Tony finally plays the game.
I’ve always had a problem with Game of Thrones.
I tried reading the first book, and within three pages, had thrown it across the room in disgust. It dented the wall.
I threw it against the wall because - get this and understand it well – the writing of that opening scene is objectively bad, and I speak as someone who makes a living editing books for people. It’s dreadful, telling, leaden, medicocre prose, of the kind clogging up a thousand agents’ slush piles even today. ‘Oh, the beginning’s a bit slow but you have to stick with it and it gets better,’ people would tell me. Which is all very well, but anyone who’s ever written a book knows that agents and publishers don’t extend that courtesy to debut authors more than once in a blue moon. You can have the best Chapter Two in the world, but if your Chapter One sucks, you don’t earn the right to be read. So I felt Martin had got an unfair pass, and believe me also when I tell you I’ve read many better written but as-yet-unpublished first chapters.
So now I have to have the wall replastered. Thanks, George.
People insisted the show was great, so I tried again, always willing to get my mainstream fantasy geek on. I downloaded the first episode, and after two solid minutes of nothing happening except people riding horses slowly and snow falling, the awful realisation dawned on me. ‘I’m going to DIE someday. And I just know I’m going to really resent these minutes. I’m going to want them back, and they’ll always be the minutes I spent watching solemn people riding horses slowly in the snow.’
I deleted the episode and, in the words of a kids TV show of my youth, I switched off the television sit and went out and did something less boring instead.
So it’s fair to say I came to the project of having to watch the whole first episode of Game of Thrones with a fairly hefty chip on my shoulder.
Now, let’s make one thing perfectly clear. That first scene still sucks. Three guys riding horses in the snow does not exciting TV make. Even when you discover what the point of their ride is, it’s still bad writing – you’re asked to invest in three characters, the names of whom you never know, and none of whom (minor spoiler alert) make it past the first ten minutes. Yes, yes, I know, vital piece of information, but that first scene is a perfect example of why publishers and readers are increasingly sick to the back teeth of prologues. It’s ponderous and mostly pointless – you could deliver the same vital information by starting with the beheading scene while getting a ton of more relevant characterisation in to actually HOOK viewers.
The first fifteen minutes of Episode One is incredibly hard work, but if you know you have to make it to the end this time, and get to the introduction of Mark Addy as King Robert Baratheon, you discover that yes, what everyone said is actually true – it gets better. Because, like most competent epic fantasy since way before George R R Martin started writing, it becomes a dense, layered story which at heart is about something – in this case, power, loyalty, ambition, all the usual drivers of real history. And it’s with the arrival of Addy’s Baratheon that Sean ‘marked for death’ Bean’s Eddard Stark stops looking like part of the scenery, and unbends enough to be a real human being, which gives you hope for the first time that the character might actually be worth an actor of his calibre.
From there, make no mistake about it, you’re going to want to take notes, but again, as with all epic fantasy worth the publishing, that textural depth is part of the pleasure. First, we get an introduction to the Lannisters (the family who’ve attached themselves to the King through marriage). Not without reason is GoT thought of by some as a loose interpretation of Britain’s War of the Roses, because the similarities between the Lannisters and the real-life Woodevilles are there to be mined, but let’s ignore them for now and focus on the fantasy. The Lannisters are clearly a ruthless bunch, and interest ramps staggeringly up a second time with the introduction of Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, dwarf brother to Queen Cersei, Baratheon’s blonde apparent ice-queen. Tyrion’s a character, and Dinklage’s is a performance that doubles down on the potential of Addy’s King Baratheon and makes you think that just possibly, there are threads you might want to tune in for in this show after all.
As you’d expect in a debut episode, the introductions continue as we meet Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, son and daughter of the king defeated by Baratheon for the Iron Throne. Viserys plans to take ‘his’ throne back, and marries Daenerys to Khai Drogo, the monosyllabic leader of the warlike and nomadic Dothraki in order to secure himself the army with which to do so.
In Viserys we get the first real inkling of the other thing for which Game of Thrones is famous – the sex. There’s already been some sex and some naked or topless women by the point at which we meet this pair, but Viserys is responsible for the first incestuous sister-fondling that sets out Game of Thrones’ stall to evoke not only medieval history but the power-based sexual grimness of some of the less particularly sane Roman emperors. It’s a theme to which we return with the Lannisters by the end of the first episode too, this moderate obsession with incest between brothers and sisters, and if you wear your prudish, or even your fairly standard moral hat to watch it, there’s little doubt it could boil your blood. Neither is it the best advert for feminism in the world, as by the end of the first episode, we’ve also seen Daenerys seemingly raped by her husband after the wedding ceremony, tears rolling down her face all the while. To be fair to the writers though, that’s fairly reasonable as a representation of the sexes in the kind of society Martin conjures – medieval princesses were frequently ‘sold’ in marriage to those who could help their family play a game of power, with brutal consequences. Marriage was frequently a lottery in which women were not players but currency, so while Daenerys’ fate is distressing, there’s a realism to it that allows it to pass dramatic muster.
The marriage game also plays an integral part in the first episode’s intertwining between Baratheon, the Starks and the Lannisters – Eddard’s sister was once promised to Baratheon, but died. Now, needing Eddard as the ‘hand of the king’ in his southern capital, King’s Landing, Baratheon plans to unite their families again, this time with a wedding between his son Joffrey (who looks like a right little Malfoy and is frankly too blond by half) and Stark’s daughter, Sansa. Those unfamiliar with the intricacies and textures of epic fantasy might well give up the will to live trying to keep the major players straight in their heads even by the end of this first episode, but again, if you’re you’re not familiar with the traditional textural complexity and density of epic fantasy, you’re probably watching the wrong show.
Now, here’s the important admission I need to make – having finally forced myself past the pointless pre-credits sequence of Episode One, Game of Thrones actually does get better, and does make me curious enough to want to watch Episode Two. So while my Inner Editor still resents the free pass given to Martin and the show for the first, massively self-indulgent scene, my geeky self was hooked by perseverance, and by the end of Episode One, Game of Thrones had done the job that every first episode needs to do – it had hooked me and made me want to know more. What’s more, in my particular case, it had melted the chip on my shoulder, leaving only vague reservations in its place.
All the things you’ve heard are probably true, based on the first episode – yes, it uses sex as a titillating factor, and sometimes, that’s morally questionable in terms of the dark themes it delivers. Yes, you need a notebook to keep the relationships and interplays straight in your head, but that’s the very essence of epic fantasy (and indeed epic fiction as a whole). But yes, it also delivers a complex world of power players, and has at least the potential to deliver gripping character-based drama going forward. Fine, y’happy now, George, you finally got me!
You’ll have to excuse me now – apparently I have quite a bit of catching up to do.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk