April 1, 2013




That ineffable “It” that HBO referred to in the classic “It’s Not TV.  It’s HBO” ad campaign is now remarkably widespread, from FX to AMC, from Showtime to Netflix.  HBO for its part has had plenty of failures over the 14 years since The Sopranos established it as the epicenter of TV quality, misfires like Luck and Tell Me You Love Me.  And yet, even with excellent, or at least ambitious, TV drama almost ubiquitous these days (except, of course, on the broadcast networks), there’s still something special about an HBO show that fires on all cylinders.  The sheer scale of GAME OF THRONES would be unimaginable anywhere else on television, and in movies, where its scope and budget would be manageable, no studio would even attempt its density and uncompromising intelligence.

Season 3 of Game of Thrones, its premiere episode written by series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (after George R.R. Martin’s novels) and directed by Daniel Minahan, heaves viewers right back into the multiple stories and locales that ended Season 2, with only a brief “Previously On” to aid months-old memories.  The Thrones engine is so massive that it requires some time before it can achieve full velocity, so tonight’s hour served mostly to establish where the characters are (and not even all of them–no sightings of Arya or the Kingslayer tonight) and what their current goals are.

Perhaps most excitingly, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke), growing, flying dragons and all, is finally in active motion to return to Westeros and join the war for the Iron Throne, currently in the market for soldiers so monstrously trained they might as well be zombies, and now protected by Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney), that old head of the King’s Guard who Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) probably should have killed when he had the chance.  After listening to a slaughter by White Walkers with only a blank screen as the visual, we also had our first glimpse of King Beyond the Wall Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds), whom Jon Snow (Kit Harington) is either following or conning.  There was an intriguing glimpse of Joffrey’s new fiancee Margaery (Natalie Dormer), who may be a true woman of the people or just a very shrewd politician building her own King’s Landing constituency.  And no one could wish for more from a Thrones episode than meaty confrontations between Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and not just exquisitely poisonous (literally) sister Cersei (Lena Headey) but infinitely disgusted father Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) too.  The weak sister of the storylines continues to be that of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and his sorceress mistress Melisandre (Carice van Houten), who just don’t have much in the way of character arcs thus far.

Game of Thrones is distinctive as both a series of books and as TV drama in that it isn’t structured around periodic conclusions and sequels, but rather tells one continuous story whose ending, since Martin is still churning out novels, is as yet unknown.  So although the battle of Blackwater provided a handy climax last season, the series doesn’t build to finales the way most do (and this season is likely to be even more so, since it will only cover the first half of Martin’s third novel in the series) or start with brand-new beginnings–tonight’s season premiere could just as well have been the 11th episode of Season 2.  It’s truly epic storytelling, a saga of ongoing war and its consequences–sort of the world’s biggest serialized novel.  That provides a challenge for Benioff and Weiss, who have to translate Martin’s narrative to something that feels like a compelling TV season in 10-hour increments, while in the process paring down and redistributing his giant canvas, and it’s one they accomplish admirably.

Everything on Thrones is first-rate.  Although Dinklage is probably first among equals, there isn’t one performance that rings a false note, not one setting (the show films in 5 different countries) or effect that isn’t impeccable.  Happily for all concerned, the show has become a major hit, second in the HBO universe only to True Blood, justifying its tremendous cost and making it very possible that Martin’s entire saga will end up adapted to the screen.  “It” may not only be HBO anymore, but the network at its best still has It.  Game of Thrones is HBO’s own Iron Throne.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."