Four years after development began, much of it charted in painstaking detail on multiple websites, Game of Thrones has finally arrived on American and British screens. As well as an adaptation of a much-beloved series of books, it's also a chance to reinvigorate the fantasy genre on screen and hopefully pave the way for other interesting adaptations to come.
The first episode, Winter is Coming, has a lot to do right off the bat. They have to introduce a ton of characters, explain who they are and what they're all up to. They have to establish the four primary locations of action in the first season: the Wall, King's Landing, Winterfell and across the Narrow Sea. They have to establish the notion of the Seven Kingdoms, there being several major houses (four of which - Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark and Lannister - are playing a major role in this first season) and seasons which last for years. They also have to set up the Free Cities across the water, the Dothraki, and the notion that the Targaryens are slightly weird and 'special' due to their old relationship with dragons. Oh yeah, and that dragons were once around and now extinct. But there are direwolves which are like normal wolves but much bigger and grow really fast. There's also geography to consider, cultural details (people in the North have a different religion to those in the south) and other factions (the Night's Watch, the maesters of the Citadel, the Kingsguard).
That task would be enough to send other writers running away shrieking, but Dan Weiss and David Benioff step up to the plate. Because so much needs to be crammed in, it's counter-intuitive that they take the step of starting slow, devoting a full quarter of the first episode to the encounter between the Night's Watch and the White Walkers (renamed from the Others in the books) in the Haunted Forest and then the execution of the only survivor from the battle, but it works well, with a haunting, disturbing and bleak atmosphere being established before we move to somewhat warmer, happier moments at Winterfell.
The producers hold back on too much exposition at this stage, though this has drawbacks (who is Theon Greyjoy and why is he hanging out with the Starks?) as well as the significant bonus of allowing the writers to press on with the emotional core of this opening part of the story: Eddard's divided loyalties between his family and his best friend. Sean Bean and Mark Addy have worked together several times before and are great friends in real life, and this really gives their relationship depth and believability. No, you never really buy the fact that physically Mark Addy was once a great and powerful warrior, but his performance is so superb that it doesn't matter: he convinces you anyway. The great performances are continued by Michelle Fairley, who brings a steely core to a Catelyn slightly softened from the books; Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's Jaime Lannister, who is successfully heading for Magnificent Bastard territory despite occasional accent slippages; and Peter Dinklage, who isn't so much great as Tyrion Lannister as he is Tyrion Lannister, the erudite, witty, cynical and hard-drinking beating heart of the story (at least at this stage).
The other emotional side of the story is Eddard's family, which is anchored on his son Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright bringing a maturity way beyond his years to a challenging role), his explorations of the castle and the startling climax to the first episode, although Robb (Richard Madden), Arya (Maisie Williams) and Sansa (Sophie Turner) have little to do at this stage. Jon Snow (a winning performance by Kit Harington) is also established as a major character at this stage, with his discomfort at Winterfell with half the people there being his friends and half wary of his status as a bastard being evident.
Across the Narrow Sea, the Targaryens are waiting in the wings to return home with their new allies, the Dothraki, at their sides. Harry Lloyd is a great young actor who reigns in what must have been a tremendous urge to overact cheesily as Viserys to instead deliver a quieter, more restrained but also more believable performance than was expected. Emilia Clarke's Daenerys is more of a blank slate, despite her impressive heat-resistant bathing abilities, though we get hints of her kindness and her fundamental desire to just find somewhere to live in peace. Roger Allam's Illyrio is a rare misstep, with the actor not really getting what the character is up to at this stage. He does his best but delivers his lines without much conviction. At the same time, Iain Glen - the go-to guy if you want 'earnest supporting actors with presence' - makes for a splendid Ser Jorah Mormont, coming over as gruff and as doggedly loyal as in the books. Though oddly he doesn't have the same Northern English accent as other Northerners (even his own father in later episodes) on the show.
The sequences across the Narrow Sea are, for all the strengths of casting, a mixed bag. There's some nice work being done by Lloyd as Viserys, but overall the Dothraki come across as a corncheese, simplified caricature of a nomadic Asian people. Given that the only characters of colour of note in the series are Dothraki, this cliched depiction of them as savage rapists is unfortunate although, fortunately, later episodes start giving them more depth.
Overall the first episode trucks along nicely, hits the right marks and gets us to that all-essential cliffhanger ending in good time. The Dothraki sequences aren't well-handled but otherwise the show hits the right notes.
Moving into the second episode, The Kingsroad, the Dothraki sequences continue to be problematic. Whilst Daenerys seeking her handmaiden Doreah's advice in using her sexuality to assert power over her brutish new husband is on one hand an interesting piece of character development, it risks sending a mixed message about abuse victims trying to please their abusers. However, these sequences have provided an impetus for some interesting discussions on various forums about these issues which normally wouldn't be discussed, so on that level they are of value. And of course Glen and Lloyd continue to do excellent work.
Elsewhere, the episode benefits from a structure and theme reflecting movement and change: Eddard and his daughters on the road to King's Landing and Jon and Tyrion on the road to the Wall. Both journeys are learning curves for the characters. Eddard learns that Robert has become cynical, depressed and more ruthless in his seventeen years on the throne, and Robert his friend and Robert the king can be two very different people. Jon realises on his way north that the Night's Watch is not the institution of honour and glory that he imagined, but rather a dumping ground for the realm's criminals and wastrels. Between these moments we see Catelyn nursing her son back to health, and eventually finding evidence incriminating the Lannisters in two attempts on his life.
This is where Catelyn's changed character development in the show brings the producers to grief. Having changed Cat's motivation in the first episode to something softer, having her complain about Eddard's decision to leave for King's Landing rather than pushing him into it as in the novel, the about-face here where Cat decides to leave and chase after him to King's Landing to alert him to the danger really doesn't track very well. Book Cat's decision to leave is the kind of hard-headed political decision we've already seen her making earlier in the novel; on TV the softer, kinder Cat who won't leave her injured son's side for anything and tried to stop her husband leaving abruptly announces she's off on a dangerous mission for several months. Hmm.
As a result, both the ongoing problems with the Dothraki storyline and Cat's rather random decisions make this a disappointing episode, though elsewhere Lena Headey's Cersei (a bit one-note in the first episode but developing more here) has a great new scene which is emotionally powerful until you look at it a bit more, and then wonder if you (and Catelyn in that scene) have been hoodwinked. And of course Dinklage continues to impress.
The third episode, Lord Snow, finally manages to smooth out the bumps. The frantic pace of the first two episodes means they can throttle back here and take their time a bit more with characterisation. There's an interesting scene where Robert, Jaime and Barristan swap war stories which works well (though it's a little disconnected and may only exist to justify paying Mark Addy for his name in the titles this week), and Eddard and Arya get a terrific scene together as well. On the Wall Tyrion gives Jon some good advice and then gets a lesson of his own from Benjen and Maester Aemon when their fervour makes him wonder if there is 'something else' out beyond the Wall after all. In King's Landing we have a truckload of new characters, but Conleth Hill immediately impresses as Varys, opting for a slightly more restrained take on him than the 'mincing eunuch' Varys himself projects in the books.
Generating mixed opinions is Aidan Gillen's take on Littlefinger. A lot of fans were very excited about Gillen's casting, and I'm wondering if people were expecting him to basically be Mayor Carcetti from The Wire all over again. Instead he goes for a slightly seedier, more obviously dodgy take on Littlefinger (Littlefinger in the books owns some brothels but has others run them for him, but here he's more hands-on) but he manages to still bring out some genuine ambiguity in his scenes with Cat and Ned. It's a somewhat different Littlefinger to the one in the books, but one that could work very well.
Most crucially, the scenes in the Dothraki Sea are starting to come together. Daenerys exercises her authority in a more convincing manner, and there's an excellent scene with Ser Jorah Mormont and Rakharo (Elyes Gabel) comparing Westerosi and Dothraki tactics in the same manner two guys from different cultures today might bond over football. There's still some wincing - Dany and Drogo now being totally happy with one another after their bumpy start is a bit unconvincing - but this part of the story is also moving in the right direction.
The episode also ends in an unexpectedly subtle way: we meet Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou, by way of Inigo Montoya*) and he begins training Arya with the sword, but as they fight the wooden clunks of the practice swords suddenly turns in Eddard's mind to the clash of real swords. A terrific moment which ends the episode on a moment of unease in what should be a triumphant scene (where Arya gets her own way).
* Every person who reviews this episode has to raise this comparison by law.
So far, so good then. Onto the next episode.
101: Winter is Coming (****)
102: The Kingsroad (***½)
103: Lord Snow (****½)
Forthcoming: Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things (8/5/11), The Wolf and the Lion (15/5/11), A Golden Crown (22/5/11), You Win or You Die (29/5/11), The Pointy End (5/6/11), Baelor (12/6/11), Fire and Blood (19/6/11).