Game of Thrones: “Winter is Coming” and “The Kingsroad”
Posted by therebelprince on February 13, 2012
I’m not usually a fantasy fan. But I’m also not really a fan of Westerns, cop shows, or mafia movies. So when HBO – which had already used those genres as the templates for some of the greatest TV series ever made – announced they were adapting a major fantasy series, with Peter Dinklage (of my favourite indie flick, The Station Agent), I quickly sought out the published volumes of George R.R. Martin‘s A Song of Ice and Fire, and devoured them. The scope, tone, and dense politics and characterisation, make the books a joy. In the lead-up to the second season of HBO’s Game of Thrones (and after the release of the series’ fifth novel, A Dance with Dragons), I thought I’d rewatch the ten-episode first season.
This week, we tackle the first two episodes:
01. Winter is Coming
“There is no word for ‘thankyou’ in Dothraki”
– Jorah Mormont
Both book and series open with the most stereotypically fantasy scene in the whole novel, as a band of black-clad riders come across zombies and terrifying creatures. It prefigures only a couple of scenes in the first season, but it’s damn atmospheric. That little girl… eeuuuch! It’s a clever narrative technique, having this supernatural, external threat hang over all the characters, even as they remain either ignorant or unconcerned, in favour of their petty squabbles.
At least that scene can be faithfully copied from the source text. The rest of the episode has a tough job, introducing the various members of two dynasties, who come together when King Robert Baratheon and his Lannister in-laws travel to the northern stronghold of Winterfell, to ask his old friend Ned Stark to take over the role of ‘Hand of the King’. The books are written in a series of point-of-view chapters, and the first volume restricts our internal views to the various Starks (except for Robb and Rickon), Tyrion Lannister, and – across the sea – Daenerys Targaryen. The series has to convey the largely internalised thoughts of the early chapters and open our eyes to everything at Winterfell, which makes the first half of the episode feel a little expository. There’s also a whole bunch of tangled mythology that is quickly portrayed, particularly when Catelyn (Michelle Fairley), Ned (Sean Bean) and Maester Luwin (Donald Sumpter) discuss the suspicious death of Ned’s chilhood mentor – and Catelyn’s brother-in-law – Jon Arryn. Arryn’s death is the catalyst for the entire series, but at this point, it’s very hard to tell what’s going on. For the most part, though, Winter is Coming does a remarkable job of introducing the core family relationships amongst the Starks and, despite the series’ dense mythology, still involves much less exposition than your average network show.
This is an unusual episode for the series, with all of the Seven Kingdoms plot focused at Winterfell. Never again will we be in the one place for so long, and there’s a genuine feeling of community and family. As Ned, Sean Bean is the standout thus far, and Isaac Hempstead-Wright as young Bran has a cheeky charisma that we won’t see much more of, given his character’s melancholy immediate future. Sophie Turner has the toughest job, since Sansa isn’t a very likeable character in these early episodes. I’ll be particularly interested to rewatch the development of her character. Sansa’s chapters are some of the most fascinating examples of Martin’s writing. Her journey is largely internal, as she slowly loses her childhood fantasies and naivete. Beyond this, she’s deliberately and subtly written as someone who often rewrites the truth in her head. In the latter half of the season, as Sansa gets involved in the politics of King’s Landing, many crucial events take place in her chapters, although the character herself often does not realise. Art Parkinson as young Rickon is rarely seen (although he’s adorable!), and the other sons are only vaguely shaded in thus far: Jon (Kit Harington) is the surly, hot one; Robb (Richard Madden) is the less surly, hot one.
One of my few problems with season one when it first aired was that the series sometimes sped through important sequences. Instead, Winter is Coming takes its time to open up the world, and it’s for the best. The series’ design is exquisite: richly textured and beautifully designed.
