The second thing I can credit the show for is being an excellent, admirable adaptation. It hews closely to the books, but not to the point that it detracts from the show.
The tireless geniuses behind the adaptation are David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, two producers who clearly adore the source material and whom everyone — including and especially Martin — admire and trust to keep the story on track.
Like many notable adaptations, Game of Thrones works best when its source material is strongest, unpredictable and funny and complex.
With some of the unusual choices in the books — a filtered perspective of kings, very little Dany story in Book 2, sexuality of minors, etc. — the show faced tough planning challenges. They’ve had to improvise, adjusting and creating stories to better fit television.
Unfortunately, some portions of the story original to the show — particularly Dany’s story in the second season and Theon’s story in the third season — have been among the weakest. The show has invented a few winners, though: Arya’s relationship with Tywin was a highlight of the second season, and Osha has become a much more engaging character on screen than she was in print.
The third thing I can credit the show for is its incredible production values. From the heart-pounding intro of the first episode onwards, this show has absolutely nailed the look and cinematic feel required to match the story.
The depiction of iconic locales like The Wall and the Iron Throne and The Dothraki Sea has almost always lived up to the book. You never feel like you’re just looking at another Hollywood set: It feels epic and beautiful, like when you’re watching Lord of the Rings.
It would have been infeasible for the show to portray all of the epic battles described by the book, but the workarounds have generally been satisfying. In a funny note in the first season, Tyrion is knocked unconscious by friendly fire and wakes up with the battle complete.
And the cinematic highlight of the show has probably been the Battle of Blackwater. I actually felt like I was watching a fiery siege of Kings Landing as I watched the episode.
The show’s use of R-rated content has been a necessary choice for the stories. If Benioff and Weiss shied away from the bloody deaths — particularly iconic ones towards the end of the first and third seasons — the show would be significantly less effective.
On the other hand, the nudity has occasionally felt gratuitous. In a now-legendary article, the great Myles McNutt coined the term “sexposition” for the show’s use of nudity while revealing important plot or character points.
The show’s depiction of magic has been compelling, generally matching the eerie, impenetrable feeling of the magic in the book. The handful of times we see explicit magic — “shadow baby” in particular — have been borderline disturbing (in the best way possible).
The fourth thing I can credit the show for is its casting, which has been inspired. Let’s look at five highlights, in ascending order of greatness:
He’s loathsome, but Theon is at least an interesting character. He’s played PERFECTLY in a pitiful/prideful way by Alfie Allen. You 75% hate him, but 25% sympathize with him, and the fact that Allen can so perfectly depict that (and look exactly how you imagine him when you read the book) is a marvel.
Arya is, at first, an exceedingly fun character, a rebellious little girl who wants to play with her direwolf and learn to swordfight. Then, she’s an exceedingly tragic character as the ones she loves are taken from her one at a time, until it’s just her and Needle. Maisie Williams wonderfully captures all of this with a plucky, bold performance.
The character of Ned Stark is sometimes ridiculed, but he’s a favorite of mine and one of the most important characters in the series. Sean Bean perfectly captures the stony, selfless, complicated spirit of the Eddard.
Emilia Clarke (shown at the top of the post) is absolutely riveting as Daenerys Targaryen, displaying both the “inner dragon” and the tenderness of the banished queen. It’s the kind of role that would be Oscar-nominated and described as “fearless” if it was in a movie — but to sustain that over years and hours of TV is astonishing. Even when her part asks for little except shouting “where are my dragons!?” Clarke shines.
You’d have trouble coming up with any person more perfectly suited for any role than Peter Dinklage is for Tyrion Lannister, aka The Imp, aka The Pimp. His dry, intelligent delivery and great dramatic chops are rightfully Emmy-winning.
The fifth thing I can say about the show is that it takes the time to craft compelling, tight episodes most of the time. As an adaptation of a sprawling series of novels, it would have been easy (and somewhat understandable) for each episode to represent a chunk of pages from the book.
Instead, we’ve received brilliant individual episodes that tell great little and big stories. Here are five of my favorite episodes in chronological order:
You Win Or You Die (S01E07)
This was one of the first times that the shit really hit the fan on the show. King Robert gets impaled by a boar and suffers an untimely death. In the ensuing fallout, Ned tries to out Joffrey’s true paternity but is one (or ten) steps behind the Kings Landing game of thrones.
The death of — SPOILER — the hand of the king, otherwise known as — SERIOUSLY, SPOILER — Ned Stark is still the most pivotal moment in the show’s history. “Baelor” is all about power spoiled, as Joffrey orders the murder of the man who appeared to be the hero of the story and Dany turns to blood magic and lingering power in all the wrong, most painful ways.
The second season is the show’s weakest of the three so far (and, not surprisingly, Clash of Kings is the weakest book of the first three), but the season’s penultimate hour serves as a high point by focusing in on the bloody, fiery battle at the gates of Kings Landing. Cheers to Lena Hadley as Cersei for this performance.
This is my gut reaction pick for the best episode of the series so far — thanks in part to the epic, climactic, explosive final minutes where Daenerys pulls off her long con. Nearly as important is a bloody fight at Craster’s Keep, as some worn out members of the Black decide they’ve had enough.
The Rains of Castemere (S03E09)
Who better than The National to put to tune the most haunting song of the series? Thankfully, the episode lives up to the dread of its title song and the great, bloody twist of the book. Few scenes have been more painful to watch than the wedding reception of Roslin and Edmure. The central betrayal may have been heavily forecast, but its fallout is nothing short of traumatizing.
The sixth thing I can say about the show is that it has my third favorite TV theme song ever behind Cheers and The OC.