“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground” – Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
What can you say about HBO’s Game of Thrones that has not already been said? Not much, judging by the word of mouth. Perhaps it would be best to aim this at those who have not seen there series, as I had not until recently when my friend Dave kindly lent me five series worth on Blu-ray. Spoilers must be omitted, naturally, though I’m still working my way through and have much still to learn!
Let’s start with a few undeniable facts: this is a lavish fantasy closely based on the Song of Ice and Fire books by George R R Martin (not to be confused with the recently deceased Beatles producer George Martin), and therefore spoken of in the same brackets as Lord of the Rings or the Gormenghast trilogy. It is of no particular time though the continent of Westeros (actually 9 rather than the oft quoted 7 kingdoms), populated by many rival groups that have been at peace and in alliance at various times in the past.
Like LotR, GoT is played out on a truly epic scale, through a mixture of locations, sets and CGI effects, plus a huge ensemble cast at any one time – though given the attrition rate it needs constant renewal. And in case you were wondering, there are no shortage of warring parties and pretenders to the “iron throne” – rival kings from rival kingdoms abound, each with their own foibles and naked ambitions.
The thing about most of these pretenders is that they demand total loyalty and subservience, so it would cut no ice declaring yourself to be against Monarchy and pro-Republic, but may well result in your neck being cut in short order. These Kingdoms seem a long way off democracy, and so far as I’ve heard the USA has no current plans to invade Westeros.
Some kingdoms seem to bear a close resemblance to medieval England (helped in that regard by a goodly proportion of fine British and Irish character actors (of whom more anon), while others are closer to the Med (filmed in Malta to contrast with the scenes filmed in Iceland and Northern Ireland) – in fact, each location has its own distinct personality, with appropriate characters to match.
This is character-based drama of high order. The production design is simply staggering and, in high definition, ravishing to look at, and the plotting gives ample opportunity for lust, scheming, plotting, power-broking, betrayal and warmongering – all the things that turn an audience into binge-watching zombies. Yes folks, this is one of those seriously addictive series in which everyone will know certain truths but will have their own pet theories about the intrigue, characters they cheer or hiss… this is a series with buzz.
If you want to characterise how GoT differs from similar fantasy series, consider that most originated as series aimed at children or teenagers. By contrast, the original books and GoT the TV series revel in bloody gore, soft-core sex/nudity and sexual violence, such that it is decidedly targeting the adult market and even then would not appeal to every viewer. From Wikipedia:
“Martin is widely credited with broadening the fantasy fiction genre for adult content, including incest, paedophilia and adultery.”
No doubt this is a series designed from scratch to be gratuitous, in the sure knowledge that this attracts audiences. Some of the bloodthirstier scenes may well upset, so watch only if your stomach is strong enough for the sort of gore that would once have been reserved for so-called “video nasties.” Trust me, the guts and brains are flying here!
Sex and violence notwithstanding, your first port of call needs to be fantasy and good old fashioned plot-led drama. As with many such series, all characters have their own agendas, so the air is thick with plotting and intrigue and it’s no great surprise that leading characters are bumped off at a rate of knots – just don’t get too attached to any of them! You can generally pick the ones that will die a sometimes violent and nasty death, but be prepared for the occasional shock too.
It goes without saying that many are villains of one sort or another, though the modern tendency is to give each screen time and space to develop a more rounded, sophisticated personality and a full back story, but this being fantasyland there are plenty more horrors lurking around every corner – flying CGI dragons (which become increasingly important in later series), giants and other bizarre creatures “north of the wall”, zombie-like creatures called “white walkers” (perhaps distantly related to the dementors in Harry Potter?) to name but a few. Technology is medieval, so there thankfully are no mobile phones to be seen, though ravens provide the postal service rather than owls. But there are religions (both “old gods” and various personal religions), elements of magic and mysticism and a lot more besides if you look carefully.
The nearest thing to an out-and-out hero is possibly Jon Snow (Kit Harington), bastard son of Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean doing his best rugged veteran act.) I’ve heard Snow described as the “Luke Skywalker of Game of Thrones,” though that probably doesn’t do him justice. Snow certainly matures over time and GoT seasons into a fine adult, as indeed do all the resourceful and valiant Stark siblings.
