Monday, March 19, 2012

T.V. Review "Game of Thrones: Season One" by David Pretty

Well Met, Starks and Lannisters!

Okay, confession time.  A few years back I picked up the first book in George R.R. Martin's epic Song of Ice and Fire saga and then promptly abandoned it three-quarters of the way through.

"Zounds!" you say.  "What would have necessitated such boundless folly?"

Well, a coupla things, actually...

(1) Some of Martin's prose irked me.  I hate reading stuff like:  "All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not” or "His cloak was his crowning glory; sable, thick and black and soft as sin."   "Soft as sin?" Really, George?

(2)  I found that many of the characters were one-dimensionally repugnant and I had a hard time relating to any of them, even the Starks.

But, being a sucker for all things fantasy, I couldn't resist peeping the first season of HBO's adaptation of Game of Thrones.  Mercifully in doing so I didn't have to slog through acres of tiresome world-building descriptive passages and the actors really helped to give added dimension to these occasionally one-note characters.

Utilitarian sword-wielder Sean Bean plays Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell in the realm of Westeros. Against his wishes he's summoned to the court of King Baratheon (Mark Addy) to replace the monarch's majordomo who perished recently under mysterious circumstances.  As soon as Stark sets foot in the capitol of King's Landing he's immediately embroiled in all sorts of Machiavellian court shenanigans, not the least of which involve the unconventional relationship between Queen Cersei (Lena Headley) and her brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).

Interwoven amongst this are a good baker's-dozen sub-plots that I won't even presume to recap.  Suffice to say that the "family tree" insert included with the Blu-Ray really helps to keep all of the Starks, Lannisters, Baratheons, Targaryens and their myriad of associates apart from one another.  Indeed, Martin weaves a tangled web here, but the producers of the series and the proficient actors do a bang-up job keeping all of these characters and plot lines separate.

The first thing that struck me is the overall look of the series.  Game of Thrones may not be a theatrical release, but the production values are just as good if not superior.  Hats off to the producers for shooting on location in Ireland, Malta and Iceland.  Trust me: you can't get this level of authenticity with the actors running around in front of green-screen digital fabrications.  Just ask George Lucas.

The sets are jaw-droppingly realistic and often breathtaking.  For example, the King's Landing throne room, with its filigree columns, stained glass windows and less-then-cozy seat of office, is a real triumph of production design.  Winterfell is also a convincing habitat: worn, grim and workaday.  The nomadic tribe of Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) is like a mobile ecosystem complete with pitch-able yurts and an entire army of specialized workers.

It's not enough that the sets looks spectacular, but the set dressing also deserves a special nod.  Witness the host of elaborate and realistic tchotchkes decorating the chambers of Grand Maester Pycelle (former Imperial AT-AT commander Julian Glover).  The plush environs of the brothel owned by Lord Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillen) is rife with all sorts of eye-candy (*Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink*).  The barracks, kitchen and mess-hall of the Wall fortress is virtually chock-a-block with throwaway details in the hinterland of every frame.

Great care was also taken to make the military dress of each house distinct from one another.  The armor worn by Brotherhood of the Night's Watch seems cobbled together from any available source.  This is in stark (heh, heh) contrast to the dark leather and fur look sported by Winterfell's guards.  In turn, the gilded full-plate armor worn by the Lannisters is completely different.  Just having these visual demarcations in place, we can throw away the slide rule and just enjoy the proceedings.

Also major tip of the visor goes out to the weapon-makers.  Arya's Needle is distinctively lethal-looking.  Ned Stark's sword Ice certainly looks more then capable of meting out some capitol punishment.  The crowning glory, however, has to be Jon Snow's Longclaw, with its distinctive dire wolf pommel.  As this show continues to creep into the zeitgeist of public awareness, you know that the secondary collectible replica weapon-smithing market's gonna go into hyperdrive.

A host of talented directors help to bring a cinematic eye to the series.  The emergence of the White Walkers in the first ten minutes of the premiere episode is handled with cool malevolence by Tim Van Patten.  Tyrion's brief military career is given some Saving Provost Ryan panache courtesy of Alan Taylor, who helmed episode nine.  I'm also a big fan of the growing unease produced by Bran's recurring three-eyed crow dreams, a shtick which makes its debut in the third episode directed by Brian Kirk.

But it's the flawlessly-cast, industrious actors who really give Game of Thrones its immeasurable appeal. Considering how many times Sean Bean has played this sort of role, he probably could have portrayed Ned Stark with one sword-arm tied behind his back.  Instead his goes to great lengths to get to the core of the character: a world-weariness born from his constant struggle to reconcile duty and honor with the safety and welfare of his family.  So invested, it's nearly agonizing to watch as Stark becomes more and more entangled in the court chicanery of King's Landing.

Mark Addy is tremendous as regal frat boy Robert Baratheon.  Robert's kinda like the George W. Bush of the medieval set; a besotted brawler and party animal who just so happened to fall into the job of King.  Every time Addy is onscreen, he's the perfect study of an accidental monarch: crude, boorish, paranoid, bereft of patience and acutely allergic to responsibility.  It's really a testament to Addy's charisma as an actor since I really didn't care for this character in the book yet sympathized with him a tad in the series.

