March 30, 2012 at 3:24 AM ET
Kids grow up fast in the world of Westeros on HBO's "Game of Thrones."
One day, their worst fear is disappointing Dad, and the next they watch as he gets a public beheading and his noggin ends up mounted on a spike where the whole community can see it.
Barely a teen, Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner, 16) tries to remain calm when her 13-year-old betrothed, the not-quite-stable King Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), degrades her and forces her to live in fear after ordering the gory demise of his future father-in-law, Ned Stark. Meanwhile, her little sister, Arya, 11 (Maisie Williams, 14), boldly escapes with a ragged clan of miscreants to find what remains of her family.
It’s a lot for kids to take on.
While no one would call “Game of Thrones” a teen drama, there’s no denying that the majority of characters are in the under-19 demo (many ranging from children to barely teens), and they carry central roles.
After the death of their daddies last season, the Stark and Baratheon kids are anything but all right when the story picks up on Sunday.
The season begins as teenager Robb Stark has taken up the banner as the King in the North, while his similarly aged bastard brother Jon Snow soldiers on as a member of the Night's Watch, which holds the line between the lands to the south and the otherworldly dangers to the far north with a great wall. Fellow teen Theon, a noble hostage raised as their sibling, has been sent back to his home to gather the troops in support of faux-bro Robb.
And off in the hinterlands, teen widow Daenerys Targaryen, who is just 15 (played by Emilia Clarke), is leading a ragtag group of Dothraki followers, with her fledgling trio of dragons in tow.
These are just some of the younger players featured on "Game of Thrones" this season. There are more school-aged characters on the show than you’ll find on an average CW series, with even more sexual intrigues and teen angst. And, as often happens, most of those older teens are played by young adult actors in their 20s.
As impressive as the adult cast is, it’s the child actors who really stand out as they play complicated characters with an ease that belies their age. The complex series has dozens of parts, and these kids play a major role in advancing the story.
In TV, you get used to the young actors mugging it up for the camera, not exactly showing a range of emotions that would lead to an award-winning performance. The rare recent exceptions include Kaitlyn Dever, who played orphan Loretta in “Justified” when she was just 14 and stood toe-to-toe with Emmy winner Margo Martindale, and “Mad Men” phenom Kiernan Shipka, 12, who has been wowing critics for a few years as Don and Betty Draper’s daughter, Sally.
In “Game of Thrones,” the producers scored with a young cast that hits it home every week. Williams’ portrayal of one of the most popular characters in the book, Arya, doesn’t miss a step as the feisty little girl disguises herself as a boy as she fends for herself. It’s a meaty role that could go so terribly wrong in the hands of a lesser actor.
The same holds true for Turner as Sansa, the beautiful spoiled daughter of Ned Stark who dreams of marrying a prince and being a good wife, mother and princess. She shows her mettle when she’s forced to play her own game of survival within the walls of her enemies.
Little brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, 12), who would probably be a fourth-grader in modern times, is left at home to rule Winterfell, the seat of House Stark. He’s soldiering on despite being a cripple, the result of getting tossed out of a window after seeing the fornication between twins Jaime Lannister and Queen Cersei Baratheon, Joffrey’s true parents.
Now that’s something that can leave a mark.
Gleeson, who is in his late teens, shines as the sadistic Joffrey. In a TV season filled with hateful male teens from “Smash,” “The Killing” and “Terra Nova,” Gleeson’s portrait rings true without the feeling that he’s just there to fulfill some network demographic need.
And as the war rages on in season two of "GoT," it looks like the game will be well played by the youngest members of this compelling drama.
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