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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Game of Thrones - Episode 1.01 - Winter Is Coming - Review

HBO's adaptation of Game of Thrones has finally arrived! Was it awesome? Yes! Would I recommend it to everyone I know? Hell Yes! Was it as incredible as I had dreamed it would be? Well... the jury's still out on that one. While I really liked what I saw of this sure to be epic television series, there were a couple of major elements that caused me to enjoy it less than I had hoped.

Although I am going to try very hard to review Game of Thrones without the books in mind, the faithfulness of this adaptation to the source material is going to make that an incredibly daunting task. I will steer clear of book spoilers in this review, but be warned that spoilers concerning the first episode, entitled Winter Is Coming, abound.



The series premiere of GoT ranks as one of the best I have ever seen; however, it failed to immerse me as completely as I would have liked.

The show immediately drew me in with the cold open. It served to show us a hint of the supernatural in a world where the supernatural has not been sighted for millennia. Stunning to see in HD and more than beautifully shot, my very first thought was that I was watching a movie. This feeling continued throughout the next scene, which effectively introduced all of the key members of the family Stark. It wasn't just that the image quality was excellent. There was a moment when the camera circled around Sansa and Arya as they practiced their needlepoint, exploring the differences between the characters almost wordlessly. The style of the shot was exactly what I would have expected in some sort of movie introduction. I have never seen a technique like that used on television. Game of Thrones would be well served to continue this kind of storytelling.

Although most scenes in the first portion of the episode are character introductions, they also include important bits of exposition while mostly remaining interesting for the viewer. As such, I could continue recapping the episode for about as long as the episode aired. Instead, I'm going to shift my attention to a general discussion.

Praise and Criticism:

One of my concerns going into this was that fans of the books would be delighted to see the pages come to life, while those who haven't yet read them would be more than slightly confused. One such potentially confused friend alleviated that fear as he was able to follow the intricate plot reasonably well. He also told me something very important. Like me, he loved the cliffhanger ending; however, that wasn't the sole reason for which he will continue to watch the show. He felt that "the characters really [came] across as people." It's wonderful and rare to see a cast of literally dozens with the power to make you feel strongly for each of their characters. It's even more rare to find a group of characters this flawed, complex, and real.


Unfortunately, my friend also felt that the episode was "mostly setup." For him, this wasn't a big problem as he appreciated any and all information being thrown his way. For me though, it meant having to slog through some heavy exposition. That isn't to say that the acting was off or that the dialogue was poorly written. Far from it. One problem is that some scenes are so faithful to the source that they actually paraphrase directly from the book. This occasionally made the anticipation of what was to come less about a story being brought to the screen and more closely related to it being read aloud by people in nice costumes. Another problem was that flashbacks would probably have been more effective than a couple of the aforementioned expositional conversations.

On the bright side, this episode seems to have set up what's to follow quite well. I am now invested in the characters and, although there will undoubtedly be more exposition to come, the cast seems up to the task of making it quite interesting. On that note, I'd like to discuss said cast.


Actors That Stood Out:

It quickly became apparent that the casting directors struck gold with 99.9% of their actors. Instead of heaping praise upon the likely candidates, namely Sean Bean and Peter Dinklage, I thought that I would point out three others that really caught my attention.


Mark Addy, who is probably best known for his comedic work, didn't seem like the right fit for the heavy role of King Robert Baratheon . As such, fan reaction to his casting was somewhat lukewarm. In Winter Is Coming, Addy not only rose to the challenge, but quickly became one of the most fascinating actors to watch. He gave Robert, a Heroic Warrior turned Drunken King, the exact right combination of adulterous fool, humorous clown, and regal monarch. His line deliveries occasionally gave me chills, especially during the scenes with Sean Bean in the crypt. I look forward to seeing more of his performance throughout the season.


I also took immediate note of Michelle Fairley, who plays Ned Stark's wife, Catelyn Stark (née Tully). In the first scene at Winterfell, when Ned proclaims his intent to bring their ten year old son, Bran, to witness a beheading, she expresses an extraordinary range of emotions with the single twitch of an eyebrow. She comes across as an interesting mix of down-to-earth and elegant. I very much look forward to seeing this wonderful actress bring her character to life.


Finally, Harry Lloyd, who plays Viserys Targaryen, the son of the mad king Robert dethroned, effectively held together what could have been a very awkward change of scenery. Moving from Winterfell to Pentos while keeping viewer interest was going to be no mean feat. Although I look forward to seeing more of Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, who was given little to do in the first episode, it fell to Lloyd to keep us interested. His intense eyes betrayed hints of his character's potential insanity.

The above three were only a few of the actors that stood out within the scope of the pilot. Other incredible performances were given by the likes of Maisie Williams, who embodies the role of Arya Stark to perfection, Kit Harrington as the brooding bastard-born Jon Snow, Emilia Clarke as the submissive yet dignified Daenerys Targeryen, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as the charmingly sinister Jaime Lannister, and Isaac Hempstead-Wright as the (formerly) carefree Bran Stark.


The Music:

Having heaped praise upon the cast, I now have to discuss my only huge disappointment with Game of Thrones. The music did not move me an inch. The Main Theme used during the opening sequence was nice enough, but Game of Thrones had the potential for so much more.

I have made it known here on SpoilerTV that my favourite kind of composition involves musical variations. This technique roughly entails the same musical ideas being repeated in slightly different ways. The melody and the harmony grow in complexity while counter-melodies creep into the mix. Different instruments pick up each of these lines, changing the feel of the piece. The harmonies serve a similar function, changing to allow the melody a brand new context.

For an example of this, listen here to the 2nd movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony.

Game of Thrones has 18 series regulars, 8 featured cast members, and dozens of named roles besides. Such a huge cast calls for music of epic proportions. Each character could have had a theme written in his or her honour (something known as a "leitmotif"). That theme could then have been varied based on a character's location and emotional state. Disparate character themes could have been combined in novel ways as characters grew closer or farther apart.

LOST was able to do this brilliantly. The majority of LOST fans will probably tell you that the music was key to making the show such an emotional journey. I just can't help but feel that Game of Thrones has lost out on an amazing opportunity. Instead of giving us beautiful music, the show opted to give us practically none. What music was actually present was nothing more than long notes accentuating the mood. It wasn't really "music". Hopefully, later episodes (OR LATER SEASONS :D) will try to do something like this. Sadly, the perfect time to have set up leitmotifs would have been during this first heavily expositional and introductory episode.

*musical rant complete*


All in all, I was impressed with how accessible the showrunners made Game of Thrones. As someone who has read the books, I would have preferred less exposition; however, I understand its importance and hope that it kept newcomers interested. I have also been following the hype for over a year now. I have seen numerous featurettes, read countless pre-air reviews, and watched the first fifteen minutes three or four times. All of that has likely clouded my judgement. As we get farther into the season, this will likely no longer be the case.

Finally, based on the completely subjective and arbitrary scale of Ridiculously Bad to BEST. SHOW. EVER., I'm going to have to give Episode 1 an Excellent (let's call that 8.5/10).

Let me know what you all thought!

Follow me on Twitter: @LostCadence
Check out my Blog: http://cadencegtv.blogspot.com/

- Cadence

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