The heir to an ancient exiled dynasty marries his sister to the leader of a savage warrior society, in return for their support in his effort to regain his father’s throne. The heir is soon killed, while his sister rises to become the warrior leader. Along the way she survives the flames that give birth to three dragons, captures several cities and builds a legion of soldiers willing to die at her bidding.
This is just one thread of the serpentine plot of Game of Thrones (GoT), HBO’s sumptuous television production of G.R.R. Martin’s sequence of fantasy novels, A Song of Ice and Fire. Season 4 will premiere in the US on April 6, and is likely to rapidly make its way to international audiences, given it was the most pirated TV show of 2013. If you’ve only just made acquaintance with this series, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
Packed with princesses, poisoners and imprisonment, torture, battle and betrayal, Game of Thrones is a hyper-realist fantasy adventure. It’s a complex and compelling epic romance of mystery and magic – imbued with the unflinching reminder that “everyone dies”.
GoT features a panoply of treacherous denizens, driven to gain possession and control of a land called Westeros amid an atmosphere thick with intrigue.
As the story follows a group of powerful families battling for possession and control, GoT also becomes a family drama, with its interwoven tales of loyalty, duty and betrayal, legitimate and illegitimate heirs, rivalry between siblings, alliances and enmity between clans, with generous servings of perfidy and skulduggery.
In the final analysis, though, this is a story of loss and vulnerability, in which even the most powerful cannot always protect their own. None of the characters is spared from violence or suffering: not the loyal, gentle and kind, nor even those who are determined to bring peace and order to Westeros. Often it is only through guile and deflection that the good may escape a gory end and live to fight another day.
The canvas of GoT is as vast as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, with affairs straddling a continent and armies clashing for a stake at the throne. There are families and factions galore, with shifting allegiances reminiscent of Frank Herbert’s Dune.
But Westeros owes as much to the English Wars of the Roses as retold in the plays of William Shakespeare as it does to the epic works of Tolkien and Frank Herbert. Equally Shakespearean in its portrayal of flawed or fated leaders and the fortunes of their all-too-often luckless followers, the harsh terms of existence GoT offers its characters moreover reflects all-too-familiar values and attitudes that can be found in the way we live now.
Yes, sentiment and tenderness are scarce in this dark epic – but GoT remains one of the most original, intensely imagined, superbly designed and powerfully performed fiction adaptations brought to the small screen.
Its stellar Season 3 viewer ratings put the show on the same footing as HBO’s television top-rating TV drama, The Sopranos.
The characters are well-rounded, complex and eminently compelling. They are brought to life by an outstanding cast that includes Charles Dance, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Sean Bean, Nikolaj Koster-Waldau, Emilia Clark, Iain Glen and Aiden Gillen.
So – here’s a brief guide to the story so far, with a warning, in case it’s not screamingly obvious: here be spoilers.
Where fate plays no favourites
The TV series compacts the key events in Martin’s original narrative, but still covers a vast and diverse territorial scope.
The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros range from the arid mountains of Dorne in the south to the frozen wastes of the bitter north. Across the Narrow Sea to the east lies the continent of Essos, inhabited by nomadic Dothraki tribesmen.
The capital of Westeros is King’s Landing, the prize coveted by each of the contenders for the Iron Throne. Once ruled by Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King, the throne has been seized by Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) years before our story begins, with the help of the Lannisters and the Starks. A bombastic sot, Baratheon has married Cersei (Lena Headey), daughter of Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance), forming a miserable strategic alliance that produces three children.
His death while hunting enables the ruthless Lannisters to take the throne in the name of Baratheon’s son Joffrey. But the House Lannister’s hold on power is challenged by Robert’s son Renly (Gethin Anthony), his brother Stannis (Stephen Dillane) and Robb Stark (Richard Madden), who each believes he has a claim to the throne.
A fourth contender emerges from the east: Daenarys Targaryen (Emilia Clark), last descendent of the old royal line, leader of thousands, whose sole aim is to see herself enthroned.
The Lannisters have one redeeming family member, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage). Son of a harsh Macchiavellian patriarch, Tyrion is educated, intelligent, crafty and mostly able to look after himself. Yet he is a dwarf, the butt of courtly humour and a constant disappointment to his father.
He survives by cultivating the air of a debauchee, whoring, gambling and drinking his life away. It’s hard to tell whether this rakishness is the cause of Tywin’s disappointment or the result. Unlike many of the characters in GoT, Tyrion is honorable, sympathetic, right-doing and surprisingly chivalrous.
Except for his stature he has the makings of a good and wise king … and is thus eligible for an early grave. There is a little of Robert Graves’ Claudius in Tyrion.
The women of Westeros
Tyrion’s sister, the fierce and passionate Cersei, loves only their brother, Jaime (Nikolaj Koster-Waldau) and her children. She is mother to the underage King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), an unintelligent, sadistic coward with far too much power for his own good.
When King’s Landing is besieged, Joffrey flees in advance of the impending threat. His uncle Tyrion is left to defend the town, devise a stratagem to beat the odds, and go forth to face the enemy in battle.
Women hold their own in the Seven Kingdoms, be it on the battlefield or in the intrigues of state.
Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons, garners great respect and loyalty, growing from a bartered bride to the commander of faithful armies, as she steers course towards the Iron Throne of Westeros.
She is shrewd, resourceful and remarkably ruthless when necessary.
Just as spirited is warrior maiden Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie), who takes on the man’s world of knightly battle. Her prowess with the sword is indubitable. She is tall and strong, stubborn and loyal: noble knight in all respects except gender.
Tasked with returning Jaime Lannister to King’s Landing, Brienne’s resolve is unswerving. A rapport of mutual respect develops between captor and captive as they draw closer to their destination, but fate intervenes.
There’s something rotten in the state of Westeros
However attached you become to likeable characters in GoT, you’ll often find them cut down in the prime of your appreciation. The taciturn Ned Stark (Sean Bean), lord of Winterfell, is a model of valour. He dutifully becomes chancellor for King Robert Baratheon – only to fall victim of palace plotting and lose his head.
Stark’s son, Robb, leads a growing army to wreak vengeance for the wrongful death of the lord of Winterfell. He too is heroic, successfully taking his forces south, but is betrayed and slaughtered at a dinner held in his honour.
One after another in GoT, the good fall and the venal triumph, leaving the audience to pick up the shards of hope and look for another worthy figure to cheer on.
But life is not all harsh realism in Westeros. There are also arcane and supernatural agencies at work.
Dragons lend Daenerys Targaryen an air of noble magnificence, while Melisandre, priestess of the lord of light, gives birth to a horrific creature which destroys the well-loved royal claimant Renly Baratheon.
In the far north, beyond the Wall, menacing forces are mustering. Martin’s great wall seems gargantuan and invulnerable, but breaches are beginning to occur. The soldiers of the Night’s Watch, a dwindling troop of black-clad outcasts gathered from the Seven Kingdoms, stand guard against a savage band of outlaws known as the Wildlings.
More disturbing, lurking in the icy northern wastes, are the White Walkers, unstoppable wraiths that devastated Westeros so long ago they now seem mythical. While the kingdoms dissipate their energies in internecine wrangling, the Night’s Watch are abandoned to wait for what will be unleashed when winter comes.
Game of Thrones makes for gripping viewing, packed with dastardly plots, desperate deeds, astonishing feats and ignoble rulers.
Sit back, relax, be prepared to lose your favourite characters before season’s end, but also to see a few of the most knavish get their just deserts. This is a twisty tale told tortuously and you are bound to get more than your fill of guilty pleasures.