Wednesday 20 April 2011

First Impressions | Game of Thrones

Winter... has come.

I'd add to that: and about bloody time, too!

Though the urge has been in overdrive since HBO began promoting the latest addition to their many-studded slate of sophisticated adult dramas, I never did get around to reading any of A Song of Ice and Fire. This despite my quite adoring Fevre Dream and those short stories I cherry-picked from the compendium of all things early George R. R. Martin that is Dreamsongs. This despite my deep-seated fondness for intelligent epic fantasy and all things grim, which I understand now - as I intuited then - the great Game of Thrones indubitably is.

So for me it's been a long road, though not half, nor even a quarter - I'd say somewhere around a sixteenth - as long a road as I'm assured it's been for all those vocal devotees who've hung on every word of every instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire so far. Well, here's hoping this series helps tide those anxious souls over some. For myself, I come to HBO's sumptuous adaptation from a perspective unaffected by any knowledge at all of what's on the horizon, but for the received wisdom that it'll be pretty awesome, probably.

On the strength of this first episode of Game of Thrones alone, then, just this one time, I might be inclined to believe the hype. Tell no-one!

Game of Thrones opens with what appears to be a Wahlberg - though appearances are in this case deceiving - riding through The Wall which divides the South of Westeros from the tortuously frosted North. He and his Night's Watch companions come upon a bleak forest clearing full of dead people, yet the dead seem to have a little life left in 'em still, for they rise up as if they'd never fallen at all and commence beheading the men. The encounter's sole survivor escapes to Winterfell, where he's declaimed as a deserter and a lunatic for his dire rantings about beings thought dead for centures, and decapitated for his trouble.

On the other end of the offending sword, we meet Ned Stark. As Sean Bean. Or perhaps it's the other way around? Let's say that. Certainly, Bean is utterly at home in the role: as the would-be hand man of the King of the Seven Kingdoms he brings grizzled gravitas and a stout-jawed resolve many will remember fondly from The Fellowship of the Ring, while as the powerful patriarch of House Stark he evinces a warmth I hadn't expected - and a coldness, too. His character seems a fascinating one, neatly encapsulated in a couple of this first episode of Game of Thrones' most memorable lines. "The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword," he tells his youngest son after insisting the boy Bran witnesses the aforementioned execution; I would imagine that a fitting mantra for Ned Stark - lifted directly from the novel, perhaps? Later, upon finding a pack of Direwolf cubs huddled around the butchered remains of their mother, he allows to his spread of sons - the bastard Jon Snow and all - the following: "You will train them yourselves, you will feed them yourselves, and if they die, your will bury them yourselves."

Indeed, Westeros feels every bit a world in which the dead - and I would wager there will be many dead when all is said and done - must either resolve to somehow bury their own bodies or be content to decay in the open air. From the chill and forbidding feel of Winterfell alone, where much of this first episode's action occurs, it is too a lavishly realised location: it and its sister continent, Essos across the narrow sea, which with its rugged golden coves and sun-bleached Mediterranean sensibilities appears the polar opposite of Westeros, one bleakly blue-white and the other orange, and earthy. But though in its first 30 seconds alone there is enough stunning fantasy imagery to secure the undying devotion of many a genre fan, Game of Thrones doesn't really seem to be about the sightseeing, for in Essos we're offered an opposing perspective on the struggle for the Iron Throne one imagines will own the day across the narrow sea. Silver-haired siblings Daenerys Targaryen and her banished brother Viserys are all that remains of Westeros' former royal family. Between them they mean to reclaim their rightful place by amassing a vast army, but Essos' forces are a barbarian horde, and the only way into their good graces seems to be by marriage. Thus, Viserys demands Daenerys give herself to Dothraki leader Khal Drogo like a prize pony, and though the prospect does not please her, what other option does she have?

All this and I haven't even mentioned House Lannister - composed of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, a double-talking dwarf whose "greatest accomplishment" is to be the Queen's brother; the Queen herself, Cersei, to whom Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' Lena Headey brings the same pained nonchalance she seems to visit upon her every role; the King, of course; and Cersei's brother and lover Jaime, a dirty great meanie by all accounts, however little seen in the first episode of Game of Thrones.

