'Thrones' begins a spectacular season

Courtesy of HBO

BY KAVI SHEKHAR PANDEY
Senior Arts Editor
Published May 8, 2011

When you purchase a premier brand, be it a Rolex watch or Burberry scarf, there is an assurance that it will be a top-of-the-line product because of the consistent, proven excellence of their brand names. So when a new drama premieres on HBO, the most hallowed of all television acronyms, it is expected to include a tremendous selection of thespians, stunning production values, enigmatic characters, clever plot twists and a blitzkrieg of bare breasts. And indeed, “Game of Thrones” resoundingly delivers on all these fronts.

Game of Thrones

Midseason Review
Sundays at 10 p.m.
HBO

Based on “A Song of Fire and Ice,” George R.R. Martin’s series of fantasy novels, “Game of Thrones,” thrusts us into the action at the fictional land of Westeros, where the Hand of the King (the prime minister) has died. King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy, “A Knight’s Tale) convinces his childhood friend Ned Stark (Sean Bean, “Lord of the Rings”) to become the new Hand, much to the ire of the queen, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey, “The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) and her twin brother Jamie (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “New Amsterdam”) who are quietly making a power play for the throne. On top of these internal perils, the Targaryen family, who Robert unseated in a rebellion, is busy making strategic alliances in exile, thirsty to reclaim the throne. And oh yeah, a horde of mystical woodland creatures are probably going to come murder everyone once the seasons change.

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on within “Game of Thrones,” and that’s even excluding the dozens of crucial characters and subplots unmentioned in the plot summary. It even begs the question: Is such a sprawling, labyrinthine story even capable of being adapted for television?

The first episode certainly didn’t inspire much confidence, introducing character after character and one new storyline after another without any sense of context — akin to walking into a play in the middle of the first act.

But five episodes in, with all the players established, “Game of Thrones” has settled into an impeccable groove: a hyper-serialized structure demanded by a narrative this dense. The episodes now flow effortlessly from subplot to subplot, shrewdly pausing to allow tender moments and extended dialogues, illuminating relationships that will predicate the events to come. Take the final scene of the third episode, a lengthy sequence in which Ned silently observes as his daughter is trained in sword fighting. Beaming with pride, Ned’s simple expression encapsulates his boundless love for his daughter, the kind of scene that leaps a show from good to great.

Adding to the greatness is the bumper crop of captivating characters that have metamorphosed from their stock cocoons in the initial episodes. Ned, the show’s de-facto protagonist, has had to reluctantly place his duty toward the king over the desires of his family and himself. On the opposite end of the moral spectrum is Jamie Lannister (played by the squarest jaw on television since Josh Holloway), an avaricious, murderous bastard that just can’t wait to be king and who has been graced with motivations for his nefarious deeds. But the magic lamp in the Cave of Wonders has to be Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, “The Station Agent”), the debaucherous dwarf brother of Jamie and Cersei. Bursting with charm, Tyrion compensates for his vertical limitations with incredible wit and surprising insight.

And of course, it’s all very pretty. HBO has quite obviously thrown millions of dollars at this production and the result is the most lavish sets and costumes since “Lord of the Rings” — one can only simmer with anticipation at how grand the inevitable battle scenes will be.

Yet, these major expenditures bring up a major concern. HBO has a nasty history of canceling dramas that were too costly, no matter how popular they were. “Deadwood” was left unresolved and “Rome” was rushed to the end, nearly ruining its legacy. Could a similar fate befall “Game of Thrones” after hours of emotional investment?

After a mild start, “Game of Thrones” has reached its expected excellence, more than living up to the HBO name. Various characters on the show ominously proclaim, “winter is coming,” and as we delve into summer, don’t miss out on what winter in Westeros will entail.