Game Of Thrones debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
After half a decade of prep work and what feels like an even longer period of speculation, Game Of Thrones, HBO’s lavish adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire novels, has arrived complete with massive barrage of hype, befitting a channel that could use the copious amounts of cash it just has lying around to make an 80-hour miniseries about the life of John Quincy Adams acted out entirely by slowly melting ice sculptures if it wanted to. The amount of hype and the amount of backlash to the hype and the sheer weight of advance reviews makes it tempting for anyone to either review the commotion around the show or react to that commotion (or the devoted, cult-like fan base surrounding the books), and indeed, there have been more than a few pieces surrounding the idea of “what it all means” wandering the Internet for the last week, even though only a handful of people have seen a full episode.
Surprise, surprise, then, to see that the show at the center of the massive storm is, well, a typical HBO show. It tosses the audience into the deep end of the pool and expects at least a dog paddle. It’s got incredible production values, a seriously deep acting bench, and a vague sense that this isn’t a traditional TV series, but rather a 10-hour movie that doesn’t bother with anything like splitting the story into separate but equal episodes, which all tell an individual story, no matter how small. Even as other cable networks move toward a more standalone model—even shows like Breaking Bad and The Killing provide at LEAST a small goal for their protagonists to pull off in each individual episode—HBO has staked its claim on the ultra-dense, ultra-serialized side of the field. It’s almost impossible to know how to feel about individual episodes of shows like Treme or Boardwalk Empire or even True Blood, because the storytelling is so thoroughly geared toward the massive, toward telling a single story over the course of a season, or even a series.
Well, Game Of Thrones is richly in that tradition. (For a time, in fact, I considered not giving individual episodes of this season grades, instead thinking I might give the whole season a grade at the end.) At times, it almost feels like showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have arbitrarily come up with a handful of stopping points within the first novel in Martin’s cycle and dramatized the chapters between those stopping points. In the early going, especially, there’s no real attempt to craft stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, and even if you’ve read the books, it can be easy to be slightly overwhelmed by the sheer onslaught of information. When you further consider that the story has at least three dozen characters who are of some level of importance—at least two or three of whom are dead when the story begins (including a couple who’ve been dead for years)—the task Benioff and Weiss have undertaken becomes even more untenable. What’s amazing is not that Benioff and Weiss swerve so closely to all of this almost falling apart in the first six episodes, but that they somehow don’t. The deck was stacked against them, and despite a few close calls, they come out the other side with only a few small issues to show for it.
Sadly, tonight’s pilot—which will likely be the only taste many viewers ever get of the series—is the weakest of the first six. It’s so taken up with making sure everything is set in place that it largely forgets to do anything other than offer up a long series of stilted introductions. It’s smart about only introducing the characters viewers absolutely NEED to know to proceed in the series, but there are still roughly a dozen of these characters, and even with a one-hour, five-minute running time, it’s something of a sprint to the cliffhanger ending that actually kicks off the bulk of the story. This means that few of the characters register on a level deeper than “Hm. That guy seems cool.” There’s not a single scene here that lays out exactly what this show is going to be and exactly what it (and its characters’) worldview is, not on the level of, say, the lynching scene from the Deadwood pilot, the opening scene from The Wire's pilot, or even the scene where Don talks with the waiter about cigarettes in Mad Men. The great dramas often declare themselves somewhere in the pilot, staking out the territory they’re going to be playing around in, and while there are numerous cool moments in this pilot, there’s not one that reaches beyond the surface and attains the deeper pull of the thematically enriching.
If nothing else, the pilot is very smart about laying out who’s who and who you need to know right now (while also suggesting who will be important later, though you can catch up then). Sean Bean plays Eddard “Ned” Stark, the ruler of the far-off North, a land that seems to be peopled entirely with hardy fatalists, who work on their battle skills and murmur, “Winter is coming” to each other because they know there’s nothing so bad that it can’t get shittier. Ned’s a good guy, the kind of just ruler who does the right thing at every turn and seems destined to be exploited by other, more wicked people. His wife, Catelyn (also called Cat and played by Michelle Fairley), is the sort of rugged, tough woman Ned would be drawn to, and the two have five children, though the show is most interested in the four oldest ones: handsome, self-possessed Robb (Richard Madden); princess-in-training Sansa (Sophie Turner); tomboyish, courageous-to-a-fault Arya (Maisie Williams); and young, awesome-at-climbing Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright).
