A good number of months ago I made the plunge and cut the cable of having a traditional TV service. What I thought might be something that could take some getting used to, pretty much instantly turned into a freeing experience of paying far less money in my monthly bills and not spending so much time staring at time filler nonsense on the big, hypnotic screen in my living room. I didn’t miss dealing with companies like Comcast or Direct TV at all. Well, I missed one thing. I missed HBO’s original programming. And when I heard that they were debuting a new show based on those George R.R. Martin novels I read and liked a while back, well that sealed it; I needed to get myself some access to HBO. Luckily I frequent the services of a delightful bartender who has been letting me come over to her place and watch Game of Thrones off of her DVR. This is really the sort of show that makes having television worth it, and one of the last things that cable companies are desperately holding onto to try and keep subscribers.

For the past few weeks I’ve had a number of things jump in the way of me keeping up with the show, first some illness, and then some tornado related power outages; so this week I found myself with the daunting task of catching up with three episodes. The thought crossed my mind that I might be too far behind, that squeezing in three packed full episodes of a dense show like this might be more than I wanted to handle. But I shouldn’t have worried. Game of Thrones has proven to be such an entertaining and skillful adaptation of Martin’s novel of the same name that I plowed through these three episodes, enraptured, in one sitting, no problem. Even with my bartender’s toddler climbing all over me and throwing pull-ups at my head.

Ep. 7: “You Win or You Die”

The seventh episode of this series finally introduced us to Tywin Lannister, father of Tyrion, Cersei, and Jaime; probably three of the most messed up and evil siblings you’re ever going to come across over the history of both literature and television. And the scene where we meet him, where he skins a huge animal while dictating to his son Jaime, was an effective and awesome glimpse into who this man is and how important he is going to become to the story later on. He’s so calm, pragmatic, and in control over the course of the scene. Jaime is a character who’s displayed endless bravado to this point, but clearly he sits in supplication to his father. In one scene it’s made clear how each of his children sprung from his loins, what characteristics he’s passed down to them, and how his rearing has nurtured their personalities. He combines all of the most dangerous aspect of his children into a sort of evil version of Batman. Tywin has Tyrion’s intelligence, Cersei’s lack of compassion, and Jaime’s fighting spirit. After meeting him, you can’t help but feel for the Northern armies that are going to have to face him in battle.

The other big scene we get in this episode is a lesbian sex scene in which Petyr Baelish instructs a couple of young prostitutes in the tricks of their trade. Oh my, it was graphic. Probably the most graphic sex scene I’ve seen in anything outside of pornography, and it felt very purposely crafted to get attention and start people talking. But despite that, I still thought it was pretty damn effective. The dialogue was rich with double meanings and thematics, Aidan Gillen continued to own it with his portrayal of Baelish, and it even offered up a bit of an explanation for Baelish’s “betrayal” of Ned Stark at the end of the episode. I put betrayal in quotes, because Baelish did indeed warn Ned on several occasions not to trust him, and never even really went too far in portraying himself as being on Ned’s side. Regardless, when all is said and done, it certainly does feel like Stark was properly fucked.

The other big event of this episode was the death of King Robert and its consequences. Robert’s death is a good example of the way Game of Thrones can completely pull the rug out from under you. For most of the season it seems like we’re building a division in Robert’s world, a break between his wife and his best friend, and it feels like the victor of the skirmish is going to be whoever manages to get and keep the King on their side. But then Robert goes and gets killed, practically off screen, and leaves the entire show in a state of upheaval. Truly, he died as he lived, drunk, stupid, and blind to the consequences of his actions. And Ned, despite all of his efforts, can’t help but play the situation completely wrong. Cersei calmly told him early in the episode, “When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.” But Ned never seems quite capable of accepting that. He is used to doing his fighting out on a battlefield, sword in hand. His sense of honor leaves him completely incapable of dealing with people like Cersei Lannister and Petyr Baelish.

Ep. 8: “The Pointy End”

Episode 8, probably the most quickly paced of the entire season, went passed me in a blur. I don’t think there were many characters or many locations, if any, left out of this episode; but it all progressed smoothly and felt natural. While earlier episodes very much felt like several different stories happening concurrently, this one adeptly brought all of the disparate characters in all of the disparate lands into one coherent whole. It really felt like all of the final setup before the series went into the big finish of the season. What stood out for me most though, were three duels. The first was Drogo’s big fight with the man who didn’t take kindly to Daenerys depriving the Dothraki of slave women to rape. For the first time ever, Jason Momoa was really able to show some personality as Drogo. And it makes sense that it would come in battle, the place where Drogo feels the most at home. His steely resolve when getting a blade dug into his chest, his flashy moves when taking on a blade wielding man, and the brutal way in which he cuts the man’s throat with his own weapon and then rips out all of his gizzards with a bare hand all added up to an awesome fight scene that really let Momoa shine as an action star. Suddenly I’m excited for Conan, and it’s because of nothing that film has done to promote itself.

