Created by: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss || Written by: David Benioff, D. B. Weiss, George R. R. Martin, Bryan Cogman, Vanessa Taylor, Dave Hill, Jane Espenson
Directed by: Alan Taylor, Alex Graves, David Nutter, Mark Mylod, Jeremy Podeswa, Daniel Minahan, Michelle MacLaren, Alik Sakharov, Miguel Sapochnik, Neil Marshall || Starring: Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Iain Glen, Kit Harington, Sophie Turner, Maisie Williams, Michelle Fairley, Richard Madden, Alfie Allen, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Jack Gleeson, Rory McCann, Aiden Gillen, Liam Cunningham, Charles Dance, Conleth Hill, Jerome Flynn, Gwendoline Christie, Iwan Rheon, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jacob Anderson
No. of Seasons: 8 || No. of Episodes: 73
I’ve written before how selective I am with television shows. Most shows, be they the serialized, episodic classics of decades past (e.g. Star Trek [1966-1969]) or the long-format narratives that dominant modern pop culture, are considerable time investments, so much so that I remain skeptical of all but the most critically acclaimed, universally beloved franchises. Television shows, unlike feature-length films, are marathons rather than sprints, requiring endurance, patience, and a contractual obligation on the part of viewers to evaluate them in totality, with the benefit of hindsight. To fail to appreciate an ambitious 50-70 hour cinematic narrative as a reaction to, say, an underwhelming (e.g. The X-Files [1993-2002, 2016, 2018], The Wire [2002-2008]) or disastrous (e.g. Penny Dreadful [2014-2016], LOST [2004-2010]) conclusion is to waste not the artists’ time, but one’s own.
The sprawling ensemble cast, diverse characters, ambitious storytelling, and heightened medieval realism of Game of Thrones’ (GoT) world is now the fodder of mainstream pop culture. To say the show’s brutal, violent aesthetic and complex, subversive narrative could only have existed on television, specifically on HBO and specifically during this time period, is a safe bet. Its narrative is too massive, broad, complicated, and at times, bloated to be told outside of a long-format TV series, its source-material too graphic and controversial for any theatrical release, limited or mainstream, and its growing budget too insurmountable for any company but the Home Box Office to tackle in the late 2000s-early 2010s. Not even Netflix had the muscle to risk a project like this in 2008.
GoT’s size and scope in terms of both telewriting and direction are its greatest strengths and weaknesses. Like numerous high-profile TV shows before it, GoT’s massive cast, marathon story, and larger-than-life production values set it apart from all other television while also dooming — or at least handicapping — its ending. The show’s source material, A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIF, 1996-????), by George R. R. Martin, remains two 1,000+ page novels short of completion as of this writing; the author revealed the broad outlines of his planned ending to creators D. B. Weiss and David Benioff (also known as “D & D” or “Dumb and Dumber“) in order for the latter to complete their adaptation. In terms of sheer cinematic risk-taking on the small-screen, only LOST bests GoT. At least GoT had an outline before shooting!
The show’s weaknesses are most obvious in Season 5 and Seasons 7-8. A frequent criticism of the show by ASOIF loyalists and some TV-fans is how the series’ quality dipped after (1) exhausting its published source-material and (2) abbreviating its final two seasons (7 & 8) to seven and six episodes, respectively. I disagree with the first point but sort of agree with the second: GoT’s seasonal quality follows the standard arc of most successful, long-format TV shows in that its first season (10 episodes) is effective if limited by its budget (studios/showrunners don’t invest unlimited money on unproven projects), its middle seasons (Seasons 2-4, 30 episodes) peak in quality once the showrunners hit their filmmaking stride in both writing and direction, and its later seasons (Seasons 5-8, 33 episodes) decline to various extents, depending on which diehard fans you survey.
To me, this predictable arc in telewriting execution seems more a function of standard filmmaking precedent than a “failure” of literary adaptation; furthermore, many critics and fans consider Season 6, based mostly on unpublished ASOIF material, superior to Season 5, based mostly on published ASOIF material. Some even argue Season 6 is one of the better seasons of the show.
My point here is that while the broad, epic narrative of GoT/ASOIF may have deserved additional episodes — especially since HBO was willing to foot the bill — I don’t buy David Benioff and D. B. Weiss running out of published material as the primary reason for the show stumbling at the finish line. Heading into its final season, I anticipated a letdown based on (1) the sheer complexity and scale of the show’s narrative (re: its source material), and (2) my experiences with numerous other high-profile, epic television shows. They always disappoint.
Compared to the complexity of its weaknesses, GoT’s strengths are relatively straightforward. Its direction in both dramatic scenes and major battle sequences is stupendous, with almost no subplot, supporting character, or violent plot twist visually overlooked. Though GoT takes advantage of its diverse cast and intriguing, colorful premise, it’s the series’ visual execution of an otherwise convincing alternative medieval history, intermixed with subdued fantasy elements (e.g. a few set-pieces with dragons and ice-zombies in later seasons, occasional witchcraft and necromancy, etc.), that makes it unique. Big and small-screen projects have flaunted ambitious, thematically dense premises with huge ensemble casts before, both fantasy (e.g. The Lord of the Rings [LOTR, 2001-2003]) and otherwise (e.g. The Wire [2002-2008]); but GoT’s greatest, most impressive feat has always been its subtle yet significant paradigm-shift of contemporary fantasy through visual means.
