Game of Thrones, Ep 1.01: No shortage of cruelty in HBO’s new TV universe

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Game of Thrones – Episode One: “Winter is Coming”
Directed by Timothy Van Patten
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss

HBO sure could use an unabashed critical hit right now. Sure, True Blood is a ratings dynamo, and Boardwalk Empire and Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce proved they can mount a lavish period piece like nobody’s business, but since The Wire wrapped up back in 2008, the network has no longer been thought of as being on TV’s cutting edge, at least in terms of proper series. David Simon’s Wire follow-up, Tremé, was politely but somewhat indifferently received thanks to a serious case of under-dramatization, and their fleet of live-action comedies (Hung, Entourage, How to Make it in America) isn’t terribly impressive. So, aside from the considerable concerns of its production costs, there’s a lot riding on Game of Thrones, their long-hyped, long-in-development adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. So it’s a little disappointing that the series’ 61-minute pilot is essentially an epic act of table-setting that pales next to the bold pilots of their best past series.

That’s not to say there’s not a hell of a lot of promise hidden in these long scenes of establishment. Fantasy (and period) veteran Sean Bean mightily anchors the proceedings as Eddard Stark, the ruler of Winterfell, one of several regions of a wider kingdom called Westeros. Stark is immediately painted as a man who is principled to a fault – in an early scene, he beheads a warrior for desertion, despite his (accurate) claim that he was merely fleeing from “walkers,” hulking brutes who slaughtered his fellow soldiers. As their kind has not been seen in “thousands of years,” he is assumed to be mad. Stark’s actions quickly establish Westeros as a land of profound moral ambiguity at best, and wanton cruelty at worst.

That cruelty is most acutely – and grotesquely – observed in an entirely separate corner of the show’s universe. Out in the “free” fringes of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), an understandably distraught young woman, has been promised to Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) the leader of a barbaric clan of warriors.called the Dothraki by her brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), who hopes to use the Dothraki army to re-establish his family’s fallen dynasty. “I would let his whole tribe fuck you – all 40,000 men, and their horses, too, if that’s what it took.”  For anyone who balked at Deadwood‘s depiction of women in trouble, Thrones is most likely not the show for you.

Though those who are familiar with Martin’s book saga claim there’s plenty of female empowerment to go around (if not necessarily right away), it’s hard not to notice that HBO has crammed seemingly as much sex and – strictly female – nudity as possible. It’s not enough that the debauched Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is fellated by a buxom, cheery, exposition-spouting whore for us to comprehend his “appetites” – no, apparently we also need brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) throwing a few more naked women his way to get the point across. (As least on Deadwood, Paula Malcomson’s Trixie wasn’t forced to put on a happy face.) Oh, and we’re also “treated” to a ritual wedding gang-rape slash murder party, followed by a good old-fashioned one-on-one rape scene near a glistening CG sunset. In what hopefully won’t prove to be the pilot’s most telling moment, Targaryen, quietly begging for dignity, clutches her bare breasts only to have Khal forcibly expose them – directly to the camera, of course.

For all the forced nastiness and sexual violence on display, the pilot’s most effective moment of scene-setting is probably its last, when a forbidden tryst high in a tower is spotted by Stark’s young son. What follows is dark, twisted and funny all at once, promising a series that will trade as much in wit and inventive narrative turns as much as this pilot does in exposition, excess, and doomed declarations of the coming of “winter,” a season which can apparently last for lifetimes in Westeros. Thrones will have to live up to every bit of promise it can muster if it’s to earn a place next to HBO’s hallowed dramas of old.

Simon Howell

  1. Mitch says

    Simon, your review nailed it. As a huge fan of Martin’s books, I must say that the first episode couldn’t have been much better. I realize that any screen adaptation from a book can not truly ever do justice to the book itself, but this is as good of a job as any I have ever seen. With that being said as far as HBO series go, it is lacking. Holding A Game of Thrones to shows like The Soprano’s, Deadwood, and Rome it becomes evident that the first episode falls short. It is very easy for someone who has read the book to look at “Winter is Coming” and be ecstatic with the result, but watching the premier with my old man opened my eyes to the shortcomings it has with folks who have not read the book. I must point out that the two scenes that you found excessive (Tyrion with the whores/Daenerys with Drogo) The latter was grossly over exaggerated with the former being completely fabricated. I hope that the next few episodes will bring out the best in the books, there is more than enough content to draw from. For every little detail that us die hards noticed (and loved) there are gaps that make little sense to the people who didn’t read the books. If you don’t believe me watch the first episode with someone who hasn’t read the books, the guy who gets beheaded will always gets a shitty deal through their eyes.

    1. Simon Howell says

      Thanks Mitch.

      In other news, this has been renewed already!

  2. Beverly says

    Did you read the books? The Starks are kind of held up as the most moral out of all of the highborn families, so it’s interesting that you saw the beheading the way you did. In the book that scene is really there to demonstrate how “honourable” and “moral” the Starks are as they won’t hire a headsman to carry out the death sentence.

    1. Simon Howell says

      No, I’ve not read them, and yes, the pilot agrees with your assessment all the way. Doesn’t change the fact that beheaded guy gets a raw deal!

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