Tuned In

Game of Thrones Watch: It’s All in the Execution

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Before you read this post, climb up the wall, adjust your satellite dish and watch the pilot episode of Game of Thrones:

Because I hit on a lot of the thematic issues in my big review/preview, and because I need to knock out this Game of Thrones post faster than usual, I’m going to try something a little different in this post and run down some comments on the “Winter Is Coming” episode, chronologically, DVD-commentary-style. Then, because I’ve watched this pilot so many times at this point, I’m curious what you have to say in the comments. Let’s begin with…

The Prologue. I am going to make an effort, in these episode reviews, to write for newcomers to the series and forget that I’ve read the books. So here and elsewhere I will spare you how I imagined The Wall, the land beyond, and the White Walkers looking. (Note: in the books, the walkers are “The Others”; perhaps the terms was avoided because of Lost.) But this scene, while horrifying and spectacular, is also an interesting choice with which to start the series, both on TV and in the novels. If you watched only this, you would think you’re watching a zombie series. Instead, we never return to this setting.

But the scene—besides scaring the bejesus out of me—has an important function. It establishes that, even though the day-to-day reality of the characters is mundane medieval life, we are in fact in a world where the supernatural is real—though it has not touched the lives of most of the characters for generations. (As the next scenes show, even the Starks, living close to the Wall in the North, don’t believe the Walkers are a threat anymore.) It also shows that Game of Thrones plays on a big field. Which brings us to…

The Opening Titles. Cool. HBO is still the class of the field when it comes to opening titles that are little works of art in themselves. (Some AMC, FX and, to a lesser extent, Showtime series manage this as well.) A classic HBO title sequence is not only amazing to look at but metaphorically tells you what the themes will be. Game of Thrones may not be my all-time fave (that might be John from Cincinnati), but I’m not sure that I’ve seen an opening sequence that does as much work as this one, in terms of theme, function and simple practical information. The concept—a gameboard-like map springing to life—suggests the idea of gamesmanship. It recalls the turning gears and cranks of siege engines. With its angry, banded sun and glimpse of a tree bearing a face, it suggests a medieval cosmology—a flat earth watched by not-necessarily-benevolent gods. And in a sprawling series with many locations, it is literally a map: it highlights the sites where the episode’s action will take place (and will change from episode to episode).

The Starks. Here we get our first major stretch of character-drawing, which, this being Game of Thrones, involves a beheading. And it outlines some characters in, ahem, swift strokes. We learn that Jon is a bastard (“Father’s watching. And your mother,” emphasis added). We meet feisty daughter Arya, drawn from her joyless stiching by the sounds of archery, characterized worldlessly with an arrow shot and a cocky curtsey. And in Ned Stark’s insistence in carrying out his executions himself, taking no pleasure in it, we see the harsh sense of honor to which he holds himself. (And his family: just as important as his carrying out his own dirty work is his insistence that ten-year-old Bran see him do it.)

The Direwolves. A stag being eaten by maggots, a she-wolf impaled by antlers. Message: get used to seeing a lot of dead things. That there are five cubs—one for each Stark child, plus the runt for bastard Jon—is significant because the direwolf is the sigil (the heraldic animal) of their house. Another character note: “You’ll train them yourselves, you’ll feed them yourselves, and if they die, you’ll bury them yourselves.” And the stag? The sigil of House Baratheon, family of King Robert, whom we’ll shortly be meeting when we encounter…

The Royal Family. This is among the sections in which the exposition, necessary though it is, felt heavy-handed in the pilot. The most egregious example for me was the arrival of the royal retinue in Winterfell, in which we literally get introductions to each character, either through Arya’s running commentary or Robert’s greeting the Starks. Plausible? Of course. Natural? Not really. (For instance, how do we know that Jaime Lannister is the Queen’s twin brother? Arya says, “That’s Jaime Lannister, the Queen’s twin brother!”) Robert’s visit to the crypt, on the other hand, is no less expository—it reveals how the two men are linked, by battle and by Robert’s love for Ned’s dead sister—but far more affecting.

The Landscape: Time for a detour to check out the scenery. The CGI is stunning in this series, as you can see from the vista of King’s Landing, which made me want to book a vacation there. More evocative, though, are the set-design details; the holy women surrounding the body of the deceased Hand of the King, for instance, whose trappings suggested a culture and religion somewhat familiar and yet different from anything in our world. We get snippets of Westeros culture too, in the scene between Catelyn and Ned in the Godswood: that castles here communicate by raven, for instance, and that there is religious history within religious history (the Starks come from a history of worshipping “the old gods,” as opposed to the new ones of present-day Westeros).

