A version of this article appeared in the Special Collector’s Edition Game of Thrones magazine. We will be reprinting several of the articles from that magazine for the benefit of our international readers and others who were unable to buy the magazine in stores.
Game of Thrones has had a lot of ink devoted to it over the course of its run. Three journalists who have been covering the show since the very beginning are TIME’s James Poniewozik, Entertainment Weekly’s James Hibberd, and the Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan. We were able to pick the brains of these three TV journalists for their thoughts on the show: where it’s been, where it’s going and what its legacy will be.
What were your thoughts on season two as a whole? Was it better or worse than season one?
James Poniewozik: I liked the first season slightly better overall, partly simply because it ended so well, but it’s a close call for me. The second season, however, was not burdened by the need for so much upfront exposition, it was more confident in departing from the original (not always for the better, but in necessary ways), and it felt more coherently focused on a theme (namely, the origins of power and how power differs from mere strength).
James Hibberd: Season two was more confident. The first season started off a tad grim and stiff, then gradually improved and felt more comfortable in its own skin. The story was increasingly punctuated by welcome sly humor as both the show’s writers and the audience gathered a clearer sense of the characters. In season two, Blackwater received all the fan focus, but I was most impressed by the premiere. It deftly launched eight very different stories set in different locations in one hour and made it all feel coherent and equally compelling — that’s spectacularly difficult to pull off. Season one has the advantage of having a very clear narrative arc (since Book One has the simplest story of all the novels), but I think season two was superior overall.
Maureen Ryan: Generally speaking, Season 2 was better than Season 1, for a couple of reasons. First of all, in Season 1, the show had to do a ton of heavy lifting just to establish the world and to introduce all the characters and their relationships. Second of all, despite the big budgets and great casts, the creative team hadn’t quite figured out how to make the world dramatically interesting on a consistent basis — it was fitfully compelling, but early in Season 1 there were some frankly dull patches that didn’t do much to help create momentum or atmosphere.
In the second season, I think “Game of Thrones” took a big step forward in terms of overall quality and consistency — visually, it looked both more grand and more detailed (remember that pathetic tournament in Season 1? That kind of sketchy-looking affair is a thing of the past). It’s not that everything was on an epic scale — though much was — it’s that the world was much more visually arresting and did more work to communicate important parts of the story.
Also, it must be said that the cast — both new and returning — knocked it out of the park every single time they were given compelling material. Of course, in Season 2 there were even more cast members, and the show had to divide its focus even more as the number or storylines increased, so it could be frustrating at times.
What one thing has the adaptation got absolutely right? And what one thing have they dropped the ball on?
Poniewozik: The adaptation has managed to bring several characters more vividly to life for me than, frankly, the book on the page did—Stannis for one feels like a more complete and compelling invididual as played by Stephen Dillane, and Cersei feels more three-dimensional. But I think the second season suffered for giving certain players more screen time than the story required—Robb, for instance, and to an extent Dany. I also think the TV series has done less well dramatizing certain characters whose stories and conflicts are more internal—Bran, in particular, has suffered.
Hibberd: I cannot choose only one thing this show has gotten right. But the toughest aspects must have been building an entire fantasy universe — there’s so many details and decisions to be made — and juggling a story with so many characters without losing your audience. Moreover, the writers frequently improve upon the novels, making smart deviations that either make the story more clear or more interesting (like putting Arya and Tywin together). That said, there’s a couple casting choices I was disappointed by (though that’s probably inevitable with a cast this large) and some of the brothel scenes were pretty over the top.
Ryan: In my view, the show would have foundered if it hadn’t cast Tyrion or Arya right; if those actors hadn’t nailed their roles, the show’s foundations would have been much more wobbly and undependable. I think it took Peter Dinklage a little while to truly make Tyrion his own (his accent in Season 1 certainly was wobbly), but in the main, he’s been sensational in the role — he’s embodied the man’s wounded nature and his lust for life in equal measure, no easy thing to do. And Maisie Williams has been terrific as Arya, and puts my mind at ease about the future of her character — if anything, I’m greedy to get more Arya than the show has time for now. And I’ll join the chorus saying that “Blackwater” was one kick-ass hour of television. They’d been stingy with battle scenes until then, but that hour certainly made up for it.
As for less satisfying elements, Kit Harington has been wonderful as Jon Snow, and the show’s producers were wise to film the second season’s North of the Wall scenes in Iceland — those scenes looked appropriately spectacular and exotic. Having said that, I agree with many fans who think that the story of Jon and Ygritte, though embodied by two wonderful actors, was repetitive and not particularly compelling, especially in the second half of the season, and the developments with Quorin Halfhand were handled particularly clumsily. Stories from the book have to be condensed at times, we all get that, but this strand of the adaptation failed to create the pathos and tragedy that moved many of us who’ve read the books.
