Thursday, April 21, 2011

Who's the Boss? (Medieval Edition)

In spite of my total lack of knowledge of the book series, I found myself pretty excited for HBO's adaptation of George R. R. Martin's multi-volume epic Game of Thrones. As it turns out, the excitement was well-warranted. Unfortunately, my unfamiliarity with the books and the massive breadth covered by the first episode means that this review is easily going to be one of the hardest I've ever written. Not life-in-the-world-of-the-show hard, of course, but that's a rather high, rather blood-soaked bar.

The first episode was essentially three shows in one, with the narrative focusing on several separate peoples and places. Add to that the fact that within each of these locales there exists a complicated web of allies and enemies, a thousand-year-old Redwood of a family tree, half and full siblings galore, and sexual pairings that span from contractual to incestuous. It's a lot to process and there's really no chance that I'll be able to do it full justice. As such, below are mostly generalities and musings because I'll be damned if I can remember everyone's name or family relationship. I honestly have a pretty good understanding of the structure of everything, so it's more a matter of spelling people's names and remember which kingdom they're from.

I had an unexpected reaction to Game of Thrones. I mean, I thoroughly enjoyed it, but there were certain aspects that were off-putting, as I'll explain later on (and surprisingly, the incest wasn't one of those aspects). It's a truly grand production with incredible sets and locations, a cast of hundreds (it seems), and a budget to rival many Hollywood feature films. At this point in the story there are at least three seemingly disparate narratives going on, but it's clear that they'll begin to intersect as the battle for control reaches a head. The world created is rich and diverse with each culture exhibiting its own qualities and values. In short, there's a cold, wintry land to the North where a wall is in place to protect the country from outsiders (and hopefully all manner of pseudo-supernatural elements). To the South is the home of the Stark family (at least I think that's where the lived... I'm not sure where the Lannisters hail from, but apparently it ain't where the Starks are from), a green landscape with old growth forests that most closely resembles Medieval Britain. Then there's a warm Mediterranean location inhabited by extras from Mad Max (but, you know, on horseback) and a pair of exiled siblings who are eager to return to their homeland and reclaim the throne (theirs are the names I'm having the hardest time remembering). Each of these places has its own tone and texture and is home to numerous characters. It's a lot to take in in only an hour, but for the most part, the producers did a hell of a job conveying the harsh realities of each of these worlds in as economic a fashion as possible. It would be way too difficult and time-consuming to enumerate all the wonderful aspects of the show, so just assume it was excellent overall.

That said, I think the constraints of telling a story on television rather than in a lengthy novel were the root of the few issues I had with the show. Each of these places and families was easily interesting enough to have their own show, so to see their narratives chopped up into thirds was a little unsatisfying. I'm sure once these stories begin to overlap the transitions back and forth will seem more fluid, but with only the first episode, it felt more like I would get sucked into one storyline only to be transported across the sea to an entirely different group of people who, at this point, have absolutely nothing to do with the people I was just watching. I think my dissatisfaction with this aspect has more to do with me than anything else. I love a good, slow burn, and I'm more than happy to allow for set-up, but I found certain storylines more intriguing than others, so to be pulled away from one and tossed back into the other was mildly irksome. By the end of the pilot I was invested in all aspects of every locale, but with only an hour to work with, none of them seemed to be given their due. I suppose when it all boils down, I would have preferred that each family be afforded an hour of their own, but I'm sure the splicing will grow on me as the show progresses.

