'Game of Thrones' Ends Brilliant Season, Distances Itself From Competition

"Game of Thrones" (HBO)

HBO's second -- and more lavish -- entrant to the race has all the elements of a TV version of "Lord of the Rings," including the potential as this year's fantasy spoiler.

On a night when two of the most engaging television series bowed out with season finales, each took vastly different paths. On Sunday, HBO’s Game of Thrones showed how hard-earned character development plus smart and imaginative storytelling can set up a second season while closing out the first with a rousing end. AMC’s The Killing, on the other hand, tried to be enigmatic with its continued, dubious use of red herrings and managed to underscore how poorly developed the characters were in the first place, while using one last twist and lame cliffhanger to drag viewers into a second season.

Rather than dwell on the disappointing shortcomings of The Killing (which you can read here), better to praise the vastly superior Game of Thrones for validating its brilliance with a Season 2 table-setter that will get fans counting the days until it returns.

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The HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s books hasn’t had a misstep all season. What makes that an impressive feat is that so much pressure was on the series to meet the hype surrounding its arrival. Game of Thrones managed to make a fantasy world as engaging as any other genre – if not more – and has lured in non-fans and those who never read the books.

What they got for their loyalty was a series that arrived fully-formed and vaulted into the upper echelons of television's best series. Game of Thrones has at its disposal an elaborate, dense yet understandable world where rival clans are at war with each other (and in battle to sit on the ultimate Iron Throne). Although a fantasy series, Thrones barely used those elements – only in the first few minutes of the pilot and then judiciously in the last episodes. Sundays finale ended with the iconic vision of Daenerys Targaryen stepping out of the funeral pyre naked, unburned and holding three just-born dragons – effective, story-driven CGI that will be even more evocative next season when it’s clear she’s a force to be reckoned with among those divided houses seeking to rule the realm.

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This kind of character development – from naïve girl to bartered-for-power gift to rising leader was fully earned over the course of a season. That same devotion to expanding a character was seen in the likes of nearly everyone. That’s why using the penultimate episode to deal with the shocking turn that befell Ned Stark – for many viewers an exclamation point that anything can happen in this series – allowed the finale to move complicated story lines forward.

You’ve got the Lannisters in a kind of chaos; the Stark daughters (and mother) calculating revenge, a break in tradition as Robb Stark is offered up as King of the North; the Targaryen family in comeback mode and, among myriad other important stories, Jon Snow’s return to the Night’s Watch and the rousing speech from Lord Commander Mormont about the greater war ahead that threatens the realm.

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All of that was meat. It perfectly set the table for Season 2, which can’t get here fast enough. The beauty of this series is that it feels novelistic (justice done to the book, I suppose) in that any number of diverse characters feel real and fleshed out; any number of storylines seem compelling and worth following. How often does anyone finish a first season and hope immediately for five or six more?

Not often. And certainly not with enough cynicism about how hard it is to sustain greatness. But it's clear that the creators of Game of Thrones are in full control of this franchise, which is comforting.

The richness of Game of Thrones came through each week – a testament to the writers, actors and direction. The creativity never flagged, there were no obvious short-cuts and a world was created that was immediately understandable, so that the notion of White Walkers and dragons as fantasy elements were, like much of the similar elements in Lord Of the Rings, a bonus to the already sophisticated and complex main story.

Where The Killing seemed ethereal and prone to pointless wandering (while the main players were maddeningly undeveloped), Game of Thrones has so much urgent and defined content that it can even devote a few minutes to bits like the ruse Grand Maester Pycelle is apparently pulling off and Osha’s spooky realization that strange things are afoot.

There is, impressively, almost no end to the fullness and secrets of secondary characters (who will, in all likelihood, prove pivotal going forward). That’s the kind of storytelling to invest in – not the red-herring feints and disappointingly flat characters of The Killing.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine