Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Game of Thrones Season 1: Episode 2: "The Kingsroad" review

We're back for the second installment of my return to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, watching all of Season 1 of "Game of Thrones" and seeing if I can figure out why it worked for so many people but not me. At least, not me the first time around. (If you missed the introduce and the review of the pilot, they're both right here.) Once again, I would be remiss if I did not include a spoiler warning:

WARNING: I fully intend to spoil each episode along the way as I go. This blog is designed for people who have (1) seen "Game of Thrones" Season 1 already or (2) intend to watch along with me as I go. So from now on, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

OK, on with Episode 2, "The Kingsroad," which on the whole, I found much more interesting and dramatically satisfying than the first episode. It's, naturally, still bogged down with exposition and backstory, and I noticed something else about the way the show handles all the odds and ends and details that fill in the corners of George R. R. Martin's world: It's clunky.

To put it another way, the show is obvious and sort of plodding about getting as much of the history and custom of this place in to each hour-long episode as possible. Worse yet, for all the copious detail that gets brought up and explained during the episodes, there's a ton of vital information that's simply left out. This is one of the first series I've seen that absolutely requires Wikipedia to follow everything, unless you have already read and digested the source material. (But don't read TOO MUCH Wikipedia, as there's spoilers-a-plenty.) Even the OPENING CREDIT SEQUENCE is complicated and requires some backstory.

I know this is high fantasy and the crazy worldbuilding detail is part of the charm... but the show sort of had to choose between just being dull for those unfamiliar with the world but faithful to the books, or disappointing hardcore Martin fans but keeping us n00bs in the loop. It's pretty obvious which decision was made.

The episode itself begins with the Dothraki horde on the move. I now know they're headed for their hometown of Vaes Dothrak, but it's not very well established where they're going at this point, and I only know their final destination because I'm a few episodes ahead of this by now. The new Queen (known as a Khaleesi) is still a bit sore - literally and figuratively - after the whole "being sold by her brother into sexual slavery and then repeatedly raped by a guy who looks like The Rock starring in 'Aladdin on Ice'" thing. What a Drama Khaleesi she is.

Beginning with this episode, it starts to become clear that the show is kind of getting off on watching this fair-haired, very pretty actress being repeatedly raped on camera. The plot excuse is that she begins to distance herself from the experience by fantasizing about dragons, leading to a conversation about dragons with her new lady-in-waiting, Doreah (Roxanne McKee), who just happens to be a former prostitute. Hence, Khaleesi learns to better please her new husband, thus encouraging him to treat her more tenderly, like a wife, rather than a slave. Symbolized by turning her around to look at her during sex, and also by buying Raisin Bran at the local Horde Mart, even though he personally prefers Frosted Flakes.


Some dragon eggs, a little butter, maybe a piece of rye toast or something... Not bad. Just because we're riding with a barbarian horde doesn't make us SAVAGES.

The subtext here is genuinely creepy, and not particularly sexy at all, though the scenario unfolds with the sort of dewy, overripe premium cable eroticism you'd expect from a title like "The Busty Cops Go Hawaiian Part 3." At least the sex scenes from this point on (at least, as far as this couple goes) can get away from the ickiness of Emilia Clarke being tormented and softly weeping, which was kind of killing my buzz.

But it's not all braids and dragon eggs and abrupt doggy style-to-missionary conversions in "The Kingsroad." This is also the episode where Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister, the cynical, blunt dwarf brother of Queen Cersei, became everyone's favorite character, providing a sardonic and significantly more modern take on the events than the rest of the stuffy, defiantly Medieval-minded characters.

