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Game of Thrones Season One Review

on Mon, 03/19/2012 - 00:00

Ned Stark is an honorable man. In the first season of the HBO drama Game of Thrones, the Lord of the North oversees the land under his domain with fairness, cares for his family—including a bastard son that he refused to leave behind seventeen years earlier—and even administers justice himself rather than leave it to others. “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” he explains after executing a deserter. His loyalty is put to the test, however, when his former friend King Robert summons him to the South in order to serve as his administrator, a position known as the Hand of the King.

Game of Thrones is based on George R.R. Martin’s series of fantasy books entitled A Song of Fire and Ice. Set in the fictional world of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the multiple volume epic is a combination of the sweeping allure of The Lord of the Rings and historical England during its medieval War of the Roses days. Despite such a mythic setting, however, Game of Thrones is filled with political intrigue that evolves into a battle between honor, loyalty, betrayal and deceit. Ned Stark may be a great warrior with a firm set of morals but is no match for the secret dealings that surround the Iron Throne of the Kingdom. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” he is told. “There is no middle ground.”

Game of Thrones contains a sprawling cast, each with their own hidden agendas, as the alliance that has held Westeros together since Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) seized the crown nearly two decades earlier begins to unravel. The previous Targaryen monarchy ruled over a united kingdom for three hundred years but when the last of their rulers went “mad” and was overthrown during an uprising led by Baratheon and Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), the individual fiefdoms of the land obtained additional independence in the aftermath. “Now we’ve got as many armies as there are men with gold in their purse, and everybody wants something different,” the now King Robert explains.

To consolidate his power, Robert Baratheon married Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), the lone daughter of the richest and most influential family in Westeros. It is a marriage based on political prudence, however, as Robert eats, drinks and whores his way through life while Cersei conducts an illicit affair with her twin brother Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The clandestine tryst between the two goes beyond mere sexual and more than one member of the court is murdered upon discovering their even darker secret. Jaime Lannister, meanwhile, was once a sworn protector of the crown who slayed the Mad King in a quite literal form of backstabbing, an act considered not to be “honorable” despite the beneficial outcome for all involved in the uprising.

The third Lannister sibling, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), is an impish dwarf intent on finding personal pleasure wherever he can, and displays an underappreciated intelligence and wit that assists in getting him out of dire situations. King Robert’s court is likewise made up of dubious men who are driven by their own whims and ambitions, including Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), an unscrupulous man who was once in love with Ned Stark’s wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), and the eunuch Lord Varys (Conleth Hill), the preeminent spymaster of the land. “Distrusting me is probably the wisest thing you did since you stepped off your horse,” Baelish tells Stark early on in Game of Thrones, while Varys offers an equally poignant description of himself near the end.

“When I was still a boy, I travelled with a group of actors through the free cities,” he explains. “They taught me that each man has a role to play. The same is true at court. I am the master of whisperers. My role is to be sly, obsequious and without scruples. I’m a good actor.”

When King Robert is killed during a hunting expedition, Queen Cersei is intent on their twelve year old son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) immediately taking the throne, despite Robert’s wishes for Ned Stark to serve in the interim before Joffrey comes of age. Stark, however, is aware of Cersei’s secret and believes that Robert’s brother Stannis (Stephen Dillane) is the true heir, while the youngest Baratheon, Renly (Gethin Anthony), is likewise determined to rise to the level of king. With so many wannabe monarchs in the mix, loyalties are inevitably tested and the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is thrown into civil war, with even Ned Stark’s eldest son Robb (Richard Madden) marching from the North towards the capital city of King’s Landing.

“That’s all the realm is—backstabbing and plotting and arse licking and money grubbing,” King Robert laments in Game of Thrones, and while he himself has found a way to maneuver through the political intrigue, the same does not hold true for the newly appointed Hand of the King. Ned Stark was raised as a soldier and still clings to the moralistic upbringings of his youth. When it is suggested that money is true power, he asks why Robert Baratheon then became king as opposed to the much wealthier patriarch of the Lannister clan. The remark is contrasted later in the series when Robert dies and there are conflicting viewpoints as to who should ascend to the Iron Throne. “When the Queen proclaims one king and the Hand proclaims another, whose peace do the Gold Cloaks protect?” Petyr Baelish rhetorically asks. “Who do they follow? The man who pays them.”

The honorable path is also tested when Tyrion Lannister stands trial for the attempted murder of Ned Stark’s ten year old son Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright). Lannister chooses combat as the means of clearing his name and selects the mercenary Bronn (Jerome Flynn) as his stand-in against the House of Arryn’s resident champion. While his opponent fights in the traditional method that is worthy of his title, Bronn channels his best Muhammad Ali “rope-a-dope” impression by weaving away from the sword being brandished in his direction, tiring out the more skilled knight before gaining the upper hand and defeating him. “You do not fight with honor,” Bronn is told afterwards, to which he replies in regards to his dead opponent, “He did.”

Eddard “Ned” Stark likewise discovers that clinging to his “honorable” beliefs ultimately serves against him when surrounded in a Den of Thieves. Lord Varys alluded that in order to survive in such a setting, one must act as if in a play and embrace the role in which they have been cast. So it is with Game of Thrones, a modern day Shakespearean epic in which the characters stay true to their tragic personas regardless of the consequences. This is as much true for King Robert and Queen Cersei as it is for Jaime Lannister or his brother Tyrion, and all the other nobles of the Seven Kingdoms.

In the end, however, the hardest role of all is that of an honorable man—a fact that Ned Stark himself comes to realize. Unfortunately for the Hand of the King, the revelation arrives a little too late in the game.

Anthony Letizia (March 19, 2012)

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