The second fight that hit me hard was when the Lannister men came for Arya Stark and her sword instructor Syrio stepped in to fend them off with nothing more than a wooden practice blade. Miltos Yerolemou has been a delight playing Syrio, and his practice sessions, which might have played like time wasting check-ins, were always some of my favorite scenes in every episode they appeared. Not only did he color the character of Syrio with charm, his performance went a long way in making sure we cared about Arya Stark as well. He was a real gem for this show, and it was nice seeing him get a big moment to face down the Lannister men, even if it was rather heart breaking.

Finally, I was ecstatic to see Jon Snow fight off the White Walker who comes alive and attacks the Maester in his quarters. Snow was always one of my very favorite characters when I was reading the books, and it really feels like he’s been getting short shrift in this series. I had a better sense of his concern over his uncle in the novels, and the way in which he helps the Nights Watch come together as a brotherhood felt more fleshed out there. Here, when we go to The Wall, it just feels like a duty we have to check in. Finally, all of that changed with this fight sequence. The White Walker was creepy and dangerous, the way he kept coming after getting limbs cut off was downright scary; and the resolution in which Jon thought fast enough to take him out with fire showed what a resourceful and strong character he can be. I left this episode feeling much more confident about his place in the show.

Episode 9: “Baelor”

The ninth episode of Game of Thrones hits like a ton of bricks, and might be my favorite of the series. Only “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” comes close to matching it for me. Mostly it’s all about a gigantic death in the series, one that I didn’t see coming when I was reading the books, and one I can’t imagine many people following the story on this show for the first time saw coming either; but before that there were a couple other scenes that felt pretty important. Namely, the little slumber party we get between Tyrion, Bronn, and the prostitute Shae, the scene in which Jon talks about family vs. duty with Maester Aemon, who reveals that he is actually a Targaryen, the scene where Catelyn bargains with the creepy Walder Frey to let her son’s army cross his river, and the scene where Daenerys makes a deal with the devil to save an at death’s door Khal Drogo; which involved yet another graphically violent thing happening to a horse.

The scene with Tyrion further solidified his position as an anti-hero, and really made me feel for him when his father sent him out to battle. Of all the Lannisters, it’s Tyrion who is the most inherently sympathetic, and I enjoyed seeing him use his manipulative powers to put together a makeshift army and get a victory over a portion of Stark’s forces. The talk Snow has with Targaryen went a long way in making the Watch’s fight with the White Walkers feel less like a B plot, and it even offered a stronger connection to the things Daenerys is going through overseas; another subplot that can tend to feel disconnected with the rest of the show. The scene with Frey and Catelyn was fun to watch just to see David Bradley’s awesomely creepy performance as the lecherous old man, and to see how far Catelyn is willing to go in order to achieve a Stark victory. And the scene with a dying Drogo, a witch slitting a horse’s throat over his bed, and a perhaps miscarrying Daenerys getting pulled into the death tent proved to be a scary, dangerous scene that throws everything about a Dothraki invasion of Westeros into question. There’s also the matter of a newly assertive Robb Stark defeating and capturing Jaime Lannister in battle.

But all of that seems like a footnote when compared to the big death that closes out the episode. When it happens it comes as a shock. If there was any character that felt bulletproof it was the default protagonist of Ned Stark played by the biggest actor in the cast Sean Bean. But, despite the surprise, as soon as it happens you’re left with the realization that everything that has gone on throughout the whole season has been building up to this. It’s felt like we have been heading toward big wars, big battles, for control of large swaths of land. But with Ned’s death we realize that we have no idea what we’ve been building towards. This show can and will drop the bottom out from under us with little warning. Entire kingdoms can be taken over in a second, with the signing of a paper, a knife in the back, or the rash proclamation of a child. Ned Stark was a relic, a noble warrior who meets his enemies face to face and fights them fairly. There is no room for that in the world of Game of Thrones. He refused to kill Daenerys Targaryen, he wouldn’t move first against Cersei and her children; Ned Stark had too many scruples to survive in this world and he was doomed just by trying to live in it. “When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.” Ned was the classic hero standing in the way of this proclamation coming true. Now that he is dead, the games can truly begin. And there’s no way of predicting which way any of this is going to go.

Click here to read the rest of our Game of Thrones season one coverage


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