The world(s) established by the series are both familiar and foreign at the same time. It's all incredibly brutal and gritty, but some of the overlap between the prosaic and the other-worldly spun me the wrong way. Don't get me wrong, names like Ned, Robert, Jaime, Catelyn, and was-that-youngest-son-really-named-Brandon? are easier to remember, but in the world of the show, they seemed oddly out of place. When stacked up alongside names like Cersei, Viserys, Sansa, Tyrion, and Kahl Drogo, it just seemed like an odd melange of past and present, near and far. Beyond that, some of the dialogue seemed Medieval in structure and cadence, but other exchanges seemed completely modern. In a world of kings and dragons and magic, I just wasn't expecting certain verbiage. For example, I actually looked up the historical uses for "fuck" and found that it dates back to the mid 16th century. Were this Elizabethan England, I think it would have felt appropriate, but Game of Thrones had a much more 12th or 13th century feel to it and the usage felt out of place (or about 300 years too early). These are all rather minor quibbles, and they're easy enough to overlook, but it just struck me as odd creative choices to be made on the parts of the writers and producers. Maybe the blend is exactly what they were striving for, and it does give the production a particular feel, but however intentional, every now and then I'd have a "Wait, what? Did he really just say that?" kind of moment and it was a bit jarring. Add to that the often clunky plot exposition and the stunning brilliance of other aspects of the show were a bit tarnished. Seriously, at one point, the Stark family is watching the arrival of the Lannister family and the youngest Stark daughter Arya literally starts naming them and their relation to everyone else. Helpful? Yes. Organic to the story? Sadly, no. "That's Cersei, wife of the king and twin sister to Jaime," she says, to which her sister hisses, "Will you shut up!" All I could think was, "But sister, it's plot exposition, it has to go somewhere!" I can see where it's necessary, but it could have been achieved in a much subtler way.

Another aspect that I had a hard time with was the role of women on the show. I realize that this is set in another time and place, one most akin to the Middle Ages, and that in that setting, women weren't afforded much status or respect, but that doesn't make scenes like the gigantic, muscle-bound leader of a band of barbarians raping his teenage bride any easier to watch. Although on the show, Daenerys (I had to look it up) is played by an adult, as I understand it, in the book, this character is only 13. It was disturbing enough watching this happen to an adult, but the thought of a 13-year-old being sold into such a situation was stomach-turning. Again, I realize that that it part of the set-up and it absolutely makes sense in terms of the narrative, but it's still hard to watch. Maybe it's that between The Borgias and Game of Thrones I'm experiencing an overload rape and debasement of these poor female characters, but it's getting harder and harder to endure. You know these women have it rough in the world of Game of Thrones when the only sex scene that wasn't based in rape or prostitution was one of incest between twin brother and sister Jaime and Cersei. Honestly, having seen what sex between newly married and non-related couples is like for women, hooking up with your twin brother somehow seems the least exploitative and the most consensual of all. It managed to be the only sex scene the was actually sexy. How twisted is that? I ran across one commenter on the show wondering if the fact that Jaime and Cersei are twins makes it less icky or more icky. I can't believe I'm actually having this argument with myself, but I say less icky, and I'll tell you why! Twins are the same age, so at the very least, you don't have an older sibling exploiting a younger sibling. Right? Whatever their genetic relationship may be, Jaime and Cersei seemed to be the only sexual encounter that had any semblance of equality about it. When your brother shoves a 10-year-old out a window on behalf of your affair, that's gotta be love, right? In related news, a lot of people on the web seemed shocked that Jaime shoved him out the window, but I saw it coming from a mile away. Regardless, it was a pretty powerful way to close out the first episode, and gave viewers a keen insight into Jaime and "the thing's [he'll] do for love." Oh, Jaime Lannister. Pretty? Absolutely. Ethically grounded? Not so much... (Although honestly, who hasn't at least considered shoving a troublesome 10 year old out a window? Just me? Really?! Liars.)

Alas, I have no doubt that horror is exactly what both of these shows were aiming for in terms of the treatment of women, and in that case, mission accomplished. In that day and age, women weren't really considered people and more than anything were a means of allying one family with another in a political bid for power. As a woman and a feminist, seeing these characters as little more than bargaining chips is incredibly disconcerting. At the same time, it makes for an interesting dynamic, and it's one that I'm really only exposed to in period pieces, so if nothing else, it's something different. In spite of the constraints, there are some very strong, influential female characters and I'm hopeful that they'll go against the grain. I'm not sure how much more subjugation I can muster, so the roles of Catelyn Stark and Cersei seemed the most promising (or at very least, not quite as unbearably depressing as all the other women of the show). It's probably just a matter of me being more attuned to the portrayals of women in television, but this was one element of the show that I found disappointing. For every female character who appears to be fairly well-rounded and interesting, there's a stock character that we've seen a million times before. While the dynamic among the Stark brothers is classic in its own right, it's also deep and engaging. The sisters? Well, we have the spunky youngest daughter who's a tomboy (yes, they actually had a scene of her ditching her needlepoint class so that she could one-up her brother at archery) and the older sister who's shallow and prissy and only concerned with marrying well. Sigh. Again, I realize that in this particular world there aren't a whole lot of options for women, but at the same time, it felt like they were mostly an afterthought. Perhaps it was more a matter of how they were presented onscreen, but I found them predictable and underwhelming compared to their male counterparts. Here's hoping for more depth in the future. The initial set-up was less-than-enthralling, but it lends itself to something more robust down the road, so I'm hopeful.

