The kingdoms of Nunziata, Miller, and Rappe have convened.
Josh: So Game of Thrones – HBO’s mammoth adaptation of author (and lighthouse keeper lookalike) George R.R. Martin’s even more mammoth fantasy book series, A Song of Ice and Fire – finally burst onto the airwaves this past Sunday. We were treated to a host of characters and ideas and mythologies and locations and subplots, many of which were only hinted at or ever so lightly brushed upon in this first episode, “Winter Is Coming.”
The series cold opens quite literally as we meet three characters journeying past a colossal barrier wall of earth and ice, only to meet their doom at the hand of steely blue-eyed creatures and possibly zombies. This transitions into introducing our collection of characters at Winterfell, the northern most kingdom in Westeros, lorded over by the noble and stoic Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), his wife, their five children and Ned’s bastard son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington). The family finds a dead direwolf in the snow — long believed to be extinct in the area, the wolf gave birth to six cubs before succumbing to the wound inflicted by an elk antler. Six wolf cubs; six of Ned’s children; the cubs are kept. Stoking the flames of unrest, it seems that the Hand of the King has passed away under dubious circumstances, and now King Robert (Mark Addy), his Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), her handsome brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), her dwarf brother Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and their entourage has journeyed to Winterfell to ask Ned to become the new Hand. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, we meet Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and her shithole brother, Viserys (Harry Lloyd), the only surviving members of the Targaryen family who once ruled Westeros before Robert lead a revolt against them. Viserys is forcing Daenerys to marry the commander of a primitive and violent clan of horse-riders, Khal Drogo (upcoming Conan, Jason Momoa). Shit goes down.
Alright. Enough of that.
I’m curious which of us three read the books. *raises his hand*
Nick: I read book one and promptly forgot about it many years ago. Ms. Rappe?
Elisabeth: I read it. I’ve just now cracked the spine on book three, actually.
Josh: Well, I’m always happy to see literacy well and alive in America, but I was hoping at least one of us would be completely clueless as to the source material. I guess Mr. Nick will have to suffice.
I say this because I have very, very little negative to say about this episode, other than my fear/concern that the behemoth amount of attention and observation, not to mention patience, required to piece together Martin’s web of backstory and relationships may prove too much for the casual viewer. This is HBO, not Fox, so I am somewhat optimistic that people tuned in on Sunday hoping to be at least a little challenged, but most people I know who gave up on the book Game of Thrones did so because they found keeping track of all the characters and places tedious. It’s a bit easier when you’re trying to remember a face/actor instead of simply a name in black ink of a page, but nonetheless, there remains a lot of plates to keeping spinning in your mind. I watched this episode marveling at its perfect casting choices and perfect execution of locations, able to recognize a character who is never formally introduced to the audience by name/occupation/relevance – Oh, look, that must be The Hound! That must be Maester Luwin! – whereas I had to give a lot of helpful footnotes to the friend I watched “Winter Is Coming” with so his brain wouldn’t melt and he’d stay interested.
Nick, you say you’ve forgotten most of the book… Where you having any trouble putting the pieces together here?
Nick: No, because there is a good bit of exposition done with character introductions. It’s very easy to follow, and I can only imagine it’ll get even easier as the actors sink into their roles and the audience becomes engrossed. I loved it as well, because there’s this weird balance in play. The dude who plays Lena Headley’s twin brother looks like he fell out of True Blood casting central but when balanced with the awesome Mark Addy and Sean Bean it works. The overtly blonde and foppy other set of twins are offset by Jason Momoa’s horsefucking brute. It’s a nice mix, and smart. This show seemes to have watched a lot of mistakes made by others shows on its way towards striking a balance both tonally and in the casting aesthetic.
Josh: The casting is very smart. I was sure they were going to cast someone gorgeous as Catelyn Stark (Sean Bean’s wife), which would make sense in TV terms but would slightly undermine the fact that Cersie (Lena Headley) is supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the realm; her brother, the True Blood leftover, is supposed to be the most beautiful man (which is why they feel the need to fuck each other). So I am very happy they went with someone like Michelle Fairley as Catelyn Stark, who has more of a Joan Allen-style respectable elegance, versus a Hollywood pretty face.
