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I'm not sure how objective about Game of Thrones I can really be, having read and loved the four currently-released books in the series that the show is based on. I can only promise that I will try to look at from the perspective of both a fan and someone who hasn't read a word, and tell you what I think. Based on last night's premiere, we learned a few things. The show will look amazing, it won't hold back on the story's darker content, and so far they've put together a pretty outstanding cast to portray the large number of significant characters. I had a few issues with the first episode, but they're the sorts of qualms that could easily be smoothed over with time.
Although the original pilot was directed by Thomas McCarthy, enough of it was reshot between the show being picked up and now that the episode is now credited to Tim Van Patten, an HBO veteran who's touched most of the network's best series. Bringing a fantasy world to life starts with the look, and Van Patten and the whole production crew gave me a lot of faith that they'll manage to convincingly portray the world of Westeros, making it interesting to look at without distracting from the story. The episode begins with three riders in black, brothers of an order called the Night's Watch, traveling beyond a vast wall of ice into a snow-covered forest. One discovers a bunch of corpses of wild people that have been torn to bits, and is surprised to find them gone with he brings the other two. But then they appear alive with glowing blue eyes, a big guy with a sword kills the other two, and he deserts his duties and flees back toward the wall. This opening is very well shot and does a great job of giving the viewers an idea of what kind of world this is, and seeing it on screen as a fan was really exciting.
The deserter is found farther south near the castle of Winterfell, home of most of the show's main characters. Sean Bean plays Eddard Stark, ruler of the North, also called Ned. He has a wife named Catelyn and five children with her, sons Robb, Bran, and Rickon, and daughters Sansa and Arya. He also has a bastard of Robb's age named Jon. Ned brings his older sons, including Bran for the first time, to the execution of the deserter, which he performs himself, and explains to Bran that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. The deserter claimed to have seen White Walkers (known commonly as Others in the books, which was changed for obvious reasons), though they haven't been seen in many years, so Ned is doubtful. On the way back to the keep, they find the aftermath of a fight between a large buck and a dire wolf, which has left several pups orphaned. Jon believes they are for the Stark kids - five grey ones for the legitimate children, and one white one for himself (bastards born in the North are given the surname Snow). When they return to Winterfell, they receive word that Jon Arryn, Hand to the King, has died of an illness, and the king is coming to see him.
The second most important family is introduced, the Lannisters. Cersei is played by Lena Headey, and is queen to Mark Addy's Robert Baratheon, who rules from the Iron Throne in King's Landing. Her twin brother is Jaime, and they have a younger dwarf brother named Tyrion, played by Peter Dinklage. A month after the dire wolf pups were found, Bran spots the king and his escort approaching from high up on the castle walls, and climbs down to tell his mother, who makes him promise to stop climbing. I wonder if that will be important. King Robert and Ned greet each other as old friends, and go to see the castle's crypts. We learn that Robert was once engaged to Ned's sister, but she was killed during the conflict that won him the crown. He has two proposals for Ned; to become his new Hand (the king's most trusted adviser), and to wed his son and heir Joffrey to Ned's oldest daughter Sansa.
After a feast, where the outcast Tyrion and Jon have a talk about being unwanted, and Jon decides he wants to join the Night's Watch with his uncle, Ned is struggling with the offers the King gave him when he and Catelyn receive a message from her sister Lysa, who was married to the old Hand Jon Arryn. The letter says she believes that her husband knew something, and that he was murdered by the Lannisters to keep him quiet, something suggested by an earlier conversation between Cersei and Jaime. Ned resolves to accept Robert's offer in order to protect him. Later, Bran is climbing again when he happens upon the two twins having sex. He is spotted, and Jaime throws him from the window to protect their secret, and the episode ends.
Before that though, we were introduced to a fourth location across a sea, where Viserys Targaryen, the heir to the king that Robert deposed, is preparing his sister Daenerys to be wed to Khal Drogo, commander of a Dothraki army he wishes to use to reclaim his crown. The Dothraki are vicious warriors who consider a wedding without murder to be boring, and Daenerys is reluctant to be married off for Drogo's power, but in the end she relents. She meets a knight still loyal to her house, receives three ancient dragon eggs as a gift, and has her virginity taken by Drogo. For a long time this storyline seemed like a distraction in the books, but it's certain to be important down the line, so it shouldn't be ignored.
The purpose of most premiere episodes is to introduce the main characters and set up the major plot threads the show will pursue during the season, which is the formula the show follows. The problem is that there's just so much to explain, that the episode feels overstuffed with introductions despite lasting a little over an hour. It's a pretty complicated world with some not-so-obvious things going on, and while I bet most fantasy aficionados will be on board even if they haven't read the books, people who are less versed in that genre might struggle to keep everything in their heads. Sticking closely to the books as written is noble, though I wonder if the first episode might have been a bit better served by narrowing the focus a little, and spending more time with the Starks before bringing the Lannisters and Targaryens into the mix. A young kid getting thrown from a tower is a great episode-closing sting, but learning of Jon Arryn's death and the King's coming could have been an effective closer as well. I guess I haven't considered how that would affect the other nine episodes of the season, but I guess we'll see. I thought Addy, Bean, and Dinklage were all exceptionally well cast in their roles, and saw promise in most of the other actors as well. If nothing else, the show will look and sound great.
The writing wasn't quite up to the challenge, with some awkward lines placed here and there, possibly in post production, just to make sure certain details weren't missed, when a bit more time to develop them naturally probably would have been better. They do a nice job of establishing Arya as a willful Tomboy with a couple shots of her shooting arrows and flinging food at the feast, I wished for a bit more subtlety in other places. Hopefully these kinks will be gone by the time the show gets the plot into full swing (there are still a few significant figures that haven't shown up yet, and that's ignoring the enormous growth in important characters and locations in later books) and hopefully a significant chunk of the 5.41 million viewers last night will show up again to see it. It wasn't quite an outstanding hour of TV, but it did a lot of legwork that could pay off enormously in the coming weeks.