Monday, April 18, 2011

'Game of Thrones' Episode 1: "Winter is Coming"

Sean Bean offers up a prayer to the God of Big-Ass Swords

Game of Thrones might be the most ambitious project HBO has ever undertaken. It’s a sprawling, detailed glimpse into a fantasy world where summers and winters can last for years, where dragons once roamed, and where ancient families still plot and scheme for crowns. Adapted from the bestselling epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin and featuring a huge cast, stunning visuals and loads of medieval brutality, Game of Thrones debuts this Sunday with the promise of becoming your new TV addiction.

“Winter is Coming,” the series’ debut episode, opens on a 700-foot-tall wall of ice that guards the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros’ northern border. Three men, members of an ancient order that mans the wall, are venturing out into the wilderness beyond to scout, but what they find is something far more sinister than they ever imagined.

Meanwhile, in the northern country of Winterfell, life goes on for the Stark family, the long-serving lords of the northern portions of Westeros. Eddard Stark (Sean Bean), the patriarch, is preparing for the arrival of his king, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), who will offer him a job that he does not want to take, and set in motion a chain of events that will change the kingdoms forever.

Everyone in the world of  Game of Thrones, from the king’s wife Cersei (Lena Headey), to her brothers Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) to Eddard’s bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington), has their own agenda. And to make matters worse, across the sea the last remnants of an ancient Westeros dynasty, led by Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) and his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) are plotting their vengeance on those that deposed their father years before.

It’s a complex tale, but in the hands of executive producers and writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss it’s told almost effortlessly. Everything is carefully and precisely revealed at the right time, and every character is given their own methods, their own obsessions and their own treacherous flaws. It’s an adaptation that manages to remain faithful to Martin’s novels while still creating something new, something just discovered and teeming with fresh energy.

The energy is carried over in the show’s visual style. Pilot director Tim Van Patten (a veteran of HBO shows like The Sopranos) sets the tone with a muted color palette and elegant camerawork that lets the show’s impressive sets and visual effects speak for themselves.

The cast, led by stellar performances by Bean and Dinklage, is what really keeps you coming back to the land of Westeros. Not everyone is famous, but what they lack in name recognition they make up for in genuine, gritty, truly stirring presence, from the lowliest man at arms to the king’s own Master of Spies.

The very idea that anyone was even able to adapt this material – a work in progress of more than 20 years and thousands of pages – to the small screen is a true achievement in itself, but completing something with this level of quality is more than an achievement; it’s a miracle. It may be a fantasy, but Game of Thrones is also one of the most brutally honest show on television, and one of the most brilliant.