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