HBO's new epic fantasy series Game of Thrones begins with a cold open that is as harrowing and genuinely cold as any I've ever seen. Three men clad in black—one burly, one cowardly, one snide—solemnly stalk through snow-covered woods, and the cowardly one wanders off only to discover a mysteriously arranged mass of dismembered corpses. We see an aerial shot of the scene, with the legs, arms, and torsos forming an enigmatic ring—which is shot with such floating grace that you forget, for a moment, that you're looking at hacked-up body parts—as the man goes off to retrieve his compatriots. By the time they return, the limbs are gone, but only, presumably, because they're about to be replaced by fresh ones. There's a frenzied chase, a terrifying doll-like creature, a blue-eyed monster that looks like a hybrid of the Cryptkeeper and the Rock, and loads of gooey, black-red blood. The scene ends with a haunting fadeout close-up on the terrified face of the cowardly rider, and his eyes essentially reflect what the viewer must be thinking: I was not prepared for this.
The impact of that gorgeously filmed showstopper of a set piece continues to resonate throughout the first episode of Game of Thrones, a 10-part series based on George R. R. Martin's wildly popular fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, but nothing in the series, so far, has come close to that expertly crafted piece of shock and awe. Unlike that unfortunate rider in the opening scene, the viewer will be more than adequately prepared to see what Game of Thrones has to reveal. Despite its encyclopedic cast list, spectacular visuals, and literary pedigree, Game of Thrones offers very little we haven't seen—and winced at—before.
That's not to say that the series is that much of a letdown. Out of the recent spate of historical-epic TV shows in which British actors are dressed in lavish period costumes only to have them torn off or pierced with swords (like Showtime's The Borgias and Starz's Camelot), Game of Thrones is by far the best. The plot is nearly impossible to summarize, and any attempt might give away crucial elements or cause an aneurysm, but suffice it to say, Game of Thrones tells the story of a series of powerful families who become allies, enemies, or frenemies in the struggle to claim the throne of Westeros, the fantastical continent on which they all live. This continent, of course, is swarming with feudal lords, traitorous schemers, prostitutes, women the lords treat like prostitutes, and women the show runners treat like prostitutes, nearly all of whom, children included, are protecting devastating secrets and itching to slit somebody, anybody's, throat.
Martin's novel series has often been compared with The Lord of the Rings, and from its intricate succession histories to its fabricated language systems and medieval-ish setting, the family resemblance is certainly apparent. But the narrative complexity, lurid interest in corruption, and occasional detective thriller pacing that characterize HBO's new series sometimes seems modeled more along the lines of a film noir than a sci-fi fantasy adventure. Watching the series, I thought more than once about Curtis Hanson's great L.A. Confidential, another dense mystery with dozens of duplicitous characters to keep track of. By the time quasi-protagonist Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) is on the trail of a conspiracy to unseat King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), he's only one fedora and a cigarette lighter away from Philip Marlowe.
This generic disconnect between detective drama and medieval saga is part of an ingenious series of narrative contrivances that help explain, categorize, and contextualize the various antagonisms, affiliations, and traditions that worm their way through Game of Thrones. By revealing various key characters as outsiders within their own worlds, the series finds both its thematic core and its most useful plot device.
In a separate subplot, for instance, the lily-white Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) is married off to the king of a barbaric foreign tribe called the Dothraki in what looks like a scene from a Penthouse adaptation of The King and I. Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, bless their hearts, took the time to hire some linguistic specialists to craft an entirely new language for the Dothraki to speak, though they only seem to have occasion to speak it while raping women or pulling the intestines out of their friends and associates (more on this in a moment). What works about this carnivalesque mixture of ritual murder, sexual assault, and, somewhere in there, a marriage ceremony, is that Daenerys is as confused and unsettled by the whole business as the viewer presumably is. Her education about—and eventual mastery of—this mystifying display of horror allows the viewer to move along with her, gaining an understanding of that plotline and feeling ever more dependent on her character.