We find out early on that Bran, the youngest Stark who was shoved out an open window at the end of the previous episode, has lived, though he will most likely never walk again. The Queen - whose twin brother/lover was responsible for the crippling - shows up at the boy's bedside to offer her condolences, and actually seems to reveal a bit of genuine grief over her own lost child to Lady Stark. It's arguably the most interesting scene in the entire series to this point, because we know enough about the scenario and the characters to start asking questions and thinking more deeply about the subtext and the character's motives. Is the Queen genuinely opening up to Lady Stark, mother-to-mother, or is this all a fake show of sympathy to deflect any suspicions that she might be responsible? Is she just using it as a pretext to start a conversation, and get more information about what the boy remembers and what exactly he saw? Usually, I'm too busy trying to connect all the pieces and figure out who's who to even look for this kind of thing, so it's refreshing to get a scene that plays more straight-ahead as drama and less like a history lesson about a fake universe.

There's also an fun sequence in which Ned and King Robert first learn about the unification of the House of Targaryen with the Dothraki horsemen, and debate the severity of the threat to the throne. One peculiar bit of dialogue, though... Just as the two finish discussing the threat that may be growing across the Narrow Sea, the King says “There’s a war coming, Ned. I don’t know when, and I don’t know who we’ll be fighting, but it’s coming.” Which is odd because they've only really been discussing ONE threat this whole time. From the Targaryens, who still feel they have a justifiable claim to the throne and who now have the power of a massive army on horseback on their side. Why would The King feel the need to add in another bit about not knowing who he's going to be fighting?

Meanwhile, Jon Snow - the bastard son of Ned Stark - is preparing to head off to The Wall to dedicate the rest of his life to protecting the Seven Kingdoms from the monsters that live on the other side. Snow is arguably the series protagonist, and yet I find it hard to really take a strong interest in his fate. He's not really COMPELLING, and though it's not entirely the fault of actor Kit Harington, he's not really helping matters. The character, after two full episodes, remains almost entirely defined by his bastardy. He doesn't have much of an inner life. Other characters will occasionally challenge him about his decision-making, and he always demurs. I sense this was meant to express his mysterious, unknowable nature, but it comes off like he doesn't know why he's doing what he does, and just isn't particularly introspective. (In future episodes, this trend continues, and he basically seems to act heroic at times because it is required of him due to his role in the story, not because he's actually brave or heroic by nature.)


Needs no education nor thought control.

Finally, this episode makes the case both for and against the whole "give a wild dire wolf as a gift to each Stark child" scheme from Episode 1. When young Arya Stark and her commoner friend are play-fighting with wooden swords, the foppish Prince Joffrey decides to teach them a lesson and ends up getting mauled by one of the aforementioned wolves, only to see the beast escape and its brother executed for its crimes. Oooooh, that Prince Joffrey! So, anyway, one anti-wolf point. But then, an assassin attacks Lady Stark and tries to kill young Bran, before being thwarted (and gruesomely murdered) by another wolf. So, one point in favor. The jury's still out on this particular parenting maneuver.

So, all in all, a far superior effort to Episode 1, but I don't know... I remain unconvinced. There's far more incident and dramatic heft this time around, which makes the proceedings far more entertaining. But I'm still not really loving any of the characters, save possibly the witty Tyrion Lannister. Even the Arya Stark character - who's played in lively, spirited fashion by Maisie Williams and who clearly is one of the more likable characters in the novels - comes off as more of a "type" (the headstrong girl who wants to be a hero, not a wife) than a three-dimensional person.

I will naturally continue to press on, but I was really hoping this episode would sell me on the show this second time around, as I remember it being the highlight of my initial "Game of Thrones" experience. We shall soon find out...

Posted via email from Lon Harris

Monday, August 29, 2011

Game of Thrones Season 1: Intro and "Winter is Coming" review

HBO's "Game of Thrones" debuted to great acclaim and excitement from the critical and online nerd communities this past Spring. I was one of the few people I knew who gave it a try and didn't really enjoy it.

But let's back up...

