The Best and Worst of “Game of Thrones” S1

(Nine years late, I finally convinced myself to watch HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” It’s only to my own chagrin that I waited this long; people told me I had to, but I didn’t listen. As I make my way through the series, I’ll briefly (at least, I’ll try to keep them so) blog about the series from the “kenotic” perspective.) 

The first season of GOT feels like a giant set up with the first 200 pages merely setting the tone of a massive fantasy tome. It takes a while for the bloodlines to clear up or for the names of the seven houses to mean anything. Once they mean something to you, the show-runners then have to characterize the names. By the end of the season, the Starks are noble, the Baratheons are rather dim, and the Targaryens are past madness and on the edge of extinction. This season long introduction material isn’t a disservice or a knack. It’s just different. In even more modern shows, like “Star Trek: Discovery,” the characterization is solidified before the halfway mark in the first season—much of it is finished by the pilot. 

Like many of the greatest HBO television series, the best episodes were directed by Alan Taylor. Taylor, the director of the final two episodes of S1, is also the director behind episode four of “Deadwood,” the episode with the unforgettable death of Wild Bill Hickok. (He is also the man behind some of the best of “The Sopranos and “Mad Men.”) 

In “Baelor,” Taylor’s GOT debut, the series is at its most ambitious. The set piece of the Freys, bleak and lifeless, is bar none the most artistically meaningful set thus far. It communicates as much about the drab and dour of Walder Frey (David Bradley) as it does of the light of Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley). It’s easy to see why Alan Taylor, who would go on to direct “Thor: The Dark World,” would land the job for Marvel’s half-hearted take on a GOT episode. Arguably, S1’s only innovative cinematography comes when Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is being dragged through the aftermath of a battle. Not only is much of the sequence an upside down POV shot, but the shot is so perfectly executed that it overshadows the fact that they completely skipped the violence of the battle the last two or three episodes built up to. While this was probably a forced decision because of the lack of funding, it’s also a creative one.

In “Baelor” and “Fire and Blood,” both directed by Taylor, the editing is indisputably at its best. In many of the episodes before, the Dothraki scenes felt like cutaways. It’s not that it was disappointing to leave the drama of the Starks and Lannisters. One of the most interesting scenes in the show is when Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has eye sex with her husband while eating the heart of a horse. They felt like cutaways because it was almost unrecognizably the same show. In the last two episodes that line is erased by editing on the basis of theme. The death of Daenerys’s boy (and Khal Drogo) is framed in the same episode where Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) accepts her fate as the wife of Joffrey Baratheon. The execution of Eddard Stark is paired with the climatic birth of the dragons. The final image of the season, a Daenerys Targaryen being shouldered by three—assumed extinct—dragons perfectly encapsulates the balancing of these themes.

The phrase now adopted into culture, “winter is coming,” is repeated throughout the season. At the end, winter hasn’t yet arrived. In a world where I watched this in real-time, I would be more disappointed than I am now for not giving a more conclusive story, especially with the Jon Snow (Kit Harington) side of the story. Snow’s character is arguably the only character with an unsatisfying character change thus far: Khal is dead, the boyish Arya Stark is now passing off as a boy, the seeds of Daenerys soon-to-be badassery have been planted, Robb Stark (Richard Madden) has comfortably transitioned into a king, and Ned Stark’s (Sean Bean) persistence of character has met its only logical conclusion in the game of thrones. 

But Jon Snow hasn’t done anything yet. He is still recognizably the bastard son who hasn’t yet come to terms with that. His loyalty to his family isn’t in question, but he does nothing because of his oath to the Night’s Watch despite the speech from Aemon Targaryen, who did nothing during the reign of his nephew, “the mad king.” And his attachment to his friends in the Watch protrudes with artifice at best and from ending up with a lifetime filled with regret like Aemon at worst. His character hasn’t gone anywhere of importance; in this respect, it’s obvious this season is only an adaptation of the first half of a book. I expect more from the Jon Snow side of things in S2.

The religions of Westeros in GOT deserve a brief thought. There are the “old gods” and the “seven gods.” Both of which are spoken in the tone of a world before henotheism yet alone monotheism. This was a necessary amendment to the fantasy genre. The Christian and Islamic traditions places in the Middle Ages would be lost in GOT. Unlike J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” is a world where Bernard of Clairvaux or Abdul Qadir Gilani would be tragically lost. Both of these great traditions—and their leaders—emphasized repentance, in one way or another. Bernard, a Doctor of the Church and advocate for the Knights Templar, famously restored a dying man’s voice so that he could confess his sins before meeting the Lord. In GOT, there is no such thing as repentance. By the end of Season 1, you feel sorry for the death of a proud rapist (Drago) and you watch the only noble character in the show die for a crime he did not commit but still confessed. This show is set in a place still ruled by the gods of old.

After all, the GOT series has been referred to as “America’s Tolkien.” An Americana Middle Earth would be like Westeros in S1: abundant and proud sex explicitly meant to provide men with pleasure. Lesbians are fetishized, male nudity pales in comparison to the frequent and abundant female nudity, and women who are raped quickly become loving wives. It’s not just the sex, though. Without a major military conflict in almost two decades, we too, it seems, are at the end of the long summer awaiting the dread of winter.

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