Game of Thrones is awesome.
Okay, that’s not the most professional-sounding assessment, I know. Let me start over.
Game of Thrones, HBO’s adaptation of the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, hews close to the source material. Densely plotted and epic in scope, full of graphic violence and lots of sex, it’s tremendously entertaining.
A chilling prologue to the series shows that the supernatural remains a threat to the continent of Westeros, location of the Seven Kingdoms. But the age of magic has mostly passed. Though we see dragon skulls in the dungeon of the royal castle belonging to King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), and a trio of fossilized dragon eggs figures into one of the storylines, this is a grounded, gritty show that happens to take place in a medieval-style setting.
In this setting, the King’s longtime friend Ned Stark (Sean Bean) is a good man. The first episode begins with the unexpected death of Baratheon’s right hand man, and his decision that Ned be his next Hand. Ned, being a good man, feels he cannot refuse the offer, as it’s a request from the King. So he sets off with Baratheon for the city of King’s Landing, taking his two daughters along but leaving his castle at Winterfell in the hands of his wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) and his three sons.
All of this happens in the first two episodes. Series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, who are also scripting most of the episodes, have done a tremendous job putting Martin’s story on the screen. Westeros is a fully formed place with an extensive history and established relationships among adults. So, while Ned and Robert are old friends, Ned isn’t particularly comfortable around the King anymore. Robert isn’t a very noble King, given to drinking, eating, and whoring around, and as the Hand, Ned is going to have to take on most of the responsibilities that Robert ignores. Stark makes plain his distrust of Robert’s Queen, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey), from the beginning, as well as her brothers, Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), and her spoiled son Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson).
Such complex interrelations are bolstered by the show’s spectacular look. The Starks may rule one of the Seven Kingdoms, but they aren’t particularly rich, so their clothing looks worn, a sign of their class difference from Cersei and her children, so used to their finery they hardly notice it. As we come to find out, the Lannisters are the richest family in Westeros, and Baratheon keeps the kingdom running only by racking up a massive debt to the Lannisters. These are the sorts of issues that keep cropping up in Game of Thrones. There’s no singular villain who needs to be defeated, just people attending to their worldly concerns.
These concerns include maintaining castles and cities. Winterfell lies in the hardscrabble north, while King’s Landing sits on the shores of the ocean, its large scale revealed in a single shot in a late episode, which shows the castle from hundreds of feet below. Even more impressive are the secondary locations, like the Wall, a massive edifice that spans the entire northern border of the kingdom, all the way across the continent. The first look at the thing, covered in snow even though the Seven Kingdoms has been in summer for years, is truly exciting. And the Eyrie, a mountaintop castle ruled by Catelyn Stark’s widowed sister, Lysa Arryn (Kate Dickie), features just about the best idea for dungeon cells ever.
The scope is introduced in the opening credits sequence, a computer-generated tour of Westeros and beyond. All of the first season’s major locations are represented, including the Dothraki grasslands across the Narrow Sea. Yes, there’s more to this world than Westeros, with a whole other continent and plotline that might exist in a different, similarly excellent show.
This list of characters, locations, and stories may make Game of Thrones sound like an overstuffed mess, but it isn’t. The show cuts around, but provides enough background so viewers aren’t confused. This results in a lot of exposition over the first couple of episodes, but even that’s handled well, as no one seems to be explaining events solely for the benefit of the audience.
This contrasts with previous efforts to bring fantasy sagas to television. Legend of the Seeker, the dodgy 2008-‘10 adaptation of Terry Goodkind’s bestselling Sword of Truth books, failed due to its relatively low budget and the constraints of syndicated TV. Martin’s novels came along at the same time as Goodkind’s, with the resurgence of Tolkien-influenced epic fantasy in the ‘90s. However, Martin’s focus on multifaceted characters and political intrigue, and the battles that intrigue causes, sets his series apart from his fantasy-writing contemporaries. Game of Thrones takes seriously these interests, with each episode part of a longer story. This means viewers need to make a commitment from the start. But it’s absolutely worth that commitment. This is HBO’s best dramatic series since The Wire and The Sopranos, hands down.