“Quality” and “HBO original series” tend to go hand in hand, and for good reason. The Home Box Office has a well-established track record of excellence in its programming, from the iconic and hugely successful Sopranoes, to more short-lived but no less excellent shows such as Deadwood and Carnivale. So the idea of HBO offering a straight-up fantasy series, adapted from the prolific George R.R. Martin’s beloved A Song of Ice and Fire series, reads as incredibly exciting on paper. They’ve dabbled in sword and sandal epics before (Rome), and explored the wondrous and magical side of the fantasy genre in the aforementioned Carnivale, so mixing their prior experiences together sounds like a recipe for success. Right?
I admit to carrying one concern with me into HBO’s newest venture: the nearly across the board poor quality of fantasy films and television programs post-Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. I don’t know if many sat through the catastrophe that was Eragon, and I suspect even fewer among that number voluntarily subjected themselves to Uwe Boll’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (and I have no problem outing myself as someone who intentionally watch a Boll film just to “fairly” criticize it), and does anyone even remember Legend of Earthsea?
I didn’t think so.
Given enough time and research, I’m willing to bet that a surprisingly lengthy list of bad fantasy cinema and television could be compiled for us to collectively shudder over, so if nothing else my prior anxiety should be understandable even if it turns out it was unwarranted. Put simply, Game of Thrones thus far has not only alleviated my slight disquietude but also completely blown away every preconception which I previously held about what fantasy media could be. I’ll freely out myself as someone who has yet to lay a hand on Martin’s novels, so the credit for that should probably go to the author of the source material first, but HBO has translated his books into a palatable cocktail of staple fantasy elements and smartly drawn political intrigue very much unlike the morally unambiguous worlds of Tolkien and Rowling in which good and evil are painted in broad, black and white strokes.
Game of Thrones chronicles the never-ending chess game played by the members of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros to seize control of the Iron Throne and absolute political power, and the basic conceit here separates the miniseries from what we tend to expect of fantasy stories right off the bat. When we think “fantasy”, we envision spell-casting and sage wizards, numerous non-human races from dwarves to elves, and a single enemy of the world at the heart of the narrative who threatens the existence of everything good; we think of sword fights and military clashes between the armies of the good and hordes of misshapen and hideous “others”, such as orcs or goblins. But Game of Thrones trades that ultimate battle for the survival of all that’s benevolent in favor of political back-stabbing and subterfuge for the sake of obtaining the right to rule as king. The story isn’t without its blatantly fantastical elements– among them the White Walkers, mysterious creatures of dread which we meet within the opening minutes of the pilot, as well as whisperings and rumors of giants and even dragons– but for the time being they flit along the periphery of the plot so much that for the uninitiated, Game of Thrones could almost be sold as historical fiction in a medieval setting. Almost.
The stripped down– perhaps “understated” is more accurate, at least for the time being– fantasy elements actually make the series feel somewhat refreshing, even if only for the heightened emphasis on humanity in the narrative. After all, swords, sorcery, and monsters aren’t the focus here but rather the devious and potentially fatal political games in which the show’s innumerable characters engage– and there are, indeed, a lot of characters to keep track of. For some, that might present a difficulty, but anyone capable of navigating any of Jackson’s Ring films should be able to keep up with the almost constant introduction of new characters and manage their way around the lack of a formal introduction to most of them. If that still sounds like a concern, the first three episodes bring every single character into the picture enough that repetition should prevail in memory and solidify the allegiances and lineage of each of them.
Game of Thrones possesses no real lead character; the rigidly honor bound and stern Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean) comes closest to constituting such a figure, primarily due to his heavy involvement in the story’s main arc revolving around the potential threats to occupation of the throne by King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy, who you may remember seeing go all the way in The Full Monty). In the background, the King’s wife Cersei (Lena Heady) schemes with her twin brother Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) while grooming her son, the Prince Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson), for future kingship; Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow, decides to become a member of the Night’s Watch, who stand guard along a great wall and defend against the unspeakable threats in the Noth; and across the sea, exiled siblings Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) begins carrying out his plot to take back the throne from Robert, who deposed the ruling Targaryen family prior to the events of the show, by marrying his sister off to Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), the brutish warlord of the horse-riding and nomadic Dothraki, to secure the loyalty of the warrior’s vast army and reclaim the Iron Throne for House Targaryen again.
