Game of Thrones: “Winter is Coming”

Swords and Sex

Game of Thrones

HBO, Sundays, 9 PM

Winter is Coming

Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Tim Van Patten

In April of 2011, two lavishly produced television series set in the past debuted, one on Showtime and one on HBO. One of them is about a struggle for power among petty kings, accompanied by poisonings, bribery, treachery, assassination, bastards, incest, and rape. The other one is about the Borgias. I found one thing hilarious and one thing disturbing about the premiere of HBO’s much-hyped series, Game of Thrones. The hilarious thing was the producers’ straight-faced assertion that “there’s nothing else like it on television”. Apart from their cable neighbor Showtime’s The Borgias, there is the Syfy Channel’s Merlin and Starz’ new series Camelot. Until recently, the BBC was running Robin Hood. The Syfy Channel routinely runs cheaply made medieval fantasy movies on its schedule. Anyone who wants a sword-and-sorcery fix these days only has to surf the channels for ten minutes. Game of Thrones may be well-made, but it is hardly unique. So what was the thing I found disturbing about the debut of Games of Thrones? Disrespect.

As with all sword-and-sorcery epics, there is always the question: what’s in it for female viewers? Most “high fantasy” is aimed at a young male audience: the focus is on patriarchal values such as honor, courage, and dominance of women. The women in Game of Thrones run the usual gamut of virgin, whore, and mother. They are ciphers to be traded and used, and their only weapons are guile, treachery, and seduction. Survival comes at the cost of freedom and authenticity. This attitude is made particularly explicit in a series which shows us an abundance of naked breasts, but no concomitant male nudity. Virtually every sex scene in Game of Thrones is a variation of either rape or prostitution; there are no scenes showinglovers, only sexual partners. This alone may keep me from developing more than a casual interest in this show; I’m not going to be interested for very long in any world where women are nothing but objects and victims. Given the massive talents of a man like George R.R. Martin, I’m willing to devote more time to it than I normally would, because I trust his abilities. Whether that vision will be faithfully adapted by the so-called “creators” remains to be seen.

There’s no question that HBO has sunk a ton of money into this production. The scenery is staggering (locations include Malta and Ireland), the costumes intriguing, the cast includes some of the best actors in English: Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings), Mark Addy (Robin Hood), Lena Heady (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (New Amsterdam). Official releases claim that the cable channel has spent more than 50 million dollars on a series with only ten episodes. That’s an enormous amount of money even for a major network, let alone a cable channel that reaches only 28 million viewers. HBO is gambling, in a big way, that viewers who flocked to Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narniawill tune in to see similar pseudo-medieval fantasy on the small screen.

The producers leave us in no doubt, however, that this is no fairy tale for children. Children are killed, heads literally roll, and the sex is frequent and uninhibited. The opening scene, involving the dismemberment of some forest nomads and their rearrangement in a ritual circle, is as gory as anything out of a CSI autopsy scene. We learn, slowly, that the creatures with glowing eyes responsible for this carnage are part of a semi-mythical race called the “White Walkers”, who are supposed to have disappeared centuries ago. The Rangers of the Night’s Watch who discover them patrol outside The Wall, an enormous bastion of ice that keeps the chaos behind it from the Seven Kingdoms of the fictional land of Westeros. The responsibility for keeping it there falls on Eddard “Ned” Stark (Bean), Lord of Winterfell, who summarily executes any deserters. He shares a friendship of long standing with the King, Robert Baratheon (Addy), who led the rebellion against the former tyrants, the House of Targaryen, many years ago and deposed them. Since then, Robert has married into the House of Lannister; his queen Cersei (Heady) is a little too close to her twin brother Jaime (Coster-Waldau) but estranged from her younger brother, the handsome dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage, Death at a Funeral). When the pilot episode opens, the royal household has traveled north so the King, now an aging and overweight lech, can draft the reluctant Ned into his service as the Hand of the King, which appears to be an office akin to that of King’s Champion. Dark hints that the former Hand was poisoned increase Ned’s reluctance. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, the son of the former king of Westeros, Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd, Jane Eyre) is marrying his virginal sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke, Triassic Attack) to the barbarian leader Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa,Stargate: Atlantis) in order to acquire a sufficiently large army to re-take his father’s throne.

