Game Of Thrones episode 1 review: Winter Is Coming

It's finally here: HBO's big budget take on Game of Thrones gets off to a cracking start. Here's Ti's full review of episode one...

This review contains spoilers.

1. Winter Is Coming

And so, it is to much anticipation, excitement and fanboy fervour (including yours truly) that George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series, Game Of Thrones, makes its debut on to the small screen.

At once, we must immediately be grateful that HBO saw the potential in the series and chose to invest in it. With its adult themes, gratuitous violence, sex and supernatural horror elements, it could have easily been made into a lacklustre film (with most of the storylines omitted) or a bland TV series on any other network. Instead HBO has chosen to make its new fantasy series without a vampire or werewolf in sight, and it looks to be one of the best moves it’s ever made.

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Just as The Sopranos, The Wire and Rome influenced other networks to launch similar style shows, expect a flurry of fantasy series to be greenlit over the next few months. You can actually already see Game Of Thrones’ influence. Since the show was announced way back in 2007, Showtime has produced Camelot, Starz made Pillars Of The Earth and HBO, so convinced that Thrones will be a hit, is reportedly pursuing Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. All of this may not be directly down to Game Of Thrones, but you can bet it’s factored in some of the thinking behind pushing certain projects forward.

Anyway, enough background nonsense. You’re here to find out if the show itself is any good, and the spoilers start pretty much from here.

On the basis of this first episode, it seems Martin made an excellent decision in letting HBO adapt his books. With so many characters, plotlines, locations and backstory to introduce, the series seemed like a logistical nightmare to produce. However, by dedicating ten episodes to each book, the filmmakers are given the opportunity to introduce the world of Westeros and its inhabitants at a relaxed pace. Not that they have chosen to do that at all.

In the first episode, we’re introduced to the supernatural happenings occurring beyond The Wall (where the re-animated corpses of the wights are a fantastically horrific introduction to the show), the grey lands of Winterfell, the golden splendour of King’s Landing and the barbaric and raw culture of the Dothraki.

Using Northern Ireland and Malta as a backdrop, the producers have created a gritty, raw world, where we not only believe that creatures called direwolves exist, but that the epic castles that lie in the background have actually been standing for millennia. Each kingdom also has its own visual identity. The Wall is foreboding, cold and the stuff of nightmares, Winterfell is dark, dank and dreary (well, it is the north, and winter is coming) and King’s Landing is enjoying the last few days of summer.

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With so many kingdoms and place names, it could have easily become confusing to the causal viewer. But the show wonderfully eases the audience in with a visually stunning opening credits sequence which soars over the multiple kingdoms and their cities to a terrific, epic score by Ramin Djawadi (Clash Of The Titans).

Still, in a world this complex, exposition is going to be needed, and while many of you may know your Jon Snow from your Joffrey Lannister, most viewers won’t. This, if anything, was really the episode’s only flaw. The backstory of Westeros and the history behind the Iron Throne could have been done in an epic Lord Of The Rings-style prologue, but instead certain characters are introduced via clunky dialogue between Stark sisters, Sansa and Arya.

On that note, the casting department deserves a special mention, as each actor in the world seems perfectly cast for their character. Sean Bean is wonderfully stoic as Eddard Stark, newcomer Kit Harrington expertly embodies the frustration and duty of Jon Snow, while Mark Addy looks like he’s having a ball as the hard-drinking, hard-whoring King Robert. Even the child actors playing the Stark children handle themselves well, and it’ll be interesting to see them grow throughout the saga.

I’m also curious to see how audiences respond to the subplot involving the exiled Targaryen siblings. In the book, I always felt the storyline was taking me away from the more exciting exploits of Stark, Snow and the Lannisters, but after watching Emilia Clarke’s portrayal of Daenerys, I believe she could be the series’ star-in-the-making. Plus, she’s very pretty.

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Daenerys probably has the best arc in the series and her initial anguish at being married to the brutish Khal Drogo (future Conan, Jason Momoa, with pecs that could break concrete) is quite touching to watch. From her flinching at her brother’s softly veiled threats, to her reluctant acceptance of her situation, and the eye-opening wedding ceremony, Clarke’s portrayal of the exiled princess is going to be an interesting evolution.

Harry Lloyd’s portrayal of Viserys, however, was just the right side of pantomime. The character is essentially a sadistic and egotistical bastard, and could have easily been played as a moustache twirling parody. Lloyd keeps it on the right side of camp, displaying a hint of psychotic behaviour just under the surface, which will slowly rise as the series progresses.

On the basis of this first episode, it’s going to be Peter Dinklage that walks away with most of the acclaim as Tyrion Lannister. Quick witted and fond of his drink and women, Tyrion has always been a favourite with readers of the books, and it looks like Dinklage may have found his dream role as the devious Imp, who is brother to Cersei and Jaime Lannister. His scenes with Jon Snow are the best in the episode and his blunt words of wisdom (“All dwarves are bastards in the eyes of their fathers.”) are refreshing in a world of duplicitous double-talk.

Lena Headey (300, The Sarah Connor Chronicles) doesn’t have much to do in this episode, but hints at the venomous nature of Cersei and the Lannister family. Her ‘close’ relationship with her twin brother, Jaime, is one of the triggers that sets off much of the saga, and the reveal makes for a suitably satisfying ending for the first episode.

Danish actor, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Black Hawk Down) is suitably charming as Jaime ‘Kingslayer’ Lannister, and despite his appalling actions at the end of the show, you can’t help but like the guy. Again, as the saga progresses, it will be very interesting to watch his development as more and more of the Lannister’s secrets are revealed.

Considering what needed to be covered in the first episode, at no point did I feel anything was being left out, or dumbed down for the audience. Sure, some small things are omitted (the naming of the direwolves), but considering what needed to be covered in the first hour, it was an excellent adaptation and managed to fly by at a breakneck pace. The show has even taken the time to recreate locations from the book, such as the godswood, for scenes that could have easily taken place on any other set. It‘s this attention to detail and respect for the source material that makes me feel that the epic saga is in safe hands. Of course, I’d expect nothing less from HBO

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On the basis of this first hour, the network has another hit on its hands that will not only please fans of Martin’s work, but draw in new viewers, thanks to its realistic world, complex characters and good old fashioned sex and violence.

Winter may be coming, but Game of Thrones is here to stay.

Game of Thrones airs in the UK on Sky Atlantic Mondays at 9:00pm.

Read more of our Game Of Thrones coverage here.