If that paragraph reads as busy, then it might be a bit shocking to learn that it doesn’t even cover half of what happens across the show’s first three episodes; just the most important and plot-advancing stuff. And there are innumerable characters in between who help make up Game of Thrones‘ complete cast portrait. Like many HBO programs, this is dense and highly detailed stuff, but for the observant and conscientious viewer it’s very possible to follow along each narrative thread and even see how they’ll eventually intertwine. It’s to the credit of series creators and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss that each of the separate plot lines make sense in context with one another and also stand on their own; I could just as easily watch a story fixated only on the Targaryens, or Jon Snow, or Eddard’s efforts to aid his King. But Benioff’s and Weiss’ biggest joint accomplishment lies in how smoothly they lay the groundwork for the events of the rest of the season in the pilot, foreshadowing that big things are going to happen down the line…and then how effortlessly swiftly they begin building up to their multiple endgames in the following two episodes. Benioff and Weiss aren’t wasting any time, wisely so since the novel itself is respectably sized, but at the same time they’re not rushing, balancing the numerous arcs of the source material very well while pacing them perfectly.
A caveat: Game of Thrones demands your utmost attention, but making the effort is incredibly rewarding. The show is engrossing and rich, high-concept mythmaking and storytelling in action; the world built here stunningly realized and vivid, so lifelike and familiar that the fable of the power struggle in Westeros could practically hail from the annals of world history. If the realm’s politics become multi-layered, the complexity is made up for by some truly impressive and even occasionally breathtaking scenery and costume design, wowing on a visual level as intricacies build up intricacies on a substantive one.
No discuss of Game of Thrones can be called complete without discussing the cast, uniformly excellent and frequently inspired. Sean Bean marks the series’ center, the moral compass which guides audiences through the twisting and maneuvering performed by the less trustworthy characters. Bean does the “dour, bound by his adherence to law and his personal moral code” act exceedingly well; Stark could be a distant relative of Boromir, though perhaps bereft of any designs on attaining increased power for himself. Bean endows the proud and honorable Eddard with humanity and compassion, taking in stride the character’s multiple roles as Lord of his House, executioner of oath breakers and criminals, and father to his many children (two daughters, and four sons) and husband to his wife. If anyone can make such a character feel real, it’s Bean, who is as believable cleaving off the head of a deserter as he is intervening in a sibling dispute between his two girls, Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams).
But Bean isn’t the only capable performer in the cast, and in point of fact, he’s almost overshadowed by the excellent work done by Coster-Waldau in both maintaining a villainous countenance as Jaime Lannister and also making him sympathetic. Coster-Waldau’s work is at its best in episode 3, Lord Snow, in which we learn of the character’s past actions and how he came to be known as “Kingslayer”; while his actions are seen by others as immoral, he believes himself to be something of a hero (which in point of fact, he is), and it takes skill to make someone as despicable and haughty as Jaime and make an audience feel pity for him. Equally excellent is Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, Jaime’s and Cersei’s brother and subject of derision and ridicule from others due to his dwarfism. Frankly, I find the casting far too perfect for words; I wonder if Martin possesses powers of prognostication and, using his foresight in 1996, found that Dinklage would be available for an HBO miniseries more than a decade later and wrote a character with him in mind. My bizarre theories aside, Dinklage has crafted one of the most fascinating and entertaining characters in the series thus far, delightfully perverse and at times seemingly amoral and yet simultaneously one of the most empathetic and insightful people featured in the whole of the story. The actor earned a place in my heart after 2003’s The Station Agent and hasn’t disappointed me since; it’s entirely possible that once Game of Thrones runs the end of its course that Tyrion Lannister might place among the best work he’s ever done, so I’m looking forward to seeing where Dinklage takes the character from here.
I could go on about the rest of the cast, about the beautifully handled relationship that blooms between the young and timid Daenerys and Khal Drogo, about Jon Snow’s journey to find his place in the world and a family to call his own, and about Arya’s rejection of the expectations placed on her as a daughter of nobility. I really could. There’s not a single element amongst the first three episodes that feels out of place or lacking; the cast and crew and writers have totally brought it thus far, creating a dynamic, alive, and exciting fantasy series to television when I previously thought this to be an impossible task. I shouldn’t be surprised considering the source, though, and while we’re only a third of the way through the first season, I think I can safely say that HBO has the beginnings of another masterful miniseries on their hands.