The Beginning of a Phenomenon
A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
*Note: After doing frantic reviews of Season 4, I’ve decided to go back and do Thrones reviews from the very beginning. Now I can reminiscence about the times gone by and when all of my beloved characters were safe, naive, and well, alive. I’ll try to keep the recaps confined to the episodes themselves, but I’ll throw some symbolisms that will come into play later as I see them. Thanks for reading! 🙂
Pilots are always tricky to execute well (pun intended very much in this case). They have the burden of capturing the audience’s attention so they’ll stick around at the very least till the next episode, they have to establish the main plot lines and characters without being burdensome, and they have to work as a singular hour of storytelling, too. The heavily re-shot pilot of Game of Thrones is one of those rare pilots that works seamlessly on each level with minor hiccups here and there. The characters are well-established within a tight timeframe, the story is well-established, and the locales are distinct enough to provide each location a particular feel without having to state the obvious multiple times. In terms of locations, the opening credits set to series composer Ramin Djawadi’s sweeping, bombastic score are a work of marveling art in themselves. Each location spirals out of the ground like clockwork, complete with the sigils of the House that identifies with each respective area. The names of all the series regulars are complete with an intricate square with their respective individual sigils. Throughout the credits is a spinning, glowing golden astrolabe depicting the events of Robert’s Rebellion through clever uses of the animals that represent all of the Houses involved in the massive series of wars. Westeros in all of its glory is brought in brilliant imagery throughout the sequence, the land rising strikingly against the deep blue waters.
Before the bombastic opening credits arrive, however, Thrones does a cold opening (as has become tradition for season premieres since then) literally in the frigid North. Three members of the Night’s Watch are attacked by the White Walkers. There’s some really wonderfully frigid imagery here, shot exquisitely by HBO regular Tim Van Patten. A child wight comes into play, her blue eyes as chilling as the art of decapitated bodies lying in the snow. A crow is decapitated in brutally bloody fashion as the remaining member of the group just stares out, closing his eyes and waiting for the imminent death surely arriving. It’s a fantastic cold opening and one that sets the tone for Thrones at the very onset. It’s a brutal world and anyone can die at any moment.
After the credits, we arrive in the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, King’s Landing. The city is shot beautifully, the sultry coast of Malta blended in with the CGI seamlessly. Cersei and Jamie’s conversation as Jon Arryn’s funeral is an intriguing one. The audience is cleverly set up for the idea that this is a scheming sibling duo that may or may not have something to do with the death of Jon Arryn, echoed by the letter to Catelyn Stark. Of course, come Season 4, that idea would be thrown out of the window. But I love this quiet, early scene. It’s evocative of Thrones‘s extremely intricate plotting and is a testament to what a great writer Martin can be that this moment and the reveal in the Eyrie both ring as being absolutely true to the entire story. This is, after all, the true jumping board for the entire story of the series that follows. This death is pivotal, Speaking of pivotal, one of Thrones‘ strongest suits is its visuals. With so many characters, locations, and story lines, it’s vital that each location stand out without having to be called to attention by subtitles or dialogue. The capital is designed exquisitely, a real majestic feel emanating from the city combined with the sort of miserable refuge one expects from a congested medieval city of half a million people.
As it turns out, our lone watchmen facing certain death escaped the White Walkers only to arrive before Sean Bean’s Ned Stark for deserting his post. In a situation that strikes all viewers as being at the very least remotely unfair, he’s beheaded for desertion amidst a foggy Northern Irish Westerosi landscape. In Ned’s view, he deserted and it was important for the man who issued the sentence to carry out the punishment. His sons, including the youngest one Bran, stand and watch as their father carries out his word. Ned’s obviously a man of honor and Bean gives Ned the layered nobility the character requires. Another peek this scene gives us is a pivotal look at the world of Westeros. Ned and pretty much everyone else believes that the White Walkers have long disappeared, just as the dragons have. Westeros is a world that has a very gritty, real-world feel to it and the concept of ice zombies and their lords and dragons is as foreign to them as it is to us. The crow screaming about the White Walkers’ return is in the popular view a deserter with a lame excuse.
The male Starks continue on their journey back to their home castle of Winterfell and run across a stag’s rack that had been buried inside a wolf’s neck. One of the best things about rewatching Thrones after each season or whenever really, is the sheer amount of small foreshadowing that happens in scene after scene that originally seems innocent but is fraught with tragedy when you look back. Much as the mother wolf is condemned to death because of the stag’s antlers, so the Starks condemned themselves to tragedy with the deepening of relations with the Baratheons. As fate would have it, there were enough pups for each of the Stark children, including an albino one for the bastard son Jon. Re-watching this scene reminds me of how big the little pups would become and a smile does erupt on my face. Needless to say, there’s a much deeper meaning behind the equivalence of Starks and pups, but of course we haven’t uncovered all of those layers even as of A Dance with Dragons.
