Season two finale just watched, which didn't fumble a single beat. The previous episode's Helm's Deep meets Normandy landing battle also a flawless hour's worth of entertainment. The one-two at the end make up for a couple of tread water mid-season episodes that didn't do much but push the plots along. Like a lot of long-haul genre shows, Game of Thrones is all about the pay-offs. And so far (unlike Battlestar Galactica) it is delivering, probably because there is a roadmap underneath it all, provided by the books.
I read the first book and watched the first season in parallel, and decided at the end of both that the show did some bits better and some bits worse, so it kind of evened out. G.R.R. Martin worked in television, and his writing is very televisual, so I didn't think I would be missing much if I just skipped the books (they are extremely long-winded). I gather that the second season has also managed to improve on the books in a bunch of ways, so I'm pretty happy with the way I've managed my time. The waiting required between episodes and seasons is frustrating, sure, but nowhere near as much as waiting for a new book in the series.
I don't think the appeal of the show lies in its characters so much as in genre. Martin sticks to the high fantasy formula but makes it palatable with dashes of medieval realism. These are not real people we are watching on the screen, they are archetypes sanded down to human-sized proportions. Sure, there are no heroes or villains. Your sympathy is drawn to all the players as they perform certain well-defined and easily-recognisable roles. No one really changes in this world (except when subjected to horrific physical and psychological abuse r.e. Clegane, Sansa, Dany, Ros – also an arc with established contours, and one not without its problems).
But would we enjoy Game of Thrones as much if its characters break free from their moulds, if they become complex and ambiguous (and not just in order to service the plot as with Varys and Baelish). Maybe, but there is a certain pleasure in the retelling of familiar stories as well. I don't mind the show staying exactly as it is: superficial flash entertaining pulp mixed in with a bit of grit.
Rather disappointing the extent to which Laurie Penny misses the point. I don't think G.R.R. Martin has a lot of faith in 'good rulers', which is why he lobbed off Ned Stark's head so spectacularly in the first book / season. The idea that the 99% are pawns in the 'game of thrones' played by the 1% was voiced quite clearly, I felt. This won't change whoever is in power. I suspect Martin and a lot of his readers believe it hasn't changed to this day.