Quasi-Medieval, Dragon-Ridden Fantasy Crap
Art thou ready to watch Game of Thrones?
What the F? Where the hell is the FedEx? The reviewer charges at the steeply overflowing mail bin, where the screeners and everything make a tall heap. The mail pile is a mystical tower from whence a series of UPS logos glint like the shields of a sun-addled phalanx and DHL bubble-bags cushion deep mysteries—a perilous structure built unthinkingly by the PR girls of the noble publishing houses of Midtownne (creatures more enchanting than the maidens of Ephesus), who despatch little brown envelopes and big random invitations and such. Its packages sigh with Time Sensitive Material. Where the F is the FedEx with the new TV show?
The edges of the envelopes rise helically, like the worn stone of a spiral staircase curving up to a tuffet-strewn turret. But here the steps lead only to the widow's walk of an L.L. Bean catalog, and trembling frustration. O HBO ...
Hey, here we go. Game of Thrones (Sundays at 9 p.m. ET) is snug as a hug in a drawer of the entertainment center. The backs of the discs flash like clean vorpal blades. It appears only that the jewel boxes, each splintered at a corner, have suffered in express transit. This makes sense: Owing to the natural laws of hype, the culture has chucked the show at us with unholy force. Every TV season requires that one show be voted Most Anticipated, and this spring we in the entertainment press, goaded by discerning geeks, are supposed to try to get stoked for this one. It's HBO's first big fantasy series, according to some, though perhaps not Carrie and Aidan.
Thus does the reviewer feel daunted to face an old nemesis at a late hour. You see, Game of Thrones—adapted by David Benioff and Dan Weiss from a series of novels by George R.R. Martin—is quasi-medieval, dragon-ridden fantasy crap. That's not a comment on its quality but a definition of its type. The reviewer happens to have an anti-weakness for that general sensibility and those armor-clad generic trappings. Hey, his loss, he knows, but, for instance, he cannot trust his taste to tell him if the Harry Potter books are written well. An undergraduate attempt to learn to read Middle English led to naps in multiple Chaucer seminars. He recalls the emotional pain he suffered one lunch period back in the Reagan Era—the pain of wasting the time experimenting with icosahedral dice. Once, bowing to peer pressure, he lyingly implied that he thought Peter Jackson's adaptation of Lord of the Rings to be in the same league as Lawrence of Arabia, when the honest answer was, "I don't care." Many, many years ago, before escaping the provinces, he was horribly unchivalrous in canceling a date at the last minute. Word was going around that the lady in question made like a serving wench at many a Renaissance Festival, and he called off the plans for their Olive Garden rendezvous. Sorry.
The quest is to complete a six-hour marathon of Game of Thrones—to stay conscious through a clear majority of the first six parts of a 10-episode season. It does not help matters that the series—where the meaty head of a drunken king lies uneasy, where plotters are overplotting and courtiers go a-courting in mutters—proceeds in a style that bears all the most punishing hallmarks of close fidelity to its literary source. There are unscalable slabs of expositionistic dialogue clogging the forward movement of the story. Sonorous and/or schmaltzy talk substitutes for the revelation of character through action. There is the sense of intricacy having been confused with intrigue and of a story transferred all too faithfully from its source and thus not transformed to meet the demands of the screen. For long stretches of each episode, the reviewer hangs on to consciousness only by trancing out on the strings of digits of the anti-counterfeiting watermark at the top of the screen, hanging on to the serifs by the nails.
The sex and violence also add interest, the former being unhealthily kinky, the latter abusively deft, both conducted with adolescent passion. No matter how dull the body of each installment of Game of Thrones, it pulls itself together for a meticulously choreographed finish that builds its own discrete tension. The episode endings create anticipation like small marvels of cliff-hanging that erase the torpor of foregoing knightly knonsense from memory and get you hankering for the next look at the opening title sequence (which is a little masterpiece of welcoming design). Many of these cliffhangers depend on the infliction of imaginative horrors on women, precocious children, and four-legged animals, often with quite a light touch.
The sex, less subtle, includes brother-sister incest, omnipresent masochism, and sundry other curiosities, with Peter Dinklage starring as a dwarf whoremonger and the many fetishistic displays of fur harkening back to the dark ages of pay cable, the late nights of Howling II and Clan of the Cave Bear. One scene, luxuriantly offensive, involves what is either a gladiatorial rape tournament or a Jersey Shore homage. At points, the soundtrack departs from its strongest mode—cool semi-serialism, a hybrid of Milton Babbitt and Hey, is that my phone?—and the presence of dusky tribal drums signal that people are doing it doggie style. I was just making a note that a nubile royal—whose goofy name I will not risk misspelling and whose nipples are destined for immortality—is shot to appear to be really a bit young when the girl got to talking with a handmaiden who mentions that she, the handmaiden, began training for her erotic career at the age of 9, but took three years to learn the art. Will it take what's-her-name three years to gain the same knowledge? "No," is the lusty promise, and soon we see it kept. Good for her. Too bad for HBO. "Three years"? Could have been a spinoff.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.