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October 8, 2015

'Game of Thrones' Season 1 Finale Recap

by Maureen Ryan, posted Jun 19th 2011 11:01PM
['Game of Thrones' - 'Fire and Blood']

Given that the 'Game of Thrones' season finale began by showing us several characters reacting to last week's major death, I thought it would be appropriate to begin this week's discussion with one reader's reaction to the heartstopping scene we witnessed seven days ago.

Here's an excerpt from what KLM19001 had to say in the comment area of last week's post:

"It's such a waste of my time to watch [someone] commit spiritual and physical suicide to have nothing come from it.

"Love the style of the show, the acting, the fantasy, all the visual glory of this show," the commenter continued. "When I read or when I watch, I expect something to come from the sacrifice of a character, not to end up ... with all the Lannister wickedness as secret and protected as if Ned never existed."

Later, KLM19001 returned to the discussion prompted by his or her original comment. I'm only excerpting again here (and the entire exchange is worth reading to give these remarks proper context), but he/she added: "There's an arc to a story, the hero's journey. ...And his main journey through these episodes was to find the truth about the death of his predecessor. He led me through this journey well, but I feel cheated in the end -- I went all this way with him for nothing."

I can completely understand KLM's reaction and frustration. Losing a well-intentioned character like Ned and being deprived of Sean Bean's strong performance is hard. But I think one of the most important things about last week's searing, well-made episode is that it revealed the truth about 'Game of Thrones.' The series finally showed its hand, via the death of the Hand.

The thing is, what we're seeing here is not the hero's journey. It may contain elements of those kinds of stories (the testing of young warriors, people going on journeys, strange monsters, etc), but in his books, 'Game of Thrones' author George R.R. Martin slowly reveals that he's really not doing yet another variation on that familiar structure. 'GoT' is a complex tale involving multiple characters, almost all of whom are capable of compassion and cruelty. 'GoT' is part of a tradition that includes shows like 'The Wire' and 'Battlestar Galactica'; it is not an edgier version of 'Lord of the Rings.'

'LotR,' 'Star Wars' and any number of other films, books and stories in the sci-fi/fantasy realm tend to hew to the hero's journey as outlined by Joseph Campbell and others. Aspects of the hero's journey -- his tests, his catharsis and his ultimate redemption -- are woven into many cultures, but it's been implanted very deeply in our popular culture. There's a shape that we've come to expect from epic sagas of good versus evil: Despite long odds and almost impossible circumstances, the hero and his trusty sidekicks will somehow band together to drive back the darkness and achieve some kind of victory for themselves, their culture and/or their fallen comrades.

It's not a spoiler to say that George R.R. Martin isn't particularly interested in telling that story. For one thing, his 'Song of Ice and Fire' novel series is as much about the heroine's journey as it is about anything else. The female characters are emerging as complex, important people who have a great deal of influence on where the narrative goes. That's one reason that Martin's books (and, speaking anecdotally, the TV show) have attracted very loyal female audiences. Yes, there have been some issues with the depiction of female characters here and there, but where it counts, 'Game of Thrones' is doing a terrific job of making the women in this world matter, and that is a very good thing.

But more than that, 'Game of Thrones' revealed last week that it's not about Ned Stark. It's not about Arya, even. There's no singular character who we're going to follow through this narrative; what's so effective about this tale is the way it emotionally and psychologically binds you to a whole host of complicated story strands, people and conflicts. In the books or on the screen, it's an ensemble piece in the truest sense of the words: Character step to the foreground or the background, sometimes for long periods, and new characters emerge all the time to add to the complications and to the local color of the places the tale happens to visit. There's no clearly defined destination (as there was with Stephen King's 'The Dark Tower' series -- no matter how far afield the digressions went in that tale, we always knew where it was headed).

On the page, all that can make for an unwieldy story at times, and though not all the characters are interesting or fully realized, the important thing to know about this tale is that it's not about a person. Martin has shown that he's willing to do away with any character at any time, and even if he kills people off for the right storytelling reasons, there will be times, if you stick with the show or books, you will be furious with him (even if you can't assail his logic in doing what he does). Yet he has to do those things, not just because it adds to the effective tension that is threaded through his books, but because it's important to reinforce the idea that there isn't a Frodo in this tale. It's just a bunch of people trying to figure out what to do next, usually with incomplete facts and only a hazy idea of how their decisions will play out over time.

