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TELEVISION REVIEW

‘Thrones’ is a fantasy that has been a real surprise

Peter Dinklage stars as Tyrion Lannister — the witty, wily “half man’’ — in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.’’ Peter Dinklage stars as Tyrion Lannister — the witty, wily “half man’’ — in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.’’ (Helen Sloan)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 18, 2011

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As “Game of Thrones’’ finishes its first season, I’ve learned a lesson — a lesson I’ve learned too many times already. There’s no use in saying you dislike an entire genre, such as mysteries, or cop dramas, or laugh-track sitcoms. Because inevitably, a “Game of Thrones’’ comes along and pokes holes in your easy generalization.

Like many other HBO viewers, I’ve become addicted to this fantasy series, despite my years of claiming to be a fantasy-phobe. “Game of Thrones,’’ which wraps Sunday at 9 p.m., is a unique TV show that — even with the lurking presence of the horrifying White Walkers — feels more real than many “realistic’’ stories on TV. It has the well-drawn characters you find on top-notch dramas, it has the ugly power struggles and shifts of great political series such as “Rome,’’ and it has the spectacle and costuming of lush historical pieces. It’s fantasy brought down to earth.

Based on the novels of George R.R. Martin, “Game of Thrones’’ proved its own power to shock last week, with the public beheading of Lord Eddard “Ned’’ Stark, who has been played with world-weary grace by Sean Bean. The sequence wasn’t just a tense moment, as his daughter Arya (Maisie Williams) watched from the crowd; it was a head-on collision of one of the show’s best themes — honor vs. love. Ned was a man of honor, but he chose to betray himself to protect his family. With each word nauseating him, he expressed support for Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the boy-king with the pointy chin and the explosive temper. Alas, Ned’s submission was for naught, as the nihilistic Joffrey killed him anyway to prove his own will. A fantasy series, yes, but not a fantasy plot twist.

Ned’s death came as a surprise partly because Bean appeared to be the lead of the series. But it was a smart move, and not just because it sends viewers a signal that anything can happen on this drama. It was smart because his death, along with that of King Robert, leaves both the show and the kingdom without its grounding figures, its anchors. Now, the next generation will fight to take over, and the show will move forward into the excitement of uncertainty. Anything can happen at this point, as the game belongs to the likes of Joffrey, the emerging Robb Stark, the loyal Jon Snow, the fighting Arya Stark, and the driven Daenerys Targaryen. Next season, open season.

I’d be a lot less willing to justify the Ned plot turn if it had been Tyrion Lannister’s head underneath that sword. Peter Dinklage has found the role of a lifetime on “Game of Thrones,’’ as the witty, wily “half man’’ — a role even more suited to his range of talents than his memorable turn in “The Station Agent.’’ As Tyrion, he has been amusing but also quite poignant, particularly in last week’s confession about the deceptions of his first love. He is charming, noble, manipulative, cowardly, hedonistic, and able to steal any scene at will. I’m hoping that he will get a nod from the Emmys when the nominations are announced next month.

Also worthy of Emmy notice: Emilia Clarke, who has been stunning as Daenerys, the princess of the house of Targaryen. Her arc, like that of young Arya, has shown a woman finding self-realization and power in a primitive world of men. Daenerys has made her way to the top of the nomadic tribe of warriors known as the Dothraki, bravely turning around her fear of her husband and his people to lead them to war. Clarke has been both visually riveting, with her white-blond hair, and striking in her coming of age. I don’t doubt that she and the other would-be rulers will more than fill the Ned gap.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

GAME OF THRONES

Starring: Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Jason Momoa, Michelle Fairley, Iain Glen, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Kit Harington, Richard Madden

On HBO

Time: Sunday night, 9-10