I'm a casual fan of fantasy, as a genre, but had not read the George R. R. Martin novels upon which the show is based. It's not from a lack of familiarity. I spent many years working in book stores and would come across the "Song of Ice and Fire" novels from time to time. But like Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, I always kind of dismissed these books as sub-Tolkein rip-offs that weren't worth the serious commitment it would take to read a full cycle of 6+ lengthy novels. Of course, that was many years ago and I'm perfectly willing to admit that it was wrong to judge books by their covers (although it works more often than not.) Anyway, I awaited the TV adaptation with great anticipation.

[Quick backstory for young people: Once there were places called book stores that primarily existed to give homeless people a convenient place to use the restroom. They also provided coffee and terrible scones and occasionally would sell people physical, bound versions of e-books that they could lug around with them. Weird, right?]

ANYWAY, I got about 4 episodes in to "Game of Thrones" during its initial HBO run before tossing down the remote and declaring, aloud, "That's it! I'm out!" It was progressing, I felt, at an excruciatingly slow clip. I can be a very patient TV viewer when I feel like a show is earning my attention. Many of my favorite series take a "slow burn" approach, particularly in early episodes. But "Game of Thrones," to me, felt like the Tristram Shandy of episodic television. Obsessed with world-building and lineages and backstory, uninterested in moving any of its various plot strands forward.

At times, I'll also admit to feeling kind of embarrassed to be watching this with my girlfriend around. Every time she'd enter the room, there would be some glossy, lovingly-shot Aryan nudity. It was like I had just recorded 48 solid hours of some white supremacist offshoot of Cinemax and was purposefully watching it only in mixed company. I'm not prudish by nature, but the sex and nakedness in "Game of Thrones" felt prurient, and even a bit trashy. Like when Penn and Teller randomly invite naked women to the "Bullshit" set and then spend an entire 4 minute segment celebrating the fact that Showtime lets them get away with standing next to naked women. But less tasteful.

After I had already given up the show and missed a few weeks of episodes, I discovered that nearly everyone I knew whose televiewing tastes I respected was loving the show. "You should have stuck with it" was a common refrain. As was "I can't believe you didn't like this! What's wrong with you!" I would have suggested "How can you possibly defend making time for 'Jersey Shore' every week but not giving 'Game of Thrones' a chance?" But amazingly, no one called me out on my bullshit. Perhaps they were looking out for my feelings.

Which brings us to my little "Game of Thrones" project. I will watch each episode of the show's first season, starting over at the beginning, and blog my experiences with each episode.

WARNING: I fully intend to spoil each episode along the way as I go. This blog is designed for people who have (1) seen "Game of Thrones" Season 1 already or (2) intend to watch along with me as I go. So from now on, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

 Starting with the pilot.


The series opens with a group of soldiers from the Night's Watch, who have traveled to the mysterious lands north of the wall they are duty-bound to protect. One of them looks a lot like Matt Damon, and then he dies pretty much right away, leading me to question - when I first watched it - whether it really had been Matt Damon. It wasn't.


You have to admit, it's sort of uncanny...

They're all killed by the monstrous White Walkers, save one soldier who escapes back to the other side of the wall, and civilization. But it's not TOO civilized, because as soon as he gets back home, Lord Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean) declares that he's a deserter and orders his execution. Stark - the head of the Stark family, which rules the northern land of Winterfell - then requests that his youngest son watch as he personally beheads the guy. It's a pretty tough way to introduce the hero of your new TV series, showing him cut off a guy's head in front of his kid for the crime of almost getting eaten by monsters. But the fact that it's Sean Bean doing it pretty much makes up for the nastiness factor. The guy's just likable.

Next we see Stark and his sons happening upon a litter of orphaned baby dire wolves. The kids all split them up, one wolf per Stark. Ned's illegitimate son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), gets the runt of the litter, which is treated like some sort of cruel insult, overlooking the fact that HE WAS JUST GIVEN THE GIFT OF A WILD, UNTAMED WOLF. You'd think a smaller one might be preferable, no?

