Thursday, June 11, 2015

Idiot Boxing: Game of Thrones full series review

Since we are now nearing the end of Season 5 of HBO's Game of Thrones series, I've gone back to watch the first four seasons (only the first two of which I'd already seen).

I should state that, long before the HBO series, I was a tremendous fan of the book series A Song of Ice and Fire. Since 2001, I’ve read the first three books three times each, the fourth twice, and A Dance With Dragons once. I recall the excitement I felt at the low-key announcement back in 2006 that HBO had purchased the rights to the series, and I wondered if they would be able to do such a great literature series real justice. Here are my thoughts on the results so far:

Casting actor Sean Bean as the patriarch Ned Stark was just
one of countless excellent choices made by the show runners.
Season 1

Season 1 was a phenomenal start to what could have been a disaster. As a devotee of the novels, I could hardly have been more pleased.

Following the arc of the first novel - A Game of Thrones - the show sets up the Stark family and the lands of Westeros brilliantly. It's a massive, detailed world, with no end of characters and motivations, locales, and mysteries to be discovered, and a lesser team of creators could have fumbled things in many ways. Instead, show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss knew exactly where and how to streamline things, without losing the lifeblood of the show.

The story of Ned Stark's tragic journey to the capital King's Landing is a great one, told very well in this first season. Those who hadn't read the book before the show were as stunned by Ned's fate as I was when I read of it long ago. This, of course, sets a certain tone that continues through George R. R. Martin's novels - that no characters is ever "safe". It's one that very few writers have the courage to follow, given the difficulty in creating characters that thoughtful readers love and will follow. Martin has never minded offing a strong character, if it makes sense within the tale or it makes the story more interesting.

The acting was without reproach. There will always be some characters who won't match the way a reader envisions them, and this TV series is no different. More importantly, though, is that they all nail the spirits of their characters perfectly. Sean Bean wears his anguished sense of duty right on his sleeve. Maisie Williams carries every scrap of Arya's toughness and surliness in her tiny little frame and on her face. I could go on and on, without finding a single casting misstep.

Shae and Tyrion - my least and most favorite characters,
respectively, through much of the TV series. 
The only things I can even gripe about are very minor, and they only come from my close familiarity with the novels. The very small one is that Robert Baratheon is nowhere near as physically large as I felt he should have been. Mark Addy is a great actor, but his character is described in the books as being a massive man, though one grown fat after 17 years of indulgence. In his scenes, Addy is often shorter than several other men in the room, which takes a little something away from the power that he is meant to have. My other gripe is with a lesser character, but it is far more annoying: that of Shae, Tyrion's favored prostitute. She only appears towards the end of the first season, but she very quickly becomes extremely biting and confrontational towards Tyrion. This is something that never happens in the books, and runs counter to nearly everything she is about. In the books, she is perpetually sweet and loving towards Tyrion (even if out of self-interested greed rather than genuine affection). In the novels, she will become pouty when dissatisfied, but she never exhibits the fury or surliness that the TV character has.

Two rather small things in a first season filled with literally hundreds of potential pitfalls. Not bad at all, really.

Season 2
The Battle of the Blackwater was the best of several
extremely tense situations in which characters' true
mettle (and lack of) is on full display. 

This season mostly follows A Clash of Kings, the second novel in the Song of Ice and Fire series. The arc of this season, as with the novel, is the further fracturing of Westeros as the Lannisters take over the kingdom. Various other kings proclaim themselves, including each of dead King Robert's two brothers Renley and Stannis, as well as Ned's eldest son Robb being dubbed "King of the North." This leads to battles and preparations for battles that raise the stakes ever higher. Meanwhile, across the sea, Daenerys seeks to not only survive with her three newly-hatched dragons but also build an army to sail back to Westeros and reclaim the Iron Throne.

The maneuvering of the major players is plenty fascinating, but they are not even my favorite part of season two. What I love is that this is Tyrion's true time to assert himself. Once his father grudgingly makes him acting Hand of the King, Tyrion has the freedom to use his considerable wiles and intelligence to constantly one-up his many adversaries. It's an amazingly entertaining display of brains over brawn, and Peter Dinklage continues to fulfil the promise of the character.

In season 2, we also start to see the TV series creators Weiss and Benioff modify and streamline certain parts of Martin's original tale, to great effect. The standout change to me is the running story at Harrenhal of Arya Stark accidentally becoming the serving girl to Tywin Lannister, who is unaware of exactly who she is. The scenes between Maisie Williams and Charles Dance are all incredible, and they enhance the series tremendously.

One other aspect of note stand out. If any viewers of the series found that they particularly liked the episodes Blackwater in season 2 and The Pointy End in season 1, then you may note what these two episodes have in common: they were both adapted for the screen by George R.R. Martin himself. Martin, who has a ton of work experience in TV through shows like Beauty and the Beast and others, shows that he can carry his brilliant writing skills from novel to screenplay form.

