For the 10th anniversary of the premiere of Game of Thrones, I am pleased to share (for the first time on this site) my full-length essay on the pilot episode, "Winter is Coming," which first appeared in my book Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things: The Unaffiliated Critic's Guide to Seasons One through Three of Game of Thrones. Since I had not written full-length reviews of the first three episodes when they aired, I went back and wrote about them when I collected my reviews for the book. This piece was originally written between Seasons Seven and Eight.
It is a slightly disorienting experience to go back, eight years and seven seasons later, and rewatch “Winter is Coming,” the pilot episode of Game of Thrones. It is an impressive hour of television, and remarkably of a piece with the series that followed it. But we also see a series that had not quite found its footing, visually or narratively.
Showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have been quite open about the fact that what ended up airing on HBO on April 17, 2011 was, in actuality, the second version of the pilot produced. The first version, shot in 2009, had been directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Spotlight), and had been deemed—in the recollections of the showrunners and their friends for whom they screened it—“a massive problem” and “a piece of shit.”
HBO has wisely kept the original version of the Game of Thrones pilot under wraps, for it was, by all accounts, rather awful. “We got everything wrong on a very basic level with the writing of it,” Benioff has said, of that first pilot.
There were reportedly scenes that were unnecessary, overwrought, and unsuccessful, like the death of Jon Arryn, and a flashback to the execution of Ned’s father and brother by the Mad King. The entire episode apparently suffered from pacing problems, structure problems, and fatal failures of clarity. (People who viewed the original pilot did not grasp, for example, that Jaime and Cersei were siblings. That was a pretty important piece of information to convey, since it would drive the entire first season.) Certain performances were not working, indicating that some key roles had simply been miscast.
Executives at HBO reportedly debated for months about whether to simply scrap the entire project, into which they had already sunk a great deal of money. Finally, they gave Benioff and Weiss the go-ahead to make another pilot. The script was rewritten; major casting changes were made (with Michelle Fairley replacing Jennifer Ehle as Catelyn Stark, and Emilia Clarke taking over the role of Daenerys Targaryen from Tazmin Merchant); and director Timothy Van Patten came in to re-shoot 90 percent of the episode. (McCarthy, though some of his footage remains in the episode that aired, accepted no on-screen credit for his work.)
In retrospect, it is not surprising that Benioff and Weiss struggled to accomplish everything they needed to do in “Winter is Coming.” The different worlds they needed to establish, the number of characters they needed to introduce, and the number of plot lines they needed to set in motion—all in a single hour—make the entire endeavor seem like an exercise in hubris. What is surprising, now, is how well they succeeded on their second attempt: They didn’t merely restore HBO’s faith in their work, but they launched a series that would quickly become the network’s biggest hit and flagship program.
Still, the aired version of “Winter is Coming” retains some of the bruises and scars of the show’s painful birth. McCarthy had shot on 35mm, and the footage from his version that remains in the aired episode stands out as noticeably different from the digital format of Van Patten’s pilot (and the entire rest of the series). Hairstyles in “Winter is Coming” are out of continuity with the rest of Season One—notoriously, Peter Dinklage’s bleached-blonde shag—and even from scene to scene. (One entire scene—where Robb, Jon, and Theon go to the barber—was inserted solely to cover these continuity lapses. Benioff and Weiss have said it “might be the worst scene we’ve ever written—probably the most embarrassing.”) There is some awkward editing necessitated by the replacement of Ehle by Fairley—notice, in the banquet scene, how she and Sophie Turner are never in the same shot—and some of the younger actors (particularly Turner and Isaac Hempstead-Wright) are glaringly younger in certain scenes. There are also some stylistic flourishes—particularly in establishing shots—that now seem to belong in a different, less-sophisticated sort of fantasy show.
Even more jarring—though completely understandable, given the reaction to the original pilot—is the painfully awkward nature of certain bits of exposition. If those who screened the original pilot had missed the fact that Jaime and Cersei were brother and sister, for example, Benioff and Weiss were determined to a fault that everyone would get it this time. (“That’s Jaime Lannister, the Queen’s twin brother!” Arya gushes from off-screen, uncharacteristically, in what is obviously a post-production drop-in.) Again, one can’t fault Benioff and Weiss now for these early, explicit signposts, but they stand as markers of how much better—how much more subtle—the showrunners would grow as storytellers over the course of the series.
Still, none of these visible seams and patches terribly mar the otherwise unqualified triumph of “Winter is Coming.” My chief reaction, watching it again before we enter the final season, is slightly stunned admiration. It is remarkable, as I’ve suggested, just how much exposition Benioff and Weiss had to deliver in a single hour of television, and how confidently they managed it. With minor, unimportant exceptions, both they and their actors seem already to have a firm grasp on the characters, so—rare for a pilot—none of the depictions seems glaringly inconsistent with everything we will learn about these people later.