Next, King Robert (Mark Addy) comes to Winterfell to ask Ned to become his "hand," or chief advisor. He brings along with him the conniving Lannister family. They include the king's wife, Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), her twin brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and their younger brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf known as "The Imp." Plus they bring the king and queen's children, including heir to the throne Prince Joffrey (played by Draco Malfoy.)

OK, it's a lot of names. Everybody keeping up so far? This is basically the experience of watching Season 1 of "Game of Thrones." It's like those parts of the Old Testament where you're just reading page after page of names that begat other names, and you start to actually wish they'd get back to obsessing about which meats are okay just to break up the monotony.

I will say, I didn't notice my first time through that the names of these two houses mirror those of the English War of the Roses. That war was fought between the Lancaster and York families. Lannister/Stark, Lancaster/York. I see what you did there, Martin...

OK, then we get a little MEANWHILE IN PENTOS! graphic and we're off across the Narrow Sea, to where the very very blonde and very very evil Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) is plotting to overthrow King Robert and return his house to the throne of whatever the hell country this is. In order to achieve this goal, he has arranged for his very very blonde and very very frequently nude sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to marry the shirtless and muscular warlord Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), who will then in exchange provide Viserys with his army of Dothrakis.

Daenerys is afraid to have sex with Khal Drogo, and it's pretty understandable. He looks like he probably has a penis the size of a George R. R. Martin novel. (Yes, hardbound.) But Viserys doesn't seem too concerned, and explains matter-of-factly that his own ascension to the throne is more important than the sanctity of her lady parts.

The show, during the Winterfell segment, does a halfway decent job of presenting characters who seem at least somewhat nuanced. Ned Stark is obviously a hardened man in a lot of ways, but he loves his wife and children, and he seems rational and humane enough to root for in a pinch. Viserys is basically just a dueling scar or German WWI helmet away from cartoonish super-villainy.

Soon enough, Daenerys and her barbarian are married, and we get a look at a Dothraki wedding. It involves a live sex show, snakes, fights to the death and ample piles of rotting meat, which you've got to admit does sound more appealing than a beer-and-wine-only open bar, a dry overcooked chicken breast and The Electric Slide. (We also learn in this segment that "there is no word for 'thank you' in Dothraki," which sounds like a nice little bit of detail enhancing your understanding for this complex warrior culture... until you think about it for a moment and realize it's totally fucking stupid. "Hey, brother, I saved you a piece of rotting meat." "Um... I have no linguistic way to respond to this gesture. I suppose we should fight to the death.")

In case you didn't catch what was coming from the previous 15 minutes of the show basically repeating the idea on a non-stop loop, Khal Drogo then basically rapes Daenerys on screen. Cause pics or it didn't happen, I guess...

Finally, the youngest Stark is enjoying his favorite pastime, climbing. (This kid and I don't have a ton in common, I can tell right off the bat.) He accidentally spies the queen and her twin brother having sex, which apparently is kind of taboo even in the "anything goes" world of "Game of Thrones." So to protect their dirty, dirty little secret (which would have probably been even better protected by just not committing incest next to an open window in the home of a key political adversary), Jaime Lannister pushes the kid out the window, presumably to his demise.

Annnnnd scene!

OK, it's at least moderately entertaining as a show, and some of the performances - particularly Bean's and Dinklage's - are not without their charm. But I have to say, I'm still not LOVING this first episode. It certainly sets up a lot of different plotlines, and it's clear how these three dynasties are going to be pulled closer and closer into conflict over the course of the season. So it's getting the job done as a pilot, I suppose. But most of the characters are just kind of flat, and there's this tendency to paint a lot of these conflicts in black-and-white. Which works for, say, "Lord of the Rings," but that doesn't ask you to emotionally invest in Sauron's incestuous romance with his sister.

I have to believe that further episodes deepen these characterizations and add more nuance into the mix that I'm not seeing now. Because how else would everyone be getting so into it? Just going to have to give it more time...

Posted via email from Lon Harris