“Game of Thrones” Review: Boxed in, weighed down

There are certain things I write for job obligations. Sometimes those things align with my interests, and sometimes they don’t, but there’s a certain sense of professionalism I attach to both. Then there are the passion articles, things that I either don’t have to write for anyone but myself or pitch based on an intense desire to have my thoughts about a certain topic put down in virtual ink. Then there’s something like this.

What “this” is has been percolating in my head for a few days now, sitting there under a metaphorical sheet. I’ve seen its basic shape, but I’ve been honestly afraid to look under it. So I’ve paced about the room, done chores, written other pieces, and all the while, that blanket’s been in the corner of my eye, waiting for me to actually face it like a man.

It’s a piece called “Fear and Loathing in Westeros.” Read what I mean below.

Before getting into the first six episodes of “Game of Thrones,” I feel like I have to establish the perspective from which I tackled this piece. I do so partly as a way to contextualize what will follow, but also as a way to underline that all reviews, whether they be about a fantasy such as “Thrones” or a procedural such as “Law & Order” come from a singular, subjective place. To pretend otherwise is to engage in a lie, but it’s a lie that’s often perpetuated by writers or inferred by readers in order to establish a definitive “right” or “wrong” when it comes to analyzing a piece of pop culture. It’s no more or less subjective than the perspective someone brings to reading a piece of criticism, but somehow we’ve gotten in the habit of either over-accentuating the opinion of a critic when it suits someone or over-devaluing them when it doesn’t. Please.

gameofthrones.jpgThe fear and loathing referred to earlier doesn’t really reflect my experience watching the screeners sent by HBO so much as the experience I had leading up to putting fingers upon keyboard in order to talk about it. Myles McNutt has a good run-down of the craziness that started last week as reviews started to pop up, with the attitudes and agendas from all sides seeming at best suspect and at other times downright cruel. How ironic that the very issues dealt within “Game of Thrones” could so quickly spread to the discussion of it at this, the point at which interest surrounding the project might never be higher.

I decided a few months back not to read any of the books before starting to watch the series. I did so for variety of reasons, but the primary one was that I wanted to see this particular story unfold in the way HBO, not George R.R. Martin, laid it out. That doesn’t take away one iota from what Martin did, and nothing I say below in either praise or condemnation takes away from what he wrote, primarily because I have no clue what he wrote. I assume it bears a striking resemblance at times to what I watched, just as I imagine some of it deviates quite radically from the source text. The book exists as its own entity, regardless of how successfully or unsuccessfully you think the series translated what was in your personal head as you read it.

I shouldn’t have to lay all this out, but I think I have to lay a lot more groundwork than normal because “Game of Thrones” seems to have attracted a vocal group of people for whom the details really matter, and any mistake I make, intentional or otherwise, in what I write below could be seen as “proof” that what I say is invalid. I got a lot of this on “Lost”, where discussions of major themes and philosophical ponderings soon boiled down to petty arguments about what amounted to fictional trivia. I barely had the heart to engage it then about a show I knew pretty damn well, and I don’t remotely have the stomach to do it now about a world I only entered last week.

maester-2-590×460.jpgLet’s take a concrete example of something everyone DOES know, before talking about impressions of a show barely any of you have actually seen. A few weeks back, HBO sent out a series of wooden boxes to various critics, bloggers, and “taste makers” as part of something called The Maester’s Path. It was meant not only to drum up interest in the project, but also denote to those people that HBO had in fact done right by the book by getting various details from the book correct. The box contained detailed maps, scrolls, and most curiously/amusingly, a series of scented bottles meant to evoke the world depicted in the novel that would soon appear on the small screen. My reaction to reading about this box (which I did not get, since I’m not so much as “taste maker” as “guy who follows a few on Twitter”) was a hunch, something I could not prove but felt quite keenly as I was watching the first six episodes.

That thought? The box itself didn’t pass the smell test.

My worry at the time had less to do with the overly ornate package that I wasn’t deemed worthy of receiving. My worry was that the box represented the type of micro-detailed research that seemed to confer a deep understanding of a subject as a whole but in fact actually conferred that the production couldn’t separate what was really important from what was merely window dressing. Having an ornate box full of detailed parchment didn’t automatically eliminate the possibility that the series would capture the bigger, more vital aspect that would truly make the series work (namely, creating three-dimensional characters I could care about), but there’s a huge difference between dramaturgy and actual drama. The Maester’s Path was quite the dramaturgical specimen, but it caused far too many people to prematurely associate the quality of a box with a quality of a show.

As a way of actually getting into the show itself (about f#cking time, cry the masses): it looks as ornate onscreen as it does for those that received that box. HBO claims it’s not the most expensive series it’s ever produced, but it sure as hell looks like it. Fantasy often gets mocked as a genre in television/film because there isn’t always the budget necessary to produce what either artists can render on the back covers of novels or readers can simply imagine in their own mind. You can get away with filming an indie movie about hipsters living in Brooklyn, but producing “Game of Thrones” on a shoestring budget would have simply reinforced the unfortunate preconceptions people have about the fantasy genre as a whole. I didn’t come into the proceeding thinking, “I can’t wait to see/I hope they don’t screw up Location X!” I have no stakes in these edifices looking the way they are described in the books, and even if I did, I think there are far better things to argue about that what sits on a certain mantle in a certain stronghold. All I know is that most of the physical world looks incredible, has the weight of history inscribed upon them, and are testaments to solid research and craftsmanship.

game-of-thrones-5.jpgBut while the show does a great job producing the proper setting for the actions of the series to unfold, there are often huge pacing problems (especially in early episodes) that demonstrate that the creators of the series, David Benioff & D.B. Weiss, had an eye for the proper stage but then didn’t know how to actually stage “Thrones” with its extremely large cast upon this lavishly created world. There are large chunks of scenes in which two people either talk in code about things they know but newbies to the series won’t (which makes sense, but is frustrating all the same in the early proceedings), or utter exposition posing as dialogue to catch people up to things that aren’t showed but merely discussed (which makes little dramatic sense, but sure was helpful all the same for people like me).

Here’s where my lack of knowledge about the world might be instructive for those on both sides of the fence: if you’re a fan of the books, you’ll probably enjoy the first few hours a helluva lot more than I did and hate the latter ones much more than I did. There’s a ton of exposition in those latter hours, which helped me figure out what everyone had been obliquely referencing up until that point, but it’s delivered in ways so blatantly inorganic as to defy belief. Often, these scenes take place in the form of  a literal Q&A, where one person quizzes the other on information both know perfectly well, and know perfectly well that both know perfectly well. These aren’t discussions that illuminate character or reveal motivation, but simply serve to talk about things long past or well into the future. Lost in all of this? The here and now.

Moreover, as the hours passed, I realized that the central thing that people point to when praising the books–its realism–only really appears consistently in the show in the political, not psychological, realm. I’m willing to bet that the books do a much better job of revealing characters and their motivations, because the show has the unenviable task of introducing a completely unfamiliar world and then populating it with various races that share thousands of years of history between them. All of them essentially want one thing–the throne. That’s a fairly easy point to grasp, but trying to introduce why all of them want it and the historical conflicts between them all swallows up entire episodes, leaving the machinations intact but the signs of actual beating heartbeats often muted at best, ignored at worst.

I intuit that the point of this first book, and maybe the entire series, is that Martin treats the constant desire for power and the wars it creates as a large “game,” a cruel one that gives the books its ironic title and casts a shadow over all that play it. And that’s a fine point to make, but also leaves this viewer with precious few people to root for in these first hours. I didn’t much care for the search for the Ruler of the Island on “Lost,” either, and tolerated it as long as it was subsumed in the journey that the characters were making to find their inner, best selves. Petyr Baelish is a really fun character, but I don’t believe a goddamn thing he says. Maybe that thrills you, but until I get a lock on his real motivation, nothing is does registers as much more than white noise at this point. His charisma at this point is an empty as one of the scents in the Maester’s Box, until flesh-and-blood reasons for his actions take shape. Fans of the book who know his arc will probably enjoy his onscreen time; those like me without previous knowledge are left watching an excellent actor, not an excellent character.

game-of-thrones.jpgThat’s not to say that there’s no humanity in these first six hours. Far from it. Sean Bean quite frankly is the reason I stuck with it for as long as I did. As Ned Stark, he’s almost in another show, which is as much a function of Stark’s role within the narrative as the choices both the show makes for him as Bean makes for Ned. What’s so refreshing about Bean’s Ned is that he’s a father first, and soldier second. That should be the default position for every character, but many are subsumed (again, in this series, not the book) in a show that places characters into plots, not creates plots based on character. With so many people playing a game, it’s hard to find moments in which they are simply living in the moment, moments that betrays their inner motivations and give purpose to their actions.

Some would argue that splitting up all the major character and placing the action in vastly disparate places in Westeros yields an epic, intertwined story. And I reserve the right to assume that at some point in the story I have not yet seen, there’s a payoff to all this. But what may evolve in the books into an interwoven tapestry often feels, at present, like unconnected vignettes that happen to lightly share the same geographical sphere. We see the Starks as a family unit for very little time before they are spread out across the realm, all moving to locations that might seem perfectly logical on the page but felt rushed and motivated by plot, not character, in the episodes. I asked a friend who had read the books if I was being dense, and after his three paragraph explanation gave me more information than the actual episodes did, I felt a little better about feeling so dense about things.

That the episodes often end unexpectedly could be interpreted as a sign that the episode passed so quickly due to enjoyment, but often felt instead as a disjointed ending point dictated by HBO’s time slot as opposed to narrative exclamation point. Therein lies the difference between adapting the letter of the source material and its spirit: the latter could shape events into thematically related hours, but the former has simply yielded a series of sequential events. With the exception of Episode 4, there’s little in the way of unifying theme to any of the episodes. It’s just a string of actions that occur more or less concurrently with the others. Not having narrative or visual echoes between the pieces really heightens the separation between the tales set in King’s Landing, The Wall, or the various other locations featured in these initial six episodes.

Not to draw “Lord of the Rings” comparisons here (a series that perhaps is viewed antagonistically by some “Thrones” fans), but even after the Fellowship split up, they managed to essentially participate in the same story through actions that collectively sprung from a similar moral attitude that produced a singular result. Then again, they all had a collective enemy against which to direct their actions. In “Game of Thrones,” it’s likely that the story of Season 1 boils down to a bunch of people squabbling over a less-than-desirable position while a much more menacing force is poised to unleash an undead whup-ass on all of Westeros. That could be the connective tissue right there. If that’s the case, I need a reason not to protect the Iron Throne but the citizens of the countryside that will die should the White Walkers breach The Wall.

There are a few, despite the misgivings I’ve laid out above. Chief among them is Arya Stark, who honestly has not has a false, untrue moment yet in the series. Jon Snow is a similarly fascinating character, as is Tyrion Lannister, the imp who occasionally suffers from what I call “Alan Rickman Syndrome.” (In “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves,” Rickman portrayed Nottingham as if he was in another, weirder movie altogether.) Other characters get occasionally moments to shine: there’s a moment in Episode 5 between two characters I barely cared about until that moment which unexpectedly turns into a scene between two people that suddenly recognize one another after decades lost in each other’s presence. It’s a marvelous scene, and perhaps the highlight of the season’s first half.

These are people, after all, not pawns, even if the show seemingly does its best to make you forget that throughout large stretches of narrative. But there IS a beating heart there, as dormant as the one that potentially lies in Daenerys’s dragon eggs. The show needs to breathe fire into these characters for it to rise above gorgeous competency into something truly worthy of both the genre of fantasy, fans of the novel, but most importantly, fans of quality, compelling television. Were the show the latter, then the other two would fall into place. But the show can’t get there through slavish recreation of maps, architecture, and direct quotes. It can only get there by creating fully realized characters set in a wondrous world unlike ours in many ways and yet so easily recognizable as the one we inhabit.

Creating those types of characters doesn’t cost millions of dollars, but is the difference between a merely good series and one that can be truly special.

“Game of Thrones” premiers on HBO Sunday, April 17th, at 9 pm EST.


  1. TCC
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    An interesting perspective. I suspect that no reader of the book can really separate what they know from the books from what they know from the show, and I think not reading the books ahead of time was a good choice for giving a review strictly of the show (though I think you should read the first book after the season concludes, comparing the 2 after the fact would be interesting).

    I have high hopes for the show, but understand that some people want to have a clear “hero” to cheer for, and lack of defined heroes is the strength and weakness of the story depending on what you are looking for. I personally like that most of the characters are neither completely good or evil, though some of them you don’t see their other side til later books.

    I imagine in a TV series where you do not get the tons of internal monologue and thoughts of the characters who’s perspective is being told much is lost in character and history development.

    That being said it seems that there have been other non-reader reviewers who have enjoyed the show, so odds are good that there will be plenty of people who have never read the books that will still enjoy it.

  2. patrick
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

    Wow. If you get the impression that characters are driven by plot rather than the other way around, then you have either missed something, or the adaptation GREATLY misrepresents the work.

    Great review by the way, I hope you don’t get too much flak for it.

  3. Alex
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the honest opinion. But as a fan of the books, it’s kind of hard to really understand your lack of connection to the world and characters. You mention liking Ned, Arya, Tyrion, and Jon. Those are also the characters that most readers of the books initially latch onto.

    I’m not quite sure what you’re not enjoying so far, or why it all feels so disconnected, because I have yet to see the show. But I’ve heard reviews from non-readers who have loved it so far, and have not had the same problems you are having.

  4. Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I think those characters connect the most since they are in many ways most removed from the direct chase for the throne, leaving them scenes to exist as actual human beings connecting with others rather than as agents maneuvering around.

    And yes, plenty of people that didn’t read the book don’t have my problems. But I wager plenty that DID read the books will have similar problems to me as well. As prefaced above, it’s an individual take on the show. Nothing more, nothing less. But when applied to a franchise people love and have a great stake in being good, an opinion can appear as something above what it really is.

  5. Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

    A perfectly reasonable, thoughtful review, Ryan. Thanks!

    I may comment on it a bit more, but it’s late, so there was one point I wanted to remark on because you also brought it up in the podcast but we didn’t have time to discuss it further.

    You write: ” if you’re a fan of the books, you’ll probably enjoy the first few hours a helluva lot more than I did and hate the latter ones much more than I did. There’s a ton of exposition in those latter hours…”

    And in the podcast, you thought it’d just be unwelcome retread. But at least from our perspective, we loved hearing the details come out that we fans have known all along, and have been looking forward to playing out on screen. There’s a real moment of geeky pleasure when some background or plot detail gets brought up that we’ve been anticipating.

    So as far as that goes, I don’t think the later episodes are problems for fans. In fact, episodes 5 and 6 were probably our very favorites of the whole thing.

  6. Mike
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    Reading that review I got the impression that the author was hoping/looking for more of a ‘popcorn’ entertainer and what he got was much, much deeper. He would probably have a lot of the same criticisms about the book(with the POVs jumping all over the place, no true unifying theme).

  7. Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Not at all, Mike. I relish complexity, so long as I can about the characters. I allow often in the review that the book offers the space and depth to make the characters breathe more than they currently do onscreen through six episodes.

    Elio: Thanks for your perspective! Glad to hear it didn’t bother you. I latched onto Ep 4 as my fave, but Ep 5 has my single favorite scene of the first six hours.

  8. Andrew
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    The book gets off to something of a shotgun start; it took easily a hundred pages before I figured out why I should care or even why I should continue reading. So I can definitely understand your perspective on the show. It’s possible that, unlike with the book, this feeling truly never wears off. I hope that isn’t the case. The plot/character dynamic sometimes starkly contrasts with what you have written; the books incorporate, for lack of a better term, “fluctuating time elements,” that is to say, sometimes a day takes a hundred pages, sometimes a month takes four. And although I am a big fan of the books, sometimes the plot lulls are difficult to overcome, but I continue reading because I care deeply about the characters.

  9. Rose
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

    Would you say that your biggest complaint IS that the characters are very amoral and hard to “root for,” and that the villains are very ambiguous and sympathetic? It’s true, the only real GOOD GUYS in the novel are Ned, Dany, and Jon, and sometimes Tyrion. It’s something that I personally absolutely adore, but I get that some people want a hero and a villain.

  10. George
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Ryan, while a very thoughtful review, I find that I am still a little unclear about how you ultimately feel about the show by the end of it. At this point, after 6 episodes, would you say that you are firmly entrenched in the plot such that you cannot imagine giving up on the story unless it falls apart in some way? Would you say that you only feel committed to seeing the first season through and then re-evaluating afterwards? Or would you say that you are pretty much episode-to-episode because of these initial concerns? Thanks.

  11. Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I’m fine with people along any part of the moral spectrum, so long as I understand their POV/perspective/motivation. Baelish was my example of a character that down the line might deepen for me, but currently is all flash and no depth. That’s not to say that readers of the books won’t disagree, but AT THIS POINT he’s not as magnetic as he could be because his true motivations are so murky than any attempts to parse them would be a fool’s errand. I want to try and figure these people out, but there’s just not much to go for many of them at this time.

  12. mri
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    I have read and re-read this series and am really looking forward to it. Plus my fave blogger is covering it from a non-reader perspective, double bonus!! Thanks for the insight Ryan. I look forward to reading and debating on here again!

  13. Christian M
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for such an honest and objective review. Basically you described all the potential pitfalls that a lot of readers have feared. A lot of folks were worried about the decor or the hair color of their favorite characters, which as you point isn’t really that important for compelling TV. The real concern has always been the challenge of presenting all the internal monologues, exposition, and back story in an entertaining fashion that did not become didactic.

    All that being said, plenty of other reviewers have been effusive in their praise, so perhaps its just not for you.

  14. Michelle
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    My book fandom makes it impossible to reply objectively to you, Ryan. But I respect your opinion. I’ll be happily enjoy watching Westeros and the characters I love brought to life. :)

  15. Kyle F.
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    A very well made review, and a welcome one. I’m glad you liked Arya; she’s one of my favorites, really. You can expect more from Arya, Jon and Tyrion as the show goes on. Your review is very critical and logical, and in the end I’m sure we all appreciate that.

    But I have to wonder, for all the faults you saw in it, do you think it would have intrigued you enough to bring you back in week after week?

  16. Rose
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Fair enough! I, on the other hand, like the not knowing. Petyr Baelish is far and away, no contest, my favourite character in the novels, and we STILL don’t know what game he’s playing ;) Of course, my other favourite character is Sansa, so my opinion has regularly been considered invalid.

    This might be a YMMV thing, and I hope that your impressions don’t actually speak for the series as an objective truth, because it would be a shame if the characters actually did get muddied in the HBO version. They’re really the jewels of the whole thing in the books.

  17. Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    I honestly want nothing more than for everyone that watches this (or really, most things I review) to love it. And I imagine that I will be in the minority on this, just as I’m in the seeming minority on the other end of the spectrum on something like “Spartacus.” If negative opinions about that show don’t sway my personal love for it, I don’t pretend that this will change anyone’s love for “Thrones.” I can only write what I feel, and as long as people think the perspective is honest, they can disagree with me all they like. Respectfully, I hope. No need to throw me through a moon door or anything.

  18. Vohdre
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    Just listed to the podcast and read the above review. It’s interesting to hear the thoughts of one who hasn’t read the source material and highlights one of the things I’m afraid of about the adaptation. Non-readers are going to have a hard time figuring out motivations without the back-story and inner thoughts of the characters.

    I have been singing the praises of the books for years and those I have gotten to read them have loved them. I have similarly been hyping up the series, but I’m afraid may be hard to get vested in if they haven’t read the books.

    Ryan I will assure you if you had read the books you would be delighted with what some of the so called “minor” characters are up to now knowing what they’re eventual motivations are (some of which you don’t learn for 2 more books I’m afraid).

    Ooh look, a GoT commercial on the Cubs game as I type this.

  19. WhoIsJacopoBelbo?
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

    wait. let me get this straight. you liked the steaming pile of discombobulated, directionless, psuedo-gimmick after pseudo-gimmick and flubbed ending Lost but somehow this isn’t to your liking? i just want to make sure i have that straight.

    not all 140 characters can be super layered and complex and real to everybody. the point of the books and i hope the point of the show is to offer many characters and personalities and perspectives so that you might find in them some small part of yourself. and for everybody who that is will be different.

    and give me a break. i have watched the wire, end to end, twice and the beginning of that couldn’t be more about the plot driving the characters that don’t become fully realized and fleshed out until much much much later. and nobody says that show is anything but brilliant.

    and here is a hint. if you want to understand the inner workings of Littlefinger you are going to be disappointed because his motivations are inscrutible … that’s who he is … that’s his character.

    i appreciate your view but honestly some of it just seems like high end whinging. the box was too nice? really? the show has to be marketed dude, by more than actor interviews. and if they are going to do a Maester’s Path promotion it is better to do it with craft and artistry and attention to detail than not. and it sure as shit beats a six pack of horrible tasting “True Blood”.

    your opinion has been noted and summarily filed in the “just doesn’t get it” rubbish bin. 2500 words and almost none for what the show actually does right, how and where it did succeed in taking on a monumental task?

    well i guess everything can’t be Chuck or a bunch of bitchy cardboard hipsters on an island with scary smoke monsters and sundry other nonsense.

  20. Mike
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the review, I really enjoyed it. Well thought out and well written.

    As a reader, I’m one who has a great stake in the show being good. I really want it to do well. But I won’t take your opinion for more than it is. All I hope is that when the show actually airs, we can have some fun discussing it amongst fans and non-fans, readers and non-readers. That’s all we can really ask for, whether it’s for 1 season or 3 or more.

    Thanks again, I look forward to reading more when I have actually seen the show!