On to the new arrivals at Winterfell, all four of whom perfectly inhabit their characters. As King Robert, Mark Addy is an early standout, the man whose vocation in life is to conquer kingdoms, but who is now stuck ruling one. As his brother-in-law, ‘Kingslayer’ Jaime Lannister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau‘s role is vastly expanded from the book. Jaime is an undefined and seemingly evil presence in the first book. The gradual unfolding of his character is one of the novels’ greatest delights, but here he’s already shaded in. The addition of a scene between Jaime and sister Queen Cersei (Lena Headey) in King’s Landing, is the one decision I disagree with. While I enjoy most of Game of Thrones‘ additional scenes, this one is a double mistake. Not only does it diminish the surprise of the episode’s final scene, but it acccidentally diminishes the breadth of the world. One minute, the Lannisters are in King’s Landing; the next, they’re in Winterfell. Throwaway dialogue establishes that months were spent on the road, but it’s easy to miss.
Coster-Waldau already has an easy rapport with Dinklage, as his dwarf brother Tyrion. Dinklage has been the series’ break-out star, and he’s on fire from his first appearance, giving a cocky, earthy performance as the intelligent, politically astute son of a great family, certain that he’s unwanted by his father, shunned by strangers, and a necessary evil to his family’s reign. (Dinklage’s first scene also gives us the series’ first gratuitous breasts!)
Across the Narrow Sea, things are happening in Pentos, where the last two descendants of the Targaryen dynasty emerge from hiding, so that Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) can marry into the nomadic Dothraki tribe. All the Dothraki business looks simply amazing, and gives me hope for the increasingly elaborate spectacles that the East will provide in future seasons. Daenerys’ storyline is a slow burn throughout the first half of the season, so most of the performers give solid turns, although this plot is far more expository than its wintry cousin. Iain Glenn is wry as exiled knight Jorah Mormont, and Jason Momoa is gruff – and damn fine – as Daenerys’ new husband, Dothraki leader Khal Drogo. His entire role so far is in a made-up language, and seen from the point-of-view of terrified Daenerys, but he exudes a raw power. Meanwhile, if his performance as the deluded, controlling yet powerless “Prince” Viserys is anything to go by, Harry Lloyd is going to go far. Lloyd manages to turn his naturally pretty looks into a smug yet lonely sneer, and he clearly enjoys finding the darker, self-deceptive sides of Viserys.
Finally, there’s Emilia Clarke, who is so far a blank slate as Daenerys. She’s lived an insular life, entirely in hiding, and – like Sansa Stark – she’ll have a great development over the course of the season. It was probably a wise decision to make her a wee bit older than her book’s counterpart. On the wedding night, as Daenerys unwillingly gives her body to Khal Drogo, she finally realises just how deep she’s in. It’s a brutal, uncomfortable scene – although one undoubtedly experienced by countless women over the course of history – enabling us to completely sympathise with this young woman. In the next episode, when our heroes start talking about her as a dangerous threat, the moral ambiguities will soar.
And then Cersei has her brother push Bran off a turret. Oh, show.
02. The Kingsroad
“First lesson: stick them with the pointy end.”
– Jon Snow
While I was surprised with the lack of exposition in the first episode, The Kingsroad is a different matter, as we’re inundated with speeches and back-stories from a host of characters. We learn (if there was any doubt) about Tyrion and Jon’s respective feelings of isolation in their families; we discover the history of the Seven Kingdoms, and the parts played by Robert and Ned; and we learn some surprising facts about Cersei’s past: namely that her first child with Robert was stillborn, and that incident contributed to the destruction of their marriage.
This last fact is particularly surprising, as it doesn’t have textual precedent in A Game of Thrones. Cersei Lannister is my favourite character from the novels, but she can be a tough one, without her own point-of-view for most of the series, and thus – seen through the eyes of Ned and Sansa Stark – often coming across as a one-dimensional villain before eventually being shaded in to her full complexity. The television character, however, isn’t going to last the length of the series as a caricature, so the writers wisely choose to give us the full Cersei from day one. She’s not a monster, but a woman so thoroughly warped by the ambitions of her parents, by the knowledge that her station in life will come from attachment to a man, and by a love which – even by the standards of the Seven Kingdoms – is unacceptable. (Admittedly, it’s one of those odd little quirks of the books’ mythology: the Targaryens only wed their own as a matter of honour, but it’s unthinkable with anyone else!)
