Politics, sex, intrigue, family and loyalty in a fantasy setting that is moody, atmospheric and highly engaging.
What They Say:
Beyond a gigantic protective wall of ice in the utmost north of Westeros something cold stirs. Robert Ba-ratheon, the king of Westeros, arrives with his royal retinue at Winterfell south of the Wall to seek the help of his old friend Eddard Stark in ruling his kingdom. At the same time on a different continent, the last sur-vivors of the previous Targaryen regime are seeking a new alliance to acquire an army to take back their kingdom from the “usurper” king Robert.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
I will preface this by saying that I have not read the novels that this series is adapted from and the most that I’ve read of the authors works is some of the Wild Cards novels he served on as editor but also contributor. For Game of Thrones, it’s based on the novel A Song of Ice and Fire, the first volume of which came out in 1996 called A Game of Thrones. I’d grown up reading a lot of fantasy, putting my time in with the role playing game world and many other elements of fantasy, but I largely fell out of it towards the end of the eighties as it felt like little was really being done creatively and it’s been hard to go back ever since. What intrigued me about this series, made even more so by so many friends telling me it was a must-read based on my preferences, is that it’s very much a politics and intrigue piece in a setting that gives it a much rawer, rougher feeling that adds a certain intensity to it all.
With ten episodes to this series, it’s going to be a fairly dense and complicated work but one that harkens back to shows of a similar nature in modern times, ala Dynasty and Dallas. What we have here is a fantasy world in the land of Westeros where there are multiple kingdoms spread around that each have their own particular idiosyncrasies. The opening credits is a key piece for being able to grasp the basic makeup of the world and it’s an important piece of the puzzles as it really sets the stage, and having that each episode is a welcome reminder, never mind that it’s a really well designed sequence in general.
First episodes are difficult ones because of how much it has to convey and a Game of Thrones is no different in that respect, especially since it’s not fitting in with the real world or historical situations like other HBO series have. The focus for a lot of this is on the northern kingdom of Winterfell, which is near the massive ice wall that separates the far north from the rest of Westeros. We get a brief glimpse of it in the credits but the prologue also paints us a brutal picture of a place where creatures that supposedly have not existed for a thousand years have returned and are now causing problems. That incident causes us to return to Winterfell where we meet the family that overseas the lands there and it’s lord, Eddard Stark. Stark is the traditional kind of lord, serious, has seen his share of brutality and understands its need considering where they are and doesn’t shy away from the hard choices. He’s raised a family there the best he can and has a hard outlook on life but a softness for certain things as well. There are far, far worse people that you could have as your lord and master.
What throws his family into confusion is the arrival of King Robert Baratheon and his queen Cersei, having come from Kings Landing because of certain political issues. While it’s been nearly a decade since Robert and Eddard have seen each other, they’ve a bond that goes far beyond that because of their adventures in their youths. Eddard is the one man that he trusts implicitly and he wants to bring him back to King’s Landing to help him deal with the throne properly, as there are a lot of issues arising out of the situation at hand. Robert, of course, is like most men of power in that he spends plenty of time with women and there are issues to be had with that, but Cersei is certainly aware of it and we learn that she takes pleasure elsewhere as well. What complicates it even further is that she’s involved with someone who is already brushing up against Eddard after first meeting him.
With the material we see of the north and of Winterfell, which touches upon the events of King’s Landing, we also get a good look at a kingdom across the sea to the land of Essos. It’s here that we meet the exiled prince, Viserys Targaryen and younger sister Daenerys. Having been exiled for some seventeen years, he’s manipulating events as best as he can to raise an army so he can return and claim what’s his. To do so though, he has to consign his sister to marriage to a nomadic tribe of people lead by the fearsome looking Khal Drogo of the Dothraki. They’re a fascinating people who have that primitive and raw feeling about them, very barbaric in their expressions as there’s even a saying that if there aren’t at least three people killed during a wedding, it’s bad luck. Viserys has been waiting for the day his sister was of proper age and body to be able to use her this way to achieve their goals, though she’s not exactly keen on it as she tries to deaden herself inside more and more as events move forward. Disconnected from the events at Winterfell, there’s a lot to like here as it explores another area of the world that will likely tie to everything else eventually.
The opening episode of A Game of Thrones has a lot to cover so I’ve been trying to downplay the show a bit simply because it’s going to gloss over a lot and fans of the books are going to be alternately pleased and bothered by it because of what’s excised and what is kept. Watching the show without having read the novels, I found it pretty easy to keep up with but I do wish they had provided some name subtitles when people were first introduced, if only because some of the dialogue is a bit muffled at times and there is a bit of complexity to some of the names simply because of the medieval fantasy elements. I come from enough of a background to make the leap easily, but there’s much here that’s easily identifiable for people who watched any sort of shows that deal with politics, family and business in a way. The core ideas are the same, it’s just the trappings that are different.
Much like how True Blood is just relationships on steroids, A Game of Thrones doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the environment. We get a few beheadings early on and an understanding show to Eddard’s youngest son about what must be done when one rules and why. The kingdom of Winterfell looks positively dank, cold and grimy which it should, but it has its charms as well. Essos is the opposite with a lush by the seas look to it with lots of greens and blues and a sense of elegance. The time spent in the north is brief, but even there the cool blue that’s used for the hazy skies and the snow really drives it all home as to what this region is like and it makes the action that takes place there all the more intense.
Of course, one of the things that HBO can get away with that a broadcast network can’t (not that this show would ever be adapted there in anything resembling this beyond this part), is the sex. There’s sex abound here in different ways and some rather rough scenes that I thought were a bit surprising, but not unwarranted as it wants to show the guttural nature at times of the people, such as the Dothraki people and their customs, but also the the way the more “civilized” people get it on while trying to hide it. Sexuality is plenty open here in a number of situations and I do like it’s inclusion here and the fact they don’t shy away from it. I can see it being thrown at the show as one of its weaker points, but it’s a longstanding part of traditional fantasy over the decades and I’m glad to see it continue.
A Game of Thrones certainly met and exceeded my expectations as it unfolded past the preview that was shown the week before. Fantasy shows are few and far between unfortunately, which is a surprise considering how well received Lord of the Rings was, but A Game of Thrones is well worth the wait. And it has Sean Bean, one of my all time favorite actors in a similar enough role. There’s a lot of details here and the show has so much potential to it that I’m positively giddy with anticipation to see where each new week will bring us. The series will be drawing a number of threads together in a way that will require attention be paid as this is not a casual background show you can just turn on and jump into. It’s going to ask something of you as it progresses but there’s a lot of payoff in store if this first episode is any indication. This is definitely a reason to have HBO.