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“Winter Is Coming”: WiC Remembers, Season 1, episode 1

There may be better pilots than “Winter Is Coming.” But there aren’t many that succeed with such a high degree of difficulty. It ain’t a perfect pilot, but it could have been much, much worse. “Winter Is Coming” has three goals to accomplish: first, it has to prove to its initial core audience, book readers, that it’s an authentic and worthwhile adaptation of the novels. Second, it also has to appeal to viewers who haven’t read the books, and treat it primarily as a new HBO show. Finally, as a prestige cable show, it has to establish its grand themes and overall meaning from the outset.

“Winter Is Coming” moves swiftly to answer all three of these questions, at least partially, in its opening scene, a wonderful bit of setting the stage. We focus initially on the scruffy faces of three largely unadorned men, waiting for a small gate to open. The instant impression is that this is atypical fantasy, dirty and grimy instead of bright and idealized. In straightforward terms, it’s the low fantasy of regular people making their way through a difficult world, not the heroic fantasy of plucky teens fulfilling their prophecies.  How did it do so, and where did it succeed and fail?

That shot is almost immediately followed by the men riding out from beyond the gate into the snow. It’s a great-looking shot, with costumes and horses and location all screaming “real production value!” And then it pulls back further, revealing the Wall, covered in ice, far higher than Hadrian’s Wall or even the Great Wall of China or any other real-world referent we might have. This may be low fantasy, but it’s not lacking a sense of grandiosity.

Quickly it adds a hook—piles of body parts, dead children, and tension between the men of the Night’s Watch investigating. The scraggly, clearly lower-class member of the Watch wants to leave, but his upper-class officer doesn’t believe his story, and demands more. Then things turn supernatural: the White Walkers attack, killing two of the Brothers. The cold open—what an appropriate term here!—ends, and the intro credits roll.

Historically speaking, the fantasy genre hasn’t had the best of time in visual media like film or video. When Hollywood supported it, it was typically stories based on well-known legends: Sinbad, Hercules, Clash Of The Titans, etc. The sort of “pure” fantasy of an entirely created world was largely unknown, up until Lord Of The Rings proved that blockbuster films (with blockbuster budgets!) could make fantasy a hit.

But that was a film. Game Of Thrones was television, where budgets and runtime were very different. And that was Lord Of The Rings, which was by far the most famous traditional fantasy series of all time. Even if you put A Song Of Ice And Fire in the second spot—a fair argument, though cases could be made for Pern, The Wheel Of Time, Darkover, Prydain, Discworld, Shanarra, and more—second was ridiculously far behind LOTR. So fantasy was a risky proposition on its own, and would also require a huge budget to do well. HBO, probably alone of all channels, could provide the money and absorb the risk—but that wouldn’t necessarily make it good.

For those reasons, I adopted a position of deliberate ignorance about the show up until a few weeks before it started airing. I literally could not believe that it was possible that Game Of Thrones could exist and be good. Almost every moderately popular franchise of any kind gets rumored to have a film or TV series coming, and almost none of them come to pass (how many “Dream Wheel Of Time casting” threads had I participated in as a teen?). And many of those aren’t actually all that good.

So Game Of Thrones, in the first scene, assuaged my fears at the most basic level. The production values, at every level, screamed that this was an adaptation that had the money to get it right and cared about making sure it got it right. I’m not even all that keen on the design of the White Walkers, personally, but it was clear to me on first watch that the people behind the show were keen on it, and could make that vision happen.

“Winter Is Coming” does a similar thing for non-readers. Fantasy may not have a great reputation on their end, either, but from the beginning, Game Of Thrones looks, sounds, and feels high-quality, like a television blockbuster should. From the beginning, it was, quite simply, an attractive show. It was not campy or crappy fantasy. That counts for a lot.

The cold open also establishes what I see as one of Game Of Thrones’ two main themes: the destructiveness of human pettiness. The scout returns from his horrifying discovery, and tries to convince his high-born officer that they should leave. The knight refuses (yes, the characters have names, but they’re really archetypes here), forcing the Brothers to return to the grisly scene. “Do the dead frighten you?” sneers the knight, using his position of authority and his educated, aristocratic background to lead his patrol into disaster.

By making this the first scene, Game Of Thrones does two things for our perception of its story. First, it establishes the White Walkers and the supernatural threat as objectively real within the world of the show, and in so doing, it makes us treat characters who believe in that threat as more heroic. Second, it makes viewers believe that the supernatural threat of the White Walkers is the most important threat.

As “Winter Is Coming” shifts to the show’s main characters south of The Wall, it maintains these themes and perspectives while getting much more complex. For much of the episode, our point of view character is Bran Stark. For example, note the scene where he’s shooting arrows. Our sympathies are with him, as his brothers laugh and try to help. And then when Arya upstages him, we see Bran’s actions on the bow, and his surprise is our surprise. Similarly, we’re closest to him during the execution scene, and his attachment to the direwolf pups is almost certainly ours—they’re way too cute to kill.

This isn’t a bad idea, either. Bran is just old and smart enough to be able to figure things out, but young enough to still be confused, much like the viewers. Compare his role in this episode to his sister, Arya. Despite a near-total lack of dialogue, Arya dominates every scene she’s in. She’s the cool kid who does her own thing and doesn’t need help. Eventually we, the viewers, will be up for spending time with her, but for now, we’re closer to Bran.

