Everyone keeps warning that "Winter is coming" in Game of Thrones, but I can't remember the last series that packed this much heat. After putting its distinctive stamp on genres as diverse as the mob drama (The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire), the Western (Deadwood), the urban crime saga (The Wire), the period-piece potboiler (Rome), the horror-show bodice-ripper (True Blood), HBO now turns its extravagant attention to adult epic fantasy. HBO has found its answer to Lord of the Rings in adapting George R.R. Martin's enthralling, sprawling, ruthlessly brutal and magnificently entertaining series of page-turners.
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Be prepared. Game of Thrones isn't a popcorn epic. More like steak: red-blooded and raw, with bone and gristle and a side of brains. There are supernatural elements afoot — a ghoulish menace from the icy wastes of the North, teased in a chilling opening sequence; a memory of dragons from across the sea — but the real magical wizardry here lies in the rich storytelling, embroiling a bounty of memorable characters young and old in a fatalistic free-for-all of dynastic mayhem.
With a cinematic sweep reflected in its brilliant world-building opening credits, Thrones covers a vast medieval landscape of geographic and thematic ground as it weaves an intricate saga of honor, family, treachery, revenge and heroism. That last quality is most obviously apparent in the embattled Starks of Winterfell. (It may take an episode or two before you sort out the various intertwined families and relationships, but the writers have done a laudable job of laying the foundation with lucid exposition without sacrificing the urgency of the narrative.)
Sean Bean, rugged and solemn, embodies the nobility of patriarch Eddard "Ned" Stark, called away from his loving family to serve former war buddy-turned-King Robert Baratheon (the robustly vulgar Mark Addy) in the "rat's nest" of Kings Landing. The king faces threats from his viper wife Cersei (Lena Headey) and her scheming clan of the wealthy Lannisters, including her dastardly twin Jaime, played with malevolent charisma by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. King Robert also must worry about invasion from across the sea by the exiled former rulers, whose platinum princess Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) weds a Dothraki warrior to align with his mighty army of savages.
So much story, so much ground to cover, so many fantastic characters — and so many Starks, including the delightful Maisie Williams as Ned's tomboyish daughter Arya. She and earnest brother Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) idolize their bastard brother Jon Snow (soulful heartthrob Kit Harington), who seeks purpose by joining the Black Watch guarding the fictional world of Westeros from the encroaching dangers from the North. Early on, the young Starks adopt a motherless pack of direwolves, and you will even come to care about these fiercely protective beasts as forces of evil converge to test the Starks' resolve.
Lest you think Game of Thrones is all starkness, rejoice in the scene-stealing bravado of Peter Dinklage as the wry "imp" Tyrion Lannister. The black sheep of his duplicitous family, Tyrion sees through all the chicanery and decides the best option is to drink and bed his way though the Seven Kingdoms.
This dwarf has game — and so does this fabulous dark fable. Dig in.
Game of Thrones premieres Sunday, 9/8c, on HBO, and will air multiple times on HBO's various platforms