Based on the popular George R. R. Martin fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the HBO original series Game of Thrones captures the essence of the book in what could be the best adaptation of a modern epic fantasy novel to the small screen. A star studded cast including Sean Bean as Eddard Stark and breakout star Peter Dinklage as fan favorite Tyrion Lannister augments an intriguing and gritty narrative adapted directly from the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, the titular Game of Thrones. Executive Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss should be proud of themselves and the fine job they have done on every level with this show. Epic fantasy novels are not the most friendly nor television ready material, but the pair have done an excellent job breathing life into Westeros.
The series opens with a scene at the impressive and dauntingly large Wall. The Night’s Watch has sent out a scouting party to track some Wildlings – people who dwell above the large iceberg that is the Wall. What the scouts come upon is both terrifying and deadly. The macabre arrangement of the dead Wildlings’ corpses was an appropriately ghoulish touch and foreshadows a deadly encounter with the beings responsible for the corpse arrangement that the brother of the Night’s Watch finds. Why the White Walkers would remove the frozen corpses later when the surly lordling comes to inspect is somewhat mysterious, but it all works in generating a tension filled atmosphere. Why the one brother is spared could be explained by the White Walkers wanting to send the Night’s Watch a message, which would lead the audience to conjecture that the White Walkers are not mindless demons or zombies.
As noted earlier in the program, desertion from the Night’s Watch is a crime punishable by death. The next scene is of an open vista with rolling hills. Horsemen gallop down the slopes, pursuing the surviving Night’s Watch scout who has not only escaped the White Walkers but also made it close to Winterfell. This is quite some distance from the Wall in the books but again it is best to not ask too many questions for narrative workability. Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, ever honorable, is going to execute the deserter himself and wants his son, Bran, to come along and watch his father dispense with some northern justice. The tension between the bastard son, Jon Snow, and Ned’s wife, Catelyn Stark née Tully, is evident from the onset. While I understand the show has to intimate and develop narrative lines and histories all within the confines of a limited timeframe of exposition, why is she still shooting him such hateful glances all these years later? By the laws of this world, he’s a grown man and Jon Snow’s likely been around Winterfell for more than a few seasons so the simmering hatred makes Catelyn come off as both petty and slightly deranged. Would not a normal and healthy woman just drop it all a decade an half or so into the scandal? Her and Ned’s marriage must be one nonstop pleasure cruise with such emotional priorities but I digress.
While Ned Stark’s honor and adherence to protocol is admirable, one cannot help but believe his viewing the world in black and white will not bode well for him in a drama about political intrigues, regardless of whether one is familiar with the books or not. That a man sentenced to die would cite an encounter with the White Walkers as spurring him on to defection should lend credence to his account, but Ned Stark dismisses it because of the condemend survivor’s desertion of his comrades. Ned Stark is a man who definitely considers the source with regard to what and what is not important information, a character attribute that is not only daft but also one that leaves him seriously vulnerable to manipulation from ‘trusted’ sources. Jon Snow is an awesome character, especially when he stands up to his father and saves the lives of the baby direwolves, one for each of the Stark children. Portentious? Possibly, particularly since the cubs are found orphaned.
When the audience finally journeys to King’s Landing it is, of course, for some Lannister based intrigue which provides the perfect reason for the introduction of key characters Cersei and Jaime Lannister. The skyline of King’s Landing actually shows a city much more massive and impressive than the one I had imagined from reading the books which had always made me think of a teeming ghetto surrounding a castle. Nonetheless, the scene opens with priestesses circumambulating around a corpse, obviously a funeral for someone important. The funeral is that of Jon Arryn who, the audience is led to believe per her statements, knew of some controversy involving Queen Cersei and her brother Jaime but apparently Jon Arryn took it to his grave with him.
Ned’s wife Catelyn informs him of Jon Arryn’s death while Ned is meditating in Winterfell’s Godswood, a kind of grove centered around a heart tree that is the center of worship for the ancient religion of the North. In addition to informing him of the tragedy of Jon Arryn’s death, Catelyn tells Ned that King Robert is riding north to Winterfell, likely to ask Ned to replace Jon Arryn as the Hand of the King, a kind of second-in-command of the realm. The king arrives with quite a retinue in tow, and the costuming department really has to be commended for the consistently high quality presentation in the series. Everything is believably crafted and well executed.
