TV Analysis – Game of Thrones: Season 1

 On April 1st, 2012 at 9 PM ET on HBO, season 2 of Game of Thrones is set to air, once again bringing George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to life. The critically acclaimed season 1 ended with a set of cliffhangers and shocking twists, true to the events depicted in the novels and leaving viewers with the frustration of having to wait nearly a year to see how things would resolve (of course, you could always read the novels!). Game of Thrones has proven to be a stellar adaptation of the novels on which it is based, and in celebration and anticipation of the upcoming second season, we have written a post about some of the major themes of season 1.

 This post is by no means exhaustive. There are several characters that are left unmentioned (Arya Stark and Tywin Lannister being obvious examples) simply due to space and time constraints. What we wanted to do was highlight several important and fascinating features of season 1 to illustrate the richness and complexity of the show’s visuals, themes and mythology. Nearly every point we touch on could serve as the basis for a single, in-depth post, so our write-up here is more akin to an introductory chapter of an analysis of season 1 of Game of Thrones. It means to light the way to discussion and appreciation for the technical and artistic achievements that this show accomplished in just 10 episodes.

We hope you enjoy the post, and please let us know if you have any points you want to make about season 1 of Game of Thrones by leaving a comment here or on our Facebook page.

Round and Round it Goes

Ned’s beheading mirrors the execution he carried out.

One of the most striking aspects of season 1 is the circular nature of the major story lines and of the world itself. Ned Stark, arguably the first season’s main character, and therefore its most shocking death, is one of the strongest and most obvious examples of the show’s visual bookends. One of our first glimpses of Ned involves him personally beheading a man charged with deserting the Night’s Watch, a treasonous act punishable by death, regardless of the reason (even, apparently, if that reason involves a group of dead people suddenly coming back to life and killing your companions). There is no trial; he is immediately dubbed a traitor and is swiftly given his punishment, at the direct hand of Ned Stark. Fast-forward to Episode 9, and Ned himself has been accused of treason, and just as swiftly, is sentenced to death by Joffrey, who argues that despite Ned’s heartfelt confession and apology, he cannot let anyone get away with treason, once again, despite his reasons, and Ned Stark is just as swiftly beheaded. Leaving viewers with a rather gruesome set of bookends for the season.

The opening and closing scenes of season 1 depict the circular nature of the show, both visually and in the narrative.

But Ned Stark’s beheading is not the only circular story. The Wall provides viewers with yet another set of visuals that are strikingly similar to each other. The show opens with three Rangers heading out beyond the Wall, only to encounter the White Walkers. The Wall’s storyline ends with seemingly the entire Night’s Watch setting out north of the Wall on a mission to seek out and fight the growing threat of the White Walkers. Additionally, Daenerys’ storyline provides a less obvious visual connection, with her introduction to the series centering around preparing for her first meeting with new husband Khal Drogo. In preparation for this, Daenerys disrobes and enters a scalding hot bath. When she emerges, she has symbolically changed from a young girl, into a young woman, ready to be married off to further her brother’s political ambitions. In the final episode of the season, we see Daenerys entering a bath of a very different kind, this time being consumed by fire. In the final moments of the season, we see Daenerys emerging, naked, but unharmed, from the ashes of this fire. She is surrounded by three baby dragons, symbolically representing another rebirth for this character, but this time with her in control of her destiny and her nudity being presented in a more natural way, rather than being overly-sexualized.

Varys and Littlefinger use the cyclical nature of politics to their advantage.

The circular nature of the story isn’t just confined to the visuals of the show, it is built into the history of the kingdom, causing there to often be an ever shifting cast of major players within the politics of the realm. But not everyone dies or finds themselves replaced with the ebb and flow of these cycles. Characters such as Littlefinger, Varys and Maester Pycelle are not only aware of the ever-changing nature of the power structure of King’s Landing, they exploit it for purposes of survival and/or personal gain. None of these characters want a position of absolute power, they do not want to be king or have the power of being a king. Their influence and survival is dependent on the power structure changing through the years, even if they find themselves pledging fealty and loyalty to a wide variety of people. Varys for example makes this point clear in the scene where he talks to Ned Stark shortly before Ned’s beheading, letting Ned know that he could free him from prison but that he will not, because he is loyal to the realm. By being loyal to an abstract concept such as the realm, and not to a specific person, all three of these characters can freely adapt to the situation at hand. They always have a role to fill, which gives them far more influence and safety in the long run.

