The trick is not minding that HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is so complicated and crowded with characters that there’s no way to remember them all, or to hold the shape of the whole story in your mind.
I’ve been hearing variations on this complaint a lot recently. (“I can’t follow this. Now I’m completely lost. Who’s that guy?”) But what do people expect from a cable series based on a shelf of novels that with two volumes to go already runs to five volumes and almost 5,000 pages?
Back in the day, when I was a teenage SF geek, this feeling of incommensurability, of the picture being too big for the frame, or for any frame, was considered a primary source of pleasure, of what we graybeards still occasionally refer to late at night as a Sense of Wonder.
George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy in progress “A Song of Ice and Fire,” after whose first volume the series is named, made a splash when it debuted in 1996 for bringing a new level of grit and realism, of sex and violence and back-stabbing political intrigue based on Britain’s War of the Roses (1455–1485), to a post-Tolkien fantasy genre still mostly committed to cute fuzzy creatures making picaresque journeys with noble knights toward a Dark Tower of pitch-black ultimate evil.
Despite plot threads that follow pathfinder characters such as Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen to the ends of the earth, the opening installments of this huge story, on both page and screen, are organized around the epoch-making conflict between House Lannister, House Stark and House Baratheon for the imperial Iron Throne, which enforced a fragile peace over the various contentious principalities of the continent of Westeros.
In Martin’s second volume, “A Clash of Kings,” the storyline is unraveled into several separate strands that, while braided together with impressive virtuosity, never get together to furnish the narrative with a focal point. Nor, it turns out, after a while, is there a strongly felt need for one.
[SPOILER ALERT]With both King Robert Baratheon and his staunch advisor Eddard Stark, the Hand of King, brutally deposed, and that sociopathic tween with the pond scum haircut, King Joffrey, on the Iron Throne, five former Lords proclaim themselves Kings as the contending forces begin a long process of winnowing, eliminating the weakest contenders one by one.
On the screen, even more than on the page, the details of this process soon begin to blur, furnishing a tumultuous backdrop frieze against which the disconnected adventures of several compelling characters stand out in bold relief. It helps that each of them has the flavor of a slightly different genre of popular storytelling: we’re instantly situated emotionally as well as geographically whenever the scenes change.
The delicious backroom skullduggery of the most entertaining plotter in contemporary culture, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, who relishes every twist of the knife, is the distillation of every account of business, political and gangster sharp practice you’ve ever savored. The outcast bastard hero Jon Snow will be heading into noir territory this season, even more deeply than in season one. And Daenerys Targaryen’s Arabia Deserta-style expedition across the Red Waste, with her three infant dragons and that manliest of lovelorn noble knights, Iain Glenn’s Jorah Mormont, continues to deliver first-rate romantic heroic fantasy.
My advice is, roughly, to love the one you’re with. Enjoy the latest installment of whichever story happens in front of you, and allow the big picture to take care of itself. Relax, people. You’re in good hands.