The arrival of any new HBO series is always cause to take notice, especially when the network has so obviously poured all of its resources into making an event. This past Sunday saw the premiere of ‘Game of Thrones’, HBO’s latest prestige production. This is clearly an expensive show to make, and the network brass damn well wants you to know that in every frame. Does all this effort pay off? So far, I’m intrigued.
‘Game of Thrones’ is based on the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series of novels by George R.R. Martin. I’m not going to pretend to have read any of them, nor to have much inherent interest in the subject matter, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. The story is set in a vaguely ‘Lord of the Rings’ type of medieval fantasy universe on a continent called Westeros, which is divided up into seven kingdoms. Thus far, all of the characters are human, and seem to be living in an age where magic and monsters are part of the distant past. (One character is presented with fossilized dragon eggs as a wedding gift.)
The pilot episode, ‘Winter Is Coming’, takes place primarily in the kingdom of Winterfell, which is ruled by Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean). Stark is paid a visit by King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and his family because the king’s right-hand man (and Ned’s brother-in-law) Jon Arryn recently died of fever. Robert wants Ned to take Jon Arryn’s place, but Ned is hesitant to leave his home. To seal the deal, Robert wishes to arrange a marriage between his young son and Ned’s daughter.
Years earlier, Robert had claimed his throne by usurping a former king in a bloody rebellion. That king’s creepy and conniving son Viserys fled across the sea with his twin sister Daenerys. Viserys plots to reclaim the throne by marrying his virginal sister off to a barbarian warlord in order to gain backing by his army. Viserys is cruel and calculating, and also has an incestuous infatuation with his sister.
Incest appears to be a major theme in Martin’s universe. At the end of the pilot episode, Ned’s 10-year-old son accidentally witnesses the king’s wife Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) having sex with her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Jaime heartlessly tosses the kid off a tower to his death to protect their secret. He flippantly remarks, “The things I do for love…”
The Lannisters likewise seem to be plotting to overthrow the king. Just before the death of her son, Ned’s wife receives a confidential letter from her sister (Jon Arryn’s widow) stating that Jon Arryn had been murdered and the king is in danger.
Typical for a pilot episode, ‘Winter Is Coming’ is heavy on plot and set-up. Martin’s novels clearly have a labyrinthine mythology and countless interweaving storylines. (I needed a lot of help from Wikipedia to keep the characters straight while writing his recap.) There’s so much going on here that you even need to pay close attention to the opening credits sequence to get the lay of the land. And honestly, I typically have an aversion to these sort of “epic fantasy” novels that are overloaded with such precious character names and terminology. (In discussing the books, one commenter to the Topless Robot blog recently remarked, “I don’t know. I got to ‘Mad King Aerys of House Targaryen’ and my eyes glazed over.” I’ll be damned if that isn’t exactly how I feel.)
With that said, the storytelling here is confident, and the episode builds a tremendous sense of atmosphere. The cast is excellent (with special credit to Peter Dinklage as a womanizing cad). The production design is stunning, and the visual effects are first rate. To let you know its “adult” intentions right off the bat, the pilot is also filled with gruesome gore, profanity, and quite a lot of nudity – all of which are appreciated by this viewer. I’m also thankful that the story seems to be more rooted in real human concerns like political intrigue and personal betrayal than orc-slaying or dragon-riding.
In my experience, most HBO series need a few episodes to build up steam. I expect that to be the case here. Fortunately, there’s enough of interest in the pilot episode to grab my attention and make me want to come back for more.