As I wrote last week, this is a story that asks a question: How do you decide what the right thing to do is? It's not really about an individual per se, it's not about a hero figuring out how to integrate and resolve his conflicts. 'Game of Thrones' is about moral, political and personal dilemmas and the unexpected ramifications of choices and decisions. The show has wisely focused on those elements in its adaptation of Martin's tale.

Of course, we have to care about the people in the midst of these dilemmas for the story to work at all, and in recent episodes, the writing, directing and actors have done a fabulous job of making us invest in the people making these choices. 'Fire and Blood' was a very fine ending to the season, and I'm betting it made all of us even more eager for the show to return next year.

It's obvious that the show is firing on all cylinders because the asking of the central question I noted above is not an academic exercise. With increasing economy and precision, we've been led to understand why these people have made and will make certain choices. Even when we disagree with those choices, it's often not hard to understand why they made sense to the characters in the story.

Maybe if KLM sticks with the show, she/he will see that Ned's death does have an enormous impact. But the impact of his death will play out is unpredictable ways, because Martin's story never forgets that human nature is, at its core, unpredictable. Perhaps, on further review, that's what drives Martin's tale: An abiding curiosity about the unpredictability of the human heart (think of it as 'Deadwood' with added dragons).

Did "nothing come" from Ned's death? Yes and no. Yes, people die in this story, sometimes because somebody else just wanted to kill them. That world can be senseless and brutal, just as ours can be. But so many events are set in motion by Ned's death, not least of which is its effect on his family. In that sense, Ned's death will have impact for a long time to come, but it's impossible to tally up the full effect of Joffrey's rash decision. Life's just too unpredictable and messy for that (and if that kind of thing is not KLM's cup of tea, that's fair enough).

As we see the Starks struggle with their grief and pain, we can easily understand why that pain will drive their choices for a long, long time. As we see Robb attacking the tree with his sword, we completely understand and identify with his desire to slaughter the Lannisters. As we see Sansa's stunned, tear-streaked face, we understand why she wants to murder Joffrey. We understood why Jon abandoned his post at the Wall, and why he returned.

But Arya's situation, as is so often the case, indicated where things are heading for all the characters, not just the Starks. The word that kept occurring to me as I watched 'Fire and Blood' was "acceptance." You'd think that'd be a strange word in this context, with the world of Westeros so unsettled, but there was the sense throughout that people were accepting new realities and alliances. For the Starks, there's very little time to spend on grief (for poor Arya, there's none at all). To survive in this harsh world, they've got to accept what happened and figure out what to do next.

And even if a new reality is thrust upon them, as was the case with Robb and Daenerys, there is a sense of destiny about how they reacted to their new situations. When Robb was acclaimed as the King of the North, when Dany emerged from the fire suckling her dragons, there were looks of magnificent composure on both their faces. Both characters had undergone a surprising transformation, but that change felt right to them and that was reflected in how they carried themselves. Despite everything they'd gone through, there was a look of peace on Dany and Robb's faces, as if they were relieved that their future had been decided for them. Whatever was next, they knew there was no going back. There were no more doubts in their minds.

Yet as the lords, princes and kings of Westeros became even more convinced of the rightness of their causes and began to array their armies for further battles, it's clear that this destructive war they've begun will distract them from even bigger threats. There are two menaces that threaten the entire kingdom -- whatever's awakening in the North and Daenerys across the Narrow Sea.

I think Westeros should be far more afraid of Dany.

Throughout this season, Emilia Clarke has given a master class in acting, which is astonishing when you think that this is her first real on-screen role. Let's review what she had to do in this episode: She had to show us, while frequently speaking in a made-up foreign language, how devastated Dany was by the death of not only her first child but the horrible non-death of her ferocious husband. Most of the time, she was acting opposite a zombiefied Khal Drogo, so Clarke didn't really have a scene partner as such. Yet she easily showed us how awful it was for Dany to have to kill the man she'd come to love. But then in the last 10 minutes or so, Clarke basically blew the roof off the joint.

This was a Dany who would never show mercy again. She calmly had Mirri Maz Duur tied to Drogo's funeral pyre, having learned that there was no such thing as "saving" the unfortunates who would pave the way to her retaking Westeros. This was a woman who would not make the mistake of caring too much for anyone -- even a husband or a child -- again. This was a woman with a single purpose -- and that was before she walked into the fire.