If Snow is a neo-hero, the anti-hero must be Tyrion Lannister (the hugely assured and impressive Peter Dinklage), member of the richest family in the kingdom, morally ambivalent, a dwarf and known variously as “Imp” or “Half-man” – but a shrewd and fiendish game player, an eloquent Machiavellian schemer who in his own words “knows people” – and can manipulate them to his own advantage. That said, Tyrion is certainly not as evil as, say, Prince and later King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), supposedly the son of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy – yes he of The Full Monty fame!) but in reality bastard son of his mother’s twin brother, paranoid as they come and a worthy comparison with Stalin from his ability to murder enemies and ignore the starving poor.
I mentioned there are plenty of well-known British faces as we go through each series, and so there are. Bean and Addy notwithstanding, we have among the prolific cast of protagonists and antagonists Charles Dance, Jonathan Pryce, Michelle Fairley, Conleth Hill, Oona Chaplin (technically Spanish-American, but with British heritage!), Dianna Rigg, Julian Glover, Peter Vaughan, Mark Gatiss, Aiden Gillen, Iain Glen, Mackenzie Crook, Paul Kaye, Ciarán Hinds and, with maybe the most ruthless character of the lot, the excellent David Bradley… you can gorge yourself on a veritable who’s who of fine character actors from these isles.
The real point is that in a huge ensemble cast the standard of acting remains remarkably consistent and remarkably high, especially among the excellent children performing in significant roles. Unfortunately I can’t give you a full rundown on all the characters since there are way too many to mention, but it is worth pointing out that one race of potential bogeymen are the Dothraki, noble warriors and horsemen, speakers of a harsh guttural tongue created specially for the series. Martin is quoted on Wikipedia:
“The Dothraki were actually fashioned as an amalgam of a number of steppe and plains cultures… Mongols and Huns, certainly, but also Alans, Sioux, Cheyenne, and various other Amerindian tribes… seasoned with a dash of pure fantasy. So any resemblance to Arabs or Turks is coincidental. Well, except to the extent that the [historic] Turks were also originally horsemen of the steppes, not unlike the Alans, Huns, and the rest….In general, though, while I do draw inspiration from history, I try to avoid direct one-for-one transplants, [so] it would not be correct to say that the Dothraki are Mongols.”
Metaphorically, you could say that the Dothraki are viewed by the high and mighty in Westeros as fundamentalist Moslem groups are currently seen by the American top brass, so maybe a touch of allegory going on here – especially when it is known the Dothraki leader Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) is marrying Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), last surviving heir to the defeated family once her whiny brother is killed, certainly capable of raising a fleet to cross from the neighbouring continent of Essos and try to reclaim the throne. You know something of the sort will happen along the way, but may take a while to get there – many twists and turns will occur along the way.
Indeed, there are various races and cultures described within the series, though loyalties in Westeros seem more tied to the House from whence you came and rivalries just as intense within the Houses as with enemies elsewhere. Amid the action there are plenty of scenes where assorted warlords plan their next movies and speculate what their enemies might do next, who they are going to kill and who they are going to impregnate (marriage vows don’t appear to count for much, just as life is pretty cheap out in Westeros and beyond.)
And the women? Well it’s a deeply misogynistic world, to be fair, with many female restricted to roles as mothers, regents, serving wenches, titivation and whores. Most are resoundingly beautiful and generally think nothing of discarding their tops to reveal their breasts and more, but to give the series credit there are plenty of strong female role models who buck the trend, and even more than a few villains among them.
As with many such medieval fantasies, the script of GoT deals with this with a host of clichés by having every character talk about their provenance and telling a variety of hoary legends. This is not to say there is not good dialogue to be heard – there is, some of it decidedly modern in tone, regardless of the environment and mise en scéne, though I doubt most audiences demand their dialogue authentically medieval.
Anyway, three series in and I’m still watching, as are many more. As addicts hang on to every word of series 6, there is apparently still much to gossip about on Facebook, which makes it a 21st Century equivalent of Coronation Street (“did you see what X did? I was shocked…”) – but then we demand much greater involvement and greater shocks to overcome our jaded and cynical palates.
Since Mr Martin is still writing, I dare say the next novels will come up with even more appalling deaths, more graphic sex yet, Machiavellian twists and turns that confound our every expectation, then some! Keep it coming, George – we’ll tell you when to stop…