*This review contains mature content intended for an adult audience and has a few spoilers!*
Welcome to Westeros, where the power struggles for the Iron Throne is nothing out of the ordinary in this epic fantasy world. Game of Thrones, the long awaited and highly anticipated new series on HBO, is a 10 episode journey into an epic fantasy. The first episode is an introduction to the players in this character driven series and effectively sets up the regions of this fantasy world, the state of the kingdom, glimpses at the struggles and power plays yet to unfold, and of course, the intriguing dynamics between the characters. After an eventful hour, I have to say that Game of Thrones was well worth the wait.
In the beginning…
Game of Thrones opens with a party of three men on horseback leaving the safety of a huge wall — fittingly and simply called The Wall — and making a foray into the winter woods. The discovery of a heinous massacre that is unnerving and disturbing sets the stage for what you soon discover is a fantasy unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Thoughts of don’t go into the woods will haunt your mind as the search for Wildlings rapidly turns into a frightful chase and desperate flight for life. Needless to say, the party of three definitely found more than they bargained for.
Queue the opening credits, quite different than I would have expected for a fantasy, yet effective all the same. And while you are composing yourself from the sudden horror you’ve just witnessed, we’re off to the the hold of Winterfell and the House Stark.
The Starks of Winterfell
The Starks are a rugged people of the north. They are hardy and hold honor, duty and the old ways in high regard. A brilliant Sean Bean is Eddard “Ned” Stark, Lord of Winterfell, Warden of the North. Bran, Ned’s youngest son, is having a hard time mastering archery and is being laughed at good naturedly by his brothers, the eldest Stark son Robb, and the bastard Jon Snow. Arya and Sansa are in the solar of Winterfell engaging in the fine female art of embroidery. Arya, however, doesn’t excel at this task like Sansa, but she is an ace with an arrow. This is proven when she sneaks into the courtyard where the boys are and manages to effortlessly hit the same bulls eye that Bran struggled to come close to. Ned and his wife Catelyn are watching over this display when the Stark Master at Arms arrives bearing news that guards from the Night’s Watch have captured a deserter. As the man to decide judgement, Ned Stark must also mete out justice. He leaves abruptly, much to the dismay of his wife because he has ordered that the boys will follow him, even young Bran. The words, “Winter is coming,” is uttered for the first time by Ned Stark with a gravity that more than hints at dread tidings.
After dealing with the deserter with Ice, the ancient sword of his family, Ned instructs Bran in the ways of the old code and justice. Bran, solemn after watching his father do his duty, asks his father about the last words uttered by the young man who was just beheaded by his father. Ned assures the boy that the White Walkers haven’t existed for thousands of years. Yet we know he must have misgivings himself.
On their return home, they come across the carcass of a deer that raises suspicion. Then they come upon the dead body of a female direwolf who gave birth to a litter of pups. Ned orders their death, but Jon Snow suggests that the direwolf is the symbol of the Stark family and that the five pups are a sign that they were meant for the five Stark children. This saves the lives of the pups. Luckily, Jon comes upon a sixth pup (the runt of the litter), and he too gets a wolf, even though he is a bastard.
The Lannisters of King’s Landing
Uneasy is the head that wears the crown — especially when you’re surrounded by Lannisters. Twins Cersei and Jaime Lannister are speaking of the death of the Hand of the King, Jon Arryn. It is clear that these two are schemers, and that they have a secret that may have proven deadly.
A raven brings news that Jon Arryn is dead and the king is coming to Winterfell, and so the usual prep for a royal visit ensues at the stronghold. This royal visit is not without a purpose. King Robert intends to ask Ned to be the new Hand of the King, and Ned being Ned, bound to duty and honor, will most likely be unable to refuse. Meanwhile, Bran is indulging in his favorite past time of climbing, an endeavor you just know will get him into trouble.