Ned's stalwart wife Catelyn is played by Michelle Fairley.  Interesting enough, the role originally belonged to Pride and Prejudice sweetheart Jennifer Ehle, but she was forced to drop out due to family commitments.  Although I'm confident that Jennifer would have been stupendous, Michelle brings a certain edginess to the part, especially where it concerns Jon, the physical embodiment of her husband's infidelity.  As the Stark family begins to fracture, Michelle perfectly balances Catelyn's emotional requirements with an iron-clad resolve.

Danish-born Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is another prime example of the show's intuitive casting.  Jamie Lannister represents one of many ripe bastards in Martin's saga: a pompous dandy who talks a good game but would likely fold quicker then Superman on laundry day if faced with capable opposition.  Nikolaj matches his physical perfection for the role with some immeasurably smug line deliveries.  He really shines in later scenes in which Jamie reveals a hint of honor and contrition.

Lena Headly is something of a genre superstar, having previously portrayed Queen Gorgo in 300.  She's equally regal here in the role of Robert Baratheon's nominal wife Cersei Lannister, but also helluva lot darker.  On the page, Cersei is already a perverse, twisted harpy who unconscionably exploits her family like pawns on a chessboard, but after watching Headley's performance in Game of Thrones, I'm convinced that does scheming bitch even better then regal queen.  In every scene she was in I kept silently praying that one of the other characters will come to their senses and liberate her head from her body.

Emelia Clarke may not have a lot of acting experience under her belt, but she has no problem rising to the occasion as Daenerys Targaryan.  Another fortuitous eleventh hour replacement, Emilia really has quite the challenge going from abused bargaining chip to ascendant Khaleesi and finally to a creature reborn.  She's phenomenal: sympathetic and wilting at first, triumphant and self assured in transition and an otherworldly phoenix by the end of the season.  The scene where she consumes a horse's heart in order to be inducted into the Dothraki tribe certainly required considerable presence in addition to a cast-iron stomach.

(Sorry, even if the horse heart was forged in the medium of gummi it still looked repulsive.)

Speaking of presence, Iain Glen is a tremendous asset as Ser Jorah Mormont, a disgraced knight who's charged with protecting the exiled Targaryens.  His task is not an enviable one since he's constantly guarding Daenerys from the auspices of an entire tribe of xenophobic mongols and assuaging the more extreme behavior of her psychotic brother Viserys.  The boundless reserve of seasoned calm and sturdy resolve that Glen effortlessly exhibits in every single scene makes him one of the unsung heroes of an already-distinguished cast.    

Viserys himself is played to loopy perfection by Harry Lloyd.  I swear, if they ever get around to making the film version of Michael Moorcock's Stormbringer series they needn't look any further for Elric.  Again, here's another example of a character that I'd completely written off in the book as a one-dimensional creep who gains some modicum of nuance thanks to the efforts of a talented actor.  Lloyd is so gleefully crude and reckless that he almost makes you feel as if what he's doing maybe isn't all that evil after all.  Wisely, Lloyd's performance is tinged with the intimation of inherited madness, which serves to excuse some of the character's more inexplicably loathsome behavior.

Irish actor Aiden Gillen is another solid fit, playing King's Landing's duplicitous treasurer Petyr Baelish.  Although a bit statuesque for the role of the diminutive "Littlefinger", Gillen is certainly equipped with the acting chops to handle the character's many facets.  Fawning one moment and scheming the next, it's high testimony that his "brothel soliloquy" in episode seven isn't eclipsed by the immeasurable distractions inherent in the scene.  You know what I mean if you've seen it.          

Jon Snow is obviously the character that most people will sympathize with and Kit Harrington gives us suitable incentive to root for him.  Jon's decision to exile himself to the Wall is made more impactful by Harrington's implied disbelief that no-one seems to care.  Being the black sheep of House Stark gives Harrington plenty of opportunity to be medievally emo (mediemo?) but this is nicely balanced by a palpable concern for his family and a strong moral compass.  Which, let's face it folks, is in very short supply in Westeros.

And then there's l'il Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, arguably my favorite character and performance of the series.  At first this unkempt ragamuffin seems like just another unctuous, one-dimensional brat but as her screen time ticks by she quickly becomes the show's most consistent touchstone.  Every time Ms. Williams delivers one of Arya's acerbic observations about the blatant cruelty of Joffrey or her sister Sansa's mindless devotion to the Prince, we can't help but cheer.  With a flash of her saucer-shaped eyes and crooked smile, audiences will instantly fall in love with this endearing moppet.  There's even an uncanny resemblance between her and Michelle Fairley, which helps to sell the mother/daughter connection. 

Sansa Stark may not be as appealing a character as Arya but she's no less honest or intriguiging.  For me it's almost impossible to believe that Game of Thrones represents Sophie Turner's first on-camera role.   I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Ms. Turner has a tremendous future ahead of her.  She can deliver on the petulant, vapid qualities inherent to the role but also tap into a vast reserve of vulnerability.  In Turner's care, the character's superficial pursuit of Joffrey becomes a symptom of her own crippling insecurities.  Once again, I found myself caring for screen Sansa more then her prose counterpart.

