Warning: This review contains several spoilers.
Where were we? The reviewer was confessing a blind spot, wondering vaguely aloud about the flexibility of taste, enjoying himself only fairly. Scarcely had he finally filed when frumious banter erupted deep in the bowels in the comments. In a peanut shell, the gallery demanded a real review. Ye gods! OK, fine. Let us pick through this epic at our own pace.
We are looking through a window onto Westeros, a continent in a fictional world. Three fellows on horseback head down a tunnel of sorts, torchlight flickering on pasty faces making dumb shows of awe. They then enter a snowblinding anti-Wonderland. The pilot of Game of Thrones is titled "Winter Is Coming," but carried along with the riders—patrolmen on duty north of a border wall—we get a vastly chilly reception. The vista is icier than Hoth, the tech specs boffo.
Which makes it a bit of a puzzle when the patrolmen encounter a scene of slaughter—unconvincing entrails, Roger Corman corpses, dead bodies like some doll parts. It feels as if a choice has been made to depict cold savagery with a deliberate slight hokiness—to keep the violence at a remove by rendering it in a style that is less than realistic but not quite campy, either. It's sort of serio-whimsical. One rider teases another: "Do the dead frighten you?" One writer says to himself, "Not especially, no." On the other hand, the show gets good oomph from a scene where a litter of direwolf cubs crowd around the teats of a slaughtered mama wolf. The sharp idea gives the sham image some force, and the staginess hums with showmanship.
These will be pets for the children of a noble family. The main man on the scene—unspell-checkably named Eddard Stark—had only recently executed one of the patrolmen from the first sequence as a deserter, turning a beheading into a teachable moment for his kids. It is a matter of honor that he killed the man with his own sword, the great broadsword he is later to be seen polishing contemplatively in a dreamy glade as deep as a 3-D poster. The greens are good here; they range from fallen paradisal to troubled pastoral. But also we get dulled up and dun in by grays, solemn slates, unfun browns, colorless tans ....
When the dialogue is feeling heavy, which is half the time, the conversations take on similar colors; the hushes and grumbles proceed such that tone threatens to muffle content. It's of a piece with the way that Game of Thrones can allow its grand pageantry to overwhelm its fine details. A rich receiving-line scene does not yield a big dividend because the show, setting itself to stun with pomp and circumstance, lets the fleeting glances on the faces of the power players flit away fleetly indeed.
But the pups. Stark, not unsensibly, is eager to off the wolf pups. But a request for mercy goes up with what is, hereabouts, an everyday grandiloquence of tone: "Lord Stark, there are five pups, one for each of the Stark children. The direwolf is a sigil of house ...." Well if you put it that way. The lord bows before the demands of making his own myth.
There will be puppies, and the show will generally be appealing when it works with kids and animals—with a girl who could get a sparrow with a bow and arrow if given the chance, for instance, and a 10-year-old boy whose eyes we don't look through often enough. The boy, by the by, is called Bran, and he is the falling star of this episode's cliffhanger. He earned a shove from a window for witnessing the king's wife trysting with her own brother. Yes, this is one of those. Taking the trip to half-realized, semi-solid Westeros—or, for that matter and in a way even worse, fully formed, largely turgid Antiterra—the audience is exempted from the laws of the good earth and allowed to enjoy some good incest.
Speaking of which, Game of Thrones gets some frisson going with the introduction of Daenerys, the nubile noble I mentioned last time, whose name I learned to spell by reading over a shoulder on the subway. She is played by one Emilia Clarke like a thousand boats on a limpid lake, and a full description awaits in our next chapter. For now, we linger on the sinister shiver produced when Daenerys' brother, preparing to marry her off to a savage, handles her like a sex-slave auctioneer examining the chattel and says, ripely, with feeling, "You don't want to wake the dragon, do you?"
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