What doesn't work about this subplot is just about everything else. The Dothraki are enthusiastic murderers, brutal rapists, and sadistic warriors from a mysterious foreign land where no English (called "The Common Tongue" on this show) is spoken and strange gods are worshipped. They're also—you guessed it—the only non-white actors. I'm sure everyone will be thrilled to see the dark-skinned Khal Drogo (the objectively scary looking Jason Momoa, who will soon play Conan the Barbarian in a feature film) forcing painful intercourse on the flaxen-haired Daenerys on their wedding night. This is a ritual we don't have to have explained; we may recognize it from dozens of galling racial stereotypes. But, gee, it's nice when television can bring people together.
This racial-sexual problem isn't unique to Game of Thrones. It's apparently a truth universally acknowledged by cable television writers that the rates of nonconsensual sex and mindless violence rise exponentially the further back in time one goes. The rationale, or even excuse, that shows with this philosophy offer is that the kind of racism or sexism they portray is historically accurate (never mind, of course, that Game of Thrones takes place in a fictional universe). In other words, these shows depict women who are treated like disposable objects and ethnic or racial "others" who wantonly destroy life because that's the way it was.
But historical accuracy and fear of anachronism are not good excuses for representing racial and sexual politics in the way that Game of Thrones does. Deadwood began its run with some similarly shocking occurrences of sexual violence and racial caricature. But that show also offered blistering and uncomfortable critiques of the culture that enabled and encouraged those acts, and it offered layered portraits of women and ethnic and racial minorities who survived and resisted that dismal age.
There's no evidence of such critique so far in Game of Thrones. Every act of brutality, every assaulted woman, every exoticized barbarian is presented for the delectation of the audience. No prostitute appears on screen without her bosom already exposed, no transgressive sex act occurs without the frame of luxuriant tapestries or the glow of moonlight upon it. This show's historical misogyny and racism are purely aesthetic, and that's a problem we should hope this series works out on the double.
These issues would not be excusable, but the viewer would have perhaps more patience with their resolution if this series showed even a remote curiosity about its own characters or a sense of adventure or energy in the telling of its narratives. Co-creator David Benioff, before making his way to television, wrote the screenplay for Wolfgang Peterson's Troy. That film is fine as a historical epic, a rollicking action film, and a beefcake showcase for Brad Pitt, but as an adaptation of Homer's The Iliad, it's puzzling and unfortunately ham-fisted. Eschewing all that makes that epic poem so enrapturing (the politics of the gods, the nearly supernatural transcendence of warriors in battle, the ruminative pacing, the narrative incompleteness, the sense of time and exhaustion), Benioff produced a barebones version of The Iliad built of its least interesting parts.
The same lowest-common-denominator adaptation theory seems to animate Benioff and Weiss's Game of Thrones. The show, for instance, does not in any way attempt to import the narrative innovation that defines Martin's book series. That is, each section of A Song of Ice and Fire is told from the limited third-person perspective of a different character. In contrast to the Tolkienian sweep that Game of Thrones aims for, Martin produced a strangely intimate epic, grounded in the richness of his characters and their inner demons and angels. This, obviously, would be a difficult feat to accomplish for a cable television series, but if not on HBO, where? Game of Thrones has been incessantly called "ambitious" in its press materials, and, in terms of its obscene budget, it is. But the narrative structure of the series is not at all as ambitious as its price tag may suggest. Benioff and Weiss have chosen the easiest way to tell this story, and the show suffers from it.
Following from that stunning close-up that opens the show, Game of Thrones does its best work in the close-up mode. The reason to keep watching this show lies in a handful of intricately drawn, engagingly performed characters. Peter Dinklage and Sean Bean both effectively and compellingly communicate moral ambivalence about the world they fight to preserve, and the children on this show are also, pound for pound, extraordinarily good. The strength of Maisie Williams—playing the youngest Stark daughter, and one of the only female characters not yet beaten into submission by her circumstance—arises from the fact that she doesn't constantly remind the audience that she is a child actor. It follows, then, that, if Game of Thrones can find its place in the personal (in the power, corruption, and integrity to be found in individual souls), then it can transcend the ugly social and historical dynamics that it so casually relies on and reproduces.