So, the first season of Game of Thrones has reached its conclusion. Has HBO delivered what we were all hoping for, a masterpiece, The Sopranos with billowing capes and hair extensions, Rome minus all that faffing around with historical fact? Or will the studio have to look elsewhere for its next killer show?
You could be forgiven for being gloomy after tuning into (and out of) some uneven early episodes. Robert Baratheon, King of Westeros (Mark Addy,) summons his old friend Eddard, Lord Stark (Sean Bean,) to leave his stronghold in the North and serve in the royal palace as Hand of the King. Unfortunately, most of the courtly scenes that follow are as dry as a direwolf's turd, while Eddard's attempts to investigate the death by poisoning of the previous Hand would embarrass the Famous Five. The mind quickly wanders to the characters' wigs and the dubious performances taking place under them. Sean Bean oozes glumness (perhaps he thought he was in Game of Drones) and Mark Addy morphs into Brian Blessed.
But performance-wise, the major disappointment is Aiden Gillen, who is inexplicably subdued as Petyr Baelish. It can't be easy to turn a conniving whoremaster into a bit of a yawn, but somehow this usually excellent actor manages just that.
Despite a few naked wenches to liven things up, the way Game of Thrones is mounted sometimes feels old-fashioned too, and lacking in kinetic energy compared to such red-blooded fare as Spartacus: Blood and Sand. For once, you sense that HBO isn't at the cutting edge. With a few notable exceptions, the series also shows a lack of conviction when it comes to the geographical sweep of the source material.
What saves the opening episodes are the villains and shady characters. Among the fair-haired Lannisters, the stand-out is the mischievous “half man” Tyrion, played with oodles of lovable roguery by Peter Dinklage. Just as entertaining, although less prominent, is Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd,) the fey exiled princeling who eagerly pimps his sister Daenerys to the barbaric king of the Dothraki in hopes of a conquering army.
As the timid but determined Daenerys, Emilia Clarke gives a thoroughly winning performance, despite what must have been the considerable distraction of HBO exploiting to the full the nudity clause in her contract. For fantasy fans, this plot strand has the weird fascination of presenting Jason Momoa from Stargate Atlantis as the mindless killer/shagger, Khal Drogo. (Is it just me, or is there something strangely troubling about an actor from a beloved early-evening show being seen in this steamy new light?)
The patchiness in quality continues until somewhere around Episode Five, and then, like a dragon from a well-baked egg, Game of Thrones rises above its troubled beginnings to become something special. This is helped no end by a refreshing willingness to kill off the characters and move the story on, thus allowing other figures, such as the younger Starks, to come into focus. As with all of the most celebrated HBO series, the narrative begins to develop a cumulative power, so that each new incident has a context and history.
There are scenes of Falstaffian comedy with Tyrion, and a chance to meet his icily cruel father Tywin (played brilliantly by Charles Dance in a scene which memorably co-stars a slaughtered buck.) We also finally get to spend some quality time with the Night's Watch, soldiers oath-bound to defend the kingdom against the supernatural terrors of the snowy wilderness beyond the Wall without so much as an electric blanket to keep their spirits up.
The first season concludes at a point where the best seems yet to come. Whether or not Game of Thrones will ultimately be reckoned an HBO classic, there's so doubt that winter in Westeros is going to be interesting.