HBO’s Game of Thrones is one of the most highly-anticipated television events of the year. And rightly so: the series has been in production for over four years, and has a built-in audience of millions who’ve read George R. R. Martin’s novels. Does the debut of the epic fantasy series live up to the hype?

The first episode of Game of Thrones introduces us to four separate settings within the fantasy world of Westeros: The Wall, a man-made northern barrier constructed out of solid ice; Winterfell, home of  Lord Stark and his family; King’s Landing, the southern capital where King Baratheon reigns; and Pentos, a city on the neighboring continent of Essos. As if you couldn’t tell, there’s a lot to digest in just an hour.

The series opens with a scouting party of the Night Watch patrolling the woods outside The Wall. They track a group of wanderers, finding their corpses desecrated and scattered. The party is attacked by savages, leaving a lone scout to flee his post and run for Winterfell. Meanwhile, in the city, Lord Eddard Stark (played by Sean Bean from Lord of the Rings) has become comfortable in his role as a leader and father. He regretfully orders the scout beheaded for desertion, and caries out the sentence himself. Before the scout dies, he warns Eddard and his men that the terrible White Walkers have returned.

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Word comes to Winterfell that the royal adviser has died, and that King Baratheon (Mark Addy from Robin Hood and A Knight’s Tale) is riding from King’s Landing to ask Eddard to take on the role. When the royal party arrives, the king proposes a marriage between Eddard’s oldest daughter and the elder prince. As the relationship between Eddard, the king and the royal family becomes clearer, we learn that the adviser’s death may have been an act of murder.

Across the sea in Pentos, a claimant to the throne of Westeros waits. Prince Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) and his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) were exiled when Eddard helped Robert Baratheon depose of the previous king. But Viserys forges an alliance with the brutal Dothraki by offering his sister to their leader Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa, Stargate:Atlantis and the upcoming Conan the Barbarian). As the two learn to live with their foreign conspirators, they plan an invasion to reclaim the Iron Throne at King’s Landing.

Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen Game Of Thrones Series Premiere Review & Discussion

Game of Thrones is, unequivocally, unlike anything you’ve seen on television before. The sheer weight  of the story is breathtaking, as is the drama and setting. Comparisons to The Lord of the Rings films are inevitable (especially with Sean Bean starring) but ultimately incorrect: Game of Thrones is very much a modern show with modern sensibilities. Early quotes from producers likening it to a “medieval Sopranos” seem warranted after watching the pilot. The setting is grounded by a surprising dose of reality, more like Braveheart than the Tolkien adaptations.

The series is technically fantasy, but wands and hippogriffs are nowhere to be seen. In the first episode, at least, Westeros seems much more like a medieval Europe that’s been broken apart and put back together. The themes of royal succession and power-grabbing are timeless, as are the more personal struggles of family and identity. Fantasy elements are certainly there, but they aren’t an essential part of the narrative.

Continuing our review…

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The acting is top-notch all round. Highlights include Addy’s boisterous and loose-tongued Baratheon (who gives little resemblance to his more comedic roles), Lena Headey (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, 300) as the disinterested and cold queen, and Peter Dinklage (Death at a Funeral) as Tyrion, the noble-blooded but bitter dwarf. Even the child and teen actors show impressive range – which they’ll need to keep up in order to do the continuing story justice. In a setting so far beyond what’s recognizable to modern eyes, the characters feel natural and appropriate.

The production values are nothing short of stellar. Game of Thrones easily bests the likes of Camelot and The Borgias, and de-thrones Rome as HBO’s most ambitious period piece yet. Sets, costumes, props, cinematography and the Irish, Scottish and Moroccan shooting locations combine to make a wholly encompassing medieval atmosphere. Computer effects are used sparingly, and practical effects take center stage. The cold and foreboding lands of Westeros and the sunny coasts of Essos are almost literally night and day, creating a stark contrast that mirrors the differences in the people and culture of the two fictional nations.

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As uncompromising as Game of Thrones is with its visuals, it cuts no corners in atmosphere, either. The pilot has sex, violence and crude language in abundance, putting even Starz’ salacious Spartacus: Blood and Sand to shame (if it has any). Viewers expecting chivalrous lords and virtuous ladies will find neither: this is an adult story intended for mature audiences. The Dothraki wedding scene in particular brings new meaning to the word “bloodlust”. While fans of Martin’s novels and HBO’s uncompromising storytelling will be satisfied, those hoping for a more traditional fantasy tale may be turned off.

The action is somewhat lacking in the first episode, but this is not unexpected. After the attack and execution in the first act, the rest of the episode is dedicated to setting up the core conflicts of the first season. Like the ever-present Winter, the action is coming, and the shocking end of the pilot will leave viewers craving resolution all week.

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Game of Thrones takes place in a world that is unsurpassed in fantasy literature in both its scope and breadth. It makes no apologies and very few concessions to an unfamiliar audience. Dozens of vital characters and decades of history are thrust upon the viewer in a very short time. (This is the sort of thing TiVo was made for.) George R. R. Martin has a co-executive producer credit for the series, and it shows: if you’re unfamiliar with the Song of Ice and Fire novels, prepare to rack your brains keeping the various leaders, husbands, wives, sisters, brothers and legitimate and illegitimate offspring separate.

The upshot is the pacing. With so much material to cover, Game of Thrones clips along quickly, never pausing long enough to drag. While this doesn’t make it any easier to keep the characters and their relationships straight, it makes for compelling storytelling. Even so, there’s time for some impressive dramatic moments: the conversation between Tyrion the dwarf and Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and the first intimacy between Daenerys and Khal Drogo stand out.

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If you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire, you don’t need to be told to watch Game of Thrones. Likewise, general fantasy junkies have been waiting for Sunday’s premiere for months. But even if you’ve only enjoyed fantasy or medieval tales in passing, you’ll find something to like. HBO’s excellent production values and unparallelled episodic skill are on full display here.

Does HBO’s Game of Thrones live up to the hype? Absolutely. Get ready for an epic experience when the premiere airs this Sunday at 9PM.