Not coincidentally, Bran is also the lone character who believes the deserter’s story of White Walkers beyond The Wall. We know it’s true, and Bran believes that it’s true. It’s also hard to go wrong in traditional fantasy with expecting the adventurous, slightly incompetent lad who believes in magic to be the protagonist. We don’t even need to like Bran to feel this connection—all we have to do is not actively hate him. And, in another essential sign of authenticity, Game Of Thrones’ stellar casting job managed to find a number of hugely important child actors and not a single one of them are bad. Isaac Hempstead-Wright may be one of the weaker child actors, in purely relative terms, and yet he’s still more than good enough.

This connection with Bran leads to the defining moment of the pilot, though. “The things I do for love,” announces Jaime Lannister as he grabs our POV character and shoves him out a window. This was probably always the best place to end the first episode for readers, but just about every non-reader I know cites it as the point when they realized how delighted Game Of Thrones to subvert conventional fantasy expectations. Regardless of the inevitable confusion over names, faces, histories, and places, here was a moment that demanded attention.

Meanwhile, that theme of human pettiness continues throughout the in a much more insidious fashion than the intro’s upper-class knight ignoring the report of his underling. Ned Stark, ostensibly the hero and certainly presented as a good guy, almost totally ignores the deserter’s story. He doesn’t give even the slightest stay of execution, let alone investigating the story directly (Ned does ask his brother Benjen about it, so he’s at least slightly curious). Ned simply cannot imagine that it would be true enough to change what he perceives as his duty. His reaction is more complex and slower-moving than the deserter’s now-dead officer, but it’s almost identical in effect. Even the nominal heroes are unwilling to see or act upon things outside what they know or think they can do.

Ned’s rigid reactions are also at the heart of the the second major theme, or perhaps examination is a better term: the role and effects of gender in a patriarchal world. When Lysa Tully’s raven arrives, claiming that her husband Jon Arryn was poisoned, Ned instinctively wants to deny it, to Nedsplain it away as Lysa being overcome with grief. To Ned’s credit, he does listen to his wife when she tells him that that’s nonsensical, but once again: even the heroes are bound by this patriarchal system.

Game Of Thrones took a lot of criticism when it started airing for appearing anti-woman; people believed that it was supporting the patriarchy it depicted. Portraying something nasty like institutionalized misogyny without also glorifying it is an extremely difficult line to walk, and Game Of Thrones has made plenty of mistakes along those lines. But I think there were signs of its future more explicit subversion of medieval-style patriarchy early on.

For example, there’s a particularly creepy scene where Viserys Targaryen, the rightful heir to the throne of the Seven Kingdons, fondles his younger sister and describes with barely-concealed glee how he’d let the entire Dothraki horde, and their horses, fuck her if it got him his kingdom back. Then he kisses her forehead tenderly, as though she should be happy to be such a key tool for his success. There’s no way in hell that this scene could ever be presented as something happy or healthy.

Yet it’s immediately followed by a scene where Sansa talks to her mother about how excited she is about her arranged marriage to the prince. The overt text of the scene is that this is different, Sansa wants it, and the families have negotiated it well according to the laws and traditions of the land. But the scenes’ juxtaposition indicate that it’s the same thing. It’s still women being bought and sold for political gain, and Game Of Thrones’ editing is very sly about indicating the comparison.

Unfortunately, the two biggest mistakes of “Winter Is Coming” occur due to the episode failing at subverting some of the more problematic aspects of its story. Both occur in Dany’s side of the story, involving her wedding to Khal Drogo, and both involve the unsteady nature of the adaptation, especially early on.

The first major problem is that the Dothraki wedding ceremony is presented largely as the book describes it. That sounds like it should be a good thing, but it’s a lot easier, when reading, to imagine characters and peoples as looking and acting in your own personal fashion, but putting them on-screen removes that possibility for compromise. By which I mean, holy shit the Dothraki seem like horrible stereotypes of non-white people: dancing, fucking, and killing for the entertainment of their rich or aristocratic white guests. They are the exotified Other.

Now, as a reader watching this, I knew that the Dothraki would be shown, eventually, as having a culture about as respectable of that of Westeros (which is to say, not very). I knew that the most revealing line of the wedding, Illyrio’s “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair,” would be proven deeply ironic by later events on the other side of the Narrow Sea. But by putting the exotified Dothraki in a scene like the wedding, the show ran into both the problem of showing a “real,” racialized depiction of the Dothraki, which was compounded by the fact that, as a TV show, it would take weeks or even years for that to be subverted.

The second issue is stranger, and honestly, one that I still don’t understand. Drogo and Dany’s wedding night is depicted radically differently from how it was written. Part of this is another issue of adaptation, where viewers aren’t privy to Dany’s internal monologue in the same way. We only see her fear, whereas in the novel, she starts to understand her marriage to Drogo as a way to break free of her abusive brother.

But the stranger choice is that what’s presented as assumed but eventually consensual sex in the novels isn’t shown on-screen. Dany never says “Yes” as she does on the page. I don’t understand why the show would turn a difficult, ambiguous scene into an unambiguous rape scene, but it helped establish a general conversation about how Game Of Thrones was an anti-woman show. That’s a difficult, ongoing conversation. There were definite echoes of the argument’s over Dany’s wedding night in Season 4’s “Breaker Of Chains,” as yet another consensual-if-difficult-on-the-page sexual encounter lost overt consent.

