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TBTS Reviews: Game of Thrones

April 22, 2011

Sean Bean is going to go medieval on your ass.

If you’re one of the many, many people who have long loved author George R. R. Martin’s seven-book saga A Song of Ice and Fire — and by all accounts, there seem to be a great many of you out there — you were no doubt ecstatic at the decision for HBO to adapt the series for its new Sunday night drama Game of Thrones. And I have to say I’m a little jealous of you, because your faction’s verve for the source material seems to know no bounds.

You probably also went into Sunday night’s premiere episode of Game of Thrones with a vast knowledge of backstory. Again, that makes me jealous, because for those of us who have no history with the books, the first outing seemed a bit like trying to follow an elaborate human game of three-card monte. Yesterday, for help, I emailed my friend and TBTS co-contributor Paul the Geek to see if he’d been watching Thrones, as I knew this particular niche is right in his wheelhouse and that he undoubtedly could shed some light on the massive narrative landscape which appears to be before me.

His response was simple, yet echoed my own sentiments on the first episode. “A friend tried to get me to read the novel,” he wrote back. “I got about 10 pages in and gave up. I couldn’t keep everybody straight. And I like sprawling, epic fantasy.”

For those of you unfamiliar with both Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, the action focuses on the political power dealings of a fictional continent of Westeros, which consists of seven kingdoms, those seven kingdoms being lorded over by King Baratheon (The Full Monty’s Mark Addy, chewing scenery). Things apparently are heating up between the seven kingdoms — of which, in the first episode, we only learn of three (I think) — and Lord Ned Stark (the always badassedly reliable Sean Bean), the benevolent ruler of a kingdom called Winterfell, is visited by his old friend Baratheon to join him as the King’s Right Hand. Problem is, the last Right Hand was murdered. It seems someone has it in for the King’s assistants.

Along the way there are hints of a great many sneaky things going on, from a defrocked ruler bargaining off his own sister to a kingdom of tough but savage brutes to a brother of the Queen who may or may not be dipping his pen into the family ink. 

The truth is that I wish I’d had a little more of a gentle immersion into the Game of Thrones waters. The intimidation for the first-timer begins with the opening credits themselves, which zoom in CGI fashion over a map of Westoros, pointing out the kingdoms. Should I be paying attention to all these places? I found myself wondering. Do I need to rewind this? I wasn’t sure of what I needed to latch onto and what needed to be remembered, so I found my attention level at eleven for the entire hour and fifteen minutes. Not that a show which demands total attention is terrible, mind you. HBO’s past glory The Sopranos was also a giant narrative, but David Chase allowed things seemed to be introduced organically, and one met the characters all in due time. I never felt with The Sopranos that I needed to lean forward and register every phrase spoken. It felt natural. This was not the feeling I got in Game of Thrones. I felt like they were trying to feed me spoonfuls of information about who’s related to whom, who’s sleeping (or has slept with) whom, and who’s got it in for whom. And, not knowing how this saga works, I wasn’t sure if this was something that would be supported later or something I needed to chronicle at the moment it was mentioned. I’m fine with intertwining plotlines — I watched six seasons of Lost, dammit! — but to put it Lost terms, the Thrones premiere felt like I was being dropped in with the button, the freighter and the time-traveling wagonwheel already in place.

As you’d expect, HBO has also “True-Blooded-up” Game of Thrones by clearly adding as much sex as possible, because if there’s one thing that the current era of HBO dramatic program certainly isn’t light on, it’s a lot of people having sex in a lot of different ways. I had to imagine that in some point during the executive pitch meetings for this show, there was a discussion about how much sex they could get into it. The answer would seem to be a lot. That’s fine, of course, but sometimes it seems HBO’s more interested in making something titillating than making something work, and Game of Thrones isn’t the first time this has been a factor (see: Tell Me You Love Me or Carnivale, among others). But hey, it’s cable.

There’s also the small point that it’s never really made clear whether we’re watching a medieval depiction based on actual history or a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy. The stronger argument would be for the former, but there is talk of petrified dragon eggs, mysterious and violent beings in the woods, and a team of soldiers whose job is to guard a “wall” of some sort to keep things from getting in. Again, some familiarity with the books might have been helpful here.

