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Game of Thrones, S01E01: Winter Is Coming; Review by Robin Franson Pruter

game of thrones s1Originally aired 17 April 2011
Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Tim Van Patten

Starring Sean Bean, Mark Addy, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clark, Kit Harington, and Peter Dinklage

My rating:  ★★★ stars

Revolutionary series begins with plot and exposition-heavy episode.

First episodes are never easy. They have to lay out the information the audience needs to understand the show and convince the viewers to watch future episodes. The first of these goals is difficult to make interesting, and the second is hard when the audience has no investment in the characters or their stories and when the episode is weighed down by boring exposition.

Game of Thrones, in particular, struggles with the massive amount of expounding it needs so that the viewers will understand the narrative. Writer George R.R. Martin, on whose novels the series is based, created an entirely new world featuring dozens of locations, hundreds of characters, and hundreds of years of history. Creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss take on the Herculean task of paring down this narrative into ten hour-long episodes each season. Determining how much of the narrative and its backstory to include is no easy feat. The writers need to balance the needs of the story with the audience’s ability to comprehend and digest the information.

Overall, the first episode simplifies the information and the conflicts enough that unfamiliar viewers can understand them.

The episode opens with a prologue that shows three men venturing beyond a giant wall of ice to look for some group called “wildlings.” (Who the wildlings are is not explained.) This prologue reveals to the audience two things. 1) When one of the men discovers a group of ripped-apart corpses, we know that this will not be an upbeat, child-friendly show. 2) When two of the men are killed by a giant ice zombie who, we discover later, are called White Walkers, we learn that the universe of this story contains supernatural elements. We’re in the realm of fantasy.

The prologue runs the risk of alienating some of the audience even before the opening credits roll. Viewers put off by gore or the supernatural may choose to turn off the show before it really begins. Assuming, however, that the climax of the series will occur with the invasion of the White Walkers throughout the continent—and that’s only an assumption—showing the threat of the White Walkers makes sense as a logical way to begin the series. In this way, the writer-creators are serving the narrative and asking the audience to go along with the story rather than shaping the story to the presumed desires of the audience.

After the prologue, the episode introduces us to the Stark family, led by Eddard “Ned” Stark, Lord of Winterfell (Sean Bean), a castle. Looking back on this early episode from the perspective of four years later, it’s surprising how obvious the CGI of the castle (and later in the episode, the Red Keep at the capital, King’s Landing) looks. The effects have become more realistic over the years.

One detail I didn’t notice during my first viewing shows the care and attention to detail with which the show is created. While Ned’s sons practice archery, the elder boys, Robb Stark (Richard Madden) and Jon Snow (Kit Harington), wear identical leather outfits, but Robb’s, the heir, is shiny and new while Jon’s, the bastard, is beaten and worn.

Ned learns that a man—the third man from the prologue—has been captured as a deserter, which means it’s Ned’s duty, as a lord in service to the king, to execute him. Ned does this with gravity but without regret, showing his strong devotion to law and oaths, the defining aspect of his character.

After the execution, Ned and his entourage return to Winterfell. On the way, they discover a dead direwolf and its pups in a scene lifted almost verbatim from the source novel. Ned’s 10-year-old son, Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), falls in love with the helpless pups at first sight, but Ned is not inclined to keep them and intends to kill them to save them the pain of a slow death by starvation. Jon Snow speaks up, observing that there are five pups and five Stark children. He posits that, because the direwolf is the symbol of House Stark and the numbers work out right that the Stark children are meant to keep them as pets. But the number only works out right because Jon Snow excludes himself from among the Stark children, indicating that he’s both clever and selfless. This observation moves Ned (Sean Bean, in a masterful moment, subtly shows that Ned realizes what Jon has done) and gives him an excuse to let the kids keep the pups. Luckily for Jon Snow, the group discovers a sixth pup, an albino runt, which he claims as his.

When Ned and his party return to Winterfell, his wife, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) informs him that a message has come announcing the death of Jon Arryn. When I first saw this scene, with no notion of the story, I felt confused and bored. I didn’t know who Jon Arryn was or why he was important. After reading the source novels and learning the backstory, I understood that the scene contains all the important information about Jon Arryn and his role in the story. However, it does it so obliquely that it’s difficult for one who does not know the story to piece all that information together.

We learn that Jon Arryn was a father figure to Ned, that he held an office called “the Hand of the King,” that he was married to Catelyn’s sister and they have a son, and that he died suddenly. Catelyn also informs Ned that the king journeys to Winterfell with a large party; both Catelyn and Ned assume this means that the king will ask Ned to be “the Hand of the King.” The same scene also lets the audience know that there are two competing religious systems in this society. This is too much all at once. Even though the information is woven deftly into natural-sounding dialogue, viewers will have difficultly digesting so much so quickly.

The following scene, which takes place at King’s Landing, also serves to provide exposition. The queen, Cersei (Lena Headey), and her brother Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) observe Jon Arryn’s funeral rites from a balcony in the castle and talk about his death. The dialogue, though, is unnatural. The scene begins with Jaime saying, “As your brother, I should inform you that you worry too much,” shoehorning in the information that he’s her brother, key information certainly, but not subtly worked into the narrative. This scene proves successful, however, in establishing a mystery. Cersei and Jaime discuss a secret Jon Arryn might have known, that, if discovered by the king, would lead to Cersei’s and Jaime’s executions.