Even when a piece of media makes odd choices, or straight-up mistakes, it can still have value. (I highly recommend cultural critic and Game Of Thrones fan Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece on defending problematic art.) From the beginning, there’s a lot of smart work being done to subvert ideas of gender, heroism, the fantasy genre, story structure, and aristocracy. Its reaches toward authenticity for book-readers are understandable and effective, although it does get the show in trouble. And damn, the production values indicate that this is some high-quality television; Game Of Thrones is immediately beautiful and impressive to watch. Game Of Thrones had to start off filled with confidence, and it did so in style, even if that confidence got it into trouble.

Notes and quotes:

  • So much of the early part of the episode is silent that some of the declarative statements sound more like an anthem for the show than dialogue. Take it away, Ned Stark: “He won’t be a boy forever. And winter is coming.”
  • Another casualty in the book-to-show adaptation: Jon notes there are five direwolf pups, which Bran quickly realizes means that Jon is deliberately setting himself apart from the family in order to give Bran what he wants. Hence Ghost is a kind of karmic reward.
  • That scene’s one of the most fascinating to watch in the pilot knowing what’s coming: seven men see the pups, only three of whom survive the show so far, only one of whom survives without being maimed. RIP Jory Cassel.
  • Most deviations from the book are minor in scope, if not in effect. The biggest: a Jaime-Cersei conversation in King’s Landing, which attempts to establish those characters.
  • “Where’s Arya?” asks Cat, following the “Every time Arya’s on screen, every character should be asking ‘where’s Arya?’” mandate.
  • “I’m not trying to honor you. I’m trying to make you run my kingdom while I eat, drink, and whore my way to an early grave.”
  • “Now the Starks are feasting at sundown. Don’t leave me alone with these people.” Jaime, who is introduced as the villain of the story, being nice to Tyrion is one of the best initially subtle, later overt parts of the story.
  • I am trying to think of a good title for this series. If you have any ideas for something short that indicates that it’s reviews of the already-aired episodes, lay it on me.

 

 

54 Comments

  • Hi Samuel,

    This is a critical examination of the episode, which means looking at what worked and what didn’t. The vast majority of the review was positive, which seems to align with your perception. If there’s an aspect of the review you disagree with and would like to argue, I love intelligent conversation on the subject.

    So what do you think worked best about the pilot? Why were you interested in watching it? Did it match your expectations? Exceed them? Who was your favorite character? Who did you want to see more of?

  • Awesome, was looking forward to these episode reviews starting. I liked it, always love reading others views and critiques.

    How about for the series title, “The Growing Cold”, or maybe “The Winter so Far”. I dunno, just suggestions haha. Cheers!

  • … because an adult who can only summon the word “crappy” is a prime candidate to review someone’s writing?

    I must say I missed the compare/contrast between Dany’s wedding and Sansa’s betrothal. Well done!

    As for an overall feature name, perhaps something involving a weirwood; we are looking into the past, after all.

    Samuel: n years for tha

  • I like it and look forward to next weeks.

    I like the weirwood idea. Maybe something like Game of Thrones in hindsight, or Green Seer Reviews, since you reviewing it but you already know what happens.

  • Hey! Good one on the Sansa-Danny parallelism. It went completely over my head.

    Yeah! It was a far from perfect pilot. Actually, it was a far from perfect season. This as a non-reader.

    Even if we did not have access to Bran’s thiking, the karmic reward feeling certainly transpired.The pups scene is one of the most memorable of the season, for me at least.

  • As someone who never read the books (but knew about them) prior to watching the pilot, I would say the show runners were fairly successful. The opening of the 3 men of the Night’s Watch encountering a White Walker and then straight into the beyond amazing credits sequence and catchy theme song sucked me right into Westeros. A pretty good overview of the Starks and Lannisters and then a great shock ending.

    Funny how everyone last season was crying foul about the ambiguous rape of Cersei (by Jaimie), yet there wasn’t nearly the same level outcry for the ambiguous rape of Dany (by Khal Drogo).

    Oh, and… HODOR.

  • The Drogo scene wasn’t ambiguous.

    EverydayI’mHodoring:
    As someone who never read the books (but knew about them) prior to watching the pilot, I would say the show runners were fairly successful. The opening of the 3 men of the Night’s Watch encountering a White Walker and then straight into the beyond amazing credits sequence and catchy theme song sucked me right into Westeros. A pretty good overview of the Starks and Lannisters and then a great shock ending.

    Funny how everyone last season was crying foul about the ambiguous rape of Cersei (by Jaimie), yet there wasn’t nearly the same level outcry for the ambiguous rape of Dany (by Khal Drogo).

    Oh, and… HODOR.

  • I look forward to seeing the thoughts on the remainder of the season. There were clearly some issues over the first 4-5 episodes as the show tried to figure out how to simply not just transcribe the novel on the screen before eventually discovering how to treat it at as a television show with its own advantages and limitations.

    Really loved the pilot although the sheer overload of introducing roughly 30 characters at once was a little overwhelming. Worked much better on re-watch.

  • Andre F Dias,

    Even if we did not have access to Bran’s thiking, the karmic reward feeling certainly transpired.

    Agreed. I haven’t read the books, but I got that impression just fine. Maybe not in the exact same way, but you get that Jon is receiving his own direwolf as a way of showing that he is a Stark, despite his exclusion of himself prior.

    This is what I actually love about the motion picture medium, and I find that book-readers tend to under-appreciate it: subtext. I feel like book-readers get too used to having things told to them directly. Especially with this series, where you are inside the characters’ heads in the book, there have been many times when I’ve seen book-readers complain that the show didn’t get something across or that it wasn’t as clear as it was in the books, so it must not have been adapted very well… Only to reply to them to say, “Umm, no, I haven’t read the books and I got that. It got across just fine in the subtext.” Good filmmaking tells more without words than with, but it seems like a lot of book readers want the show to tell things explicitly the way the books do. This is why it’s called an “adaptation”. Because different mediums have different strengths and weaknesses and you have to ADAPT the story to fit. Adapt means change.

  • Wonderful! Great review and analysis. The pilot was interesting for me. I watched the debut (had not heard of or read the books) and was put off by Dany’s character as a simpering girl in a diaphanous dress. I did not like the rape scene with Drogo. I was also put off by the idea of medieval zombies. I decided not to watch again. But I came across it again (during a rebroadcast later in the week) and loved the other characters more and the breathtaking production values. I was still was uncomfortable with Dany’s last scene, but tried to think of in a context yet to be revealed. Then I watched the rest of season and was completely hooked to the epic complexity and the refusal to make any character stake out a good/bad role. On the day Season 1 ended, I bought the first book. I have never been in such a ravenous reading frenzy, buying one after another — and finished Dance with Dragons two weeks before Season 2 started. Left quite an impression on me and I’ve read everything I can about the show and books ever since. I’m really looking forward to more in the series of reviews. It’s also my first post. I’ve been reading WiC for a long time but this post has brought me out of the lurker shadows. Thank you!

  • Rowan, I really enjoyed your review and the insight you brought to it. I have always felt that the examination of patriarchy was one of the prevailing themes of the series (both written and televised versions), but it is a rarity to see someone addressing it in their critique(at least any I have come across). I look forward to reading more of your reviews.

    And as far as titles go for this series, building on what others ahead of me have submitted, might I suggest these two: “What the Weirwood Saw” or “Through The Raven’s Eye”.

  • I’m excited for these, particularly when we get to some of the S2/S3 episodes that were disliked by many.

    I had not yet read the books when I watched the pilot. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a show I add to the MANY acclaimed cable series I watch. It won me over by the end. I remember being particularly interested in what was to come for Robert, Jaime, and Viserys as I loved their scenes. In subsequent viewings, I don’t really love the early OTT villainous portrayal of Viserys as much, and I’ve come to appreciate the subtle introductions to many major players a lot more, like Jon and Arya and Tyrion. I kind of like how unimportant Robb seems in the early going, too. It makes for a nice surprise when he comes in huge in episode 8.

    Mediocre potential names for the feature:

    The North Remembers/The Site Remembers
    The Past Remains The Past (Blackfish quote)
    The Past is Dust/The Past Isn’t Dust (Cressen)
    Old Stories (Nan quote “Old stories are like old friends”)
    Yesterday’s Triumphs (part of a prose quote about Catelyn)
    Not Today
    What Has Aired May Never Die
    Heroes Remembered (paraphrase of Jaime quote/thought “The heroes will always be remembered. The best. The best and the worst. And a few who were a bit of both”, which seems to echo these reviews nicely and references the many beloved dead characters)

  • This was a great article (& analysis)!

    My only disagreement is about Dany & Drogo’s wedding night. Here I think GRRM cheated (one of the few times he does this) by portraying it as something romantic… with a 13 yr old. Ick. And yes, it is an UGLY CHEAT to get us to buy into their relationship. Drogo then proceeds to rape her daily(?), but people seem to forget that. The show shows a far more realistic depiction of what would happen, and they wisely aged up Dany for the adaption.

    But props to you for the Dany-Sansa connection, I had not considered that.

    My most problematic aspect of the episode is probably the Dothraki wedding ceremony, but it was a difficult one to pull of right, as you point out.

    I look forward to reading more retrospective about the following episodes.

  • First episode hit the ground running. The efforts to make it work for both readers and non-readers was obvious, but done in a way that didn’t dumb down for non-readers, which, combined with the quality production, pulled me in immediately. The restrained introduction of the White walker made it clear this was a program for adults. By the time the credits rolled, I knew I was hooked. As the show runners have increased in confidence, the story telling has improved. I await the next season with high expectations.

  • Thanks all.

    Lars, there are huge complicated questions involving issues of age and marital expectations for everyone in the society, especially given that the story is being presented to people with contemporary expectations. It’s essentially impossible, though aging the kids up helps in almost every case (except, perhaps, Joffrey, but we’ll get to that in S2.)

    King_Tommen, the big story of the first few episodes is definitely the show working out how to stand on its own. I think it succeeds sooner than most of my fellow critics, but pointing that out as it occurs definitely interesting–I remember one Littlefinger-Varys conversation in particular as a definite turning point.

    Walter_Eagle, “The North Remembers” is actually a good start for a name. Simple, short, recognizable, to the point. Not sure if I want to use just that, or figure out some play on words.

    And thanks to everyone else for suggestions and kind words.

  • “Isaac Hempstead Wright may be one of the weaker child actors”
    This is the most subjective piece of statement I’ve ever read from a WiC post.
    I don’t remember the site has ever criticized a cast like this before.
    To say that I completely disagree with that. He’s one of the best even if he does have a poor script to work with.

