George R.R. Martin’s historical fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, has been decades in the making and has gained such a massive and loyal following that when news arrived several years back that HBO will adapt the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, the news was welcome with cheers and some trepidation. Cheers because finally one of the most beloved fantasy novels of the last couple decades was finally getting a live-action treatment it’s fans were clamoring for. The trepidation came from these very same fans hoping that those involved in adapting the book didn’t screw things up and ruin something very precious to them.
Showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have adapted what some consider a very complex and dense fantasy novel and came up with something that stays true to the source material while still keeping things from becoming too overly complicated. The first episode is aptly titled, “Winter Is Coming” and we see the show begin with an impressive panoramic scene showing the Wall in all its imposing grandeur as several member’s of it’s Nightwatch Brotherhood venture north of it into the snow-covered, icy wasteland in search of the nomadic wildlings. Their search find them not just a tribe of wildlings (not in a condition one would consider living) and something else which their Brotherhood were created to protect the rest of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros south of the wall from. The Others make a brief and chilling appearance in the first ten minutes of the episode to give a glimpse as to the true danger poised to strike down on Westeros.
The episode soon moves to the kingdom who stands guard just south of the Wall and whose lord, Eddard Stark, stands to be one of the first line of defense against the winter that is coming and the dangers it brings. Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark is the sort of noble, uncompromising lord that stories of chivalry have taught readers for hundreds of years, but who really is the rare gem in a sea of rough and flawed stones that make up the other lords and knights of the Seven Kingdoms. We see him tending to his castle-fortress of Winterfell as he oversees not just his growing sons and daughters, but the sudden news that his old friend and liege, King Robert Baratheon (played with gluttonous glee by Mark Addy), will be arriving with his entourage to Winterfell.
The episode is slighty a few minutes above an hour in running time and in that time Benioff and Weiss were able to introduce a multitude of characters both large and small which would remain important throughout this series’ 10-episode run. We meet the rest of the Stark clan from Ned’s loyal and down-to-earth wife Catelyn (from House Tully) to his sons, Robb, Bran, Rickon and Jon Snow (Ned’s bastard son hence the “Snow” surname). Then there are his two daughters who are sun and moon in difference with Sansa the older and more social-conscious daughter to Arya the tomboy younger sister who wishes nothing more than to learn how to be a knight. Maisie Williams as Arya Stark is a joy to watch in her brief scenes in the episode. She fully embodies the spirit of Arya which has made the character such a fan favorite since she was first introduced by Martin to readers everywhere in August 1996.
Other fine performances of note in the episode were the ones put forth by Peter Dinklage as the dwarf Lannister brother to the gleaming beauties of his twin siblings, Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey in a haughty performance so similar to her Gorgo role in 300, but minus the nobility inherent in the title) and Jaime “Kingslayer” Lannister (Nicolas Coster-Waldau playing the role as a bon vivant, pretty boy knight). It doesn’t take long to see Dinklage not as a dwarf actor playing a dwarf role, but just as Tyrion the bitter, world-weary son who knows his place in the scheme of things and have accepted them thus making him one of the most honest characters in this episode to date outside of Ned Stark.
The cinematography for this first episode was stunning to say the least. From the frozen forests and domain north of the Wall shot in such stark white and blues to the lush and earthy look given to the tropical domain of the Dothraki where the surviving children of the former king of Westeros now reside looking to find allies to retake their rightful place as ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. Even Winterfell is given such loving detail in how its shot to allow it to gain a semblance of personality. A personality of a kingdom harsh and one to brook the foolhardy and soft. Winterfell looks like a place that produces hardy, fatalistic, but able men willing to do that which must be done.
For fans of the book this episode shouldn’t be too difficult to follow despite all the characters being introduced. In fact, for a first episode it really packs in the details that set’s up what will become the many different plot strands that will begin to weave itself into complex tapestry of a tale that will take audiences from the stark realm of the The Wall and Winterfell to the lush seat of power at King’s Landing to the tropical and savannah flatlands for the Dothraki realm. It’s this attention to detail that may lose some non-fans of the books as it could be too much too handle right away. But I think viewers of HBO drama series of the past should be well-versed in juggling such amounts of details right from the get-go. If loyal fans of the Wire, Oz, Deadwood, True Blood and The Sopranos can attest to it’s learning how to handle such details in stride and just let the story take them away.
“Winter Is Coming” goes a long way towards quieting any lasting trepidations fans of the novels may have of this live-action adaptation. All the hype and media ad blitz HBO has created to push this series had given it a high bar to reach before an episode had even aired, but now that the first one has aired I’m happy to say that it more than reached that high bar and looks to surpass it with each coming new episode. If there was ever a scent that should truly sell this show to fans and non-fans alike it is the final three minutes. As lurid and licentious a sequence as it may be it is also one that sets the wheels turning for the rest of the series and show that Game of Thrones is not your typical fantasy drama on TV.
As an aside, the second viewing of this episode I ended up muting the early intro sequence and just listened to German power metal band’s song about Game of Thrones…it actually fit in well according to my fantasy nerd sensibilities.