The King’s arrival at Winterfell is a big event for obvious reasons. King Robert is a fat and lecherous old man but seems likable. At least, he’s not overtly unlikeable, like his ice queen wife. Queen Cersei informs that they have been riding for a month though this rapid passage of time is hard to note unless the audience pays close attention to how quickly the direwolves go from baby pups to small dogs. Aside from this, I would have thought maybe two days had passed in total. Of course, King Robert has arrived to ask Ned to be the Hand of the King, as anticipated. The audience also learns that King Robert and Ned’s deceased sister used to be an item, and that King Robert still loves her since his first order of business is visiting the Stark family crypt where she is buried.
Rather than bore the audience with emotional backwash, we are instead transported to the seaside city of Pentos where we are introduced to the Targaryens, including the lovely Daenerys. The actress chosen to portray the young dragon heiress, Emilia Clark, is stunningly beautiful and an apt choice for the role. Her brother Viserys, played in an appropriately creepy and dreadful fashion by Harry Lloyd, deftly conveys his lack of concern for Daenerys’ wellbeing and his seethingly malevolent nature. Daenerys is to be offered up to Khal Drogo of the Dothraki in order to secure her brother Viserys a Dothraki army to retake the Seven Kingdoms. The extent to which Viserys dehumanizes his sister and openly informs her of how expendable she is in his pursuit of the Iron Throne can only lead to conflicts between Khal Drogo and Viserys since Daenerys will be Khal Drogo’s wife in such a deal.
Back at Winterfell, Sansa Stark is already in love with Prince Joffrey even though she does not even know him, which reveals her to be a somewhat naive and romantic young girl. These traits will likely be exploited by the more manipulative characters in the future, probably to ill ends. Jon Snow is not included at the feast at the request of Lady Stark because she worries that the sight of a bastard would be offensive to the royal family. Already, however, for this audience member at least, the sight of Lady Stark is offensive but, again, I digress. Jon begs his Uncle Benjamin to take him back to the Wall with him so he can join the Night’s Watch and guard the Wall from the Wildlings, and likely but unknown to Jon, the White Walkers shown in the opening. Who can blame Jon for wanting to leave Winterfell? Catelyn has made his life so miserable at Winterfell that he’d rather live the rest of it without a wife or children on a frozen block of ice guarding the realm from demons and feral humans. Does this not tell the audience everything they need to know about Catelyn Stark? I sure hope so.
The feast at Winterfell shows that King Robert is lecherous and a bit depraved which probably has an effect on his ability to effectively govern the Seven Kingdoms. Lady Catelyn receives a late night letter from her sister Lysa informing her that Lysa suspects the Lannisters murdered her husband, Jon Arryn, the former Hand of the King. Further, Lysa alleges that the Lannisters are conspiring against King Robert himself.
The wedding of Khal Drogo to Daenerys is sufficiently exotic and extravagant, with the Dothraki engaging in all manner of bacchanalia, including but not limited to public sex and fights to the death. “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair,” comments Magister Illyrio Mopatis in one of the best lines of the episode. Downton Abbey’s Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) makes an appearance here as Ser Jorah Mormont, a major character in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Ned accepts King Robert’s offer to become the Hand of the King, which does not bode well for his future since he is of such genuine stock. Ned is being thrust into the “rat’s nest” and center of machinations that is the capital of King’s Landing. The show closes with Bran’s illicit parkour but that’s not the only thing illicit. He discovers Jaime having sex with his sister, Queen Cersei and is subsequently pushed from his perch on the window by Jaime to coverup this evidence of Lannister incest. Truly, they do enjoy keeping things in the family. Next episode, “The Kingsroad,” we join Ned Stark and family on the road to King’s Landing while accompanying Jon, Tyrion and Jon’s uncle Benjamin to the Wall.