Spoilers for Game of Thrones TV series and A Song of Fire and Ice fantasy series below.
HBO’s Game of Thrones series is a marvel. It does not quite compare to the book, but the truth is that the book and the show have become quite seperate, and to criticize the TV series for ‘disappointing’ my expectations is to do HBO an injustice. We are already at episode 6, and each episode just gets better and better – the games of power, the farce of justice at Eyrie, the bloody ceremonies at Vaes Dothrak – the pace is picking up, and we’re being swept along!
The Baratheons are a powerful but reckless house given to extremeties of character. Robert Baratheon, first of his name, Ruler of the Seven Kingdoms and Usurper of the Targaryens’ throne, once “muscled like maiden’s fantasy”, now a fat and ineffective man, is the eldest son of Stefford Baratheon. His second brother, Stannis Baratheon (who does not appear yet), is a strict and puritan man who detests immorality and passion of any sort, while Renly Baratheon, about eleven-or-so years younger than Robert, is a vain, handsome, and powerful man.
Mark Addy does a wonderfully fat, blustering king Robert. During his fifteen years of kingship, Robert’s careless indulgence has squandered whatever wealth and power the Targaryens once had. The Iron Throne is severely in debt, and Robert is cornered by his dependence on the Lannisters’ wealth. Meanwhile, Robert has never let go of Lyanna Stark, Ned’s younger sister and Robert’s only love; his inability to move on has destroyed Robert’s marriage to Cersei and made him unreasonably vengeful towards the surviving Targaryens. The TV series makes prominent Lyanna’s ghost during a heart-to-heart chat between king and queen in episode 5, that never appears in the book. “What harm could Lyanna Stark’s ghost do to us, that we haven’t done to each other a hundred times over?” Cersei asks Robert mockingly. In the book, it is our honourable Ned Stark who asks Cersei why she hates Robert so, and she replies,
“The night of our wedding feast, the first time we shared a bed, he called me by your sister’s name. He was on top of me, in me, stinking of wine, and he whispered, Lyanna.” – Cersei Lannister.
Like all things GRRM, character relationships are more intricate than they seem, and thus it is that the relationship between the Baratheons and the Targaryens goes deeper than that of past and present rulers – but to talk of the Targaryens is to talk of the Targaryens, the Starks, the Lannisters and the Baratheons all at once; and here, I think, is where the TV series lacks sufficient explanation. I will try to sort things out.
The Game of Thrones emblem includes the sigils of the dragon, the direwolf, the lion and the stag, for the whole war begins with them. Fifteen years before the Game of Thrones, the last Targaryen King was Aerys Targaryen, and his son was prince Rhaegar Targaryen. Jaime Lannister, the youngest ever knight in the Kingsguard, was a sworn protector of Aerys. Cersei Lannister was betrothed to, and fell in love with, Rhaegar; however, Rhaegar and Lyanna Stark loved one another while Robert Baratheon’s affection for Lyanna was unrequited. When Robert eventually declared war against King Aerys, the Starks were his strongest ally. Mad with jealousy, Robert killed Rhaegar, but Lyanna died during the battle, too. Jaime Lannister slew his own king and from then on was called the Kingslayer. Jaime handed the throne to Ned Stark who handed it to Robert, because neither of them wanted to rule. Cersei was wed to Robert by her father, Tywin Lannister; Jaime Lannister was pardoned by Robert and made part of Robert’s Kingsguard.
In the game of thrones, you win or you die.
Of the Targaryens who survived the sack of Kings Landing, there were only Viserys and Daenerys, Rhaegar’s younger brother and sister. These two have since grown up in the Eastern Continent of Essos, far away from the Seven Kingdoms, and it is the remaining Targaryen royalty that King Robert now feels threatened by.
And so we are introduced to Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, last of the Dragons.
The Targaryens sigil is a three headed dragon, and their words are Fire and Blood. The Dragon Kings are a great house, and a mad house. They have ruled for millenia, always marrying brother to sister to keep their lines pure, and from this continuous incest stems their unchecked violence, paranoia and megalomania.
“I’d let (Khal Drogo’s) whole Khalasar fuck you if need be, sweet sister, all forty thousand men, and their horses too, if that was what it took to get me my army.” – Viserys Targaryen to his younger sister, Daenerys.
Played by Harry Lloyd and Emilia Clarke respectively, both Viserys and Daenerys are perfectly as I imagined – except that they forgot to dye their eyebrows silver as well, but that is inconsequential. Viserys’s single minded obsession with raising an army and retake the Iron Throne make him a sick, unlovable character, but Harry Lloyd portrays Viserys’s pitiful, ruthless desperation effortlessly and milks Viserys’s insanity for all it is worth. I think Viserys’s pre-death scene was made incredibly memorable by Lloyd’s half drunken, half fey expression, movement and speech.
