With the premiere of Season 3 of Game of Thrones came the interesting tidbit that GoT is the most illegally downloaded series ever. That’s fascinating in its own right, but I especially liked the response of HBO President Michael Lombardo:
The show’s second season was recently released to record-setting DVD sales for the network. But in December, topped another chart that is far more dubious — ranked as the most illegally downloaded TV series for 2012. “I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it is a compliment of sorts,” Lombardo said. “The demand is there. And it certainly didn’t negatively impact the DVD sales. [Piracy is] something that comes along with having a wildly successful show on a subscription network…”
In fact, one of Lombardo’s issues with piracy is a creative one. The executive expressed concern that illegal copies can be of poor quality when the team takes pride in lavishly producing the show. “One of my worries is about the copies [downloaders are] seeing,” Lombardo said. “The production values of this show are so incredible. So I’m hoping that in the purloined different generation of cuts that the show is holding up.”
That’s a remarkably well-informed and realistic response from a man in Lombardo’s position – and, I suspect, one which he’ll take a good deal of grief for in the industry.
As for our premiere episode, I’d rank it as a solid, workmanlike effort that gets the job done: lacking the poetry and explosive drama that the best episodes of this series display, but that’s as much a product of the material it covered as anything else. Season-premiere episodes for 10-episode series have an awful lot of work to do, both in recalling what’s come before and setting the stage for what’s to come.
It’s my feeling that we’re at the point in the story where HBO is going to have a harder and harder time transitioning the books to the screen without making some significant changes. One of the peculiarities of GoT is that it grows constantly – sure, characters die, but not nearly as fast as new ones (and their arcs) are added. It starts as a huge story and just gets bigger and bigger, yet Martin mostly manages to maintain a human touch. Whether a TV series can do that when half the main cast isn’t going to appear in any given episode is hard to say. I’ve seen no indication that HBO and Martin are dramatically scaling things back – at this point it looks more like selective trimming – but I’m not sure they’re going to be able to keep it up.
The most important new characters introduced this week are North of the Wall, and the most important of them is the King North of the Wall, Mance Rayder. He’s played by Welsh actor Ciaran Hinds, who was so magnificent as Julius Caesar in my favorite HBO series to date, Rome. The cast of GoT is truly remarkable and this just makes it that much better. I’ll need to be convinced about the other major addition, Norwegian actor Kristofer Hivju as Tormund Giantsbane. He’s the right nationality for certain, but he lacks the raw physicality I imagined in Tormund, one of the best characters in this part of the story. But Tormund didn’t have a chance to show off his personality much this week, so I’ll withhold judgment for a while. It’s hardly spoiling to say that both these men are going to be important players in events to come, and this marks Jon Snow’s true introduction to life beyond The Wall – a place where men don’t kneel to their Kings and “freedom” is the buzzword. Considering that Jon’s life was hanging in the balance his interview with Mance was decidedly low-key, but that’s accurate to how it felt in the books.
The best moments in the episode, as they so often do, came from Tyrion – and especially from his interactions with his father Tywin. Watching Peter Dinklage and Charles Dance is a remarkable experience – they’re both phenomenal and perfectly cast, and while Dinklage is justifiably praised in all quarters Dance has emerged as an unheralded star of GoT. Many of the great moments in the series are one-on-one conversations, and many involve Tywin – and here we see him unleash a torrent of vitriol on Tyrion, who’s looking for a little recognition (and a little Casterly Rock) as thanks for having saved the asses of everyone in King’s Landing. Needless to say father and son don’t quite see eye-to-eye (pun intended) on this matter or anything else, and their conversation was heavy with significance.
Elsewhere in King’s Landing, Margaery Tyrell has drawn the attention of both King Joffrey and his mother with her charitable work, handing out bread and wooden soldiers to war orphans. I won’t say too much about Margaery just yet, but it’s clear already that she’s no one to be taken lightly. Our old friend Littlefinger is tightening the net around Sansa, who desperately longs to be out from under her former betrothed and reunited with her family. And Tyrion is finding out that as usual, his only friends and only friends as long as they’re well-paid (with one possible exception).
Of the Starks we have only the brief check-in with Sansa and a short scene featuring The King in the North (Westeros is just crawling with Kings at the moment) and his party as they witness the work of Tywin’s retreating armies. We also meet up with Davos as he’s rescued from the lonely rock upon which he’s washed up after the Battle of the Blackwater, and (much more quickly than in the books) with Saan’s reluctant help he makes his way to Dragonstone to try and convince Stannis that Melisandre’s path is the one that leads to true darkness.
But rather than in Westeros itself, the biggest events in this episode happen on either side of it – in the North and the South, where Danerys’ dragons are growing ever-larger (and hungrier). She’s hungry too – for the army that she needs to place her back on the throne she sees as rightfully hers. Jorah tells her he can deliver it – but it’s a slave army, The Unsullied – whose mere existence is a mockery of everything Danerys says she stands for. “A means to an end” Jorah calls them, another in a long string of compromises he urges on her – and this conflict of philosophy between the two of them is one of the more interesting elements in this part of the story. There’s another important development with Dany, too, and that’s the arrival of no less than Ser Barristan Selmy himself, who arrives just in the nick of time to save Dany from an assassin wolf in sheep’s clothing and declare his loyalty to her. His arrival could hardly be more different from the way it happened in the book, and just when it looked as if Danerys’ wildly fluctuating arc might be falling back in line with canon, it appears to be veering off again.
It’s been over a year now since I’ve picked up any of the books, and considerably more since I read the one this season is mostly based-on – a little distance I’m glad to have as I think it will help me judge the season on its own merits. The staff of the TV series have an enormous challenge on their hands, even with Martin’s active participation, and it’s going to be fascinating to see them try and walk the gauntlet between impossible expectations and reality. This premiere episode is a table-setter, nothing more, and at that it does its job admirably. But the real work starts now.