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What A Wicked Game To Play

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Lately, my life has been consumed by three things, French, Battlestar Galactica, and George R. R. Martin's epic series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire. Outside of Lord of the Rings, I have never before come across a fantasy saga as engrossing, detailed, and thrilling as Martin's superb tomes.

Have no idea what A Song of Ice and Fire is? No worries; you've been exposed to it. The new series on HBO, Game of Thrones, is a direct adaptation of it. I've been faithfully following the show since the premiere two months ago, and loved every second of it.

Game of Thrones is, truly, a brilliant television show. Full of rich and complex characters, sweeping mythology and devilishly twisty plots, Game of Thrones is a perfect example of how to adapt a book to the screen.


Since it's only been up for one season, Game of Thrones just recounted the events of the first book in Martin's series, titled... uh, A Game of Thrones. The story is set in the fantasy kingdom of Westeros, where seasons can last a generation, where a massive ice wall separates the Seven Kingdoms from the cruel and wild wastes of the north, and where, as various factions begin to sense opportunity, war is brewing. It all starts off fairly quaint in the dark wooden halls of Winterfell, which is ruled over by Lord Eddard (Ned) Stark. When the King on the Iron Throne and his best friend, Robert Baratheon, names him Hand of the King, Ned has no choice but to leave his home and family and travel south to the capitol, King's Landing. Once there, he finds himself practically drowning in corruption and deceit as everyone around him tries to manipulate everyone else to further their own goals. Ned is the one honorable man in a dishonorable world, and soon he is fighting for his very life against forces who would see him dispatched.

Meanwhile, Ned's bastard son, Jon, travels north to The Wall to join the Night's Watch, a group of men entrusted to defending The Wall and fighting against the evil that lurks in the frozen tundra of the north. While this is going on, Ned's wife, Catelyn, is looking into an attempt on the life of her son, Bran, leading her to arrest a member of the most powerful family in the realm, causing both sides to take up arms.

While this is all going on, across the Narrow Sea, Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen are plotting a return to Westeros to reclaim the throne that Robert and Ned stole from their father. To do this, Viserys sells Daenerys to the mighty Khal Drogo, the king of the barbaric and nomadic Dothraki, as a wife in hopes that he will be able to use the Khal's horde to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. But, Daenerys suddenly finds herself falling in love with Drogo, and soon finds the strength to stand up to her cruel brother and become a leader that could very well lead her people in a glorious campaign to take back the Iron Throne.

And on top of all this, a supernatural threat is waiting in the north, beyond The Wall, one that threatens to devour all of Westeros. Winter is coming, and whatever it is that sits on the other side of the Wall will rise up in arms when it does.

HOLY SHIT!!! How they managed to fit all that plot into just ten episodes is totally beyond me. I didn't even go into the stories surrounding Ned's children, Robert's relationship with his wife, Cersei, or the eventual civil war that breaks out between House Stark and House Lannister. I didn't even mention half of the important characters in this series. You'd've been here all day!

Despite the sheer volume of content that needed to be addressed, each story is given enough time to get fleshed out; each character is given enough time in the spotlight so that we get to know them. The stories here mean something. Every time something bad happens, you feel it like a  sucker punch to the go-nads. Every time something good happens, all you want to to do is jump for joy. It's well done.

Time for the ranking of the episodes!!

1. Baelor: TV was made for episodes like this. It's impossible to talk about this episode without talking about the huge event that happens in the end... so I'll just go ahead and spoil it for you. This was the episode that told the world that Game of Thrones wasn't fucking around. Any show that has the balls to kill off the main character after only nine episodes is not one to mess with. We were sad to see Ned go, but his death was the catalyst for so many juicy things to rear their heads. It doesn't hurt that said death scene was wonderfully done. Couple that with Daenerys' desperation to save a dying Drogo, and this is one episode that will stick with you for ages. There was talk about how the writers might do away with Ned's death so that they could keep their biggest "name" with the show. Thank God they didn't!

2. You Win Or You Die: If "Baelor" confirmed that Game of Thrones was throwing up a big finger to traditional television conventions, "You Win Or You Die" was the one that first hinted at it. Things had been escalating for these characters, but this was where they finally blew up. Ned is betrayed by Baelish as he tries to remove the illegitimate Joffrey from the throne. Jon takes his vows and becomes a full fledged member of The Night's Watch. Jaime Lannister marches on Riverrun. And Drogo vows to cross the narrow sea and take the Iron Throne for Daenerys following an attempt on her life by one of Robert's agents. Serious shit went down in this episode. Serious chills went down my spine.

3. The Wolf and the Lion: Ned said to Arya in "Lord Snow" that King's Landing was a dangerous place, but this was the first episode where we really felt it. To see Jaime attack Ned in the streets and then stroll off as if nothing happened is über chilling! Meanwhile, Catelyn brings Tyrion to The Eyrie to answer for his supposed crimes. Meanwhile, Robert order's the assassination of Daenerys, creating a rift between him and Ned. This is where the series picked up steam in my opinion. We had gotten to know the characters by now, so it was time for the crazy to begin. And it begins in earnest!