The king and his large retinue arrive and it is clear from the start that Sansa is smitten with the king’s son Joffrey. The king and Ned take a visit to the Stark family crypt to pay respects to Lyanna Stark (which obviously displeases his queen Cersei), Ned’s sister and King Robert’s beloved betrothed. It is here that the king pops the question and asks Ned to be his right hand man, help handle the kingdom, and basically watch the king’s six. He also proposes that they join their houses, which should make Sansa quite happy.
At a whorehouse we meet Tyrion, a.k.a. the Imp, the philandering ne’er do well who despite his diminutive size is quite popular with the ladies.
Pentos, the beautiful exile of the Targaryens
The lovely Daenerys is an unhappy bride to be. She is a being used as a pawn by her vicious and callous and completely inappropriate brother Viserys. He is an opportunistic grasping throne coveter who has no sense of decency and is so twisted by the belief that the Iron Throne should be his that he doesn’t care who he has to trample over to get it. Hence he is bartering his sister to the barbarian warlord Khal Drogo, a Dothrakian of imposing size and threatening facade. Upon seeing the savage visage and hulking presence of her bridegroom, and being looked over like a prized brood mare, it is no wonder the delicate and tiny Daenerys is opposed to being his bride. Predictably Viserys has absolutely no care in the slightest for her wishes. He feels he was usurped from his throne. He is giving Khal Drogo a queen, and he will gain an army. Case closed.
Back at Winterfell
Sansa is begging her mother to make her union with Joffrey her dream come true. She wants Catelyn to make Ned say yes. Later at the feast, King Robert is doing what he does best, getting drunk and cavorting with the breasts of a random woman, and right infront of the queen. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is pissing off the queen royally.
Jon Snow, not quite welcome at the party because of his status as bastard and the fact that this might give offense to the queen, steps outside for a breath of fresh air. Benjen Stark arrives, and Jon Snow who is so clearly unhappy because he is considered to be nothing but offensive and lowly and unworthy, asks his uncle if he can join him at The Wall when he returns and become one of the Night’s Watch. It is so evident that this boy-man thirsts for the right to make something of his life and sever ties with a family that makes it clear that he doesn’t belong everyday of his existence. Being a responsible uncle, Benjen tries to deter Jon’s choice, thinking that the boy is too young to make that kind of decision, a decision that carries with it the finality of a life sentence. Tyrion the dwarf Lannister has eavesdropped on their convo and dishes out some advice about being an outcast. If Jon remembers who he is, it can never be used to hurt him. Since he is a dwarf, he knows the feeling of being thought of as a bastard by a father quite well.
Ned speaks with Benjen of his fears, wondering if what Will the deserter said about White Walkers is true. Strange things are happening, direwolves south of The Wall, sure signs that winter is coming. And once again, Ned utters these prophetic words filled with a dark menace.
Back at the head table, Cersei and Catelyn are having a bit of a tete a tete when Sansa joins them briefly. Cersei begins to ask some pointed questions that make everyone a wee bit uncomfortable. I mean, no one wants to answer the question, “Have you bled yet?” Cersei then smiles as if it never happened and admires Sansa’s dress and commands that the girl make her one. Cersei flippantly comments to Catelyn about the possibility of shared grandchildren and that a beauty like Sansa will do well in the capital.
Ned Stark and Jamie Lannister have a brief run-in, a cordial one since it is the king’s feast and all, but even from this brief moment we discover that clearly they are not friends. The thinly veiled threat that Ned delivers so succinctly in response to Jaime Lannister’s taunts is priceless, and a little scary. One of my favorite parts of the night.
Later that night, a message arrives from Catelyn’s sister Lysa. She’s fled the capital and is at the Eyrie. The message is a dangerous one; she claims that the Lannisters have murdered Jon Arryn which is a life threatening accusation. Catelyn destroys the missive instantly and Ned is reluctant to believe that a conspiracy to seize the Iron Throne is afoot. This will mean that things will change and honor will demand that he accept the king’s offer.
