Monday, April 18, 2011

Game Of Thrones "Winter Is Coming" Review

At the 45th minute of the 65 minute Game of Thrones premiere, I said to my mother that I had no idea what was going on. It was a unique feeling, especially while watching television--a medium in which I feel like I have a great grasp of. I dare say the premiere of Game of Thrones, titled "Winter Is Coming," made me feel like I do whenever I try to read James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake or the "Oxen of the Sun" chapter in Ulysses. Again, this is a rare feeling to have in television but, once upon a time, HBO wasn't TV. Simply, it was HBO. The time has come for HBO to revive their slogan because Game of Thrones is unlike any series ever produced on television. The previews and summaries reminded me of The Lord of the Rings--the epic fantasy novel penned by J.R.R. Tolkien and adapted brilliantly by Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens and Fran Walsh; however, as grand as LOTR is, Game of Thrones makes Tolkien and Jackson's beloved story seem like children's literature. It is stunning how dense this series is. It's so dense that I cannot do anything but write about it every single week, for the next ten weeks, because it's a challenge.

But then something happened. I rewatched the premiere and the story became clearer. I remembered that, despite all the hype and verbiage from various critics around the blogosphere, Game of Thrones is a TV show and NOT a James Joyce novel (far from it of course). The series' narrative scope certainly sets the series apart from any other series on network or cable channel but, overall, Game of Thrones is a television show at the end of day. Every series places emphasis on world-building because it's vital to any long-running series. Game of Thrones just has more world-building than your average TV show.

Westeros is a land roughly the size of South America, but with the political infrastructure of old England. There are seven kingdoms within Westeros. Each kingdom's run by a lord on behalf of King Robert Baratheon. Among these lords is Eddard "Ned" Stark, who runs the North of Westeros--a land called Winterfell. Ned's an honorable man, with a beautiful family and a deep sense of how things should be done. In simplistic terms, he's a tough but fair man. King Robert and his family visit the North to request the services of Ned--specifically, Ned will be the Hand of the King (a trusted bodyguard is what I gathered from the various exchanges. Ned replaces the old Hand of the King, who died of the fever (but it seems the scheming and incestuous Lannister twins had a hand in the man's death, especially with the knowledge that Jamie Lannister wants the throne all to himself). The Lannisters become more of a threat following a note that Cat, Ned's wife, receives from her sister who fled the kingdom. Ned can't reject the request of the King anyway but that piece of news certainly makes his job more dangerous, and more worrisome to his wife.

The rest of the Stark clan are worth writing about as well. Some years ago, Ned fathered a bastard son in Jon Snow. Jon walks around the kingdom with a scowl on his face because he's treated as an inferior. No one lets him forget that he's a bastard. Ned's brother, Benjen, informs Jon that he always has a place in The Wall. Jon wants to protect the Wall with his uncle because Snow's fiercely ambitious. His bastard-ness will hinder him in the kingdom but The Wall is an opportunity. Benjen is unsure. Tyrion, the dwarf brother of Cersei and Jamie, then relates to being an outcast with Snow. His advice: wear the bastard title like armor, and no one can use it against Jon.

Among the other Starks are: Bran, a 10 year old boy who loves climbing. Ned brings Bran to the beheading of a deserter to teach him about the laws of the kingdom. After all, winter is coming. Bran has two sisters. One is Arya, the tomboyish little girl whose a better shooter than Bran. The other is, Sansa, a 13 year old girl who wants nothing more than to become engaged to the king's 13 year old son. There are more Stark sons but they barely registered in importance so maybe next week I'll write more about them. The gist: the Starks are good family, with good values and morals.

The Lannister twins are the opposite of the Starks. Cersei, King Robert's queen, is a fantasy version of Lady Macbeth. Her beauty hides a madness. I won't be surprised if Cersei, somewhere down the line, tries to rid herself of spilled blood by using all the perfumes of Arabia (but since this is fictional Westeros then maybe all the perfumes of...some land...). She and her brother have the tendency to whisper to one another. A disturbing sexual charge exists betwixt the two. It turns out that it's much more than a charge as the Lannisters indeed roll in the hay with one another. The Lannisters are great antagonists though. Jamie delights in his wickedness. Within the first day of meeting the Starks, he challenges Ned's manhood as well as one of his son's. Cersei's political ambitions conflict with her fierce maternal instincts. Of the two Lannister siblings, Cersei has more depth displayed in the pilot. Her husband isn't a righteous king. He carouses with common whores in plain view of his wife. Cersei must sit on her throne, with a bit tongue. No wonder the woman schemes and plans a power play. Jamie, on the other hand, seeks power for power's sake. Jamie is not Macbeth. He possesses a confidence and resoluteness that the tragic king lacked, which makes Jamie more compelling and dangerous. Plus, he's ruthless as the episode's cliff hanger reveals.