  21. Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

    I dedicate plenty to what I liked. The other readers seem to locate those sections just fine.

    Still, stay classy my friend.

  22. Kyle F.
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

    Quiet WhoIs, this is the sort of review we want to encourage. People saying what they thought of it. He likes the characters most people tend to like (Arya/Jon/Tyrion) and seems to understand at least a bit of the pull of it. No need to spit venom.

  23. Pamoya
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    I think the comment about Littlefinger is interesting because he is inscrutable. He clearly has some kind of grand scheme, but what or why is unclear. This is true in the books as well. But the other characters I can think of have clear motivations in the books, and I hope that eventually comes across in the show as well.

  24. Ro
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    I think the Baelish example is a good one to demonstrate to fans of the books your concern. I would like to say, though, that at this point in the novels at least, you aren’t supposed to be sympathetic to certain characters.

    Again using Baelish as an example, I think that, perhaps knowing that Gillen is a very good actor, you are expecting him to be a significant character and are disappointed when his motivations are inscrutable. The truth is, though, that his motivations are meant to be inscrutable at this point in the story. He is meant to be all flash and mystery and the reader/viewer is not meant to be attached to him in any significant way.

    This holds true for various other characters as well. The attachments you are meant to hold, it appears have been successfully created, in that Dany, Jon, Tyrion, and Ned are all meant to be the characters that drive you through the first season.

    This tells me that there are two possibilities: 1) that the show creators have failed to make these characters quite sympathetic enough or fail to focus on them enough; instead attempting to give other non-driving characters screentime, or 2) that you were expecting certain other characters to drive the story in the early going and are confused as to why they are not.

    Do you think there’s a possibility that, based on the hype of the show, perhaps you were expecting fully fleshed out characters right out of the gate (first 6 eps) for the majority of the ensemble cast? The reality is that these characters are meant to be somewhat inscrutable and some are meant to even seem a little bit shallow. Certain characters, however, drive the plot forward until you get to a point in later seasons where you suddenly realize the shallow and inscrutable characters are perhaps deeper and more understandable than you first thought.

  25. Christian M
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    Whoisjackbelpo?…Have you seen the series? Or are you defending the show based on your love of the books?

  26. Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    The Littlefinger reactions prove how subjective all this stuff is. Most of you say “He’s SUPPOSED to be inscrutable!” Which is fine. And I got that. But I’m asking if that’s a GOOD thing or not. If that type of murkiness works for you, awesome. It doesn’t work for me since he’s little more that a trickster who works people’s strings for reasons that are by definition unknowable. Seems like a touch of a cop-out, not just in “Thrones” but in this type of character. Again, to bring up WhoIsJacopoBelbo’s favorite all time show “Lost”, I gave up caring about the big bad in Season 6 because I couldn’t trust a thing he said. No point in trying to suss out what he’s trying to do when the answer is always “manipulate through lying or telling half-truths.”

    Ro: That a number of characters connect with me already means that the problem lies not in the small number of episodes but rather the way in which the show has done an uneven job at least hinting at greater depths for others. But yes, certainly characters will undoubtedly deepen down the line. Of that I have no doubt.

  27. furrever
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Ryan – I appreciate your honest and thoughtful critique. It’s great getting the perspective of a non-reader of the book series.

    Your comments on Petyr Baelish not being a character whose motives you understand (and therefore causing you to not really care about his character) are interesting, but not really concerning to me in regard to the show’s potential for success. I say this because the book is not much different in this regard. For the entire first and second books, Petyr is really a bit of a mystery (both to the reader and the characters). What’s clear is that he is a schemer that can’t be trusted, from which point it sounds like the HBO series has properly presented him based on you saying you don’t trust anything he says. So, I’m not too concerned that you don’t really care for him since you’re not sure whether or not you should like him or what his motives are.

    Perhaps you are more bugged by this as a viewer because it’s not clear to you that he’s a somewhat minor character (at least at this stage of the game). In the book, you see him through Ned’s eyes, who likewise is unsure of Petyr’s motives and likewise isn’t sure if he can trust him. But I can see how in the television series you may feel like you need to be able to make your mind up about him. And that since you can’t (and consequently don’t care about this character), you see this as a failing of the show’s writers.

    For me reading the book, I knew that Petyr’s motives were some mystery yet to be revealed (which finally happens at the conclusion of the third book). Since he was not one of the POV/major characters, this wasn’t a problem for me, and I hope that it won’t be a problem for non-readers watching the television series either, as it unfortunately was for you.

    Now, had you said that you didn’t understand the motives of Arya, Ned, or Jon, and therefore didn’t really care about them or their fates either, I would have had grave reason for concern. However, it sounds like this is not the case at all. Likewise, when I was reading the first book, I knew I liked Jon, Tyrion, Ned, and Arya; and that I disliked Jaime, Cersei, Sansa, and (at times) Catelyn. I was always pretty lukewarm toward Dany, not really enjoying her chapters (something I believe may prove the opposite on the small screen).

    So in short, I guess what I’m saying is that while I understand and appreciate your review, it doesn’t worry me too much, because it seems like your reaction to the characters on the screen is no different than my reactions were to the characters on the pages. I say this not to discredit your opinion (I respect it and am glad you have shared it), but rather to put mine (and other fans of the books) fears to rest regarding the show’s potential to entertain and delight non-readers who view the series. For surely we will need their viewership if the show is ever to get past two seasons.

  28. DA
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    What do you think of Ben in Lost? (I haven’t read your other stuff, so forgive me my ignorance.) I am just watching that show now, and he is easily my favorite part of it. But in my mind, he is every bit as mysterious as Littlefinger is. I’m midway through Season 6 and maybe, just maybe I’m starting to finally get a handle on him.

    Anyway, in the books, you are supposed to have connected with the Starks, Tyrion, and Dany at this stage. Even Jaime+Cersei, big players though they are, are seen from the eyes of the Starks and Tyrion, and so you see them really only as enemies. I understand that the show has tried to give them more attention early, and perhaps that has backfired by trying to make you engage with characters who are not really developed yet.

  29. dtb
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    Great review! Much more thoughtful than any of the positive reviews I’ve read to be honest.

    I always thought when reading “A Game of Thrones” that the last few hundred pages really brought the whole thing together emotionally, and lent importance to many of the earlier events in the book. I hope the last few episodes of the first season will do the same for the series.

  30. DA
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    PS: Littlefinger’s motives definitely are revealed at some point, and they are real down-to-earth understandable stuff, but yeah, not yet=)

  31. Jarmel
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

    Good review. What you pointed out was what worked in the book and was going to be impossible to translate to film. The part about the stories being segmented is still true 4 books into the series however that is supposed to change. Also it’s easier to swallow in the books as the POVs are segmented. So what I’m thinking might happen on this end is that (personal opinion here) the earlier seasons of the show will appear disjointed to the casual watchers.

    It also seems you’re complaining about the lack of background which is a very valid point. Motive is always needed to establish great characters and if some of this is lost, then that is a problem. It’s weird though as I’ve heard other reviewers state that some of the characters have been fleshed out. What I think might be happening is that you’re thinking there is some complicated reason as to why certain characters want the throne when it’s quite simplistic.

  32. patrick
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:18 pm | Permalink


    Lost didn’t get too heavy for itself for a few seasons, and by then if you were into the characters enough you were going to watch anyway. The pacing in the first season was great, and since each episode focused VERY strongly on a SMALL group of characters, with only a small bit of mythology weaved in, you were able to really get to know these people as people, rather than as plot points.

    The wire didn’t feel like plot to me at almost any point in the series, and especially not at the beginning. I had no idea what was going on plotwise, all I knew was it was interesting being immersed in this strange world that is actually not very far away at all.

    Since you haven’t seen this adaptation, your comparisons to other shows that do character very well are fairly worthless. What worked in the books wont necessarily work onscreen, with the heavy amount of time compression, and the lack of any internal viewpoints whatsoever. Ryan does mention things he thought it did right, but what really comes across in the podcast and the review, is that he really wants to like it and made an effort (and will still watch the next 4 eps) but the strong characters are not coming across as well as they could be.

    A lot of it has to do with pacing. If you introduce 100 characters all at once, it can get to be a bit much. In the book you have the POV character, so you can focus on that, for an entire chapter, while picking up things about the characters they run into. If the show is edited differently, and by all accounts it is, with lots of cutting back and forth between the different kingdoms, and the dothrakis, it can make it easy for even a dedicated viewer to get a bit lost. If few of the characters get much room to breath, then they WILl seem to just be plot points, without really coming to life.

    As someone who read the books, you or I will never know this confusion. This review illuminates something about the show that no other negative review has, which is why it may be difficult to watch for the uninitiated. My impression is that they actually followed the books a bit closer than they should have, which should please most fans (except the most nitpicky ones, who would never have been happy), but may make it difficult for non-fans to grab hold of.

    And he still had positive things to say about it!

  33. Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    2500 pages to reveal a motivation may have felt satisfying. I’m not sure that will work exactly the same in a long-form television series. It speaks to the writer’s hand at work in a way that pulls me out of the scenes and reveals the script behind the show. It means that he’s not so much a character as a cipher through which to lay down some complicated narrative tracks that sometimes aren’t so sturdy upon looking back.

    I had this problem with Ben Linus for a while too, whose plan, when teased out and laid out chronologically, was so complex and relied on so many variables going his way that it defied belief. The whole thing kinda fell apart. I latched onto him more in terms of his relationship with his Dad, his daughter, and ultimately Hurley than anything to do with his insanely overcomplicated machinations.

  34. Benedict
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    I appreciate the review, as you logically address some the potential issues I’m most curious about the show such as pacing, history, and character motivations. The book reveals these things mostly through internal monologue and that technique works great for books, but not for film. There’s bound to be subtlety lost in translation, but the question is how much of the book’s exposition can D&D deliver gracefully and organically.

    So many book-to-film translations miss this mark; either they stay accurate to the original and lose sense of pace or stray and find themselves with an inferior story. It’s not good enough to have a good story on your hands; it’s how you tell that story in the medium you’re working in. I’m hopeful the folks at HBO will find the right middle ground to make this show work on all these levels.

    It’s all I have left to find out, because I’ve long since known this was going to be a gorgeous show. Unlike you, I do think that will be key for Game of Thrones to be compelling television. Spectacle is something any fantasy or science fiction show needs to deliver if its creators what their audience to take their show seriously.

  35. Ro
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the response, Ryan.

    To be honest, I was slightly concerned myself when they decided to make Jaime and Cersei more sympathetic in the first season for just this reason. I felt it was better, as in the first novel, to have Starks vs. Lannisters and clear dividing lines so the audience is engaged. I fear the writers may have tried to do what you suggested, which is to hint too early at the depth of characters who don’t have enough screentime yet to provide the necessary backstory. The result may have been that the story became a little bit diluted in that the viewer is forced to watch many characters who they don’t care about yet.

