Some you may recall that back in long summer I attempted weekly Game of Thrones reviews on this blog. I didn’t get very far: I started reviewing episodes weekly during season three, and got to episode seven before I fell off. This wasn’t due to any flagging interest in GoT, although the difficulty of tackling the “The Rains of Castamere” as both an episode and a pop-cultural event certainly played a part. More so it was due it was a mixture of lack of time and my then-exploding interest in Doctor Who which has continued to dominate most of my time and energy for writing. I always meant to get back to it someday, and perhaps I will. In the meantime, however, the most recent season triggered a thirst which seven episodes couldn’t quench. Laid up in bed this past holiday weekend I succumbed to temptation and binged the first two seasons over three days. I haven’t rewatched the series from the start in a long time, probably four or five years, and so it was a delight to go back over these early scenes in the light of later pay-off. Indeed, rewatching is so much fun that there are times I wonder if the only purpose of reading or watching anything is for the pleasure of going back over it again. To that end I want to collect and share some of my thoughts and impressions on this rewatch. These will be less structured blog reviews and more random notes and points that jumped out to me. Most of what I find myself reflecting on is less about how lines of dialogue echo forward and back in the story (check out the excellent Binge Mode: Game of Thrones podcast for detailed and exhaustive analysis of this sort) and more on the way characters are used in the show, and in turn how the actors portray and interpret those characters. I’ll continue paying attention to this as I continue my revisit, but let’s start with the first two seasons.
- Casting Sean Bean makes the first season. He’s not the flashiest or most entertaining character, but his presence, gravitas, and name-recognition give season 1 a focus never to be found after the first season. This is fine — the sprawling nature of the story after Ned’s death is deliberate and effective — but it makes season 1 largely a different animal from anything that comes later. Putting Bean’s name on the marquee plays a similar trick to the one JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof considered pulling with Jack in the pilot of Lost: i.e. cast a famous actor (Michael Keaton) and kill him off just when the audience is getting comfy. Their plan to kill him in the pilot, though, likely wouldn’t have worked and they luckily abandoned it. Keeping Ned around until the end allows the audience fall for the other characters, cushioning the blow a bit and giving it room to carry on without him. This belies the excellent shock-factor, though. Ten years or so after Jackson’s LoTR films, this seemed like exactly the kind of project and role Bean should take at this stage of his career: Similar enough in genre to the project that he’s most known for but a different enough character and noticeably higher on the call sheet to seem like a good career move. Benioff and Weiss are employing media and metafictional savvy here to strengthen what GRRM had already done with narrative subversion, and it makes the slow-motion car crash of Ned’s downfall equally horrible and delicious on rewatch. It’s also fascinating to revisit how dominating his point of view is to the early story, as well. Jaime, in particular, will come to seem much difference once we’re out of the shadow of Ned’s perceptions.
- Casting child actors is always a gamble, especially when those actors are expected to age into actorly maturity onscreen. GoT actually did incredibly well on this front. My memory tells me that Bran’s decline into stiffness starts even before his stint as the ethereal Three Eyed Raven, but that’s a subject for another blog. Here in the first two seasons he kind of crushes it, and you can absolutely see why he was cast. The quiet incisiveness of certain line readings convey Bran’s precociousness but he’s never annoying. Arya and Sansa are even better, with Sophie Turner in particular giving Sansa a tragic quality that keeps her from being despicable even in her weakest season 1 moments. By season 2 they’ve settled into their respective arcs: Sansa quickly learning how to play that game despite her absolute terror and Maisie Williams easily handling some incredible two-hander scenes between Arya and Tywin Lannister. And what can one say about Jack Gleeson? His Joffrey is simply one of the most hatable and watchable TV villains of all time. And yet his youth, cowardliness in the face of any overt challenges of strength and authority, and general childish petulance give him a vulnerability that keeps him from being completely monstrous. And man, can that boy sit on a throne.
- Speaking of well-acted roles: Give me an emotionally starved character faced with a difficult choice who betrays one set of loyalties and ideologies for another only to have circumstances demonstrate painfully and tragically how they made the wrong choice and they are almost guaranteed to vault to the top of my favorites list. This is my version of William Goldman’s oft-repeated penchant for “stupid courage” — totally irresistible catnip. This is only compounded when said character is played by an excellent and subtle actor, and Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy is no exception. Though largely secondary, he’s interesting in season 1 — a conflicted mixture of toxic masculinity, easily-provoked sensitivity, and yet genuine affection and loyalty to Robb. But season 2 is his season, and for all the highs and lows that come afterward I’m not sure that his performance in season 2 can be topped. In terms of acting, that is. Season 2 is in many ways the character’s moral low point as he makes one bad decision after another (the physical low point, as we all know, comes a bit later). The pain at his father’s rejection, the desperate attempt to gain anyone and everyone’s respect, the botched beheading of Ser Rodrick – it’s all great stuff. There are great little moments throughout, like when he bursts into Bran’s room to announce that he’s taken Winterfell only to flop sulkily down on Bran’s bed and try to talk him into submission like the foster-brother he is. My favorite, though, comes at the end of the season: His talk with Maester Llewyn, speech to the Ironborn, and final knocking-out by his right hand dude. GoT is often moving and often funny but this scene is equal parts both. Theon details his conflicted loyalties and Stockholm syndrome while squirming with annoyance at the most annoying horn blower ever (made even funnier if you think it’s Ramsay Snow); the stirring Greyjoy music soars as he tries to inspire his hopelessly sparse group of men even as his speech descends into the desperately crass; and finally the big Braveheart-like climax is interrupted by a spear to the back of the head and a curt, “Thought he’d never shut up.” Like poor Ned before him, Theon misjudges what story he’s in: He’s not a hero. Not yet, anyway. Once Ramsay shows up the laughs with Theon are basically non-existent: this is the highpoint of the the early tragicomic streak in his character which oddly only strengthens the poignancy.
