"When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground."
-Queen Cersei; Episode 7, Season 1
This quote from Queen Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) to lead character Lord Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) lies at the core of HBO's medieval-themed show Game of Thrones. The quote, which gives title to the seventh episode of the first season, exemplifies the cold, cutthroat nature of war and politics in this world. We see it in the life of reigning King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and his right-hand, Stark; and in the lore of past kings that instills the background story of the show.
I've been hearing great things about this show for awhile, but for some reason, I wasn't able to watch it until recently. After watching the first season, I can say that it has skyrocketed to the top of my favorite shows, along with The Shield and Breaking Bad. The show is based on George R. R. Martin's series of fantasy books A Song of Ice and Fire. It is set in the fictional land of Westeros, where a power struggle for the Iron Throne arises among several noble families. Meanwhile, an impending threat of an upcoming long and harsh winter and mysterious creatures from the North also loom over the kingdom.
Leading the cast is the great Sean Bean, who plays Stark. Lord of the Kingdom of Winterfell, he feels forced to move to the capital of King's Landing at the request of his friend and reigning King Robert. This unleashes a series of events as Robert's wife, Cersei, plots to take over the throne for his son Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), along with his brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Stark's family is also thrown into the chaos. His wife (Michelle Fairley) feels forced to take matters in her own hands to protect her family after several attempts against her family, his oldest son Robb (Richard Madden) has to step up to protect Winterfell in Stark's absence, and his oldest daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner) has to deal with the fact that she has been promised as wife to Prince Joffrey.
All this is just a layer of what lies within the show. I have to say that, after the third episode, I was officially hooked. The show has many strong things on its favor. First, the story is so rich and deep, and all that background is beautifully transmitted into the show. You believe in the setting, the mythology, and the characters. Granted, I was shaking my head at one point, trying to keep tabs on all the characters seen and mentioned, but one just has to stick with it and have patience.
Second, the cast is excellent. Led by Bean, I honestly can't recall a single bad performance on the show. Even though some characters might seem to be caricature villains, like Jamie, or cookie-cutter noble men, like Stark, they all seem to have a more complex nature within. Kudos also to the child actors. All of them are simply amazing, most notably Maisie Williams, who plays Stark's youngest daughter Arya, and Jack Gleeson who starts playing Joffrey as a spoiled brat, but slowly becomes into one of the most despicable characters of the show. Gleeson's performance in the last 2-3 episodes was stellar. If anything, I had some minor issues with Aidan Gillen as Lord Baelish, but mostly because I kept seeing him as Mayor Thomas Carcetti, from The Wire, which happens to be another one of my favorite shows.
One of the most interesting and complex characters is Cersei and Jaime's younger brother, Tyrion Lannister, known as "The Imp". Brilliantly played by Peter Dinklage, Tyrion is a smart man that is usually overlooked for his short stature and vulgar behavior, but who manages to use this to his advantage as a cunning manipulator. Although his performance and delivery are usually funny, it is a product of his cynicism and bitterness, and not because he is used as a comic relief. The depth his character develops as the show progresses is so good that one can't help but root for him.
Finally, aside of the story and the cast, the other strength of the show lies on its crew. The direction and production values are top-notch. The way the story flows from one episode to the other is flawless. The show takes its time to build the groundwork for its plots, like the mysterious creatures from beyond the Wall, or the mythology of the dragons. These two aren't even necessarily addressed on the first season, and yet, the show takes its time to build the story and not make it feel forced later. Also, there are so many great scenes in the show: Arya's "dancing" classes and the "crowning" of aspiring king Viserys Targaryen come to mind.
(Although I tried to refrain from spoilers, some might infer what happens at the end of the season from this next paragraph. If you want to go in the show with nothing spoiled, PLEASE, skip to the last line)
One of the most surprising things of the show is what happens on its last two episodes. I was warned by a friend not to read anything about the show before watching it, so I managed to avoid any spoilers. My advice to anyone who hasn't seen it is the same, because when "it" happens, your jaw will probably hit the floor, like mine did. Like the opening quote on the review says, either triumph or death lies in front of the characters, sometimes not in the most satisfying ways. Some of the events that happen might have that bitter taste, but like that other HBO show, The Wire, Game of Thrones manages to stay away from clichéd resolutions and crowd-pleasing confrontations. It just tells the story the way it is: with some people winning, and others dying. The event in question was such a powerful shock for me that on the upcoming episode I was still hoping that it would've been a dream, or something. Easily, one of the most unexpectedly shocking scenes I've seen.
(End of potential spoilers)
Looking forward to the second season, but I can easily give this first season an A+.
(TV pictures belong to HBO and its affiliates. Book cover belongs to Bantam Spectra)