I'm making it sound like I didn't enjoy the show nearly as much as I did. Again, to spell out all the ways in which Game of Thrones is spectacular would take ages. Incredible cast, captivating mythology, political maneuvering, sex, betrayal, power, and death. What more could you ask for, really? Well, aside from my fleeting concerns listed above, not much. It drew me in immediately and didn't let go. In spite of some niggling concerns here and there, it's a beautifully crafted work that would hold up against any cinematic achievement. I may not know how to spell your name, bizarrely blond and creepy brother of that poor girl who got married off to the horse guy, but I'm totally invested in your storyline anyways.

Some random musings and whatnot on the show:
  • Peter Dinklage is simply awesome as Tyrion Lannister. Granted, he spent the better part of the first episode whoring around, I think his character will prove to be far more influential than the other characters would anticipate. Being a dwarf, he cannot rely on brute force to achieve his ends, so he must use his wits. I liked that he equated himself with John Snow (the bastard son of the king) in terms of status and opportunity and that John didn't even kind of see the parallel until it was spelled out to him.

  • Sean Bean is a power-player to the nth degree and heads the Stark family with authority and cool resolve. He also seems to be one of the more morally grounded characters, but I suspect that may change. It was mainly nice to see Boromir back in action. Hey, he's found his niche and he's going to stick with it. Can't says I blame him.

  • As I understand it, young Bran Stark survives plummeting to his not-death. He's credited for several more episodes than just the pilot, and my sister confirms that he lives, but I don't see how that's possible. I mean, there's a magical undercurrent to the show, but I'm not sure "undercurrent" is going to be enough to reset 106 bones, stem the massive internal bleeding, and restart his heart. And lungs. And brain...

  • It is so, so, SO very nice to see Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jaime Lannister) in a show that's actually worth watching. Don't get me wrong, it's nice to see him in any capacity, but when it's a show that revolves around an immortal homicide detective who solves crimes using his powers of... being really old... Yeah, no, I'd much rather he sleep with his twin sister and murder people, thanks. What can I say? He and his sister make a cute couple and I think Bran had it coming.

  • The opening credits are absolutely stunning. A great title sequence can really set the tone for the show you're about to watch, and Game of Thrones did a masterful job. It's a striking blend of old world runes and symbols, the progress of city building, nature, and technology in a medium that almost looks like origami or an erector set. Once again, I'm not doing any of this justice. Just watch it here. However one might describe it, it establishes the many different realms of the show and gives a feeling of "ever-upward" that I think is reflected in the drive for power and control on the show. Build and conquer. You win or you die.

  • I have a DVD recorder that I often use to transfer shows from my DVR to disk for friends. Well, it's a brave new world, peeps, and TV has gotten too smart for its own good. I have recently tried to put Justified and Game of Thrones on disks and was met with an angry message about it being protected content so I couldn't record it. Oh for hells sakes, I put these shows on disks so that I can get MORE PEOPLE TO WATCH YOUR SHOWS! Do you really think there aren't other ways of getting this content out there? Do you really have to cramp my style like this? Oy.

  • This show is VERY expensive and but for the grace of HBO, it never would have seen the light of day. It has already been picked up for a second season, so, as with Boardwalk Empire before it, I have no reservations about getting invested because I know that it'll be here for the long haul. Kudos, HBO. Kudos.
Winter is coming, and for once, I can't wait for it to get here.

Pilot Grade: A-

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