    However, for obvious reasons, I am hoping that the reason for this disconnect for you is due to your own personal expectations heading into the series rather than a flaw in the storytelling. Hopefully, the Starks + Tyrion + Dany are engaging enough to the casual viewer to drive them through the first season while certain other characters remain shallow, just like the characters in Lost drove you through Lost while Jacob remained inscrutable.

    Which brings me to an important question. Are your criticisms directed more in the vein of hoping for improvement in a show you are already quite fond of? Or are they meant as sort of a fear that if the concerns aren’t resolved, you’ll stop watching? It’s a little bit unclear from the review alone how invested you are in the series after 6 episodes.

  36. Spazzcatazz
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    So apparently the answer to the question “Who is Jacopo Belbo?” is “a butthurt fanboy”. Jeeze! You cover yourself with no glory up above.

    Ryan, great read. I’ll be interested to hear what you think after seeing the last four hours of the show (I hope you’ll watch them after coming this far!). Just based on the narrative arcs from the books, I think you’ll find a lot more connection to what each character goes through once you see it all unfold. There should be some pretty intense deepening of the viewer’s understanding of each person’s motivations and actions and I’m hoping to read your thoughts on that down the stretch if you’ll indulge us.

  37. Jarmel
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:32 pm | Permalink

    The way you’re describing the show is closer to the Wire in that you don’t have the backgrounds on most of the characters. The difference is that you had the whole Baltimore narrative to tie everything together, while it seems Game of Thrones lacks that.

  38. WhoIsJacopoBelbo?
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    @Christian M: i am not discussing the show i am analyzing Ryan’s review. it is well written and thoughtful but some of it is just nonsensical. starting of by back handedly bagging on the Maester’s Path scent box, saying its attention to detail somehow reflected a missing of the deeper understanding of what is really important? really? so they should have put out crappily done promo materiels? that would have been better? how about the incredibly detailed and researched box and whole Maester’s Path promotion was farmed out to a company by HBO and that company takes pride in producing innovative and beautifully artistic and well researched work? nah, couldn’t be that … must be a sign of some deep superficiality at the heart of the shows producers.

    and as i happen to listen to the Ryan and Ryan podcast i know for a fact that there are shows Ryan likes that fall victim so some of the very same things he is criticizing GoT for. not every character is as psychologically realistic or scrutible for him? well i have news, half of the characters on Lost never end up being either because the writers of the show had no idea about where the show, the plot or the characters were going from season to season … they were mainly just throwing a bunch of tricks at the wall and hoping some stuck. now some characters were better fleshed out and deep and understandable than others. the same was true for a show like the Wire … it takes a few season’s to really get into the minds of many of that shows best characters. and don’t even get me started on Spartacus. he even admits that show was absolute garbage for the first 4 episodes but it does get very much better and is, in its own way, a very worthwhile show. but beyond a handful of core characters most of the characters on that show are cardboard background without any depth or motivations readily available to the viewer. and even fewer of those with deep psychologies and motivations are well acted and none of the ones that are come together before episode 6 of that show. now in hindsight perhaps his uber crush on Spartacus has blinded him to this fact but it makes his criticism of GoT having only 4 characters he really totally identified with and for whom he understood and believed their psychologies and motivations ring a bit hollow. and don’t even get me started on how long it too some of the characters on my favourite Sci-Fi show of all time BSG to become at all clearly understood or even totally believably 3 dimensional … and this is a show iirc he has nothing (except for the ending) but praise for.

    now the trouble with the complex history and exposition either being too much or too little is what it is. unavoidable. the work they are translating is a monumental task and some clunkiness or some obfuscation is to be expected. so i take that criticism for what it is … an unfortunate but necessary evil that almost everybody expected.

    a lot of this honestly just looks motivated by contrarianism. which as a huge fan of Chistopher Hitchens i can respect … i just wish it wasn’t so often nonsensical and transparent. still a sight better than any of that genre trashing that came out earlier in the week. plus i look forward to him carrying thru with this contrarian whinging during the R&R GoT podcasts going forward. as much as i have to listen about him (and Mo) gushing on and on about Spartacus (which actually ended up being a pretty good show) it will be amusing to get to hear him go and and on bitching about GoT (if that is in fact what ends up happening).

  39. Kyle F.
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    I find Littlefinger to be interesting because there are a few things we DO know about him. His relationship with Cat and that whole messy past tells us a lot about him, and we know that it’s largely those things that are moving him forward.

    Cat’s whole remembrance of Brandon and Peter . . . that was vital for me. I got that he was moving because of those things, but that he was smart, and cunning, and while his goals could be guessed at his methods were up in the air.

  40. Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    I’ll definitely be watching the last four episodes, no doubt. It would take a lot more to dissuade me from continuing to be sure.

    JacopoBelbo: if you can’t take my arguments at face value, and think there’s a nefarious motivation behind what I say that is false from what I claim it to be, just stop reading. And stop listening. Honestly, it’s not worth your time. Plenty of other things to do, my friend. I can’t and won’t bother answering accusations that I’m arguing in bad faith.

  41. Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    I just accidentally marked two comments meant to post as “spam” by accident. I apologize to those two people, who both wrote very thoughful comments. Blog software sometimes sucks.

  42. dtb
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    Personally I thought that the bit about the scent box was a very good analogy for how he felt about the show in general.

  43. Jorge
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Great review, lots of legitimate points, though I think you could have left off the gripes about not getting the Maesters box. I find your problem with Littlefinger interesting, since in the books his motivations are a mystery and for me I liked it that way. If we knew every character’s motivations, especially ones like Littlefinger, I think a lot of the sense of mystery and intrigue in the series would be lost.

    Maybe it works differently in the television medium, although in Battlestar Galactica (in the first two seasons) I found that not knowing what exactly the Cylons had planned for the colonists really interesting. Once the writers wrote themselves into a corner and bascially revealed the Cylons had no plan and showed their POV, I found them a lot less interesting. So for me, I think the lack of known motivations for Littlefinger will work better for the show than spelling out his plans.

  44. Becky
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    (I don’t see my comment, so I think I might be one of the spam fatalities! OH NO! ;) )

    I’m a fan of the books. This is one of my favorite reviews to date.

    The biggest concern everyone who knows these books should have is the accessibility for those that haven’t read them. I honestly cannot tell you what my first impressions were anymore. I see the series of novels as a whole, and I have a hell of a time remembering what happens in what book. Even today, I confused myself, and I JUST finished re-reading the second book a couple days ago.

    I suspect that if people stick with the series, the reveals, the twists and the paths these characters take will make the TV series seem worth it. I’m really confident in that. But it is good to know that it will take some work to get there – and we’ll have a good indicator if the series will continue if people like Ryan agree that, after all 10 episodes, the payoff is worth it.

    This whole series (both TV and novels), in my opinion, will be like one of the best Monets – up close, it’s a jumble of dots and random colors. But seen as a whole, they produce a gorgeous painting. What Game of Thrones has most in common with Lost is the ability to make people talk about it, to theorize, conjecture, to come up with possibilities. (R+L=J is infamous to those who understand what that means.) Lost kept people interested, because they kept coming up with wild ideas about it. Ryan (if you’ve read this whole thing!) I’d be interested to know if you feel that same draw – that you could find it interesting to discuss the machinations at this point. Or are the characters too flat, things still too confusing to engage that. If the latter is the case, I’m more concerned with the health of the series.

  45. WhoIsJacopoBelbo?
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    @Ryan: i didn’t say bad faith. not did i imply it. i said “poorly” or was trying to imply it. i have no doubt that your criticism make sense to you. but trying to turn the scent box into some overblown metaphor for the show is just beyond silly. HBO hired Campfire to do a special promotion (along with more traditional promotions of interviews and splashing trailers everywhere). Campfire went about creating a very innovative and artistically stringent and well researched promotion called the Maester’s Path (if you thought the box was detailed you should have seen the online puzzle with the seasons on which there were numerous double sided parchments in a foreign tongue that using context clues you could actually translate into fragmented passages in a book). the attention to detail and stringent research was nothing more than the company trying to produce good work.

    so your criticism of that and trying to imply it is some proxy for missing the deeper importance of the show is just misguided and a poor argument.

    and i am sorry if i happen to actually listen to what you say and remember your opinions of other shows and happen to realize that some of your criticisms you level at GoT (rightly or wrongly TBD until i see the show) have the slight waft of hypocrisy since i have also watched some of the shows you laud (Wire/Spartacus/Lost/BSG/Rubicon) and happen to know for a fact that they had, especially in the beginning, some of the very same issues. you seem to be holding GoT to some higher standard or you simply in your now geek-crush on some of those other shows conveniently seem to forget some of their early failings (not that i would necessarily call them that) or better yet inevitable kinks and quirks that took time to work out or fully realize.

    again you are entitled to your opinion obviously and i appreciate it was more thoughtful than most. but i can’t figure out what you were expecting or why you seem to want every character, even minor ones or slow burning ones to be instantly understandable, scrutable and fully psychologically fleshed out. what Jon, Tyrion and Arya aren’t enough for you right off the bat?

  46. Tycho
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Great Review. Its very refreshing to read a well thought out response from a non-reader, and if I’m honest I was slightly embarrassed by some of the divebombing which went on surrounding other negative reviews. Some people have invested a lot in the series and are obviously very emotionally invested.

    Anyway, the comparison between Baelish and Linus is interesting, since back when I watched lost (I lost interest some way through season 4) I loved the inscrutability of Ben, and found his whole deal fascinating simply from the POV of trying to work out just what he was after (this was a huge hook for the show overall too). I can’t remember exactly why I stopped watching, but I think it was the fact that things as a whole (including Linus) became TOO inscrutable to the point where I just stopped caring which did it.

    But like lots of people, I became emotionally invested in Lost due to character, and I connected with several. The same thing happened to me while reading this book series, and I found it far less inscrutable than lost (though in this respect it seems like the tv series may be different). From what I recall, Littlefinger and Varys (particularly the latter) are the only ‘players’ who truly remain shadowed in terms of motivation and I felt that mystery juxtaposed well with everything else going on.

    Overall, my hope for the series in terms of standing out from a Lost is that Littlefinger is not Linus, and the show is not a group of castaways on a desert island. There are multiple things which drew me into the books, and if they can express at least some of that on screen most viewers will find SOMETHING to draw them in or enjoy (you yourself highlighted a few characters you connected with). And the book series gets better in that regard, so hopefully the show does too. :)

  47. Phoenix_torn
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for the review. Honest. Logical. As a fan, it’s going to be impossible for me to separate the book and the show completely and it’s nice to hear some fresh views.

    I see how you can have a problem with Littlefinger. I love the character in the books, I think he’s aweful and don’t trust a word he says, but sometimes I feel like screaming, “For the love of god, why are you doing this?”

  48. SergioCQH
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Ryan, you discuss Petyr Baelish specifically as a primary example of poor characterization. You also admit that there are indeed a number of well fleshed out characters that you do care about. The problem I have with your review is that the existence of a few (I assume, but you have only offered one example) shallow characters has made you decide that the series overall has poor characterization. You reluctantly admit to caring about some characters but the dominant tone of your review suggests that this series has poor characterization.

