I often catch myself falling into that trap of “worrying” how civilians might come at something like Game of Thrones, as if it’s important to consider the show without the prejudices or predispositions of having read the books beforehand. This is silly, of course. I can’t erase the knowledge and emotional baggage of having read the books first and, more importantly, there’s no reason on earth I should even try. Beyond its success in the ratings either providing me with more or fewer episodes to watch myself, what is the value in trying to anticipate how a casual HBO viewer might respond to Game of Thrones? The opinions of non-fans can be interesting and even insightful, but trying to taper my own enjoyment or approach to the show by seeing it through freshman eyes doesn’t grant me any better appreciation of its merits…or faults.
For example, how am I to respond to the blatant sense of ‘wrongness’ I got watching the scene where Khal Drogo takes Daenerys there on the shores in the light of the setting sun? I have no clue how something like that ‘plays’ for a viewer who hasn’t read how Martin approached that same moment. Did it work for this hypothetical ‘newbie’? Objectively, is there anything wrong with that scene in the context of the show itself, divorced from Martin’s novels? I can’t say, and it’s a fool’s errand to try to put myself in that mind space. I have read A Game of Thrones and can say that while I genuinely dug the first episode, the aforementioned consummation of the Drogo/Daenerys marriage didn’t work for me.
I won’t get into nit-picking the details. There has always been something of a disconnect for me in that moment when Drogo and Daenerys…ahem…join. The tension lies between the eroticism Martin brings to the scene and the cold reality of the fact that this young girl would probably be terrified to the point of shock at what was happening to her. That said, I think Martin has enough of the latter in there to disfuse charges that he’s being exploitive. In addition, he plays with our expectations of domination and submission by having Drogo “submit” to Dany in subtle ways throughout, even if they are simply gestures of seduction. The point is, Drogo never comes right out and forces Dany to submit; he may intimidate through his size and his strength, but he is patient and at times ‘tender.’ Admittedly, that would be a difficult thing to swallow in the show, but the route they took instead, of making Drogo *exactly* the sort of guy he seems to be when we meet him, is precisely the sort of thing Martin goes out of his way to avoid or undermine in the book. I think the scene plays real, maybe even more so than its literary counterpart, but it doesn’t intrigue or surprise. And that’s my biggest gripe, really—they had a chance to be daring and they decided to be, well, obvious.
I single out that scene because, for all the show’s strengths (and it has a lot), I felt there was some not-so-subtle manipulation of the source material at work in just about every scene intended to either reduce negative controversy (see above) or build acceptable controversy (the gore, Tyrion’s tarts – - hey, that should be a band name). It was as if every scene had been just a little too carefully adjusted and scrutinized. I know, I know, every show is micro-managed down to the last stitch on someone’s britches. This time, however, it felt more…if not cynical, then perhaps condescending. Some changes were just fine, while others seemed to make characters less vibrant and unique.*
Lest you think I disapprove of every perceived change to Martin’s book, how about those “bad guys,” huh?
I have to say, I *love* how they are playing these characters so far. The first scene with Cersei and Jaime Lannister had a wonderful tone to it, overflowing with a familiarity and ease that made them both seem truly human and, yes, even a little personable. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jaime has just the right blend of arrogance and roguish charm.
And Viserys Targaryen? Wow.
If there is one character in A Game of Thrones that is obviously and unquestionably BAD, it’s Viserys, so bravo to the filmmakers and Harry Lloyd for making him so insidiously gentile rather than the hand-wringing, near-hysterical bully he could have been. Lloyd’s line delivery when he tells Dany he’d let the entire Dothraki army fuck her if it meant getting his Kingdom back chilled my blood. He brings the right amount of honey to the role, and everyone knows that while honey is sweet, it is also deadly…like a fox…
Other things I noted:
- The opening was very strong, although seeing the dismembered bodies and the symbol they were arranged in versus seeing them “as if asleep” told me right off the bat that the series wasn’t going to be as subtle as the books. Not a deal breaker by any means. This is a visual medium and sometimes that necessitates working in shorthand.
