This post contains spoilers through the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones, and correspondingly, George R. R. Martin’s novel of the same name. If you want to spoil beyond that in comments, feel free, but label your comments as such.
At the close of the first season of David Benioff and D. B. Weiss’s HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones, I think it’s important to note how impressive their achievement is. They’ve taken an astonishingly complex story that isn’t even finished, pruned it wisely, expanded in ways that have made it a richer story, and kept a careful hold on an unwieldy handful of plot lines — when this show comes to its conclusion in 2018 or thereabouts, people are going to parse the signs and portents left for them along the way, the things unseen that will bloom like evil flowers down the years. Benioff and Weiss’s mastery of the grand narrative in their control was never on better display last night in the balance they struck between explicit callbacks to the opening scenes of the first episode and propulsive narrative advances.
Given some early frustration with the show’s slowness, it’s impressive to see how far the characters have come as the episode revisits each of the Stark children grieving their father’s deaths. When the show opened, Bran could climb castle walls, and he was riding out to witness his first execution, to understand the meaning of justice in a world where such a thing existed. Now, he’s dreaming of his father’s shade, and learning that those dreams have a terrible power. Rickon was invisible — now, he’s the ghost of Winterfell. Sansa was a pretty, empty girl. Tonight, after the boy she once worried wouldn’t love her if she didn’t have sons quickly enough forced her to contemplate her father’s head and had her beaten so he wouldn’t sully himself doing it, she contemplated murder, and in that will to violence, became fully human for the first time in the series. Jon, after riding out to see his father execute a deserter at the beginning of the series, throws that in the face of the friend who asks him “Do you know what happens to deserters?” in trying to persuade him to stick with his vows, spitting “Better than you do” back at him. But it’s in letting go of his father that Jon manages to truly honor his memory. Arya, who entered the show outdoing her brothers at archery, finds her boyish toughness a matter of survival. Robb, interestingly given what those of us who have read the books know is to come, has a smaller arc — even though he ends the episode as a king, he’s still a boy, hacking at a tree with his sword, crying in his mother’s arms.
And Dany. Oh, Dany. Because I’ve read the books so often, it’s impossible for me to imagine what it would be like to see this scene cold, to not only witness Dany come into her power, but to witness the moment when the assumptions of this universe, and this story, are powerfully upset. It’s no mistake that this season begins and ends with Dany standing naked and alone. In that first scene, she’s luscious and traumatized, her body is the only thing about her that anyone considers valuable, and it’s in the process of being sold. When she walks into dangerously hot bathwater, it’s the slightly destructive act of an abused girl. But by the time her queensguard find her in the ashes, nursing the dragons who are her children, she is transformed: that body is thin from grief and a pregnancy gone bad, she is covered in ash, she has survived something profoundly strange and emerged a mother and a leader. Dany has become so powerful that she’s not vulnerable even in her nakedness. And that image would not be so stunning if we didn’t know what she’d been through. When she declares to the few followers remaining to her before she walks into the fire that “I see the faces of slaves. I free you. Take off your collars. Go if you wish. No one will stop you. But if you stay it will be as brothers and sisters,” we see that she’s come to understand human dignity in a truly full and profound way: it’s not enough to win a partnership in the marriage bed, it’s not enough try to heal the grievously broken with kindly paternalism after the fact of their trauma — her world needs a new order. Dany is the show’s true revolutionary.
There’s a lot about this show that is shocking: Ned’s death, certainly, and the revelation of Dany’s dragons. But I think the thing that’s most challenging about this episode, and about Game of Thrones in general, is the fact that this episode really emphasizes that the ten hours of television you’ve just watched are mere prologue, that the story you’ve been following about who controls the Iron Throne may not be the real story at all. Much more so than The Wire or The Sopranos, this is a show that demands commitment for the entire long arc of the show, that needs every one of the 70 or 80 episodes we’re going to get in order to tell the story — there’s exposition here, but there’s not any fat.
[SPOILER ALERT FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T READ ALL FOUR PUBLISHED BOOKS IN THE SERIES] And this episode did a great job of laying out future plot threads for us to unravel. When Jamie asks Cat, “If your gods are real, and if they’re just, how come the world is so full of injustice?” it’s a lovely prologue to the introduction of Melisandre of Asshai and the question of the gods’ power in the world. Cat’s rageful joy in her declaration to a grieving Robb — “They have your sisters. We have to get the girls back. And then, we will kill them all” — is a perfect summary of who she’ll become as the quest to save her children in a crazed world turns her into an avatar of bitterness. Sam’s mobilization of his friends to save Jon from himself presages the day when he’ll crown a lord of his own. And Theon’s question to Robb, “Am I your brother, now and always?” and Robb’s blithe asset will serve as a bitter reminder of just how young both men are. This is why I think the show will ultimately end up somewhere in the pantheon of this golden age: people are going to be shocked in retrospect by just how significant every single line is. [SPOILERS OVER]
The content that’s been added to the show is just tremendously good, whether it’s Jamie and Jory’s conversation about fighting to put down the Iron Islands, Robert’s melancholy reflections on kingship, Westeros-style Never Have I Ever. In fact, one thing I think the show’s done consistently and that it deserves credit for is giving actual life and dimensions to sex workers. Whether it’s turning Shae from a kindly bedwarmer into a courtesan or taking Ros, who is barely mentioned in the novels, and turning her into one of Littlefinger’s agents, the show has consistently insisted that prostitutes are real people. Given that a more mainstream show like 30 Rock gets a consistent pass on jokes about killing hookers, there is something quietly radical about this, and I appreciate it.
There are obviously some real flaws in the show. The lack of exploration of Dothraki society is really unfortunate, both because it turns the main characters who are people of color into flatter, more barbaric than their white counterparts, and because it means we don’t see everything that Dany learns from her experience as a khaleesi, both about leadership, and about what kind of woman that she wants to be. The lack of attention to religion also means that the show’s going to have to do some serious work in subsequent seasons to pose the big questions Martin asks. And we’re missing some big characters, like Roose Bolton, who are going to be absolutely critical in subsequent seasons.
But I think Game of Thrones has, through its first season, been a real achievement. It’s simultaneously brutal and tender, funny and extraordinarily grim, concerned with justice in a way that resonates in our time and profoundly not of our society. Peter Dinklage will walk away with a boatload of awards this season, but the entirely unknown actors who stepped up to hugely complex roles have done uniformly lovely work — there just isn’t an affirmatively bad performance in the mix. Yes, there are breasts, and yes, there are dragons. But anyone who dismisses Game of Thrones as genre television is missing something special and wildly entertaining. Spring 2012 feels awfully far away.