Well, I’ll say this for the marketing team behind Game of Thrones– they can’t be accused of false advertising.
Baelor and Fire and Blood wrap up the first season of the series, and what a pair of episodes they are. I don’t think I need to warn anyone reading this of imminent spoilers, so with that preamble out of the way– I can’t help but be curious about reactions of those who haven’t read the books to the former and penultimate episode. Historically Sean Bean has a thing for playing doomed knights (see: Black Death, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), but even so it’s hard to imagine him willingly jumping aboard a property in which his character dies in only nine episodes. And yet here we are, basking in the afterglow of the season and with an Eddard who’s a head shorter. What must it have been like to watch the show believing Ned, of all people, to be safe from the bite of a blade, only to see him executed at the command of the petulant and malicious Joffrey?
At least mute headman Ser Illyn isn’t wielding Ice, Ned’s own sword, as he did in the novel, thereby separating insult from injury*. But Eddard’s death, and the position of the sequence within the embrace of the series, proves utterly and remorselessly that truly no one is safe from death in Game of Thrones– not even the most honorable and well-meaning Lords. Ned’s beheading might be the most critical moment in the entire narrative apart from the climactic and absolutely jaw-droppingly great scene of Fire and Blood; his execution is the capstone of the series of injustices dealt to the Starks over the course of the season, and from here on out no one may dispute the cold and unpredictable nature of The Rules of the story.
But lest I get ahead of myself and begin speaking of things that happen in the next season**, I should like to touch on that aforementioned climactic scene involving Daenerys. I have mused, in previous installments, on the fantasy-lite flavor of Game of Thrones and how much the fantasy elements lie on the fringe of the narrative, skulking and brooding and anticipating the right time to make their presences known like opportunistic predators; that time has come, passed, and exceeded all expectations. The wight attack of The Pointy End certainly saw the show put its foot, gingerly, into the fantasy sandbox, but now we’ve seen dragons reborn in Westeros and there’s no ignoring the lineage of the series any further. For me, this is huge; embracing its genre in such a big way adds another layer to the complex pleasures of the show while upping the ante in the battle for the Iron Throne significantly. After all, with dragons at her command, there’s no debating that Daenerys’ campaign to reclaim what’s rightfully hers has been given a serious shot in the arm.
It doesn’t hurt that the leathery, winged beasties look great themselves. There’s been concern here and there about the treatment of the Stark children’s direwolves, which look decidedly like regular large-breed dogs and not especially dire; I suppose the line of thinking is that if the direwolves are so scaled back, then the dragons could well be given similar treatment. I’ve never understood the concern– you can fake creatures like direwolves much, much easier than you can fake dragons, since I’ve seen large dogs in my life but never a single dragon– but be that as it may, any such anxieties over how the dragons would play should be abated by now. I’m not sure what FX studio is behind designing and animating the dragons, but big kudos to them for rendering such a wonderfully lifelike interpretation of the iconic monsters so skillfully.
There are plenty of other big moments in the final two episodes, too, lest we delude ourselves into thinking that death and dragons are the only two things that matter. Jon receives a bitchin’ sword from the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, and discovers that Aemon is the uncle of the Mad King, and the men of the Watch head beyond the Wall on a ranging to find Jon’s uncle and press back the wildlings; Khal Drogo’s wound festers, leading Daenerys to beg the maegi woman to save his life, though at a terrible and initially unspecified price; Robb and his army defeat Jaime Lannister’s army and capture him, and his bannermen declare intent to secede from Westeros, naming the heir to Winterfell King in the North; and Lord Tywin Lannister commands Tyrion to head to King’s Landing and act as Hand of the King in his stead. For my money, the ranging sequence compares in excellence to the birth of Daenerys’ dragons– there’s a palatable sense of excitement as the men of the Watch prepare to head into lands unknown to us as viewers, and an impelling score as well as a powerful voiceover by James Cosmo certainly do their part to keep us in the scene’s thrall– but regardless, each of these events have consequences and repercussions that will be felt in the next season.
Baelor and Fire and Blood both succeed in that they set up these cliffhangers and new plot threads while still giving resolution to the season’s major arcs. There’s a definite sense of finality to a season in which the lead character dies as the wicked characters triumph– in fact, the Lannisters seizing power over the throne almost totally works as a standalone resolution to the primary narrative we’ve been following all season long. But the show also sets up a very solid vision of the directions the overarching story and various character plots will head towards in season 2, as any good ongoing serial should, which may make any praise in this vein sound pedantic. There’s something to be said, though, for resolution and set up done well, which is exactly what Benioff and Weiss have done with Game of Thrones. I’m satisfied by the foremost narrative the season handled, but quivering in anticipation of what else is to come– especially as a fan of the novels.
But whether you’ve read the books or not, that excitement should be shared. I had only heard of Martin’s epic series before watching the show, and devoured the first three books at the halfway point in the season, but beforehand I nonetheless felt that tense and pleasing anxiety leading up to each week’s new episode. While I know everything that’s to come to pass in the second and third seasons (should we even get so far), I still feel those emotions, and I can only imagine that those unfamiliar with the books do as well. If Benioff and Weiss have scored only in one way, it’s in that level of fervent viewership they’ve fostered in their audiences, which doesn’t really happen for high-concept or popular fantasy series that aren’t Harry Potter*** or Lord of the Rings. Whatever happens in the future of Westeros, season one of Game of Thrones solidly places the two creators side-by-side with the likes of Jackson and Yates as great storytellers in the tradition of the fantasy genre. I, for one, cannot wait to see what they do when kings clash next Spring.
*Mild spoiler: Not that the writers couldn’t cobble together a throwaway line on the matter when and if Tywin presents Oathbreaker and Widow’s Wail for Tyrion’s viewing pleasure.
**Though the writers wisely get ahead of themselves by introducing plot elements from future books now.
***Incidentally, Game of Thrones boasts its fair share of alumnae of the Potter franchise:Michelle Fairley, Hermione’s mother, stands as Catelyn Stark, while Natalia Tena, Tonks, plays Osha. David Bradley, in the role of the gnarled and crotchety Walder Frey, has even better geek credit, playing not only the cranky Hogwarts janitor Argus Filch but also the incomprehensible elderly policeman in Hot Fuzz– which also featured the man behind Sandor Clegane, Rory McCann, as a certain person who goes “yarp”.