HBO’s Game of Thrones at Week 2
Judging a TV show based on the first episode is hard – and a little bit unfair to be honest. However, now that HBO’s new series Game of Thrones is two episodes in, I think it’s legitimate to start talking about what we think. Late one night, right before the series started, all of us had a huge (read: mildly alcohol fueled) debate about the books. It’s pretty clear we all feel quite strongly that the Song of Ice and Fire is an awesome series – undoubtedly why HBO picked it up – but it’s also complex, large, and unique. Can that carry over to the TV format in a way that doesn’t lose any of what makes it special, but is also accessible to people who haven’t read the books?
After watching the first episode, I was impressed by how closely they hew to the story. The opening sequence is exactly how I imagined it when I read the books. You really get the feel for the setting. Winterfell really feels like a desolate hardscrabble area, unadorned by the trappings of state. It’s a place where swords are more important than fancy clothes, and you have to struggle to survive. The casting is really well done – you feel how different the Lannisters are from the Starks, and each in turn from the Targaryen siblings.
There are three areas in which I have concerns about GoT as a TV show, which make me hesitant to give it an unconditional green light:
- Complexity of the world: The complexity of the story in Game of Thrones is hard to overstate. It takes place in three separate and distinct locations with little connections between the areas. It’s clear that HBO realizes that this could be confusing and they use the stylized opening sequence to show that Kings Landing, Pentos, and Winterfell are geographically distant from each other. I like that the opening sequence changed in episode two to show the Dothraki land instead of Pentos since that’s where the action takes place. I think HBO has tackled this problem fairly well, since as an audience, we get the information we need without spending precious time in the episode itself, but we’ll see how well it holds up once they actively have to switch between The Wall, Winterfell, Kings Landing, Vaes Dothraki, and the other locations that show up.
- Information Density: The story is so complex that there is no room in the episode for throwaway lines. If you’re not paying close attention it’s entirely possible that you will miss a crucial point. For instance, Eddard Stark’s conversation with Bran after executing the deserter in the first episode is critically important to understand the type of people that the Starks are and the type of honor that they embody. Because I read the books, I know that is an important moment, but I worry that non-readers will miss those little keys and get lost.
Sheer Number of Characters: I also wonder if the sheer number of characters is a hindrance to the people who haven’t read the books. Ned Stark, Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, Rob Stark, Catelyn Stark, Bran Stark, Jon Snow, Tyrion, Tywin, Cersei, Viserys, Daenerys. In contrast, think about HBO’s great series Rome. There are far fewer characters, and you spend the most time with two of them. Game of Thrones has to track at least 7 major characters. I wonder if people who don’t have an attachment already developed to the characters will have the opportunity to build one.
So far I have been watching GoT with a mixed group, some of whom have read the books and some of whom have not. I think that it’s doing fairly well on two of these three points. The size of the world seems to be a non issue thus far, and building attachments with the characters is working pretty well (for instance, everyone now knows instinctively that Sansa’s a bitch), although I think there is sometimes confusion about which characters are actually important because of how many there are.
It’s the last (second) point that is still hard to gauge, but it’s what will make or break the series. So much of this story hinges on the little moments that show the difference between the characters – the ones that highlight their sense of honor or their absolute immorality. It’s hard to say after just two episodes, but I’ll hazard a guess that if non-readers don’t pick up on those cues, they won’t keep watching. Since I’m a fan thus far, I hope they do!