Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin's massive fantasy epic, finally became a television reality last night. Did it please die-hard fans, or disappoint them? Did it engage novices, or mystify them? On this, the morning after, we conscripted Adam Pasick, a Song of Ice and Fire superfan, and Margaret Lyons, a GoT virgin, to discuss the first episode, what worked and what didn't, and if they'll be sticking with the series.
MARGARET LYONS: I'm not much of a fantasy person generally, and while I found the first two installments of Game of Thrones exciting enough, I don't know that I'm going to stick it out. I feel like I've seen all of this before. It's Rome in medieval times; it's The Tudors with less history. Hell, parts of it seem ripped from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The acting is lovely, the costumes are gorgeous, and I have a soft spot for wolf puppies, but lavish production values and bare breasts aren't enough. I want to be totally enthralled by the ambition and scope of the story, but two hours in and Game just seems like Lord of the Rings–lite. What am I missing?
ADAM PASICK: First, a disclaimer. It's hard for me to take an unbiased look at Game of Thrones, the series, because I have been obsessed with the books so long that they're taking up the same amount of mental real estate as some people might devote to, say, Star Wars. But if I'm trying to be objective, I can totally see why the show seems like a recombinant organism made up of bits and pieces of the knights and sword epics that are as old as, well, knights and swords.
Don't get held up on the fact that there have been similarly themed shows that have come before: I love Game of Thrones not because of the genre setting, but almost despite it. This is a big, sweeping epic that will explore some very dark particulars of human nature — and completely mess with your head in the process. I like Lord of the Rings, but George R.R. Martin makes Tolkien look about as morally ambiguous as a nursery rhyme. However, I admit that it's impossible to suss all that out in the first two episodes, which have to spend a lot of time on exposition and character introduction. So it goes for most big, ambitious TV series. Do me a favor, and stick with it: It gets better.
LYONS: I’m glad you brought up moral ambiguity, because it points to one of the things I’m having a little trouble with in the series: It’s pretty light on actual human emotions, and it’s hard to invest in someone’s moral struggle when they only ever seem to play one note. That guy wants vengeance! That woman wants power! He has a secret! It’s telegraphed and belabored, and while there are plenty of incidental behaviors that are reminiscent of real life — say, Arya teasing her older sister — the Really Big Feelings ring incredibly false. It's possible that comes more from the acting than anything else; Maisie Williams is terrific as the younger Stark sister, so I find Arya really compelling, but Emilia Clarke's blank Daenerys just doesn't make sense to me.
Sprawling epics often wind up overexplaining their constructs and underdeveloping the characters’ inner lives (I mean, as long as we’re talking about Star Wars … ), and while Games has managed to create action within its exposition, I need some compelling emotions in there, too.
PASICK: Daenarys is a passive, unappealing character at the beginning, but that's by design. She'll have the biggest transformation of any character this season. As for undeveloped inner lives … that sounds familiar … ah yes, I just wrote about that for Vulture. But I'll summarize: The books are all about sticking the reader inside the heads of a rotating crew of narrators, giving the exact sort of insight that I think you're asking for. I'll admit that it remains to be seen whether the creators can make this work on TV.
Think back to the shows like Lost and The Sopranos that precisely set up their chess pieces at the beginning of a season. The opening moves didn't make much dramatic sense at the beginning, but when the hammer drops at the end, everything falls into place. The seemingly obvious and simplistic motives that seem belabored now will — if the shows pulls off its ambitious agenda — take on a much more layered meaning once the plot takes a few more spins around the map. This also might help: Every character in the Game of Thrones thinks they're the hero of this story, with perfectly good reasons for the occasionally loathsome acts they commit.
LYONS: Where this is differing from the pilots of Lost or The Sopranos for me is that those pilots were more nuanced — the pilot for Lost managed to combine serious action with some shadowy mystery and time-jumping thrown in. The Sopranos pilot punctuates its atmosphere of suburban claustrophobia with moments of acute aggression. Thrones so far is just hitting the same tone over and over, and that tone is "Impending Doom." It's so much doom! Everyone's on edge, and it seems like everyone's working some kind of angle — except for Peter Dinklage's Tyrion, who's probably the best character because he's the only one who seems to be having any fun. Between the beheadings, the rape, the incest, and the generalized sense of anxiety that seems to engulf all members of the Stark family, Tyrion is a welcome bright spot of relief.
Also, if I hate the ending of Game as much as I hate the endings of Lost and The Sopranos, I’m blaming you.
PASICK: With very few exceptions, I love the casting, especially my favorite characters: Jon Snow, Arya Stark, and Tyrion Lannister. Peter Dinklage is predictably awesome. The character of Catelyn Tully is a little more Mama and a little less Grizzly than I would have liked. The Wall, which I think is the single coolest thing that George R.R. Martin imagined for the books, looks appropriately awesome; I can't wait for all the action that's going to unfold there. The blood and guts didn't affect me much, maybe because we don't really know any of the characters who bit it, but I did find the marital rape scene with Khal Drogo and Danerys hard to watch. In the books, he treated her a bit nicer, even if she thought she was essentially his property, so maybe it's a more honest portrayal to show her suffering.
Finally, at the risk of scaring you off, the ending to the books hasn't even been written yet. If it never gets finished, or the ending sucks, I'll be so despondent that your newbie blame will be the least of my problems. Oh, and the Sopranos finale was perfect. Don't stop believin'.