The Godswood scene, like some of the CGI here, had a bit of an uncanny-valley vibe, lit with an otherworldly light that didn’t feel quite natural. But it too did a lot of narrative and character lifting: we get a feel for Catelyn and Ned as an old married couple with a long history, which Michelle Fairley and Sean Bean capture nicely—theirs is a deep but careworn love. And—through the catch in Catelyn’s voice—what a disturbing change accepting the King’s offer could mean. Here, and in the slight menace to the royal reception, you get the sense that the attentions of the crown are a great, but potentially dangerous, honor. Thanks in no small part to…

The Lannisters. We first meet Cersei and Jaime discussing a secret that she fears Jon Arryn has learned; we meet brother Tyrion in a whorehouse. There will be a lot of talk about the sex in GoT, and generally I’m OK with it. When later we see Daenerys traded off by her brother and inspected like a heifer for market, it seems exploitative because it is exploitative, and the series is not shrinking from its implications for the woman (girl to us, but woman to her culture) being traded. (The wedding scene too, though maybe kitschy in its staging, sets up a world in which life and sex are cheap.) The whorehouse scene, on the other hand, which worked in more exposition—sexposition?—was a bit too “It’s pay cable! Boobies!” for me.

Where were we? Ah, the Lannisters. The contrast between them and the Starks cannot be more, well, stark. They’re urbane where the Starks are rugged; glamorous where the Starks are rough-hewn; self-interested where the Starks are all about duty; blonde where the Starks are brunette. (And blunt where the Starks are reserved, as you can see by the greeting Sansa gets from her potential future mother-in-law: “Have you bled yet?”) But before you get to comfortable, it’s time to meet…

The Targaryens. Pentos, where we first see Dany and Viserys, looks something like the Monaco of this fantastical world, a place where you’ll expect to find decadent exiled royals. These are some of the most fascinating scenes for me early on, because they’re so unlike what we see across the sea in Westeros, and thus hint at the richness and mysteries we might see as the plot expands. (Curved swords! Dragon eggs!) But being more exotic, they’re also easier, frankly, to laugh at, so I’m curious if newcomers found the settings—and the encounters with the Dothraki—to be hokey.

(There’s also the simple physical portrayal at first glance—a glowingly white maiden being given over to a glowering dark savage—that sets off alarms in the eyes of a viewer from our reality. I don’t know if it’s possible to be racist toward a race that does not actually exist, but at minimum the Dothraki seem like a kind of grabbag of exotic/dark/savage signifiers. Of course, Viserys, selling off his sister for power—to a chieftain he holds in contempt but for his army—comes across hardly any more noble.)

What redeems that for me early on are the performances, especially the understated work of Emilia Clarke. It would be very easy to make a character in her situation—essentially being sold into high-class sex slavery—melodramatic or pitiable. Instead, she makes Dany understandably frightened and yet regal, carrying herself like someone made conscious of her duty to family since birth.

Quote of the Episode. “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.” We get a small glimpse—pun not intended—of Tyrion here, but Peter Dinklage in a few lines and scenes owns the character.

A Whodunit… There’s been a lot of set-up, history, character and background given in the first 50 minutes; the last 15 set about giving us plot, some driving throughlines to pull us through the coming episodes. First off: the allegation that the last Hand of the King was murdered, perhaps by the Lannisters, who may simply see Robert’s fat arse as keeping the Iron Throne warm for them. Thrones may be a fantasy epic, but it’s also shaping up to be that oldest of TV formats: a crime mystery.

…and an Oh-No-He-Didn’t. Or two crime mysteries? One more difference between the Starks and the Lannisters: they have, shall we say, different sibling dynamics. I said I wouldn’t reference the books in these reviews, but reading them, Bran’s defenestration was as much of a holy-crap moment for me as it was here.

And there you have your pilot—a very different one from many first episodes, even on HBO, in that it didn’t so much tell a single story or establish symmetries among the subplots. Rather, it just set a very large table: a big welcome-to-Westeros that said boldly that no one here is safe.

(By the way, a request/demand: no spoilers from the books in the comments. I’ll assume some of you have read the books and some haven’t, but I don’t want anything ruined for those coming to the story for the first time, so confine your comments to what’s actually happened on-screen. There are other fan sites, like Winter Is Coming, that are great for discussion among those who have already read the books. Thanks in advance.)