Most impressive, however, is to look back and realize how many of the essential themes of Game of Thrones were woven inextricably into the show’s narrative DNA right from the pilot. Benioff and Weiss didn’t just faithfully adapt Martin’s story: They understood it, right from the beginning, and knew exactly why it was worth adapting in the first place. It is evident, watching “Winter is Coming” now, how firm a grasp the showrunners had on what this story was really about, on the sophisticated and deeply humane themes that elevate Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire above a thousand other fantasy epics with which it is unfairly compared. The showrunners could not have known, then, that they would get the chance to tell Martin’s entire tale before Martin himself could get around to finishing it. But they understood that tale, and they knew where it was going: They seeded the themes from the very first scene, and they kept their eyes, throughout, on the things that would ultimately matter.
So let’s take a closer look at “Winter is Coming,” and how it is—in many ways—the thematic and emotional template for everything that followed.
“I never seen a thing like this, not ever in my life.”
We begin—before even the credits have rolled—in darkness: just a black screen, quickly accompanied by the startlingly loud sound of gigantic gears being set in motion. It’s an appropriate enough way to begin this massive and foreboding undertaking.
The opening shot of the series is of a gate. The three figures we see, staring sternly at us, are inside the gate, and we are outside: outside the wall, outside this world, outside this story.
But the door in the wall is opening.
In my review of the Season Seven finale “The Dragon and the Wolf,” I spend a lot of time talking about the significance of walls in this story, and specifically on the dual nature of walls: how they protect (and are therefore symbols of life and unity), but how they also divide (and thus symbolize discord, enmity, and violence). It would be jumping the gun to discuss that theme too much here, but I do not think it at all a coincidence that these men look—through the bars of their gate—as much imprisoned as protected. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the very first thing we see in Game of Thrones is a gate in a wall opening. This series, as I argue throughout, is largely about the need for people to lower their walls, to relinquish their narrow clan mentalities, to expand their spheres of concern to include people different from themselves. That, in the end, is one of the chief lessons of Game of Thrones, and it is foreshadowed right from the very first shot.
This entire sequence, in fact—though it appears at first, and for seasons to come, like an aberration—contains the essential genetic building blocks of the entire series.
According to some reports—plausible, if not completely verifiable—the original version of the pilot may have opened with the death of Jon Arryn, the previous Hand of the King. Actor John Standing—who played Arryn in the original pilot, and who remains in the episode that aired as Arryn’s corpse—has described a scene in which the previous Hand of the King, dying of poison, attempts to send an urgent raven. According to Standing, the scene showed Arryn collapsing before he could compose his message, and Cersei Lannister herself stomping on his hand and watching him die.
From a plot perspective, this scene—though even Standing thought it ludicrous—must have made a certain sense. Jon Arryn’s death, after all, is the single event that really sets the plot of Game of Thrones in motion, and the secret he was trying to send—of Jaime and Cersei’s incestuous relationship, and the illegitimacy of the heirs to the throne—is the primary motivation for everything that happens in Season One, and the war that rages in Seasons Two and Three. As a gateway to this story for new viewers, an opening like that must have seemed to make more immediate sense than what we got: a glimpse of three disposable characters fighting magical, demonic creatures that we would not see again until the end of Season Two, and who would not really do anything until the end of Season Four.
However, in choosing to open the series with this cryptic prologue, Benioff and Weiss demonstrate that they—unlike their characters—understand what really matters. Jon Arryn’s death was all about royal feuds, palace intrigue, and the rights of succession: all the things that will preoccupy our characters throughout this season, and for several seasons to come. It was, in other words, about the “game of thrones” that lends the series its title. But by beginning, instead, beyond the borders of this civilization, with this supernatural menace that threatens all of humanity, the creators signaled to us that a game is all that petty, feudal squabbling signifies. We are charged to bear in mind—during all the conspiracies of court that follow—that the real concern, the real threat, the real stakes, are all elsewhere.
This opening sequence gives us a lot of other important guidance as well: Like every great narrative, Game of Thrones begins by teaching us how to read it.
Those who tuned into this pilot episode cold, for example, could not possibly know that these three men would not be important—let alone recurring—characters. (They are the first people we meet, so surely they must be important, right?) The show has, as it turns out, little time to establish these characters, or to earn our investment in their fates. (This sequence is seven minutes long, and three minutes pass before a line of dialogue is heard. We will—though we don’t know it yet—not even have a chance to learn these characters’ names.)
But fortunately we understand enough: They are clearly soldiers, of some kind, and though we are not familiar with their army or war, we recognize their individual types. Gared (Dermot Keaney) is clearly the grizzled veteran, working-class and competent; Will (Bronson Webb) is the new recruit, decent but nervous; and Waymar Royce (Rob Ostlere) is the rich and arrogant young officer, elevated to a position of authority far beyond his experience. We understand these men, and their relationships, from a hundred other war movies set in a dozen different wars. What’s more, we already understand that issues of class, of privilege, of oppressed servitude and unearned leadership, will feature prominently in Game of Thrones. It’s a remarkably efficient bit of storytelling.
And, no sooner have we grasped just exactly who these characters are, then we are given the next important lesson in how to watch Game of Thrones: Don’t get too attached to characters, because no one is safe.
