Game of Thrones
There is something about consistently high quality in a series that elicits limited further discussion, beyond “It’s superb!” At least, that’s generally how I’ve felt about the best of HBO’s output.
In part, this is likely a consequence of the serialised nature of most of their dramas. Episodes may have a defined path, but their structure very much evolves from the whole. There are no “stand alone” episodes. If the arc format has become a standard for seasons of television drama over the last 20 years, it nevertheless continues to subsist on single stories with elements of the larger canvas weaved in. Perhaps because it is adapted from George R R Martin’s novels, Game of Thrones feels even less beholden to the traditional template than the likes of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. No doubt helped by the sense that, at times, this is closer to a medieval-esque soap than weekly blood-and-mud action. HBO has dipped its toes in these waters before, with the too-soon terminated Rome, and it looks as if Game will more than sustain itself so as to guarantee a natural end (be that end based on published novels or not, given the snail’s pace with which Martin appears to be approaching completion).
Of course, I shall now go back on everything I just said, as there is a clearly defined episode in Season Two; Blackwater. The one where Stannis attacks King’s Landing, directed by Neil Marshall. I have to admit I wasn’t completely blown away by it. Be it the limitations of budget or staging (although, whatever other issues they have, Marshall’s films have shown few problems on that front) the interior, siege drama proves far more impressive than the scraping. Indeed, there are a few moments where Marshall’s decisions translate to the screen as borderline cheesy (Ser Davos being blown from his ship in slow motion).
I’ve watched both seasons of Game on Blu-ray release, so a year behind the majority of viewers. Since the first season I’ve made a start on Martin’s novels, effective page-turners if rather bloated and self-indulgent (and, at times, suggestive of some slightly unsavoury predilections on the part of the author). So I watched Season Two having read half of A Clash of Kings. The first season struck me as being remarkably faithful to the book; I guess as it’s more fresh in my mind I’m more aware of the excisions in relation to the second.
I think Tyrion suffers a little from these cuts as, despite Peter Dinklage’s riveting performance, the extent of his shrewdness in the face of all manner of machinations isn’t quite so involved. That said, much the economising is no doubt to the overall benefit of the storytelling. Even if it has the knock-on of, perversely, exposing how little actually happens in some of the subplots. Daenerys does practically nothing until the final episode which, like the first season, ends with her dragons doing some impressive business (I’m sincerely grateful the even longer wandering about the desert of the book didn’t make it to screen). Jon Snow is trekking the wilds and doesn’t really do much of note (other than getting some fellow Night’s Watchmen killed); it’s left to Samwell to see the really impressive sights (again, in the final episode). And Robb does bugger all, apart from falling in love.
I’m not saying that their storylines aren’t involving, but paring them down to their elements exposes just how much fat there is. Ironically, the most dramatic subplots concern the least engaging characters, with one (maybe two) exception. In contrast to most plotlines in most shows involving kids, Arya has been one of the most consistently engaging characters – helped considerably by a terrific performance from Maisie Williams. Removing the starter pre-amble and advancing her to the main course of waiting on Tywin (Charles Dance, really coming into his own this season) and allowing us to see more of Jaqen H’ghar (Tom Wiaschiha, effortlessly charismatic and leaving you wanting more) creates the sense of plot progression even if, practically, her thread is fixed in one location.
Of the unengaging characters, I’m thinking of the wretched Theon (Alfie Allen, fearlessly delivering a prime slice of egotistical fool) and his desire to curry favour with his disdainful father (the marvellous Patrick Malahide), dispute with his sister Yara (Gemma Whelan, whose mockery of her brother provides a mirror to that of Jon by Rose Leslie’s Ygritte), and bid for glory that goes spectacularly wrong. Then there is Stannis, whom Stephen Dillane personifies with a studied lack of warmth that makes it entirely understandable why Robert did not favour him. Good as he, and Liam Cunningham as Ser Davos, are, it is down to sorceress Melisandre (Carice van Houten) that the scenes concerning the King in the Narrow Sea are involving. I have the same problems with the Theon and Davos chapters in the novel, admittedly.
The scenes with Renly work better (particularly that one scene!), but it’s female warrior knight Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) who makes for the most memorable addition to the series this season. Her scenes with the sniping Jaime are most amusing, although another consequence of the finessing of material is that the similarities of dynamic between characters becomes vaguely repetitive (Brienne has a prisoner giving her gyp, so does Jon Snow). I can’t say I fully buy Catelyn’s decision to release Jamie, at least not in the manner she does. It seems more of a means to get Jaime back into the story than being believable that she’d think it resulted in the remotest extra chance of getting her daughters back.
Despite my misgivings over Tyrion, the scenes at King’s Landing are a consistent high point, and it’s the one area where you do feel the ill-effects of truncation ever so slightly. The scenes between Tyrion and Lord Varys are especially choice. I wasn’t such a big fan of Lena Headey’s Cersei in the first season, but she is able to lend more substance to the mother of King Joffrey this time out.
One of the great pleasures of the series is rediscovering (or just discovering) British actors across a range of generations in roles large and small. It’s been especially nice to see old hands like Donald Sumpter, Julian Glover and James Cosmo. But also Jerome Flynn granted a role he can get his teeth into and banish the memory of his typical British TV heroic types. Iain Glen likewise makes a strong impression (although there seem to be a number of people out there who don’t think much of his thespian skills).
The stronger supernatural/fantasy element in the season is well judged; tantalising but gaining force, as the characters themselves can no longer be confident that what they had dismissed as myth remains so. Although, I have to admit the scenes in the House of the Dead in Qarth did remind me slightly of a Buffy finale.
I’m looking forward to a dose of Ciarán Hinds in Season Three, and the cast list reveals a number of other actors whom it should be a pleasure to watch realising characters in this world. It’s a season that will have to survive with Alan Taylor, of course (off directing Thor 2) but David Benioff and D. B. Wiess appear to have assembled some strong replacements (they even make their co-directing debut!)
So, glorious entertainment as it is, Season Two can’t quite equal the first run for me. In places it feels a bit too much like is creating a holding pattern for what is to come. I can’t in all conscience give it less than the full five stars, however.
(As for the Blu-ray extras, in common with HBO fare generally they are a mixed bag unless you're a fan of interactive guides. The round-table discussion is interesting, but you wish they had a few more acting faces and maybe a couple of directors to give a rounder picture.)