally, I don’t care for him. While I may appreciate the, admittedly, wise advice Tyrion once gave to Jon Snow (“Wear the insult as your armor!”), the mere fact that he is disrespected by his family is not enough to enamor him to me. I don’t immediately always root for the underdog or the one with the sad history (and what his brother Jamie did to Tyrion regarding his first love was cruel and sad). I root for the people who step up, who take action, who earn my respect not by merely passively suffering a terrible and cruel fate but by taking an active role in their lives in spite of it all. Like Daenerys.

Here is a young woman (in the books she is only 13!), who could have submitted to her fate of being married off to a brutish warlord by her conniving brother and lived out her days as a shell of a human being. Instead, she seized the few chances that were presented to her, embraced her opportunities, while trying to keep some sense of what is right and wrong. She knew her path to seizing the Iron Throne again would be laced with blood, but that is a consequence she accepted. And when she was betrayed by the witch and Drogo, the last person in the world whom she truly loved, was taken from her, she didn’t surrender to her fate either, she burnt the place down and emerged a Dragon Queen, for crying out loud! This is what I am talking about!

There is hope for Tyrion in my book yet, because he will go to King’s Landing and serve as the King’s Hand, which means he has a shot at proving that he is “better” at ruling than his sister Cersei or his nephew Joffrey is. Although what “better” means in the universe of this show is a topic to debate in and of itself. Are we talking morals or effectiveness? And whose side are we on while we argue?
While it is safe to say that the show (and the books?) wants us to side with the Starks for now (although there are always those who enjoy a good villain more and hence root for the Lannisters, you twisted souls, you!), there aren’t any simple answers to questions of morality on Game of Thrones and this is the aspect of the show I revel in the most.

Morality and Choosing Your Allegiance

Too often are the pop-culture products we consume laden with moral messages and neatly bow-tied at their resolution. Too seldom are the actions by our central heroes questioned for morality (mostly this is avoided by painting the evil enemies as just that: evil through and through, hence we have no qualms about seeing Orcs die in Lord of the Rings). Though I don’t believe the claim that “There are no purely evil creatures in ASoIF, there are always shades of gray” – because what then, I pray ask, are the White Walkers? – the actions of the human characters are never portrayed as squarely right or wrong either way. Robb Stark has as many troubles with knowing he sent a few hundred of his soldiers to die as Cersei Lannister feels uneasy upon seeing her son Joffrey take to his newly gained power like a wanderer of the desert takes to water. So while as a viewer we must choose where our allegiances lie (as much as the characters must, see Jon Snow), we are also always made aware that neither choice will put us firmly in the “morally right” column. The Starks treat their prisoner Jamie Lannister no better than the Lannisters treated their prisoner Ned Stark and in the emerging war I am sure soldiers on both sides will be merciless in their killing. Pride goes before a fall. Remember that while you choose your side.

There are more than two sides you can choose though. Right now the primary fight seems to be between the Starks and the Lannisters (although the Baratheon’s have taken up arms as well, supposedly, but we haven’t seen any of that), but they are all blissfully unaware that Daenerys and her dragon babies are coming for them. When two fight, the third rejoices? Upon the heels of the tragic death of Ned Stark that already left us raw and beaten, in the Season One finale we also had to deal with the death of Khal Drogo, the fiercest warrior in all the lands cut down by a “scratch” on his chest and a wicked witch. He deserved better. And because I was spoiled about Ned’s death weeks before it happened on screen (the internet provides plenty of traps, even if you try to avoid spoilers), I had no idea we were going to lose Drogo too and it gutted me. To lose my two favorite characters on the show within a week’s time was truly one of the more traumatizing TV experiences of my life.

What Story Are We Watching?