When the king and the royal party come to Winterfell, their arrival is witnessed by Bran, who has climbed to the battlements and, then, is chastised by his mother for disobeying her admonishment not to go climbing. At first blush, the purpose of the scene seems to show some normalcy in the parent-child relationship on the show, something that the audience can relate to. What we learn later in the episode is that it’s a plant, foreshadowing a key occurrence later.

As the denizens of Winterfell prepare for the king’s arrival, the episode provides some appeal for the ladies of the audience by showing Robb, Jon Snow, and a third, unidentified young man, shirtless, getting haircuts—because a haircut, of course, requires shirtlessness. We’ve seen this third young man before. He appeared earlier during the execution of the deserter, but the episode never identifies him. In fact, he’s not identified until the fourth episode, despite appearing in the previous three. There is a perfect opportunity to identify him when King Robert (Mark Addy) is introduced to the Stark children. The young man, Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), is not a bastard like Jon Snow, but the trueborn son of a high lord. It would make sense to introduce him to the king. All Ned would have to say is, “This is Theon Greyjoy, my ward.” His name and place in the household would be established. The details could be saved for another time.

The episode features the first example of one of the innovations of the series, using sex scenes to convey exposition—we’ll call this sexposition. In this scene, we’re introduced to the queen’s other brother, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), a dwarf known for drunkenness and lechery. He conveniently discusses his family to naked prostitute Ros (Esme Bianco), a character original to the series, whose sole purpose is to listen to disclosure while performing sexual acts.

This scene is followed by yet another exposition scene, one where Ned and Robert visit the Stark family crypt and discuss Ned’s dead sister and some other character that Robert says he dreams of killing every night. Ned follows with, “It’s done, Your Grace. The Targaryens are gone,” so we can assume the one Robert dreams of killing is named Targaryen. This information is important as to how Robert became king, but the series never gets into the details of that occurrence. The story of the unidentified Targaryen and Ned’s sister isn’t referenced again until season five when the story is told in greater detail. Bringing it up here is a distraction and confusing to the audience. 

This scene does provide a nice transition between storylines, though. When Ned says that the Targaryens are gone, Robert responds, “Not all of them.” The location then changes to Pentos, “Across the Narrow Sea,” as the screen tells us. There, we meet. the last two Targaryens, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Viserys (Harry Lloyd). Clarke and Viserys, both dark-haired in real life, have their hair dyed silvery blond to match the description of the Targaryens in the books. The result appears unnatural—not as fake as Queen Cersei’s wig—but unnatural enough to distract me the first time I viewed the scene. (In later seasons, the Targaryen blond hair will get better looking, as will Cersei’s wig.)

I might have been the only person distracted by the hair, as Daenerys spends most of the scene completely naked. Between this scene and the one with Ros earlier, the show begins earning its reputation for excessive female nudity.

Viserys certainly notices that Daenerys is naked, making creepy comments about her body and, even creepier, testing the weight of her breast. The show never explains the incestuous overtones of this scene—that, like Egyptian pharaohs, the Targaryen dynasty traditionally married brother to sister to keep the bloodlines pure, so Viserys grew up expecting to marry Daenerys.

Instead, Viserys plots with nobleman Magister Illyrio (Roger Allam), whose role is not explained, to sell his sister. She is sold to Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa), the leader of a horse-riding nomadic tribe, the Dothraki, with 40,000 warriors in his horde. Viserys hopes that he can use this army to return to Westeros, the continent across the Narrow Sea where most of the action of the series takes place, and reinstate Targaryen rule with himself as king. For Viserys, the exchange is simple—an army for his sister. But even in this first episode, from the things Viserys says, we get the feeling that he’s out of his depth and has no understanding of the Dothraki or the bargain he’s made.

When I first watched the early episodes, I was so struck by how stupid and annoying Viserys was that I didn’t recognize how strong Lloyd’s performance is. Beneath the bluster and the creepiness, he conveys that Viserys has always felt a strong sense of disappointment. Everything he does is a result of his belief that he isn’t what he should be—the king of Westeros. Yet, we can’t sympathize too much with him. In one scene, Daenerys speaks up—and Viserys and Illyrio look like they would have been less surprised if one of the trees had started talking—and says that she doesn’t want to marry Khal Drogo. Viserys responds, “I would let his whole tribe fuck you, all forty thousand men—and their horses too—if that’s what it took.” Wisely, Daenerys raises no more objections.

The episode returns to Westeros and Winterfell where the Starks are feasting the king and his party. Ned has a confrontation with Jaime. This scene was intriguing. The men seem to dislike each other, even though they aren’t outwardly hostile, but the reason for their enmity is not revealed. In this way, the episode introduces a relationship without overloading the audience with information. King Robert drinks and wenches throughout the feast. Queen Cersei handles her humiliation but making subtly snide comments to Catelyn. With the way she says “lovely country,” you’d think that she just walked into a garbage dump.

