Game of Thrones: Season 1 review

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The first season of Game of Thrones, the medieval fantasy series based on George R R Martin‘s best-selling books, came to an end last night with a final episode which provided viewers with just enough of a sense of closure while setting up some of the key plot threads for the second season, which will air in 2012. Over the course of ten episodes, Thrones has brought us a complex new world of characters and political intrigue which has been one part the epic fantasy of Lord of the Rings and one part the more intimate family-driven political intrigue of The Sopranos with a soupçon of The West Wing thrown in for good measure.

This is a universe where no one is safe, where the most important battles are as likely to be won with words as they are with swords, and betrothals are just as important as any military alliance or declarations of fealty. And it has been delivered with a style and swagger which has met up to its considerable pre-launch hype like few series before it.

The medieval mafia

Cersei Lannister: When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) has a noble head on his shoulders – at least to begin with (image courtesy of skyatlantic.sky.com)

The season’s overarching plot starts and ends with the fate of Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark. A noble man of unstinting honour, he cannot help but answer the call of duty when summoned by his old friend King Robert Baratheon to become the new Hand of the King. But his unbending desire to do the right thing ultimately leads to an ignoble and dishonourable demise, convicted of treason and then beheaded for attempting to expose Robert’s son Joffrey‘s true parentage.

Indeed, life in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros – with the four Houses of Stark, Baratheon, Lannister and Targaryen at its core – frequently resembles a medieval version of the Five Families of the New York mafia, but with swords instead of guns. Robert and then Joffrey Baratheon occupy the seat of power at King’s Landing. The Lannisters control the financial affairs of the kingdoms and hold much of the real power. The Targaryens are powerless and exiled but are nonetheless plotting their return from across the Narrow Sea. And the Starks are a simple, honourable family who find themselves drawn into the resultant web of Machiavellian politics.

Queen Cersei believes in keeping things within the Lannister family, in more ways than one (image courtesy of skyatlantic.sky.com)

Three major plot-lines run through this first season. The largest and most complex revolves around events leading up to and following the death of King Robert in a supposed hunting accident, and the resultant power struggle this creates. Ned’s discovery that Joffrey is actually the son of Queen Cersei Lannister and her twin brother Jaime leads to his execution for treason, leaving his elder daughter Sansa trapped in King’s Landing as Joffrey’s future wife and younger daughter Arya fleeing north disguised as a boy. In response, Ned’s oldest son Robb raises an army to march south against the new king and the forces of House Lannister.

The second story revolves around Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow, and his experiences as a new recruit of the Night’s Watch which defends the Wall, a massive fortification which separates the northern edge of Westeros from a variety of uncertain and near-mythical threats such as the White Walkers.

Finally, in the land of Essos across the Narrow Sea the vengeful Viserys Targaryen, son of the deposed King Aerys, plots to seize the Iron Throne for himself by selling his own sister Daenerys into marriage to gain the support of the Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo. Viserys’s arrogance and impatience leads to a unique coronation at Drogo’s hands, but his ambition lives on as Daenerys grows and becomes a leader in her own right.

Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Drogo (Jason Momoa) provided an unexpectedly poignant love story (image courtesy of skyatlantic.sky.com)

Key themes

Several well-established themes are played out over the course of the season. The powerful Lannisters are arrogant, corrupt and cruel, as typified by the ascension of Joffrey (secretly fathered by Jaime), whose rise to the throne merely fuels his sadistic nature – a true case of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Contrast that with Ned, whose pure and undiluted sense of honour sees him constantly outmanoeuvred in the intricate politics of King’s Landing, and ultimately costs him his life.

Despite the overtly militaristic nature of life in this medieval world, many of the series’s strongest characters are women. We learn from the outset that Cersei is a true Lannister – devious, cunning and cold. But Ned’s wife Catelyn also proves to be a strong mother and leader. And Daenerys undergoes the greatest transformation of all. Initially nothing more than a trophy wife to be used by Viserys to gain the support of the Dothraki army, the ingénue outlasts her scheming brother and proves to be by far the more cunning and powerful.

Baelish’s (Aidan Gillen) nickname may be ‘Littlefinger’, but he has big ambitions (image courtesy of skyatlantic.sky.com)

Equally Petyr Baelish and the eunuch Varys, two of the king’s key advisors, are physically unimposing and yet clearly two of the most intelligent, best connected and therefore powerful men in Westeros. Knowledge is their stock-in-trade, and as the saying goes: knowledge is power. The ‘Imp’, Tyrion Lannister, also knows that he will never be able to overpower his opponents physically, and has devoted himself to turning his brain into a formidable weapon, allied to a silver tongue which gets him out of many a tight spot.

However it is Tywin, the patriarch of House Lannister, who is the most dangerous man in the Seven Kingdoms, combining his sons’ strengths – Jaime’s warrior nature and Tyrion’s intelligence. Robb Stark, Ned’s oldest son and the newly hailed King of the North, may not be his physical equal, but has already shown that he possesses a fine military mind and the ability to command respect from his armies rather than simply buy or cow them into loyalty.

Robb: If we do it your way, King-slayer, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way.

Bringing the book to life

In the transition from book to screen the dialogue-heavy nature of the original has been retained, although it has obviously been tightened up for a television format. Nonetheless, this is not a series which relies on big action set-pieces and moments of high melodrama. The pace of the series has been more gentle and yet relentless, with the first few episodes concentrating on setting up the various plots and the enormous cast of characters, before the tension gradually ramps up as the body count starts to rise. King Robert, Viserys and finally Ned and Drogo all perish – no one is safe, and that lack of certainty about the fates of all the characters (whether major or minor) has added to the foreboding sense of impending doom.

He may be diminutive in stature, but Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is not to be underestimated (image courtesy of skyatlantic.sky.com)

Perhaps more than anything though, Game of Thrones has delivered a series of searing mental and verbal snapshots which revolve around small character moments rather than epic battles. From Drogo’s ‘coronation’ of Viserys with a crown of molten gold, to the cut-and-thrust of the verbal sparring between Baelish and Varys, to the final image of a naked Daenerys with three new-born dragons, the series has successfully taken the often fantastical imagery of Martin’s prose and delivered an end result which has satisfied even long-term readers of the books.

All this has been delivered by an excellent cast who have fully inhabited Martin’s literary creations. In particular, young Maisie Williams has been outstanding as Arya, and Tyrion could only have been played by the wonderful Peter Dinklage, who belies his diminutive stature to effortlessly steal every scene he is in.

Shaggar: How would you like to die, Tyrion, son of Tywin?

Tyrion: In my own bed, at the age of 80, with a belly full of wine and a girl’s mouth around my c**k.

The scale of the books has also been well translated into a vast array of supporting characters, many of whom have had only a handful of scenes, but have leapt off the page as fully-formed and three-dimensional people rather than flat ciphers. In particular, Arya’s ‘dancing master’, the skilled swordsman Syrio Forel, has been a particular favourite of mine.

Syrio: What do we say to the God of death?

Arya: Not today.

Like the book, this first season has been complex, layered medieval fantasy for the intelligent viewer, that makes the Lord of the Rings trilogy look like a simple children’s story. It’s not for the prudish or the squeamish – or for those who prefer their drama spoon-fed in easy, bite-size portions – but it has been a hugely rewarding ten hours of television.

Arya (Maisie Williams, right) and her ‘dancing master’ Syrio (Miltos Yerolemou). Not today (image courtesy of skyatlantic.sky.com)

Where next?

The season finale leaves us with as many unanswered questions as it does answered ones. Joffrey sits on the Iron Throne, but for how long can this sadistic leader rely on the support of both his armies and his subjects before they turn against him? (And will new Hand of the King Tyrion be able to steer a middle path?) The Houses of Stark and Lannister look set for a long war which threatens to tear the Seven Kingdoms apart.

Will the Stark children ever be reunited? Robb is heading into battle and Jon beyond the Wall, while Bran remains crippled in Winterfell. Arya is fleeing King’s Landing, while Sansa remains trapped there with Joffrey threatening to sire a child at the first opportunity.

And what will Daenerys choose to do, after emerging unscathed from Drogo’s funeral pyre with three not-so-mythical newborn dragons? Will she be able to raise an army to march on Westeros?

I’m sure many potential viewers will have been turned off Game of Thrones by its origins in the fantasy genre. That is their loss. This series has captured the essence of the first book perfectly, conveying a cinematic quality on a TV budget and weaving a rich tapestry of characters and intrigue. It really is that good. The second season cannot come soon enough.

Game of Thrones season two returns in spring 2012. Book five in the series, A Dance With Dragons, is published in the UK and US on July 12th.

Rating: 9/10

Links: Episode 1 reviewGame of Thrones website (HBO.com), Game of Thrones (Sky Atlantic website)IMDbTV.comWikipedia