Thursday, April 21, 2011

Review: Game of Thrones "Winter is Coming"

Non Spoiler Review:
After much hype and anticipation, HBO's most ambitious endeavour launches with the premiere episode of Game of Thrones. Winter is Coming carries a lot of weight on its shoulders introducing both the world of Westeros, and a host of characters whose numbers rival Lord of the Rings, in just over an hour. In fact, I had to watch it twice just to catch most of the detail.

Winter is Coming begins eerily enough as three members of the Night's Watch ride off into the frozen northern lands beyond a ginormous wall, investigating problems with the Wildings. What they find promises to be much more sinister. Lord Eddard Stark, warden of the north, must deal with that, as well as the King of Westeros, his old friend, arriving to ask a grave favor of him that will change the lives of his family. 

I've not read the books by George R. R. Martin, from which this series has been adapted, so I'm going into it blind. As such, this first hour was a challenge as far as picking up who each character was, multi-syllabic family names, and how everyone fits into the greater storyline. An arduous task, but I'm sure further episodes will continue to flesh stuff out.

The series is stunning, from beautifully rendered opening credits, to the scenery itself—dark and dour winter vistas for the north, to the gleaming capital city of King's Landing, and the island tropics of Pentos. It looks and feels like a livable world rather than something cobbled together with sets and CGI backgrounds.

This is an exceptionally good cast, from Sean Bean and Lena Headey (two genre favorites) to equally well-cast secondary characters like Tyrion and Jon. There are numerous background characters I'm sure will get larger play as the series progresses. 

From the early trailers my initial impression was this would be a more secular fantasy series, but I was pleasantly surprised to see hints of supernatural aspects introduced that I'm anxious to see developed. I'll definitely be watching this one faithfully, and hope it's a hit from the start.

It's not for everyone though. If you love a dense novel or epic movies, this will certainly satisfy. But Game of Thrones won't be something for the Two And A Half Men crowd at all (something tells me they won't have HBO anyway). Here's hoping for a long and successful run.

Spoilers Now!
Three riders of the Night's Watch cross through a gate beyond a giant wall, into a wintery landscape in search of Wildings. But one of them comes across an encampment full of dismembered bodies. When he tells the others he's met with disbelief and he's warned that if he deserts he'll be executed. The bodies have vanished when they return, and the commander and the other are suddenly killed (and decapitated) by a large man with blue luminescent eyes, leaving just the one survivor to flee.

Later, a band of men hunt down the deserter and it falls to Eddard (Ned) Stark, Lord of Winterfell and the Warden of the North, to perform the execution. He's made aware of the capture as he watches his youngest son Bran practice his archery under the tutoring of his two brothers, Robb and (as we learn later) the bastard son Jon. It's his tom boy daughter Aray who shows up her brother's archery, though. Ned brings his sons along with him to bear witness to the execution. Lady Stark, Catelyn, is not happy her ten year old must go along, but Ned tells her winter is coming. She also gives Jon a nasty scowl which shows she has no love for Ned's bastard.

The deserter knows his life is forfeit for abandoning the wall, but tells them it was the White Walkers, though no one believes him. They've apparently been gone for thousands of years. Stark carries out his task and heads home to Winterfell. 

En route, they come across a disemboweled deer. Further along is a dead direwolf, impaled by one of the antlers, and still suckling her pups. This is unusual, as direwolves only live on the other side of the wall, so somehow ended up south (not a good sign). The boy wants to keep the pups and begs Stark to take them. Jon suggests there are five pups, one for each of his children. Stark acquiesces, if only that they care for them as long as they live. Jon then finds a sixth, the runt of the litter, a puppy for himself.

At King's Landing, capital of the Seven Kingdoms, Queen Cersei and her brother Jaime look upon the funeral of Jon Arryn, the Kings Hand (or advisor), commenting on the possibility of Jon having told King Robert, her husband, something incriminating. He comments she worries too much.

Cat muses to her husband as they chat in a garden that she still feels the outsider despite having five children. But she brings news that a raven delivered a message from King's Landing that Jon Arryn is dead (Ned was very close to him, and Cat's sister appears to have been his wife). The king rides to Winterfell with the queen. Stark knows what he's after if he's riding that far north.

King Robert Baratheon is actually an old friend to Ned (who helped him ascend the throne). It's a month later and Bran watches from the walls as the king's party approaches, getting admonished by his mother for climbing. No more climbing! she warns (another bad sign).

The king and his family arrive, including his son Joffrey, wife Cersei and her brothers. The Stark children assemble to greet them—Arya, Sansa, Robb, Rickon and Bran. While Sansa makes eyes at the king's son, Robert and Ned share a warm embrace and joke with one another.

Arya wants to know where the imp is, and is overheard by the queen, who wants to know where their little beast of a brother is. The imp in question is the queen's other brother, Tyrion, who is whoring and drinking. Jaime finds him and summons him to their sister for the dinner festivities that evening.