When Mormont found her with the dragons after the fire, Dany had been reborn in every possible way. Clarke's brilliant performance has made every step of that journey credible. Dany has gone from being a trembling child with a well-hidden will to a steely queen who has a very good chance of crushing every would-be king of Westeros.

"I am Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, of the blood of old Valyria. I am the dragon's daughter and I swear to you that those who would harm you will die screaming."

I got chills just typing those words. Whatever hells these storytellers put us through by making us care about characters and then killing them off, I'm on board. I am very, very, very much on board. Even though I've read the next book, these actors, writers and directors have made me care about this story in a whole new way. I can't wait to see where these people go next.

I've got more thoughts to share, but it makes sense to put them in bullet-point format. So here goes (with a few bits of housekeeping first):

• Please return to this site Tuesday (or go to the Talking TV site or iTunes page, if you care to) for a special 'Game of Thrones' podcast that I will record with Ryan McGee and a special guest on Monday evening.

• Speaking of 'GoT' chitchat, I'll be participating in a live Daily Beast chat with Time critic James Poniewozik, TV critic Myles McNutt plus representatives of the 'GoT' sites Winter is Coming and Westeros at 2PM ET Monday. Here's a doohickey that will send you a reminder about that chat if you want one (and the chat should be accessible here after it's over as well).

• In case you hadn't heard, on Friday HBO announced that 'Game of Thrones' would be visiting San Diego Comic-Con for the first time this summer. The panel will be held on Thursday, July 21 and the moderator will be none other than George R.R. Martin. The panelists are executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, along with cast members Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Jason Momoa and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Other panelists may be named later.

• So, back to 'Fire and Blood.' As I did last week, I have to praise the sensitive direction of Alan Taylor whom I fervently hope directs multiple episodes of the show in season 2. (EW's James Hibberd reports that Taylor will direct four season 2 episodes -- fantastic news). Given that there are only 10 episodes per season, each episode has to efficiently and sensitively combine and communicate the themes, plot and emotions of the books, and Taylor finds ways to do all that especially well. The sequence of the Stark family members processing their grief was masterful, and his visual and auditory restraint is perfect for this group of stoic characters who cannot (or should not) show their emotions to the wider world. Taylor showed us Catelyn's strong, resolute back before she crumpled by the tree; he allowed us to hear Robb's rage before we saw it; he gave us a glimpse at Sansa's tired, tear-stained face, which was nevertheless completely composed during Joffrey's latest episode of tyrannical insanity. It was painful for the Starks to deal with Ned's death, but Taylor showed us how that pain was doubled by having to pretend to the world that they did not feel defeated and bereft.

• Sansa's one of the characters who hasn't been especially sympathetic all season long -- there just wasn't time to do much with this character, who, if I'm being honest, was never one of the book's more interesting personalities. Yet Sophie Turner has gotten some good scenes recently, and she's risen to the challenges in them. Here, she showed a spark of defiance to Joffrey, right after the psychotic boy king showed Sansa her own father's head on a spike. You have to love her for challenging Joffrey in that moment, as mad as that act was. Poor Sansa. It's an awful life when seeing a man's tongue cut out is the best thing that happens to you all day.

• In that moment, Sansa truly was Catelyn's daughter -- Cat had the same fire in her eyes when she soothed Robb by telling him that yes, they would kill every Lannister, as soon as they got Arya and Sansa back. Dany's not the only one who's not about to show mercy any time soon; Catelyn's desire for revenge was palpable in that scene. Yet the very skilled Michelle Fairley was also able to change on a dime in her scene with Jaime, from pure anger to honest confusion regarding why Jaime would want to throw her son out a window.

• Speaking an actor playing a scene on multiple levels, Jaime hasn't gotten a ton of screen time of late, but Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has nevertheless managed to make Jaime seem ambivalent about his reputation as the devious Kingslayer. Both he and Tyrion put up very elaborate fronts for people, though for different reasons (Tyrion because he's always been rejected and despised, Jaime because life's easier for him if no one knows what he cares about). As Catelyn walked away, we briefly saw that, behind the mask, Jaime's far from proud of what he did to Bran.

• Speaking of well shot sequences, the scene of the Greatjon declaring Robb the King in the North was one of the most evocative and beautiful of the series. The setting was perfect in its stark (!) beauty and though Robb barely said a word, you could see in that moment his transformation from young man to king.