Season 3

The third season begins to show more adjustments and alterations to the source books, while keeping nearly all of Martin's original "Holy s--t!" moments intact, as detailed in the novel A Storm of Swords, with a sprinkling in of material from the next book A Feast for Crows.

Jaime and Brienne - one of the greatest odd couples ever.
There's plenty of fun to be had just deciding whether Jaime's
tongue or Brienne's martial prowess is more impressive. 
The major story arcs follow Tyrion's attempts to rise up after being cast down by his stern father, Jon Snow's double agency with the Wildlings as they march against the Wall, Robb Stark's military conquests, and Daenerys's gathering of her army across the sea. There are plenty of other plotlines that are excellent, if not as large in scale as the others.

As with the novels, one of the best arcs is that dealing with Jamie Lannister and Brienne of Tarth - two characters who are so opposed in every way that their unlikely pairing becomes the stuff of brilliant storytelling. The show's handling of Jaime's development as a character is just as deft as George R.R. Martin's, and it becomes just as compelling as any of the larger scale stories unfolding.

Any viewer of the show knows that the 8th episode of the season, The Rains of Castamere, contains what was, to date, the most shocking and violent plot turn in the series. Without giving it away for any who haven't yet seen it, suffice it to say that just when you think you're getting a footing on how the broader story is playing out, the tale completely flips things on you. As usual, such chaos creates plenty of fodder for the various characters in Westeros to test their mettle. This serves as the perfect set-up for the following season.

Season 3 does seem to be going heavier with the sadism than previous seasons. The most obvious example is Theon's imprisonment by Ramsey Snow. It's hardly the only one, but the brutality and graphic nature of the images can be off-putting once the point of Ramsey's twisted nature is made abundantly clear. By the end of this season, my hope is that this doesn't become an expanding trend.

Season 4

Things continue to roll along nicely in season 4, with a few of my earlier annoyances vanishing but others growing. 
The Viper and the Mountain - a brutal highlight of season 4.
As much as I love Bronn's cunning duel in the Eyrie in season 1,
this duel is perhaps the best of the series so far. 

We finally get the satisfaction of seeing one despicable character get killed in suitably gruesome fashion. This, of course, sets off the sad but compelling story of Tyrion's horrible tumble from grace. This plot line is a strong one, though it's hard to watch Tyrion take even more abuse, especially after acquitting himself so well during seasons 2 and parts of 3. Still, it did lead to the fantastic duel between the Viper and the Mountain, which was almost as good as in the source novel. 

The other storylines are all compelling in their ways. One of my favorites is Jaime's development after returning to King's Landing, sans sword hand, where he has to reinvent himself. This also leads to the fun pairing of the amusing squire Podrick with the grim Brienne. These two make for a curious contrast with the other odd couple of this season - Arya and the Hound. Arya's darkening worldview is one of the more fascinating, if ultimately disturbing, arcs of the entire series.

As always, Daenerys still gathers herself across the Narrow Sea, where she continues her conquest of liberation. Seeing how she deals with the grayer areas of leadership add some welcome depth to this storyline. It also gave us one  of the best killings of the series, when Daario Naharis takes out the Champion of Mereen in hilariously, awesomely efficient fashion.

The penultimate episode was arguably the best of the series to that point. This is the only episode to date which has remained exclusively in one setting - the Wall, where Jon Snow attempts to fight with his fellow Crows against the oncoming hordes of Wildlings. This episode had all of the tension and excitement of some of the very best battle scenes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Two annoyances stick with me after watching the whole season. The lesser one is how actor Aiden Gillen has gone a little overboard voicing Littlefinger. He always gave him a rather sinister tone, but in this season it becomes almost cartoonish. His voice has the low, hushed tone of a one-dimensional schemer in a lame TV crime drama. It's a distraction.

The irredeemably odious Karl. Along with Joffrey and Ramsey,
he completes a trifecta of horrid characters that exist to do
little more than turn viewers' stomachs. 
More pervasive and annoying, however, is a concern of mine from season 3 - the escalating sadism. The books and show have always had some brutal characters, and Joffrey was clearly a nasty little sociopath from the get-go. But whereas Joffrey was the lone main character who was a sadist through the first three seasons, we now get more of the depraved Ramsey Snow mutilating and tormenting Theon and others. If that's not enough, we get multiple scenes of the vicious Karl lording over what is essentially a rape camp north of the Wall. There were times when the show wandered a little too close to - and arguably into - the realm of torture porn. Fortunately, most of these elements were front-loaded into the first 4 or 5 episodes, leaving the more palatable stuff for the latter half of the season.

The Next Season is Coming...

So that's my overall run-down. While I haven't stayed on top of the series from week to week like the most dedicated viewers, I do think it's an outstanding show. I'm just happy to live in a time and place where the technology and resources exist to bring such a vibrant, engaging, and epic tale to visual life.

A review of season 5 will be coming, once I catch up on all of the shows in a week or two...