A superficial aspect of this shift is evident in the show’s extensive use of sex and violence, which can be gratuitous; however, the brutal nature of the series’ warped medieval European culture is convincing and fits with its major characters’ arcs, the series’ broader commentary on geopolitics and warfare, as well as its study of “the human heart in conflict with itself.” The franchise somewhat overplays its hand when it comes to both explicit as well as thematic violence, including sexual violence, but these misfires are the exception to the rule. GoT’s graphic cinematography, from ritualized executions to bloody cavalry charges to explosive dragonfire roasting dozens of extras at a time, is critical to its narrative.
It’s difficult to oversell just how memorable GoT’s production values are, from its numerous SteadiCam long-takes following principle characters in battle to its diverse location-shoots (e.g. Morocco, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Iceland, Croatia, Malta) to its impeccable set-designs to its limited, yet near perfect digital FX; GoT rivals Peter Jackson’s LOTR in terms of seamless integration of practical and digital FX. Its bread and butter, meanwhile, those “boring” dramatic scenes of characters politicking, bribing, seducing, and threatening one another, are as well staged and acted as the artsiest Shakespeare adaptation. Even a scene as simple as characters seating themselves for a council meeting is blocked, staged, lit, and edited for maximum cinematic effect. The exquisite medieval sets behind those characters is almost a bonus. This ain’t no Phantom Menace (1999).
Visual references percolate the series in ways that emphasize overarching series mythology or recall thematic motifs from previous events, or foreshadow future ones. Though the show makes a point of satirizing classical fantasy tropes like prophecies, “chosen ones,” and extensive supernatural phenomena, the series’ limited embellishment of these elements is framed such that reversals of fortune, character deaths, or narrative revelation are stylized with purpose. GoT’s cinematic flourishes are meaningful, unlike, say, Breaking Bad’s (2008-2016) repeated use of point-of-view shots. The briefest handheld camerawork without stabilizing equipment, for example, helps sell the realism of those aforementioned ice-zombies in one of the series’ best episodes and my personal favorite, Hardhome.
Working in conjunction with the show’s powerful direction are (1) its acting-direction and (2) its music. The latter includes character motifs, noble house themes, pulse-pounding action symphonies, as well as clever emotional subversions of horrific on-screen violence (e.g. The Hold Steady’s “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” Ramin Djawadi’s “Light of the Seven” and “The Night King“). Make no mistake when I say Djawadi’s work complements the series’ visuals the way Howard Shore’s did for LOTR; it’s that effective. The former pertains to how often numerous characters ramble on extended monologues, which might feel cheesy or ridiculous if not for how well the actors deliver them. The cast, from Peter Dinklage to Liam Cunningham to Lena Heady to Aidan Gillen, chew their period dialogue like champions and put countless pandering “Oscar-moments” to shame. There’s theatrical dialogue, and then there’s the execution from GoT’s cast.
The lone major weakness of the show that has nothing to do with its unwieldy source material or D&D’s adapted teleplays is Emilia Clarke. This may be an unpopular assessment, but Clarke’s portrayal as the co-lead of one of the show’s major subplots is lacking. Her storyline’s lack of tone, emotion, and gravitas is almost exclusively a function of her limited range, unable to portray emotions beyond either (A) meekness or (B) fuming rage (i.e. the extremes of actors’ emotional range). How her performance inversely correlates with the show’s overall quality — meaning she’s decent in Seasons 1, 7, and 8, but quite bad in Seasons 3-6) — is the show’s biggest in-joke. If not for her subplot’s brilliant digital FX and calculated portrayal of her character’s dragons, no one would’ve given two shits about her storyline until it finally, finally merged with the bulk of the regular cast in Season 7.
In summary, whether you believe the series peaked in Season 3 or Season 6, or that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss should’ve handed the reins to other showrunners after Season 5, Game of Thrones is a monumental filmmaking achievement. My crediting the visual prowess of the show’s directors over its telewriters or even its cast may irk some, but I argue the franchise’s success as a television phenomenon remains, like all cinematic projects, most dependent on its visual execution. Discussion over controversial adaptation decisions made in the writers’ room will continue for years to come, but the consistent audiovisual strengths of the show speak for themselves.
The series gave us 70 hours worth of dramatic fantasy, heightened medieval allegory, and cinematic spectacle comparable to the best of Hollywood. Its production values alone are impressive, but its juxtaposition of those elements against its impeccable cinematic drama are what make it an essential piece of modern filmmaking. Was its ultimate climax disappointing? Yes. Could I recommend a project more? Hell, no.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: When your show produces career-best performances from the likes of Charles Dance and Sean Bean, and transforms over half a dozen unknowns (e.g. Gwendoline Christie, Maisie Williams, Sophie Turner, Kit Harington, Emlia Clarke, Alfie Allen, Nicolaj Caoster-Waldau) into bona fide stars, you must be doing something right. Combine that with nearly a dozen blockbuster action sequences, a captivating series mythology, and an unforgettable soundtrack, and you have the defining television experience of the 2010s.
— However… production issues as a result of accelerated pacing in the series’ final two seasons, as well as sloppy decision-making on the part of creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, undercut Game of Thrones‘ epic conclusion. Emilia Clark’s hamstrung Daenerys Targaryen, a series favorite, is also the show’s most consistent weak link.
—> Game of Thrones receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? Who knows when we’ll have another series to rival this? And so, my watch begins…