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.
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.
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.