While Cersei’s monologue does come out of nowhere, the majority of the episode’s exposition feels remarkably natural. Tyrion enjoys the sound of his own voice, while Robert and Ned’s reminiscence is one of the episode’s best scenes. Mark Addy and Sean Bean are so natural as they lay the groundwork for some of the series’ biggest plots: the murky politics of the last war, the questionable parentage of Jon Snow, and the problem of what to do with that young lady across the river…
Nothing much happens this week across the narrow sea (other than the opening credits’ most beautiful addition in those miniature horses). So much of Daenerys’ story in the first book is internal, albeit filled with stunning set pieces, and so the episode focuses on the new khaleesi making the decision to conquer the heart of her husband, as the first step in a very long progression to assumedly being a worthy Queen. All of the Dothraki mythology feels so wonderfully real, as Dany’s maids discuss various theories on celestial bodies. While the prime area of Martin’s research was his Medieval kingdom, his imagination really comes alive whenever we head East.
If I do have a qualm at this stage, it’s the over-emphasis on those dragon’s eggs. I’m sure most new viewers could tell where this was going, and I know they’re using them a symbol of Dany wanting to live up to her family creed, but it still seems a little on the nose.
Back in Westeros, meanwhile, and Catelyn begins to grow suspicious after an armed man is sent to kill the now crippled Bran. Her little CSI: Westeros moment also feels a bit convenient (surely there was an easier way for her to suspect the visitors than actually finding a long, golden hair), but the series as a whole relies on so few coincidences that I can take one or two. After two episodes, Catelyn is one of the most intriguing characters: on the one hand, a grieving mother well played by Michelle Fairley; on the other, she shuns our beloved Jon, and just generally disses those around her. What gives, Tully? (Again, it’s weird that at least a month has passed since Bran’s fall. We need the time to pass this season, given how much happens on both sides of the narrow sea, but the series hasn’t found a way to illustrate that well yet.)
It’s amusing how much focus is spent, in these first two episodes, on character pairings that we won’t see again this season – and, in some cases, never again. There’s some lovely chemistry between Arya/Bran, Tyrion/Jaime, Robb/Jon (in a particularly believable hug), and Arya/Jon: all character pairings who won’t really interact again this season. That last relationship is particularly effective, as it brings out the less somber side of Kit Harington, livening up Jon considerably. And we get a real sense of how young Arya is. For a 14-year-old girl, Maisie Williams is incredible in the role, and she’s on my list of Favourite TV Actresses. She has a lot ahead of her, so here’s hoping Williams remains strong in the role.
Finally, on the road to King’s Landing, things get decidedly out of hand. We’re introduced to some more local colour in Joffrey’s bodyguard, Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann), and the mute executioner Ilyn Payne (Wilko Johnson, the victor of what George R.R. Martin called “the strangest auditions I’ve ever watched“). As Prince Joffrey, Jack Gleeson puts in a solid performance as the spoiled, cowardly, petty heir to the throne. In the books, we at least get the pretence that he’s the handsome, noble prince Sansa falls for. Here, there’s no mistake: this guy is a little shit.
Joffrey gets involved in a play-fight between Arya and the butcher’s boy, causing him to be: a) beaten by Arya’s wolf Nymeria, and b) losing his sword when Arya throws it in the river. Unsurprisingly, Joffrey does not take to this well, and – after Sansa professes not to remember what happened – both the butcher’s boy and Sansa’s wolf Lady (Nymeria having been forcibly exiled by Arya) are put down. Sansa’s Judas moment is one of the most challenging character decisions in the book, and The Kingsroad does a decent job of showing Sansa’s naive belief that King’s Landing will be a fairytale city, and also of the immense pressure when the King, Queen, and her betrothed Prince are all staring at her. When the opposing view is your annoying, younger sister, who would you side with?
More importantly, the consequences of this scuffle give us the first indication of the conflict between Ned’s honour, and the political reality. The Hound is certainly out of line to kill the chubby boy just because he ran, and Ned himself chooses to take the honourable route of at least killing his daughter’s pet as humanely as possible. Lady’s body will be sent back to Westeros for burial, and her absence will be keenly felt by her sister and four brothers. In a future post, I’m sure we’ll discuss the symbolism of the wolves, but is this a sign that Sansa has already been lost?
Next week: we get our first look at The Wall in “Lord Snow”, and then journey on to a tournament for the ages in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”.