Disclaimer: I first read Game of Thrones, the first book from George R. R. Martin's as-yet-unfinished epic fantasy cycle approximately 14 years ago. Not immediately when it was released, but shortly thereafter. So, seeing this on-screen pretty much reawakened my inner 13-year old. It's been a while since I've reread, but I'm trying — ever so hard — to consider HBO's Game of Thrones as its own entity.
I'll be attempting to review each new episode (it's been a while since I've hunkered down to actually review any television that's airing) and will be doing so, as best as I can, without spoilers about where the plots are going. I'm genuinely interested in what any of you who haven't read the books think because, well, if the show is to be a success and continue on through the entire series of novels, people who haven't read the books will need to find the show enjoyable / accessible / understandable.
For those who have read the books... know that it's a necessity of book adaptations that things are cut / streamlined / changed in order to make a story producible (even with a mammoth budget like GoT). You have to find a way to express all that beautiful narrative in images, actions and spoken words. Unless you have pervasive voice-over, you have to find a way to express, externally, the rich inner world of a character. Thankfully, there is no pervasive voice-over here. Things will be lost in translation. They always are. But... sometimes things can actually get enriched.
My goodness, that was quite the preamble given that I have no idea how long this actual review will be. Let's get to it, shall we?
Sprawling. Contemplative. Just scratching the surface / just the beginning. Those are pretty much the ways I'd describe "Winter is Coming," the recast, rewritten premiere of Game of Thrones (I reviewed the original pilot script what feels like years ago). To say nothing of the astounding beauty with which the show was filmed (the color palettes of each location are distinct and delectable... you know where you are even without the architecture and terrain and costuming). So, clearly, I hated it ;P
Let's start with sprawling.
The opening credits (SO COOL) show an aerial view of the map of Westeros (as touching on Pentos, one of the Free Cities on a separate, eastern continent) and, in this pilot, zoom in to show King's Landing (where King Robert Baratheon rules on the Iron Throne), Winterfell in the North (where Eddard / Ned Stark and his House live), and The Wall (a massive, continent-spanning wall separating Westeros from... beyond the Wall, the land of Wildling and the Others — yes, it was difficult for me to hear "The Others" every time they were mentioned on Lost — or as the show calls them, the White Walkers). I think it's a brilliant shorthand that will help each episode seem more focused on both location and clan.
One of the tenets of the books is that every chapter is told from a main character's point of view, with prologues coming from someone less central, often giving us a view of a section of the world even our considerable cast of characters isn't aware of. That convention would be impossible to carry out on screen. So, instead, it seems every week, the map in the opening credits will tell us where our stories take place, and with who. Here, we start just beyond the Wall with three Rangers. We briefly see Queen Cersei in King's Landing before a quick time jump (for us, the viewer) takes us a month ahead when the King arrives at Winterfell (it takes a month by horse!) where much of the action of the pilot takes place. Separately, we go to Pentos for the wedding of Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo, all part of Dany's brother (Viserys)'s plan to amass an army and reconquer Westeros. They're the escaped children of a dead king.
More than just places and symbols and names... there are already about 20 named, important characters we've met. 20! And believe you me, there are more to come. I can only imagine when the story begins to include the other major cities and Houses. I quite enjoyed the scene where we finally learn any of the characters' names we hadn't yet heard in conversation by way of the Stark children pointing people out as the King's traveling party arrives at Winterfell.
I was delighted to see Peter Dinklage relishing the role of Tyrion Lannister, aka "The Imp," the dwarf brother of the Queen. He's a favorite in the books and though he was in, perhaps, 3 or 4 scenes here, his wit was on display. One moment he's making a penis joke talking about his spear and hunting, all in jest, and the next Ned and Robert are talking earnestly about, well, their skill with spears. Tyrion is just a lot of fun, but he clearly has a lot of pathos, evident in the moment he crossed with Jon Snow, Ned's bastard son. Two other deliciously devious characters (Varys, Petyr Baelish) from the books haven't been introduced yet (or it was "blink and you'll miss it"). I'm quite looking forward to them.
Among the things I felt were enriched coming to the screen from the book was the stark contrast between Daenerys Targaryen and Sansa Stark. One moment Dany is telling her brother that she doesn't want to marry Drogo, the next all Sansa apparently wants out of life is to marry Joffrey, the King's heir, and become Queen one day. They could not be more different, and when two scenes are put right next to each other like that, it helps highlight that fact. Very smart writing.