Breaking the Rules

Although a part of the book series, killing a “main” character such as Ned Stark before the end of season 1 is a rare occurrence in television.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of season 1 is the dynamic and extreme shift in power over the course of the 10 episodes. While the main plot lines that lead to these shifts are taken directly from George R. R. Martin’s novel, seeing so many main characters completely replaced and killed during a single season is nearly unheard of for televised drama. Undoubtedly, as mentioned above, the most shocking death of the entire season (for those who hadn’t read the novel that is) was the execution of Ned Stark, at the order of “King” Joffrey. Killing off not only a major character, but the main focus of the entire series in general is always a shock when it occurs, simply because it almost never happens on television. Even a show as gutsy as The Sopranos never killed off Tony Soprano….at least they never killed him off on-screen in a non-debatable way, but that’s a whole other story! Yes, Martin’s novel kills off Ned Stark, but it required a certain amount of commitment by the producers and writers of Game of Thrones the series to willingly adhere to a storyline that demanded the sacrifice of a character audiences unfamiliar with the book series would expect to be following for more than 9 episodes. Indeed, the deaths of major players in a series are almost always held off until the finale (see: The Sopranos, Dexter, Boardwalk Empire). The placement of Ned Stark’s death at the end of season 1’s penultimate episode stands as a clear indicator that the writers are not afraid to break television conventions in order to remain faithful to Martin’s stories.

But observant viewers of the series may have noticed small foreshadowings of Ned Stark’s death. Very early in the season, when Ned is beginning his journey to King’s Landing and Jon Snow is heading off to the Wall to join the Night’s Watch, father and son have a short conversation about the identity of Jon’s mother. During this exchange, Ned tells Jon that the next time they see each other, he promises to tell him about his mother. Additionally, toward the middle of the season, Robert informs Ned that he is heading out on a hunting trip, and says that they will talk more about Ned’s concerns over the proposed assassination of Daenerys Targaryen and her as-yet unborn child when he returns. Both of these promises (one by Ned and one to Ned) are subtle, but their focus on delaying the discussion or revelation of information important to the characters suggests that these meetings will not take place. Indeed, Robert is fatally injured on his hunting party and Ned Stark is executed before he ever gets to see Jon Snow again.

Cersei and Joffrey, not archetypal characters of power, have secured the Iron Throne for themselves by season 1’s end.

As mentioned, Ned Stark is not the only major character killed during the season. Nearly all of the major players, the men of high political power in the kingdoms, are dead by the end of the season. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these deaths are that each of these older, extremely powerful men, are replaced in their position by young men or women. Ned’s death causes both Catelyn and Robb Stark to rise up and take over leadership of the north, Robb even being declared “King in the North” in the final episode. Prince Joffrey succeeds his “father,” as King after his death, with Cersei also gaining a stronger role in the running of the realm with her son as the monarch (although, not as strong as she had originally hoped). Across, the narrow sea, both Viserys’, the self-proclaimed dragon and rightful heir to the throne, and Khal Drogo’s deaths allow Daenerys, arguably one of the weakest female characters at the season’s start, to rise to a position of power and authority.

Daenerys goes through the most drastic transformation in season 1, beginning with no power or autonomy and ending with the discovery that she is “the dragon.”

The near complete recasting of these political roles cause season 1 as a whole to feel almost like a Prologue to the “real” story that we will see taking place in season 2. Just as we hear the characters of  Viserys, Ned and Robert telling the story of the war for the Iron Throne against the last Targaryen king, the events of this first season could easily function as flashbacks or tales told by the characters of Robb, Joffrey and Daenerys as they fight for their own power. In this way, season 1 serves the purpose of moving all of the major players to their needed locations to advance the larger stories forward, relating even more strongly to the circular nature of the story and of the political battles of the kingdoms as a whole. It truly is a “game” of thrones, although in this case, the winner rarely remains the winner for long.