  • Rowan Kaiser:
    Lars, there are huge complicated questions involving issues of age and marital expectations for everyone in the society, especially given that the story is being presented to people with contemporary expectations. It’s essentially impossible, though aging the kids up helps in almost every case (except, perhaps, Joffrey, but we’ll get to that in S2.)

    I think you miss my point. Yes, I know GRRM is showing a society as described as-is, without any romantic notions. EXCEPT in this case. I consider the soft-core Drogo “seduction” to be a narrative cheat of the highest order to get us to sympathize and buy into the relationship.

    Here I think the show chose the braver – and more true to the world – telling of their wedding night.

    —–

    As for the title of this series of articles, yes “The North Remembers” is a good one, but unfortunately this would have the same name as a previous series of features on this site had, which would mess up searching by tags.

    My favorite suggestions are:
    “Nan’s old stories”
    “What has aired may never die”

  • Lolly,

    I hope you’re ready for a lot more subjectivity, cause that happens in reviews.

    Also, you skipped the next part, where I say “relatively.” I don’t think he’s as good as Maisie Williams or Sophie Turner is pretty much all I’m saying there.

  • Rowan Kaiser,

    Yup I understand that, but I just don’t remember ever seeing comparison between actors like this in any other reviews I’ve read here, without any reasons to back it up. Maybe this site has changed a bit idk.
    And I don’t see how he’s weaker than Maisie Williams or Sophie Turner. He completely nailed it in every scene he’s in.

  • Lolly, I think you are over-reacting here. Saying someone isn’t as strong as another actor (like Maisie, almost universally considered one the best child actors presently on TV) isn’t anywhere close to being a slam. And if people think so, they need to grow some thicker skin.

  • You forget that you are dealing with different writers and editors. I’d rather have an honest opinion than someone poll-parroting the Party Line.

  • Lars,

    Saying someone’s weaker than Sophie Turner is pretty much an insult.
    Sansa has lots of great scenes but sadly she’s terrible in most of them.
    Meanwhile Bran gives good performance even though the Bran subplot’s one of the worst written in the show.
    But this is just my honest opinion after all.

  • Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

    Davy:
    Lars,

    Saying someone’s weaker than Sophie Turner is pretty much an insult.
    Sansa has lots of great scenes but sadly she’s terrible in most of them.
    Meanwhile Bran gives good performance even though the Bran subplot’s one of the worst written in the show.
    But this is just my honest opinion after all.

  • Thank you Rowan for a great review. I hadn’t realised how much I missed reading an analysis of our beloved show! I really enjoyed revisiting the episode through your piece :)

    I really like your observation of how the viewers were seeing Bran’s point of view in ep1 and how that worked so well for non-readers, on many levels. I completely agree and had never made the connection before.

    As a book reader I was just so excited to watch ep1! My excitement levels were high when the TV series was announced and I’ve been visiting WiC ever since!

    In relation to a title for your articles, I was thinking something along the lines of “Winter Re-Heated”. But some of the other suggestions are better, like “The Night’s Re-Watched” or I really liked “What is aired my never die” :)

    Thanks again for the post!

  • Great review! I love that you actually criticize, and not just fawn over the series!!!

    But for future posts would you mind summing up your general impressions? Now it kind of came of as you not liking the Pilot, but your comments reveal that you actually do like it (you just have some thoughts as a critic in addition).

    Keep up the good work! I love having two fan-sites to look for news and stuff!!!

  • Interesting review, at least one last reason to keep an eye on WiC (and also to start rewatching the show if I find the time).

    One question: Don’t you think the consent given by Daenerys in the books at her “wedding night” is a little bit more problematic? The show is more realistic and honest here IMO. It’s a brutal scene and a brutal situation and it’s perfectly understandable that she’s scared and unhappy.

  • Count me as another person who would not have liked if Dany’s wedding night had gone in a different direction. The episode had already set her up as being in a horrible situation, and the show follows through.

    I also did not catch the Dany/Sansa juxtaposition, that’s a nice find.

    Look forward to more of your opinions, subjective as opinions inevitably are!

  • good review, interesting to look back at these episodes in greater depth, and I like the fact you are willing to critique the show as well as praise it.
    I agree that ‘Winter is Coming’ is probably not in the upper echelon of GoT episodes, and it was really episode 2 that hooked me, but I also think it definitely did a good job considering it had the task of setting up a world completely unfamiliar to the viewer, and a large cast of characters beyond that. It was an interesting and entertaining episode for me, and did enough to make me unable to resist watching episode 2. Its ending especially was brilliant, with Bran getting pushed out of the window, and as you mentioned in the review it really highlights how the show is willing to subvert traditional fantasy norms.
    As for your criticisms, I felt the portrayal of the Dothraki was spot on, it depicted a culture that was completely alien to Danaerys and showed how she how isolated she had become. What does it matter if the Dothraki are a different race, just because they arent white, doesnt mean they are entitled to a positive portrayal, and there culture and ethnic makeup are just about different enough from the real world for us to not identify them with any group in the real world which currently exists.The audience was unlikely to judge or even notice, the whole racial aspect of that, at such an early point in the series. They could wait at least a couple of episodes for a positive portrayal of a foreigner (and there have been countless in the show by this point)
    As for the second criticism, I felt that that scene in the books didnt really fit with the narrative of Dany’s time with the Dothraki, as at this point she is supposed to be isolated and scared, so her appearing to consent to and enjoy sex with Drogo seems out of place. I dont have any problem with a scene showing rape, as long as it is handled properly, as it seemed to be in this episode, or at least, it was a lot better than Jaime and Cersei in S4, which, even book inaccuracies aside, was not nearly as well executed, and seemed completely out of place in the narrative.

