Writing about “Boardwalk Empire” last fall at Time, James Poniewozik made what I thought was a great point about the series and its place in the pantheon of Quality Television. “It’s a very good show with fantastic performances that does great work on a scene-by-scene basis. But it lacks one thing that defines most great TV dramas: the clear sense that it is about an idea, or ideas, beyond its literal subject.”
He explained that while “Deadwood” dealt with how a society arises out of disorder and “Mad Men” with shifting identity in its era, but that “Boardwalk Empire” is basically “about Prohibition.” It summed up a lot of why the show hasn’t stuck with me the way the two mentioned have. And yet, when watching “Game of Thrones,” which returned on Sunday for another 10 glorious episodes of medieval/fantasy mayhem, it occurred to me that I’d say the same thing about the show and this time mean it as a complement.
“Game of Thrones” is lavish, sprawling, packed with sex and violence — and it’s not necessarily more than that. (You could argue that it strips away the gauzy romanticism of old-school fantasy for something more grimy and vital, but that’s not what I would call a theme.) No, the George R. R. Martin adaptation is an unsparing epic about people maneuvering for power and survival, doing desperate things to get it and hold onto it despite the fact that they’re probably going to end up just get eaten by White Walkers and dragons.
It may not be Great Television, but it’s great entertainment, and it achieves that less by being character-driven (though it does have some characters to be treasured — Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister most of all) than by being a cracking yarn, and that’s a quality that can go underappreciated in a time when putting character over narrative is synonymous with quality.
The season premiere “The North Remembers” offered up gouts of story. We took up with the plots left tangled at the end of last season — sadistic Joffrey Lannister is now a king, with Sansa Stark as his fiancée and hostage; Tyrion has come back to King’s Landing to fill in as the Hand of the King to his sister Cersei’s displeasure; Bran Stark is learning to be lord of Winterfell and dreaming he’s seeing the world through a direwolf’s eye.
Meanwhile, Daenerys Targaryen and her baby dragons lead her straggling horde through the Red Waste in search of shelter; Jon Snow and other members of the Night’s Watch are journeying beyond the Wall to look for the missing Benjen; Robb Stark wages war against the Lannisters with Jamie as his captive; and a just-glimpsed Arya Stark, disguised as a boy, is fleeing north with other Night’s Watch conscripts from the city in which her father was executed.
Then there are the developments promised last season — we finally met Stannis Baratheon (played by the very good Stephen Dillane), the stern and unlovable man with the best claim to the throne, and see he’s taken up with a foreign priestess named Melisandre (“Black Book” star Carice van Houten) who’s converted everyone to her religion and seems to have sorcery on her side. And we closed with the murder of an infant who happened to be the bastard child of the old king Robert Baratheon, bringing around the investigation that led to the murder of the king’s advisor and led Ned Stark away from Winterfell at the start of this whole affair.
It’s a lot to grasp, and one of the main criticisms of the series (beyond its “Dungeons & Dragons” qualities) is the sheer amount of narrative. It may be unwelcoming for people trying to jump in at the second season without starting at the beginning, but I’m unconvinced that’s a problem — this isn’t a network procedural with a regular episodic formula, it’s a dense, multistrand story typically broken up by what fits into each hour rather than being arranged around a particular theme. You wouldn’t fault a novel for being incomprehensible if you began reading it from page 200, so why do that to this show? Its pleasures are in the actions that unfold, whether they be large-scale battles or Tyrion and Lord Varys dueling with words over a cup of wine, and that’s perfectly fine.