It is young Will—already, for this purpose, the naive audience stand-in—who stumbles upon a nightmarish tableau: bodies, a dozen bodies, dismembered and arranged in a ritualistic patten neither he nor we can read. After he has raced to report this back to his smarmy superior, we get the first line of dialogue in the entire series: “What do you expect?” Royce says. “They’re savages.” It is a callous question, a sneering question, a question that draws a contemptuous line between “us” (civilized, decent) and “them” (savage, heartless). It is an othering line—dehumanizing people on the other side of an arbitrary wall—and it is only the first such sentiment we will hear, again and again, throughout Game of Thrones.
(“Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy,” another member of the ruling class will say, a couple of episodes from now, putting this all-too common philosophy into chillingly succinct relief.)
But Will is horrified. “They even killed the children,” he says, in what is—equally, if not more importantly—the first expression of empathy we hear in the series. He recognizes these slaughtered people as people, not as savages. He cares about the children, though they are not his children, or the children of his community. He believes that the death of innocent children is something to lament, no matter whose children they are. This attitude, we will discover, is a common thread that links every decent person in Game of Thrones.
But this society and its rulers are not yet ready to embrace empathy. “It’s a good thing we’re not children,” Royce laughs, not giving a damn about anyone but himself and his compatriots.
Heartless Royce, of course, is the first to die when humanity’s judges find them: a blue-eyed figure rises behind him and cuts him down. Gared—decent, perhaps, but silently following orders—will be next, his head severed in a bit of foreshadowing of what happens to decent, grizzled men who follow orders.
Only young Will will survive (however temporarily) this encounter—but not before he glimpses one terrifying final vision. A little girl—one of those “children” he had seen slaughtered, and nailed to a tree—has risen again as something else, something evil and otherworldly.
We do not yet know about the Night’s Watch, or the true purpose of the Wall, or the legends of the White Walkers and their ability to raise the dead to their service. But we feel the haunting lessons of this prologue to Game of Thrones. An absence of empathy is a fatal flaw. Inhumanity begets inhumanity. And violence corrupts innocence: The children of an unjust and monstrous society will return, as monsters themselves, to accuse and punish those who came before.
And, with these vital lessons lingering in our minds, we have begun.
“Our way is the old way?”
The biggest difference between watching Season One of Game of Thrones in 2011, and watching it again after so many years, is probably in our relationship to the Stark Family, and particularly to its patriarch, Eddard “Ned” Stark.
Not that our initial impression of House Stark changes much over the course of the series. All these years later, the brief glimpse we get of the Starks in this episode is still our only example of a happy, healthy family in Westeros. Compared to every other one of the Great Houses—with their scheming, plotting, backstabbing, and often outright murderous ways—the Starks are a model of family unity and togetherness.
And so, watching them now in “Winter is Coming,” the experience is bittersweet. We know, now, that this happy family will not stay happy. This episode, in fact, will be the last time in the series that they will all truly be together. After this episode, neither Ned nor Catelyn will ever speak to Bran again. When, in the next episode, Ned, Sansa, and Arya leave for King’s Landing, it will be the last time Ned sees any of his sons, and the last any of the three of them ever see of Robb. By the end of the season, the surviving Starks will be scattered across the Seven Kingdoms, each enduring their own horrific hardships. By the time they meet again—if they meet again—many years will have passed, and they will all be very different people.
But it is not just the foreknowledge of what’s in store for this family that alters our perceptions of “Winter is Coming.” It is also the recognition, now, that House Stark—which seems, on first viewing, idyllic and honorable—was simply the best and least offensive representative of a fundamentally flawed and unjust system.
As I’ve suggested, Game of Thrones is ultimately about the collapse of the old, unjust order in Westeros, and the attempt (on the part of a handful of progressive new thinkers like Jon and Dany) to create something better in its place. And, as much as we love the Starks (and we do), and as much as we envy their seemingly happy life, we see that many of the series’ thematic critiques of that old system can be leveled at their House as much as at anyone else’s.
Consider, for example, our first glimpse of them: Robb, Jon, and Theon are laughing as they teach Bran to shoot arrows, while even little Rickon watches the lesson and shares in the camaraderie. Above them, Ned and Catelyn watch, amused and encouraging, from the balcony.
But where are the girls? Inside, locked away at needlework, under the stern tutelage of the nun-like Septa Mordane. Sansa, still at this point the perfect princess, is happy enough to be there. (Though we know, now, that Sansa will eventually come to regret embracing so thoroughly this society’s expectations for what a girl should be.) But Arya despises needlework: She longs to be out with the boys, proving—as she does when she sneaks away from her lesson—that she can do anything they can do, and better.
As even the first-time viewer might already begin to expect—after meeting Arya, Sansa, Cersei, Daenerys, and a host of whores in this episode—gender roles and the limited freedom of women will be major themes in Game of Thrones. Throughout the series we will see nearly every female character straining against societally imposed limitations, attempting to carve out a place for herself as something other than a powerless slave or a precious object of possession. And we see, here—and later in the season—that Ned Stark’s imagination about who is daughters can be is every bit as constrained by convention as the rest of this society’s.
