Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Game of Thrones Season 1 rewatch: Episode 1 "Winter is Coming"

I’m rewatching Game of Thrones Season 1 in anticipation of the second season airing later this year. Season 2 was announced for a 1 April 2011 premiere last week  at the Television Critic’s Association press tour and HBO have started releasing some promotional images. Sky Atlantic followed this week announcing a 2 April 2011 start date for the UK. So Game of Thrones parties at mine are now on Mondays starting in April! 

Spoilers for the whole of season 1 and the book “A Game of Thrones” will follow so please don’t continue if you haven’t watched the whole first season. I will avoid spoilers from later in the book series though so if you are only watching the show have no fear that I will spoil events still to come in the adaptation.

I love the opening of the series. Keeping the dark and suspenseful prologue from the book was essential. The external threat of the Walkers overshadowing the power struggle is a fantasy trope but nevertheless an effective way of adding tension to all that follows. The frozen and dangerous lands North of the wall contrast well with the hearths of Winterfell and the sunshine of Pentos that we see throughout the episode. I think the trio of guest stars who play Will, Gared and Ser Waymar Royce did a good job of conveying the dynamic between the arrogant young lord and his more wary, seasoned brothers in the watch. Having set up the experience of the rangers the fear shown by the men later in the sequence is more effective. The grim tableau of corpses in the snow is a striking and disturbing image, great work by the props department here. Its sudden disappearance effectively conveys the supernatural without any need for further effects. The use of the childs body for a jumpy moment is nothing new but it sets up well another jump later when she returns as a wight. The prologue was neatly boiled down into seven minutes of suspense and action in this sequence. David Benioff and DB Weiss made a good first impression for their adaptation and successfully link this sequence to the rest of the episode by the capture and execution of Will (interesting that they switched Will for Gared but not bothersome and probably better given that the audience spends the most time with Will due to his solo scouting in their version). I thought the grim opening set the tone for what was to come later in the series very well.

The rest of the pilot has a harder job. Namely introducing the majority of the eighteen strong starring cast to the audience and making them distinguishable as characters. I would say the pilot is mixed in its successes here but does well enough to retain the interest of casual viewers. The running time restricts having a substantive scene for each character but the production compensates with attention to the film-makers show don’t tell adage. Starring characters suffering the most from “who were they” syndrome in this episode are Theon Greyjoy, Robb Stark and Sandor Clegane. Starring characters well served by the pilot include Ned, Jon, Bran, Tyrion and Dany.

While Theon is present for several scenes his relationship to the Stark family (as a ward not a blood relative) is not fully explained. Alfie Allen does fine work showing his contempt for Snow in the scene where the dire wolf pups are found but an expository line somewhere might have helped to let the casual viewer know that he is also not a Stark. The show has to come back and correct this with a new scene later; which was welcome but perhaps avoidable.

Robb can be reasonably assumed to be another Stark brother but I felt he was a little lost in the pilot between the good work done to establish Jon and Bran. The adaptation relies on him more than the books do later (he is one of the few non-point of view characters amongst) the Stark children so it seems odd that he was not established better here. I accept that doing so probably would have been at the expense of establishing Jon quite so well. The characters are of an age and relate to others in a similar way so it would have been natural to give some of Jon’s lines guiding Bran to Robb instead. Had they done this I would probably be complaining about it!  Brief moments like his taking Arya off to bed and clutching Bran’s cloak after the execution help to show his position as the eldest of the children and were appreciated.

The Hound is featured with a close-up as the procession arrives and his helm is well realised making him distinctive. His brief scene with Tyrion says little about the character. I wonder if securing Rory McCann to a multi-season contract required a starring role. The size of his role is that of a featured guest star over the season as a whole. I probably would have less to say if he wasn’t in the opening credits. McCann is good in the role; I just wonder if the brief exchange was too little to establish him properly now and too easily forgotten. I think that it might have been better to just show him in the pilot before firmly establishing him in the sequence at The Inn at the Crossroads in the later episode, staggering one more character introduction for later in the series. Holding back Littlefinger until the first longer sequence in King’s Landing worked well enough.