Ned Stark, Viserys Targaryen, Khal Drogo and Robert Baratheon all represented strong male characters in positions of power at the beginning of season 1. By the end of the season, they are all dead and have been succeeded by archetypically weaker characters.

Honesty, Deception & Action

The neutral Varys is loyal to the realm.

Few would argue against the notion that at the heart of Game of Thrones is the battle and delicate balance that exists between not good and evil, but honesty and deception. The degree to which characters in the show lie, cheat and steal or espouse loyalty and honor defines them and places them within the various spheres of influence within the realm. Yet Varys, just like how he exists outside the cyclical nature of the history and power struggles of the kingdom, also defies categorization into an honest or deceptive archetype. Because of this, it makes sense that Varys is a eunuch, so that by his very nature he is unbinary and does not conform to expected behaviors. Varys is neutral. As such, we do not observe him being deceptive to others. However, he doesn’t go out of his way to make the truth known either. This makes Varys an interesting player in the overall politics of King’s Landing, as he desires peace and will interact and cooperate with people that may be enemies of each other.

Littlefinger is honest about his deception.

Littlefinger fits into a similar category as Varys in terms of loyalties, but he makes use of deception when it suits him. Yet he is honest about his deception, going so far as to warn Ned Stark that he cannot be trusted, which Ned does not heed and ultimately ends with Littlefinger double-crossing him, placing a dagger to his throat and saying in a gleeful tone, “I did warn you not to trust me.” Just like Varys, Littlefinger doesn’t fit into the traditional binary definitions of honesty and deception because while he lies and conceals information, he never pretends like he doesn’t do this. Unlike Varys, Littlefinger appears to have personal motivations behind his actions, making him loyal to himself. We do not learn in season 1 what his motivations and goals are, but his methods of interacting with other characters place him in a strong position politically.

Maester Pycelle plays a role, deceiving everyone.

Maester Pycelle rounds out the cast of secondary characters that have the ability to interact with and influence people independent of political persuasion. In this way, he is much like Varys and Littlefinger. However, a revelatory scene in the final episode of season 1, “Fire and Blood,” reveals the deception Maester Pycelle uses to play into a role. In this scene he rambles on about the different kings he’s worked for, as a prostitute he has just slept with is gathering her things together. After she leaves the room, Pycelle stands up, cracks his back and displays a surprising amount of vigor and energy as he dons his garments. His posture erect, he walks to the door where he hunches down right before he exits into the hall. Pycelle displays features of frailty and age when he is around others, but in private he has a clear mind and a strong body. No one is aware of this level of deception, but it has kept Pycelle safe and in a great position to influence others. Just as with Varys and Littlefinger, it is unclear after season 1 how this will play into the larger political arc of King’s Landing.

“A Lannister always pays his debts.” Unlike the rest of his family, Tyrion abides by this saying.

The Lannisters, particularly “worst-twins-ever” Jamie and Cersei, fit firmly within the category of those who willingly use deception to get what they want. Indeed, Jamie even goes so far as to push Bran, a child, out of a window in the hopes of keeping his sexual relationship with his sister, and therefore the illegitimacy of Cersei’s children, a secret. Cersei, however, is able to keep her hands relatively clean, but is not afraid to use others when it serves her own interests, as we see her do with a gullible and vulnerable Sansa after the arrest of her father. It is only Tyrion Lannister, another outcast, who breaks this trend of Lannister deception. Tyrion is seen making the most frequent use of his status as a Lannister for personal gain, and yet rather than bullying or threatening his way out of situations, Tyrion succeeds by using both his mind and by adhering, honestly, to the house saying, “A Lannister always pays his debts.” Unlike his siblings, who view their house motto as a declaration of revenge, Tyrion takes these words literally, using them as leverage to solicit favors from others, with the promise that he will reward them for their service. And he does. Throughout season 1 Tyrion is constantly seen making deals with others through promises of money and gold and is just as constantly seen paying back these debts. Tyrion does not need to resort to deception and back-stabbing, even when it involves escaping a horrific death for a crime he didn’t commit. Rather than attempting to escape or fight his way out of his imprisonment at the Eyrie (which he knows would be nearly impossible for a number of reasons), Tyrion uses his cunning and intellect to find a loop-hole in Lysa Arryn’s plan, allowing a more skilled and physically matched man to fight in his place, and escapes with his life.

