The biggest problem with much high fantasy work is that it’s unoriginal. It often turns into nothing more than a blend of tropes borrowed from Tolkien and handed down through sources like Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, and other book series like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. This series, at least in its first season, is a prime example of that problem, as it so severely lacks in originality that it was unlikely to be worth watching from the outset. There are ways to survive such a problem–usually either by just being very, very good at what you’re doing (like Tolkien) or by using the tropes to do something fundamentally different (like Terry Pratchett), but this series was not able to do either, instead relying on its predictable tropes and heavy doses of violence and nudity to carry it.
The core story is emblematic of the problems that plague the series: it’s a medieval battle for power between an entitled brat of a king and the powerful lords who rule their states (for lack of a better word) under him. It’s a trope of the genre (For example, it is hardly different from the plot of World of Warcraft.), and it’s a trope that annoys me often because it ends up being an excuse to show lots and lots of battles with hardly any story. So far, the series has avoided that problem, but the battle scenes become increasingly common as the season progresses to the point that one has to expect them to go further in the future. Instead, the series has focused on setting up future fights by giving us glimpses of why all of these leading families can’t stand each other and setting up another contender to the crown who is rather separated from the fighting currently occurring.
However, this other contender, Daenerys Targaryen, also has a story that is nothing more than a series of fantasy tropes. Her brother claims to be the heir to the throne and sells her off to a powerful warrior tribe and they blather on about various ancient mysticism, including the now-extinct dragons, while she carries around mysterious scaly-looking eggs everywhere. And yet, the series expects us to be excited and amazed when the eggs hatch and turn out to be horrendous CGI dragons. When you’re following tropes so clearly and obviously, you cannot use the obvious revelation at the end of the trope as some sort of powerful, great moment, but this show tried to.
Meanwhile, the show is riddled with relatively inconsequential plots that are also nothing more than fantasy tropes. We have a headstrong, rebellious daughter of nobility who wants to live by the sword instead of the tea cup and is one of the few people in this world with any sense of morality who is then forced to pretend to be a boy in order to survive after her father’s execution. It’s not only an obvious and often told story, but it’s one that is used in fantasy in order to make it appeal to 13-year-old girls, a demographic that is unlikely to be of too much importance to a series with as much sex and violence as this one. We have a little person of noble birth who is treated as something less than a person by his family who of course turns out to be the smartest and most capable person in the family, as well as one of the few likable characters on the show. He of course can see everything that’s going wrong because of his outsider’s perspective and is quickly established as a hero for the viewers. The Spoiled Brat King is actually the product of an incestuous extramarital affair between the queen and her brother, so of course the nominal hero of the first season, Ned Stark, discovers her treachery and tries to save the kingdoms only to end up beheaded. Nothing here is original.
The one point of some originality is yet another plot thread involving Jon Snow, the bastard son of a noble father who attempts to establish himself of a higher standing by joining the mysterious guards of the Wall, a literal wall that separates the inhabited lands we otherwise see from some sort of great danger to the north. Snow’s story is a series of tropes otherwise, but the existence of the wall and the mysterious danger to the north is the most intriguing aspect of the series so far, because it’s odd and unique. However, the show obviously doesn’t know that, because it barely mentions the great danger and doesn’t give any kind of hints at what it is. It’s unfortunate, because it leaves the only unique aspect of the setting as nothing more than backdrop.
Hopefully, by this point everyone also sees another problem this show has: it has approximately nine million plot threads at once. I’m sure the reason is that it’s following a complex book series, but it’s annoying and confusing for the viewer having to try to remember so many plots at once and having to jump between them with seemingly no logic at all.
Visually, the show is unsurprisingly unimaginative. I often say this, but it’s true that the entire list of visually interesting television shows that I have ever seen is as follows: Breaking Bad. So, it’s difficult to hold it against the show that it’s unimaginative visually, but that would have been a way to make up for the unimaginative, predictable storytelling.
However, I do feel the need to point out that the dragons really were awful. It’s not just that they were CGI, it’s that they were really cheesy, bad CGI. CGI isn’t a good thing to use unless it’s absolutely necessary anyway, but if you’re going to use it, at least make sure you do a good job. The worst part is that there were plenty of obvious, sensible ways to make the dragons look better. They were crawling on top of Daenerys in the husk of a burned-out building, so why not just allow the ashen building to smoke enough to obscure the view a bit? (Of course, the real reason why not is because they wanted to show Emilia Clarke naked and the smoke might also obscure that, but let’s pretend there is some artistic thought here for a second.) It’s lazy direction that makes the CGI even worse than it had to be.
One thing that can be said for this show is that the acting was quite good. The actors generally did not have to show much complex emotion or depth. Sean Bean was essentially the lone exception as someone who had to show widely varying emotions and at times had to show a complex mix, and he turned out to be surprisingly capable. However, nearly everyone else acquitted himself or herself quite well with what little s/he had to do. Even 14-year-old Maisie Williams performed perfectly well. Lena Headey and Michelle Fairley have some weak moments when they really overplay their parts, but it’s difficult to hold that against someone in a high fantasy world.
Overall, this is a show worth missing. I’m not a crazy fantasy fan, but anyone who looks at the “What I’m Reading Now” box can tell I read more than my share of it, and I’m an inveterate RPG-er. That background makes this show seem remarkably stale, as it repeats every trope in the fantasy book without doing anything new, and it doesn’t do them so well that it makes up for its own lack of originality.
I’m out on this show after one season.