    This seems to be a somewhat unfair conclusion to come to, considering that any dramatic work will necessarily have bit parts. Even Shakespeare makes use of characters who have tremendous impact upon a play but are inscrutable in their motivations. Petyr Baelish (aka Littlefinger) is very much a secondary character, and isn’t meant to have as much development as the main characters such as Jon, Dany, and Tyrion.

    So, my point is that I don’t agree with your expectation that characters such as Petyr Baelish need more characterization. First of all, there simply isn’t enough time considering the number of characters more central to the story. Second of all, there’s really nothing wrong with having less developed secondary characters in a story.

  49. Ted
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:20 pm | Permalink


    Thanks for this well-reasoned take on the first six episodes. I think Martin counts on readers to root for Ned and his children through the first book, so I’m glad that Ned, Jon, and Arya are fully realized early on. The other characters may need to become more sympathetic, or at least understandable, or it may become hard to root for anybody.

    *thematic spoilers follow*

    If the series continues past the story of the first book, the worsening situation of the “citizens of the countryside” ought to become a more prominent theme. This ‘realist’ aspect of the work—how minor spats within the aristocracy have extreme negative consequences across the kingdoms at large—could alienate viewers even further from the (largely) aristocratic protagonists. It would be a shame if this element is not present in the show, but I’m pretty sure it’s just going to get harder to root for some of these characters.

  50. Tycho
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think Ryan is necessarily saying that the characterisation as a whole is ‘poor’, but its not as good as what we saw with the Sopranos or the Wire, which is what he wants the series to live up to. At least thats how I read it.

  51. Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:30 pm | Permalink

    *rereads own article*

    *doesn’t see any mention of “The Wire” or “The Sopranos”*

  52. Anne
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

    If you like Ned, Arya, Jon and Tyrion, well then Ryan, you’re on the right track! Stay on board, I think you will will get it all in the end. Once you understand it all, I think you will really start caring, and will like it all the more.

  53. Tycho
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    Maybe you mentioned it in a comment, I’m probably confused. Never mind.

  54. Greylander
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

    I have to say, I can’t really tell from your review if you *like* the show or not. You spending time detailing what you see as flaws, but it feels somewhat like flaws that bother you all the more because you actually do like that show.

    Since I havent’ seen it, I can’t comment on how well anything is executed in the show, but here are some thoughts based on your review.

    You seem focused on the titular “game”, expecting that to be the unifying theme and so you see the characters as pawns moved around by the game. But just as title characters are not always leads, title themes or plot points are not always central to the story. The “game” is a “supporting theme, not a central theme. When reading the books, I do not recall caring, or even wondering, who will win the throne. Not ever. Instead, I cared about each character, whether and how they would survive, find a place, how they ultimately relate to the other characters, etc.

    Which brings me to what I think is a (somewhat paradoxically) unifying theme: each character is the hero of his or her own story. I wonder if you are trying to see the forest… and missing the trees. But you do mention four characters whom you like and keep you involved in the series. Interestingly, you note Ned as being “almost in another show” and Tyrion’s “Alan Rickman Syndrome … in another…show”.

    It is odd that you mention Littlefinger as a character who’s motives you do not understand. He is a supporting character (albeit a major one) who’s motives are a mystery to all of the lead characters, so I’m not sure why it would bother you that his motives are not yet revealed to you. (although, again, not having seen it yet… maybe he is or appears to be a “lead” character in the show).

    If it helps change your perspective on the show, try noting who seem to be the “leads”, then consider if their individual stories are compelling and their motivations makes sense, and look at the “game” as a simply major element of the setting and circumstances in which they find themselves.

  55. Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    I think the last line of the article sums up my feelings: it’s good, but should be great. It’s something I WANT to be great. But it’s not there yet. Doesn’t preclude it from ever being great, but here’s where I am at this point.

  56. Greylander
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:48 pm | Permalink

    …oh for what it is worth, I *like* Spartacus as well. But had serious doubts and barely made it through the first few episodes. It mainly seemed like cheesy, homo-erotic softporn at first… but it had a heart the kept me going, and once I had accepted its style for what it was… by the end… wow!

    Game of Thrones is of course quite different… but much groundwork is being laid for big payoffs later. I think you will write a very different review by the end of this season. At least I hope so — I have my own fears the despite all the positive reviews, it is going to end up not working for me.

  57. SergioCQH
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:00 am | Permalink


    You might think the show’s good but the overall tone of your review is overwhelmingly negative. Perhaps your expectations going into it were too high?

  58. Chris
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    This review further confirms my belief that HBO should have gone with its original 12-episode plan, rather than the 10 episodes they eventually gave the producers. With 12 episodes, I think the show would have had more room to breathe, to allow the characters to just be characters for a little while, rather than just pawns or players in a game.

    It also seems that the producers’ choice to flesh out and/or highlight certain characters that weren’t as fleshed out at this point in the book may have been a mistake. In the books the initial dividing line is very clear: Starks vs. Lannisters (well, there’s the Wall too, and Dany, but in the King’s Landing plot this is the dividing line). It’s only as the story goes on that the reader starts to realize everything may not be so simple, and that some characters may be more sympathetic than previously thought. I think this would have been a better route for the show as well, because focusing on the Starks-as-good-guys, Lannister-as-bad-guys angle would have given the viewers an anchor point or rubric for understanding the show. As things get more complex later on it’s important to have that anchor-point, even if you know that things aren’t really so clear cut.

    The Littlefinger issue is, I think, related to this problem of highlighting certain characters too early. In the books he at first comes across as a secondary or tertiary character, so the fact that you don’t understand his motives can be attributed to his relatively lesser importance with regard to the other characters. As the story progresses and his greater importance becomes clearer, you also get a clearer understanding of his motives (although we still don’t have the full picture). But in the show, Littlefinger’s character has been played up a bit too much, it seems, both in promotional material and in the casting of Aidan Gillien (I can excuse the latter, since Gillien’s a good actor and seems to be good for the role as well). This may be why you had some trouble with his character: he seems like an important player and therefore a character you should understand better, yet the show is maddeningly mum about his motives. Does this seem like a good description of your feelings, Ryan?

    In any event, I echo other commenters’ appreciation of your review. It’s nice to get another perspective on the show that isn’t positively gushing, mostly because it helps me contain my own anticipation for the show.

  59. Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:21 am | Permalink

    I was talking about this earlier today with my podcast co-host, but one of the things I’ve noticed about HBO’s stuff in recent years is that it’s, by and large, abandoning basic episodic storytelling. Things like True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Game Of Thrones, etc., etc., etc. play less like TV series and more like series of miniseries. It doesn’t always work for me (I’m not a big fan of many parts of True Blood, though I think it can be great fun when it gets out of its own way), but where FX and AMC seem to be heading more toward making really satisfying TV shows, HBO seems more interested in making really long movies, split over the course of ten to twelve weeks.

  60. Skyweir
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:46 am | Permalink

    I have never gotten this strange need to have someone to root for, I find most books or series with too clearly defined heroes to be rather boring.

    You do seem to have the classical reaction to the different characters, which I guess is inevitable. If the series ever gets further than the first book, you might view of them might change.

    I must also echo the thoughts that if you find the plot to drive the characters, then either the adaptation is very poor or you are misinterpeting something. The plot in the books is very character driven.

    Strange that you and Sepinwall are so out of sync here, I guess it might be a matter of taste.
    For the record, I am not really into Spartacus (even after powering through the horrible beginning) or Rubicon regardless of critical acclaim, so I guess there is no accounting for it.

  61. Gecc1
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    To most readers of the book, it is obvious that seizing the iron throne is not really the central theme of this story. While important to a few secondary characters, that goal is not a driving force to the main  characters (Ned, Arya, Tyrion, Jon). And even for Dany, it is only a vehicle for coming home. 
    Right now the main characters are just being swept by a current created by a few secondary characters such as Robert, Cersei and Vyserys (much like Roberto Benigni’s character was swept in Life is Beautiful).

    At this stage, the political instability is the trial by fire that drives the growth of the main characters. And these characters need to grow a lot stronger to face what is awakening at the other side of the wall. 

    Right now you should be having a “And the Band Played On” feeling, as the petty squabbles that are typical of human nature plunge a kingdom in chaos and destroys several families, while the real threat grows unchecked. 
    Kind of like the bickering in our Congress over nothing while Global Warming and The Federal Debt threatens to consume all life as we know it. 

    And directly to our point about character. Everything… Everything, that happens in this story is a direct result of the characters  very personal goals and motivations.  
    Be it, self preservation, friendship, financial gain, love, revenge, duty/honor. 
    And the actions are very closely tied to the virtues and weaknesses of the character making the decision to act.  Therefore I am very surprise that you see characters driven by plot, instead of the other way around and alarmed that the show may not be making this clearer. 
    What should be apparent  is that the action and decisions of each character does have an impact or effect (sometimes small, sometimes large) on a number of other characters. So at any point in time, any character could be hundred, aided or destroyed by the actions of another. But character is always the main driver. 

  62. Matt
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    I think the problem with Littlefinger being a hard one to pin down is that he simply plays a long Game and is not one of the POV characters. We never get to read about his plans and motives through inner dialogue.

    I do not know if this is a spoiler since I havent seen the show yet, but I think Littlefinger’s motives can mostly be inferred by his time spent as a boy with the Tullys (he was fostered there as a boy).

    If you want the specifics of how that contributed to his motivations(spoilers ahead), he basically fell in love with Cat Tully (now Cat Stark), and still loves her, but came from much much too poor and minor of a house to marry her. He actually fought a duel with Cat’s betrothed for her hand, but lost handily. Afterward, he was sent away, back to his home, due to that embarrassment. I think this caused a great deal of resentment about his poor birth status because no matter how smart and cunning he is, that is something that he will always be limited by. I think he refuses to accept that though. (end spoilers)

    I think it should be pointed out that the first book, so the first season, is mostly about the Starks, and it is those characters that really get fleshed out. You start to learn a lot more about the other characters in books 2, 3, and 4 (while also still spending a good chunk of time with the Starks).

    I think it should really be kept in mind that this is a really really long story with a ton of characters. I think it would be rather poor storytelling if you had most of the characters pegged 400 pages into a 7000 page story.

  63. ASOIAF FANGIRL!!!!!1
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the well-thought review. As someone else already said, this was much more interesting to read than the hyping fanboy/girl reviews or the condemning fantasy-sucks-because-it’s-fantasy reviews. Yours is so far my favourite review with Elio and Linda’s. You’re clearly open-minded and say what’s good/bad and provide explanations for your opinions.

