Given how complicated the plotting of George R.R. Martin’s civil-war-in-a-medieval-fantasy-world is, and given how many dozens of characters there are to keep track of, the pilot lays out the big picture with surprising economy and clarity. We’re introduced to the Night’s Watch rangers and the mysterious menace north of the ice wall, to the self-righteous Stark clan, to the snooty Lannisters, to the hard-living King Robert Baratheon, and (overseas) to the fiery young Daenerys Targaryen, about to be pimped out by her brother to a barbarian warlord to further his own long-shot bid at reclaiming Robert’s throne for his own exiled clan.
The episode is full of omens from nature (a dead stag, a dead direwolf, and dragon eggs hint at future deaths in the Baratheon and Stark clans and rebirth for the Targaryens), though they’re apparent only in retrospect. Still, the episode ends with one of the all-time great pilot shockers: Ten-year-old Bran Stark, climbing the castle towers of his home, looks through a window and sees Queen Cersei Lannister and her twin brother Jaime committing incest, and Jaime, to protect the siblings’ secret affair, casually pushes the boy out the high window. Viewers suddenly learn (not for the last time) that shocking violence can happen any time, and that no one is safe.