The newest original series from HBO is a dense tapestry of people and places. It’s based on the first chapter of an epic fantasy series referred to as “The Song of Ice and Fire”, and the first episode alone introduces us to more characters than you can shake a stick at. Don’t let that deter you from putting in the work to follow the series though; HBO has pulled off stuff like this before. It took me three or four episodes of The Wire before I really knew who everyone was and what was going on, and that turned out to be the greatest television show ever produced. Seeing as this one was developed by the same people who gave us the epic, badass series Rome, I would say that Game of Thrones has a lofty task ahead of it, but a better than average chance at becoming a success; especially if it keeps up the quality of the first episode.
Game of Thrones is primarily set in the seven fantasy kingdoms that make up Westeros. The show opens in the frozen, northern border of the kingdoms, where a giant ice wall, guarded by a league of men in black, protects everyone from whatever nastiness lives in the world beyond. The opening scene is a frantic, desperate one, where the tattered black rags of several of the Night’s Watch are shown whitewashed in the icy glow of the northern woods. The men come across a clearing full of dead, mutilated bodies. The scene is grisly and horrifying, but not as bad as what comes next; the bodies come alive, all frozen flesh and glowing blue eyes, and attack them. Only one young boy survives to tell the tale.
In the next scene we get that one survivor, traveled to the capital of the northernmost kingdom, Winterfell, to tell the patriarch of the land, Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), what he has seen. The boy gets his head cut off for his troubles. You’re not supposed to desert that wall, or ever leave the watch. Stark performs the beheading himself, merciless, and in front of his young sons. And he’s our defacto protagonist. Yes, Game of Thrones is that kind of show.
To understand what happens in this first episode, you only really need to keep track of four different lands. Three are kingdoms of Westeros, and one is a wilder place, somewhere overseas. Eddard Stark, as I mentioned, is the head of the northernmost kingdom Winterfell, he has a wife named Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), five legitimate children, and one bastard son named Jon Snow (Kit Harington). They will serve as our main characters. As the episode progresses, a death brings the King of all Westeros, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), from King’s Landing to Winterfell for some reconnecting. You see, the King and Eddard are old war buddies; almost foster brothers. They took control of the seven kingdoms from the Targaryens together in a bloody civil war. Baratheon has a Queen, Cersai (Lena Headey), who comes from the house Lannister. The Lannister’s are the head of another of the seven kingdoms who have their keep at Casterly Rock. The Lannisters become very important to the story, and Cersai’s two brothers travel with she and her husband in this episode. Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is Cersai’s twin. He’s a vain, arrogant man who earned the name “Kingslayer” for being the guy who actually pulled the trigger on the previous King, Aerys Targaryen, at the end of Stark and Baratheon’s war. Her other brother is Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), a lecherous, whoring, dwarf who fancies himself the clever sibling of the family.
But what of that wild, untamed land lying overseas that I spoke of earlier? That’s where the other plotline of this episode takes place. Here in this vaguely Middle Eastern land we meet, Viserys (Harry Lloyd) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) Targaryen, the exiled children of the slain former king. Viserys is a cruel jerk and Daenerys a naïve young girl. When we meet them, Viserys is marrying off his sister to the brutish ruler of a nomadic horse tribe in hopes that he can acquire the services of the horse people as an invading army to take back his family’s rightful place as the rulers of Westeros. We see a wedding ceremony where Daenerys is given three dragon eggs as a gift, and then her new husband takes her virginity, pretty unwillingly, in front of the glowing orange backdrop of a setting sun. So what we’re left with at the end of this first episode is a mighty coalition of seven kingdoms, a frozen threat coming from the north, and a fiery one being birthed overseas. Sounds like a pretty good beginning for the first chapter of “The Song of Ice and Fire” to me.
When talking about the production and scope of this new series, one needs look no further than the creators’ previous show. Rome was one of the most epically staged shows that has ever been made for television, and Game of Thrones keeps that level of production, if not betters it. We get vast landscapes, intricate costuming, huge sets, and tons of extras. This shows looks more like a period epic from old Hollywood, a Ben-Hur or a Spartacus, than it does something you’d find on TV. When talking about the acting, one need look no further than a mere scan of the cast list. These are top-notch experienced actors, and every one of them seems to be well cast to my eyes. Which is important, because more than anything else, Game of Thrones is a show about distinct characters and the choices they make when chafing up against one other. This isn’t about swords and magic; Game of Thrones is mostly concerned with mirroring and dissecting the broad spectrum of human nature.
“The Song of Ice and Fire” is an intricately written, meticulously planned series of novels, and for anyone to get a live action adaptation right, they were going to have to do just as much planning. After this first episode, I believe that HBO has gotten it right. From the way the costumes are regal, yet faded and worn, to the impeccable casting, to little things like the design of each royal family’s crest or the elaborate and personal design of each knight’s helmet, the makers of Game of Thrones seem to have poured over every detail. This world they’ve created looks fantastical and amazing, yet brutal and real. I can’t imagine how well viewers who haven’t read the series were able to follow everything that happened in this first episode, but I think that it painted with broad enough strokes to be enjoyable. And I’m confident that if everybody sticks with it, the show will become infinitely more enjoyable over time. As a happy little bit of happenstance, the last scene of this debut episode was the exact moment where I fell in love with the series while reading the books. It’s a moment where you know all of the setup is over, and shit has gotten real. “The things I do for love.” I may have just found a new show to fill the hole that The Wire left in my heart.
Game of Thrones airs Sundays at 9p on HBO