Three men of the Night’s Watch ride out into the icy wilderness looking for a wildling camp. They find it but everyone in it is dead, the body arranged peculiarly. Strange creatures later ambushed them and with them are the reanimated bodies of the wildlings.
At Winterfell, Lord Eddard Stark watches over his children until he is called to execute a deserter from the Watch – one of the men from the previous scene. The deserter insists the ‘White Walkers’ have returned. Lord Stark notes this but has to execute him anyway. Lord Stark’s sons follow accompany him to the execution among them – Robb, Jon (a bastard) and Bran. Theon Greyjoy, Stark’s ward, also accompanies them. They find a direwolf gored by a stag and with it six tiny direwolf pups that the children adopt. In far away King’s Landing, a funeral is held for Jon Arryn, the deceased Hand of the King. The Queen (Cersei) and her brother (Jaime) discuss a secret that Jon Arryn might have known but decide that there was no way the King (Robert) could have known or they would both be dead. Back in Winterfell, Catelyn Stark, Lord Stark’s wife informs him of Jon Arryn’s death and that King Robert (Ned’s close friend) will be coming to Winterfell.
The King arrives at Winterfell and he and Ned catch up, discussing Arryn’s death. Robert offers Ned the position of the Hand of the King. Tyrion Lannister has travelled with his siblings to Winterfell and spends his time in the brothel. In a distant land, Daenerys and Viserys Targaryen discuss the former’s upcoming wedding to Khal Drogo, the undefeated leader of a barbaric horde. Back at Winterfell, Jon Snow meets his uncle Benjen and asks to join the Night’s Watch but Benjen is less than thrilled by this. Jon meets Tyrion and bond over their shared status as outcasts.
Catelyn receives a letter from her sister, wife of the late Jon Arryn, who writes that the Lannisters murdered Arryn and that the King’s life is in danger. Eddard, who initially was inclined to reject Robert’s offer must now reconsider. Meanwhile, Dany is married to Khal Drogo in a violent, riotous ceremony in which both receive gifts. Dany meets Jorah Mormont an exiled knight and receives three dragon’s eggs. The marriage is consumated later.
Bran climbs the castles walls idly when he overhears two people talking and making love. It is the Queen and her brother. He slips and Jaime catches him but Cersei realizes he overheard them and Jaime tosses him out of the window.
Often when adapting fiction from one medium to another, something is lost in the translation. Loyalty to the source material is an admirable goal but an impractical one – television necessitates a certain rearrangement of content here, a flourish of detail there, all to give the final product that little extra seasoning. A great deal was riding on this first episode – the mainstream’s exposure to fantasy is limited in many ways to things like ‘Lord of the Rings’, ‘Harry Potter’ and such, all of which carry with it an unfortunate stigma of being only for ‘nerds’. As a much more graphic and arguably more complex story, it was important that Game of Thrones not be pigeon-holed before being given a chance to prove itself different from its fantasy compatriots.
Pilot episodes, especially for a show like A Game of Thrones, can be very difficult to get right. On one hand, you need to introduce several complex characters and the elaborate back story, all in a very limited time frame and while most great TV shows have had to do that, the fantasy setting makes it even less accessible to the mainstream viewer. On the other hand, getting mired by introductions could be fatal to the show – introductions are often dull exposition-filled affairs. However, there is an art to exposition – it can’t be too blatant. Audiences crave understanding, but the packaging matters even more. There were times in this episode where the exposition felt very unnatural – for example, when Arya says “That’s Jaime Lannister, he’s the Queen’s twin brother.” In all fairness though, there were only a couple of these and in most cases an attentive viewer would have no trouble following.
I was little sorry to see Sean Bean cast as Ned Stark, solely because I knew that we’d only see him for a season. There is no show-stealer in the cast yet, partly because of how little screen time is given to each character, but Lloyd (Viserys), Bean (Ned) and Addy (Robert) all perform very well here. I’m particularly fond of the scenes that Addy and Bean share together – I’d describe the two of them as having an easy understanding. ‘Chemistry’ would be too extreme a term I think, if we’re using only this episode as a guide, but their scenes bring across Ned and Robert’s friendship very well. I’m not a huge fan of Clarke’s performance as Dany; I’m assuming she wanted to portray Dany’s fear and apprehension but forgot what those looked like and had to settle for vacant and vacuous instead. Her deer-caught-in-the-headlights look got old very quickly – in fact, the scenes set in Pentos were saved by Lloyd. His turn as Viserys actually reinvented the character – in the book, Viserys is just an annoyance, incapable of posing a serious threat. Lloyd adds a certain edge to the character, making him more unstable and adding a sinister undertone to his speech and actions. In fact, even Lloyd even managed to make Viserys’ incredibly lame catch-phrase ‘waking the dragon’ more likely to trigger shudders than sniggers. He is actually seems to be more caring in the show but it only serves to accentuate his douchebaggery.
Visually, this episode was a marvel – the Wall looked absolutely majestic, but to me Winterfell stole the show visually. It was a simple castle, lacking in any fancy decorations and unneccessary luxuries – a Stark castle if you would. The crypts and the heart tree were nice touches as well, though the effect was a little ruined by the presence of the whorehouse. It doesn’t feel like Ned would rule a city/castle with a brothel in it, but that’s hardly a big deal I guess.
There are a few inconsistencies but the main one is this: why exactly did the White Walker in the beginning let the Night’s Watch guy live to spread the tale? It makes no sense, and it’s been bugging me for a while.