To survive the latest war in Westeros, Catelyn and Robb Stark employ military deception, going against their honest instincts.

Unlike the Lannisters, the Starks pride themselves on being an honest and just ruling family. However, even Catelyn and Robb recognize that sometimes deception is necessary for survival, as they prove in the decision to split their troops as a diversion tactic for Tywin’s forces, allowing the majority of their army to march on Jamie and his army. It is only Ned who believes in honesty at all costs. He is the last true vestige of honesty in the realm and he pays for this idealism with his life. In many ways, Ned’s tragic story echoes the story of Brutus, as depicted in Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar. Both men believed in doing what was best for the “realm,” even if that meant overthrowing or opposing the leader or “king,” and both naively believed that rational argument would overshadow mob-mentality and political theatrics. However, Ned’s fathering of a bastard son (Jon Snow) shows that even men as honest and straightforward as Ned Stark, are not perfect.

The contrast is striking when comparing Ned’s and Joffrey’s execution styles, with Ned approaching it with a solemn sense of duty and Joffrey making it a spectacle. Even the positioning of the sword is completely opposite.

As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest contrasts between Ned and Joffrey as rulers is Joffrey’s refusal to take personal action. He always has others do his dirty work for him, such as striking Sansa or beheading Ned. Ned, as we’ve discussed, stands on the importance of personal action, as we see in both his choice to execute Lady (away from any witnesses, when he could have simply let his daughter’s beloved direwolf escape) and in his beheading of the deserter from the Night’s Watch.

The rules of the Night’s Watch are tempered with a sense of pragmatism.

Ned is a firm upholder of the law, no matter what the circumstances, and yet, even the Night’s Watch does not seem to be as strict in upholding these laws. In the season finale (“Fire and Blood”) we see Jon Snow stealing a horse and running away from the Wall upon learning of his father’s death. His friends (brothers) catch-up with him and convince him to return, reminding him of his oath and that his father would not want him to break it on his account. Jeor Mormont later confronts Jon about his “desertion,” and rather than threatening him with beheadings or calls of treason, simply states that if they executed every man who even attempted to run away, there would be no one left to guard the Wall, indicating a clear emphasis on practicality over blind adherence to laws.

Looking toward season 2

The official poster for season 2 of Games of Thrones.

The second season of Game of Thrones is set to pick up close to where the previous season concluded, with three established camps: the war between the Starks and the Lannisters in the south (which includes Renly and Stannis Baratheon), Daeneyrs and her baby dragons across the sea and the Night’s Watch at the Wall. Much of the action promises to be about the Stark/Lannister war and Daeneyrs’ future plans, all of which surrounds who should assume the Iron Throne and rule the realm. It truly is a “game of thrones” with many people declaring that they are the rightful heir to the kingdom and willing to gamble their lives to claim it. The chess pieces are in place.

But we can’t help thinking that this is all missing the true threat, which is what is happening beyond the Wall in the north. The White Walkers pose a significant threat to the realm and in the long run are a far more important concern than the “game of thrones” being played by the other camps. It remains to be seen what the true nature of this threat is, but it may be such a problem that the Night’s Watch might not be able to handle it alone. Ignoring the true threat to instead indulge in petty politics could very well be the downfall of Westeros itself.

We’re eagerly anticipating the season 2 premiere and are very excited to see where the next season, as well as the rest of the series, goes!


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