It’s quite possible that in years to come, when I’m asked to name the greatest TV series of all time, one of the first titles to pop into my head and be hard to oust is HBO’s Game of Thrones. It might just be one of the most dazzling accomplishments of the small screen of all time; and indeed even judged as a motion picture it would still stand proudly among the all-time greats.
Now I know I’m horrendously late to the party – about two years overdue to be precise. That’s partly because I don’t have access to the satellite channel that exclusively airs the show in the UK, and have to wait instead for the DVD/Blu-ray boxset release a year down the line. There was then a further delay to my starting to watch the show as I wasn’t entirely sure that I was even that interested in what looked to be standard fantasy/sword and sorcery fare. Ever since we were force-fed The Hobbit as a set text at school (when too old for it) I’ve not taken to the genre, only getting around to finally reading The Lord of the Rings books a week before the Peter Jackson films came out. While I surprised myself by greatly enjoying both books and films, it didn’t fuel any further interest in the fantasy field – a little Tolkien goes a long way, and all the other books in the field seemed to be pale imitations with the same line-up of wizards and magic, giants and dwarves, elves and goblins and orcs that simply left me cold.
The trailers for Game of Thrones did little to convince me that this series, based on George RR Martin’s best selling series of books, would be any different: even the casting of Lord of the Rings star Sean Bean to once again swing a broadsword around seemed to confirm that this was just another Middle-Earth wannabe. And yet I kept hearing so many good things about it that in the end I was persuaded to part with the cash for the Blu-ray set of Season 1 once the prices came down, albeit now two years after it had originally aired in the US. “Come on, prove me wrong,” I thought defiantly as I put the first disc on; and never have I performed such a rapid volte-face as I have here, falling in love with the show within the first seven minutes as it totally overthrew my lazy expectations with a vivid, compelling and utterly cinematic horror zombie sequence set in the frozen tundra. Not what I was expecting at all: I was (and remain) totally hooked.
The ‘zombie’ theme is actually a very minor element in what is really an intricately detailed imaginary riff on the story of conflict over the English medieval dynastic succession (and one that tramples the terribly mannered The White Queen underfoot.) Our ‘in’ to the story is the character of Ned Stark, Lord of the North, who is co-opted by his oldest friend King Robert Baratheon to return with him to the capital to act as the King’s right hand man. This scatters the Stark family across the kingdom of Westeros – his daughters Sansa and Arya go south with Stark, while his sons Robb, Bran and Rickon stay at the family seat of Winterfell and his illegitimate son Jon Snow joins the Black Watch, which is charged with guarding the realm’s northern frontier from the unknown enemy hinted at in that zombie prelude. However it turns out that it’s Ned who has the most danger-laden path before him as he clashes with Queen Cersei’s family, the wealthy and ruthless Lannisters, when he tries to find out who murdered his predecessor as the Hand of the King. It’s an investigation that ultimately has bloody consequences as Westeros slides toward violent civil war between the Baratheons, the Starks and the Lannisters.
It’s hard to pick out which is the show’s biggest strength. The plotting and writing is as good as it gets (and also remarkably faithful to the novels – Martin is himself an executive producer and also contributes a script a season), the production values in terms of sets, costumes and international locations (including Northern Ireland, Croatia and Malta) would outclass pretty much all but the top 0.5% of feature films, and the FX work is exemplary – beautiful, subtle and never overplayed – and all the more convincing for it. It’s clear that a few big sequences have been ‘dodged’ because even HBO’s generous budget couldn’t quite stretch that far, but it’s done so artfully that it’s hard to complain especially when it allows the resources to be invested in making the rest of the show so outstanding.
But as far as I’m concerned, it’s the quality of the cast that really makes this show. Sean Bean was probably the tentpole name that got the production company the money they needed, but he’s just one (surprisingly small) part of a sprawling ensemble cast wich is universally perfect, whether from veteran character thespians (Charles Dance, Julian Glover, James Cosmo, Peter Vaughan, Donald Sumpter, Ron Donachie) or current international stars (Lena Headley, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Iain Glen, Aidan Gillen, Mark Addy, Michelle Fairley) or making new stars of young up-and-comers (Richard Madden, Kit Harington, Emilia Clarke, Joe Dempsie, Alfie Allen, Harry Lloyd.) Most impressive of all in many ways is the juvenile cast since the original book made little allowance for child actors in its original narrative and therefore requires huge things of some very young performers: Sophie Turner as Sansa and Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran give completely solid performances but it’s Maisie Williams as young Arya Stark and the slightly older Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon who have the biggest load to carry in terms of plot importance and who both acquit themselves superbly.