Nor is Ned’s imagination particularly flexible or expansive in other ways. When poor, empathetic Will makes his way south from the Wall, sharing his harrowing tale and carrying his warning about the White Walkers, he is arrested as a deserter and swiftly executed. This, in fact, is the very first official act we see Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, carry out. Game of Thrones brilliantly begins by showing us, in no uncertain terms, the real danger that will threaten all of humanity. And then it introduces us to an apparent hero who immediately ignores that danger and kills the messenger who came to warn us about it. And, in doing so, he is teaching his sons that archaic codes of honor and the letter of the law are the most important things there are.
I am, rewatching this episode, rather stunned by the misdirection Martin, Benioff, and Weiss employ in introducing us to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. For we do like Eddard Stark: Sean Bean’s performance is excellent (as it will remain throughout), and Ned is endearingly gruff, slyly warm, unmistakably decent, and convincingly wise. He is a classic sort of hero—and people who had not read the books had no reason to believe, for most of the first season, that Ned wasn’t the main hero of Game of Thrones—and an idealized father figure. We are warmed by the way he indulgently laughs when Arya presumes to shoot an arrow and show up her brothers. We are comforted by his gnomic pronouncements of ancient wisdom as he passes lessons along to young Bran. (“The man who passes the sentence should swing the blade.”) We are seduced by the image of this stern but benevolent paternal figure watching over his people and keeping them safe. “Our way is the old way,” Ned has taught his children, and, watching the Stark Family, we think that the old ways can’t be so bad.
But we know now that “Winter is Coming” was just the opening move in a very long, patient game. We know now that Westeros is, in most ways, a fairly terrible place when the series starts: an unjust society, an oppressive system, a world of violence and subjugation, a place of power and privilege for the mighty and misery and servitude for the weak. But the show doesn’t start off by showing us all of that, as a lesser series would have done. Instead, Game of Thrones makes us invest in the current paradigm, by showing us the best-case scenario, the version of this world that would be worth preserving. (Living under a patriarchal feudal system wouldn’t seem so bad, after all, if the lord who controlled your destiny was as benevolent as Eddard Stark.) The show lures us in with Ned: It plays on our own conscious and buried desires for “the old ways,” for old-fashioned values. It plays on our craving for a benevolent father and lord to take care of us, to watch over us, to make the hard decisions and fight our battles for us.
(In my review of the fifth episode, I suggested that Game of Thrones might be the most conservative show on television. “I'm getting a sense that, at its heart, there is a romanticism about traditional roles, and men being men, and a longing for simpler times,” I wrote. Like many of my early suppositions, that reading was wrong—but it was wrong because I fundamentally underestimated the long game the show was playing. In reality, Game of Thrones seduced us with our ingrained longing for such “simpler” times, and then spent the rest of the series challenging and breaking down those expectations.)
So much of what we learn about Ned Stark and his convictions here will turn out to be wrong. Some of it, of course, we have no reason to question yet. His hatred of Jaime Lannister, for example, seems justified, given everything else we learn about Jaime in this episode. (It will be several seasons yet before we hear Jaime’s version of past events, and realize that he is—while deeply flawed and morally compromised—a more complicated character than Ned Stark ever credited.) And we have no reason yet to question the narrative we hear about Robert and Ned’s sister Lyanna: one of the many foundation myths of this story that will turn out to be a lie. (In this case—we will discover much later—it’s a lie Ned himself has manufactured and maintained.)
But a lot of what Ned’s wrong about is evident right from the beginning, if we only bother to look, and think. We know, for example, that the White Walkers are real: We have seen them, so we know Will does not deserve his fate, and we can recognize Ned’s refusal to countenance Will’s warning as a major failing. And, though we can value Ned’s loyalty to his old friend Robert, it should not take more than a moment in Robert’s company for us to suspect that he must be a terrible king: stupid, brutish, selfish, and lazy, literally getting fat off the kingdom he is supposed to be governing. Ned, we learn quickly, actually helped put this man on the throne, winning his war for him. Now, he commits himself to protecting Robert’s life and rule, running the kingdom so Robert himself can “eat, drink, and whore [himself] to an early grave.”
Where is the nobility in this? And yet we read it as noble, somehow, because we have already assumed and accepted that Ned is our hero: If Ned supports Robert, Robert must be worth supporting. But he isn’t. In what we can now recognize as an early indication of everything wrong with this society, Ned is a better man propping up the rule of an unworthy and uncaring leader, out of some misguided sense of duty and honor. Game of Thrones is already toying with our narrative expectations, setting up illusions because the real lessons will come, later, in destroying them.
I think perceptions of Eddard Stark have shifted over the course of the series, and they still vary wildly among the fans: Some still remember him as the kindly, decent, loving father-figure, while others judge him as, at best, a well-intentioned fool who made one stupid decision after another. The genius of making Eddard our focal character for Season One, however, is that both readings are true. Ned was a good, decent man who loved his wife and children, was loyal to his friends, and cared about and wanted to protect all the less fortunate people for whom he was responsible. These are values that matter in Game of Thrones, and in many ways Ned is still our moral compass, seven seasons later.
