"Game of Thrones": HBO's dense, demanding epic

You'll need a flowchart to keep up, but this adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fiction is worth the trouble

Published April 14, 2011 2:30PM (EDT)

If you like passive entertainment that spells everything out for you, and that you can sort of half-watch while doing other things, by all means avoid "Game of Thrones" (Sundays 9 p.m./8 Central, starting April 17), HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's fantasy series "A Song of Ice and Fire." The difference between watching most other TV shows and this one is the difference between making yearly visits to another country for a couple of days at a time versus  packing up and moving there. It's set in a mythical, quasi-European alternate universe of squabbling feudal kingdoms. The network of central relationships is so dense that if you haven't read Martin's fiction, it might help to keep the series' HBO Web page open while you watch, the better to answer such questions as, "Why does the king hate that guy?" and "Who the hell is that?"

My Salon colleague Andrew Leonard has written a super spoiler-y cheat sheet covering Martin's novels, which you can read by clicking here. I quote: "The vast majority of action in 'A Song of Ice and Fire' takes place on the continent of Westeros, which can be imagined as a loose analogue to Britain, only larger. For thousands of years, Westeros has been divided up into a handful of small feudal kingdoms constantly warring with each other, except when joining forces to combat a mysterious enemy in the far North known only by the scariest of postmodern constructions: 'the Others.' [Note: We get a glimpse of The Others in the pilot's opening sequence, which has the ugly flair of a high-end slasher movie.] But the Others have been absent from the scene for millennia. Three hundred years before the present day (that is, when the story line of "Game of Thrones" commences), Westeros is conquered from an entirely different direction. Swooping down from the sky on fire-breathing dragons, Aegon Targaryen the Conqueror and his two sisters, Rhaenys and Visenya, lead an invading army that crushes the indigenous resistance."

That's all back story that occurs before the series' main events. It's a lot to take in if you haven't read the books (I haven't). And it barely scratches the surface of Martin's world.

"Thrones" introduces most of the feudal families in its opening episodes and sketches their key members in brisk strokes. The kingdom is ruled by Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy of "The Full Monty"), who overthew the "Mad King" Aerys Targaryen 17 years earlier. Ned Stark (Sean Bean), aka the Lord of Winterfell, is Robert's most trusted lord -- a decent man who insists on doing dirty jobs himself rather than farming them out to underlings. His wife, Lady Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), is also a decent person, a ferociously protective mama bear. The Starks' children include the tomboy Arya (Maisie Williams), the more conventionally ladylike Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Ned's bastard son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), who wants to join the border guards (maybe because he needs to escape the feeling of not belonging).

Then there's House Lannister, which is genetically tied to the King because Queen Cersei Baratheon (Lena Headey) was born a Lannister. Cersai is close to her brother, Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) -- very close, if you know what I mean. Their other sibling, Tyrion Lannister, is a tough, philosophical dwarf with a hyperactive sex life and a fondness for whores. Of course he's played by the great Peter Dinklage, who's become the Jack Nicholson of vertically challenged actors.

The most fascinating character is Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), of House Targeryen. She starts out an almost completely passive person (and the closest thing to a go-to sex object, displayed nude every 15 minutes). But it isn't just the series that's objectifying her; it's this world. Her slimy brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd) has a plan to retake the kingdom from Robert Baratheon; it involves setting up his sister in an arranged marriage to a burly barbarian prince, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), so that they can use the barbarian's troops as muscle in a future coup attempt. When Daenerys balks at being served up as a hun's sex toy, her brother stresses the marriage's importance in his plan: "I would let his whole tribe fuck you -- all forty thousand men and their horses, too -- if that's what it took."

But when Daenerys is given three supposedly petrified dragon's eggs as a wedding gift, something changes in her. She starts to take control of her circumstances, learning how to dominate her new husband sexually and emotionally, studying the harsh world around her, and carrying herself with more poise and savvy. There's a marvelous moment where she's on her belly being mounted by Khal Drogo, and her expression changes from pained and helpless to upbeat and then calculating as she stares at the dragon's eggs. They're props that double as symbols and intimations of future events; they're as important to "Game of Thrones" as the orphaned wolf cubs that the Stark children adopt and raise as pets, and which become their protectors.

You can't just watch this series. You have to commit to it, the way you had to commit to "The Wire" or "Deadwood" to appreciate them as something other than impenetrable fetish objects. Bear in mind I'm not saying that "Game of Thrones" is a creative achievement on the same level as those other masterful HBO series, which looked, moved and felt like nothing that had come before. So far, the filmmaking is a few notches up from the standard point-the-camera-at-the-actors-and-get-on-with-it approach that dominates most of series television; Showtime's historical series "The Borgias" has much less fanboy cred, but it's got a lot more visual flair, plus a sense of humor, something "Thrones" mostly lacks. Still, this HBO show has a particular storytelling philosophy and creative process. And it's uncompromising in how it lays things out, taking a full hour to set its pieces on the chessboard and not making its first big move until the final seconds of the pilot.

Things don't really start to cook until the second hour. By that point the uninitiated will have gotten hip to what they're looking at: a tale set in a viscerally convincing, outwardly "realistic" universe inhabited by psychologically plausible characters whose actions are subtly affected by unseen forces. The relationship between the characters and nature is especially intriguing; there are moments where the injury or death of a major character is suddenly and mysteriously averted, as if Mother Nature saw what was happening and decided, "No -- not today." My friend Alan Sepinwall always likes to say that one of the hallmarks of a good TV show it that it teaches you how to watch it. "Thrones" is a stern taskmaster, but it seems to know what it's doing.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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