Epic Win! HBO's Bloody, Bold Game of Thrones

Fantasy drama grows up with HBO's bloody, bold Game of Thrones

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Courtesy HBO

Ned Stark shoulders a leader's burden

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Their story is more than an elegant machine; it captures the elegiac tone of a battle to rule a fallen world. As the reluctant warrior Ned, Bean has a weary honor, set off sharply by the cynicism of the golden-haired, deep-pocketed Lannisters — especially the Queen's brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a handsome knight of flexible loyalty. And the show's fantastical premise has timely resonance: a world whose seasons are out of balance, where houses squabble while laughing off an existential threat. The visuals enlist CGI sorcery to build towers and vistas (dizzying, if occasionally too airbrushed-looking), but the real achievement is the design, which weaves European, Mediterranean and Asian elements into a familiar but exotic culture. This Game feels fully assembled out of the box.

The eastern-continent scenes, however, suffer from a kitschy orientalism. The Dothraki are painted savages whose furnishings look as if they've plundered a Pier 1 Imports, and the dialogue here is especially stilted. (There is also one too many uses of the "have some guy explain the backstory while nailing a whore" device.) But as exiled Princess Daenerys assimilates and gains confidence, her story line matures with her. And the Westeros plots are an enthralling mix of palace intrigue, murder mystery and mythology, sold by strong casting. Standouts include the droll Dinklage, playing an intellectual in a warrior culture, and Maisie Williams as Stark's spunky daughter Arya, who chafes against the expectations of girls. Thrones is deeply conscious of its world's social and class structures and blunt about the price of rebelling against them.

If Thrones survives, it will share the high-class problem of popular, sprawling, mythology-heavy series like Lost: Can it stick the landing? (Martin, a Lost fan, hated its spiritual finale: "They left a big turd on my doorstep.") Martin, 62, has written four of a planned seven novels; the fifth is due in July, six years after its predecessor. He says he can keep pace with HBO if — a big if — it devotes two seasons to the massive third volume and three in total to the fourth and fifth (whose narratives overlap), as he hopes. If not? "Then yeah, they may catch up with me."

But it's hard to resist taking the uncertain plunge. Watching Game of Thrones is like falling into a gorgeous, stained tapestry. This epic, unflinching fantasy noir takes our preconceptions of chivalry, nobility and magic and gets medieval on them.

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