“Game of Thrones”: Pilot Review

Before tonight, I had never seen a single show from HBO. To be honest, some of the renowned series hold little if any interest for me (Sex and the City, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc.). I have wanted to start on The Sopranos and Band of Brothers for some time, though I never actually sat down to watch them. But if the premiere episode for their new series Game of Thrones is any indication as to the care and passion with which they tell their stories, then I have a lot of DVDs to catch up on.

As you may or may not have heard, the show is based on A Song of Ice and Fire, a collection of books by George R. R. Martin, a noted writer for television who has more recently delved into science fiction and fantasy novels. It is a fantasy series, albeit one where the story relies much more on character development and political intrigue than it does on magic or adventurous derring-do. After some enthusiastic recommendations of the books, I began reading the first novel of the series in late 2008, and I never looked back. Compared to what I normally read, Martin can be a little too adult and pessimistic for my taste, his books pulsing with sex, blood, and brutality to color a dreary portrait of human nature. With that said, Ice and Fire has nevertheless kept me fascinated with a lush and multilayered story, characters that are almost Shakespearean in their complexity, and just enough magic to tantalize those readers who expect dragons and the undead. And I was brimming with anticipation once I heard that HBO was ready to adapt it into a series, with each of the doorstopper novels (about 800-1,000 pages apiece) making up a season. Even though we only have one episode to go on, I already suspect that HBO has created something great, something inspiring to remind us that, like any other genre, fantasy is able to give us stories for the ages, tales that deserve to be remembered.

There is a cast of hundreds who will come to be involved in Game of Thrones, and any one season of the show, if they follow the novels’ precedent, will have its narrative told through the eyes of at least a dozen characters, but I’ll try my best to summarize the situation for newcomers. The bulk of the story takes place on Westeros, a fictional continent rather like an enlarged Great Britain, where seasons last for years or even decades, and winter is coming. Central to the book/show’s Machiavellian squabbling is the Stark family, a grim and honorable house who find themselves drawn into this petty “game of thrones” against their wills. The Baratheons are a divided royal family, struggling to maintain their tenuous hold on the land while the king antagonizes nearly everyone around him. And the Lannister clan (one of whose members is the queen) tries to stay one step ahead of both, for protecting themselves and for gaining ever more influence over the entire royal court, friend and enemy alike. Meanwhile, the two Targaryen siblings, the rightful heirs to the throne, have been deposed and live in exile on another continent, but are on the verge of gaining an army to invade Westeros and reclaim it by force. The story that fills out this huge web is a tale of murder and ambition, of adultery and incest, of quiet conspirators who lock horns with valorous knights in a world where no one is perfectly good or inherently evil.

And HBO shows a great deal of promise in bringing all of it to life. They have a hard task ahead of them, especially in showing us the characters’ complicated pasts and personalities. But with an excellent first episode, I am confident in their ability to show us the characters’ more surprising sides. Rest assured, Robert Baratheon is more than King Henry VIII in fantasyland, Tyrion Lannister is more than a promiscuous alcoholic of short stature, and Eddard Stark is more than the stock “white knight” of the tale.

The first five minutes of the show provides an appropriately creepy and ominous backdrop for the action. Just north of the Wall, a 700-foot-high barrier of solid ice in the northern reaches of Westeros, three soldiers of the Night’s Watch (the organization that maintains the Wall) stumble across a violent supernatural threat, gradually rising from a millennia-long slumber. Anyone who has read the books already knows that in the Seven Kingdoms south of the Wall, people will mostly ignore what is awakening, and instead succumb to their own selfish instincts as they fight and scheme for control of the Iron Throne, the central seat of power. By the time they realize what true perils are readying to invade Westeros, it already may be too late.

Once the prologue has finished and some heads have rolled, we are treated to (without exaggeration) what may be the greatest title sequence in the history of television. It is a creative and intricate work of beauty, with a map of the lands the story unfolds in. The important locations take shape by emerging from the landscape and moving into position like gears in a clock, all playing out to theme music which is infectious without sacrificing its steady emotional power. By the time it finished, I kid you not, I had tears of joy in my eyes. The sequence is a beautiful touch that even outpaces Firefly’s gorgeous opening, hands down.

Of course, this being HBO, the show that follows is not for the kids. At all. Seriously, I cannot stress that enough. Decapitations are realistic and bloody, there is more than a little foul language, and quite a few instances of nudity. In fact, this is where my only real issues with the pilot arise. Understand, I didn’t go into this show as a reactionary prude. I have read the novel and knew that HBO is not hindered the same way primetime TV is. There was always going to be profanity and nudity, and some people would argue that it just wouldn’t be Game of Thrones without them. Nonetheless, the dropped F-bombs felt gratuitous and out-of-place in the “medievalesque” setting, when a more fitting phrase could be used (such as “bedded” or “lie with”) when the word referred to sex in its context. I suppose that was Martin’s fault, since the word is present in his books, and in both novel and show it just feels like grit for the sake of grittiness. As for the nude scenes, some were perfectly necessary and in-context, and so I didn’t mind them. A few others seemed to go out of their way to titillate, or provide “character development” in the wrong way. We could have easily had Tyrion mention that he likes whores’ services without having to see it up front, in episode one, and give his screen time to other aspects of his character, like shooting clever insults at people whilst reading a book. Of course, there will be a lot of that later on in the season, but showing just how much he enjoys “the oldest profession” may make some viewers disdainful toward him, even though he later reveals himself as a far more sympathetic character. Of course, that’s just my two cents thrown in the coffer. Take them or leave them.

Otherwise, the episode is excellent in just about every way – makeup, production values, music, the judicious use of special effects, and actors’ performances combine to form an almost perfect whole. Fantasy has not been done this convincingly on film since Peter Jackson’s still-astounding Lord of the Rings, and likely will not be equaled until he comes out with the first installment of The Hobbit next year. The pilot is mostly a bumper crop of introductions to the big players, including but not limited to: Eddard Stark (played to perfection by Boromir himself, Sean Bean); Tyrion Lannister (the brilliant-as-always Peter Dinklage, brimming with witty cynicism); Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy effortlessly donning the loud and bawdy leader of Westeros like he was born to play this role); Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey, cold and calculating but with a weak spot for her children); Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke, fresh out of acting school but so talented she looks like she has a decades-long career behind her); Jon Snow (Kit Harington, who excels at portraying Eddard Stark’s bastard son without making him seem angsty or melodramatic); and many, many others. Since it needs to introduce the world and so many characters in the span of 60 minutes, I was impressed with how they still managed to kick off the inciting incidents that throw Game of Thrones into motion. From Daenerys’s forced wedding to a fierce warlord so her brother can gain his conquering army, to the revelation that Eddard Stark’s mentor may have been murdered for deciphering a perilous secret, this pilot keeps track of them admirably. The swarm of names and background information will probably be confusing to newcomers at first, but have patience. Another 60 minutes next week should have the important characters firmly in place and ready to do their thing, since the episode adheres to George R. R. Martin’s carefully paced text with a surprising amount of fidelity. Fortunately, it’s not too faithful to its source, like the earliest Harry Potter films, so there is no need to worry about whether the show will get bogged down in boring stretches to follow Martin religiously.

In short, despite a couple of minor quibbles, I truly loved the pilot for Game of Thrones, and sorely wish I already had the other nine episodes of season one for my viewing pleasure. If you can handle the content and want to see a fantasy series chock full of moral ambiguity and complicated characters, then look no further. Game of Thrones has arrived, and it is well worth the wait.