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You may have heard that “Game of Thrones” is returning to HBO on July 16. To prepare for Season 7, we’re reviewing and reassessing the first six seasons of the show, with the benefit of hindsight. Each article will have spoilers for all six seasons. We’ll look at Season 2 next week.
“Well, this curious show is finely wrought,” an HBO viewer might have mused way back in 2011, “but will fans of ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Mad Men’ ever give dragons, icy zombies and magic a chance?”
‘Game of Thrones’
Where to watch: HBO
We know the answer now, but it’s easy to forget that such skepticism was fairly common in the early days of “Game of Thrones.” A network known for prestige antiheroes had just given many millions of dollars to unproven showrunners for what was, at first blush, a naughty Ren Faire featuring innumerable characters with un-spellable names in an impenetrable story fueled by indecipherable grudges, wars and myths. (“If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort,” The Times wrote.)
Things worked out O.K. What’s striking now is how coherent the vision for such a sprawling tale was from its very beginning. Look no further than the opening moments of the premiere episode, written by the series creators, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss.
In that first scene, a group of luckless rangers from Castle Black encounter the White Walkers, the ur-villains of the show, who in quick order reveal their existence, their annihilating tendencies and their zombifying M.O. (A murdered girl reappears shortly after her corpse was discovered, reanimated with eyes of electric blue.) It’s a brief moment of terror before the story moves on to politics and power grabs, efficiently setting up the stakes of the story as well as it’s central allegory — about the destructive folly of fighting wars over furniture in the face of a true mortal threat.
Subtler hints about the future come later in the episode when we get glimpses of the stubborn, single-minded morality that will lead to Ned Stark’s demise; the back story on his dead sister, Lyanna; and signs that the Starks and Lannisters are heading for a showdown.
The fuse on that clash, which will define the first three seasons of the show, is lit in the final scene, when Bran Stark’s spidery wanderings lead first to twincestus interruptus and then to Jaime Lannister’s shoving him out a window. It was the first example of the sort of “OMG” moment that became the show’s calling card.
In Kings Landing, Ned, hired by the eternally drunk Robert Baratheon to be his “hand of the king,” finds himself surrounded by crooked maesters (Pycelle), slippery operators (Varys), a Machiavellian coveter of his wife (Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish) and Jaime, a real villain in the early days. But all pale in comparison to Queen Cersei, Ned’s true foil, especially after he learns that Robert’s kids were actually sired by Cersei’s brother Jaime, which threatens the Lannisters’ path to the throne — as well as the lives of both the lovers and their children.
After Robert is plied with wine by the young Lancel Lannister and then mortally wounded by a boar, Ned is betrayed by Littlefinger and imprisoned for treason by the newly minted King Joffrey Baratheon. The family feud breaks into open warfare as Robb Stark leads a northern coalition force against armies commanded by Tywin and Jaime Lannister.
With a possible treaty in the offing, Joffrey surprises everyone by having Ned executed, sending the war into another gear and Ned’s daughter Arya out of Kings Landing, disguised as a boy.
Up north, Jon Snow is disillusioned by the gap between the glory he sought at the Wall and the ragtag reality of his Night’s Watch colleagues, who resent his highborn status and haughty attitude. But soon the pouting emo-bastard begins to embrace his inner leader, training his comrades and otherwise adapting to life at Castle Black. By season’s end, he has the sword and the trust of Commander Mormont and is heading beyond the Wall with his “broothas” to investigate the White Walker threat.
In the East, a horse lord and his lady embark on a mission that, several seasons later, after plenty of fits, starts and stalls, will lead to a stirring sea-crossing in pursuit of the “Iron Chair.”
One of the two won’t make it. Khal Drogo’s death is only part of the punishing education of Daenerys Targaryen, who is also pimped by her loathsome brother, raped on her wedding night, targeted by an assassin, tricked by a witch and abandoned by her tribe. And that’s all before she walks into a bonfire. But by the end of the season, it is clear that the great game has one more serious player.
Season 1 in Six Scenes
Meet the White Walkers
It’s easy to forget that the first scene of “Game of Thrones” has nothing to do with games or thrones.
Bran’s Big Plunge
And why does almost no one outside Castle Black pay attention to the White Walker threat? Aside from the fact that the creatures have receded into folklore, everyone is too focused on the war between the Lannisters and the Starks to worry about ice monsters. That war starts here.
