In the land of Westeros, the seasons last for years and a long Winter is fast approaching as struggle for control wages across the Seven Kingdoms. When the King’s advisor dies, King Robert Baratheon (Addy) summon his old friend Ned Stark (Bean), ruler of the North, to reluctantly fill the post and join him at King’s Landing. After Stark uncovers a secret about Robert’s wife Cersei Lannister (Headey) – whose family is the most powerful in the land – his wife Catelyn (Fairley) and their eldest son Rob (Madden) wage war against Cersei’s skilled swordsman twin Jaime (Coster-Waldau) and clever dwarf brother Tyrion (Dinklage). Across the Narrow Sea, the exiled children of the previous King, Viserys (Lloyd) and Daenerys Targaryen (Clarke), plot to win back the throne as the latter is married to Barbarian warlord Khal Drogo (Momoa). Meanwhile, Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow (Harrington) pledges his life to the Night’s Watch, a brotherhood who stand guard at an immense ice wall against mythical creatures which haven’t been seen in thousands of years…
Describing the series to newcomers, co-showrunner David Benioff jokingly referred to it as “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth”. But while comparisons with The Lord Of The Rings are inevitable, given the fact that we’re dealing with an intricately-detailed fantasy universe adapted from a popular novel series (George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire), Game Of Thrones is actually closer to the former. A densely-plotted ensemble saga which requires patience due to the multitude of characters and plot-threads, HBO’s ambitious opus-in-the-making is more top-drawer television which will prove popular among viewers of the acclaimed network’s other big hits (like Deadwood or The Wire). Simply put, it’s another challenging yet magnificent triumph for the small-screen.
Certainly, by all accounts Benioff and Dan Weiss have stayed loyal to Martin’s source material, meaning that fans of the novels will also be pleased. But despite being book-ended by some stirring fantasy moments (the chillingly-eerie open, the game-changing closing ‘birth’), season one largely (and wisely) keeps the fantastical on the horizon for now. More about betrayal, greed and sex than goblins, orcs or magic, Game Of Thrones is concerned with power-plays, political struggles and shifting allegiances, whilst all the talking is periodically punctuated by boobs, incest, brutal violence and a handful of jaw-dropping moments (such as the forging of a golden crown or that death). On this show, nobody is safe.
While some fantasy viewers will likely be disappointed with the lack of sorcery and monsters (perhaps understandably), it’s still the best ‘fantasy’ show in memory. Bolstered by top-notch production values and some stunning locations (filmed mostly in Malta and Ireland), Martin’s world is fully-realised, utterly authentic and never remotely close to feeling silly. In addition to the level of attention and care on show (a linguistic expert was hired to create the Dothraki language), the scale is simply stunning (especially considering that this is television), both in terms of aesthetics and storytelling.
Of course, some will find the sprawling tapestry of characters, family histories and geographic locations impenetrable (although the terrific opening credits help with the latter), given the labyrinthine nature of it all. Whilst Peter Jackson’s similarly-epic Lord Of The Rings adaptations were built around a simple central idea (the good guys set out to take a powerful evil ring to be destroyed), here the conflict for power isn’t marked out by an adventurous quest. Constantly introducing new characters and juggling multiple plots, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots, Game Of Thrones requires you to keep up as it gradually unravels its deep mythology. But it’s definitely worth it.
Undoubtedly, audiences have become more accustomed to this type of slow-burn, heavily-serialised storytelling, thanks to the like of The Sopranos and The Wire, but yet Game Of Thrones is still arguably better suited to DVD viewing. As even the sharpest viewers will require a few episodes to get to grips with who is who, the perfect casting of Sean Bean (which strengthens the Lord Of The Rings comparisons) gives us a strong anchor to cling to, while the more separate storylines prove easier to follow.
Chief among these is the journey of Daenerys Targaryen (gorgeous newcomer Emilia Clarke), who evolves in compelling fashion from the virginal sister of a bullying older brother (the deliciously vile Harry Lloyd, unrecognisable from his Robin Hood days) to a commanding Queen who embraces her new position. After marrying warlord Kahl Drogo (the primal Jason Momoa, more pitch-perfect casting), it’s fascinating to see her go native, and the final shot of Dany offers a breathtaking reveal.
While the Starks (dark-haired, from the cold North) are roughly ‘good’ and the Lannisters (blonde-haired, from the imperial South) are generally ‘bad’, there aren’t really heroes and villains in the conventional sense – just shades of grey. Sean Bean’s unceasingly honourable Stark patriarch is as close as we get to a hero and a main character, yet there’s about 15 leads and each one is well-cast and fully fleshed out. From Kit Harington’s bastard son Jon Snow to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s arrogant swordsman to Mark Addy’s jaded, former-warrior King.
The Wire’s Aidan Gillen is amongst the most intriguing as devious politician Littlefinger, but ultimately it’s Peter Dinklage who comes to dominate the show as the cunning, constantly-underestimated dwarf Tyrion Lannister. Additionally, even the child actors don’t feel like ‘child actors’ (particularly Jack Gleeson as the detestable Prince Joffrey and Maisie Williams as outspoken tomboy Arya Stark) while supporting roles are filled by the likes of James Cosmo, Ian Glen, Charles Dance, Casualty’s Clive Mantle (!) and Soldier Soldier‘s Jerome Flynn (!!).
Despite inevitable (and understandable) comparisons with Lord Of The Rings, Game Of Thrones is closer to other heavily-serialised HBO shows like The Sopranos and The Wire. Though even sharp viewers will take time to acclimatise, it’s a stunning, ambitious and compelling fantasy drama which keeps the fantasy on the horizon. For now.