Game of Thrones (2011), Season 1, Episode 1, Story 1: “Winter is Coming” – Written by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss; Directed by Tim Van Patten – Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, is dead and King Robert Baratheon arrives in to Winterfell to ask Eddard Stark to be the new Hand.
Two items of note for any new readers to the Anxiety who might stumble on this review:
One: Yes, I’ve read George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. No, I don’t care how close the TV show translates the book.
Two: I like to say I write reactions more than reviews; that is, I watch a piece of entertainment and then I sit down and right about my reaction to it. If you’re looking for a comprehensive guide that lists all the actors and offers a specific, scene-by-scene breakdown, well, I trust you know what the internet is since you’re here, and I’m sure there are plenty of sites that offer the deep minutia. I’m grateful to them because they are amazing repositories of information and also because they’ve already done it, I don’t have to. I can concentrate on the stuff that struck a chord with me; as I like to say, you can get information all over the internet but you can only get me here.
Which, yeah, isn’t entirely true since my work occasionally shows up on other sites, but it’s much more true than false.
Got it? Good, let’s dig into GAME OF THRONES.
I realize I’m a year late to the party when it comes to HBO’s latest critical darling, but I only have a Blu ray player, not cable, so here we are. While the rest of the known world is getting ready for Season 2 to debut at the end of the week, I’m starting Season 1. The good news is that I can plainly see what the fuss is about; WINTER IS COMING is splendid television and, on the HBO Scale, comes in much closer to the awesomeness that is Deadwood than the overhyped nonsense that is True Blood.
GAME OF THRONES really feels most like the slightly snobbish, literary brother to A&E’s Spartacus. (This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lots of snobs wrote really great books. And if you’re thinking I should I have said Camelot instead of Spartacus, I haven’t seen Camelot because all I’ve heard is that it’s awful.) We’ve got nudity and swearing and people doing all sorts of naughty things, but it’s presented in the manner of someone who thinks Playboy goes too far. Where Spartacus revels in its naughtiness, and is all, “Here’s the hot lady’s boobs and the hot guy’s junk for you to look at,” GAME OF THRONES offers a few bare breasts like it’s no big deal, except for them it clearly is a big deal.
And here’s my general take on nudity: there has to be a reason for it. In Spartacus, nudity is part of the aesthetic; the show clearly tempts you with the idea that Lucy Lawless or Viva Bianca or Manu Bennet is going to have their private parts revealed for you. That’s fine. In this first episode of GAME OF THRONES, however, I’m not really sure why it’s here. There’s three instances of nudity and two of them really don’t really add anything to the episode’s story or the show’s overall aesthetic.
In the first instance, we see some whore boobs as Tyrion Lannister makes it with some Winterfell prostitutes as the royal caravan pulls into town. The point of the nudity here seems to be, “Hey, look, boobs and a dwarf. Together.” It’s just a bit of gratuitous flesh that doesn’t add anything to the scene.
In the second instance, we have Viserys Targaryen undressing and feeling up the bare breasts of his younger, possibly teenage sister Daenerys. The episode seems to revel in Daenerys’ breasts; we really don’t need to see them when her brother is groping her because the discomfort is clearly evident on her face. Nor do we need to see them when she turns around and enters her too-hot bath, because her shame is, again, clearly evident on her face. The point here, I guess, is “Hey, look, teenage boobs. Beat that, FX.”
It really does a disservice to Emilia Clarke, the actress who portrays Daenerys, because she conveys so much emotion with her face that we don’t need the nude reinforcement.