• There was a great deal of resolve and acceptance on display in this episode, but Tyrion still can't believe what's happened to him. After a lifetime of trying to get people to take him seriously (or at least acknowledge his intelligence), he's appointed the Hand of the king by the one person whom he thought liked him least. Tyrion accepted Tywin's decision -- after being rendered almost speechless by it -- but, being Tyrion, he couldn't just accede to all of his father's demands. He'll bring Shae with him, and it wasn't difficult to see why in their short scene together. She's attractive to him because she's as smart, independent and headstrong as he is. After years of people having people pretend to respect him, he likes the fact that Shae respects him enough to stand up to him.

• Speaking of things that gave me chills, the repetition of the Night's Watch vow by Jon's friends in the forest was thrilling. Whatever critiques I've had of individual episodes or the show as a whole, everything about the Wall story has worked beautifully. Each character has been memorable and Lord Mormont's final speech to Jon, which carried into masterful shots of the Night's Watch men trooping through an icy tunnel, was a great note on which to close out the doings in Westeros before turning to Dany's scenes.

• The Maester Pycelle scene was a bit random. It felt like a deleted scene you'd find on a DVD set. It did remind us that these two characters, Roz and Pycelle, exist, and it tied in, I suppose, with Littlefinger and Varys' conversation about playing roles at court. Clearly Pycelle is a more vigorous and healthy man than he lets on, and I'm guessing his dotty old man performance was for Roz's benefit -- presumably Roz is working as one of Littlefinger's spies, given that she's employed by one of his brothels. But if it's meant to set something up for the next part of the story, I'm not really sure we're going to remember what transpired in that scene a year from now when the show returns. In any event, Pycelle effectively sent two messages to Littlefinger in that scene: He (Pycelle) is dotty and presents no threat (which we know to be false) and he fully supports Joffrey, whom he says is capable of "greatness." Ugh.

• "Do you lie awake at night fearing my gash?" I implore the creators of this show to give us one scene in every episode in which Littlefinger and Varys toss politely sarcastic insults at each other. Come to think of it, I would watch an entire show that consisted of only of those two throwing shade. That would probably be my favorite show on television.

• We not only got a Rickon sighting, we saw Rickon's Shaggydog as well! Now that's what I call a deluxe episode.

• On a side note, I'm partway through Barbara Tuchman's 'A Distant Mirror' right now, and it reads like the real-life version of 'Game of Thrones.' It's a history of late-medieval Europe during a period of war between England and France (and there are dozens of other conflicts too, as well as several major outbreaks of the bubonic plague). In any event, it's a good read and it delves into the idea that (as is the case in 'Game of Thrones') knights and the code of chivalry were losing their luster and the lower and middle classes were restive about the way that societies had been structured and ruled. In any event, if you're looking for a relevant historical volume to check out before the show returns, 'A Distant Mirror' is quite illuminating.

• Last but not least, I want to thank all of you for reading these recaps and sharing your thoughts in comments. It's been an honor and a pleasure to share this journey with you. Winter is coming... but it's not coming back fast enough.

Here are a few final notes. Please keep in mind that every commenter will be held to the standards set forth below.

• On this site, we observe the Lurkers Rule: The environment here should be so accepting, so calm and so non-screechy that the most timid lurker should feel it's safe to express his or her opinion. If you have a problem with any comment on this site, hit the "report this comment" button or email me at maureen.ryan@teamaol.com.

• If you express yourself in a hostile, repetitive or unpleasant fashion, or if your starting point is that 'Game of Thrones' is not something that should be subjected to thoughtful, rational discussions of its positive and negative aspects, this is not the site for you. If you can't be civil and respect to other commenters, your comments will be deleted.

• Please, please: No talking about what happens in the books beyond the story lines we saw here.

