“I am a khaleesi of the Dothraki!” If that sentence makes you say “Huh?” or “I don’t care,” I am here to tell you that you can live the rest of your life quite happily without ever watching Game of Thrones, HBO’s superhyped, superexpensive new fantasy miniseries.
Set in a vaguely Arthurian time and place, the saga involves a complicated set of feuding families vying for power and the right to sit on The Iron Throne. Yes, this is the kind of fantasy that invents realms and thrones and magical petrified dragons’ eggs even though dragons are extinct, and … you can see, you really need to have a taste for this kind of thing. And while the series does have lots of grownup drama, much of it lurid and some very sinister – incest and a plot to kill a small child among them – the entire project has a heart of geek that never lets the rest of us in.
That is not what you’re likely to hear from fans of the series’ source, George R.R. Martin’s bestselling novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I haven’t read the novels, so I can definitively say this: don’t let anyone tell you the series isn’t confusing. It takes a couple of episodes before you can begin to sort out who’s who, never mind why they’re waving swords at each other.
In short, Sean Bean is the star. He plays heroic Ned Stark, lord of the northern land called Winterfell. He has six children, one of them a bastard, so he’s not that heroic. The House of Stark’s motto is “Winter is Coming,” because nothing is too obvious for this group. In fairness to them, they live in a place where winters and summers can last for decades, and you never know when a season is going to creep up on you.
Ned is called to become number two to his old pal the King, Robert Baratheon, who has married into the most vicious, manipulative family around, the Lannisters. Unlucky for Robert, lucky for us, because the Lannisters are thoroughly wonderful villains. Lena Headey is the ever-plotting Queen Cersei, who has the devotion of her two brothers: dashing twin Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and the learned, intelligent dwarf Tyrion, nicknamed the Imp, played by Peter Dinklage with blonde hair, a British accent and the kind of suave, venomous delivery that might belong to some 1930’s cad. I love the evil Lannisters.
If Game of Thrones had left the power plays there, geek wouldn’t even be a factor. But wait. “Across the narrow sea,” because that’s the way everyone talks, there are ridiculous families that seem to have come from another planet. They include the deposed House of Targaryen, which is basically two people, Prince Viserys and his sister, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke, photo below), both with flowing white-blonde hair. I think of them as The Albinos, just for clarity. (They’re not, I know; the novels give them silver hair and purple eyes.) That narrow sea must have something to do with global warming and climate change, because while Stark and the others are riding horses over green hills that are about to turn to ice, the Targaryens live in some exotic desert where people roam around half naked.
Viserys marries off his virginal little sister to a brutal but mighty warrior of the Dothraki tribe, which has its own Elvish language. In Dothraki, a warrior is a kahl, his wife is – here you go! – a khaleesi, and eventually Daenerys tells her belligerent brother, “I am a khaleesi of the Dothraki!” so he can just back off. That kahl, by the way, wears a long braid and heavy eyeliner and likes to take his women doggie style, at least until Daenerys gets some lessons from a friendly courtesan and tames him. You can see the female empowerment plot riding into the desert already.
That’s just the beginning of the sex and scandals, and there are even more Houses with their noses out of joint, but you get the idea. Whenever you begin to think there’s a brain behind this drama – and David Benioff, who wrote and produced with D.B. Weiss, has written The 25th Hour and other smart films and novels – everything turns fanboy silly. It can look very sumptuous, though, and occasionally just CGI’d.
I have to admit that Game of Thrones at its best has genuine narrative pull. If you decide to give it a try and haven’t read the books, don’t even think about heading in without this: HBO’s handy character cheat sheet.
Here’s a quick glimpse at the series, which begins next Sunday, April 17th.
And here’s a 15-minute preview: