THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Television Review

Fantasy comes true with HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’

Arya (Maisie Williams) gets a lesson in sword fighting from her teacher in “Game of Thrones.’’ Arya (Maisie Williams) gets a lesson in sword fighting from her teacher in “Game of Thrones.’’
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 15, 2011

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"Game of Thrones’’ has been forthcoming from HBO it seems like forever. But the feverish buildup for this TV adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling fantasy series, “A Song of Ice and Fire,’’ still somehow manages to meet its soaring expectations. Indeed, “Game of Thrones’’ is worth every single line of effusive blog geekery and promotional buzz it has elicited in the past year.

You may not be a fantasy lover. You may have found “The Lord of the Rings’’ as enthralling as the front of a box of Lucky Charms. But there is something even for you in this epic. Premiering Sunday night at 9, “Game of Thrones,’’ is yet another HBO triumph over genre limits. Just as “Deadwood’’ turned the Western into Shakespearean theater, and “The Sopranos’’ and “The Wire’’ redefined crime drama, “Game of Thrones’’ exceeds its fantasy roots, even while hewing close to Martin’s work. Set on the magical continent of Westeros, the show might as well be set in Washington, D.C. It’s a parable of politics and self-interest, albeit with dragon eggs and dire wolves.

There are boatloads of characters on “Game of Thrones,’’ in the clans that rule the seven kingdoms of Westeros, all of them battling for power and survival. And I am loathe to describe them and their connections here, because it may come off sounding complicated. In fact, “Game of Thrones,’’ executive produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss unfolds beautifully and shrewdly across the six episodes sent for review, with a mastery of TV storytelling that quickly makes each important character memorable. The names can be alien to the tongue — Cersei Baratheon, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen — but the casting is so sharp, and the acting so vivid, each of the faces is indelible.

The Stark family of Winterfell provide our entrée into Martin’s world, led by weary but noble patriarch Lord Eddard “Ned’’ Stark (Sean Bean). He is the friend and former brother-in-law of the King, Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), a drunk who shows up and pressures Ned to become his chief adviser — his “Hand.’’ Ned would rather remain in his castle with his loyal wife, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), his five children, his illegitimate son, and his ward. He loves mentoring his boys (“The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword,’’ he tells them) and his youngest daughter, Arya (Maisie Williams), too, as she develops a passion for sword-fighting. But just when Ned thought he was out, to paraphrase Al Pacino in “The Godfather: Part III,’’ they pull him back in.

Stark is heroic. But “Game of Thrones’’ is more fascinated with corruption and decadence. That’s what helps give the show more range than you might expect from fantasy; it has a dark view, even in terms of the cool-toned production design. Westeros is a fractured continent, pulled apart by the baser instincts and desires of its inhabitants. The good guys don’t automatically prevail, as they might in other fantasy tales. The most riveting characters are the most self-serving, notably the queen, Cersei (Lena Headey), and her twin brother Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), with whom she is having an incestuous affair. They have gorgeous, aristocratic features, but they are pure, compelling evil.

Their brother, Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister, is another of the show’s highlights, a hedonistic intellectual who can talk his way out of anything. Dinklage, a dwarf, gives a winning performance that is charming, morally ambiguous, and self-aware, as Tyrion sympathetically tells Ned Stark’s illegitimate son, Jon Snow (Kit Harington), “All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes.’’ While there are parent-child dynamics aplenty in “Game of Thrones,’’ the show delves deeply into sibling dynamics, not just among the Lannisters and Starks but among the exiled Targaryens, who are planning to take back the throne they lost years earlier. Viserys (Harry Lloyd) is a cowardly creep, while his sister, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), wedded to the head of a warrior tribe, is coming into her own. Her story has a raw, “Heart of Darkness’’ flavor to it.

Hanging over all of the human angling is the threat of a species of zombie-like creatures, who are featured in the series’ eerie opening sequence and then disappear for the first six episodes. In the novels, these cold monsters have the existentially tinged label “the Others,’’ but, likely due to “Lost,’’ they’re the white walkers on HBO. While the humans vie, the walkers appear to be gaining momentum after thousands of years of dormancy.

Ultimately, though, even with the fantasy, “Game of Thrones’’ feels like a historical medieval saga. It’s a royal, and royally good, round of musical chairs.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

GAME OF THRONES Starring: Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Kit Harington, Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Michelle Fairley, Harry Lloyd, Jason Momoa

On: HBO

Time: Sunday, 9-10 p.m.