  • But the scenes’ juxtaposition indicate that it’s the same thing. It’s still women being bought and sold for political gain, and Game Of Thrones’ editing is very sly about indicating the comparison.

    I’m not really sure that holds up. Robert’s proposing the marriage is as much a nostalgia kick as anything else (the Stark/Baratheon match that should have been before); House Stark’s (and, I guess House Tully’s) support isn’t in question. Ned isn’t really thinking about politics when he agrees to it either. Sansa certainly isn’t.

  • Love your review, and especially your sensitive revisiting of the problematic elements of the ep (and series as a whole). Well done.

    I vote for the suggestion of “The Night’s Re-Watch.”

  • Sean C.,

    I was actually referring more to the Cat-Sansa scene than the Robert-Ned scene.

    As to the rest of your point, I think the show establishes at least a mild rivalry between the Starks and the Lannisters–remember how Robert threatens to put the Hand pin on Jaime Lannister if Ned doesn’t accept. Stability is still a major consideration.

  • Great review! I agree with pretty much everything. The opening scene, in particular, is really strong and sets the atmosphere for the show, even without featuring any of the main characters (together with the season’s closing scene – the hatching of dragons – it stands as the two most perfectly done big supernatural moments of the show). Bran as the POV character through a lot of the episode was the right idea, and the twist at the end of the episode was very well done. The brilliant juxtaposition/parallel between Dany and Sansa was something I only noticed on rewatch.

    I agree that the representation of the Dothraki is problematic, although it can be seen as a stereotype that would be later partially subverted.

    I have very mixed feelings and complicated thoughts about the change to the Dany/Drogo wedding night. On one hand, I can see why it was done, knowing what comes after their wedding night, when Drogo does not bother to get Dany’s consent (apparently, he simply assumes he has it now) and never seems to bother trying to make sex pleasurable to her, or even find out how she feels about it, while Dany is so miserable she is thinking of suicide. It’s an odd inconsistency in Drogo’s behavior – and it’s even been suggested that it makes him look worse, since he apparently knows how to be more considerate and make sex more pleasant to Dany (going by what we see in the book version of their wedding night), but just isn’t bothering. Streamlining the entire story as they did in the show therefore makes sense.

    However, on the other hand, I do find it easier to believe that Dany would fall in love with the Drogo who treated her on their wedding night the way he did in the book (regardless of what I think about Drogo) – in the books, at least her first time with him is a nice memory, if the nights that followed for a while were not; and, unfortunately, the show version of the wedding night confirms the “barbarian” stereotypes, while the book version somewhat subverted them.

    There is another adaptation choice that may appear minor, but that irritated me when I watched the pilot after having read the book, and does even more so in retrospect: the first sex scene (or rather post-coital scene) in the book series is between Ned and Catelyn. It’s a sensual scene in which they are both naked after passionate lovemaking. The show changed it to a scene of Ned and Catelyn lying fully clothed on the bed while hugging innocently. That change, combined with the non-book sex scene between (non-naked) Tyrion and several naked 20-something women, and then, an episode later, another non-book sex scene between two naked 20-somethings (Theon and Ros), not to mention the copious amounts of Emilia Clarke nudity (which I otherwise don’t mind, as it is one of the rare times when nudity served a purpose), made me immediately think some very cynical thoughts about HBO’s sexual politics and attempts to cater to what they seem to see as their target demographics – the famous “males aged 18-30”, who would presumably not be able to bear the sight of “their parents having sex”, i.e. characters played by two middle-aged people actually being shown to enjoy sex. (To avoid any misunderstandings: Sean Bean and Michelle Fairley didn’t need to be naked if they didn’t want to, they could have been under covers; it’s easy to portray sex and passion without nudity, Hollywood is doing it all the time.) My cynical thoughts have since been proven more right than I could have thought, which makes the protestations of “realism” and “just showing human body and sex, as normal part of life” that is often used to defend GoT’s use of sex and nudity, sound pretty hollow. I’d happily accept even more sex and nudity on GoT, if 1) it was used only in service in the characters and story, 2) if the nudity on the show wasn’t predominantly female and almost exclusively focused on young, conventionally attractive females (not to mention, with very contemporary grooming, which gets in the way of realism, especially with the wildling characters).

    In this particular case, a sex/post-coital scene would serve characterization, making it clear that Ned’s and Cat’s relationship wasn’t just based on duty, even if it had started like that, and breaking the stereotype that a mostly harmonious (aside from the Jon Snow issue) long-time marriage between two well-adjusted and honorable people who have 5 children together, does not have to be passionless, asexual, or post-sexual (which is what this scene in the books gets across). We see a lot of affection between Ned and Cat, but show’s de-sexualization of their relationship contributes to the show’s poor record in presenting sex as something that can happen consensually, not as a monetary or other transaction, and as a part of a loving relationship, which is not portrayed as scandalous or inappropriate (as Jaime/Cersei). Especially in season 1. As someone observed recently, even sex scenes between Dany and Drogo became rare or non-existent after Dany found more power in the relationship and they fell in love (whereas there are several more sex scenes between them in the books). One can argue that they were not needed anymore, since we already knew what their relationship was like at that point. But, I wonder how needed were all those brothel scenes the show never gets enough of.