    I’m a big fan of ASOIAF books and have been following the making of the GoT with mixed feelings. I’ve been hopeful at times and doubtful at another times. After reading the leaked script and watching the first 15 minutes I started to think that the greatest perils to this adaptation are probably over-simplificated/caricatured characters (such as Catelyn the evil step-mother and Ned the badass fighter) and too fast pacing. The richness of ASOIAF lies in the different POVs, imo, and turning some of the POV views (such as Jon’s angsty feelings towards Catelyn) as facts instead of opinions make the story a lot less alluring, to me at least. OTOH, enhancing some of the characters at this point might be a mistake as well – it definitely changes the dynamics and takes something important out of the respective character arcs.

    I probably will watch a couple of episodes and if the show doesn’t get any better (than I now believe it is), I’ll stop watching. I’m more of a book person than a tv/movie person and I wish to keep my original impressions intact concerning the visual look. Would hate to have them changed without a good enough payoff.

  64. Mezeh
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 3:15 am | Permalink

    Well the interview is really interesting yet it is difficult to make any comment on o taking into account that I didn’t yet see any episodes beyond 14 min preview and on the same time read all of the books.
    Still IMO opinion the book and the show since it was called a faithful adaptation demand some amount of patience. The world is huge the characters are many and while most secrets are revealed in their time sometimes you have to wait for a while.
    For example as it was already mentioned in comments the motivation of Littlefinger would be partially revealed in the first season thought his ultimate goal still not completely clear after 4 books.
    Some may noticed apparent mystery with Jon Snow mother – this one would take more time to be eventually solved while books at least supply one hint after another.
    Motivations of the characters is also much more complex – Ryan probably missed words from one of previews that if you think that you know characters then you most probably wrong…
    Nevertheless the review is valid point of view of somebody who just got to the middle of the first season of the show and never read the book.

  65. Jarmel
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    Ryan:*rereads own article*

    *doesn’t see any mention of “The Wire” or “The Sopranos”

    What does that mean?

  66. Mezeh
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 3:29 am | Permalink

    By the way – there is an easy way to understand Martin and ASOIF without of spoiling anything in the present show – Hedge Knight stories.
    For those who do not know – this is kind of prequel to the book where events tool place approximately 90 years earlier. The stories are short yet they contain all the features that are present in the main books. There are also hidden things but they revealed much more quickly.

  67. Matt D
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    A very thoughtful review, thanks. The theme that ties the books for me is that well-meaning actions often have terrible consequences. Because the book is split among many different characters’ POVs, this character-driven plot is much more apparent. Lacking that narrative advantage, I hope the show’s writers have the courage to deviate from the book’s structure where necessary in order to best motivate the characters’ actions.

    I had this problem with The Tudors. I went into the show expecting to love it, but it so often felt like I was riding the rails toward a particular historical end.

  68. Alcibiades
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    YOur introductory paragraphs reveals how seriously you took this particular review and I believe, it shows your mind was basically already made up to give a negative review.
    Your review is totally negative!
    (and you like the show remember?)
    Where’s the positives?
    I think you wanted to write a negative piece just to feel better about yourself. (You know, you’re right everyone else is wrong type of thing)
    Jaco’s highlighting of your absurd take on the maesters path promo box was spot on. Again this has nothing to do with the show itself but you just had to go there as well didn’t you? To support your case of course.
    As more than 5 people have noted your views on character motivation shortcomings are Fail.
    You said yourself, perspective is subjective, arguing anything else is a lie, your perspective is sadly skewed, perhaps it’s your ego.

  69. Hiver
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Very good review. I was worried they may end up missing the individual trees because of the forest.
    And im afraid its not so much an omission but just, not being able to do it on the level of quality Martin sets.

    Ive seen only the first 15 min preview and i noticed the same issue during the prologue. The mere events were shown but very little of characters and their history and reasons, motivation, a lot due to small or a bit bigger visual changes that necessitated even more other adjustments , was properly done.

    Other motivations, who are subtle in the books are enhanced into full blown everyday conflicts, while other character ambitions and behavior are simply removed and characters simplified in that sense.

    There are other important details missing, such as one that makes Arya receiving her “Needle” take on a whole deeper and more engaging meaning, signifying a change from a girl that is expected to do girlie things into a whole different future path of women who take active, individualistic roles
    and shape the Song as much as any other character.

    I would bet that no one in the series even bothered to compare Arya with Eddard Stark long gone sister Lyanna? And they should have.

    I especially dislike that they are using a “trick” of the characters just talking to each other as an info dump – instead of using the story and solving a lot of it with a few well chosen flashbacks, which would merely represent a few personal memories of the past, providing background history and character motivations or behavior in that basic requirement of:

    Show – dont tell.

    I have to say we do get some info on Littlefinger in the books. Intertwined with his plot.
    So those that are saying we dont have him explained better in the books dont really tell the whole truth.

    But its not a total exposition and doesnt really reveal what he intends to do, or precisely why.

    It gives you a reference point in his past and leaves you to put the pieces together yourself – instead of spelling it all out.

    Though i have to confirm that we do get that info about him later in the books.

    The problem is, or arises, more likely, from the fact that he is much more overplayed and visible in the series, while in the books he is almost a minor, secondary character for a while – who you notice on the fringes but dont take as that big a player until further on.

    If the hbo interpretation was done right, i trust it would come out as a mystery that a viewer wants to unravel, that draws you in – rather then an unsatisfactory experience such as you described.

  70. Alex
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 4:20 am | Permalink


    Your effort to communicate not only your reaction to the series but your specific reasons is very much appreciated.

    My impression of your review is that it comes across much more negative than you might’ve intended it because you spent so much time on the aspects you didn’t care for compared to the things which worked for you.

    It’s unfortunate that you seem to feel the series lacks enough three-dimensional character you can care about. The nuanced characters are in fact one of the strengths of the book series and a good adaptation shouldn’t have lost this. Still, the TV series can’t have gotten this completely wrong given your take on Arya, Jon and Tyrion — who are, with a few others, very much the main characters in the books and certainly the most popular characters.

    Another point which you might want to keep in mind is that a few characters are meant to be mysterious. You’re meant to keep wondering where they stand and why they do what they do. I think it would be an injustice to the creators of the TV series to fault them for keeping some characters’ motivations hidden at this point. That’s the way it was in the books too, a deliberate choice by GRRM which worked quite well.

    Will it work the same way on TV? Not for you it seems. But I would be reluctant to fault the psychological realism of the series just because the series hasn’t yet revealed the motives of some players — like Littlefinger or Varys — at this relatively early stage.

    The book series isn’t just a psychological drama, to some degree it’s a mystery drama too. From what you say this aspect hasn’t been lost, and I suspect this won’t only please the book fans but also enhance the viewing experience for most people unfamiliar with the books.

  71. rtm1981
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 5:20 am | Permalink

    Mr. McGee,

    Thanks for the first well thought out negative review of GoT, it was painful for me as a fan of the books to read – let me tell you :)

    Here’s an idea: What do you say to reading the first book now, and seeing the 6 episodes again (as they air). That way you can give a review from a readers perspective as well. Awesome? :)

    Question: Do you think there’s a risk in becoming too much a critic? Do you think there’s a chance that critics sometimes sit down to analyze a show instead of actually watching and enjoying it. That they grab onto scenes immediately and critique it instead of letting them develop naturally as they progress on screen (and in your mind)? I’ve occasionally experienced moments when I’ve applied a sort of filter in my mind when watching movies\shows that I have expectations about, a filter which through which everything I watch has to pass before it can be enjoyed\disliked. I’m asking, not accusing.

    Pff. Apologies for any spelling errors and\or any inadvertant insults. I know enough English to read the books, but not enough to write out a thoughtful\well formulated comment. I tried.

  72. rtm1981
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    sigh…. -which

  73. Damian
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    I’ve been hoping for a review that isn’t quite so gushingly hyperbolic or that boils down to “fantasy, ugh.”
    Great honest review.

  74. Evil Peter
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    This was an interesting read and it’s nice to see a negative review that doesn’t just dismiss the genre and leaves it at that.

    I personally don’t really understand why all characters must be understood though. For my part I think it’s more thrilling to not be sure where I have a character (especially a scheming one) and then be surprised about what happens and delighted when I get to see how everything comes together. I’m also of the kind that doesn’t really need clear people to root for (in the traditional sense as I do root for people but it doesn’t have to be intended from the creator) so I might certainly be the one that’s odd here.

    As for the book, that’s actually even more about not making you understand why things happen because that’s written purely from the POV from different characters and those characters’ enemies will of course not just blurt out their intentions and dark secrets. Given that it might just be that this story will not be fully enjoyed by people that aren’t OK with people being enigmas for a while, people that don’t feel fine with being as much in the dark as the focus characters often are.

    I enjoyed reading your review and I fully respect your opinions, especially since they were well put and felt free of agenda. It will be interesting watching how D&D have put this together since it seems mindboggling that some reviewers say the acting and script is top notch and another (you) say that the conversations are at times extremely unnatural.

  75. Posted April 13, 2011 at 7:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the review, and apologies for the fanatics. Cognitive dissonance in action, I think.

    On your general points: yes, this is much as I feared it might be, from what I’ve seen of the trailers and reviews so far. I think it was a MASSIVE mistake to try to do all the exposition by spoken word, especially when the flashbacks in the books have some of the most dramatic scenes. Westeros.org has already expressed concern that (partly because of this talkification) a lot of the ‘romance’ has gone out of the series, and that seems connected to what you say.

    In the books, the older generation are very scarred by their experiences in the war (and before it) and filled with nostalgia and regret, and this shapes a lot of their character and gives some meaning to their actions: Cersei is shaped by the death of Rhaegar and her marriage to Robert instead, who hardly lives up to his predecessor, and consequently becomes bitter and ambitious (particularly with her father’s demotion); Jaime’s actions at the end of the war have imprisoned him in a reputation that he feels unable to escape and so bloody-mindedly attempts to live up to; Tyrion is founded not on the war but on his experiences with Tysha as a young man, and his family’s role in them; Ned is obviously to some degree shaped by the existence of Jon, the one blight on his honour; Robert, perhaps most importantly, has turned from a dynamic warrior to a neglectful and self-neglecting king, not only by winning the throne, but most importantly by the death of Lyanna. Rhaegar and Lyanna are the most important characters in the book – they are among the central determining facts in the lives of Ned, Robert, Cersei, and the Targaryens, not to mention putting in place the whole chain of events that lead to the book. In fact, when I read the first book, I thought the main plot was the uncovering of the story of Rhaegar and Lyanna, which we get from different perspectives at different times.

    So, in all, a lot of characters can only be understood through their histories. But those histories have a greater impact in the written word, in memories and dreams, than in one character dumping exposition on another. So I think it’s not surprising if the characters on the screen seem a little motiveless and unsympathetic. I notice that your favoured characters are all the younger generation who don’t have all that baggage – plus Tyrion, whose charisma is meant to be scene-stealing.

    Your review, then, is disappointing, but not, sadly, shocking.


