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Monday, April 18, 2011

"Game of Thrones," Season 1, Ep. 1

YOURE THE ONLY ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS ME, SWORDSY: Sean Bean as Ned Stark
  • Courtesy of HBO
  • YOU'RE THE ONLY ONE WHO UNDERSTANDS ME, SWORDSY: Sean Bean as Ned Stark
Less than three minutes into “Winter is Coming,” the initial episode of HBO’s fantasy epic “Game of Thrones,” we get our first severed heads. The pilot leaves the impression that decapitations will be “Game of Thrones” signature, like the refrain “That’s what she said” on “The Office” or the word “cocksucker” on “Deadwood.” Lopped noggins make for effective attention-getters, and one of the “Winter is Coming’s” beheadings neatly sums up the moral underpinnings of “Thrones’” make-believe setting.

Created by David Benioff and Dan Weiss and directed by HBO behind-the-camera mainstay Tim Van Patten, “Game of Thrones,” like George R.R. Martin’s original novel series A Song of Ice and Fire, avoids the usual fantasy folderol trappings. Magic spells and supernatural creatures are in short supply, with the continent of Westeros, also known as the Seven Kingdoms, resembling feudal England, only on a larger scale. The 3-D maps of the show’s title sequence reveal the major locations — and would look great on a gamer’s tabletop:

Instead of standard sword-and-sorcery exposition and prophesies, Game of Thrones puts the audience introduces its complicated set-up by putting the audience in the position of outsiders. The first shots don’t even have any dialogue: a portcullis raises before three men on horseback who ride into a darkened tunnel. They emerge on the outside of a giant, frozen wall that’s more reminiscent of the gate in King Kong than the Great Wall of China. We learn that they’re members of an order called the Night’s Watch that patrols the continent’s Northern border. Sent to check up on people called “The Wildlings,” instead the trio discovers dismembered bodies arranged in ritualistic formations, then two of the three fall prey to zombie-like attackers with glowing blue eyes.

Just like the pilot of “The Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones” kicks off with (apparently) a zombie girl in the opening scene. Will viewers eat up a sexy, violent take on the fantasy genre like they do with “Walking Dead’s” straight-faced approach to cannibal ghouls?

After the credits, the survivor from the opening credits is caught, shellshocked, on the South side of the wall. Leaving the Night’s Watch is a capital offense and the deserter falls under the jurisdiction of Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), Lord of Winterfell, northernmost of the Southern kingdoms. The deserter murmurs crazy talk about “White Walkers” before Ned severs his head with an unusually big sword. As Ned tells his young son Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,” i.e., a Lord should be his own lopper. Ned embodies a kind of honorable law and order that values accountability, and Bean carries the Stark family’s stoic chivalry as gracefully as he wears those man-furs.

Fans of Martin’s original series (and I’m one) have an advantage over uninitiated viewers in that we already know the characters, of whom there’s a ton. (A lot of this recap will try to sort them out.) But I had trouble distinguishing between Stark’s kids, who include eldest son Robb (Richard Madden), spoiled princess Sansa (Sophie Turner), tough tomboy Arya (Maisie Williams), Bran and the youngest, Rickon (Art Parkinson). Coming back from the execution, Ned discovers a dead stag and a dying direwolf — like a regular wolf, only bigger — with five pups. Ned’s bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) points out that the direwolf is the Stark family symbol and the five pups represent the five Stark children, so Ned lets his kids keep them. Jon even finds the runt of the litter, representing his outsider status in his father’s house.

Winterfell castle gets more visitors than cute wolf-pups, however. At the capital city of King’s Landing, the Hand of the King (aka the county’s prime minister) has died, so King Robert Baratheon (The Fully Monty’s “fat bastard” Mark Addy) brings his court to Winterfell to offer Ned the job. King Robert resembles the carousing historical image of Henry VIII: “He’ll appoint someone else to do his job while he’ll off fucking boars and hunting whores. Or is the other way around?” quips dashing bad boy Jamie Lannister (Nikolay Coster-Waldau), twin bother to Queen Cersei (Lena Headley).

The royal visit to Winterfell provides plenty of helpful introductions along with the hustle and bustle of medieval party-planning, culminating with big tankards of ale before roaring fires. Among the visitors is Jamie and Cersei’s brother Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), a hard-drinking, whore-procuring dwarf whose marginalized due to his unusual appearance, but may be the most intelligent person in the kingdom. With his broody charisma, Dinklage was born to play the role, which gets the show’s best lines. At one point he advises Jon Snow to embrace his bastard status and wear it like armor. When Jon asks what he knows about it, Tyrion replies, “All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

Ned plans to accept the offer to be the new Hand of the King, even though his wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) receives a letter alleging that the previous job holder was murdered by the Lannister family. Ned can clearly hold his own on a battlefield — he, Robert and Jamie led an insurrection against King Targaryen, the insane previous ruler — but can he survive courtly intrigue? King Robert suggests a royal wedding to link the Baratheons with the Starks, so Sansa complates marriage to Prince Joffrey.

Across the sea, another kind of arranged marriage is taking place involving the heirs to overthrown King Targaryen. Conniving Prince Viseryrs (Harry Llord) plans to marry off his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to a Genghis Khan-type warlord, Khal Drogo (ponytailed side of beef Jason Momoa).Daenerys is “Game of Thrones’” equivalent to “Mad Men’s” Peggy Olson or “Boardwalk Empire’s” Margaret Schroeder, a woman who starts out as a pawn in a male-dominated culture who gradually becomes empowered. At first, however, she’s just an oft-naked sexual bargaining chip — a means for her brother to raise an army, cross the sea and kick King Robert off the throne. The most vulnerable of the episode's outsiders, Daenerys can barely keep her composure through the brutal Klingon Dothraki wedding reception, where a brawl ends up with a gutting and flash of intestine.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “Game of Thrones” first episode is how little swordplay or other forms of action are involved. Apart from the opening attack and the wedding brawl, the episode spends most of the time getting to know “Game’s” players and setting a tone of Machiavellian intrigue. Which is all well and good, but when do we get some dueling? One of the most shocking scenes come at the end, when young Bran, who loves climbing Winterfell’s walls, accidentally comes across Jamie and Cersei committing what must be called “twincest.” Jamie matter-of-factly pushes Bran out a window and the body plummets to the camera, bringing the episode to a jolting close. Will heads roll for this?

Notes
“Game of Thrones” first episode feels very much like HBO’s “Rome,” down to the nude sex object at her bath with attendants. While “Rome” piqued the audience’s curiosity with its details of Roman history, “Game of Thrones” attempts to use fantastical elements, like the giant wall, to similarly engage the viewer.

When Ed and his sons find the dead stag and dying direwolf, it’s a complicated omen. Not only is the direwolf the “sigil” of House Stark, the stag is the symbol of House Baratheon, suggesting that both the Starks and King Robert might be in trouble, too.

“Game of Thrones” nicely follows Peter Jackson’s lead from Lord of the Rings by treating a fantasy tale as a historical film, so most of the period details look perfectly credible. Every now and then a costume choice will look off, though, like the metal dog helmet worn by Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Rory McCann). Plus, a number of actors have that lilting half-English accent reminiscent of Kevin Costner in that Robin Hood movie.

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