When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.
There has probably never been a quote in the history of television that laid a path for an entire series like that zinger from Cersei did. For all of its complexity, depth and shocking turns, Thrones is a pretty basic show at heart. Those who play the game either wind up victorious or six feet under. Or burned alive. Or flayed. Or killed only to be brought back as a mindless husk. People are very particular about the way that they like to kill in this world.
I have done reviews for Thrones in the past, but they are very much a mirror of Pegboards’ activity level (and by result, my level as a writer). Now that we are heading into the final two seasons of this sprawling, epic saga, I am running out of opportunities to write about it and be somewhat timely, so I thought it would be fun to look back at the series and see if there is any singular storyline or character that catches my eye. It only makes sense to start with season one.
And of course there will be major spoilers for season one and much of the series, but if you haven’t caught up by now, what the hell are you waiting for?
Cersei’s mic drop is significant because of its thematic weight and how Ned Stark (and in turn the audience) don’t seem to fully grasp the gravity of such a statement. While Ned certainly doesn’t take Cersei lightly, I believe that he dismissed that exchange as mostly bluster, confident that his reputation as an honorable man and position as Hand of the King would safeguard him from any actual threats. And because Ned didn’t comprehend the true stakes of the game that he was playing, neither did we. As co-showrunner D.B. Weiss has said, killing Ned Stark feels like getting rid of Tony Soprano, and how could the show possibly continue after such a departure?
The answer is in the title. This series’ main focus always has been about the game and it won’t come to a halt just because someone that you love is no longer around. Quite a painful lesson to learn when we’re only nine episodes in, but it’s critical if you’re going to prepare yourself for the trope that anyone can die at any time. Which they do, early and often.
It’s somewhat enlightening to go back and revisit these initial episodes, party due to the fact that the cast sheet is a who’s who of familiar faces that have long since perished. You can practically count on one hand how many originals are left standing, which is a bit galling when you consider that at the conclusion of season six, the main threats are largely the same as they were when Ned Stark lost his head: White Walkers, a war for the Seven Kingdoms and a Lannister seated on the Iron Thone.
However, the detail that really grasped my attention was the portrayal of Ned by Sean Bean, given what we now know about Jon Snow’s true parentage. Having read all the books in George R.R. Martin’s beloved (and still unfinished) series, I was privy to certain insights and information that a general audience member of the show would be completely unaware of. While there are subtle clues about Jon’s heritage spread throughout Thrones, they are nearly impossible to catch if you don’t know what you’re looking for. And while I always suspected that Ned was not actually Jon’s father, having that confirmation grants these early episodes an entirely new level of presentation and they are all the more tragic for it. Bean bringing life to Eddard Stark was already one of my favorite casting choices. Now it’s hands down one of the very best performances on Thrones.
Apparently, Bean was aware of this revelation long before viewers joined Bran Stark for a peak into the past, and if so then it better explains some of the nuances of his work. Why he tightens up at any mention of his bastard son and the woman who bore him, and why he is so hostile toward the idea of murdering Daenerys Targaryen. Sure, a man with a strict ethical code would be pretty ashamed of having broken his vows and fathered a child out of wedlock. He would also be haunted by a promise he made to his dying sister, and the price that his image and marriage had paid to keep it. For me and for others, I’m sure, this grants a whole new level of appreciation for Ned and it makes his loss all the more agonizing.
As for how season one has held up over time? It will always possess a certain dramatic heft and unapologetic sexual gratuitousness that few shows can match, and while not every performance is as cloaked in secrets as that of Bean’s (though Conleth Hill’s Varys is another that is particularly effective), it’s still a joy to welcome all of these old friends back into your home. If season one lacks in any department, it’s spectacle. There isn’t anything like “Blackwater,” “Hardhome” or “Battle of the Bastards” that captivates our imagination or delivers the thrills that we’ve come to expect. This could very well have been due to budgetary restraints, with HBO waiting to see if the show would catch on before they allowed the showrunners to dabble in battle scenes and full-on massacres.
If you’re eagerly awaiting Thrones’ final 13 episodes, I would encourage you to binge your way through the earlier seasons and see if you notice anything that slipped by you before. You may be pleased to find certain events and storylines in a new light and if you don’t, well, it’s Game of Thrones, dude. Never a bad thing to watch the whole damn thing all over again.
Jesse’s Rating: A-