Game of Thrones: Season 1, episode 1 review

For current Game of Thrones reviews, go to slouching.tv.

Game of Thrones, a ten-part medieval fantasy series tagged as ‘The Sopranos in Middle-Earth’, received its UK premiere on Monday night (just one day after the US). Having been hyped to the rafters over the past three months, it had enormous expectations to live up to. It didn’t disappoint.

The series is an adaptation of George R R Martin‘s best-selling book series A Song of Fire and Ice. As the latest addition to the stable of hour-long dramas brought to us by HBO – the subscription channel responsible for producing The SopranosThe WireTrue Blood and most recently Boardwalk Empire – you know exactly what to expect. Densely packed storylines which do not spoon-feed the viewer. An extensive principal cast. Lavish, big budget production values. Blood galore. Oh, and sex. Lots of sex.

Let’s start with a quick overview of the plot of this opening episode. Rumours of the mysterious White Walkers, long thought dead, surface in Winterfell to the north of the kingdom of Westeros. King Robert Baratheon, who controls the Iron Throne of Westeros, visits Winterfell to invite his old friend Eddard ‘Ned’ Stark to become the new Hand of the King. Far away across the Narrow Sea in Essos the young but vengeful Viserys Targaryen trades his sister Daenerys into marriage with Dothraki horselord Khal Drogo in return for the support of his army, which he hopes to use to seize the Iron Throne. Stark’s youngest son Bran stumbles upon the Queen, Cersei Lannister, having an incestuous affair with her twin brother Jaime, a discovery which results in a precipitous fall.

The parallels between The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Sopranos and other Mafia-based films and programmes are obvious. Instead of the Five Families of New York we have the nascent political and military power struggle between the four houses of Baratheon, Stark, Targaryen and Lannister. It promises a web of intrigue which will no doubt leave viewers’ heads spinning in the coming weeks.

The series’s cast comprises a host of names which will be familiar, particularly to British viewers. Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sharpe) is Ned Stark, while King Robert and Queen Cersei are played by Mark Addy (The Full Monty) and Lena Headey (300, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). Meanwhile the diminutive Peter Dinklage, who plays Cersei and Jaime’s dwarf brother Tyrion Lannister, will be familiar to audiences via a broad variety of roles including The Station Agent, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian and Nip/Tuck. And fans of the recent BBC remake of Robin Hood will recognise Harry Lloyd, who has been transformed from the likeable Will Scarlett into the ruthless Viserys Targaryen. For me, though, the most striking piece of casting is that of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who as Jaime Lannister is the doppelgänger of the Shrek films’ Prince Charming.

No expense has been spared in terms of location shooting either, despite the constraints of a TV budget, giving the series an epic and cinematic feel. Filming took place in Northern Ireland and Malta to recreate the gloom of Winterfell and the Mediterranean feel of Essos, with a variety of other locations in Northern Ireland and Scotland including Shane’s Castle and Doune Castle also employed in the pilot.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an HBO drama without a heavy dose of shock factor to remind viewers that they are not watching a mainstream network show. Within the opening 15 minutes we have dismembered corpses and a beheading, and that is followed by scenes of Tyrion’s whoremongering and the incestuous twins Jaime and Cersei. But that is par for the course for HBO – which has over the years brought us Tony Soprano‘s goombahs and the splattered gore of vampire deaths in True Blood – and is very much in keeping with the visceral nature of the show.

But is Game of Thrones actually any good? Based on initial reactions by viewers and critics alike, the answer seems to be an almost universal yes. At the time of writing, it has an average rating of 9.5/10 on IMDb and several reviews in the mainstream media have been positively gushing in their praise for this opening episode.

Tim Goodman’s review for The Hollywood Reporter says:

Barely a few minutes into HBO’s epic Game of Thrones series, it’s clear that the hype was right and the wait was worth it.

It’s difficult to single out the most accomplished parts of Thrones. The ambition is immense, the fantasy world exceptionally well-conceived, the writing and acting elevating the entire series beyond contemporaries like The Borgias and Camelot, and the visual appeal continues to surprise with each episode.

What we have here is the successful pairing of an acclaimed collection of fantasy books with a television series that illuminates and expands what’s on the page.

It’s the kind of drama where, when the first episode ends, you wish the nine others were immediately available.

Worth the wait? Absolutely. And even if you have no idea what all the fuss is about, you should get in from the start to absorb Martin’s fantastical tale.

A second season has already been commissioned, within 36 hours of the US premiere.

Me? I loved it. This opening hour walks the tightrope between set-up and action beautifully, feeding newcomers enough information to prevent them becoming hopelessly lost while moving the various plots along at a decent clip. The pacing is tight, the production values and acting impeccable and the political and sexual intrigue hits the viewer on a visceral level that few series – The Sopranos and True Blood being two notable examples – have ever managed with their initial episodes. Game of Thrones looks set to be more than just a great fantasy show – it promises to be a great series, full stop. This was the most impressive debut of the 2010/11 season for me. The next episode cannot come soon enough.