A wedding and three upcoming funerals…
Poor Daenerys. She sits uncomfortable and terrified at a barbarian wedding feast which just happens to be her own. Khal Drogo (who you will recognize to be from Stargate: Atlantis) sits imposingly upon the dias next to Daenerys who looks all the more terrified and tiny and helpless seated next to her hulking husband. The wedding is like some savage orgy/fight to the death, and we learn that a Dothrakian wedding is considered dull if there are less than three deaths. It’s a done deal, Daenerys is the new Khaleesi to Drogo’s Khal, and as soon as the Dothrakian omens are good, Viserys will get his war — at Daenerys’ expense. She receives many gifts, sacred books, petrified dragon eggs, and a beautiful white horse from her new husband.
When Daenerys learns that there is no word in the Dothkarian language for thank you, her face says it all. What has her brother gotten her into? That simple lack of a courteous word of gratitude is proof positive that there is no room for kindness in this violent culture. This cannot bode well for her. Woe be the fate of a woman who is sacrificed on the alter of man’s ambition. When Khal Drogo reaches to place Daenerys on her horse so they can leave, she backs away from him, another clear indication of her fear. Ever the loving brother, Viserys warns her to make the Khal happy. I can already see that he heights of this guy’s unscrupulousness will never cease to amaze me.
When next we see Daenerys and Khal Drogo, it is on the shoreline where waves are crashing violently against the rocks. Symbolism for sure, of the violence and beauty that is Daenerys’ life at that moment, and the roil of fear and emotions she must be feeling are as powerful as the sea. I found myself wishing that Khal Drogo would show her an unexpected kindness and tenderness, that underneath the guise of a ruthless warrior there would be a shred of understanding and consideration for his wife. But such was not the case. There was no romance for the cultured and innocent girl, or a bed for that matter. Yet barbarians would argue that Khal Drogo was sensitive in his own barbarian way. It could have been worse, but it was still sad. There was scant warmth to be had from Khal Drogo, and like many a man before him he was not pleased by her maiden’s tears and commanded her to cease and desist with a gruff, “No.” Which also happened to be the only word he knew in the common tongue. Not comforting for Daenerys. Life definitely looks bleak for her at the moment, but I also have a feeling that she is a survivor.
Jaime Lannister will do anything for love — and I mean anything…
Ned Stark heads south to ‘the rat’s nest they call a capital’, and with a last smile of farewell to Bran he leaves Winterfell for King’s Landing and his new position as Hand of the King and neighbor to the treacherous Lannisters.
Bran being Bran is climbing a Winterfell tower. Unluckily for Bran, he hears some strange noises coming from the tower chamber and he catches the twins Cersei and Jaime in shocking flagrante delicto, a fact my brain refused to register for a moment, and lands the climbing Bran in real danger and not just hot water. It is here that the most reprehensible and unforgivable act is played out. Jaime Lannister pushes Bran from the tower.
Ravens really do bring bad news. How many kingdoms were won and armies bought with the hymenal blood of women? Casting Sean Bean as Ned Stark was a pure stroke of genius as I can’t imagine an epic fantasy without his presence.
Nothing — and I mean absolutely nothing is sacred in this show. From Ned Stark’s unwavering devotion to duty and his lack of hesitation to carry out justice, the wild barbarian wedding celebration filled with a multitude of breasts, sex and mayhem, to the shocking and unconscionable incest between Cersei and Jaime Lannister, to the final atrocious act committed against an innocent child by Jaime in the name of love. I’m still reeling. (And I’ve seen both seasons of Spartacus!) I can’t help but be pulled into this series because I am gripped by the intensity of the characters and their stories. What an episode!
FYI of the Night
Snow is a name given to the bastards of the high born.
In the end…
This epic fantasy series will leave absolutely no doubt in your mind that HBO does great TV and they do it well. I can’t wait ’til next week! Can you?