However, it is equally true that Ned would turn out to be a dumb-ass: terrible at palace intrigue; blindly obedient to an unjust system; foolishly loyal to foolish friends; too willing to substitute laws and codes of honor for his own morality and common sense. Eddard Stark, we now see, was a perfect product of his society, a man who could always be counted upon to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, or the right thing for the wrong reasons.
His way is the old way. And the time for the old ways is coming to a close.
“Never forget what you are."
As I’ve said, anyone coming to this story fresh—having not read Martin’s novels—could be forgiven for assuming, from “Winter is Coming,” that Eddard Stark would be the main character of Game of Thrones. (And indeed, for most of the first season, he is.) But we now understand what should have been obvious even then: that the important characters in this story would turn out to be the misfits, the powerless, the people who don’t quite have a place in this heavily structured and classist society. Game of Thrones may traffic in the fates of kings and queens, lords and ladies, but its heart—always—is with the cripples, the bastards, and the broken things.
Every aspect of Westeros, when we first encounter it, is strictly regimented. Nearly everyone belongs to a House, and the smaller Houses owe fealty to larger Houses, and everyone owes fealty to the Crown. Each House has its own customs, rules, and traditions, to which every member is expected to conform. The class system is inflexible and impermeable, with virtually no possibility for movement between ranks. (A peasant will always be a peasant, no matter how worthy, and a lord will always be a lord, no matter how disgraced.) Gender roles are narrowly defined, and everyone is expected to strictly adhere to them. In other words, every single person in this society knows, more or less from birth, exactly who they are supposed to be, what they are required to do, and how great or small they can expect their life to be.
But—as I’ve argued since I began writing about this show—Game of Thrones is a deeply humane story. It values the individual over the collective, free-will over fealty, and bonds of affinity over bonds of honor. By the time we have reached the final season, nearly every single major character left alive is someone who strained against these externally imposed limitations; challenged the expectations of their family, class, or gender; and fought hard for the right to define for themselves who they would be, what they would believe, and who they want their true family to be.
And we see the hints of that here, in “Winter is Coming,” right from the moment we first meet these characters. Ned and Catelyn are the picture-perfect patriarch and matriarch; the boys are manly and boisterous; Sansa is pretty and proper. But the character that really “pops” in our first look at the Stark clan is Arya.
Arya barely speaks a word in this episode—just those few lines of gushing exposition when the contingent arrives from King’s Landing—but it is hard to imagine a more efficient and endearing introduction. We get about thirty wordless seconds of seeing her struggle miserably with her sewing class, and then perhaps fifteen seconds of her gleefully showing up Bran with a bow and arrow, accompanied by a mockingly feminine little curtsey. And we know, instantly, exactly who this character is and why we should care about her.
For we already know Arya wants something different for herself than the fate society has planned for her. She doesn’t fit the mold, and she doesn’t accept the constraints. (And already we see her struggle to define herself. When she shows up to greet the King wearing a soldier’s helmet on her head, her father quickly removes it from her. And when King Robert goes down the line greeting the Stark children, he says Sansa is pretty, and that Bran will be a warrior, but of Arya he only asks her name before moving on without comment. Neither a feminine girl nor a masculine boy, Arya is barely worth noticing.) All of this makes her a misfit, but it also makes her relatably human, someone we can root for. It marks her—if we’re paying attention—as a hero, someone with an arc, and struggles, and a long journey ahead.
And then there’s Jon Snow, given the stink-eye by Lady Stark, given no place in the receiving line to greet the King, and offered no seat at the banquet. Officially recognized as Eddard Stark’s bastard son, he is nonetheless of the family but not really in the family. Yet we recognize immediately his competence, and some of his goodness. It is he—not eldest, legitimate son Robb—who counsels young Bran on how to witness an execution, and what their father expects of his sons. And it is he who saves the orphaned dire wolves from execution, convincingly (and selflessly) arguing that the gods intended the five pups for the five legitimate Stark children. Only when he discovers a sixth pup—the left-over, the runt of the litter—does he get to claim a wolf for himself, and even this act is representative of both his personality and lot in life. As one of the overlooked outsiders of the world, Jon goes through life keeping an eye and ear out for others to protect and befriend.
As does Tyrion Lannister, who will admit—a few episodes from now—that he has a soft spot in his heart for cripples, bastards, and broken things. Just as Arya and Jon capture our interest among the Starks, Tyrion leaps out in this first episode as infinitely more interesting than his beautiful wicked-queen of a sister, or his smarmy-Prince-Charming of a brother.
Tyrion’s introduction is one of the few scenes in “Winter is Coming” that now stands out as slightly incongruous, and not merely because of his surfer-boy shag and still-developing accent. The entire scene in the brothel is simply ill-conceived: In his first shot Tyrion is receiving off-screen fellatio from Ros—along with distracting sound effects—and at the end of the scene a veritable bevy of naked women will pour into the room. (This was the first scene that earned the accusations of gratuitous sex and nudity that were frequent in the early seasons, and which continue to plague the show.) Neither Dinklage, the writers, nor the director seems to quite have a handle yet on this character: Tyrion seems younger, more carefree and shallow than we will ever see him again, and his nightshirt is weirdly infantilizing on the actor’s small frame. The show seems in this scene to want to position Tyrion as the clown, as the comic relief.
