King Robert Baratheon of Westeros (Mark Addy) enjoyed winning his crown more than he does wearing it. When he was young and strong, he overthrew the sadistic regime of Aerys Targaryen, "the Mad King." Now he's middle-aged and fat; married in a loveless political alliance to Queen Cersei (Lena Headey), daughter of the wealthy, cunning Lannister family; and sitting on the Iron Throne, forged from the swords of vanquished foes and literally painful to occupy.
Embittered by success, Robert passes an afternoon reminiscing with one of his guards about his first kill in battle: a highborn boy who begged for his life as Robert raised his war hammer. "They never tell you how they all s--- themselves," Robert says with a grim laugh. "They don't put that part in the songs."
HBO's ambitious, visually stunning Game of Thrones puts that part in the songs. Like The Lord of the Rings, Thrones (which debuts April 17) is set in a quasi-medieval world with a mythic history, riven by conflict. But there are no singing elves, tubby halflings or noble wizards. There is a dwarf crafty lordling Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) but he frequents whorehouses, not Bilbo's hobbit hole. And there are hints of magic, mostly in the past, but Westeros is (or believes it is) a postmagical world. Where centuries ago there were dragons and sorcerers, now there are only steel and blood and the cheap grubbings of men.
As did HBO's western Deadwood and historical drama Rome, Thrones takes a familiar, oft-romanticized genre epic fantasy dirties it up and blurs the moral lines. Based on a millions-selling series of novels by George R.R. Martin (whom TIME's Lev Grossman called "the American Tolkien"), Thrones is unsentimental and often brutal. It's also shaping up to be the most immersive grownup adventure TV has produced since Lost.
Thrones is a complex narrative with a simple theme: power scheming for it, keeping it and suffering from it or the lack of it. (Warning: plot-expository roadwork ahead, next three paragraphs!) After the King's Hand (a kind of Prime Minister) dies suspiciously, Robert calls on war buddy Eddard "Ned" Stark (Sean Bean), the lord of castle Winterfell in the forbidding north, to replace him. Ned reluctantly agrees, moving his family to the capital, King's Landing, where he finds a mystery was the Hand murdered, and if so, why? and a nest of spies and intrigues that challenge his simple, direct morality.
That morality, it turns out, isn't absolute: Ned has a bastard son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), preparing to join the Night's Watch, a kind of foreign legion that guards a massive ice wall on Westeros' northern frontier. The Wall was built thousands of years ago to keep out spectral creatures of the winter called the white walkers. In Westeros, seasons can last decades, and in the epic winters of old, the walkers preyed on the continent. But that was generations ago. Now, in the midst of a long summer, most people no longer believe in the "snarks and grumkins" whom Jon is pledging himself against (though we get a glimpse of the horrors beyond the Wall in a horrific prologue).