Most other networks might have stopped here. A large family trying to get by in a vaguely Middle Ages-esque fantasy kingdom? Great. But this is HBO, and the network wants us to get to know everybody in the whole kingdom (which is called Westeros, for those playing along at home). This starts at the Stark home of Winterfell, where we meet Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow (Kit Harrington), who’s never known his mother and can still see the fury in Catelyn’s eyes over Ned’s betrayal of her. Jon’s about to take a military oath to join a long-standing, celibate brotherhood that stands atop a giant, icy wall and waits for an army of icy zombies, last seen thousands of years ago, to return. There are rumblings that said zombies HAVE returned, but are they just the words of underfunded, underfed men who never get to have sex and would like someone to at least pay a little attention? Or is the threat more serious than that?
At the same time, the king of the whole realm, Robert Barathaeon (Mark Addy) is rolling into Winterfell, complete with queen Cersei (Lena Headey); her brothers, preening warrior Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and sarcastic genius Tyrion (Peter Dinklage); and a job offer for Ned, which stands to split the family apart. (Much of this pivots on the very recent death of Jon Arryn, a man the king obviously trusted deeply.) Cersei and her brothers are of the rich, old Lannister family, one whose ties to the other families have always been tentative, though Cersei’s marriage to Robert seems to have mostly cemented those bonds for now. As it turns out, long ago, Ned, Robert, and Jaime fought alongside each other in a great war to depose the last king, the Mad King.
And at the same time, the series follows the final two children of that Mad King, sneering, sniveling Viserys (Harry Lloyd) and bargaining chip Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), who finds herself pushed into what’s essentially a slave marriage early in the first episode. She’s wed to the towering, terrifying Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), who commands a massive army of his people, who are known as the Dothraki. The Dothraki are on an island not far from Westeros (as are Viserys and Daenerys, as well as a handful of loyalists to their deposed father), but they’re not regarded as a threat because of the narrow sea separating the two bodies of land.
Got it? Good. It’s not so complicated, right?
But here’s the thing: I’ve spoiled basically nothing. Everything I’ve outlined is presented in the first 15-20 minutes of the pilot, and even though it’s presented in a handsome, assured manner, it still has a tendency to buzz right on by. Benioff and Weiss have a strong sense of how to make sure the audience knows exactly what it needs to know at any given moment in this first hour, but there’s still a sense of being swept along by strong currents, seeking some sort of foothold. Bean and Dinklage are familiar faces and provide a nice, brief anchor point every time they’re on screen, and the cast is uniformly strong, filled with actors who bring these numerous characters to life. But the early hours of the series often feel like a Classics Illustrated version of the book, with characters who will be familiar to those who’ve read the book introduced in such a way that new viewers may grasp roughly that someone is important without getting just who they are. (Hell, I’ve read the book this season is based on, and I was often feeling slightly at sea in the first three episodes.)
And here’s another thing: I haven’t even begun to plumb the depths of this series, of the sheer number of characters that pop up in the next few episodes, all played by fantastic actors, or the sheer amount of backstory that’s conveyed, almost entirely through often spellbinding monologues. Benioff and Weiss, confronted with one of the foremost texts in modern fantasy literature, have decided there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a drama that’s deeply serious and talky as all hell. The sheer amount of dialogue—when the show could do flashbacks to, say, important battles of the past—will be a breaking point for many, but these monologues—particularly one in a later episode about a long-ago battle that no one quite remembers, delivered by Addy—are often spectacular bits of text, and the actors really get their teeth into them. The talkiness extends to the exposition, which the series holds off on delivering (there’s precious little of it tonight) but eventually offers to viewers. There’s a love of language here that’s often intoxicating, and it’s terrific how seriously Benioff and Weiss take the task of adapting this book to screen.