But this scene also handily illustrates one of the show’s points: that there is a strange, liberating freedom in being a cripple, a bastard, or a broken thing. In a society in which the walls between clans, classes, and roles are so heavily guarded, the misfits are the ones able to slip between the cracks and pass easily between worlds. Every move Cersei and Jaime make is prescribed for them—on this trip, they have to appear at all the formal ceremonial functions—while Tyrion is free to visit a brothel during the reception, and skip the banquet in favor of investigating the more interesting corners of Winterfell.
And it is in one of these corners that Tyrion and Jon Snow—the unwanted sons of their respective clans—meet, while the more “respectable” members of their families are trapped at a banquet. This is how all the misfits find each other: They are able to bypass the regimented avenues of interaction everyone else in Westeros must traverse. (In contrast to his first scene, the Tyrion Lannister we see here is more or less the Tyrion we will come to know: a little bitter, a little drunk, more than a little cynical, but smart and sly and strangely generous to others.) Significantly, Tyrion comes upon Jon Snow just after Jon has asked his Uncle Benjen to let him join the Night’s Watch, where no bastard is ever turned away. “You don’t understand what you’d be giving up,” Benjen says. “We have no families. None of us will ever father sons…”
Tyrion, I think it is safe to say, overhears this conversation, and approaches Jon after Benjen leaves. As he is prone to do, he speaks truth plainly: “You’re Ned Stark’s bastard.” When Jon is offended at this reminder, Tyrion gives him advice that is fairly central to the philosophy of Game of Thrones: “Never forget what you are,” he says. “The rest of the world will not. Wear it like honor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” He is providing Jon with one of the secrets he will need, the one he himself has already figured out after a lifetime of being a dwarf: There is power in being different, and in embracing your difference. And he is also giving Jon a nudge in the right direction, by reminding him that the path of traditional “family”—the path Benjen cautions him he might someday want—will never be for him. Jon’s fate is to forge a new family among the other cripples, bastards, and broken things, like the men at the Wall, and like Tyrion himself. (“All dwarves are bastards in their fathers’ eyes,” Tyrion observes wryly.)
Throughout the series we will see the various outsiders come together, in unexpected places, to forge new alliances that supersede the strictly regimented hierarchies of Westeros. (Tyrion, over the first season alone, will make connections with lords, ladies, whores, brigands, mountain clans, jailers, and members of the Night’s Watch, moving easily and effortlessly between drastically different social strata.) These interactions are not incidental, but vital to the overall purpose of Game of Thrones. While people like Cersei stay locked in their societally-determined silos, preserving the old order, people like Tyrion are forging new alliances and family units—based on affinity, not blood or treaties—that will ultimately challenge that order and bring the walls between classes tumbling down.
These two men—Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister—will become friends over the next few episodes, and then not see each other again for six seasons. When they finally do meet again, however, the memory of this chance-met friendship will not merely linger: It will be essential to creating trust between official enemies and forging an alliance that could save all of humanity.
Let the beautiful people make small-talk at the parties: It’s the cripples, bastards, and broken things that will save the world.
“I need you to be perfect today.”
As I’ve said before, the women of Game of Thrones are automatically included among the ranks of the outsiders, the misfits, and the disenfranchised. In this deeply patriarchal society, they are excluded and restricted in ways the men—even the dwarves and bastards—never will be. (Arya, for example, would probably love to join the Night’s Watch—but that path, like so many others, is closed to her.) If, as I’ve argued, all of Westerosi society is inherently objectifying and dehumanizing, it is women who bear the brunt of that oppression. Their entire value is decorative, commodified, and procreative. (“And have you bled yet?” Cersei asks Sansa, bluntly, upon first meeting her. In other words: “Are you of any use to society yet?”)
And Daenerys Targaryen is our best example of this. At the beginning of the most extraordinary arc of any character in Season One—and arguably the most important arc in all of Game of Thrones—Dany is nothing but a pretty object to be bartered for political purposes.
We do not miss the way Dany’s story and Sansa’s speak to each other across the episode. Each is the beautiful daughter of an ancient house, being offered in marriage by the male head of her family in order to form a political alliance. But Sansa is eager for such an arrangement. She has been groomed for the role all her life, buying completely into the fairy tale expectations of what a pretty girl should be. An arranged marriage with the crown-prince of the kingdom? That’s the highest goal to which such a girl can aspire. (Sansa also has a loving family who would be unlikely to marry her off—even to the future king—if she did not desire it.)
Dany has no such desires, and no such advantages. The exiled princess of a dethroned family, she is hostage to her older brother Viserys’s dream of returning to a country Dany doesn’t even remember, and restoring the family name to power.
When we first meet Dany she is entirely passive, with the dead-eyed stare of an abuse victim. She trembles as her brother undresses her like a manikin—inspecting and fondling her body as if he owns it—but she does not move or protest. This is one of the few scenes of nudity in the early seasons of Game of Thrones that seems completely justified: It emphasizes her vulnerability, and reinforces the truth that Dany is, almost literally, an object for men to do with as they like. “I need you to be perfect today,” he warns her. “Can you do that for me? You don’t want to wake the dragon, do you?”
