Although “Mad Men’s” Don Draper partially scratched the itch, premium TV has been actively seeking its next Tony Soprano. While Showtime’s medieval “The Borgias” directly promoted that analogy, HBO comes much closer with “Game of Thrones,” which reaches even farther afield — to Westeros, a mythical land of seven kingdoms where dragons once lived — to deliver a mob boss (OK, king) beset by plotting, intrigue and fractious families on all sides. Massive in scope and cinematic in detail, this dense piece of storytelling should resonate beyond just fans of George R.R. Martin’s novels, providing HBO its own formidable seat of power.
The “Thrones” DVD came with a sort-of study guide for the uninitiated, but HBO needn’t have worried. In relatively short order, the series adaptation by writer-producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (with Tim Van Patten directing the first two episodes) grabs the audience by the throat like an exceptionally loyal wolf, and, through the six previewed episodes, never relinquishes that hold.
That grip, moreover, happens with a relatively modest amount of hacking, whacking and shagging, though there’s enough sex and swordplay to keep an audience on edge, while firmly establishing the project’s pay TV credentials.
Summarizing the plot is no small feat, but heavy sits the crown on the head of King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), who bluntly states his aim to “eat, drink and whore my way to an early grave.” His queen (“300’s” Lena Headey) might well be plotting against him; a sadistic exiled prince (Harry Lloyd) has wedded his sister (Emilia Clarke) to a vicious barbarian (“Conan” star Jason Momoa) to facilitate raising an army against Robert; and the king’s principal adviser, known as the Hand of the King, has died, leaving a power vacuum.
Asked to fill that leadership void serving the mercurial king is a grim northerner, Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean), who soon begins to realize his predecessor’s death might not have been happenstance. The narrative also follows Stark’s various children, and the queen’s two brothers: the dashing Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and droll dwarf Tyrion (Peter Dinklage, as usual committing grand larceny in all his scenes), who relies on his brain to compensate for a lack of brawn.
These stories play out across multiple locales, from the seaside debauchery of Dothraki warriors to Stark’s castle to the ice-bound frontier at the kingdom’s edge — protected by a massive wall — where Stark’s bastard son Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is dispatched.
“Game of Thrones” excels on multiple levels — with its splendid ensemble cast (able to sell even the clunkier fantasy dialogue), intricate palace machinations, sly humor and growing sense of inevitable conflict. The production’s look is a wonder, showcasing a variety of environments (lensing was in Northern Ireland and Malta) and ornate sets and costumes that approximate the feel of a theatrical blockbuster.
Indeed, in terms of visual ambition and atmosphere, this series challenges the movie world on summer-tentpole turf, while simultaneously capitalizing on an episodic approach that allows the interlocking stories to unfold in a manner no feature ever could. And if the pacing is occasionally uneven in later episodes, by then the hook has been planted so deep a loyal audience will happily overlook fleeting lapses in exchange for the abundant pleasures heralded by the opening chords of Ramin Djawadi’s muscular theme.
“Winter is coming,” Stark and others warn, a reference not just to Westeros’ unpredictable seasons but the massing clouds of war. And as King Robert wryly observes in a later hour, “Backstabbing doesn’t prepare you for a fight.”
Perhaps not in Westeros, but in this realm backstabbing can make for inordinately rewarding drama. And as much as sci-fi and fantasy fans love to grouse and nitpick, HBO, by enlivening the spring with 10 hours of genuinely epic television, has given them almost no cause for discontent.