Game of Thrones Revisited: 1.01 Winter Is Coming
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Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed TV series by David Benioff and DB Weiss and developed from the best-selling series of novels by George RR Martin, has become a cultural icon. The tentpole of HBO's programming with a stellar cast and mix of medieval-style political drama and war with a healthy dash of fantasy, Game of Thrones has enthralled audiences worldwide. And in 2019, the show will come to a dramatic end in its final run of feature length episodes. In the lead up to season eight, I explore every episode leading up to the final battle for Westeros and the rest of the world, starting with the season one opener Winter Is Coming...
Warning: There may be spoilers for seasons one to seven...
It's been a long time since I have watched this episode, catching it during its UK broadcast in 2011 after hungrily devouring the first four books in George RR Martin's sumptuous A Song of Ice and Fire series. And it is an eye opening experience in many ways, not least because the very insular tales at play show just how sweepingly epic the series has become but also because the key players at the start of Game of Thrones are very different to those going into the final season of the show.
This is the story of Ned Stark, noble leader, loyal husband and family man, called to duty by his long standing friend and king. Sean Bean invokes gravitas from his very first scene; it's easy to see now how startling his demise towards the end of season one was for anyone not familiar with the books. (Remember of course that this was the point when causal audiences and fans of the novels has very different perspectives on the show).
And there is a real sense of rich history at play here too. David Benioff and DB Weiss's script never feels trite or overly exposition-heavy and yet they still manage to weave legends, conspiracies, long-standing relationships and character conflicts in a way that lets the audience understand where these characters have come from as much as where they are going.
Certain key characters make their mark from their very first scenes; while Sansa (Sophie Turner) flourishes with needlework, headstrong Arya (Maisie Williams) outwits her brothers with a perfectly aimed bullseye shot with a bow and arrow; the fact that she wears a helmet to meet the approaching royal family tells us all we need to know about this character. Michelle Fairley brings a strong sense of wisdom and compassion, particularly in her relationship with Ned. But we also get her sense of conviction and distrust, a core part of her character, as she receives message from her sister and learns that the previous Hand of the King was murdered. While Ned's journey is set to join King Robert as his loyal right hand man, so is hers over the course of the season.
My absolute favourite character Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) doesn't disappoint in his opening scene, choosing to forgo the pleasantries of meeting his host in favour of whores and wine. The scene with recurring whore Ros (Esmé Bianco) - remember her? - shows that sex and violence go hand in hand in this unfolding drama. I did like Jamie's gift though; that bond between them is established from the very start, a dash of humanisation to a character that is largely void of it otherwise.
While Mark Addy's King Robert Baratheon is quickly established as a gluttonous shadow of his former self but with some wit still left in him, his wife Cersei is already pictured the ruthless figure behind cold, dead smiles, with Lena Headey adding grace and superiority in her opening scenes. There is something charming about Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's performance as Jamie from the very start - right up to the point he pushes Bran out of the window in the episode's shocking cliffhanger after it is revealed he is sleeping with his twin sister - remember when that was a huge, disturbing moment in the show?
I was also surprised by Isaac Hempstead Wright's warm, eager performance as Bran, the light footed son of Ned who gets a lot of screen time here, making the episode's ending all the more shocking. As for the other Stark sons and wards, Alfie Allen captures the despicable nature of Theon Greyjoy in the scene where he is all to eager to kill the Direwolf puppies (and weren't they adorable?) while there are already signs that Jon Snow will take a leading role, thanks in part to Kit Harington eager but grounded performance. Richard Madden is perfectly serviceable as good son Robb, but he will come into his own later.
But it is not all doom and gloom up north as the story flits at a good steady pace between Winterfell and Pentos to the story of the downtrodden Targaryens. Emilia Clarke captures the sense of meekness and horror as Daenerys submits to the will of her brother and new husband; there is none of that fiery conviction yet, making her a victim only at this point. Harry Lloyd is truly despicable though; in light of Joffrey and Ramsey later on, his villainy is quickly forgotten but his Viserys is petty, selfish and cruel; the way he touches his sister's breasts comes across as inspecting a piece of meat and the idea that he would sell her to a warlord in exchange for an army to reclaim the throne is as brutal as anything seen on the show. Jason Momoa's Khal Drogo is a bit one note here, but the point is well made when it comes to the man Daenerys has been forced to marry.
It is surprising too how many things are set up so early on, from her inability to feel heat to the gift of the three dragon eggs, two things that will be hugely important in the season one finale
It is also sumptuously shot by director Tim Van Patten. The opening sequence as the three Night's Watchmen stumble across the corpses in the snow and come face to face with the terrifying undead is a chilling, tense and strangely beautiful introduction that sets the scene for the real threat waiting in the shadows of every season to date. It might seem baffling that it takes seven seasons for the dead to march upon the Wall, but it is a clever long game nonetheless, meaning that whatever happens in Westeros and beyond over the course of these episodes, something far worse is waiting for them.
There is a rough beauty to the wilderness of the north too, Winterfell standing like a medieval fortress on a bleak wind-swept hill that is vastly different in tone to the decadent red and golds we glimpse of King's Landing and the warm climates of Pentos where we visit Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen's story. One of the reasons we only got 10 episodes a year for the first six seasons was because Game of Thrones was so expensive to make, making use of multiple global locations but the pay off is that the world show really does feel real, not a bunch of locations outside LA or Vancouver made to look like the frozen north or balmy tropical climates.
A final note on the title sequence; from Ramin Djawadi's rousing, thundering score to the intricate unfolding landmarks, this truly is a marvel from beginning to end. It reveals the sweeping, epic nature of this world, bringing character to each city and it expanding the breath of storytelling with each episode as more landmarks enter the story. To say it is one of the best title sequences of all time is an understatement.
Winter is Coming is a very well executed first episode, with a script that manages to establish the world, the key players and hint at the many stories to come. It is very much a scene setter, which is why it might not always make the list of best pilot episodes but it does its job well. And of course, the best is still to come...