Last night, HBO's Game of Thrones took us to a magic kingdom. Really, Westeros is just like Disneyland: There are castles, there are supernatural beings, there are cute creatures... okay, maybe not quite like Disneyland.
We were shocked and outraged and intrigued and thrilled by "Winter is Coming"... but actually what really jumped out at us is that this is a family drama. The first episode is all about the meeting between two families, the Starks and the Lannisters (plus the Lannisters' shouty brother-in-law). Meanwhile, a third family lurks in the wilderness, making plans with barbarians.
Here's our complete rundown of Game of Thrones week one. Spoilers ahead!
Oh, and before we go any further, we should clarify what "spoilers" mean in this context. This recap will give away absolutely everything that happened in last night's episode — but not anything that's happening in future episodes, or in future books of the series. We ask that everyone in comments adhere to the same rule — spoilers for the already-aired episode, but not spoilers for what's going to happen three years from now. Okay? Great.
So as we said in our spoiler-free preview, the episode sticks pretty closely to the book.
In particular, "Winter is Coming" pulls the same dirty trick that George R.R. Martin pulls at the start of A Game of Thrones — we're introduced to three characters who are venturing into a dangerous horrible situation, and then just as we're starting to identify with at least two of them, they're yanked away. In the first scene, three members of the Night's Watch venture past the Wall into the snowy wilderness beyond, and instead of some pesky wildlings, one of them finds a scene of horrific barbarity. Snow Zombies! Or something like that. He's the only survivor of a doomed expedition.
So we're all set to identify with this poor guy — and then we meet Ned Stark, who promptly beheads him for deserting his duty. Hell of a way to meet the man who's going to be one of our main viewpoint characters in this series. But we quickly see that Ned Stark is a doting father, who had to behead that poor terrified guy because of his Code Of Honor.
A side note: The opening scenes with the huge snowy landscape, and a lot of the later scenes too, do a great job of giving an amazing sense of scale. These are people who are dwarfed (apologies to Tyrion) by their environment. They are not in control over their surroundings, in any sense that we as 21st century Earthlings would understand — they have built a few megastructures to cope with things like the threat of Snow Zombies and brutal warfare, but those were built long ago, almost by a different civilization.
Even though the people we're meeting include lords and kings and kingslayers and so on, they're still tiny little people, at the mercy of their environment. It's in that context that we keep hearing the slogan "Winter is coming," with its implications of horrible natural privations that you can't control or even prepare for — you can only brace yourself. HBO's lavish cinematography and gorgeous CG-enhanced landscapes remind me a bit of seeing Lawrence of Arabia, in which the landscape really is one of the movie's stars, on the big screen for the first time.
Back to the characters — like I said, we meet two families. First, the Starks. And just getting all of the different characters in the Stark household sorted out in your head might take a whole episode.
Luckily the episode does a pretty decent job of introducing a ton of characters in a hurry, with a ton of shorthand. In just the first scene of the Starks at home, we see Robb and Jon Snow being protective towards their younger brother Bran, whom they're teaching archery. We see how careful Jon Snow is to refer to Catelyn Stark as "your mother" when talking to the other Stark boys, and we see how much Catelyn hates Jon Snow from the way she looks at him. Sansa Stark is good at needlepoint and enjoys being a proper lady, but Arya Stark is bored with it — and way better than Bran at archery. And Ned watches over the whole clan like a doting mother hen — but insists on making his ten-year-old son Bran watch an execution.
(Some of the other characters in that household, like Theon Greyjoy, we don't really get a sense of at all. But that's okay — Theon can just be "scowling retainer at the back" for now.)
And then the Starks find a litter of direwolf pups — direwolves being the animals on the Stark family crest. There's one for each Stark kid, plus a runt for the bastard, Jon Snow. The direwolf pups are almost too cute for words, and it's hard not to fall in love with adorable wolf pups. (Plus I couldn't help noticing the show avoided one of the most frequently mocked bits of dialogue in the novel: "Direwolf pups, loose in the realm after so many years. I like it not.")