Do you think Game of Thrones is destined to end up in the pantheon of great HBO dramas (The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, etc.)? Or is it another True Blood, a show with some shocking twists and turns but is more of a guilty pleasure than a serious drama?
Poniewozik: So much of this depends on how well the book series succeeds, but before the series was ever made, the books reminded me a lot of Deadwood—they took a familiar genre and both dirtied it up and deepened it. The series clearly has much higher ambitions than True Blood’s sexy escapism—whether it achieves them, we’ll have to see.
Hibberd: I think it already is. You don’t see True Blood in contention for best drama at the Emmys (two years in a row, no less). Right out of the gate, Thrones established itself as a show to be taken seriously, and part of the credit for that goes to HBO for successfully marketing the series as a grown-up drama. It would have been very easy to make Thrones look like a show that’s only for us geeks.
Ryan: I’d say it’s somewhere between those two poles, certainly more on the “Sopranos” end of the spectrum that “True Blood.” The thing is, “True Blood” wasn’t always as chaotic and lazy as it is in its most recent seasons; it was once a pretty well-made genre piece that managed to sneak in some social commentary and even some humor into all the loony carousing amongst supernatural types. When it was good, it had discipline, and that’s something that “Game of Thrones” has never lacked.
“GoT” has had to be disciplined: It’s budgets aren’t small, but every penny counts, and deciding which story lines and characters will get screen time and how to structure this giant story — those are concerns that require a lot of planning, and the drama’s producers have clearly given every choice serious thought. I think “GoT” will be in the pantheon of much-loved, quality HBO shows that maybe aren’t quite at the pinnacle (though, of course that assessment could change).
The problem, or the obstacle, is that the books can go deeply into each character’s psychological journey and moral dilemmas — in a number of cases, the show can merely sketch out those issues before it moves on to the next plot or character. That buffet approach is understandable and even necessary (that’s generally how TV works), but despite the rich visuals, the great performances and the good writing, the constant switching can make for an experience that feels somewhat superficial now and then. I enjoy the show a lot and I don’t mean to sound as if I’m disparaging it; I think it rises to many, if not most, of its challenges in a stirring and intelligent fashion. My main point is that there are structural impediments that face the “Game of Thrones” adaptation: It may just have too many people to plunge deeply into any of their stories the way we’ve gotten into Tony Soprano’s mind or delved deeply into the concerns of Don Draper or Peggy Olsen on “Mad Men.”
Having said that, the writers have done a good job of uniting the characters’ stories and concerns via carefully thought-out themes. I think that one theme in particular — how contradictory alliances create moral dilemmas for an array of driven outsiders, interlopers and rejects — is actually the “star” of “Game of Thrones,” not any one individual character. And depending on how that theme is developed and amplified in coming years, “GoT” may yet make it into the highest ranks of TV drama.
And, lastly, without getting too spoilery, what are you most looking forward to in season three?
Poniewozik: I feel like I know which (spoilery) scene a lot of fans are looking forward to, but for me—giants! But in a greater sense, one of the biggest things for me in A Storm of Swords was the events Beyond the Wall—what we learn about the Wildlings and their culture not only set up the bigger plot game of the series, but (with the more egalitarian, in some ways radical social structure of the Wildlings) complicates the series politics, with the contrast with the feudal system of Westeros.
Hibberd: I’m more dreading than looking forward to the spoilery moments. That said, Book Three was probably the most fun reading experience I’ve ever had and it was due to the strength and pace of the story. I really love Daenerys storyline as she gains confidence as a leader and begins gathering and using her army. The developments in Brienne and Jaime’s relationship is also a highlight.
Ryan: I won’t say what I’m sure someone else is going to say (I’m betting R.W. is mentioned). So I’ll just say what I’m anticipating most is not an event or a scene, but a feeling: I really look forward to that sense of being immersed in another world and completely entranced by what I’m seeing on the screen and enveloped by what I feel for the characters. That’s what epic stories set in other worlds can do for us — they can help us lose ourselves in tales that, when we think about it later, aren’t all that divorced from the pain and joy we feel on a daily basis (but sadly, in our reality there are fewer dragons).
Thank you to James, James and Mo for sharing their thoughts! Be sure to follow them on Twitter and their websites for all of their coverage of the show as we head towards season three!