Daenerys was sold to the great Dothraki warrior, Khal Drogo, by her brother, so that that Viserys might have the Khal’s army to invade the Seven Kingdoms with. With a khalasar (a nomadic kingdom) of a hundred thousand people, and so rich even his slaves wore collars made of gold, Drogo was the most powerful Khal of the Dothraki lands. His warrior’s braid had never been cut, to signify that Drogo had never been defeated in battle.
My version of Khal Drogo was darker, and with an actual braid. Otherwise, yes. The guttural Dothraki language, the size and the quiet ferociousness, it’s all there. Khal Drogo (Jason Mamoa) and his bloodriders are awesome.
“…Characters so venemous they could eat the Borgias.”
I couldn’t say it any better. Martin tells his story by making you a king, a scullery maid, a eunuch, a cripple, a kingslayer, a bastard, a horselord’s slut, a queen, a traitor, a runaway, a knight, and that doesn’t even cover half of his splendid cast. Nobody is good or bad, they are only completely, painfully real, desperate to survive – and to survive, they shy from nothing. It isn’t gratuitous, it’s necessary. Black magic, resurrection, slavery, necrophilia, bestiality, twincest, fatricide, cannibalism, you name it, they’ve done it, to say nothing of murder, manipulation and deception. With five kings waging war for power and an apocalyptic decade-long winter on the horizon, Martin’s story stops at nothing to pull one entirely into the continents of Essos and Westeros.
So when HBO launched a TV adaptation of Ice and Fire, named the series Game of Thrones after the first novel in the series, I was quite convinced that no TV show could ever do justice to Martin’s epic fantasy – Harry Potter was rather painful and the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, while excellent, deviated from the book by a substantial margin. Misgivings aside, I was still eager to see what HBO could come up with.
The clockwork style opening sequence reminds me strongly of Neil Gaiman and his world-beyond-the-wall, which is an odd, absurd and enjoyable mix of magic, technology and mythology. I love the tilting perspective as the camera sweeps over the map of Westeros and the way each actor’s name is shown with the sigil of his character. After all, to say that Martin did put a lot of effort into making each house distinct is a gross understatement…
The carousel-ish ‘growth’ of towers and fortresses make each place look very much like gears and cogs of a monstrously sophisticated lego set. I’m quite divided over this, because while the reference to construction and puppetry is on its own original and very well done, I thought it lacked the graphic and visceral style of Ice and Fire.
The first scene of Winter beyond the wall was disappointing. I was looking forward to the bone numbing chill, the silent, graceful walkers, a duel between the Others and the men of the Nightwatch. The white walkers were snarling goblin rather than the silent, graceful wraiths I’d hoped for, and the entire chase felt rather cobbled. This was one of those filmed-for-the-sake-of-following-the-book scenes that didn’t add much to the TV series. It wasn’t a promising start.
Things pick up once we shift to Winterfell, the fortress in the North. The Starks were Kings of Winter for thousands of years, until they chose not to fight Aegon the Dragon King of Valyria, and swore fealty to House Targaryen.
Winter is coming. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.
Ned Stark (Sean Bean), Warden in the North and Catelyn Tully (Michelle Fairley), his wife, are very well played. Their children are Robb (Richard Maden), Brandon (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington). I imagined Ned with a longer and thinner face, but Sean Bean’s sombre demeanour is otherwise very becoming. I thought Robb Stark should have had a more jovial and commanding presence. Benjen Stark has the strongest likeness to my imagination – hard boiled, battle-worn, long faced. Thumbs up to the Stark Household.
Hear Me Roar!
Enter the Lannisters and their golden pride. Jaime Lannister, the Kingslayer, the handsomest man in the Seven Kingdoms, the youngest knight ever in the royal Kingsguard, insolent, gorgeous, admired. Cersei Lannister, Jaime’s older twin, queen of the Seven Kingdoms and famous for her beauty and despised for her treachery. Are they physically irresistable? You decide. For all that my fellow fan and I complained incessantly about the Lannister twins’ looks, we agreed on one thing – Jaime’s (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) likeable-badass charm is very effective. Cersei (Lena Hadley) starts a little ‘off’ but then slides nicely into her roll. I’m looking forward to more of her poisonous scheming.
The most perfectly played character by far is Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), an unloved blemish in the otherwiseperfect Lannister family. The lecherous, ribald dwarf is an ugly, stunted dwarf whose deformity has been made worse by constant comparison to his beautiful and powerful elder siblings, yet there is (thankfully) none of the tiresome angst and vulnerability that usually accompany such unfortunate characters. A lifetime of ridicule has made Tyrion discerning, sharp tongued and shameless; like his brother Jaime, he has a penchant for morbid and licentious humour.
“(If I took the Black I’d have to) go celibate; the whores would go begging from Dorne to Casterly Rock! No, I just want to stand on the wall and piss off the edge of the world.”-Tyrion Lannister’s reply with regards to wanting to visit the Nightwatch