Before the dragons, before the wildfire, before the White Walkers and the blood magic and the battles, existed a little, almost identically Medieval HBO series known as Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones, obviously, is still very much present today, as the show soars towards its eighth and final season, premiering in April this very year. Yet, the season we have ahead of us is of stark contrast to where the show first began, as back in its debut year the HBO series didn’t have huge battle sequences or sweeping VFX spectacle. Heck, it didn’t even have dragons until the very final minute of the season. But back then, before all of this, we find a show in its prime. Game of Thrones has never been better than it was in its first year.
Before the show became a huge ensemble piece, Game of Thrones revolved around Ned Stark (Sean Bean) navigating the royal politics of King’s Landing, when summoned to the Capital to aide his friend, the King (Mark Addy), in a time of crisis. Of course we had side plots detailing the rise of a Queen overseas (Daenerys Targaryen, Emilia Clarke), the struggles of a boy facing manhood as he leaves his family for the first time (Jon Snow, Kit Harrington) and a woman seeking revenge for the cruel treatment of her family (Catelyn Stark, Michelle Fairley). But these plots – all of which strong, well paced and ultimately climactic in the right ways – generally served as support for Ned Stark’s central role in the show.
Which is why it came as a jaw-dropping shock – and, still, the best plot twist this show has ever pulled – when his head was detached from his body in the penultimate episode of the season, “Baelor”. Ned Stark’s death, aside from being astonishingly well directed, forced Game of Thrones into a reputation it would ultimately collapse under. But before that collapse happened, the moment itself remains a sequence of sheer brilliance. Ned Stark is a man of honour, we told ourselves. Good things come to good men, we were assured. But as Ned sees daughter Arya (Maisie Williams) watching from the distance, and the camera slowly tracks towards her face as if a horrid realisation has dawned upon her mind, we start to doubt our own facts. In about three minute’s time, Ned Stark would lose his head, and the show would never be the same.
Outside of the show’s season-defining plot twist though, we’re left with a piece of television comprised of complex dialogue, intricate world-building and gripping character work. Watching young Arya grow from a girl forced into sewing classes to one wielding a sword and standing her ground is small scale in the grand scheme of things, but incredibly satisfying in its execution. The same goes for Daenerys, who begins the season defying the advice of a maid to walk into a bath too hot for her skin solely to feel something, and ends the season ignoring the pleas of an army by walking into a fire to birth a trio of dragons and strengthen her control. Neither of these character arcs further the show narratively so to speak, but they craft strong foundations on which to build a set of characters.
While the character arcs themselves are satisfying enough, they’re strengthened further by the endlessly fascinating dialogue pieces littered across the season. Perhaps the strongest example of this comes in a scene between King Robert and his wife Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey, the show’s strongest performer both then and now) back in the season’s fifth episode, “The Wolf and the Lion”. Robert and Cersei’s relationship always seemed puzzling from the outside, with Robert dropping hints about former flames repeatedly and the knowledge of Cersei’s infatuation and lust towards her own brother being at the forefront of the season, but as the two sit down to discuss their plans over the situation, their conversation shifts to one of marriage, in the past and the present. After laughing off the idea that their bond holds the Seven Kingdoms together, Cersei talks about how she once did feel something towards her now loveless husband, to which he simply replies that he never did. “Does that make you feel better, or worse?” he asks her. “It doesn’t make me feel anything” comes the blistering reply. It’s been a long time since the show served up dialogue this gripping.
These character moments and dialogue pieces, coupled with gorgeous cinematography and stunning production, helped make Game of Thrones the triumph that it is today. In the grand scheme of things, it’s hard not to feel as if the season doesn’t cover that much ground plot-wise, it’s worth remembering that the show operated on a much smaller scale back then. For the wavelength it functioned on, it’s hard to imagine a stronger season of television being possible. Still, what the ten episodes lack in plot they make up for in notably more meaningful ways. This was gripping, complex stuff, but never at the expense of its own entertainment. Game of Thrones, no matter how much it relies on them now, doesn’t need giant battles to be the show we all came to love. Let’s hope the upcoming final season is less like Season Seven, and more like Season One.