4. The Golden Crown: Oh, sure. Ned realizing the secret that Jon Arryn died for, that Cersei's children are actually all the products of her incestuous relationship with Jaime is big, but this episode sticks out in my mind for one reason; Viserys getting crowned by Drogo! Oh damn!

5. Winter Is Coming: An effective pilot needs to set the stage for the show to come, and Winter Is Coming did that in spades. Following a terrifying opening where a party of Night's Watch are butchered by the supernatural White Walkers, we are introduced to the world of Westeros and all it has to offer. I hadn't started the books by the time this aired, so this was all incredibly fresh for me. And the ending, which saw Bran getting thrown from a tower after seeing Jaime and Cersei go at it, told me I was in for something a bit more dangerous than the usual television fare, and that's always a good feeling!

6. Fire and Blood: Picking up right after Ned's death, "Fire and Blood" wraps things up nicely, whilst sneakily introducing some elements of the next book, A Clash of Kings, into the mix. The death of his father has caused Robb to begin the war for the Iron Throne in earnest, ending with him being proclaimed the King of the North by his bannermen. Arya escapes King's Landing with the help of Yoren, leaving a grieving Sansa at the mercy of King Joffrey. Jon decides to stay with the Night's Watch and march into the wintery abyss rather than abandon his post and forsake his vows to fight alongside Robb and avenge Ned's death. And Daenerys says goodbye to Drogo, and cremates him. Though she lost her son and her husband, their deaths gave life to her dragon eggs. The final image of Daenerys standing, surrounded by kneeling Dothraki, as her new born dragons roar is a sight to behold.

7. The Kingsroad: As Ned, Jon, Sansa and Arya depart with the King, Catelyn is attacked by an assassin sent by Jaime to silence Bran who survived his fall. Meanwhile, Jon arrives at The Wall with Benjen and Tyrion, whilst Ned and Co. run into trouble on the road, thanks, in no small part, to Joffrey and the little shit that he is! We got our first taste of direwolf mauling here, when Bran's wolf comes in rips out the assassin's throat. Bloody awesomeness!

8. The Pointy End: The war begins, as Robb calls the Stark bannermen to help free his father, while the Dothraki horde pillage their way across the continent on their way to the sea. The Wall is attacked in the night by walking corpses, killed by the White Walkers and cursed to return as undead wights! Khal Drogo has the singular best kill of the entire season when he rips out a guy's tongue through his neck, and Arya gets to stab a fat kid. Sounds good to me.

Now, let us bow our heads and say a prayer for Syrio Forel. You are a god amongst men!

9. Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things: Daenerys finally asserts herself as a khaleesi, standing up to Viserys. The horribly out of shape and cowardly Sam Tarly comes to the Wall, and Jon takes it upon himself to protect him. Ned gets closer to discovering the reason behind Jon Arryn's death, and Tyrion is taken prison by Catelyn, the act that sets the first few gears in motion.

10. Lord Snow: For the record, Game of Thrones didn't have a bad episode, but this one was the weakest. Not because of poor writing or acting, no no. It was just that nothing happened in this episode. To be fair, nothing really happened at this point in the book either, so there wasn't really anything to be done, but still... no deaths, no sex, no battles. Lame!

I'm very glad that the show was picked up by HBO instead of, say... any other network. Starz would have made it too schlocky in their continued attempts to capitalize on the awesomeness of Spartacus; Showtime would have made it too quirky, and Cinemax would have turned it into a softcore porno. Any major network like NBC, ABC, or TNT wouldn't have had the creative freedom to show all the blood and sex required, so thank God for that. HBO is the only network where it could received it's just deserves, and, thankfully, the creators seemed to go with the intention of starting at just deserves and working their way up from there.

What writers/creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have done is nothing short of magical. Not only did that masterfully adapt pretty much every aspect of Martin's books for the screen, they also added things that weren't in the books to flesh out certain characters. Baelish is much bigger and interesting character here than he was in the first book; his conversations with Varys are delightfully witty and sinister. Theon Greyjoy, who does become a major character in the later books, is given more to do here, as is Robert, Jaime, Cersei, and Ser Barristan. Jorah Mormont has some nice added scenes amongst the Dothraki, and anytime we saw Ros (a character unique to the show), she was most likely naked so... that's a good thing.

Of course, some of the stuff that was added was added to appeal to the masses; this is television after all. Some fights are elongated or changed around for dramatic effect; in the book, Ned didn't fight Jaime when he was attacked in the streets, just his men. Of course, it's not a complaint. The books were so interesting, thanks in large part to the inner monologues of the characters, so you could very easily read 200 pages without a single battle or fight and not even give a shit. It's harder to do on TV. Luckily, Benioff and Weiss chose where to begin and end their episodes carefully, making sure that there was something, more or less, exciting in each episode.

Look, I've said all I can say. All you need to know is that Game of Thrones absolutely rocks!! I will, of course, recommend the books over the show any day, but, in this age of instant gratification, I can't expect you to sit down and read a series of 900+ page books. But, Game of Thrones is such a faithful adaptation that, just by watching the show, you'll still be getting a good 90% of the full experience. This was easily the best new show this year. Christ, they need to get to filming Clash of Kings already. Take it from me, it gets even better!


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