- The sound of the Others…the frozen bodies, the cracking of ice…creepier than the dead girl’s eyes in my opinion. Still I was a tad bit disappointed they rush through this sequence; the steady, unrelenting doom of the book was replaced here by disjointed cuts of shapes whisking through the rushing branches.
- Everybody loves the nifty title sequence and rightfully so.
- The first scene with the Starks was very well done in establishing some key character traits and interactions—Arya’s ability to hit the bullseye when Bran couldn’t and Catelyn’s look at Jon—all very well done. Again, we’re working in shorthand and that’s not a bad thing in television, so long as it works and here it does.
- I like the relationship hinted at between Rob, Theon, and Jon. In fact, I like how familial Winterfell feels, even in this first episode. Everyone feels like they have been together a long time (except for Sansa, and I don’t know how they would have made her feel more “at home” there since she sticks out in the book as well).
- Did they cast Joffrey well or what? Tell me you don’t want to see him get a good, hard slap by a gauntlet from the moment he appears on-screen. I mean, look at that little monster:
I might just make an animated Gif of…a certain someone slapping him when the moment comes next week.
- I have it on good authority that the Hound’s helmet was made of pure Dio-era Black Sabbath, with a little of Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” thrown in for shine.
- OK, I’m going to state the obvious here: Peter Dinklage was great. I think it’s easy to overlook his performance because Tyrion is such a strong character and Dinklage has proven he’s a great actor. It’s such an effortless combination of two wonderful things that it almost becomes absurd to point out how well they’ve come together. Between Tyrion and Arya, the show has the books’ two most likable characters covered and covered well.
- Having said that, in this first episode the Tyrion moments were almost too outstanding, if you take the word literally. I hope Tyrion becomes more than the comic sage who shows up on screen to steal it and walk off stage right—knowing the role he plays in the future, this concern is a minor one, however. Martin does paint Tyrion precisely as he appears here in the early sections of A Game of Thrones – - it’s just odd to see that behavior in that context *without* the benefit of hearing Tyrion’s thoughts to make the tone of his chapters mesh with that of the surrounding ones.
- I grant you, I see how Robert should have a bit more stature or muscle under the years of excess, but damn if Mark Addy isn’t how I pictured him, almost to a tee. I will say that I didn’t quite get Robert’s unbridled hatred for the Targaryens in the crypt; that detail about Eddard’s sister and Robert’s past with her lacked the full scope of Robert’s longing and anger, but it certainly wasn’t anything I’d write to my congressman about.
- Wait, so where’s that whorehouse? I know there are villages and such around Stark’s castle, but the way that was cut, didn’t it seem like the Starks have their own little brothel there in the keep?
- So the one legitimate chance they have for some skin and they don’t show it? I liked how Martin played with Cat’s nudity in that scene in the book – again, it was a little thing that sets up a sense of history and relationship between characters (in this case between Eddard, Cat, and Maester Luwin) and I missed it here. Still, what was there in the scene felt genuine and the way they ended the scene, with Bean’s look of torment as he struggles with the best course of action for both the king and his family, was choice indeed.
- The Dothraki wedding was about one tenth the size I pictured it being, and Momoa’s weird face as he watched the men kill each other for a piece of tail was a little too adolescent for my tastes. I never got the impression in the book that Drogo was anything less than impassive much of the time, and when he did smile or laugh, it certainly wouldn’t have been with the leer of a skeazy twelve-year old boy.
So, first episode of Game of Thrones? Well met! In spite of some things I didn’t care for, it was a solid adaptation that was just brimming with great performances and atmosphere. Cinematography was crackerjack and the pacing was breakneck. No question, I’ll be here next week.
* Sean T Collins notes the changes to Cat’s character, and while I didn’t spot those directly, I agree in hindsight that these *do* alter her character in ways that aren’t entirely beneficial.