The last two episodes of the season linked together beautifully though, not only because there was no time gap between Episode 9’s end and 10’s beginning (and can I say the shot of that blood-drenched sword just made me weep all over again? It was almost more emotional than that neck shot in Ep 9). In many ways Episode 9, “Baelor”, was the true season finale, the sword at the end cutting not only through Ned’s neck but making a clear cut in the story as well. Episode 10, “Fire and Blood”, was then more about setting up what is to come, showing how all the wheels are set in motion now, unstoppable, and things will have to play themselves out. And while we are all immersed in the game of thrones, the Brothers of the Night’s Watch already know where the real future war will lie and while this was merely hinted at in previous episodes, in this finale Jeor Mormont, the Lord Commander, spelled it out for us: “When dead men and worse come hunting for us in the night, do you think it matters who sits on the Iron Throne?”

That’s the story we are really watching, isn’t it? All of this other stuff is background information we will need once things come down to the wire and all of Westeros must unite to survive. Who will be “the bigger man” then, putting aside past injustices and offenses and entering into an allegiance with the hated enemy? Much like the characters on the show, who have lived in a long summer and in a world where magic has almost passed into legend, the TV viewers were also quick to dismiss the hints at something bigger lurking in the background and got consumed by the events within the Seven Kingdoms, evidenced by the outrage, the tears, the fervent debates and exchanges about every single episode of this first season of Game of Thrones. Again the external and the internal converge beautifully here, the viewers are just as blind to the bigger picture as the characters for a long time. I can only say it again: this is how truly great television should work.

Looking Ahead to Season Two

Going into Season 2 at least the TV audience won’t be this blind anymore. Now we know what kind of a story we are watching and things are going to get a lot worse before they ever get better. If they ever get better, that is. With the amount of plot twists George R.R. Martin has included in his story that are irreverent to the emotional destruction they may cause, there is no telling how everything will draw to a close. There truly are no guarantees for a happily ever after in the universe of Game of Thrones and that is what’s exciting about it.
The energy of Season 2 will be different, because beloved characters will be missing (and missed), but scores of new ones will be introduced and again we will have to make up our minds whether we like them, trust them, hate them or love them. Plus, there will be dragons!

I truly don’t know what to expect from Season Two and if Season One has taught me anything, it’s best not to expect anything anyway, because the opposite will happen. That goes for the plot and storylines at least.
Visually there are some things I would like to see happen. The sets and costumes are already perfect, I have no quarrels with that part of the show, but I want the show to realize that precisely because it is a visual medium, it isn’t as limited to linear storytelling and representation as a book may be. It doesn’t always have to be as a straightforward as Season One was for a large part of its run. This is not reality TV, where the camera crew is reduced to following the main protagonists and then edit together the “story worth telling” from gathered raw footage. If Game of Thrones can become just a little bit more inventive in its cinematography, particularly as magic creeps back into its world, then there will truly be very few chinks left in the show’s armor.

I also hope creators Benioff and Weiss remain as confident and in charge of their vision as they have been so far and listen to their own inner compass, because it has served them well up to this point. By this I mean that they have danced well on the thin red line between being faithful to their source material without being slaves to it. So I wouldn’t blame them at all if they decided that Season Two of Game of Thrones (the title will remain unchanged, btw) will not cover the entirety of the second book of the series, “A Clash of Kings”, which is – again, I am told – packed full of action, diverging storylines and complicated turns of events. HBO has ordered a conservative 10 episodes again for Season Two and rather than leaving out too much detail and lumping together clunky exposition scenes (which the first season only barely avoided doing too many of already), I would want to see the show’s second season take as much time as it needs to set up the moments of awe, shock and emotional pay-off that make watching it such a satisfying experience.

Fans of the books would surely agree with me on this, because they of all people have the most interest in seeing their beloved stories come to life in a way that doesn’t feel rushed or forced. And I have to take this time to commend the legions of ASoIF fans, for being so gracious and so devoted to the brilliance of the story that they kept mum as much as they could and didn’t go blabbing their mouths and spoiling the TV show for us. This, to me, speaks volumes of the respect they have for what George R.R. Martin has created. They let us go on the journey they first embarked on back when they took up the first book and when the big story twists happened, they were there to comfort us TV viewers and shared their own stories of how they first came upon these twists.