Arguably the one irreplaceable actor in the whole line up, however, is Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister. He is the only halfway-likeable member of his family but one who is despised by his father because he is a dwarf whose birth ended in the death of his mother. Overlooked (in all respects) by those around him, and allowing himself to be viewed as the drunkard wastrel, selfish coward and womanising lech, he is nonetheless the one character with a cunning that vastly belies his stature. The description of Tyrion as ‘the Imp’ considerably limits the number of actors you could feasibly consider for this role, and when matched by the need to have the part played by someone with huge screen presence and charisma together with the ability to convey fierce intelligence you probably have a casting pool of one. Thank goodness Dinklage said yes or the whole project might have stalled on the launch pad.
What’s fascinating is how, having assembled this impressive line-up of talent, the writers and producers then allow the story enough time for the cast to properly develop their parts. Vaughan’s elderly Black Watch character Aemon holds a surprising secret, for example, while Glover’s Grand Maester Pycelle appears a doddering old fool at court until glimpsed in a slyly hilarious chamber scene late in the first season. The show also gives time for impressive cameo sequences such as that of David Bradley’s odious Walder Frey, a scene that could easily have been cut out of a less patient TV adaptation but which instead survives to make the edit and becomes a highlight as a result.
Every single one of the episodes plays out like a mini feature film, satisfyingly self-contained in the sense of the story or theme it is telling while forming an intricate part of the overall tale. It can appear slow-moving, and fans of all-out action battle sequences may not find the far more subtle and slow-moving Machiavellian plot lines to their taste, but for me it’s what elevated this show above the usual genre fare into something genuinely brilliant. Every episode has a big moment of drama or physical action that changes the game – and in almost every case it does so in a way that will catch you out and blindside you. Some end-of-episode cliffhangers have left me genuinely reeling; plots that I thought I had figured out suddenly took a wholly unexpected left-field turn. Characters you expect to be in it for the long-haul meet abrupt ends, while others who appear to be minor characters making for easy prey turn out to have hidden strengths and lasting appeal. Friends become turncoat enemies, enemies prove unexpectedly loyal friends, and none of it is any more foreseeable than it would be in real life. In these days of terribly safe, formulaic and tame television and film fodder this is a true joy to behold.
There’s lots of blood, the absolute foulest of language, and it never unknowingly passes up an opportunity for (very graphic) sex although it probably doesn’t reach the heights in either category of True Blood or Spartacus: Blood and Sand. There’s precious little actual fantasy involved in it, although the final scene of Season 1 introduces a new element that, while it had been well-prefigured through the ten episodes, is still a genuine surprise unless you happen to have been spoilered by trailers for later seasons.
I feel that I should finish with some sort of balancing criticism to make it clear that this isn’t just some effusive, gushing fanboi peon to the show. But dammit, I’ve tried and I just can’t find anything that I find even remotely consider to be a flaw. It’s one of the very few times that a TV series has ever emerged as a five-star unmitigated success for me, and I’m completely in the thrall of the show. Normally my one fear would be whether the makers can possibly maintain this calibre into a sophomore season, but given that the source novel and its ongoing plot lines are already in place, and with the intelligence the producers have already displayed, it’s hard to see how it can be anything less than just as good – or even better now that the necessary groundwork for the world of Westeros has been so impressively and robustly laid out.
I for one certainly won’t be nearly as long getting around to the Season 2 boxset as I was with the first!
On the Blu-ray: Some time ago I come to the conclusion that it’s not really worth bothering with high definition for TV releases, even when they have been originally shot in HD since the small hike in quality rarely makes the extra expense worthwhile. But Game of Thrones is the shining exception: if you can, you must get the Blu-ray. The show is absolutely dazzling in HD, easily as good as a blockbuster movie in terms of detail and clarity. Moreover, the entire package has been beautifully designed from menus on down, with a (much appreicated) in-show visual guide option to help you keep on top of who’s who and a number of features – many narrated or presented by the show’s actors in character – expanding upon the events in the show with unsed details from the novels, which ‘open up’ once you’ve watched far enough into the season to make sure you don’t tumble into spoilers. There’s also standard trailers, recaps, making-of featurettes and audio commentaries from cast and crew.
It might take HBO nearly a year after the original airing of the episodes to release the show on disc, but with such an impressive end result it’s hard to criticise them for the wait. It’s like they’ve been taking lessons from the love and care Peter Jackson has always lavished on his own films’ home entertainment releases, in which case they’ve learned from the best and have the results in hand to prove it. Hugely impressive, a five-star package in its own right.
Game of Thrones airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic. Season 4 will premiere in Spring 2014. Season 1 and 2 are currently available (both separately and together) in both DVD and Blu-ray boxsets, and Season 3 will be released on February 24, 2014.