Friday, June 24, 2011

"Game of Thrones": A Look Back at the First Season

(Only minor spoilers until the last paragraph)

Last Sunday, HBO's Game of Thrones wrapped up its first season. True to the tradition set by its spiritual predecessor, The Sopranos, the penultimate episode was filled with twists and turns, while the finale adopted a slightly more relaxed pace, spending more time setting up the pieces for the game's inevitable second season. But the finale garnered the show's highest Nielsen ratings of the season and, while not quite approaching a True Blood level of popularity, it does demonstrate a slow but steady rise in viewership, and the water-cooler talk about the show seems to have only grown as the season progressed. (It's been fun to watch my friends' reactions on Facebook). 

It still strikes me as strange that the series seems poised to be a success. George R.R. Martin, the author of the original books, worked in Hollywood as a TV screenwriter in the nineties. Because of frustrations over budget restraints, finite casts and specific script requirements, Martin left the industry to write books that were the complete opposite of his television career. His books are gargantuan, feature thousands of characters, and Martin shoved in all the subplots, tertiary characters, graphic violence, and local color that he had been forced to leave on the cutting room floor with so many of his television scripts. The books were a reaction to the world of screenwriting, and were meant to be literally unfilmable. 

I've been reading the books for a good ten years, so when I heard the plans to create an HBO series, I was more than a little anxious. On the one hand, I knew that Martin's sizable list of dramatis personæ and seemingly endless array of subplots couldn't make it to the screen without shedding some weight. On the other hand, when you take away the convoluted plots and the colorful cast of secondary characters, was there anything left of the books worth translating onto screen? The books work in part because of their excess.

A Cast of Thousands. No Exaggeration.

The series took the daring (and expensive) tactic of trying to adhere as closely to the books as possible. This meant one of the larger casts I've ever seen on a single season of television, and pages worth of exposition and backstory dumped out in the first couple of episodes. I was hesitant at the beginning - even as a longtime fan of the series, Game of Thrones threw out so much information in the first two episodes that I had a hard time keeping up. I was worried that HBO had bitten off more than they could chew, and the series would drown under its own weight. 

But, remarkably, it pulled through. By episodes four and five, the dust had settled and the series could easily switch between half a dozen plotlines without losing the audience. And the Big Event of episode nine (which I'll leave unnamed) featured some remarkably well-planned blocking. Here, there were six or seven characters in a single location, and all emoted varying reactions to the Big Event. Very little dialogue was used, but every single character had a reaction that made sense in context of the event and also helped flesh out their character a bit more. The fact that Game of Thrones was able to garner wordless reactions out of this many characters to tell a story is impressive; even more impressive when you consider this Big Event was the climax one of several simultaneous narratives stuffed into this season. Setting up the pieces might have been a little hard to follow in the early episodes, but by the time everything converged, the payoff was well-earned. 

It also helped that HBO didn't skimp on the casting. Most features have a hard enough time finding one decent child actor to round out their retinue; Game of Thrones somehow found four, and then added a good two dozen adult actors to the roster. Sean Bean was the big draw to the series, but excellent performances from nearly every other major and secondary character helped create a true ensemble environment, and keep every character distinct in the viewer's mind. 

Of course, the large cast, when combined with a ten-episode season, meant that the show had no time to waste setting up every character's motivations and backstory. This led to a number of monologues ranging from excellent to atrocious, and also served to introduce the term "sexposition" into the lexicon. The first time a major character revealed his plans to a sexual partner was an excusable way to flesh out motivations; by the fourth or fifth time this happened, it seemed a little lazy. I don't object to sex in television, but it was beginning to feel like a crutch by the end of the season. I suppose there's only so many clever ways that an internal monologue can be adopted for the screen in a realistic manner, but when a rich brothel owner starts relating his political machinations to a newly-hired prostitute, the series began to stretch credulity.

It's So Epic...Or At Least It's Supposed to Be

While I'm glad they kept Martin's immense cast pretty much intact, I worry that HBO blew the budget on casting and left money for nothing else. That's not to say that there weren't some great set pieces through Game of Thrones, but for every shot in the cold, forbidding castle of Winterfell, or the wide plains of the Dothraki Sea, there were two shots of a cramped tent, as if the show couldn't figure out how to create the artifice that these characters were supposed to be part of an army. One plotline was supposed to follow 40,000 barbarian warriors, but we never saw more than five or six at any given time. And the series faded to black on the larger battles entirely, preferring to convey the action through messengers after the fact. 

I'm not asking for Lord of the Rings level battles here (well, I am, but I'm also a realist), but as the series progresses and the plot thickens, Game of Thrones is going to be hard pressed to explain away the fact that the armies everyone is always talking about never actually appear, or do any fighting. The cast is great, but a certain sense of the epic is lost without these larger shots, occasionally making Game of Thrones feel more like a soap opera than epic war story.

The lack of battles, of larger crowds, sweeping shots, or anything bigger than dozen characters wouldn't be such a problem, except Game of Thrones takes itself so damn seriously. The music is always ominous, the characters always grimacing, the weather always cloudy and foreboding. Martin's books were dark and violent, but there was always a wry humor that seeped through the pages, a kind of pulpy delight in the yarn he was spinning. But while the sex and violence in Game of Thrones rose to an almost comic level on a regular basis, the show often adopted the tone of a stuffy BBC costume drama. 

Peter Dinklage did his best to keep the viewers smiling with his character as a salacious, sarcastic midget. But I can't remember another character even smiling on the past ten episodes. The dark subject matter doesn't mean everyone has to brood all the time, and the series needs more Peter Dinklages, who understand how to muster gravitas while still getting off a quip. If Shakespeare could fit in a few jokes into King Lear, I'm sure HBO could find it in them to add a little light to Game of Thrones.

See You Next Season!

But at this point, I'm just being picky. The lack of truly epic scenes is a problem, the serious tone a more minor one. But both these problems are nothing compared to what could have gone wrong in cramming a thousand pages, three dozen characters and five or six different fictional locations into ten hours of television. Every major plot and character (along with most of the minor ones) survived intact from the books, which is no easy feat. Some hyper-literal adaptations never rise above dutifully but dully going through the motions (the Harry Potter films, for instance), but Game of Thrones figured out how to take the complexities from the page and transfer them to the screen while still taking advantage of the new medium.

Looking at Craig's review of The Killing's first season, he describes his initial excitement fading away as the season continued. My reaction to Game of Thrones is just the opposite - my hesitation at the beginning of the season turned into appreciation by the end. What could have been a real mess barely stumbled when coming out of the gate and by the time it finished its first lap, Game of Thrones had convinced me it knew what it was doing. Here's to hoping the second lap is even better.

(Final Spoiler Paragraph for Those Who Have Read the Books)

Not only did Game of Thrones do a great job carrying out the myriad of plots in this season, I was impressed with how well it subtly set up the events to come. Seemingly innocuous references to Stannis, Beric Dondarrion, Theon's jealousy, the slave-trading cities, the Faceless Men and Mance Rayder will all (presumably) come back in a big way in seasons to come. Martin's books are known for their plot twists, but these twists rarely come out of nowhere; what seems a surprise has often been hinted at thousands of pages ago. It's nice to see HBO taking the same care in setting up the twists to come.