Jason Momoa's 'See' Is Not Going to Be Apple TV's 'Game of Thrones'
Last weekend at the Austin Film Festival in Texas, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made a subsection of the internet very angry -- again. Sitting on a panel for one of the lengthier public interviews they've given since the controversial end to their massive HBO hit, the Game of Thrones creators described the early days of the show as an expensive film school and noted, "everything we could make a mistake in, we did." Comments that were likely intended to be seen as a self-deprecating, quasi-playful or faux-humble peek behind the curtain were instead widely interpreted as signs of gross incompetence and unacknowledged privilege. Who did these guys think they were?
The discussion around Benioff and Weiss, which only intensified over the course of the past week as the pair announced they were exiting a previously announced Star Wars spin-off trilogy and as HBO cancelled plans for a previously announced Game of Thrones prequel (though it quickly committed to a full season of another), adds a compelling wrinkle to the debut of See, a dystopian series premiering as part of the first batch of original shows for Apple's streaming service Apple TV+. While The Morning Show, which features Jennifer Aniston, Steve Carell, and Reese Witherspoon, is undoubtedly the marquee attraction, with its flashy movie stars and watercooler-ready subject matter, See, a violent and brutish epic, is in play to attract the same fans who obsessed over Game of Thrones.
For anyone angered by Benioff and Weiss's lack of experience, you can rest assured that See has all the competence, polish, and pedigree that $15 million an episode can buy. In addition to featuring Khal Drogo himself, Jason Momoa, in the starring role, the series was created by Steven Knight, the writer behind Netflix's long-running crime drama Peaky Blinders, FX's grimy historical thriller Taboo, and the concrete-centric Tom Hardy movie Locke, and each episode was directed by Francis Lawrence, who helmed multiple Hunger Games sequels and NBC's cult television series Kings. These are all skilled professionals and it shows: The fur-covered costume design, the elaborate stunt work, the drum-filled music, and the debris-covered sets are all impressive. So, why is See such a misfire?
Set in a distant future where a deadly virus has reduced the human population to "less than two million" and left all the survivors blind, See has a set-up that might remind viewers of similarly bleak thrillers like A Quiet Place, Bird Box, or the 2008 film Blindness, which was adapted from a José Saramago novel about a world suffering from widespread blindness. From the first set of onscreen titles, which explains that vision "exists only as a myth" and that "to even speak of it is considered heresy," you'll likely feel like you're watching something you've seen before. Occasionally, that sense of déjà vu can be comforting in genre storytelling. In the case of See, it grows tiring fast.
The first episode goes to great lengths to front-load as much exposition as possible, introducing the villainous, determined Queen Kane (Sylvia Hoeks) and establishing Momoa's rugged, fearsome tribe leader Baba Voss. Over the course of an hour, we learn he's a man of great physical prowess and strong moral character, a respected figure in the hilltop village of Alkenny where he lives. In addition to fighting off an incoming raiding party, using tumbling boulders and slicing blades, Voss cares for the two children born to his wife, Maghra (Hera Hilmar), during a particularly stressful delivery overseen by Paris, a wise community elder played by Alfre Woodard. Quickly, it's apparent that the twins have a gift, passed on from their mysterious father: the ability to see. Though the babies are not his, Voss swears to protect them with his life.
The scenes that follow in the first episode should have a biblical rush to them -- Momoa and the family on the run to a sanctuary city would be enough plot to power an older, hokier network version of this series -- but the show struggles to build tension or suspense. A big set-piece set involving a creaky rope bridge, one where each piece of poorly secured wood might fall off with every step, is about as hokey as these dystopian thrillers get. Even the stranger touches, like a record player blasting out Lou Reed or Queen Kane masturbating while saying a version of the pledge of allegiance, feel borrowed from better, more genuinely out-there shows and movies. For the most part, the remnants of the past that do surface, like tattered paperback copies of To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984, are thunderingly obvious.
It's here that I must write the words you never want to see in a largely dismissive review of a new TV show: See does get better in its third episode, which was the last one made available for review. Where many of the best fantasy and science-fiction shows move at a granular pace, allowing the viewer to learn about the world as its slowly revealed through hard-fought campaigns and setback-filled adventures, See has a swift sense of time. It moves quickly, like Momoa darting across a green, mist-covered landscape.
At times, the plotting can be baffling, like when an onscreen title card in the second episode abruptly declares "3 years later," but that willingness to speed up the story might be the show's saving grace, particularly as it progresses through the first season and enters its already announced second season. The third episode, "Fresh Blood," also features the most dynamic -- and gruesome -- fight scene, which lets Momoa, a charming and swashbuckling hero often limited by the severity of the material here, finally do what he does best. As anyone who watched him in Netflix's Frontier knows, the guy can slit throats with an almost balletic focus. (The episode also features his funniest, most Aquaman-like line: "I don't even like turkey, it makes me sleepy.")
Will See ever turn into appointment viewing? Given the number of similarly scaled TV shows on the horizon, many of which are designed to appeal to pre-existing fanbases, it feels unlikely that a show like this will catch on. Like many middling, disappointing wannabe blockbusters, See works best a testament to just how complicated the development and production process, which offers well-meaning creative people a million opportunities to misstep, can be. Sometimes you can make every mistake possible, fuck up in a million ways, and end up with a Game of Thrones. What's more likely is that you get See, a show where the high level of competency only highlights the lack of originality.