    On a more positive note, I’m incredibly glad to hear so much praise for Maisie Williams as Arya. She’s my favourite character, but more importantly, I thought going into this that she would be the most likely horrific failure, as she has one of the most difficult roles to play, and there aren’t many child actors who could play it well. Admittedly, there’s plenty of room still for her to go wrong – her character development has barely started in the episodes you’ve seen – but the praise for her acting is certainly an encouraging sign for when she gets to the difficult bits.

    [The other difficult role, I think, is Littlefinger, who ideally should be likeable and untrustworthy – likeable that you trust him in spite of your own better judgement. It sounds as though that’s not worked as well – and indeed, from the trailers, Baelish seems oily and tricksy, whereas in the books I felt that he was always more charismatic, more flippant, more disarming – a sort of “watch me pretend to me untrustworthy” act that was so obvious that people underestimated him. And contrary to the comments above, I loved Littlefinger from the beginning, and that’s only grown as I’ve come to understand him (again, he is shaped entirely by his past). If you’re interested, by the way: he’s not a Linusesque Macchiavelli at all. That’s an entirely different character, but I won’t give that spoiler away. Littlefinger is devious, yes, but is essentially an opportunist rather than a plotter]


    Anyway, to end with: if you liked Arya and Tyrion, make sure you watch the second season even if you don’t like the end of the first. There’s massively more Arya and Tyrion in the second novel than the first.

    (By the way: it wasn’t until the end of the first novel that I got hooked, and the second and third novels are better. Most of the first book seemed too aimless for me).


    Oh, and they seem to be playing up the ‘game of thrones’ angle, which actually isn’t that important in the novel, at least until the end. Indeed, part of the point of the novel is all our viewpoint characters (Ned because of his honour and naivity, the children because they are children, and Catelyn and Tyrion because of their dislocation) are essentially blind to the game of thrones that is going on around them.

    Oh, just go read the books instead! I’m sure they’ll be a lot better!

  76. Putter482
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Thoughtful review, but I guess I just feel a disconnect with your dislike of the morally ambiguous characters. As someone who has read the book, those characters really are the bread and butter of the series, and I feel that, for me, they are far more interesting than the characters who you know for certain what they are thinking and where they are going and why. While I am in the minority for certain, I always found the Mary Sue type characters (Tyrion, Arya, Jon, and even Daenerys a bit) to be the unbelieveable ones. I won’t delve into spoilers, but their plotlines stretch reality for me much further than a character who we see often, but are not sure which side they support, and in the real world, do we always know why someone acts the way they do, or whos side they really support?

    I feel the same disconnect for your feelings on Ben from lost as well. While his relationship with his daughter was somewhat interesting, it was his evil plans and plots, that while however impractical, caught me up in his character, and while for a while his plans did work out amazingly well, but as we saw in the fifth season, if not earlier, his plans didn’t always work out and that he was flawed.

    The same applies to GOT, and I understand you are new to the series, but while many of the morally ambiguous characters machinations work out at the moment, a defining property of the books, and I can assume tv series, is that not everything goes as planned, for anyone, and if you stick with it, I believe you will find that to be true.

    So I appreciate your review, it was well thought out and you did not dismiss the show for simply “being fantasy,” but I must admit feeling a bit of a disconnect as to your reasoning why. For someone like me, the questioning of who is right, who is wrong, and what side you would take is half the fun of the series.

  77. ingsve
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    It sounds to me like this adaptation has potential to grow in future seasons when the new audience is more familiar with what has happened and there isn’t the same need to introduce everything from scratch. That can probably leave more time for the here and now as well. Also later seasons gives the showrunners the opportunity to fix things that didn’t work in this season if there is consistency in some of the critique.

  78. Posted April 13, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Putter: as listed before, I DON’T have a problem with morally ambiguous characters. I have a problem with any character for which his/her motivation is so ambiguous as to be equally possible along a seemingly infinite number of paths. This could apply to people who are “good,” “bad”, or any point along that spectrum. It just happens to apply to a character in this story that could be helping everyone or no one at any moment, with all possibilities still in play.

    To those that think I want fully developed characters across the board at this point: no. What I want are characters that have a POV or ethos to which I can attach myself, even if I can’t fully understand. Snow’s essential character is immediately conveyed, but I don’t pretend to KNOW him at this stage of the show by any stretch. That’s all I mean.

    Skyweir: I respect Alan a lot, but we actually disagree as much as we agree. Which is healthy and doesn’t conveny any antagonism, but yes, it’s a matter of taste and subjectivity, as outlined throughout the review. So having us differ on this shouldn’t be terribly surprising, since it seems to be a 50/50 chance these days.

  79. Evil Peter
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink


    Cersei didn’t marry Robert because Rheagar died, Rheagar was married to Elia Martell and had two children. Cersei had fallen a bit for him when he visited Casterly Rock but she had a pretty good opinion about Robert before they married as well. And if anything, characters like Cersei and Jaime are more fleshed out in the show than they are in the first book (due to the POV structure) so it goes both ways.

    It’s extremely hard to say how Littlefinger is from the little time we’ve been given in previews, and I personally think we’ve still seen one scene where the “pretending to be untrustworthy” is very clear so with that and Ryan’s descriptions I don’t think there’s too much of a change. You don’t know what he’s up to in the book as far as Ryan’s watched either, and you’re not supposed to (regardless if you think that’s positive or not).

    I still think some of his criticism applies just as much to the book. Then again I think it applies to some show he says that he likes as well, perhaps even more to those shows.

  80. Dan
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink


    Thank you for this thoughtful review. As a fan of the books, I really appreciate this type of insight because it is literally impossible (pun intended) for me to experience the show the way you are now. I think your critiques are fair and probably warranted, although I have not seen the show, but are something that I could never pick up on because I have all of the knowledge which you lack.

    That being said, some of the negative feeback you are getting may not be because “you don’t mean what you write” but because possibly it invokes feelings you may not have intended to relay. The prime example for me is when you say Ned was the one of the reasons you “stuck with it” as long as you did. When someone uses the term “stuck with it” for me that invokes the feeling of not liking something but grueling it out anyway. I’m not saying that’s what you meant, but that’s just how it comes off to me. My guess however (and this is only my guess) is that you did enjoy the experience of watching, but was just being far about the things that it could have done better to make it a great show.

    Maybe including your big picture evaluation before then going into the details of your critiques may fix that problem (if it is a problem at all).

  81. Sam
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Good review. My first reaction was “no, no, no!!! They pulled a Harry Potter and focused more on cramming the plot in than making the character’s resonate!” Then, upon further reflection I realized that your impression actually very closely mirrors my own impression of the book when I read it for the first time many years ago.
    I usually pound through fantasy novels. Even 800-1000 pages usually takes me no more than a week at most. This is because I become instantly invested, and I can’t put the book down. This was not the case the first time I read Game of Thrones. I never abandoned it, but I think it took me close to three weeks to finish. Why?
    There are a lot of characters. I didn’t really get attached to most of them at first. In fact, I just wasn’t that into the book until maybe the last chapter. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Then, those last few chapters hit, and I started to get really sucked in. I dashed out to get book 2 as soon as I finished book 1.
    And then I slogged through book 2… The same thing happened. It was interesting, but I didn’t feel all that invested. However, the ending was so good that I ran out to get book 3.
    Storm of Swords was the book that really hooked me. There are some scenes in that book that simply took my breath away. There were at least two or three moments that literally made me yell, “yes!” and giggle like a school-kid; others made me almost throw the book across the room. As soon as I finished 3, I went back to 1 and re-read it–and loved it from start to finish.
    My relationship with The Big Lebowski followed a similar pattern. I thought it was ok the first time, but it just kept getting better and better every time I saw it. Each character is so nuanced that it’s almost impossible (at least for me) to pick up on every little detail in one viewing.
    A Song of Ice and Fire is now my absolute favorite series. I can’t get enough of it. I love it so much now that it is occasionally hard to remember what an acquired taste the novels were for me. My hope is that the series will work in the same way. My fear is that the general viewing public will not have the patience to find out. I think this is the fear–though usually unarticulated–that causes most fans to react so violently when anyone criticizes the new show. We love it, but it took a while. I, and I think most other fans, just hope that people will give this show a chance, because the books just keep getting better and better (With the possible exception of A Feast for Crows, which is a bit of an anomaly that might actually be improved by the TV show, as those characters can be better integrated with the series favorites, just as Martin originally intended before he split the book in half).

  82. Eleanor
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    Hi Ryan,

    Good review! It’s beginning to seem, from a number of reviews, that the distinction between ‘POV’ and ‘non-POV’ characters has an effect on we book-fans that we don’t quite realise.

    First 2 books: No Lannister POVs bar the outsider Lannister. Lannisters BAD!

    Books 3 and 4: Jaime Lannister POV. Now Jaime has character development and good points! At exactly this point in time!

    Adaptation of Book 1: Some of Jaime’s inner thought processes are revealed. Book fans complain that it’s happening too early, despite the fact that how much musing Jaime does or doesn’t do on why he killed the old king has zero influence on the plot.

    Littlefinger is another example. There’s lots and lots of scheming and secrecy in the world, so readers of the books get quite used to the motives of non-POV characters being opaque. It’s an unconscious tradeoff for being completely inside the heads of POV characters. Coming to a TV show fresh where POV status is irrelevant, it’s perfectly reasonable to want an equal(ish) clarity for all characters who have significant screentime.

  83. K
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the thoughtful review. I hope that the series picks up for you and that you get more invested in the characters over time. In the book, the characters very much drive the plot — their choices, their core identities determine very much where the pieces land. I hope that becomes clearer later on in the series.

    RE Littlefinger

    “If that type of murkiness works for you, awesome. It doesn’t work for me since he’s little more that a trickster who works people’s strings for reasons that are by definition unknowable.”

    Isn’t that basically Ben on Lost too? You never really understood his core motivation, but he was fascinating just the same. Did you take issue with Ben as well?

  84. K
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Never mind about my last comment — see that you addressed the Ben Linus thing earlier.

    One thing that should hopefully give you some hope is that it took about 2/3 of the book for me to really get into it, and it wasn’t until the 3rd book that I became totally ‘into’ it and the characters. The amount of characters and the complexity of the story make it difficult to flesh out ever nuance of the characters, and my hope for the series is that they make sure to pick up on those nuances over time.

  85. Anne
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Not having seen the show, it’s so hard to comment on your review — I REALLY hope that you’re just missing something, because if you think that it’s all plot and not character, they definitely screwed something up. In the book, everything that happens is driven by character — obviously there are a million things that play into every decision, but at its most basic…[redacted for spoilers]….Everything they do comes from a character place. I trully hope that this is clear in the show.

  86. Posted April 13, 2011 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Anne from NYU: I’m going to include your comment later today when I can properly redact it, since your list of character motivations largely serves as 50% confirmation of what’s in the show for now, and 50% spoiler for someone like me. It’s a good highlight of the difference between what readers already know and newbies like me don’t, and how both sides will have different things play to them.

    But since I’m away from my home computer for now, I don’t want to edit your comment and accidentally break the commenting section.