The peaceful silence is shattered quickly as King Robert of House Baratheon arrives with his royal procession, none of whom look particularly excited at having undergone a two month-long journey to come to the frigid North. In all honesty, if I had been on the road for two months from a summer coastal city to a place where I probably would need two parkas, I would be a little peeved, too. And imagine, there was no roaming wi-fi either. Rob and Ned reminisce about their times in the rebellion that ousted the Targaryens from power, revealing that Robert was supposed to marry Ned’s sister Lyanna. Now, there’s a plethora of theories related to this generation in Thrones lore, but I’ll save those for a non-review discussion. Robert then reveals the true reason he traveled to Winterfell, even though it was rather obvious from the start. He wants Ned as his Hand, the position Jon Arryn had held before his death. Ned is hesitant but on the other hand the royal heir Joffrey is being betrothed to his older daughter Sansa. They’re also best friends, so that certainly doesn’t help anything.
Meanwhile, a letter from the crazy Lysa Arryn arrives, claiming that the Lannisters had murdered Jon Arryn and she wasn’t sure why. Catelyn, having no reason to distrust her sister, immediately does what most of us would do and devises a plan to help her sister out. More than anything, the letter to Cat makes one thing abundantly clear: the capital was more dangerous than ever. As if to make the dramatic irony even worse, Ned accepts the job as Hand.
East of Winterfell lies the Narrow Sea, a massive body of water that separates the continent of Westeros from its Eastern equivalent Essos. The western coast of Essos is home to a plethora of port cities and one of those famed port cities is Pentos. In Pentos we meet a key trio: the outcasts Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen of the fallen dynasty along with their benefactor Illyrio Mopatis. Viserys has a creepy hold on Daenerys, but we see a key glimpse of her future “immunity” of sorts to fire. She climbs down into a piping hot bath without any bother at all. And knowing what’s coming, watching Viserys be a complete arse is enjoyable. The scene does raise some legitimate questions as to the extent that Daenerys was abused by Viserys as a child. His fondling of her breast is quite suggestive and that’s as far as Thrones goes to answer that question. Perhaps that’s as far as it needs to go.
Viserys plans to marry Daenerys off to the barbarian warlord Khal Drogo so he can then use his army to reclaim the Iron Throne in King’s Landing. Not the most foolproof plan, but one that in some senses does make a certain amount of sense. Khal Drogo approves of Daenerys and we’re treated to an awkward wedding scene where only one fighter dies (that’ll change soon). Illyrio gifts Daenerys three dragon eggs in the most obvious piece of foreshadowing the show has ever done and Ser Jorah is there as well to be a part of her guard and present a gift of his own (a collection of books). Emilia Clarke does a fantastic job with Khaleesi (her royal Dothraki title) and Jason Mamoa is imposing as the Khal. Their consummation scene is beautifully shot, but in a weird turn from the books, he rapes her as she cries. It’s not a Hollywood-y violent scene, but her tears as her consent is completely ignored is telling enough. I know why they changed the scene, but I was not onboard with that choice. The episode lost two points right there.
Bran, in complete contrast to what Catelyn had told him earlier, continues to climb Winterfell’s walls. He hears moaning. He continues to climb and notices Jamie having sex with Cersei. Shocked and probably not really realizing what was going on, Bran is grabbed by a calm and composed Jamie. “The things I do for love,” he whispers and he shoves Bran out of the tower window. The last shot is of Bran’s body falling and cue to black. Ramin Djawadi’s beautiful score plays as we gasp in shock and are immediately hooked.
The job of a pilot is a difficult one, whether drama or comedy or a mix of whatever. A pilot has to introduce a world, its characters, and make you piqued enough to tune in next week. Winter is Coming is a great episode in that regard and all of the production problems they had at the beginning barely register here. The technical aspects are fantastic and the world realized is exquisitely crafted. The performances really shine (not a single actor/actress is miscast and that’s astounding in and of itself) and everyone makes the best of what the screen time they have, considering the sheer amount of plot the pilot goes through. Individually Peter Dinklage immediately sets himself apart as the incredible Tyrion Lannister, Queen Cersei’s younger brother. The Stark family especially was wonderfully realized (the arrow scene with the Stark siblings and Arya beating Bran is the best in the sequence) and Winterfell was so beautifully constructed it felt as if it was lived in forever. George R. R. Martin’s work begins with a wonderful adaptation with many successes and a few missteps. All in all, the heavily re-shot and re-cast pilot cost HBO $10 million but considering the cultural zeitgeist it spawned, this was a worthy investment.
Title: Winter is Coming
Written By: David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Director: Tim Van Patten
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