Tyrion Taken Prisoner
The war gets real when Ned’s wife, Catelyn Stark, who has evidence that Lannisters were behind a second attempt on Bran’s life, makes an impulsive citizen’s arrest of Tyrion Lannister in a northern tavern. This relatively brief scene escalates the conflict; exemplifies the clan-based power structure that defines the show’s world (as banner men rally to her support); leads to Tyrion’s being revealed as a cagey, softhearted operator beneath his dissipated surface; and — let’s be honest — highlights Catelyn’s penchant for lousy decision-making.
You Win or You Die
Ned the noble squares off with Cersei the shrewd. Guess who wins.
Ned Loses His Head
The hero of the story has his head chopped off before the first season is over. Trust no one.
Here There Be Dragons
Dany’s arc is dramatic, going from subjugated youth to horse-lord equal to burning, fire-walking mother of dragons. Plausibly dramatic? I don’t know. But it does reveal the Dragon Queen playbook: Adapt, subvert the expectations of arrogant men, and turn a vulnerability into a position of strength. In the final scene of the season, she emerges unburnt from Drogo’s funeral pyre with new babies to replace the one she lost, and with a new formidableness, which she’ll use to wander around for a while.
Gone, but Not Forgotten
Ned Stark — The great soldier and upstanding family man was too decent and guileless for Kings Landing diplomacy.
Viserys Targaryen — He was no dragon.
King Robert Baratheon — Another warrior unsuited for politics, the Falstaffian monarch fathered kids everywhere except his own house.
Khal Drogo — Undone by blind loyalty to the moon of his life, he sustained a mortal wound defending Dany’s honor. He was briefly brought back in a vegetative state until his wife mercy-smothered him.
Lady — The first dire wolf to go, Sansa Stark’s pet was executed after Arya’s wolf, Nymeria, bit Joffrey and ran away.
Gone and Somewhat Forgotten
Jon Arryn — The death of the hand of the king led to Ned’s appointment and, in effect, kicked off the entire story. Several seasons later, we learn that he was killed not by the Lannisters, as suggested, but by his nutty wife, Lysa, at the behest of Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish.
Mycah the butcher’s boy — His was a fleeting appearance with a long legacy. His murder by the Hound, at Joffrey’s behest, planted the first seed of vengeance — and the first name — in Arya’s hard little heart.
Syrio Forel — The water-dancing sword trainer arrived to instruct Arya and was apparently killed by Meryn Trant. This happened offscreen, however, so who knows? (This being “Game of Thrones,” theories about his fate abound online.)
• From the first episode, when King Robert visits her crypt, Lyanna Stark is a ghost haunting the story, though her significance isn’t fully understood until she is revealed in the Season 6 finale to be the mother of Jon Snow. “Your sister was a corpse, and I was a living girl, and he loved her more than me,” Cersei tells Ned.
• Though best remembered as a prime example of the show’s “sexposition” strategy (see below), Littlefinger’s brothel monologue about charming the powerful and manipulating events from the shadows functions as a confession. Not just of his upcoming betrayal of Ned Stark, but also of his centrality to the story — we later learn that he orchestrated the convulsive murders of both Jon Arryn and Joffrey — and his grandiose ambitions. What do you want? the prostitute Ros asks him. “Oh, everything, my dear,” he replies. “Everything there is.”
• “Robb will free father, and they’ll come back with mother,” Bran says. “No they won’t,” his little brother, Rickon, responds. It’s perhaps Rickon’s only meaningful moment on the show, aside from his death in Season 6.
Looking Ahead, Ineptly
• “Next time we see each other, we’ll talk about your mother.” — Ned Stark, to Jon Snow.
• “You are my darling boy, and the world will be exactly as you want it to be.” — Cersei, to Joffrey.
• “He’s like a little brother to me, Ned. He would never betray my trust.” — Catelyn Stark, on Littlefinger
• “I’ll never be cruel to you again.” — Joffrey, to Sansa.
Adventures in Sexposition
Critics coined the term “sexposition” to describe the show’s tendency, especially in the early seasons, to have characters outline chunks of the story as naked people linger or frolic nearby (often the prostitute Ros). Some of the most egregious examples (Google at your own risk):
• Tyrion explains the Lannisters before a dalliance with Ros.
• Theon explains the Ironborn after a dalliance with Ros.
• Pycelle explains Westeros kings after a dalliance with Ros.
• Viserys explains dragon history during a dalliance with a prostitute.
• Littlefinger explains his worldview while coaching prostitutes (including Ros).
Please join us next week when we revisit Seasons 2 and 3. If not, we’re telling mother.