Confused yet? By the half-hour, I needed a scorecard to keep straight this welter of names, powers, nations, and people. There is a reason a novel like Lord of the Rings is 125,000 words long and the movie adaptation is nearly twelve full hours; audiences need time to learn about an unfamiliar world. When I watch The Borgias, I know the history of the Borgias (more or less), I need no introduction to Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Machiavelli. I know where Rome is and what its geographical relationship to France and Spain is, I know that its history includes an immortal empire in antiquity, that by the fifteenth century that empire had faded to nothing but a memory of glory. Even non-Catholics will know what a Pope is, will know that Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion of Europe in 1492. All of this background will be present in any audience watching The Borgias, with no further effort needed from the writers to introduce or explain.

A story set in a completely invented world, however, needs more time to develop. The genius of Lord of the Rings is that Tolkien started with the homey and familiar Shire, then took the time to introduce us slowly to the larger world of Middle-Earth. We go from comfortable farmers and burghers of The Shire to robed kings and ragged swordsmen, through a landscape that recalls our own Europe, and eventually introduces magic, elves, dwarfs, and an implied internal history dating back thousands of years. By the time readers finishLord of the Rings, they can probably speak Elvish and recite the genealogy of Boromir back to the First Age. This long and detailed learning curve is part of the charm of fantasy literature, but the HBO producers have tried to compress that learning curve into a few minutes, and the result is disorientation and confusion. I’ll give them credit for using costuming and makeup to distinguish character, while noting that tagging characters and groups as Other through skin color tiptoes along racist lines. The scenes at the end of the pilot, where the white-blonde Daenerys is first menaced and then raped by dark-skinned Dothraki barbarians, veered dangerously close to ugly stereotypes about black men and white women.

I’ve seen all of HBO’s behind-the-scenes teasers, the trailers, the online ads. Nowhere did I see the name of the man who wrote the series it is based on, George R.R. Martin. In fact, the only hint audiences get of the real creator of this series is the contractually obligated credit that flashes for two seconds near the end of the opening credits. If you blink, you’ll miss it. Instead, if you listen to all the smugly serious “interviews” with the producers and writers, you’ll be pardoned for thinking that David Benioff thought up this concept all by himself. I don’t care how much HBO paid Martin for the development rights, he deserves more credit for creating an entire fantasy world, over the course of five novels, than to be dismissed in one measly credit. It’s not like he’s some nobody; Martin wrote for Beauty and the BeastThe Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits. He deserves more credit than he’s getting.

Production values in this first episode are outstanding. Interior and exterior scenes were lavish and detailed; the production told me without words that this is a cold world, shortly to become colder as winter arrives. The hints of magical creatures were intriguing; an orphaned litter of dire wolves is parceled out to Stark’s children, and Daenerys receives dragon’s eggs as a wedding gift. There are hints of demonism in the “white walkers” in the opening sequence, who feed on blood and whose eyes glow in the dark. The architecture of the cities is just weird enough to remind us this is not medieval Europe, and familiar enough to be recognizable. The one jarring note for me was the astounding number of candles in the interior scenes; Ned’s bedroom has more candles in it than Methuselah’s birthday cake.

It may take several episodes to sort out all the characters. The ones who leaped off the screen in this first introduction were the Lannister brothers, Tyrion and Jaime. Dinkelage plays Tyrion with world-weary aplomb, a mask which hides the bitter realist underneath. Coster-Waldau plays Jaime as a cheerful and completely amoral egotist who is not above killing a child to preserve the secret of his incestuous relationship with his sister. As always, villains are so much more interesting than good guys; by contrast, none of the grown sons of Ned Stark are distinguishable from one another in any way. As a race, the barbarian Dothraki seem like a romanticized combination of Native American, Mongol, Rohirrim, and Klingon; it will be interesting to see if they can develop past these stereotypes into something more original. Like any tale of warring families, from The Borgias to The Sopranos, it will take time (and maybe a spreadsheet) to figure out alliances, enmities, and relationships; for those who like this sort of thing, Game of Thrones will be a feast.