There are times when it almost seems as if they’ve become TOO serious in that pursuit, however. There are parties in tonight’s episode where it seems like no one is cracking a smile, and, granted, one of those parties is seen through the eyes of a girl who’s about to be raped, but there’s still a vague sense that all of this is undertaken with a grim determination and gritted teeth. It’s not enough to undermine the series or anything, but when Dinklage, especially, is giving such a wily, FUNNY performance, it might be nice of the series to toss him a few humorous scraps to work with.
While we’re on complaints with the series, there’s often a discomfiting amount of female nudity. In at least one case, it’s necessary to portraying a character’s journey from powerless victim to powerful woman. In other cases, you could make the argument that it’s necessary for the atmosphere (as in, say, that wedding scene in tonight’s episode). But in many other cases, there’s a cold calculation to the scenes, as if HBO and the producers said, “Shit, we might as well toss some breasts in there. HBO will let us, and the audience will love that.” Especially when you consider how smart the series is about portraying the limited options available to women in the Middle Ages, it can be irritating, though it’s never so risible as to hamper any of the episodes. (It’s also, notably, not nearly as prominent or prevalent as the conspicuous nudity on display in Boardwalk Empire, another very good series occasionally hampered by this issue.)
But all of those issues are minor. The overall impression one gets from Game Of Thrones is that Benioff, Weiss, and the network have lavished love and care on this series (to the point where they essentially abandoned an already expensive pilot to shoot a new one with new actors in many of the roles). Dinklage, Bean, and Addy are fantastic. Clarke is a real find, playing all of the sides of Daenerys with complete and utter conviction. Williams is giving a great child performance from the word go, skipping right past any cutesiness and finding the gutsy nature of Arya instantly. The production values are amazing across the board, from ravishing cinematography to gorgeous sets to a title sequence that seems to be constructed out of a pop-up book. This might be the best-looking TV series I’ve ever seen, and I haven’t even seen it in HD.
There’s also a wonderful sense that Benioff and Weiss aren’t TOO constrained by the book, especially as the series goes on. They’re certainly more faithful to it than, say, the producers of The Walking Dead were to that comic series, but they also gain a confidence in their ability to write these characters as the first six episodes go on. The best scene in the series so far—a scene between two major characters late in episode five—is utterly invented, the sort of thing book fans might have wanted to read about but couldn’t have, simply because none of the book’s point-of-view characters was there to see what happened. Benioff and Weiss don’t abandon the book’s basic plot, but they find smart ways to wrap in some of the ideas and themes they want to talk about. It’s kind of fun to watch them realize just how much freedom they really have, even within the constraints the book places upon them. The best TV shows evolve toward what’s working, and Game Of Thrones somehow finds the room to just do that.
The series has its growing pains here and there—I genuinely have no idea how people who’ve never read the books will make heads or tails out of some of the character introductions and plot points in the first two or three episodes—and there’s always a sense that the writers are trying to figure out simultaneously how to be faithful to the book and how to make it work on television. But the overall sense of this is that of a terrific TV series just getting its legs underneath it. This is gorgeous, well-acted, smartly written TV, and even if it takes a little while to get going, it’s clear from shot one that we’re in very good hands.
A note: I’ll be your Game Of Thrones reviewer for the season. I’ve read the first book in the series, so I more or less know what’s coming (though I don’t have a firm memory of some of the secondary characters, evidently). But I know there are a lot of you out there who haven’t read a single page of this book, and I’d hope we can accommodate you without spoiling you. I also know those of you who want to read the books DO want to talk spoilers, particularly when it comes to discussing how events in these episodes affect what comes later. The only thing I ask is that if you’re going to post something that comes in a part of the book that’s later than what the series has gotten up to, you CLEARLY mark that text with a SPOILER WARNING. If you notice people violating this policy, please let me know via Twitter (tvoti), and I’ll do my best to keep things spoiler-free. It may, ultimately, be impossible to do so, but hopefully, we can all keep each other honest.
Another note: The grade is for the pilot episode only.