Game of Thrones

TV Series

HBO’s adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy series begins with an action-packed episode that introduces the huge cast.

Spoiler alert: Don’t read on if you haven’t watched the first episode of Game of Thrones on Sky Atlantic. For the purposes of this blog we are also going to (hopefully) try and avoid book spoilers as well.

It’s been a long wait, but HBO’s epic adaptation of George RR Martin’s fantasy series Game of Thrones has finally arrived. Before we get down to business a quick disclaimer: I have read the books and love them but the purpose of this blog is to discuss the television series – so for those watching it without prior knowledge I’m going to try and keep comparisons to a minimum. (In that spirit, it would help if you could make it clear if your comments contain book spoilers.) And with that out of the way, let’s get down to business.

‘I saw what I saw’

We kick off in the frozen wastelands north of the Wall as three members of the Night’s Watch ride out on a scouting trip. Unluckily something very nasty is lurking and no amount of patrician disdain can prevent group leader Waymar Royce from being run through, and one of his companions beheaded. The surviving member of our unfortunate search party, faced with what appears to be an offshoot of the walking dead, does what any sane person would do – and legs it.

‘The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword’

Unfortunately he runs to Winterfell, ancestral home of the Stark family, whose most notable trait is a dour acceptance that they must do the morally right thing, even if that’s not always easy.

The Starks consist of: Eddard aka Ned, played with just the right amount of northern steel by Sean Bean; his wife Catelyn, who, on the evidence of the first episode, seems to be something of a worrier; and their children Robb (straight-forward, doesn’t do much this episode), Sansa (a bit spoilt, wants to be a princess), Arya (tomboy, hates sewing), Bran (wide-eyed, enjoys climbing) Rickon (who we have yet to meet). Also hanging out at Winterfell are Ned’s ward Theon, played by a wonderfully snide Alfie Allen, and his illegitimate son, Jon (cue an army of fans crying L+ R = J. Don’t worry this will make sense later, maybe).

Ned learns of the deserter’s arrest and promptly takes his sons, legitimate and otherwise, off on a rather bleak family outing to a beheading. After a brief lecture about why it’s important for the man who passes the sentence to swing the sword, the family trudge back towards home only to discover first a dead stag, then a dying direwolf (essentially a giant wolf) and her six pups. The significance of the wolf dying with a stag’s antler wedged in its throat will become clearer later, but for now the Starks adopt the pups – stopping only for Ned to give another lecture; this time about the importance of pet care. His children must not just feed and look after the wolves, but also bury them themselves if all goes wrong. It’s a hard life being a Stark.

‘I want you to get you to run my kingdom while I eat, drink and whore my way to an early grave’

Back at Winterfell, the Starks learn that the king’s chief adviser – who is married to Catelyn’s sister – has died; King Robert is subsequently riding north with entourage. Ned gloomily (and correctly) notes that there’s only one thing that Robert could want and he won’t be able to refuse him. As expected, Robert wants his old friend and battle companion to rule alongside him (or pretty much do the job for him) at King’s Landing. Sadly for both Robert and Ned, who is even more conflicted after learning that his sister-in-law believes her husband to have been poisoned, there are plenty of people who would like to rule in their stead.

‘The things I do for love’

Chief among them is Robert’s queen, Cersei, the only daughter of the powerful Lannister family. The Lannisters are essentially the most entertaining characters: Cersei is a scheming monster, her twin brother Jaime is an arrogant charmer, and their younger brother Tyrion is a sharp-tongued, well-read, hard-drinking dwarf. Tyrion spends most of this first episode having sex with prostitutes and making the odd bitter comment about being a dwarf, while Cersei and Jaime hang around whispering in corners and looking pretty before sneaking off to have sex with each other, in what turns out not to be the only incident of incest.

‘A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair’

Across the narrow sea in the free city of Pentos live the surviving heirs of the deposed king – Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen. The former is an arrogant sniveller prone to making statements like ‘you wouldn’t want to wake the dragon’, while it’s hard to say exactly what the latter is really like as she spends most of the episode being bullied and felt up by her brother before being sold off to a horse lord and raped on her wedding night. Poor Dany, surely things must get better? Given that her brother’s plan to reclaim his kingdom consists solely of selling his sister to a group of people whose preferred way of celebrating a wedding is to get very drunk, screw around and then knife each other, I wouldn’t bet on it.

What worked

 The acting. In particular Sean Bean as the stoic Eddard, Harry Lloyd as vile Viserys and Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, who gives Jaime just the right amount of cocky charm.

 Fidelity to the series. Fans of the books can’t complain. This was an absolutely faithful adaptation. Menacing, brutal and complex, a solid start.

 Pacing. Writers David Bentioff and DB Weiss had a lot of information to impart in a short time, but this was a surprisingly well-paced episode which handled the huge cast and the switches between action effectively.

 The title sequence. A moving map that changes as we find out more about Westeros and its surrounds, this is brilliant.

What didn’t

 The scenes in Pentos – while I love Dany’s story, the fact that it is so removed from the rest of the tale can be problematic. The wedding scene between her and Khal Drogo seemed considerably less consensual than the book, which could cause issues later. Additionally this was the only part of the story that threatened to teeter into Xena territory with slightly kitsch settings and some over-ripe dialogue. It was saved by a great performance by Harry Lloyd and the appearance of Iain Glen, but only just.

 There was also the odd misstep back across the sea – most notably the random scene where Eddard’s sons, looking like the lost members of a Manchester boy band, all hung out semi-naked and slagged each other off. And although Maisie Williams is perfectly cast as Arya, I felt that they over-egged it a bit. We know she chafes against her position; it seemed unnecessary to have her start a food fight at dinner to show that.

 The ending – it’s one of the most shocking scenes in the book and it felt slightly rushed here. I’m not convinced that removing Jaime’s decision to first help Bran before flinging him off the tower added to the scene. In the book there’s an intriguing ambivalence about his motivation, which was all but absent here.

Violence count

Two beheadings, one suspected poisoning, a couple of stabbings (one by Dothraki and one by Zombie) and a defenestration. We are definitely not in Narnia.

The Sean Bean Gruff-O-Meter

A pretty gruff performance from Bean this week. Not quite as gruff as the memorable moment when he appraises Liz Hurley’s breasts in Sharpe; gruffer than the moment he throws his big chance away in When Saturday Comes.

So what did you think? Good, bad, or just indifferent? Can HBO redefine fantasy? Does fantasy need to be redefined in the first place? Weigh in on the comments below…

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