  87. john
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the interesting read. Very well written review. I did have two issues with it:

    – in the comments you suggest that you do like the show/consider it “good”…yet the review comes off negative. i wish you’d focused a little more on the things you did like. I know you mentioned some of the characters and scenes that resonated, but given your overall, final assessment, I think the review needed a bit more balance.
    – your criticism of Littlefinger is odd; he’s a relatively minor character whose motivations you’re not supposed to understand six episodes in. Why is this that much of an issue, given that there are at least 4 other characters you DO care about and ‘get’.

  88. Steven Timberman
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Good to see that your review basically confirms what I assume will be close to my own reaction. I saw the Lord of The Rings in theaters and had massive structural issues with it, and found most of the movies (especially the second) to be nothing more than scenery porn. I posted an online review and was told by a billion fans to read the books.

    And you know what? I read them. And even after devoting way too much time to them, I still didn’t give a damn about the characters. Maybe I just can’t past the inherent hokey-ness in having dwarves and druids and elves walking about. On some level, I just DON’T CARE about all the world building. Give me a character to root for (Raylan Givens) or an ever-expanding plot to watch (Nikita).

  89. Dan
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    @ Steven Timberman

    Now this is the type of comment that I do have to take some issue with. It screams PRE-CONCEPTION BIAS. How can something confirm what your own expected reaction is when you haven’t seen it? Now I understand “expectations” are unavoidable for anyone going into anything. But it is possible to have expectations AND go into something with an open mind. This just sounds like you’ve stated, its high fantasy, therefore it most likely paints a pretty picture and is devoid of character, and that is simply not fair.

    Not to mention I think you’ve misinterpreted Ryan’s review signficantly.

  90. purplejilly
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    You know, after I watched the first 15 minutes of the show when HBO had that on about two weeks ago, I felt my first stab of fear, and thought “I think they needed to split Book 1 up even further.” Now after reading your review, I am fearing that even more. There is so much internal monologing that goes on in the books, and so much reminiscing that the characters do, and dreams that they have, and flashbacks, that fill everything in. It sounds like as of right now, the events happen too quickly, and you don’t get to understand the whys well enough. And the inscrutable Littlefinger – in the books it is pretty clear, related in bits and pieces by him, and flashbacks and inner thoughts by many characters – who he is, what happened to him as a child, and how it sets up his lifelong quest for power and trying to get himself higher up the ‘status’ ladder. Now I am thinking they should have stretched Book 1 out over two seasons. Maybe they will be able to do that with the later books, if they get more seasons. If it’s going to seem rushed and confused to someone who hasn’t read the books, then we are doing viewers a disservice, and it’s time to slow it down and give more fill-in.

  91. Putter482
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Poor choice of words on my part. I said morally ambiguous, but I was meaning… I don’t really know how to word it, but whom they serve is ambiguous, and why they do what they do is ambiguous. And to put it honestly, the person they (Ben from Lost and Littlefinger) are serving is first and foremost themselves and their motivations are nothing more than attempts to gain as much power and influence as possible.

    I know that showed for Ben early on, and unless Benioff and Weiss dropped the ball seriously, I would imagine the same applied to Littlefinger, and Varys, and Viserys and everyone else in the story. It may be a slight variation depending on the characters, but at the end of the day it is a story of shifting political affiliations. Sure there are a few holdouts (Obviously Ned is team Stark and Cercei is team Lannister) but at the end of the day there are going to people in the middle. Littlefinger is playing both sides, and sure, as of now he has not been burned by it, but who knows when that will change. That is one of the great things about GOT, is it takes those kind of characters, in those situations, and they will evnetually get theres, but for now, the essence of Littlefinger IS to be the one everyone needs, no one trusts, and he exploits that to the fullest. Maybe my acceptance of characters like this comes from my (now don’t laugh in my face) love of Survivor, where constantly in their narrative, they are playing out the people who are indecisive and uncommitted towards one alliance within the show or another. Sometimes it works out in their favor, other times it comes through and bites them in the ass.

    Again poor choice of words on my part in my original post, but I am just confounded as to how a character like that is what you pick apart. Again, I am not trying to attack you, and you earn more respect from me than you know, not only posting a not 100% glowing review of something with rabid fanboys, such as myself :P but also coming back to clarify, defend and further explain where you come from. I just hope you will stick with the show, as I really think, assuming it follows the books, that you would end up coming to love it, and it sounds like you intend to do that already.

  92. MC
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink


    Let me preface this by saying that I’m not saying your criticisms are unfounded or misplaced but in reading the review the thought that kept running through my head was “How can ANY show stand up to this level of scrutiny?”

    More power to you for going deep into what you did and didn’t like (though I will agree with prior commenters that the tone of the article is overwhelmingly negative for something that you ended up liking) but in doing a quick mental survey of the current TV landscape and even the recent past I can’t think of many (or any) shows that would come through with flying colors when put under the veritable microscope like GoT has been. Of course, if that’s what you’re thinking about when you watch a show and that is what determines your level of enjoyment then more power to you, it just seems to me that taking an approach like that sorta takes the fun out of it.

    Obviously I’m not saying criticism should be limited to lowest common denominator reviews (though many of the GoT = fantasy = silly reviews I’ve seen do seem to go that way) but for me I just couldn’t see myself really grabbing onto something and enjoying it if I was getting so far down into the weeds on it.

    Also, final thought/question. Do you think the pre-air hype surrounding this project led you to either a) higher expectations and b) to judge it more closely than you would any of the other shows premiering this winter/spring?


  93. LemonheadFu
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I am so very glad that you decided to write your review, given your initial “fear and loathing” about it. As a passionate fan of ASOIAF series, I’ve been lurking a lot of the fan sites/forums for the past year, and reading every single review as soon as it comes out, but this is the very first time I’ve wanted to comment in the discussion. I’ve been particularly interested in the opinions of reviewers who haven’t yet read the books. Since I have read and re-read the books multiple times, I know I’ll never be able to fully put them out of my mind when watching the TV show. Although I wish I could experience both the book and the HBO series on their own terms, I know I’ll always be comparing the show to the books in the back of my mind. Your review is BY FAR the review that I have most enjoyed reading. Both your praises and your criticisms of the series are well-thought-out and well-expressed, unlike most of the other reviews I’ve read. Unlike a lot of the other commentators who were unhappy that you opened with a comparison to the Maester’s Path box, I thought it was a brilliant analogy, and your point is well taken. In fact, all of your critiques echo all of my greatest fears about the HBO series – that it will be TOO true to the books in every piddling detail, and in doing so, will lose the very heart of the books by not investing enough in character development/motivations/psychology. I’m glad that you’re still interested in watching the rest of the series, and I would really love it if you would continue to avoid the spoilers, and to blog about each episode as they air, or at least write a follow-up to this article after you’ve seen the rest of the season. It would be refreshing to continue to hear your unbiased opinion as a non-reader of the books. Your review impressed me so much that I’m also going to start following your reviews of other shows.

  94. Isabella
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Very insightful review. Thanks.
    I’ll be very interested to know if, at the end of this season (assuming HBO decides to make subsequent seasons) you’ll be able to refrain from reading the next books to find out what happens.

    I second all those commenters who found reading the book slow going until they got to the end when it all came together to great satisfaction.

    From this review and others I’ve seen, I’m getting the impression that the producers may have erred in giving more focus to characters like Cersei, Jaime and Littlefinger, with the result of distracting and confusing the newbie-viewers.

  95. Vincent
    Posted April 13, 2011 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Actually, this review was pretty spot on in regards to how I felt about the book. It was intriguing, but I didn’t ‘attach’ to any of the characters no grasp just how interwoven the plot was.

    I suspect that viewers will feel the same way. I wouldn’t be surprised if the non-readers are somewhat ambivalent up until the last few episodes. And the books only get better from here.

  96. Cindy
    Posted April 14, 2011 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    Oh, poor Ryan. How dare you, you wrote a review about a new TV-Show and hold it to the things you like and don’t like about a new TV-Show as with every show you judge. And you mentioned the things, which are not perfect or even, god forbid bad, and this with something which has to be perfect? Every other opinion about GoT is not allowed, no, no. And that where you praise everything in others shows and you never find anything to criticize about them? Gosh, I don’t know if I’m laughing or crying right know, after reading some of this comments.

    OK, enough with the irony. I want to say thank you for the review and please, don’t stop writing about this show (which you suggested via Twitter). I can really understand you, if you don’t have the nerve to write about it in your free time and put in on your blog, which is a really friendly place when it comes to other things. I really would apreciate it to read your take on the show, because you an Alan Sepinwall are the two crtics I read, who didn’t read the books. And I would find it very, very interesting to know, where in particular your problems are and what you like.

    My sense after reading your review is, that you picked up on some of the difficulties the books have as well. After reading the other comments, I know it is like blasphemie to say that the books have any weaknesses, but for me the characterization was not so perfect in the beginning (and esepially Littlefinger or Cersei where really troublesome). I get is, that this was sometimes by design, so we can be surprised when this characters get their own POV, but I didn’t know this at the time and my feelings toward some of them where, that they were not really good fleshed out. And I take your review, as the series will have similiar problems. I think it’s just natural, but a legimate point of critizismen for the TV-Show.

    What I want to say, is that it is really unfair of the fans of the books to take their knowledge of 4 books and hold it against Ryan, when he sees a problem in the beginning. There is a problem. A book is another medium than a TV-Series, you didn’t judge a book by it’s first half, you wait til the end. But a series has to stand on its own, and here comes Todd Vand der Werffs point in the picture, a TV series has to bring content on the screen episode by episode and has to satisfie viewers on a weekly basis. And if you don’t transalte the narrative of a book into the other medium, than it is not 100% good.

    And my last point, the discussion here took me to the point, where I will try and do not read any comments about the series anymore. It’s so encouraging, I don’t like the tone and I don’t like it, that an intelligent point of view on the series is taken as a pure afront.

    Sorry for my bad english, I’m no native.

  97. Josh
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Looks like a very solid review. I’m a reader of the books, and I suspect I’ll be happy with the series. Now I’m just a teeeeny bit worried that my parents/sister, who are okay with fantasy (liked Lord of the Rings movies) but haven’t read the books may be a little lost/bored/irritated. I’d seen so many good reviews that I’ve recommended they watch. So I suppose I’m hoping the they’ll get involved enough in the immediately involving characters to get carried through the rest.

  98. JD
    Posted April 23, 2011 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    Excellent review! Voiced my worries exactly. I guess I had a lot of the same feelings halfway through the book but Martin’s characters were really alive and that’s what kept me reading. Especially the ones you mentioned. They became much more fully fledged as the book went on but at first the depection of them in the books can be called miminum.

    Based on this review I think the series calls for a second viewing when you finished it. It seems that too much is too subtle in a not very good way. I was perfectly happy with how they portrayed the world (for the fams) and its exactly how Martin depicted it, even with the piece of the commom enemy. But if the plots and characters are not interesting enough to hold sustained interests, then we are in trouble.

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