We had precious few moments with another book favorite, Arya Stark.
Let's move onto contemplative. You wouldn't know if from the opening 7-ish minutes (the quite tense prologue set north of the Wall... featuring the only supernatural elements in the entire show, if you can believe it), but not much technically happened in this premiere. This is an epic series, and the stage is just being set. Just beginning to be set the stage, really. Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, died and so the King came to ask Ned to take his place. That's pretty much it, until the cliffhangers (ooof, that term is possibly in poor taste).
Everything else is "color" and that "color" is what made the episode feel full. The emotion. Ned, trying to teach his second legitimate son, 10-year old Bran, about meting out justice and meanwhile dealing with the King's offer to leave his home and land. Jon Snow, Ned's bastard son, is dealing with coming of age and coming to terms with being illegitimate. Robb, Ned's legitimate heir, was a bit in the background in the episode as Ned and Jon's stories, I felt, really took precedence for the Starks. In addition to that, Bran is quite a climber, Sansa has her innocent, childish dreams of being royalty, and younger sister Arya is something of a tomboy. As for the King and his party, Cersei (a worrier) and Jamie (handsome, an able knight) are incredibly attractive twins, Robert the King is fat and has quite a long history with Ned (the war that got him the throne in the first place and displaced the two extant Targaryens, as well as reference to Ned's dead sister whom the King, apparently, wanted to marry). Robert needs someone he can trust.
Loyalty is a huge theme in this episode. Looking through that lens, you can see that Jon's actions with the direwolves (taking one of the team, as it were, by suggesting the the five direwolfs the party finds after Ned beheads the Night's Watch deserter go to the five Stark children — not including himself, but then finding reward in the form of a separate, sixth pure white direwolf) is a loyalty test. And he passes, of course.
On the other hand, you have Dany and her brother Viserys, who tells his sister that if letting the 40,000 Dothraki men and all their horses fuck her was what it took to get his father's throne back, he'd do it... yeesh. And, of course, there's the utmost example of loyalty broken and, in its own twist way, loyalty upheld with Queen Cersei. Bran, climbing one of Winterfell's towers at the end, spies Cersei and her twin brother, Jamie Lannister in flagrante. Twins! Incest! Twincest! Cersei, of course, is not being loyal to Robert and he has no idea. But Jamie's line as he SHOVES BRAN OUT THE HIGH TOWER WINDOW is "The things I do for love." Clearly if you're going to be breaking so many societal taboos, you're loyal to the end.
Jamie and Cersei are, apparently, not to be trifled with. If they'll go so far as to push a 10-year old boy who caught them in the act to whatever fate holds for him (okay, I admit it, I know, but go with me here), then who's to say perhaps the letter Catelyn Stark received from her sister and wife of the late Hand of the King — that he was murdered — has merit. Cersei and Jamie whisper in the halls of King's Landing while Jon Arryn's funereal proceedings are going on that he knew their secret (which I have described above, but at the time we were unaware), but he couldn't have told anyone... because they're still alive. Did they murder Jon Arryn? Regardless, if Lysa is to be believed, the Starks are leaving Winterfell for King's Landing and walking into dangerous territory.
That's right. This epic fantasy series gets its start in something quite familiar to television viewers: a murder mystery. Who'd have thunk it.
And it's so much more. As I said... we're just scratching the surface here. These aren't novels that wrap up in neat bows at the end, the story keeps twisting and growing. Have some patience with the series as each episode and, hopefully, season does the same. There are some great rewards coming your way.
Winter is coming. I can't wait for next week. Or for July 12th when book five FINALLY comes out.
Oh. Catelyn is Ned's wife. I now realize I've gone this whole time without mentioning her... the Stark women really did get the short shrift in this very full pilot, but, hey, as I said something's got to give and there's plenty of time to examine them further. Though not central here, Catelyn is presented as a doting wife and counterpoint to Cersei. Sansa, as above, is a wide-eyed beautiful girl who wants nothing more than to be Queen and is a counterpoint to (the very separate) Daenerys. Arya is a tomboy and, seemingly, counterpoint to all women in the show and of the time period. She shoots arrows, she wishes to dress as a soldier, she starts food fights, etc.