Amid a massive amount of media hype and fan anticipation, HBO premiered its ambitious serialized television adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s sprawling fantasy book series “A Song of Ice and Fire” last Sunday night.
“Game of Thrones” is an incredibly dense, layered story with innumerable characters and detailed histories. Those who haven’t read the books may find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information the show drops within its first hour. Various royal families and their respective kingdoms, their relationships, family histories and political and personal motivations are certainly complex.
However, at its core, the show centers around the feudal, medieval land of Westeros, which is divided into seven kingdoms and all ruled precariously together under the Iron Throne, a position fiercely sought after by myriad opposing powers. In addition to the various dynastic forces vying for the Iron Throne, there is also a great Wall protecting Westeros from shadowy, unknown creatures from the barren north.
In the first episode, titled “Winter Is Coming,” the Iron Throne is uneasily occupied by King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and is being heavily sought after by his scheming Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) and the rest of her clan. To keep his kingdom under control, King Robert recruits the help of his old war buddy Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), ruler of the northern Winterfell land and patriarch of the sprawling Stark family. The Iron Throne is also under siege by the Targaryen siblings, the exiled children of the previous king of Westeros. Scheming Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) sells his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) off to be the bride of a brutal leader of the nomadic Dothraki people in hopes that the massive Dothraki army will help him regain their fallen family’s throne.
Even this summary of characters and events doesn’t encompass the number of things going on in the show’s first hour. The pilot is largely expositional, spending much of its time establishing the plethora of kings, queens, lords, ladies, princes and princesses and their various associations to one another. As a result of this, the series can initially feel somewhat confusing.
Because of this need for introduction, it’s difficult to assign any kind of broad judgment upon the future course of “Game of Thrones” based solely on its premiere; the show is deeply serialized, with extensive, overarching plot lines that promise to stretch throughout the duration of the 10-episode season. To those unfamiliar with the novels, it’s unsure where the story is eventually going to go, which is incredibly enthralling.
In purely visual terms, “Game of Thrones” is stunning to watch, boasting incredible production values with lavish sets, sumptuous costumes and spectacular scenery. Filmed in North Ireland, Morocco and Malta, the breathtaking landscapes deftly transport audiences into the embattled land of Westeros. Even the credit sequence, a moving, three-dimensional steampunk-style map of Westeros, gives the show a sense of gorgeously layered scope.
For a fantasy series full of desperate power struggles and horrific monsters, “Game of Thrones” is fairly dialogue-heavy. The show often relies on lengthy, impassioned monologues and heated back-and-forth rather than an overabundance of action sequences to establish the sense of impending doom that hangs over Westeros.
Fortunately, that dialogue gives the fantastic ensemble cast some meaty bits of material to work with. In particular, Peter Dinklage as the diminutive-but-ingenious prince Tyrion Lannister and young Maisie Williams as the adventurous and headstrong Arya Stark both give early standout performances.
That isn’t to say that “Game of Thrones” doesn’t fulfill HBO’s seemingly obligatory “sex and violence” requirement. The opening sequence, depicting an attack by a group of hyper-eerie “wilding” monsters from the wilderness side of the Wall quickly establishes the show’s ability to create an uncompromisingly brutal and bloody atmosphere.
“Game of Thrones” follows in a rich tradition of feudal fantasy stories, and it certainly lives up to its influential forebears. Any fan of mythical lands or fast-paced political thrillers would be remiss to skip out on “Game of Thrones” — It’s well worth the effort it takes to follow.