Admit it: You were counting on Game of Thrones for at least one centaur orgy. Maybe involving a fair maiden or two from the darkest depths of Mordor. But that's the brilliant twist of HBO's smash fantasy saga: It's designed to appeal to those of us who hate fantasy sagas. No centaurs, no wizards, no unicorns. Instead, it sticks to the timeless combo of breasts and beheadings. The ratio is approximately six severed heads per nipple — in fact, we get a heap of dismembered corpses in the first scene. The way Game of Thrones spins human history, people were sick bastards back then — which is why this world looks so familiar.
If you're not a fan of the fantasy genre, you might dismiss Thrones as Hobbit hype, but you'd be wrong. It's in the HBO tradition of The Wire, The Sopranos and Deadwood, a big-budget tour of a fictional world with its own moral rules, where rival families battle for control. The political intrigue and suspense will suck you in, even if you know nothing about medieval times beyond your old Zeppelin albums. HBO's avowed intention may have been to create "the Sopranos of Middle-Earth," but fortunately, the Sopranos dominate the action.
This article appears in the May 12, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now.
Game of Thrones doesn't offer any Gandalf-ish folk wisdom, or Xena-ish heroes to root for. There is, however, a fuckton of sex and violence. We see people ripped apart by dire wolves. (Hey, I always assumed the Grateful Dead made those up.) We get gay knights shaving one another's bodies. Not to mention the most explicit dwarf-fellating scene ever. More mead, sire?
Based on a 700-page novel (the first from the series A Song of Ice and Fire — wait, wasn't that by Pat Benatar?), by George R.R. Martin, Thrones is set in the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, ruled by a lovable oaf who swigs wine as he bellows things like, "Start the damn joust before I piss meself!"
It's good to be the king, except that his highness's young blond wife is scheming to bump him off. She's also boning her twin brother, who looks just like Denis Leary. (You keep expecting him to light a cigarette and say, "Two words: bubonic plague!") And she's played by Lena Headey, from 300 and The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which means in geek terms she is hitting for the cycle. While loyal nobleman Ned Stark (Sean Bean) fights the conspiracy, the king goes off to hunt boar. As he says, "Killing things clears my head."
As any Shakespeare fan can tell you, the conflict is straight from the War of the Roses — but instead of the hunchback Richard III, Thrones' most intriguing character is the misanthropic dwarf Tyrion, played by the ever-astounding Peter Dinklage. He's both hilarious and terrifying and can talk his way out of any trouble. When he shows his charming side, he says, "I have a tender spot in my heart for cripples, bastards and broken things." Mostly, though, he has a taste for blow jobs and booze.
The kinkiest contenders for the crown have to be the blond Targaryen siblings, who look uncannily like the hair-metal band Nelson. The prince plots to gain the throne by pimping out his sister as the bride to a savage horselord. When she protests, the prince strokes her face and tells her, "I would let his whole tribe fuck you, all 40,000 men and their horses too, if that's what it took." But his sister turns the tables and becomes a powerful queen, converting her warrior husband into her love slave. Her secret? She figures out how to bang him face to face, which in this doggie-style-only era is like discovering the secret of fire.
It's much easier to pull off a campy costume drama — hence the popularity of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena. But Thrones goes for a much grimmer mood. The characters keep repeating the proverb "Winter is coming," yet even their summer looks like a nightmare. Life sucks so profoundly for these people that there's not much difference between a good king and a bad king — power is just a game, and nobody expects to live long enough to see the outcome.
The Targaryen princess has the most astonishing scene — she has to prove her mettle to her husband's tribe at a ceremony where she eats the heart of a horse. Not only does she choke it down, she gets turned on while parading half-naked in front of the crowd with blood dripping off her face — she looks like she walked out of an NC-17 Fiona Apple video directed by Dario Argento. She turns into a queen before our eyes, and it's not a pretty sight. This is power, Game of Thrones seems to say — this is nobility, this is the best hope for human civilization. Say your prayers. Winter is here.