>>James Poniewozik, The New York Times
Published: 2019-04-13 14:31:10 BdST
The warring factions of Westeros have convened a truce to discuss the frosty-cold un-dead army of the White Walkers approaching from the north. It reunites characters with deep history who have been separated for ages: Brienne (Gwendoline Christie) and the Hound (Rory McCann); the Hound and the Mountain (Hafthor Julius Bjornsson); Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn); Tyrion and Cersei (Lena Headey).
Friendships are reaffirmed; old grievances are reopened; negotiations are broached. But then: silence. No one has anything left to say. They’re just waiting for the dragons to arrive.
They do arrive, of course: two of them, enormous and leathery, one bearing the Khaleesi, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), descend screeching and preening. It’s show time!
The scene encapsulates what “Game of Thrones” has become, as it begins its last fire-belching spin around the HBO firmament Sunday: a dragon-delivery device, a collection of spectacular images, to which character, complexity and conversation have become secondary.
The series’ changes, in part, reflect the ambitions and limitations of today’s big-ticket TV. Re-watch the earliest episodes, from 2011, and they already seem to belong to another era.
It’s not simply that Arya (Maisie Williams) was more innocent then, Westeros more peaceful, Ned Stark’s head still attached to his body. (No spoiler alert! Honestly, you’ve had plenty of time.)
It’s how much of the series was simply people talking, how it was able to draw import from relatively small incidents. The second episode, “The Kingsroad,” for instance, focuses its main story line on nothing more high-stakes than the death of a child’s pet.
The Starks, journeying to the capital where Ned (Sean Bean) will serve King Robert (Mark Addy), have recently come into possession of a litter of orphan direwolves. Along the way, the crown prince, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), bullies Arya’s friend, the butcher boy’s son, holding him at sword point. Arya’s wolf, Nymeria, mauls Joffrey (no jury would convict her). After Arya scares Nymeria off, Ned is forced to execute Lady, the wolf belonging to his daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner), in her stead, to keep peace between the families.
That’s it. Roll credits. No magic, no dragonfire. But so much character and foreshadowing are concentrated in this high-fantasy “Old Yeller.” It establishes, in one sword-stroke, that Robert, pushed by Cersei and his bratty son, is weak and inconstant; that the Stark children will become unmoored from their roots (the direwolf is the symbol of the North, and this is the first of several lupicides to come); that Joffrey is a dangerous monster; that the Starks will pay a high cost, principles will be tested and the innocent will die.
Compare this with “The Battle of the Bastards” in Season 6, where Jon Snow (Kit Harington) sees his adoptive brother Rickon (Art Parkinson) murdered before his eyes. The moment barely has time to land. If viewers remember it at all, it’s as the opening casualty for the breath-taking war scene, which took nearly two months to shoot, that gives the episode its title.
To be fair, the George RR Martin books on which the series is based establish a premise in which the mythic and epic will become more commonplace. “Game of Thrones” is about a world in which magic used to exist, seemed to disappear and is slowly returning. This happens gradually, then accelerates. The dragons take a season to hatch, then they grow up fast; war breaks out, then it engulfs the world.
In the saga’s best seasons — roughly the middle of its run — the showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss held its human and fantastical sides in balance. It managed stunning set pieces — the Battle of the Blackwater, the Red Wedding — but it was grounded in ideas.
It’s become cliché, for instance, to compare current politics to “Thrones,” but that’s in part because the series engaged so deeply with the question of what it means to be a good leader. Now it’s become more of a pure power exercise, cutting through those Gordian knots of subtlety with Valyrian steel.
The recent 20th anniversary of “The Sopranos” reminded us of a tension that series always had, between its creator, David Chase, who insisted that relationships were as important to the series as the mob wars, and his more bloodthirsty fans, who wanted, as the phrase went, “Less yakking, more whacking.”
“Game of Thrones” has had that tension itself over the years. But unlike Chase, who stubbornly stuck to his vision, “Thrones” has increasingly given into the fan contingent that wants more big action moments. Less blabbing, more stabbing!
In a way, the evolution of “Game of Thrones” over the seasons shows how it bridged the distance between two eras of TV. It began, in 2011, in the wake of HBO’s “Sopranos” era, which took familiar genres (the gangster saga, the cop show, the Western) and set them in worlds of moral grayness and complexity.
“Thrones” felt like the natural extension of that approach, a realpolitik fractured fairy tale in which good and bad were harder to distinguish than they were among Tolkien’s orcs and elves. “The Kingsroad” is like the first-season “Sopranos” episode “College,” in which Tony offs a mafia rat while on a road trip with his daughter — a small, definitional story that tells you you’re watching something familiar, but different.
But over time, “Thrones” evolved into an example of the next age of TV drama, defined by hit action spectacles like “The Walking Dead” and especially the binge model of Netflix, in which TV series were structured less like collections of episodes than unitary, sprawling megastories where one hour just bleeds into the next.
This is what “Game of Thrones” became. With a few exceptions, it was memorable more for visually stunning or shocking scenes than for well-constructed episodes. People describe its signature moments like “Friends” titles: “The One Where the Mountain Smooshes the Viper”; “The One Where Danaerys Says, ‘Dracarys’”; “The One With the Ice Dragon.”
Yet the scenes that stick with me from “Game of Thrones” are almost invariably conversations. Robert and Cersei talking with resigned familiarity about their marriage. Arya and Tywin (Charles Dance) discussing legacy and power. Any scene involving Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) and her thorny tongue. The Hound ordering the chicken.
These moments have become rarer as the series has gone beyond the plot of the uncompleted books and its pace has accelerated (sometimes, to be fair, improving on sluggish source material). And I have to wonder if the turn toward spectacle stems from Benioff and Weiss’ much-stated belief that they’re making a “73-hour movie.” By that analogy, their blockbuster series is obligated to provide an extended, explosive third act.
“Game of Thrones” has indeed produced the kind of awe-inspiring, culture-dominating entertainment you used to have to see in a theatre. If HBO-age TV were 1970s Hollywood, it would be the “Star Wars” to Tony Soprano’s “Godfather.”
It isn’t really a movie, though, and that’s for the best. Unlike a movie, a TV series is able to course-correct and learn as it goes, as “Thrones” did by finally cutting back on its egregious rape scenes.
My hope — because, make no mistake, I will be eagerly planted in front of the series from Sunday until my watch is ended — is that “Game of Thrones” will likewise use its final run to rediscover its roots as a series not just about dragons but also about people making difficult choices in extremis, a show that can give you chills even as it breathes fire.
© 2019 New York Times News Service