(The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones debuts on April 14th, marking the beginning of the end for HBO’s cultural touchstone. Over the years, we’ve covered all 67 episodes of the series, and are revisiting those original reviews in our new retrospective series titled, “Winter is Coming”. We’re pulling these straight from our vacuum sealed digital time capsules, so step into the virtual time machine with us and read our impressions from way back! With the benefit of hindsight, there is plenty of reasons these reviews will raise some eyebrows)
HBO sure could use an unabashed critical hit right now. Sure, True Blood is a ratings dynamo, and Boardwalk Empire and Todd Haynes’s Mildred Pierce proved they can mount a lavish period piece like nobody’s business, but since The Wire wrapped up back in 2008, the network has no longer been thought of as being on TV’s cutting edge, at least in terms of proper series. David Simon’s Wire follow-up, Tremé, was politely but somewhat indifferently received thanks to a serious case of under-dramatization, and their fleet of live-action comedies (Hung, Entourage, How to Make it in America) isn’t terribly impressive. So, aside from the considerable concerns of its production costs, there’s a lot riding on Game of Thrones, their long-hyped, long-in-development adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s epic fantasy series. So it’s a little disappointing that the series’ 61-minute pilot is essentially an epic act of table-setting that pales next to the bold pilots of their best past series.
That’s not to say there’s not a hell of a lot of promise hidden in these long scenes of establishment. Fantasy (and period) veteran Sean Bean mightily anchors the proceedings as Eddard Stark, the ruler of Winterfell, one of several regions of a wider kingdom called Westeros. Stark is immediately painted as a man who is principled to a fault – in an early scene, he beheads a warrior for desertion, despite his (accurate) claim that he was merely fleeing from “walkers,” hulking brutes who slaughtered his fellow soldiers. As their kind has not been seen in “thousands of years,” he is assumed to be mad. Stark’s actions quickly establish Westeros as a land of profound moral ambiguity at best, and wanton cruelty at worst.
That cruelty is most acutely – and grotesquely – observed in an entirely separate corner of the show’s universe. Out in the “free” fringes of Westeros, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), an understandably distraught young woman, has been promised to Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) the leader of a barbaric clan of warriors.called the Dothraki by her brother Viserys (Harry Lloyd), who hopes to use the Dothraki army to re-establish his family’s fallen dynasty. “I would let his whole tribe fuck you – all 40,000 men, and their horses, too, if that’s what it took.” For anyone who balked at Deadwood‘s depiction of women in trouble, Game of Thrones is most likely not the show for you.
Though those who are familiar with Martin’s book saga claim there’s plenty of female empowerment to go around (if not necessarily right away), it’s hard not to notice that HBO has crammed seemingly as much sex and – strictly female – nudity as possible. It’s not enough that the debauched Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is fellated by a buxom, cheery, exposition-spouting whore for us to comprehend his “appetites” – no, apparently we also need brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) throwing a few more naked women his way to get the point across. (As least on Deadwood, Paula Malcomson’s Trixie wasn’t forced to put on a happy face.) Oh, and we’re also “treated” to a ritual wedding gang-rape slash murder party, followed by a good old-fashioned one-on-one rape scene near a glistening CG sunset. In what hopefully won’t prove to be the pilot’s most telling moment, Targaryen, quietly begging for dignity, clutches her bare breasts only to have Khal forcibly expose them – directly to the camera, of course.
For all the forced nastiness and sexual violence on display, the pilot’s most effective moment of scene-setting is probably its last, when a forbidden tryst high in a tower is spotted by Stark’s young son. What follows is dark, twisted and funny all at once, promising a series that will trade as much in wit and inventive narrative turns as much as this pilot does in exposition, excess, and doomed declarations of the coming of “winter,” a season which can apparently last for lifetimes in Westeros. Game of Thrones will have to live up to every bit of promise it can muster if it’s to earn a place next to HBO’s hallowed dramas of old.