Game of Thrones continues on Sky Atlantic, Mondays at 9pm.

Rating: 1.01 Winter is Coming – 9/10

Links: Game of Thrones website (HBO.com)IMDbTV.comWikipedia

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22 thoughts on “Game of Thrones: Season 1, episode 1 review

    • It’s certainly difficult keeping up, as I’m finding myself living on a staple diet of Sky Atlantic at the moment. Boardwalk Empire has just finished, but then there is Blue Bloods, Weeds, Treme, Bored To Death and now this. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day!

      In all seriousness, even as little more than a passing fan of the fantasy genre – I don’t get much further than Tolkein and have not read the books on which GoT is based – I would recommend this to anyone based on the first episode. It’s likely to scramble my already addled brain before too long, but it was a rare example of a pilot in which stuff actually happened without becoming overly burdened with set-up and exposition.

      Having said that, Heather gave up after five minutes!

    • Wasn’t it great? For once, a show whose opening episode lived up to the hype. I’m already hooked.

      And the opening intro is magnificent. Visually stunning, and a useful primer for those of us unfamiliar with the books who still think Westeros is a statue in London …

    • True, and they so toned down the Dothraki wedding feast for the TV version. In the book it’s quite stomach-turning.

  1. I’m encouraged to see that this is playing well across the pond. The UK ratings seem to show that. Apparently, this show has been HBO’s fastest selling foreign property, so I’m sure that was added incentive to renew it for the second season. Here’s hoping for a third, and beyond.

    • UK overnight ratings showed an average of 743k viewers on first broadcast. It will probably end up closer to 1.1-1.2m after repeat showings and timeshifted viewing are taken into account. By comparison, the debut episode of Boardwalk Empire had 438k viewers on opening night.

      It’s nowhere near the numbers that a top terrestrial network show would get – Doctor Who, say, will probably get 7-8m for its season six premiere on Saturday – but for a digital channel this is an outstanding performance.

      The vibe in the UK has been extremely positive, based on the reviews I’ve read.

      No doubt the renewal decision was a no-brainer. Good ratings plus international sales plus DVD & other merchandising potential equals hit.

  2. Fantasy literature isn’t the genre I typically read but I read the first four of Martin’s books one after the other. I couldn’t put them down. They are long, intricate and excellent. I would highly recommend you read them, even if fantasy isn’t your thing. You forget you’re reading fantasy. It reads much more like historical fiction. With dragons. ;)

    • Having loved the first episode, I shall certainly be adding at least the first book to my reading list. Now, where’s my Amazon app …?

  3. I was wondering where I’d seen Harry Lloyd before. You’re right, it is an incredible transformation. When I was reading the book, in my mind as well as Richard Armitage being Jaime Lannister, I had Harry Lloyd, in his Robin Hood incarnation, as Jon Snow.

  4. I really want to watch this. Sounds right my my street. I saw the preview the other day. The only problem is that it clashed with Glee. What can I say, my tv tastes are eclectic. I will def catch this.

    • It’s well worth a look. I don’t normally get so excited about a new series based on one episode, but in addition to being a fine episode in its own right it promises so much more to come. I’m very much looking forward to the rest of this first season – and we already know, of course, that it has been picked up for a second run.

  5. I did indeed enjoy it. And it was very good, but I think it’ll take me a while to properly get into it. I couldn’t tell the Stark boys apart, for a start, and all the nudity got a bit wearing. But then again, it is HBO.

    I loved Eddard and the King, though – Addy and Bean work brilliantly together. And that first 15 minutes was spectacularly creepy.

    However, was anyone else troubled by the portrayal of the Dothraki? Plenty of the characters did appalling things and were pretty horrible (hello, Viserys and Jaime) so it’s not like the Dothraki were the main villains of the piece, but it seemed like the only non-Caucasian people were the only ones presented as the unrefined, overt barbarians. It bothered me.

    • Hey, CJ. I’m assuming that the Dothraki are portrayed true to the books, as everyone else seems to have been? I strongly suspect they will prove to have greater depth and honour than many of the other, supposedly more civilised characters – just as Daenerys will undoubtedly prove to be more than a witless pawn in her brother’s power games. It’ll be interesting to see how it unfolds. (I really must get my hands on the books …)

    • I’m not aware of any plans to bring it to free-to-air TV currently, which would be a real shame as it’s deserving of a wider audience. Maybe BBC2 or Channel 4 will pick it up?

  6. Pingback: Game of Thrones: Season 1 review « Slouching towards Thatcham

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