  • Sean C.:
    But the scenes’ juxtaposition indicate that it’s the same thing. It’s still women being bought and sold for political gain, and Game Of Thrones’ editing is very sly about indicating the comparison.

    I’m not really sure that holds up.Robert’s proposing the marriage is as much a nostalgia kick as anything else (the Stark/Baratheon match that should have been before); House Stark’s (and, I guess House Tully’s) support isn’t in question.Ned isn’t really thinking about politics when he agrees to it either.Sansa certainly isn’t.

    It’s an arranged marriage to someone Sansa has never met, in which she will be expected to fulfill the expected role of a perfect lady/wife/mother and give birth to heirs, while also solidifying a link between two houses. It may not be a straight-up transaction as Viserys selling Dany to Drogo, but it is basically the same thing – young girls being pushed to serve the role the society has imposed on them, by people who are really doing it for their own agendas (Robert’s wish to have Ned as family-by-marriage may be “nicer” than Viserys’ desire to get the throne, but Robert isn’t thinking about Sansa, or Joffrey, or their happiness, any more than Viserys is thinking about Dany’s).

    But while Dany has lived in such conditions that she knows she is a slave and feels the horror of her situation, Sansa is happily chatting with her mother and telling her how much she wants to marry the handsome prince. She has been sheltered and is at this point completely buying the romantic view of the role her society has prepare for her. It’s highly ironic, knowing that she will come to be practically a slave/prisoner of the Lannisters and how much she will come to be horrified by that same betrothal she’s happy about now and about the prospect of marrying Joffrey.

  • Rowan Kaiser:
    Thanks all.

    Lars, there are huge complicated questions involving issues of age and marital expectations for everyone in the society, especially given that the story is being presented to people with contemporary expectations. It’s essentially impossible, though aging the kids up helps in almost every case (except, perhaps, Joffrey, but we’ll get to that in S2.)

    I think that aging up Robb (and furthermore, Richard Madden increasingly looking his actual age) impacted his and Catelyn’s characterization negatively, possibly being a part of the reason why the show runners decided to turn Robb from a boy king to a conventional badass young hero with no insecurities, and diminished Catelyn’s political role (and in season 3, her role altogether).

    Aging up Joffrey probably also contributed to the show diminishing Cersei’s political influence and power. I’m not a fan of either of these changes, and I don’t think they were necessary. But I can see show runners thinking that an older teenager should never appear to be a “momma’s boy” to the audience.

  • Incidentally, rewatching this episode, it re-emphasized to me the continuity gaffe of Robin claiming repeatedly in Season 4 that he’d never left the Eyrie, when this episode clearly establishes that Lysa lived in King’s Landing until Jon Arryn died.

  • Lolly,

    This site probably isn’t for you, perhaps you want the ‘old’ WiC team over on watchersonthewall.com

    Overall, I was quite impressed by this review, and it does cover some angles that I hadn’t thought of before. I think this weekly review segment will work very well, as it helps us to spend the time until the next season. t is also nice to get a different opinion, and I think I may watch each episode after I have read the review so I can look out for the things that Rowan has identified.

  • Rowan <3 I love your work ('After an uneven start, Winter is Coming is becoming one of the internet's best Game of Thrones related website!'), and this review is fantastic. You've touched on many points that I feel were missed in the initial reviews of Game of Thrones, as well as unearthing some really nice parallels.

    I don't have anything else to add to the above comments, but I'm really looking forward to this series!

  • Lolly,

    Dost thou understand the point of a critical reviews is to analyse not only the successes but also the failures of a piece of work?

  • It’s also hard to go wrong in traditional fantasy with expecting the adventurous, slightly incompetent lad who believes in magic to be the protagonist. We don’t even need to like Bran to feel this connection—all we have to do is not actively hate him.

    Well it’s pretty clear that you don’t like him.

    And I really think it’s not right to say that Bran is the weaker actor. His is a subversion of the hero’s journey, Arya gets to go on a much more straight forward journey, one more entertaining and more quickly rewarding one as well. Isaac has the much worse caseload, he is stuck in sitting mode after the first episode, and is trapped in the North with a very select few characters to interact with. And the writers clearly had the hardest time giving him stuff to do. He’s the only one completely finished with his book material.

  • Roger Kevin Dering,

    With that sentence written right under a giant picture of Arya saying she’s the cool kid I think the author’s preference’s pretty obvious.
    I agree with what you said about the difference between those two characters, Ever since season 2 he doesn’t get much to do. But when he does you can tell he’s the better child actor in the show. But they’re all great actually so there’s nothing I can complain in that aspect.

  • Thank you for your wonderful review, very entertaining to see it analyzed in a manner that isn’t too critical or favorable in any aspects. Here are a few ideas I hope you like for your review title.

    Determining Good and Evil
    Sweet Lies and Bitter Truths
    The Only Game

  • Roger Kevin Dering:

    And I really think it’s not right to say that Bran is the weaker actor. His is a subversion of the hero’s journey, Arya gets to go on a much more straight forward journey, one more entertaining and more quickly rewarding one as well. Isaac has the much worse caseload, he is stuck in sitting mode after the first episode, and is trapped in the North with a very select few characters to interact with. And the writers clearly had the hardest time giving him stuff to do. He’s the only one completely finished with his book material.