Elisabeth: I really dug this introduction to Westeros, though I suspect I may be colored purely by the excitement and sheer balls (metaphorically speaking — this is HBO) of a major network finally green-lighting a proper fantasy series. This is such a maligned and disdained genre that my expectations are wildly out of control, and I’m trying to keep them in check. I’m actually not the biggest fan of Martin’s series, but if you were going to adapt one to television, it might as well be the most brutal and unwieldy there is.
I think my only complaint is that it really moved too fast. As a reader, I recognized everything that flitted by. But my mom and sister hadn’t read the books, and were utterly lost and unimpressed. There was no major hook for them, and I had to convince them yes, it really was going to get easier and there really was a story here. They did a pretty incredible job of compressing those first chapters and shorthanding the characters, but I do think they sold themselves a little short in the haste to get it all onscreen. I feel like they went down what I call “the Harry Potter path” — if you read the books, you’re rewarded with certain visuals and nods, if you didn’t well, just try to keep up.
And I was slightly concerned that any breathing room they had didn’t go for an extra line or two to distinguish the Stark children or stress Tyrion’s brains, they went for boobage and sucking sound effects.
But that’s a minor complaint in a pretty impressive introduction. The casting is spot-on (rarely has every character looked like I actually pictured them), the costumes are great, and that slow pan through the icy forest was scarier than anything HBO has put onscreen yet. I really can’t wait to see how this goes, especially as we get into the really big moments of the story.
Josh: Those reactions you got from your family is exactly what I’m worried about. A two-hour pilot might not have been a bad move here. But let’s talk about the episode itself…
Excluding, The Sopranos and The Wire, I generally dislike the intro to most hour-long HBO series. But, despite the fact that its steam-punk vibe seemed anachronistic with the series itself, I thought the intro to Game of Thrones was actually pretty ingenious. Bypassing static shots of medieval times, old paintings, or brooding close-ups of our characters (which is what I expected), I loved the geographical model of Westeros approach. When you’re reading the books you’re constantly referencing the included maps to try and wrap your head around Martin’s small but realistically complex and expansive world. While not as helpful as holding a map in your hands, at least viewers are given a brief aerial tour at the beginning of each episode.
Is there any casting you guys don’t like? Or are worried about? I wasn’t pumped about Jason Momoa being involved with the project, but his glower is winning me over thus far (it’s not like he needs to open his mouth much). I also wasn’t excited about Mark Addy. He’s a worthy actor, yes, but he felt wrong for King Robert in my mind — as he’s not very tall and just looking at him you know he’s been fat and dumpy his whole life, whereas Robert was once buff and handsome; now undone by vice and excess. Complaining about this and his height may seem like a pointless nerd complaint, but the ultimate power of this series will be its realism, and as viewers will learn soon enough, Robert was once considered one of the biggest, strongest men in the kingdom — the dude fought with a fucking war-hammer instead of a sword for godsake! But Addy is a real charmer, and he won me over as well. They’ve even managed to make Addy’s extremely modest 5’10 height seem a bit more-so. I thought his scene in the Winterfell tombs with Sean Bean was one of the highlights of first episode, touching on the character depth that is going to set this show apart from previous attempts at TV fantasy (I hope).
I’m with you Rappe on not loving Tyrion’s introduction, but knowing where the story is going to take him in ensuing episodes, I suppose the show wasn’t going to have many other chances to introduce his love/need of whoring — which is fairly important to the character and his backstory (as we’ll learn soon enough I’m sure). Plus, HBO’s gotta have its titties. That’s really the only thing it still has over AMC currently. The walls are closing in!
Elisabeth: I’d have to concur on Addy — I adore him and he did sell the character but Robert really needed to be more of a Richard Burton type. (Angus MacFayden, where are you?) And I was surprised they picked such a lusciously built actress for Daenerys, who Martin couldn’t describe tiny and flat chested often enough!