In the third instance, and the one where I think nudity adds something to the episode, is during Daenerys’ wedding ceremony to Khal Drogo. As the couple sits on a dais overlooking the celebration, the Dothraki tribesman fight and screw out in the open. The numerous bare breast shots here work because it helps to emphasize the difference in the two cultures. The Targaryen’s used to be the ruling family of Wetheros, but they’ve been exiled. It’s only Viserys and Daenerys left, and the older brother uses his younger sister like a chip he can exchange in order to help him reclaim the throne he believes is rightfully his. Daenerys is more than a bit freaked by marrying the warrior, knowing her brother is forcing her to do this in exchange for getting Drogo’s army to help him reclaim the throne. All of the public nudity and sex and violence helps to show us just how far Viserys is willing to go to get his throne back, by forcing his sister to marry into a culture that is not only so different from their own, but one that makes her feel so uncomfortable. It helps to reinforce his earlier point to her that he would let Drogo, all 40,000 of his soldiers, and their horses have sex with her if it meant claiming the throne.
HBO’s ineffectual use of nudity aside, WINTER IS COMING is a really good episode of television. It employs a strategy where we’re eased into the main plot. While Jon Arryn is busy being dead down south in King’s Landing, we’re spending time up north in Winterfell, getting to know Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark and his family. I really appreciate how the writers don’t treat us like we’re morons; they don’t feel the need to infodump everything and anything as soon as a character pops up on screen. That info is revealed when it’s appropriate to the story, marking THRONES as a show in which you’re going to have to pay attention. (See, literary snobbishness has plenty of positives.)
There is a huge cast of characters here, and the show does shorthand some of the characters for you. Everyone calls Tyrion Lannister “the Imp.” Repeatedly. His older brother, Jaime, is constantly called “the good looking one.” Ned’s illegitimate son Jon Snow is repeatedly called “the Bastard,” just to reinforce that he’s part of the family but not really part of the family.
WINTER IS COMING focuses the bulk of its action in the north. The episode opens with three rangers from the Wall (a massive ice structure at the northernmost end of the Kingdom of Westeros) getting attacked by creepy beings that scare the heck out of them. One of the rangers escapes, is caught by Stark’s men, and subsequently beheaded by Stark for abandoning his post. The beheading is a great scene because Ned makes his ten-year old son, Bran, come along and watch. Ned isn’t doing this to be an awful dad, but to show Bran that the man who condemns another to death should be the one to kill him.
As short a scene as it is, the beheading is the most important scene in the episode as it emphasizes the role of duty. Westeros is a land rife with political machinations where people are trapped by the duty of their position. The ranger abandoned his duty and so must die by the King; his two fellow rangers did not abandon their duty and they died, too. In Westeros, you are largely trapped by the role you serve and thus can be manipulated by others into acting against your will. Ned does not want to become the Hand of the King, but does not see how he can realistically say no, especially after a letter from his wife’s sister (and Arryn’s husband) informs them she believes Arryn was murdered by the Lannisters.
The best scene in the episode is a brief exchange between Tyrion and Snow, where Tyrion exhorts Snow to embrace his bastardness. He tells him to never forget that that’s what he is, because others will never forget it. If Snow can accept and use that status, then it can never be used against him. Peter Dinklage won some prestigious supporting actor awards for his work here, and it’s easy to see why because Tyrion already appears the most complex and compelling character in the show.
At the end of the episode, Ned heads south with the King, and Bran climbs the walls of Winterfell to get a look at their exit. Before he reaches the top, however, he hears a woman groaning in sexual pleasure and so decides to have a peak. He discovers Queen Cersei and her brother Jaime having sex. Whoops. (There’s no nudity here; perhaps HBO thought the combination of incest and intercourse was a bridge too far and they’d stick with the safety of tribal, whore, and teenage breasts. It’s okay to show nudity when a brother is groping his sister but not when he’s screwing her.) For his accidental discovery, Jaime pushes Bran out of the window and as the episode closes, he’s falling towards the ground, where his adopted direwolf awaits.
WINTER IS COMING is a compelling episode that did what first episodes are supposed to do – it drew me in the deeper it went and by the end of the episode I would have preferred to watch episode 2 instead of writing this reaction to make sure I kept the episodes separate in my head. The writing and acting are excellent throughout the episode and Westeros feels like a real, lived-in world. Some of the nudity and swearing feels cheap, like they’re doing it just to prove they can do it, but these are small concerns in a solid beginning to GAME OF THRONES.