Tuesday, April 26, 2011

TV: Game of Thrones - Winter is Coming

Possible spoilers inside. If you've read the books, you're fine, if not, potential for spoilers here. Be careful!

Pilots are a tricky beast. Usually the weakest episodes of a season, the first episode has the most weight to carry, you have to establish setting, characters and story in the space of less than an hour and you have to do it so viewers can return the next week experts in what they've viewed. "Game of Thrones" is a show that has to do that sevenfold. With a rich world behind it, created by George R.R. Martin. This is a hefty undertaking from HBO. Does it stand up, though? Hit the jump to find out.

HBO is the Home Box Office channel in the US, meaning it's tagged with developing quality programming, with productions in the past like The Sopranos and The Wire, and a slew of current shows like True Blood, Boardwalk Empire, Eastbound & Down and Treme, audiences around the world were biting at their nails when Game of Thrones was announced and shown. Having spoken to my friend, Hugh, about the books, he had a brief moment saying "the books are excellent," in that, I decided to go into this without any prior knowledge of the world Martin had written.

I'm still relatively confused after viewing it, but that's because a ton of information was dumped on you in the hour window the episode had. The first episode is very heavy on the exposition, so it's understandable that someone unfamiliar with the situations and settings would be overwhelmed once the hour had passed. The fantasy drawcard here is what I'm sure will draw audiences, it's niche, but still powerful, this is a rare undertaking for television, fantasy is a beast that people not dare touch.

In the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros we are introduced to the House of Stark, led by Ned (played by Sean Bean,) an imposing, but sympathetic man with a deep dedication towards his family. We get a sense that there are deeper trappings within the family ranks, and later on the entire noble bloodline, but it's not touched upon in great detail, however it is expanded on with some of the characters that are introduced a little later in the piece in the form of Viserys, Dany, Cersei Lannister and Jaime Lannister.

We're also given insight into two other subplots of sorts that I'm sure will tie into the overreaching story arc for the season. Viserys and Dany, are fallen royalty fleeing to the East in a bid to reclaim a throne in Westeros. The idea of power and gender power really shows it's teeth with a rather interesting bit from Viserys when he tells his sister that he'd glad let her become a playtoy of 40,000 mercenaries. That kind of idealism is present throughout the episode (and I assume series) where men's power really can corrupt and cloud judgement. Take a look at Viserys blind eye to his sisters plea to return home rather than bedding the warlord Khal Drogo. I'd love to see women begin to challenge that power and see what exactly the men will do, especially Viserys and Dany.

Cersei and Jaime on the other hand play into the aforementioned deeper trappings of the Seven Kingdoms noble bloodline, after some weird sexual tension between the two in their introductory scene, we are given insight to something hidden beneath their smiles to their townsfolk; and later that sexual tension, is, er, released. Lena Heady and Nikolaj Coser-Waldau do a good job at having the concealed look upon their faces, there's something that troubles them, but we don't yet know it.

Like the Lannister twins, there are subtleties in and around this, whether it be through the writers or Martin himself, "Thrones" presents some interesting parallels. One in particular that I found was when the Stark party discover a dire wolf dead in the woods, having given birth to five pups; it's interesting to see when Jon Snow informs Ned of the binding the wolves had with each of the Stark children, it makes the prospects for the mischievous bunch a little brighter. Does the survival of a mother's newborns spell a positive future for the Stark children, and tell of a grim end for those that bring them into the world? It's an interesting way to potentially foreshadow what's to come.

Which leads me to the closing minutes of the episode where we experience the first twist in what is looking to be a meaty story, when Ned's son, Bran is shoved off a watchtower after witnessing the twins, Cersei and Jaime enjoying an intimate if not, soft porn-esque moment. Whether or not Bran survived the fall will be left until my review of episode two.

At the end of the day the pilot looked amazing, with the rather disturbing opening sequence in the snowy regions beyond "the wall" laying down the visual aesthetic for the series which I do hope it maintains. I have noticed several series (writing in the middle of the night doesn't do wonders for the memory) in the past change their aesthetics beyond the pilot, and that kind of tonal shift can be jarring. Usually you can blame budget cuts for that as the pilot is more expensive than the proceeding episodes.

The beauty of "Thrones" is that it has a source material to fall back on. It's already developed for the creative team behind the show, they just have to somehow bring it to life and do it justice. The team do it well, the set pieces big and physical, rather than shirking it to the stage, it does have a similar feel to Lord of the Rings but on a smaller scale. I'm intrigued to see how the team behind the show will bring about some new and fun locations, I'd rather not be stuck in a local pub while we watch Ned and King Robert have a chat about who weds who.

Apart from the exposition that was heaved on me, I thoroughly enjoyed what the pilot had to offer. In saying that, whilst the exposition might have been heavy handed, it offered guidance and not that feeling of "I need to know everything by episode's end." Which means I'll be sticking around, it looks fantastic, the story holds plenty of direction which I'll be interested to see which direction they take, even though it set by the books, I haven't read them, so the surprise factor still remains. There will be purists, I'm not one of them, but I'm fascinated to see how the characters and stories develop in this rather large world.

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