• If you're new to the world of 'Game of Thrones,' do check out the fan sites Westeros, Winter is Coming and Tower of the Hand. They've got active message boards and a ton of interviews and intel, and if you want to get deeper into this world, you can't go wrong with those sites. HBO's got an extensive Viewer's Guide here. And of course, if you want to check out our features and interviews with the 'GoT' brain trust, including Martin, Emilia Clarke and executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, we've got loads of stories here.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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in the book, daenerys' child is dead born lizard/dragon.
thank you very much for the critic. I really wish that the show will allow itself to spend more time with each character. The tv pace cannot hold with the book's. Too many information and at times i felt like i was watching a quick summary of the book. It has not been written for the screen and that shows. I think the actors are great, even more when you consider the shortness of most scenes. Budget is not enough of course and they would definitely have needed 12 episodes instead of 10 to give the grandeur of the books. Hope they will take your idea of the shadow show of Varys et baelish for as long as it can last... no spoiler:)

August 22 2011 at 3:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Someone, please tell me if the child Dany bore was really a petrified dragon or if the godswife changed it from a human baby. This was never explained. Thanks, Gen

July 30 2011 at 7:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Wonderful review, I love the way you get into the heart of each episode and lay it bare. This adaptation of what is one of the most, if not the most, complex series of fantasy novels (and yes I include Lord of the Rings in that claim) has been exceptional.
Yes there's been odd niggles, no battles in the final episode is a great example but, overall, I think it has done a great service to Martin's opening novel both in terms of the actors and actresses casting which, personally, I think has been astonishingly good, but also in the visual portrayal of Westeros.
I only hope that the book virgins go out and buy the lot because, no matter how good this adaptation has been, there is nothing truly as great as reading Martin's words on the page and seeing how masterful a craftsman he is.

July 14 2011 at 11:09 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
slash fashionista

Hi, I just wanted to comment on this part of the review: "what's so effective about this tale is the way it emotionally and psychologically binds you to a whole host of complicated story strands, people and conflicts"

I was wondering what tale the reviewer is talking about, or if there was a liquor or drugs someone could recommend so that I get an even remotely similar sensation from this show. Fire bad, tree pretty, and then dragons wow... What? I missed it. whoosh right over my head.

my friend says "Oh, it's .....complicated." I feel so stupid right now, and my head hurts. Owwww I think i'm getting bound to a game of thrones psychologically and the other way too, maybe!!

July 01 2011 at 4:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The show is amazing, and is one of the few instances I can remember where screenplays did not ruin a book. As for the suggestion that the book series will not be completed, if think that is sad, but truly irrelevant in terms of the show.

If my visit to Westeros ends like my visit to Deadwood, it will be a letdown, but understandable. I will just be grateful that once again, as in the case of Deadwood, I was lucky to see an extraordinary series that held my attention with incredible acting and writing.

July 01 2011 at 1:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David P. Graf

Based upon some additional research, it does not appear that it is set in stone that the series would not continue in the event of Martin's demise. And so, I have to retract that. My apologies.

June 30 2011 at 7:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
David P. Graf

You guys are in for a BIG disappointment. When you consider that Martin thinks that this will be at least a seven book series, you have to recognize that it will never be finished. Given his age, health and lack of productivity, it is simply not possible for Martin to get it done. The real kicker is that Martin has made it clear that no one will be allowed to finish the books in the event of his death. Enjoy the books and the tv show but be ready for the big "kick in the teeth" that Martin is going to give his fans when he leaves the books undone. This is just extrarondary hubris on his part.

June 29 2011 at 12:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's classic hero's journey - go see Kal Bashir's excellent 510+ stage Hero's Journey at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

June 27 2011 at 1:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I've started reading the novel, and it's amazing how closely the show follows the book. And as Maureen mentioned, the scenes in the show really augment the words of the book, and vice versa; the book is almost a screenplay to the season I just watched. Most of the added detail in the book one can quickly glean from the HBO website. The main change made in the show as far as I can tell is that they've added 3-10 years of age to most every character, actor-wise (17 years, in Sean Bean's case).

Amusingly, in the book most refer to the White Walkers as "The Others", a name that has likely been excluded from the TV show because of its now well-known tie-in to "Lost", a show which came well after the book was written.

June 23 2011 at 12:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The changes to Shae are AMAZING. And to Rickon!!! I wonder if GRRM will write him in now that he actually has lines in the SHOW!!! He's so MAGICAL, even more than BRAN!! Wow, and I must admit that it took a while, but now I'm absolutely IN LOVE with Dany's caterpillar-thick, BROWNish eyebrows. I just can't wait to buy stuff to help the dismal CGI. IF there's a place I can donate funds to the CGI and battle-scenes fund, PLEASE let me know it I will send all my left over allowance money, for SERIOUS.

June 22 2011 at 10:50 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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