All this and all that and there's more, I gather, and much more still to come. Yet Game of Thrones is not, at the outset, nearly so unwieldy as I'd feared. Pulling double duty as showrunners and head writers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss wisely opt to offer a throughline into this desperately complex world via the Night's Watch man, who passes along the narrative torch to Ned Stark when the latter unceremoniously beheads the former. Only when this hour-long first episode veers too far from Winterfell and the trials ahead of House Stark did I find my interest beginning to slip - and even then David and Dan have the decency to keep such seeming digressions as the incestuous manoeuvring of Cersei and Jaime as brief at this point as the source material will allow.

We're being broken in gently, then. Well thank the heavens for that!

Such restraint means we've had time to align our sympathies just so - though I don't doubt they'll change a great deal in the weeks and months to come. Such focus equates to the natural establishment of certain crucial characters and relationships that could easily have overburdened the narrative's developing momentum. The showrunners clearly have a lot of love for George R. R. Martin's series, and I found that their affection shone through, glinting like a knife in the night even during the darkest moments of this terse introduction to Westeros.

Which isn't to say Game of Thrones is in any way without its share of drawbacks. Headey's lazy imitation worries me already, and though Emilia Clarke does a terrific dazed and confused as Daenerys, there seems precious little dimension to her performance. But perhaps it'll come. I hope so, for hers is a character I am fascinated by already - what with the way she wilfully scalds herself in too hot a bath. The only personage who interests me more is Michelle Fairley's Catelyn Stark, who I dearly hope has more to do in future, for she positively smoulders with tempered frustration in some of her scenes with Sean Bean, while near every other cast member is content to either smirk or sneer.

Then there's the score, which seems dreadfully overbearing during certain key scenes - a relentless racket of dramatic drums that quite ruined a few moments for me - though the theme itself is solid, I'll say that. And oh: and I could do without the contrived cliffhangers in future, thank you very much. The first such - Bran's "fall" from the walls of Winterfell - already strikes me as a cheap way to elevate stakes in no need of elevation.

But we're talking small potatoes, because assuredly Game of Thrones does a great deal with what I'm sure is very little in the grand scheme of things. I was won over in moments - not quite despite myself, for I had been looking forward to this series, but there were no guarantees of quality going in, and coming out, I find myself struggling to restrain my excitement for all that's to come. We'll be looking at a fantasy for the ages here iGame of Thrones continues anything approaching as impressive as it's begun.

Truly, Gods be good that it does.


  1. So glad to see people who haven't read the series enjoying the show. I was worried with so many characters introduced (and actually many held back from the book). Very fun reading your review, thanks.

  2. I'm with you there: a fantastic opening episode, more than lived up to my expectations. I've not read the books myself either, so every twist and turn is going to be a fresh surprise.

  3. "The first such - Bran's "fall" from the walls of Winterfell - already strikes me as a cheap way to elevate stakes in no need of elevation."

    I have to say that as someone who has read the books, I was 100% sure that that was going to the final scene of the episode. After all, they do need something to make people who have not read the books and perhaps have no particular interest tune into episode 2. So maybe it felt contrived, but I personally wasn't surprised.

  4. I'm glad you liked it and that it seems good - I'd be really depressed if a sub par adaptation ruined a genre fan's potential entrance to the series. The Ned quotes are indeed right from the novel, or, at least, the first one is - the second may or may not be word for word.

    The cliffhangers are one of the few things that annoy me about Martin's writing.

  5. Ah - so the cliffhangers are from the books, too. I don't know that it makes much a difference - if Bran's "fall" in any indication they're pretty weak wherever they originate - but good to know.

    So I watched the first half-hour of this episode again with the other half earlier tonight - we must every one of us do our part! - and by God, I can hardly wait for week two. I tell you, the books are looking right at me, too... :)

  6. Well, in the books, the only ones that matter are at the ends. Especially near the beginning (when the povs are more limited), finding the answer to cliff hangers is usually a wait of a few pages.

  7. Ach, it's not so much the waiting that annoys me, just... they seem at odds with the tone the series strikes otherwise. Frivolous, you know? A little hard to swallow when everything else is so very meticulous and refined.

    But like I said, small potatoes. I just hope this kind of thing isn't a weekly occurrence. Only time will tell, I expect.

  8. Bran's fall is done better in the books. In the TV show it just kind of came out of nowhere.

    It is also quite an important bit of storyline.

  9. So was it a Walhberg or not?