    Just my opinion, but I would say you could show someone Maisie’s five “worst” scenes on the show, and the entirety of Isaac’s scenes (or his five best), and it would still be enough to call her the better performer. I like Isaac fine, but Maisie (like Jack) is standout who rivals the best of the adults and it’s got relatively little to do with having a more exciting story. She makes the duller, slower, or less well-written scenes amazing too. Once you factor in the advantage in the way she’s written as a consideration, I think she’s still miles ahead of Isaac in performance, not to mention ahead of Sophie, and even the older Richard Madden and Kit Harington. For me, she beats Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey too and should be reaping the Emmy noms regularly.

    Meanwhile, a bunch of other actors have as little to work with as Isaac or less, but manage to steal scenes a little more (again, just my opinion, and not a huge slight because he’s a child and I still like him). For instance small and not super exciting on-the-page roles that manage to be terrific due to the performer like Luwin, Roose, Thorne, Old Bear, etc. If Isaac was as good as Maisie, I think Bran would certainly be slightly more popular among show-only fans. But I certainly agree that Maisie, Sophie, and Jack make a better impression overall. Isaac beats new Tommen for me handily though, and he also beats plenty of adults like Sibel Kekilli.

  • And since I wasn’t doing line-counts in the comments back then, here it is for the pilot:

    Ned – 50
    Cat – 36
    Tyrion – 19
    Viserys – 19
    Jon – 18
    Robert – 17
    Jaime – 17
    Cersei – 15
    Bran – 15
    Illyrio – 14
    Sansa – 12
    Benjen – 12
    Robb – 11
    Daenerys – 9
    Theon – 8
    Ros – 8
    Luwin – 7
    Arya – 5
    Drogo – 5
    Jorah – 3
    Rodrik – 3
    Sandor – 3
    Mordane – 2
    Joffrey – 0
    Jory – 0
    Qotho – 0
    Rickon – 0
    Hodor – 0
    Myrcella – 0
    Tommen – 0

    I always wonder what the cut Bran-Joffrey scene was like.

  • ‘But the stranger choice is that what’s presented as assumed but eventually consensual sex in the novels isn’t shown on-screen. Dany never says “Yes” as she does on the page. I don’t understand why the show would turn a difficult, ambiguous scene into an unambiguous rape scene’

    It’s not difficult or ambiguous in the book. Dany never wanted to marry or have sex with Drogo; Viserys abused her, threatened her and sold her like a piece of meat. Not to mention that saying no to someone like Drogo would have rather unpleasant consequences. The scene in the book might as well describe a gun pointing at Dany, and in that case would you call it ‘difficult’ or ‘ambiguous’? She said yes because saying no was not an option. That’s not consent. The only change GoT made was presenting the scene without all the but-she-said-yes-so-obviously-it-has-to-be-consent!!! bullshit.

  • Cam:
    She said yes because saying no was not an option. That’s not consent. The only change GoT made was presenting the scene without all the but-she-said-yes-so-obviously-it-has-to-be-consent!!! bullshit.

    Uh, that’s way wrong. I think you badly need to re-read the scene. She was attracted to him the moment she saw him. He undresses her and watches her for awhile. Then she feels sexual ecstasy better than anything she’s ever felt when he’s touching her breasts. Then he ASKS her “No?” And she literally grabs his arm, puts it inside her and says “Yes.” She is extremely aroused and badly wants to have sex with him before it begins. The scenes both start out problematic, but she is actually consensual in participating in the sex in the book. That’s a world of difference from what the show did.

    The word “Yes”, and Drogo actually asking the question, is pretty crucial to her story, too. Particularly the fact that she comes to fall for him. He’s part of a culture that’s barbaric in many ways, but he’s actually giving her some agency and a choice here, something Viserys never gave her. So she becomes, over time, willing to be protected by him instead of Viserys, and realizes she will be much happier that way.

  • Walter_Eagle: Just my opinion, but I would say you could show someone Maisie’s five “worst” scenes on the show, and the entirety of Isaac’s scenes (or his five best), and it would still be enough to call her the better performer.I like Isaac fine, but Maisie (like Jack) is standout who rivals the best of the adults and it’s got relatively little to do with having a more exciting story.She makes the duller, slower, or less well-written scenes amazing too.Once you factor in the advantage in the way she’s written as a consideration,I think she’s still miles ahead of Isaac in performance, not to mention ahead of Sophie, and even the older Richard Madden and Kit Harington.For me, she beats Emilia Clarke and Lena Headey too and should be reaping the Emmy noms regularly.

    Maisie is not “miles ahead” of Sophie. As a matter of fact, I find Sophie’s performance more impressive, all the more so when you factor in the poor writing and meager material she was often given on the show which she still managed to do a lot with.

  • I said it was just my opinion. For the record, I do love Sophie. Both of them were contenders for my MVP of Season 4, and Sophie managed to be by MVP in “The Mountain and The Viper”, an episode I fully expected Pedro Pascal to steal.

    I think Maisie was miles ahead of Sophie in their performances in Seasons 1-3. I think Sophie really brought her A-game this year though, and they were basically equals. Maisie probably still edges her out, and Maisie is still far ahead in my book for her overall work throughout all four seasons, but Sophie has improved a lot and just had her best season by some distance.