“Winter is Coming” opens at a  700-foot high wall of ice, a towering behemoth of cold, hard bulwark separating the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros from the wild lands beyond. It’s an imposing yet darkly beautiful opening, setting an ominous tone for a series adapted from source material – George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – that’s crawling with themes of encroaching darkness.

On one side of the wall, things are wild and untamed, beset by harsh winter, wild men and perhaps even darker things. On the other side of the wall, the fairer side, sits the Stark family of Winterfell, wardens of the North of Westeros. Their patriarch Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean) feels the coming of winter. He feels it in the urgency with which his children grow, in the panicked eyes of  the deserter from the Night’s Watch (the order of guardians who man the wall in the North) who he must behead, and in the arrival of the King of Westeros, his old friend Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy).

The Hand of the King is dead, and Robert wants Ned to take on the mantle, travel with him to the Westeros capital of King’s Landing and become the second most powerful man in the realm. But Ned isn’t so sure, and neither is his wife Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), who feels certain that new treacheries are afoot, even if they can’t see them.

Across the sea, in the Free City of Pentos, Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) is plotting his return to Westeros. Viserys is the only surviving male of his line, a family who ruled Westeros until Robert and Ned fought a war to cast them out. Desperate to restore the glory of his family, Viserys is willing to go to any lengths to gain the strength to win back the Seven Kingdoms, including marrying off his sister Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) to Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), a brutish Dothraki horse lord. As these elements converge, the  stage is set for a world filled with shadowy maneuvers, dramatic power plays and epic struggles for the Iron Throne of Westeros, and “Winter Is Coming” is the herald of things to come.

In true HBO fashion, the show is so well-crafted that it’s oftentimes breathtaking, from an inventive opening credits sequence to sweeping camerawork to sets so alive they seem to be breathing. Martin’s world, from the Red Keep of King’s Landing to the Stark family crypt, is seen vividly and lovingly, giving longtime fans of the books something to immediately cheer about.

More after the jump, including a “Winter is Coming” photo gallery.

Creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss take a few liberties with Martin’s work -things happen in a different order, often faster than they do in the books, and the characterization is often swifter – but they clearly have an eye for the things fans are looking for, as well as a deep respect for their source and a keen sense of what can transform Martin’s books into a thrilling television series. Many of Martin’s best lines are preserved in the dialogue, and his characters all feel exactly as they should, from the fire of King Robert to the stony wariness of Ned Stark. The adaptation is done with care, with true skill, and with the craft of great storytelling.

But much of the credit for the storytelling power goes to an outstanding ensemble cast. Sean Bean was everyone’s perfect casting choice for Ned Stark, and he doesn’t disappoint. He’s strong, stern, commanding and everything else you want him to be. Ned’s children, particularly curious young Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) and the bastard Jon Snow (Kit Harington) shine as examples of young actors bursting with potential. Clarke is an entrancing blend of innocence and spirit as Daenerys. And of course, there’s Peter Dinklage, who co-stars as King Robert’s dwarf brother-in-law Tyrion Lannister, The Imp. His work seems to be the beginning of the performance of his career, a deft blend of venom, intellect and compassion. Fans of the novels will also rejoice at Lena Headey as Queen Cersei Lannister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as her twin brother Ser Jaime Lannister, Maisie Williams as Arya Stark and Jack Gleeson as a particularly snooty-looking Joffrey Baratheon.

Even for viewers who have never experienced Martin’s stories, or never even heard of them, Game of Thrones is a towering achievement, a truly epic adult fantasy series that brings all the brutality, uncompromising realism and visceral energy of an imagined world built on crossed swords and burned castles to life. It’s like nothing else on television, and it’s more ambitious than anything else on the small screen. It’s impressive merely that Benioff, Weiss and the rest of the creative team pulled this off, but it’s staggering that it’s done so well. Don’t miss it.

“Winter is Coming” premieres April 17 at 9 PM EST on HBO.


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