Reviewer Kieran Mathers brings us the first of his episode-by-episode reviews of the year’s biggest fantasy series. This review comes with a mild spoiler warning. There will be some comparisons between the events of the book and the show.
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For those of you who live on Mars and may not have heard, HBO have adapted the first novel in G.R.R. Martin’s ongoing fantasy sequence, A Song of Ice and Fire, into a ten part mini-series: Game of Thrones. The word they are using in much of the press is “epic”. That’s a big word to be throwing around, even in our age of superlative inflationary pressures but the opening scene is suitably cinematic in scale. In a visually stunning sequence, the brave rangers of the Night’s Watch have their first deadly encounter with the white walkers at the Wall, a seven hundred foot high barrier of ice.
While the imagery is brilliantly rendered (and deserves to be seen on a big screen in HD) the scene does not mirror the book and I don’t think it is any stronger for it. The fighting is suitably brutal – a gory gallery of severed limbs and heads, which certainly reflects the violence of Martin’s prose – but I found it difficult to care for the characters because, at this point, one of the episode’s two major issues raised its head; the script is not as Shakespearean as it wishes it was.
There is a slightly forced air about the dialogue, which sounds more like actors speaking lines than natural conversation. There is little humour and too many lines fall flat when they are aiming for significance and drama. It makes for extremely frustrating viewing because the action does not naturally flow from the characters but is dictated by the storyline. By the time the King (an impressive Mark Addy) arrives in the middle of the episode, the show has still not let its characters converse like human beings, though by this point it’s clear that this is a directorial instruction, the scenes cut down to length by the editor, rather than a weakness of any particular actor.
One exception is the announcement of Jon Arryn’s death. ‘I know he was like a father to you,’ is such a poor way of explaining the character’s significance to Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) and I don’t think Michelle Fairley managed this line well at all. I can’t help imagining, having learnt that she replaced Jennifer Ehle in the role of Catelyn Stark, what the other actress would have done with this because, on the strength of this episode, Fairley does not deserve to be part of the ensemble.
Things aren’t helped by the fact that Sean Bean is an actor who specialises in terse and deep emotion. I can accept that his character may not react in a big way to events, but he merely seems impassive. A lesser known actor with a better range may have managed a more subtle performance. As it stands, the inclusion of Bean, a grandee of such works as Sharpe and The Lord of the Rings, seems like a poor concession to the preconceptions of fantasy fans.
But it’s not all bad. The introduction to the Stark children, their relationships and characters, is excellently handled. Arya, (Maisie Williams) the youngest Stark girl, is immediately tom-boyish while the relationship between the brothers is clearly laid out.
Our introduction to the castle of Winterfell is also great. The external set is impressive and, with all the background actors and animals, feels like a real lived-in space. However, the interior scenes have not had the same amount of thought put into them and it’s here that the episode’s second major issue is found. For whatever reason, the production team have decided to go with bare stone walls and floors. That’s fine, if you’ve only made some research trips to European castles to see what they look like now. But castle walls are only bare these days because the plaster has fallen off. They were originally beautifully painted and hung with works of art. (Check out Dover Castle to see what a castle looked like in its prime). People had to live in these spaces but this cold, grim, and dark Winterfell with its bare walls and sticks of furniture would shame a peasant. It destroyed my immersion in the world.
The interplay between the exiled Targaryan children in Pentos is excellent, the scene giving the actors plenty to chew on, even if it was blighted by some gratuitous nudity. I understand that HBO have certain expectations, but it can and should all be in the service of the drama.
The sequence with the Majester (Roger Allam) and Varserys (Harry Lloyd) is also excellent, especially the arrival of Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa). Seeing Momoa in anything is a joy, and his intensity as the leader of the Mongol-esque Dothraki was superb. A long silence, signifying much, is more difficult than any amount of dialogue, and takes a subtlety of nuance which impressed.
Furthermore, Tyrion Lannister is the role that Peter Dinklage was born to play. He was perfect, demonstrating self-confidence, self-awareness and the arrogance of a Lannister. Any scene in which he was involved was a joy, especially his delivery of the line, ‘Arm yourself in what you are. Never forget it, as everyone will not. Arm yourself in it, and then you can never be hurt by it.’ As an efficient expression of Tyrion’s character, this was terrific.
The final mention goes to the uniformly excellent Iain Glen, whose performance as Ser Jorah Mormant iss both natural and meaningful.
All in all, I’m not sure how well ‘Winter is Coming’ works as an introduction to the series or the world in which it’s set. Throwing the audience headlong into a world so similar but so different to our own is a bold move but one that, in this case, does not help. The show needs to let its drama and characters breathe and allow their actions to flow naturally – the lack of a framing device to set a context for the story puts a lot of pressure upon the strength of both the writing and the action. After all, The Lord of the Rings (probably the only fair comparison to A Game of Thrones) wasn’t any weaker for explaining what happened to the One Ring at the beginning of the trilogy. Just explaining that the King is the King after Stark helped him kill the old King, would have set us up much better.
But hopes are high for the next episode, especially considering the ending of this one…