Way back when, I wrote reasons why I love the show – and why I was wary of it. But because I love, I snark and critique: join me in evaluating Season 1.
Firstly, the things I unashamedly loved: the writing, and the cast. The scenes which were added in are brilliantly done: Cersei and Robert laughing over their wreck of a marriage is reminiscent of the sheer awesomeness of The Lion in Winter (which you should see, yesterday, if you like pseudo-historical drama with rapier wit. Bonus Kathryn Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, and a young Anthony Hopkins). I will watch any scene with Varys and Littlefinger sparring; ditto for scenes with Bronn and Tyrion. And the cast are pretty damn excellent, too. Lena Headey acting Cersei acting surprised and concerned in that blackmail scene with Sansa was masterful, and as for Peter Dinklage, I think this sums up the majority opinion, despite his still sometimes-wonky accent:
The complexity of the plot started out high and is expanding geometrically. Starting out with three major families – Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens – we now have those three plus the Baratheons, Tyrells, Freys, Arryns, Tullys, and possibly Greyjoys… the writers will have to be careful that this doesn’t get completely incomprehensible. So… we can haz more episodes? The budget might be too tight for 24, but with this being a hugely successful series, surely HBO could stretch to 18 or at least 12.
The fantasy element is very much to the background in the first series, despite the “high fantasy” source books – the opening prologue, Jon Snow’s battle with the reanimated corpse, and obviously Dany’s funeral-with-a-difference being the only stand-out moments of the supernatural. Taking a cue from the best thrillers, though the threat of something happening was kept up, the focus is very much on the characters. I doubt Season 2 will be able to keep the fantasy elements in the background so much: Jon has just gone beyond the Wall, Bran and Rickon keep having those weird dreams, and Dany now has three wee dragons to feed. I hope the focus will stay on the characters despite that.
Dany’s new pets also introduce a new element to the political machinations of Westeros. Up till that moment, whoever ruled seemed fairly arbitrary: Targaryens, Baratheons, Lannisters… there’s no huge difference between them as far as the kingdom and the vast majority of the people are concerned, as Varys and Jorah make clear:
Ned: Who do you truly serve?
Varys: The realm, my lord. Someone has to.
Jorah, to Dany: The common people pray for rain, healthy children, and a summer that never ends. It is no matter to them if the high lords play their game of thrones, so long as they are left in peace.
They never are.
But the reappearance of the dragons – the weapons that held the kingdoms together, the only reason the North joined the seven kingdoms, as Greatjon Umber told us – introduce the idea of some kind of supernatural endorsement of Dany as the true heir.
Within the bounds of a highly patriarchal pseudo-medieval society, the treatment of gender relations is pretty nuanced. I think the writers have done a relatively good job of sketching out the patriarchy in Westeros without actually mentioning the p-word. Gender roles are strict, and a high-born woman’s worth depends on her marriage and the number and gender of her children (good luck with that, Sansa). Dany is told she is nothing without Drogo, yet Arya manages to pursue her dreams of swordfighting, which has helped her to survive so far.
“Manhood” is a vague and shifting idea: Theon thinks you have to kill someone to become a man. For others, like Robert, sex is the threshold, and there is very little room for Jon’s type of sensitivity and awareness of the potential consequences.
The other p-word, primogeniture, is all-important, and most of our characters seem to go along with it. Robb scoffs at the thought of younger Baratheon Renly on the throne; Ned did likewise, even though he agrees Renly would be a better king, and the system disenfranchised the child he loves, Jon. This holds true even when the system screws them, such as Robb’s and Arya’s marriage contracts with the Freys, though it does make for some humourous contrasts between the nobles and the non-:
Tyrion, to Tywin: And here we have Bronn, son of…?
Bronn: You wouldn’t know him.
Cersei deliberately subverted the system by having children with her brother, and then uses their supposed legitimacy to rule herself. And though Dany is the first female leader to truly lead as herself, not as someone’s mother or wife (like Cersei, Catelyn, Lysa, and herself pre-Drogo), she is still highly invested in the system by styling herself as the one true heir to the kingdoms.
I’m finding the characters outside of the noble system – Osha, Ros, Bronn, and Shae – the most independent, and perhaps the most interesting. But all the female characters are interesting and complex, and to me, the restrictions on their lives and abilities because of their gender are screamingly obvious – but am I being too generous here? Should I take off my feminist glasses?
The sexual violence element has, so far, been kept mostly offscreen, but is ever-present. The servant Osha fended off Theon’s sexual harassment. Arya has been disguised as a boy, not only to prevent anyone guessing she’s Arya Stark, but also to stop the Night’s Watch recruits from raping her: something her rescuer, Yoren, explicitly warns her about. Her older sister Sansa is a hostage in King’s Landing, facing good old-fashioned marital rape as soon as she gets her first period.
Among the Dothraki, the culture of sexual violence is more explicit: Drogo’s vow to reclaim Dany’s kingdom was a doozy in this regard, and Dany seemed delighted, but quickly changed her mind when she was confronted with the reality of rape and pillage, and her attempt to be a saviour quickly backfired with the healer Mirri. Overall, the treatment of this has been pretty good: present but not overwhelming, and real without being gratuitous.
And now onto things that I’m not such a big fan of… The show has become famous for its “sexposition“: Viserys explaining the Targaryen family history to Irri while naked in a bath; Renly and Loras discuss treason over shaving and blowjobs (DO THE OTHER ARMPIT); and the best example being Ros and anonymous sex worker’s “audition” for Littlefinger, while he expounds on his childhood, his motivations and his not-so-secret love for Catelyn Stark. This still seems pretty gratuitous, though others think it’s deep and meaningful.
It’s not the presence of sex and/or nakedness, obviously, but how it fits in to the scene and its characters. Naked Ros washing her thighs after her appointment with Maester Pycelle is realistic, and brings home the humdrum reality of life as a sex worker. Dany had to emerge from the funeral pyre naked (and partially covered in dragons). And in fairness to the creators, the ratio of male:female full-frontals is more even than in many shows, and the producers are fans of “equal-opportunity nudity”:
I just feel, what’s so scary about dicks? Half the people in the world have them, why not put them on television? – Executive Producer D.B. Weiss
So, what’s in store for Season 2? We already know that Natalie Dormer has been cast as Margaery Tyrell, Loras’s sister (let’s hope Natalie has better luck with her than her previous major role, Anne Boleyn in The Tudors). And the rumour mill is also whispering (nothing like a good mixed metaphor) that a certain former Doctor Who is in negotiations to play Stannis Baratheon, the rightful heir to the Iron Throne – take a bow, all those who called it in the last recap! Also rumoured is another Doctor Who alumnus, Tony Curran, who may be a contender for Edmure Tully, Catelyn’s brother and heir to Riverrun.
Go here for more fantasy casting (Season 2 spoilers) – it includes some leaked casting calls that are heartening for book fans, e.g.: Brienne “must be a MINIMUM of 5’10”. Do NOT submit actresses that look like models. We are looking for a big, WARRIOR-TYPE woman,” and here for an international-relations perspective on the politics of the show. If you happen to have a beard and/or long, undyed hair, they’re looking for extras in Belfast next Monday. In the meantime, I’ll have the fifth book to geek out over very soon. ZOMGs at the ready.
And now over to you, as I’ve gone on long enough: what do you think the creators have done well, or badly? What do you want to see more of? What do you think will happen next season?
(Please, if you’re going to mention book stuff, mark it with a big ol’ BOOK SPOILER warning, or I will have to edit or delete it. Thanks!)