Another difference between Sansa and Dany: Sansa is being shipped off to the capital of the realm, to be brokered to the handsome, age-appropriate crown prince. Dany, on the other hand, is being brokered to an older warlord—an inarticulate “savage”—and hauled off to live a rough, nomadic existence with a brutal and “uncivilized” tribe. Only later will we discover which of these two young women actually had the better deal, but at this point the sight of her betrothed—Khal Drogo—fills Dany only with understandable terror. (And—confirming her status as a sexual and aesthetic object—no words are spoken during this courtship ceremony: Khal Drogo simply gazes at her, moving his eyes up and down her body, and then he rides off to indicate his acceptance of the offer.)
Only once does Dany summon the courage to express her wishes: “I don’t want to be his queen,” she says, hesitantly. And the response from her brother is designed to put her exactly in her place. Viserys needs an army to claim his crown, and, in this game of thrones, Dany is the only card he has to play. “I would let his whole tribe fuck you, all 40,000 men—and their horses—if that’s what it took,” he says, and what is perhaps most chilling of all is the way he says it tenderly, stroking her face and kissing her forehead.
Dany’s wedding day is horrifying to her, and—in retrospect—a nice representation of the threshold she’s about to cross. The wedding party sits calmly on a sort of stage, as Dany receives gifts from the guests as any bride might do. The customs may be odd, and the gifts may be strange (including, most importantly, three “stone” dragon eggs), but it is just recognizable as a formal wedding tradition, the kind any bride might expect.
Meanwhile, in front of her, is chaos. To the beating of tribal drums, the Dothraki dance and fight and fuck in wild, shameless abandon. This is the world into which she has married: raw, and primal, and completely removed from any of the rules of civilization that she knows.
It is Jorah Mormont who serves as a transitional figure for her, a sort of guide easing her from one world (and identity) into another. His gift to her is a collection of Westerosi books, to teach her the history of who she was and where she came from. But he is also the first person we see call her “Khaleesi”—just the first of a dozen new titles she will claim over the course of the entire series—and the first to begin instructing her in her new language. (“There is no word for ’Thank You’ in Dothraki,” he tells her.)
In “Winter is Coming,” we get no real glimpse of the strength of which Dany is capable: She is still a victim here, still an object to be passed from man to man. She is a damsel in distress, a helpless princess whom no one is coming to save.
(One of the things the writers changed their minds about—between the first version of the pilot and this one—was how the consummation of Dany and Drogo’s marriage would be depicted. Originally, they reportedly presented it as it is in the book: Dany, frightened at first, has a sort of sexual awakening and ultimately consents eagerly. Here, however, it is basically shown as a rape. The change was controversial, but I think it was the right one, both more realistic and more representative of where Dany is at this stage of her extraordinary journey.)
But I said above that there is freedom and power in being a outsider, and we see throughout Game of Thrones that the further behind one leaves the constraints of so-called “civilization,” the more power and freedom one can acquire. (As I’ve argued elsewhere, the animal sigils can be seen to represent the tension between the primal power of human nature and the artificial constraints of civilization that keep them, just barely, at bay.) Dany believes she is being sold into slavery here, and she is not wrong. But she is also leaving behind forever the straitjacket constraints of her old society, and being given an opportunity to become something more powerful than Westerosi custom would ever have allowed a woman to become.
In selling his sister, it is Viserys—as he will soon discover—who has awakened the dragon.
“The things I do for love.”
Finally, let’s talk about that ending.
It is almost impossible to think back now and recall where my head was the first time I watched “Winter is Coming.” I’ve admitted before how badly I underestimated this show on first viewing, and how I certainly never intended to spend the next eight years writing about it.
But I strongly suspect that the moment I knew I would keep watching it—at least for a few more episodes—was the moment Jaime Lannister pushed Brandon Stark out the highest window of a Winterfell tower.
Simply from a viewer-response perspective, it is hard to imagine a better ending for a show’s pilot episode. Adorable Brandon Stark, who can’t shoot an arrow but who scampers up walls with ease? Innocent Brandon Stark, through whose eyes we witnessed an execution, and whose tender heart earned him a wolf cub to raise? Guileless Brandon Stark, who looks at his feet every time he tries to lie? Surely nothing too terribly bad could happen to little Brandon Stark, right?
Bran, of course, does not die—though viewers wouldn’t know that until the second episode—but he does become yet another of the cripples, bastards, and broken things. And even so, his fall at the end of “Winter is Coming” is a mission-statement moment for Game of Thrones. Just as the episode began by introducing us to three characters who would all be dead a few minutes later, the episode ends by telling us—in no uncertain terms—that absolutely no one in this story is safe.
