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.