As a bastard, Jon Snow is not invited to the feast, since his presence would insult the king. He meets Tyrion in a scene that helps establish Tyrion as a fan-favorite character. Jon Snow bristles when Tyrion calls him “Ned Stark’s bastard.” Tyrion replies sagely, “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor. Then it can never be used to hurt you.” Jon Snow’s objects that Tyrion, not being bastard, can’t understand what it’s like. Tyrion says, “All dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.” From his statements in this scene, we understand that, despite being from a rich, powerful family, Tyrion has had a difficult, isolated life where he’s always felt different and alone.

After the feast, Catelyn receives a message from her sister, the one who was married to Jon Arryn, whom by this time we’ve already forgotten. The message claims that Jon Arryn was murdered, that the Lannisters are to blame, and that the king is in danger. The Starks’ advisor, Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter), counsels Ned to take the job of Hand of the King in order to protect his friend King Robert. Catelyn disagrees with the maester’s suggestion, saying cryptically, “Your father and brother rode south once on a king’s demand.” This line is frustrating because it brings up another incident from the past that is never fully explained. It comes up again in the third episode, but we learn so much by then that we can hardly connect it back to a single line here. It would have been better left out. The story of the incident it refers to doesn’t belong in this scene or even this episode. Luwin’s response, “Another time. Another king,” provides a transition back to the Targaryen storyline, which would make sense if the viewers knew that he was referring to the father of Viserys and Daenerys, but only those who had read the books would know.

Daenerys and Khal Drogo’s wedding is the highlight of the episode. The scene demonstrates the barbarity of the Dothraki. As Daenerys sits, feeling more and more anxious, flies buzz around the food, a guest presents her with a box of snakes as a gift (which was probably not on her registry list), the dancers hump various warriors in the middle of the dance floor, and a fight breaks out where one warrior kills another. Illyrio assures the Targaryens that “a Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair.” Viserys finds this amusing. Daenerys takes some comfort when an exiled Westerosi knight, Jorah Mormont (Iain Glenn), is kind to her. She even shows some interest when Illyrio gives her three petrified dragon’s eggs as a wedding gift. Khal Drogo’s gift, a white horse, also pleases her.

Daenerys’s situation seems to be improving until it comes time to consummate the marriage. In a major change from the books, where Khal Drogo is kind and gentle and seduces her, here, he roughly mounts her like a stallion would a mare. The creators felt this change better fit Daenerys’s character arc, where she starts the series as completely powerless and gains strength as the season progresses. Yet, this change makes her later, loving relationship with Khal Drogo disturbing and confuses the characterization of Khal Drogo, who may be a barbarian but is not a villain. The change also adds more violence against women to a series that already has a surfeit of it.

The episode returns a final time to Winterfell where Ned, King Robert, and a large group of men head out on a hunting trip. While unsupervised, Bran, the little scamp, takes the opportunity to indulge in his favorite vice—climbing. He scrambles right up to a tower window through which he spies Queen Cersei having sexual relations with her brother, Jaime. The siblings realize they’ve been caught. Jaime takes about thirty seconds to decide that the solution to this problem is child defenestration and shoves Bran out the window. The episode ends with Bran falling from the tower.

This first episode covers about sixty pages of the first book. The writers make an excellent decision in choosing a dramatic end point. We certainly feel compelled to watch the next episode. The last few scenes at Winterfell set up a simple conflict for the viewers to latch onto through all the confusing backstory and exposition—the Starks versus the Lannisters (except Tyrion—we like Tyrion).

The audience is also presented with a mystery—who killed Jon Arryn and why? This establishes a narrative momentum based on an unanswered question. But, with the story of Daenerys, the narrative momentum is different; it’s caused by the viewers’ wanting to know what happens next. Both types of momentum help engage the viewers with the story and make them want to tune in to the next episode.

The series changes the ages of the characters from the book, which is largely to make the audience less uncomfortable with Daenerys’s storyline (she’s 13 in the book and 17 on the show). Yet, the ages of Ned and King Robert are increased more dramatically; while in their mid-30s in the book, they are about 50 here, perhaps to accommodate Sean Bean, who brings to the show his fantasy series cachet from his appearance in The Lord of the Rings. Their actions, however, suggest the uncertainty and, in Robert’s case, wildness, of younger men.

With few variations, this first episode sticks closely to the source text. While it should have stayed closer to the book’s presentation of the marriage consummation scene, it would have better served its viewers had it trimmed some of the extensive exposition. The scene in the crypt, for example, could have been slipped easily into the beginning of the next episode.

Yet, as confusing as this plethora of information is, it’s also interesting. Martin has crafted an intricate and engaging narrative. Despite all the information the episode provides, it also has plenty of action to keep the audience interested, including three beheadings, a murder, an attempted murder, a feast, a wedding, an engagement (more on that next week), two naked women, three shirtless men, a massacre, and an ice zombie. This is not a series that is short on plot or spectacle. The first episode successfully captures the viewers’ interest, drawing them to watch the next episode, which is what first episodes are supposed to do.

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