And this is important, for reasons that go far beyond a desire on the parts of Mssrs. Martin, Benioff, and Weiss to surprise us. (People who complain that Game of Thrones kills characters just for shock-value are missing one of the essential points of the show.) As I never tire of arguing, Game of Thrones takes place in a fairy-tale world, but without fairy-tale rules. The good guys don’t always win; the bad guys aren’t always punished; and in fact designations of “good” and “bad” become almost meaningless after a while. Love doesn’t conquer all, good deeds are not necessarily rewarded, and there is absolutely no comforting guarantee of a happy ending for anyone.
That’s not just a storytelling approach, but a worldview that is central to the overall purpose of Game of Thrones. The show is largely about the breakdown of the belief systems that govern the lives of the individuals in this world: laws, traditions, codes of honor, class and gender expectations, religions, accepted history, existing alliances and enmities, et cetera. Game of Thrones prioritizes the choices of individuals and the ramification of their actions over all the external narratives that tell individuals who they are supposed to be and how their lives are supposed to go. And that includes the very narrative expectations that we, as viewers, bring to the series itself. There is no cosmic god punishing the wicked and rewarding the good in this story: There are only the characters themselves, making decisions as individuals, for better or worse.
Bran’s fall—his attempted murder—also brings the episode back full-circle to where we began, and to the stakes that Benioff and Weiss established at the beginning. “They even killed the children,” Will said, of the slaughtered wildlings he discovered in the woods. “What do you expect?” Royce said. “They’re savages.” Royce was drawing a line between civilized Westeros and the uncivilized lands north of the nation’s borders, suggesting that “our” people are good and “their” people are monsters.
But we now know—if we ever had any doubt—that they kill children in Westeros, too. The people here are every bit as vicious, every bit as cruel, every bit as heartless and lacking in empathy as as any other. They do terrible things, and—no matter how they try to justify them with various sustaining narratives—they do them ultimately for terribly selfish reasons. (“The things I do for love,” Jaime says wryly, as he shoves a 10-year-old boy out a window to his probable death.)
And we remember that little girl in the prologue, who was murdered cruelly, and who herself returned as something murderous and cruel. Rewatching “Winter is Coming” now, it is impossible not to think of what Bran will ultimately become as a result of this act. It is impossible not to think of what will happen to bright, lively Arya over the course of the series, and of what she will be forced to become. It is impossible not to think of the torments that await sweet, trusting Sansa, who will only believe all the fairy tales for a little while longer. It is hard not to think of Mycah, and Tommen, and Myrcella, and Rickon, and Olly, and Shireen, and all the countless other innocents of this world who will be destroyed, corrupted, or unrecognizably transformed through the far-reaching ramifications of small, selfish, heartless acts.
This is how Game of Thrones began. And we know now—as we should have known from the very first scene—that it was never a game at all.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- For those of you obsessive about the family trees of minor characters, Waymar Royce—the smarmy, short-lived leader of the Night's Watch expedition in the prologue—is the son of Yohn Royce (Rupert Vansittart), who turns up as the most prominent Lord of the Vale—a bannerman of House Arryn—beginning in Season 4.
- The location shooting was one of the most impressive things about this show in the early episodes. Most shows, I recognize, do not have the budget to shoot all over the world, but it makes a huge difference: When we cut from dark, chilly Winterfell (filmed in Northern Ireland and Scotland) to a brightly lit scene with Dany across the Narrow Sea (filmed in Malta), we know we are in a completely different place. (And I always wondered if cast members who spent all their time bundled up in pelts in Northern Ireland—or, later, in Iceland, where scenes north of the Wall were filmed—resented the hell out of cast members stationed in the Mediterranean.)
- The scene where the Stark party finds the wolf cubs is some of the most explicit foreshadowing the show ever did. Jon points out that the dire wolf is the symbol of House Stark, but no one mentions the fact that the stag is the symbol of House Baratheon. In his very next scene, Ned will learn that Robert Baratheon is coming to Winterfell to make him Hand of the King. If Ned were a more sensitive reader of omens, he might have realized that this meeting of Stag and Wolf would result in the deaths of both—first Robert, then Ned himself—and the orphaning of all six of the Stark “cubs.”
- Looking back now, it is disappointing to realize what little role the dire wolves played in Game of Thrones. From that first scene they seemed so important, and so tied to the fates of the Stark children. We can certainly chalk this up as another bit of narrative misdirection. (If this were a fairy tale—or any kind of traditional fantasy story—those wolves would be more important, narratively and symbolically.) There is an argument to be made for the symbolism, in some of their cases. (Nymeria’s going wild parallels Arya’s own arc. And the death of Summer happened roughly at the moment that Brandon Stark stops being Brandon Stark.) But really, the wolves haven’t mattered, and I suspect it's because—whether they were played by dogs (in the early seasons) or were computer-generated (in the later seasons)—having the wolves around must have been a tremendous pain in the ass from a production standpoint.
- Another bit of foreshadowing comes when Dany steps into a bath that her handmaiden warns her is much too hot. It is a brilliant moment that works on at least three levels. We can read it as her passive acceptance of her suffering. We can read it as her need to cleanse herself of her brother’s creepily possessive touch. But—much later—we will recognize it as early hint about which Targaryen sibling is really “the dragon.”