Over the course of ten episodes, Richard Madden confidently guides Robb, the eldest of the Stark brothers, from callow youth to war commander.  The scene where he manages to overcome his inexperience and unite his father's lieutenants under one banner is unexpectedly convincing.  By adopting a few of Sean Bean's vocal tells and tapping into his own unique reserve of authority, Madden makes for a rousing emerging character.

Theon Greyjoy is a very unique and interesting character to me.  The child of a rival family, Theon was taken hostage by Eddard and never returned to his own clan.  Although raised as one of the Stark children, Theon is aware of his origins and feels as if he's caught between two worlds.  Actor Alfie Allen really runs with the subtext provided by this interesting genesis, giving Theon a sense of coiled unrest.  Since his character has no grand destiny, he spends much of his time bored, idle and despirately trying to puzzle out his own place in the world.  It's interesting to watch Allen struggle to reconcile Theon's own perceptions of being high-born in a place that really doesn't recognize it.

My Stark family round-up concludes with gifted child actor Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who plays Bran.  Again, we all know how tricky it is to cast child actors properly, but getting this kid was fortuitous.   He has incredible emotional range and powers of conviction way beyond his age.  Most young actors interpret injured and despondent as whiny and sour-faced but not this kid.  He's genuine in one scene after another, particularly in the dream sequences.  I suspect fans will have a blast watching Isaac's acting abilities (and stature, no doubt!) grow over the coming years.  

To me, young Jack Gleeson has the biggest challenge since the novelized Price Joffrey pissed me off the most.  Regardless of my visceral reaction to the character, I can't demerit Gleeson's effort.  He's quite versitile, switching gears from boastful to craven and from tender to loathesome at the drop of a helmet.  I challenge any viewer not to boo him like a vadueville baddie after he blatantly lies about the altercation with Arya and then does a bait-and-switch with Sansa's affections.  Say what you will about the heavy-handed nature of the writing, Gleeson virtually assures that Joffrey is the whelp you love to hate.

I also have to give a major shout-out to Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo.  I'm sure the casting directors did a cartwheel as soon as this dude strolled in since he's inhumanly intense, built like a brick shithouse and can rock an imaginary language like no-one's bidness.  I love the scene where he performs a frontal throat-ectomy on a rival warrior as casually as playing a game of soduku.  Then there's his "declaration of war" monologue which is the acting equivalent of a tornado destroying a trailer park.  It's a shame that Conan the Barbarian was cursed with a crap script and hack director, since Momoa makes for a convincing Cimmerian whenever he's on screen.

And last but certainly not least, what can I say about Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister that hasn't already been said?  Short folks often get marginalized in the roles they're offered, so naturally the resulting performances often follow suit.  But when a complicated, multi-faceted role and a supremely gifted actor are combined he result is sometimes triumphant.  When it comes to Dinklage, there are just too many examples to cite, but Tyrion's fast-talk with Mord in the Sky Cell really shows just how expressive, insightful, animated and intelligent a performance can be.  Frankly it's an Emmy well-deserved and I look forward to more scenes of Tyrion flaunting his 18 Charisma.        

My only real issue with HBO's Game of Thrones is the same issue I had with the book: namely that characters like Joffrey and Viserys seem to say and do things merely for the express purpose of getting the audience to loathe them.  When Viserys threatens to run his sister and unborn child through with a sword right in front of Drogo there's no way you can regard such behavior as anything but moronic.  And when Joffrey does a thumbs down on a V.I.P. (Very Important Prisoner) even a child would know that such a rash decision would immediately threaten his precious and very short reign.

This sort of transparent characterization also results in gobs of wince-inducing dialogue that virtually trumpets the alignment of the speaker.  When Viserys tells his sister that he'd willingly let her be raped by forty-thousand khalsar and their freakin' horses in order to secure Drogo's army, he has to know that Daenerys is filing shit like this away for when the power balance is more in her favor.

Also, as if the actions of the Lannisters wasn't dreadful enough, their predisposition for inner-family humpery is particularly repugnant.  Even in the short duration of human history on our planet, pretty much every culture has come to regard incest as contrary to genetic stability, not to mention downright nauseating.   Indeed, if Houses Lannister and Targaryan have been around for so long, why aren't these people walking around with superfluous limbs and extra eyes by now?

But Game of Thrones does a helluva lot more right then it does wrong.  I love the fact that no character is safe, a philosophy I personally embraced while crafting my own novel.  From The Dragonlance Saga to Serenity I've since come to respect any property that's willing to whack a major character if it's integral to the story.  Sorry, folks, but sometimes the good guys don't always come through unscathed and sometimes the bad guys win the day.

Perhaps the best thing I can say about Game of Thrones is that, just as soon as I finished the tenth episode, I wanted to rewatch it immediately.

And I also wanted to go back and finish reading the novel.     

   Tilt: up.

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