The much-anticipated second season of the HBO original production Game of Thrones hits screens in Taiwan tomorrow. For fans of the books by George R.R. Martin, nothing more needs to be said. Season 1 set the high watermark for any kind of fantasy adventure on television, and the attention to detail and high quality of both cast and script rival even the most high profile of cinematic releases. Lord of the Rings look to your laurels.
Season 2 draws most of its material from the book Clash of Kings, the second in Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, which now stands at five books, with two more in the works. The story centers on a power struggle between a number of noble families in the land of Westeros, but extends to other more distant lands. As with deeply imagined fantasy worlds such as Middle Earth, the disputes between clans and peoples draw on a complex backstory that is only gradually explained.
The production approaches this fantasy world with all the seriousness of an historical drama, a major factor that distinguishes it from genre fantasy epics from Conan the Barbarian to Prince of Persia, which, while enjoyable entertainment if you like that sort of thing, make no claim to be taken seriously. Indeed, Game of Thrones rivals the kind of historical conviction achieved only by the best historical dramas, and its style draws comparison with another HBO original series, Rome, which traced the rise of the emperor Augustus from the ruins of Julius Ceaser’s empire.
The second season maintains the same high standard of Season 1, but it faces a much more difficult task, and those coming to Game of Thrones for the first time are likely to be left floundering. Eddard Stark, played by Sean Bean, anchored Season 1 around the story of the Stark family. He was beheaded by King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), the first successful claimant to the throne of Westeros, who now maintains an uneasy rule, with two of his uncles and Stark’s eldest son Robb all mounting military campaigns against him.
The beheading of Eddard Stark has left Season 2 without an anchor, and though a viewing of the first few episodes suggests that the producers envisage this role being taken over by Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, a wonderful supporting role in Season 1 that won the actor both an Emmy and a Golden Globe, the series starts out all at sea. As good as Dinklage is, there is simply too much going on. And with such a host of new characters being introduced in the first couple of hours, the structure initially seems a complete mess.
That said, for anyone familiar with the books and thus able to make the necessary connections for themselves, it is impossible not to applaud the painstaking detail with which the producers have realized many key scenes from the books.
In Rome, HBO hit on a formula of overlaying a lavish historical drama with the sexual innuendo and graphic sex of Desperate Housewives, and then throwing in some really meaty violence for good measure. An attempt was made to repeat this formula with The Tudors, with less success, and then with Spartacus: Blood and Sand, in which the sex and violence overwhelmed what there was of a story. (Neither of these was an HBO original production.) Game of Thrones is a return to form for the formula, offering audiences complex characters in carefully tangled situations, and when breasts are bared (as they are quite often) or limbs hacked off (also not uncommon), it seems no more than a gritty depiction of a harsh world rather than gratuitous pandering to our lower appetites.
It should be noted that the baring of flesh in Game of Thrones is definitely equal opportunity exploitation, as the men show off as much as the women, and there are sections of very frank sexual talk that might flip the switch for audiences of either sex. A gay/bisexual theme, sketched out in Season 1 is brought to full bedroom explicitness in the relationship between Renly Baratheon (Gethin Anthony), who claims the title King of Westeros, and Ser Loras Tyrell, Knight of the Flowers (Finn Jones).
Moreover, many commentators have pointed to the number of strong female characters in Game of Thrones, a significant difference from Tolkien’s largely male-dominated fantasy world. Michelle Fairley’s portrayal of Catelyn Stark, Eddard’s wife, and Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, a queen without kingdom, whose wondering in the wilderness takes Game of Thrones to other exotic locations, are strong carryovers from Season 1, and one cannot but be intrigued by new characters such as Gwendoline Christie as Brienne of Tarth and Carice van Houten as the priestess Melisandre.
As interesting as Martin’s books are, the quality of the writing can sometimes be disappointing, but the HBO series is able to give his ideas an impressive visual realization. For the ins-and-outs of the plot, it is advisable to take a quick look through the books before becoming utterly bewildered by the machine-gun barrage of characters and plot points that may easily turn new viewers away from an otherwise excellent TV series.