Robert wants to immediately visit the tomb of Ned's sister. Stark asks about Arryn. The king explains he died suddenly and he now needs him at King's Landing as the new Hand of the King. Ned helped the king win the iron throne, and if Stark's sister had lived they would have been bound by blood. So he suggests they join their houses via his son and his daughter. The king is seriously not over the death of Stark's sister, though. The Targaryens who killed her are gone, Ned says. But not all, the king adds. 

Across the sea is Pentos, where a nervous and lonely looking blond woman is greeted by her brother. This is Prince Viserys Targaryen, and his sister, Daenerys. The two of them have taken refuge in Pentos, as Viserys has a claim to the throne of Westeros. They have been the guests of Magister Mopatis for a year, and her brother says he will repay him for his hospitality when he gets his throne. Viserys is a piece of work, and a bit overly gropy as a brother. He comments he needs her to be at her best, as the history of his reign begins today.

She's to be married off in order to get her brother an army. And the groom in question is Khal Drogo, a Dothraki king. He and his entourage arrive to introductions, but the Dothraki are men of few words and they accept the offer and ride off.  

Mopatis tells him Drogo will supply his army to Viserys in exchange for the marriage, and he'll be able to retake his father's throne. But Daenerys doesn't want to be married. She just wants to go home. They go home with an army, her brother counters. And he has no problem telling her he'll willingly sacrifice her to become king.

Lady Stark is also speaking of marriage with her daughter Sansa, though Ned hasn't said yes to the king yet. She's excited at the prospect of becoming queen someday and begs her father to say yes.

Jon is not allowed to attend the feast, but his uncle Benjen arrives, who commands the Night's Watch, and Jon is excited at the prospect of going to serve on the wall. Even though becoming a member of the Night's Watch means giving up pretty much your entire life, Jon's okay with that. Tyrion overhears the chat and after Benjen leaves introduces himself to Jon. He wants to see the wall, too. He asks if he's Stark's bastard. He offers advice to never forget what he is and wear it as an honor. All dwarves are bastards in their father's eyes, he says.

At the party, Ned talks with his brother about the man he beheaded. They comment on the direwolves south of the wall, talk of the walkers, and now Ned to be named Hand of the King. Winter's coming, he says. Meanwhile, Lady Stark tries to chat with the queen, but she's a bit frigid and arrogant when it comes to northerners. She does talk with Sansa and tells her a beauty like hers shouldn't stay hidden in the north forever.

The Starks chat in bed about the possibility of him going south. But they're interrupted with a message from Lady Stark's sister, who says she's fled the capital because Arryn was murdered and the king's life is in danger. She says the Lannisters killed him and are conspiring against the king and that means Ned would be in danger, too. Cat begs him not to go south (as apparently his brother and father did once, for a different king).

In Pentos, Daenerys and Drogo are married during a reception of fights to the death, sex, snakes and weird food. Drogo gives no attention to his new wife, but prefers to watch the festivities. Her brother is impatient for his army, but Drogo will go to war only when the omens favor it. She's presented a gift of fossilized dragon eggs from a man from their own country, Jorah, who served their father. Drogo presents his new wife with a horse and places her on it. Her brother tells her to make him happy and the two go off to the cliffs where Drogo plans on spending their wedding night.

Stark has said yes to the king's request. The king is grateful and they all go off hunting together. But Bran has taken to climbing walls again and goes up to watch them depart. However, he happens upon the queen and her brother having sex in the tower. They discover him and Jaime grabs the boy. Cersei says he saw them, so Jaime casually pushes him out the window. "The things I do for love," he says.

The Verdict:
I was pretty much sold by the opening credits. The creators have managed to achieve a real fantasy world on par with The Lord of the Rings. There's a sense of real cultures and traditions, architecture and history, from the few samples we've seen. It's also promising to be very dark. As a Game of Thrones newbie, I'm unspoiled, so have only investigated so far as to grab a better peak at the map of Westeros and figure out how to spell character names.

I could continue to rave about the first hour, when that can really wait until the plots begin to unfold in coming weeks. This first episode gave a simple story of Ned's choice, around which circles the introductions of most of the main players. I get the impression Ned's profound sense of duty is ingrained enough in him it will spell doom to many around him. And King Robert doesn't have that sense like he's going to be sticking around for long—there're just way too many people vying for the job.

Lots of questions beg answers. The political machinations that brought Robert to the throne, and his history with Ned. Who is Jon's mother? What exactly is to be kept out of the south by that hundreds foot high wall? Who had the technology to build it? What kind of evil is waiting to emerge into the south? I have no idea how long the northern threat will stew before becoming a big problem, but it seems the Targaryens will be launching their claim to the throne just as the Lannisters do.

And a shout out to those amazing opening credits. HBO never fails to impress with its openings, whether it be Six Feet Under or Carnivale. Every little detail is there to effectively map out the world.

I'm hooked.

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