I like Momoa as Drogo, though I fail to see why he needed that awful eyeshadow.
I seem to be the minority on the intro though, I thought it seemed too much like a video game. I’m a sucker for somber medieval portraits! That’s what I wanted! At least I have the sleazy True Blood one to keep me cheerful.
Come to think of it, I think there was one tiny scene that really undid the episode, and that was the scene in King’s Landing where Cersei and Jaimie were whispering over Jon Arryn’s body. I think they needed to stick to the book on that. The first you hear of Arryn’s death is from Catelyn to Ned, and from there you meet this massive and badly timed royal retinue. The way it played out put too much suspicion on the Lannisters right away, and didn’t quite sell the royal court the way it should have. (My little audience thought Cersei was Robert’s daughter…) I think it’s a good rule not to show a dead guy we never meet, and not to have two characters muttering how they hope no one suspects them when we should initially be dazzled by them.
Josh: I can’t really agree about Angus Macfadyen, but I think your complaint about that first scene in King’s Landing is relevant. I’m sure it was added to strengthen the impact of the episode-ending cliffhanger, while also giving viewers a wider glimpse of the greater world, but it was a little awkward from a narrative perspective.
Nick: But how many times when we look at seminal adapted works from Shakespeare to The Lord of the Rings to The Prince of Tides (ta-daaaa!) there’s always those things that are either glossed over or have some of the subtlety taken out to make it easier. I think shows have to earn that kind of stuff and this one has done a pretty solid job in painting certain arch stereotypes with enough flavor to keep it from feeling too familiar.
Plus, there are baby wolves as characters.
Josh: It is almost a shame they won’t stay babies forever. A cuteness explosion this episode was. I say almost because I know of the awesome throat-rippings to come.
Elisabeth: The wolves are the only truly good characters in this saga. I’m sure there’s a deeper meaning in that.
Josh: It is very hard to for me to fight the urge to geek the fuck out on this. My impulse is to keep discussing the show from the perspective of someone who has read the 4000 pages of material Martin has pooped into the world, but it is nearly impossible to do that without major and minor spoilers. So I’ll keep myself in check.
I’m very happy we have a lady in this trio, as A Song of Ice and Fire is generally considered even more male-oriented than typical high fantasy. Ginia Bellafante of the The New York Times quite dismissively painted HBO’s adaptation as a boy’s club, with sex thrown in as a pandering trap for women. I find this logic particularly bizarre, as I generally assume the only thing dudes like more than giant swords and decapitations… is titties. I suppose Ms. Bellanfante hasn’t read the books and doesn’t know what is in store, but the series is going to contain some of the most varied and interesting female character on television right now. I can tell you that much. Arya Stark, Sean Bean’s character’s youngest rambunctious tomboy daughter (played here by the adorable Maisie Williams), is one of the most complex characters in the books. And will surely be a fan favorite of the TV audience in just a few episodes.
Nick: See, my first impulse from the episode was that it was surprisingly accessible throughout demographics. It feels almost like a show bordering on too sexual and though there’s a lot of womanizing and incest there’s decent eye candy for all. I think nudity is so available that it wears thin quick. Boardwalk Empire proved it as does Spartacus. The main goal moving forward is in maintaining the ‘epic’ feel without coasting on the fact it comes out the gate a prestige project.
Josh: Rappe, I’m curious, as you mentioned that you’re not that big a fan of Martin’s series (although you’re on the third book nonetheless; seems like you’re punishing yourself), do you think the TV series has improved upon the books in any ways?
Elisabeth: After only one episode, it’s too early to tell. They didn’t do any major departures from the story, they stuck to the page in all major respects. I don’t really expect them to change anything major, since its brutality and grimness is one thing that makes the series so popular, and undoubtedly sparked HBO to it.
Josh: Well, I think I have run out of topics to discuss, unless Rappe and I are just gonna get all nerdy and start talking about the books. Nick, you got any other avenues you wanted to root into?
Nick: This first episode sets the stage well. I think the next one is where we really get to start talkin’.
Josh: Then this dance shall begin anew next week, friends.