Having complained about starring characters who get short shrift I now want to herald some of the minor characters they managed to fit in. Some minor characters cast early and included well in the background of the pilot include Qotho (Dar Salim), Jory (Jamie Sives) and Hodor (Kristian Nairn). Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter), Rodrick Cassel (Ron Donachie) and Illyrio (Roger Allam) were well established as supporting players with personalities of their own. Condensing the minor cast is important for the adaptation; the engagement of an average viewer is somewhat below that of an average reader and viewers will spend less time with a story so should have less characters to recall. Attention to detail in background casting, production design and props is of great importance to establish a sense of place and to give nods to the minor characters for the book readers. I don’t expect to see all the characters mentioned in the books but the series showing that it cares about the minor characters too endeared it to me from the start.

I think the series has a strong sense of its world and the locations. The opening titles are both beautiful and very effective at giving a sense of the places we see and the way they relate to one another. I always appreciate a map at the front of a fantasy book and this fulfils that purpose and more for the series. HBO in general clearly invests in title sequences for their shows and have done well for Game of Thrones. I think titles are an important part of viewing a series; they prepare you for what is to follow, help to transport you and create a ritual element in viewing. This one is aided by the clever design of the map to appear like a real mechanical representation of the landscape and the fantastic score by Ramin Djawadi. I find the music evocative and original and it helps to make the project feel of feature quality. As well as the excellent title sequence and transporting score the series makes excellent use of varied filming locations to distinguish between its locales. Using Northern Ireland for Winterfell and Malta for Pentos makes it very easy to tell when the action has switched between the two. I will temper my praise of the sense of place by noting that the series sometimes does a poor job of conveying the passage of time. This is something the pilot episode does better than some of the later episodes with the line about the rapid growth of Summer (the Dire Wolf) and multiple lines establishing that the king’s party has travelled for a month.

I think Tim Van Patten did a fine job of directing the re-shot pilot episode. I am intrigued to know if there was a perceived problem with the work done by Thomas McCarthy or if it was simply the major changes to the cast that prompted the re-shoots. Nevertheless it came out well in the end. I think there is some lovely imagery in the episode. I particularly like the blocking of the devil and angel shot of Ned with Luwin and Catelyn behind him as he considers the news that Arryn may have been murdered. It is interesting that Catelyn’s position about this decision is reversed from the book; she is against going to King’s Landing in the show and for it in the book. I have to say I didn’t have the best handle on her arc and motivations in my first read through – I hope the show brings me more clarity there. Back to the visuals; I also love the realisation of the dire wolf that was killed while bringing down the stag. I thought the production design on the animal corpses was excellent and suitably grizzly. This sequence encapsulated the fine symbolism of the book well. Some of the CGI on the walls of Winterfell is not up to feature standards, which is understandable on a TV budget. Some good use was made of physical locations in this sequence; I wonder if it would have been better to eschew CGI and rely on the locations more.

There are some fine performances and excellent character dynamics in this episode alone. I think Peter Dinklage is the standout of the cast and his awards recognition reassures me that I’m not alone. His Tyrion Lannister balances well wit, intelligence and empathy and I think his scene with Jon outside the banquet is my favourite exchange of the episode. Other well presented dynamics include the relationship between Ned and his family, particularly Catelyn (highlighted in the Godswood) and the two scenes of Cersei and Jaime (first in the Great Sept and later when they are caught by Bran).

Ending the pilot with Bran’s fall is a smart move for a first episode; a cliffhanger is a welcome hook to retain viewers for a second episode. I was a little perturbed when some people I watched with assumed Bran was dead but I don’t think you could have kept this a cliffhanger and not had a proportion of the audience jump to that conclusion.

All in all a fine start to a strong first season. The pilot skilfully handles introducing a sprawling fantasy by focusing on two locations and relying on good performances. The size of the cast is its greatest obstacle and is approached cleverly with deft touches rounding out the characters, nevertheless the series quickly establishes that you need to pay attention to follow it (which is not a bad thing). I am surprised how much I enjoyed re-watching.

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