Returning To Westeros Is Interesting, Depressing

BC got the Game of Thrones boxed set and has started rewatching the series from the beginning.

As a non-HBO subscriber who was too shy to ask a friend for their Go password until Season Four or so, I had a number of Game of Thrones twists and shocks spoiled for me before I had a chance to watch the episodes on Blu-ray. Ned's death, Joffrey becoming King, the Red Wedding... by the time I got to see these things with, you know, context, I was unable to share the same shock as all of the non-reading viewers who were so blown away by what they saw on TV that they had no choice but to grab their phone and describe it for Twitter. Once I did finally get to join in on the fun by watching on the day of air (or at least the morning after), it was almost kind of strange to watch without being constantly aware where a particular episode was going. I'm curious, had I waited until Blu-ray to see the finale, after six or seven months of mostly negative jokes/tweets about it, if it would have clouded my judgment at all.

Because I actually liked the ending just fine when I saw it the night it aired, enough to keep a "I should rewatch the entire thing" plan penciled into my never ending list of things to do. Whether I ever get all the way through it again is unknown, but at least it'll be convenient to do so, as HBO has seen fit to collect it all in a lavish boxed set. I know some folks were so angry at this or that element of the final season that they never want to even think of the show again, let alone take the time to watch it again, but I'm thankfully not in that camp. Perhaps because I was never fully ride or die for the show anyway? I always enjoyed it, but obviously I wasn't exactly obsessed or I would have subscribed to HBO instead of waiting for Blu-ray for half its run. It started pretty good and ended pretty good, far as I'm concerned.

However, watching something when you know how it all ends is a different experience, so it's surprisingly kind of melancholy to watch from the beginning. I saw those episodes before with the major milestones already wrecked for me, but the context and smaller details surrounding them were not, so at the time I was able to stay engaged without fully knowing where this or that subplot was going, or which minor characters might also get killed off by the end of an episode. That's not the case anymore; in fact the first thing I noticed when watching the premiere episode was that of the first four billed characters, only one of them would last until the final season (that would be Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister), and there were several other early casualties in that first season's main cast list. 

Now obviously, killing people off was a recurring thing on the show, but as the years/seasons passed I basically had forgotten how many of the important players in the overall tale - such as Brienne, Grey Worm, and Davos, all of whom remain alive in the finale - weren't around at the beginning. In one particular episode, the only people who survived the show's run were Jon and Sam (and technically Jon died too, only to be revived), which means at every other point in the episode (which happened to be a rare one without Tyrion or the Stark girls) you are watching conversations, plans, and fights between people who would ALL be dead before the end of the show, if not the season itself. It's kind of grim, really - I kept thinking of the Spinal Tap commentary where Harry Shearer (in character as Derek Smalls) would say "He's dead now" about pretty much every supporting character whenever they appeared on screen. 

And this time I would know exactly who that soon to be dead person was! I remember having to keep the "family tree" guide (which were packaged with the first few seasons; they are unfortunately not carried over into this collection) in my hand to repeatedly consult while watching most of the first season. I used to chalk it up to me just missing some exposition, but as I rewatched the pilot (legendarily known for being almost completely reshot) and the following few episodes - i.e. the ones where such familial connections would normally be made clear - I see that Benioff and Weiss simply didn't bother spelling out certain things for a while, such as how Theon Greyjoy was connected to the Starks (I actually thought he was the fifth Stark child for a bit since Rickon was pretty much entirely off-screen at first). And so much of the first season plot revolved around characters/events we never saw, such as Jon Arryn and Jaime becoming the "Kingslayer" that it also left me feeling like I was missing something the first time around. 

Also, knowing what's coming gave certain scenes a bit of a gut-wrench on this second viewing, such as when Ned and Cat have their final scene together. I knew Ned was a goner, but didn't realize at the time that this particular scene was the last time they would ever see each other, which made it far sadder to watch in retrospect. Same for a brief moment where Ned goes to talk to his daughters and tells them he wants to take them from there, and have Sansa marry someone stronger and nobler than Joffrey, to which she replies that she doesn't want someone strong or brave, she wants HIM. Arya laughs at her stupidity, which is nothing unexpected, but her laughing makes Ned chuckle a bit as well, something he tries to hide - it's such a sweet little moment between the two of them, now somewhat tainted by the knowledge that the next time she saw him would be when he was getting his damn head cut off.

Naturally, book readers probably had a number of these feelings all along (I myself have only read the first book, and while obviously pared down a lot for the ten-episode first season, it's pretty faithful to its major events), so I know these aren't exactly mind-blowing revelations to anyone. But apart from Lost, I've never revisited this kind of serialized show before; every now and then I'll rewatch an older episode of Supernatural or Buffy on cable, but - even though I've spent money on a few much-loved series, such as Fringe and Friday Night Lights - I just never found the time to dive in and repeat my journey through a long-form narrative like this. Obviously it will take me a while to get through the entire series again (I got the set over a week ago and it took me that long to just rewatch the first season), but as it's been kind of eye-opening and surprisingly amusing (in a darker way) to restart Thrones, I hope to keep up with it, though I would also like to put a little distance in between seasons so I'm not returning so quickly; it's been seven years since I watched Season One, but only about as many months since I watched Season Eight.

And if I decide to go through the extras as well, it'll probably take me a year to go through everything. All of the seasons have their previously released supplements retained (in fact I think they're the same discs), and they were fairly extensive already, with most episodes offering commentary, several deleted scenes, hours' worth of lore and character guides (available via in-episode guides that you can toggle on and off), so it'd take probably in the neighborhood of 18-20 hours per season if you're a completist. But the collection offers a bonus disc that has another fifteen (!) hours of additional supplements, some of which were previously available only through particular retailers (i.e. Target having an exclusive extra disc on Season Four), as well as some that are exclusive to this set, like a reunion special hosted by Conan O'Brien. Of course, if you've been buying the seasons all along that's probably not a good reason to double dip, but for what it's worth the boxed version only takes as much space as four of the individual season sets on your shelf, so if saving space is an incentive, they got you covered.

It's a shame that the final season lost so many of the longtime fans; going back to its humble beginnings reminded me that it was like nothing else on TV at the time, and reaffirmed why its imitators never measured up. The showrunners didn't hold your hand, didn't toss in action scenes just for the sake of having something exciting happen for the end of an episode, and most importantly, didn't hold back when it came to the violence, as if to say "We're not going to cater to casual fans - you gotta pay attention and you cannot expect things to go as they normally would on a television show." It's a gamble that didn't pay off for everyone, but it did for me, and I look forward to returning to this set as time allows. Think I can finish before George RR Martin releases the next book?