TV Review: Game of Thrones, episodes 9 & 10

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”.

9 thoughts on “TV Review: Game of Thrones, episodes 9 & 10

  1. I’ve gotta agree with you about the season concluding with an embrace of it’s genre. The series has played around with fantasy tropes a lot (often coming close to outright satire) and that now appears to have been part of the ground work for the dragons. It’s a rather savvy move on HBO’s part; high fantasy is untested ground for premium television and it was likely best to begin as dramatic series with fantasy elements before becoming a dramatic fantasy series. It makes for a very exciting promise for season two.

    I’m hoping that the Dire Wolves get the CGI treatment next year. The dogs worked in the limited role they were given, but if the Stark pups are ever going to have the presence in the show that they do in the books then they’re going to need to look more impressive. The dragons will necessitate a higher VFX budget and that might be an opportunity to do the wolves justice.

    I actually think that Bean’s 9 episode run (2 of which he barely appeared in) was a selling point for him. This guy isn’t a “huge” star, but he does have a film career and television, even HBO, is still considered a step back from that. Getting someone of his stature to sign on for multiple season would likely have been impossible.

    Great reviews this season, btw.

    • I don’t know if I ever felt the series coming close to satire in how fringe the fantasy elements were, but it did make it feel almost like period fiction. We, as viewers, know that there’s something fantastical about Westeros from the opening of the first episode, while characters like Ned and Robert find the thought that the Others are real to be ludicrous. In that sense, you’re right– we get to snicker knowingly as the major players of the story ignore the threat of the White Walkers even when it becomes more and more clear that they don’t just exist in tales.

      I admit that I had a lot of concerns about how the show might turn out given how fantasy properties that aren’t Harry Potter or LotR tend to do pretty poorly either in theaters or on television, but HBO clearly knew what they were doing.

      As to the wolves, I’m not holding my breath on a transition from practical to CGI in that department– I think that they’re going to need every cent possible to keep the dragons looking as great as they do in the finale. And I agree about Bean– it wouldn’t have been plausible to keep him around for an entire season, I think, but I don’t generally think of HBO as a step back for anyone, even someone like Bean. If anything his presence here will give a boost to his mainstream visibility.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the show throughout the run of the season, J. I really appreciate them all. Hope to see you back for next season!

  2. Just to chime in, I vote against CGI Wolves. I’ve never read the books, so I don’t care if they’re represented well or not really. In my opinion, the films the film, the books the book and they’re two different things.

    Jaws is better off for NOT having Hooper bang Mrs Brody, ok?

    Now that that’s out of the way, this was a great series, and I hope it does go serious fantasy eventually. Its to HBOs credit that they don’t just jump right in, I think. Gets the lighthearted casually viewer buying in a bit at a time. I dont know if True Blood would have worked the way it did if they opened episode one with all the crazy shit they have going on now…

  3. Oh, and curiousity. Not sure if I’m going to hit the GoT panel at Comic Con, but MAINLY because its moderated by RR himself. I saw C Harris at the True Blood panel two years ago and now I think that authors should have theyre own spearate panels if they want one (I know he did some writing for the series)

    Thing is, what would you think my odds would be of emerging from that panel unspoiled for future seasons? I’m putting it at 0%

    • When it comes to adaptations, a film or TV series should be as faithful to the core of the source text as possible. I don’t believe, necessarily, in carbon-copying a book to television screens or cinemas, but there should be strong congruity between both and the plots should mostly mirror each other. I like where Game of Thrones strays from the text because in doing so, the creators manage to retain the important plot points while making them work better in a visual media. Case in point: Khal Drogo receiving the wound that ultimately ends up being his downfall. The event happens two different ways between the novel and the show, and yet they lead to the same point and convey the same effects. That’s the essence of faithfulness, I think.

      Shows like GoT have to take time to build up to the big stuff, especially the dragons, I agree.

      As for the panel at SDCC– first, I’m jealous, second, I would not go in expecting nothing spoilery to be tossed about. If you want to remain pure, stay out. That said, I recommend reading the books– I read the second half of the first novel after episode 5, and didn’t feel like I was doing myself a disservice in the process. As much as they’re the same story they’re both completely different works.

      • If you’ve never been to the Con, I highly recommend it. And I travel from the East Coast, so it’s as expensive as it can be.

        That said, major movie studios are beginning to back off (I’m sure you heard) which is a major bummer compared to the last time I went.

        Like I said in terms of GoT, yeah, I anticipate spoilers, but to see the cast might be worth it.

        I am going to go reiterate my disagreement on the source material thing though. Once an author or publisher or whoever sells the rights, its the movie makers.

        • Yeah, but note how most filmmakers and TV writers tend to stick closely to the source material, only changing the stuff that isn’t cinematic. Sure, Game of Thrones the television show is in large part Benioff’s and Weiss’, but the story they’re telling is someone else’s. They’re just filtering it through their own vision as artists and giving their own interpretation, which is what a good adaptation should be all about.

          One day I may make it out to the Con. Who knows. Part of me thinks I might end up regretting it, but the chance to experience it is welcome. Personally, I think you should definitely check out the Games panel– just make sure you can earmuffs fast enough when they start talking about how (blank) and (blank) go to (blank) and end up (blanking blank blank). Or the appearance of (blank). Or (blank)’s role in the (blank of blank). You get the idea.

          • In case you didn’t see it on my post, I went, and there were no spoilers whatsoever. Not from Martin, not from the cast, not from the Crowd. I was pleasantly surprised. I went in completely willing to have my future enjoyement tempered in order to see the cast live… and came out without having to pay the price.

            • Glad to hear you enjoyed it and didn’t get corrupted. I’ll check it out when I get the chance to– that’s a lot of Comic Con panel to get through. It does make me sad to see Momoa up there with Clarke, what with his character’s fate in season 1 (and maybe a little puzzled, too).

              There’s been a lot of casting news recently that’s made me very, very excited for season 2 to come around. Can’t wait. Carice Van Houton, even in a minor role, is a great addition.

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