- The hero turns out to be Tyrion. Magic and destiny swirl more forcefully and noticeably around Jon and Dany on the fringes of the story, but it’s Tyrion who steps into the void left by Ned (mirrored by Peter Dinklage’s promotion to first name in the credits) as the everyman protagonist. Indeed, lacking magic and destiny it’s he who most clearly advances the cause of the story’s beloved “cripples, bastards, and broken things.” The first two seasons are largely an ascent for him. We’re told of his father’s cruel hatred and have no cause to doubt it, but Tyrion’s sudden ingenuity brought to light in the events of the story actually create something of an opportunity for advancement of his station. He’s surprised by his father’s vote of confidence at the end of the first season, and the afterglow of this trust pretty much carries him through season 2 and (in hindsight) looks to be like the high point of happiness for the character. His relationship with Shae is warm and lovely. He outwits the craftiest snakes in Kings Landing at every turn, firing/sending to the Wall anyone completely untrustworthy and at least putting on watch the more ambiguous ones, all the while gleefully humming “The Rains of Castamere” as he strolls through the streets. Peter Dinklage is damn funny, and season 2 in particular is just a series of scenes of his verbal sparring with the show’s craftiest and wittiest characters. Some, like those with Cersei, are laced with pain and cruel barbs but others are just pure fun like his budding friendships with Bronn and Varys or his joyful smackdown of Janos Slynt. Like Ned Tyrion brings a certain moral compass hitherto lacking in the Small Council, but unlike Ned he also brings an adeptness at playing the game. Sure, Dinklage’s accent leaves much to be desired but that means little when outweighed by his intelligence and humanity. All of this winning, of course, presages a downfall, not into death but back into obscurity. The battle of Blackwater (which prefigures season 7’s “loot train battle” in stirring up conflicted loyalties and feelings in the audience) ends up knocking Tyrion off his increasingly high horse. His courage and leadership and knack for tactics (not strategy) are met with a betrayal: a sword to the face, a grimy and claustrophobic bunk, and the loss of what he admits was the only thing he ever loved doing. Though season 2 has its deaths, with Renly probably being the most notable, GRRM was right to follow Ned’s shocking end with a different kind of loss at the end of season 2: The notion that success as well as failure can be met with harsh consequences.
- On the topic of the small council, this is a magnificent group of supporting characters. In another show the scheming group of double-dealing advisors would be hardly distinguishable, but both the performances and the visual styling of Maester Pycelle, Vary, Littlefinger, and Renly keeps each unique and memorable. Pycelle’s bedroom scene at the end of season 1 suggests that the most harmless-looking may be the most dangerous, while Aiden Gillen’s charm keeps us (and Ned) wanting to believe in his helpfulness even as he baldly tells Ned not to trust him. The best lies have a seed of truth in them, and nobody mixes truth and lies better than Littlefinger. Varys is, in many ways, his opposite. The most untrustworthy on the surface (“Why is it no one ever trusts the eunuch?” he asks knowingly) he might actually be one of the few altruistic people in Kings Landing. The little duets between Varys and Littlefinger are particularly entertaining. Littlefinger’s chuckle after Varys’ joke about not knowing where his balls are (“and we had been so close”) suggests the admiration each rightly has of the other right beneath the enmity. They are not just enemies themselves, but of a larger thematic conflict between selfish ambition and chaos on the one hand and order under a just ruler on the other.
- I don’t necessarily disagree with those who criticize Emilia Clarke’s performance as Danaerys, but her season 1 arc might be her best. Before she becomes the Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains, etc. (“titles, titles, titles” as King Robert would say) Dany undergoes a pretty serious change over the course of season 1 from one of Tyrion’s “broken things” into a pretty fierce matriarch of her Dothraki tribe. The later false starts which keep her from invading Westeros too soon in the story obscure how much she accomplishes in that first season alone. Her terrifying marriage to Drogo which grows into one of the most tender romances of the series; her increased agency as her brother Viserys grows weaker and more spiteful; the gradual realization of her dragon-affinities. Like Bran, there’s an increased emotional distancing that can make Clarke’s later performance stiff at times, but in season 1 she allows herself to play Dany as unsure, vulnerable, and and emotional even as she discovers her strength. The stalling tactics get started in season 2 with the less than exciting Qarth plotline, but in season 1 her arc is the equal of any of the others, and only strengthened by the fact that it’s visually so distinct from everything else on screen. I’m not sure if Clarke makes for the best possible Danaerys Stormborn, Mother of Dragons, but as Dany, Ser Jorah’s beloved Khaleesi, she’s actually quite good.
Those are my highlights! What parts did and didn’t work for you about seasons 1 and 2? Leave a comment and we’ll discuss. I’ll be back with thoughts on the rest of the series as I go.