To all those TV viewers who may disagree with my wish for a Season Two that works with whatever pacing suits the show I say: get over your need for instant gratification (there are plenty of other shows that cater to this need anyway) and start opening yourself up for a creative vision that extends beyond the limits of how many episodes are ordered from the higher-ups.

(Non-)Final Thoughts

I can’t offer any real conclusion to this re-view (and it’s really more a “re-view” than a “review”) at this point, because I am not done processing Season One of Game of Thrones. As much as I am speculating in my head about what will come next, I am also thinking back over my favorite moments, over the journeys some characters have taken and how virtually irrelevant the genre of Game of Thrones has become as its first season displayed how character exposition and engaging audiences should be done where other shows failed spectacularly this TV season (of 46 new shows that premiered, 35 were canceled again).

Perhaps this is the greatest compliment I can pay the show, too. The fact that it keeps running around in my head and that I can’t seem to stop talking or raving about it. Game of Thrones provided that push forward the world of TV needed. Too many other shows lately tried to copy something that came before, or cash in on an established concept or merely treaded familiar ground while pretending to “think outside the box”. None of that necessarily leads to bad television, it just leads to predictable television that lures viewers further into the lull and stupor I previously mentioned.

Game of Thrones was television that jolted viewers awake with every single twist and turn of the story and that didn’t shy away from doing the outrageous, from going where most – if not all – other television shows are afraid to go. Killing off not one, not two, but three characters the show had previously spent a copious amount of time on (Viserys, Ned and Drogo) and who viewers were expecting to stick around for a while, is nothing short of exceptional in the world of TV these days. On a different network or in other people’s hands, these blows may have been cushioned more or even been cut entirely, but luckily HBO proved that it does still have some cojones after all (which I doubted for a while there).

This confidence and boldness will pay off for all involved, I am sure, as the buzz around this show will only built over the year to come. The many fans the show already has will make sure all their friends who missed it the first time round will catch up before Season Two premieres. By that time, many will also have picked up the books, I suspect, so a far more knowledgeable audience will be tuning in. (I remain undecided whether or not this assumption should play into how Benioff and Weiss plan Season Two. Should they assume we all know nothing or should they assume we all know everything?)

Regardless of whether or not Game of Thrones’ ballsy narrative and excellent performances are mirrored in award show success (I am mad as hell the nomination period for the Television Critics Association Awards ran out before Sean Bean’s death scene hit screens, otherwise some critics may have nominated him over Peter Dinklage, since Dinklage will be back and hence get another shot at the awards next year), I would mark the show’s first season as a creative success entirely. Again, keep in mind that I am talking about the show on its own, not the transition from book to screen and resulting changes.
As a television show Game of Thrones gave me everything I could ever hope for or dream of and I sincerely wish some other showrunners take note and learn from all the things Game of Thrones is doing right where they are going wrong.

Until Spring 2012 I am hence now left to keep my love for this show alive by interacting with all its characters on Twitter, which is outrageously fun and I can only recommend it. My gratitude and thanks to the committed individuals who take time out of their day to maintain these Twitter feeds, engage with other Tweeters and provide hilarious and insightful banter amongst each other as well.

One more thing: As we enter summer, remember, “Winter is coming…”

 

 

 

 

Need more TV coverage? Listen to a new “Television Collision: Podcast Extra”, Episode 9 below.

Topics include the rage-inducing finale of The Killing, season premieres of Hawthorne and Luther and thoughts on SYTYCD.

{mp3}PodcastEpisode9{/mp3}

 

Join the discussion by commenting below or following us on Twitter: @cc2konline and @PhoebeRaven!

Author: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

Born in Germany, lived in the US, now in the UK. Always taking my love for TV and writing with me. Life participator. Blogger. Gaming enthusiast.

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