But listen, I feel like I’m being awfully hard on a show after just one episode, and I’m certainly planning on sticking with Game of Thrones for a few more weeks, to see if it sorts itself out for the medieval-fantasy-averse. An event in the last five minutes of the premiere sets up an interesting situation for the rest of the season, and the performances are all very strong, especially from Peter Dinklage, who plays a great, depraved brother to the Queen known as “The Imp.”

HBO has already renewed Game of Thrones for a second season, which means they must see something in it that I haven’t yet, and I’m willing to hang on and see if I see it too. As it stands, the premiere wasn’t awful, it just seemed a little…full. And full’s not terrible, but full also needs to be accessible, and if I have to access a wikipedia page the next day to get some questions answered, perhaps the show’s not bringing me on board gently enough. While I followed everything I saw on-screen, I couldn’t help the feeling that there was more I was probably needing to know, and I hope the producers realize this and give us all that information. I’m a pretty forgiving television consumer, but if you’re going to ask me to start following twenty characters almost immediately, you might need to give a brother a hand.

All in all, I’d recommend checking it out — because hey, maybe I’m just an idiot. I’d also love to hear from some Ice and Fire purists on how they thought the premiere was handled. Are they jamming too much in too early, or was this just the tip of the iceberg? I guess that remains — for me, at least — to be seen. In time, I look forward to seeing what Game of Thrones has to offer, but I may keep one finger on the remote if it all just gets to be too much. Sprawling epics are fine in the format of seven novels, but when HBO only produces ten episodes at a time, with seasons sometimes two years apart, Game of Thrones may need to sell itself to the unitiated public. I’m anxious to see, and hope they can, do just that.

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3 Comments
  1. Bob Jones permalink
    April 22, 2011 2:26 pm

    So, I’ve read the first three books, but that was like 5 years ago, so while I had knowledge of the backstory going in, my memory of most details was small. I think my wife had the same issue you did in that there is a lot of stuff pushed at the viewer in the first episode. However, in it’s defense, there is a lot of stuff pushed at the reader pretty quickly as well in the first book. The issue is though something being explained in a passing comment in conversation on a TV show doesn’t stick in the memory quite like a couple lines of descriptive text in a book.

    You’re suggestion that HBO is trying to “True Blood” it up is a stretch for me as of now as the sex and nudity portrayed in the first episode all actually happened in the book. The sex scene with the Imp is especially important as an introduction to his character as it is very core to his personae.

    My major complaint with the first episode would be that they REALLY rushed the introduction and plotline of the brother giving his sister to the leader of the horse warriors. A lot more development of the brother and sister and their intentions and history would have helped a lot.

    The world itself I would describe as a medieval depiction of history with a very small smattering of “magic” that up to this point (book wise) hasn’t played a huge role in the story.

    Overall, the quality of the first episode was very good, and I think by the end of episode 3 you will probably have a good handle on what’s going on.

    Oh, and as for sprawling, epic fantasy, tell Paul D. to check out Malazan: Book of the Fallen series by Steven Erikson. And tell him he mush push through the first third of the book and from that point on he’ll be happy he did.

  2. Rob in Dallas permalink
    April 22, 2011 5:34 pm

    My friends have been telling me for years that I ought to be reading George R.R. Martin. So naturally, when I saw the first shots of a grim looking Sean Bean sitting on a throne made of swords, I picked up a copy of Game of Thrones and dove in (well, after I finished Steig Larsen).

    I made it halfway through the book before the premiere. I think HBO has done as good a job as they could hope to do, given the source material. Martin crams in a metric f-ton of characters in the first few chapters and I swear at least half of them were naked at some point. If anything, HBO has toned things down for tv.

    I imagine the show will hit it’s stride somewhere around episode three. Either that, or they will have fallen flat on their faces. But I’m loving the book, so I’m hoping that the show won’t disappoint.

    As for the review, I’m mildly disappointed that the usually insightful Mr Tomlin missed the two most obvious comparisons to HBO show of the past: Rome (men with swords fighting over an empire) and Dream On (gratuitous nudity). Also, I’m disappointed that Mr Tomlin’s kid brother is skipping my Derby party to go to a basketball game.

    Oh well, back to the book.

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