Then the King and all of his nobles arrive from King's Landing, so that King Robert can ask Ned Stark to be the Hand of the King. I love all the little bits of business that Sean Bean puts in when Ned greets the king, like when he's kneeling but he can't resist stealing an upward glance at the man he helped put on the throne. And when the King approaches, scowling, and tells Ned he's gotten fat, and Ned conveys, without any words, that the King has gotten fatter. You immediately get that these two men have a lot of history together, even if they haven't seen each other in a long time.
It's not until halfway through the episode, though, that we get to meet Tyrion Lannister, the Imp, who pretty much steals the whole show with the line, "The gods gave me one blessing." Ah, Tyrion.
So there's the King who's jolly and bawdy but not-so-secretly miserable and still mourning for Ned's sister, who he wanted to marry. He insists on going to visit her tomb first thing, right after a month of riding. And Sarah Connor herself, Lena Headey, is Queen Cersei, who's sort of disgusted by everything that doesn't involve her devastatingly handsome twin brother Jaime Lannister. I have to say, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau really sells the idea that Jaime is a dashing knight whom everybody loves, something I seldom got from his portrayal in the books.
The first episode is really the first culture clash between the Starks and the Lannisters — the Starks are paradoxically both more serious and more carefree than the Lannisters. On the one hand, the Starks are obsessed with honor and duty and guarding the north, and probably wouldn't commit twincest right under their husbands' noses. On the other hand, the Starks are perhaps a bit less obsessed with status and their own importance than the Lannisters. The King is caught in the middle, between these two poles.
But then there's a third family whom we meet in the opening episode — the Targaryens, who were deposed from the Iron Throne of Westeros long ago and are now in exile. There's Daenerys, who is an innocent blushing young beauty, and her scheming brother Viserys — who looks rather a lot like Julian Assange, and indeed we started calling him that almost immediately as we watched this episode. So Julian Assange wants to raise an army so he can retake the throne, and to do it, he's willing to sell his sister in marriage to a savage warlord named Drogo, who's sort of a faux Mongolian. And he's not above ogling his sister and quasi-groping her while he prepares to sell her off in a seethru gown. (Drogo, though, spends most of his time proving that he has a more awesome chest than his wife.)
"I would let his whole tribe fuck you, all 40,000 men and their horses too, if that's what it took," says Viserys. The Dothraki wedding is like a giant orgy, with snakes and world beat music and people dance-fucking, and meat with flies all over it, and mosh-pit-killing. Good times! And then Daenerys gets an amazing present: three real dragon eggs! And Daenerys gets a gorgeous white horse, just like on the cover of Prince's self-titled second album.
Back in Winterfell, there's a huge feast and everybody's stewing and scheming. Ned's bastard Jon Snow is chafing because he wasn't allowed to attend the feast, which leads him to ask his uncle to let him join the Night's Watch. (And he has that great scene with Tyrion, who gives him some advice on dealing with public scorn.)
Meanwhile, Sansa is so desperate to marry the handsome, charming Prince Joffrey, it's coming off her in waves — leading to some squirm-inducing scenes with the Queen and with Arya, who lobs food at her. And Ned is agonizing over whether to become the king's right-hand man, the Hand of the King, which Catelyn definitely does not want him to do.
And then everything changes, when Catelyn gets a warning from her sister that the previous Hand of the King was murdered by the Lannisters, and the King himself is in danger. So Ned says yes — and then we get the absolutely sickening scene where young Bran, who promised he wouldn't go climbing any more, ascends to the top of Winterfell, where he sees something he really wasn't supposed to: the Queen and her brother in flagrente delecto. Jaime smirks and says "The things I do for love," before tossing poor Bran off a tower. Noooo!
All in all, a really powerful episode, with the story of three families experiencing heartache and culture clash — and the real scheming has yet to begin.
That said, this opening episode is definitely not perfect — there are some expository scenes, some of which aren't in the original novel. Like the first scene between Queen Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister, in which they look over the corpse of Jon Arryn and dispense plot information to each other. A few other odd little scenes feel out of place, too — like the conversation between Ned Stark and Jaime about tournaments, in which they engage in a random bit of dick-measuring that feels weirdly un-Ned-like. But those are really just minor quibbles.
As long as you're able to cope with copious amounts of brutality, explicit sexuality, nastiness, and a rather Hobbesian view of the human race, then this was a really incredible start to the series. What did you guys think?