Across the Narrow Sea live the Targaryens siblings. Long ago, King Robert, Ned and Benjen (if I recall correctly) killed The Mad King, who happened to be the head of the Targaryen family. The death of their father left the siblings without a home. The Mad King's daughter, Daenerys, wants to return home. Her brother, Viserys, reminds his sister that he plans to return home with an army capable of murdering those who stole their home. Daenerys, like the other women in Westeros, has no power. She's at the mercy of the powerful men that surround her. In this instance, Viserys uses her to secure the services of the Dothraki army, led by Khal Drogo. The Dothroki wedding celebrations are a failure if less than three people are murder. In the siblings first scene, Viserys disrobes his sister and inspects her body to ensure she's ready to do whatever Drogo wants of her. Following her brother's invasion of her privacy and girlhood-on-the-verge-of-womanhood, Daenerys burns the touch of her brother off of her body in the hot tub.

Viserys successfully marries her off to the head of the Dothroki. At dusk, on the coast of the Narrow Sea, Drogo prepares to rape his bride (any other word is useless because it's rape). Daenerys questions her husband about his knowledge of English tongue. Each question is met with a "no." The scene feels like a seminal moment in the show. The symbolism surrounding Daenerys isn't discreet. At the celebration, Illyrio delivers three dragon eggs. He explains that the eggs hardened into stone but that their beauty remains. Daenerys is like those drago eggs--a beautiful woman being turned into stone by the actions of the men around her. Unlike the eggs, Daenerys can break free, which is suspect she will do. More symbolism: her "honeymoon" took place on a rock surface on the coast of the Narrow Sea. The poor girl hits rock bottom and she's literally rock bottom. When Drogo disrobes her, she tries to cover up before her forcibly removes her hands from her breasts. She has no control. Her brother told her that he'd let the entire Dothroki army f*** her if he had to. So, simply, Daenerys will need to take control. I look forward to her arc most of all.

George R.R. Martin said that Game of Thrones is about people and their politics. He added that magic becomes increasingly important throughout the story but I doubt magic plays a huge role in season 1. The element of the supernatural, however, is introduced in the badass teaser of the episode. Shakespeare began Macbeth with three witches who portended doom for Macbeth. Three guardians of the wall galloped in the south of Westeros. Among them was a madman who found dead bodies in a camp. The bodies, though, disappeared when the other two arrived to investigate. The mad man went searching for the bodies. Soon, a monstrous creature murdered the two other men. The creature, known as a white walker, let the mad man go. This mad man eventually was beheaded for being a deserter. His warnings that the white walkers walk on the other side of the wall was dismissed because Ned believed the man went mad. After the beheading, the Starks find a pack of dire wolves on their journey home. Their mother was murdered along with a moose. Ned orders for the cubs to be killed because their existence is a bad omen. Bran saves the cubs lives though. Speaking of omens, Viserys eagerly anticipates the start of war; however, the Dothroki omen shows that the time for war hasn't arrived. I'm intrigued by the supernatural intrigue.

Conversation about the show in the weeks before its premiere focused on its narrative style. David Simon famously attacked those who reviewed television series on a weekly basis, and Simon isn't wrong to argue against that form of criticism. As someone who hasn't read the books, and knew nothing about the story until the pilot, the concerns about the show came entirely from those who read the novel that season 1's adapting. For example, critics are concerned with the individual episodic structure, worried that each episode will arbitrarily begin and end each episode willy-nilly. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show runners, have my confidence that episodic structure is in place for each episode. They noted in a Creative Screenwriting story that the first book lend itself very well to television adaptation. Benioff, specifically, said that many beautiful endings for individual episodes exist within the book. "Winter Is Coming" shouldn't be perceived as the template for the other episodes. It's a pilot. Pilot episodes are different animals than the normal episode of television.

"Winter Is Coming" is an extremely busy pilot. I'm sure I overlooked characters who are key players because they were lost in the overwhelming exposition. For instance, Tyrion Lannister's definitely going to become much more than a three scene player but I don't think I even mentioned his affinity for prostitutes and books. Little Arya seems like she'll take off as a character in the coming weeks. Plus, the previews make it clear that there are MORE and MORE characters to be introduced.

Other Thoughts:

-Emilia Clarke, who portrays Daenerys, is on the cover of the latest Creative Screenwriting magazine. She immediately caught my eye because of how pretty she is. I had no idea what character she'd play but, again, I had no idea what Game of Thrones was about until last night. The blonde hair makes her pop. Also, Game of Thrones fanatics refer to her as Dany. I'll continue referring to her as Daenerys until her nickname becomes part of the show. Daenerys isn't hard to spell, contrary to popular opinion.

-Tim Van Patten directed the Pilot. Van Patten was all over Boardwalk Empire during the first season as a writer and director. Tom McCarthy directed the original pilot before HBO decided to re-shoot the entire thing. Some of Tom's scenes remain in the pilot. I think Van Patten has the Emmy won, though Scorcese could steal the Emmy for the Boardwalk Empire pilot.

-I tried write as sensible and coherent a review as I could. The story is dense. I'm sure I missed a vital character or two. I covered the essential arcs though. Also, I thought the days of 2,000+ word reviews for individual episodes ended when LOST concluded last May. Game of Thrones seems like a series that will probably average 2,000+ words every single week. I like that, by the way.

-With that said, I hope people actually read these reviews.

-David Benioff and D.B. Weiss wrote the episode.


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About The Foot

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Originally, I titled the blog Jacob's Foot after the giant foot that Jacob inhabited in LOST. That ended. It became TV With The Foot in 2010. I wrote about a lot of TV.