“Winter is Coming”
Directed by Tim Van Patten | Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss | 61 min
Epic sagas start small
By Colin Hart
9.0 / 10
“Winter is Coming,” like most pilot episodes, is all about world-building and meeting the characters. But it absolutely nails a tough assignment; a perfect example of how to welcome a new viewer into what will become a spraaaawling show—set up the basics, try and cover the backstory, here’s some tits, establish the setting, provide an aesthetic, hey look at those tits, etc.
With so many characters, locales and plotlines, Game of Thrones—especially in its early stages—is initially overwhelming. A comprehensive knowledge of what comes afterwards certainly helps, but for first-time viewers the task at hand may seem impossible. How am I ever going to remember all those names, places, faces and pairs of tits? I’ll have to read the goddamn books!
No need to fret, it will all come together soon enough. A Wiki of Ice and Fire helps a lot, but “Winter is Coming” does a great job at laying out the broad strokes in clear, definable terms.
However, the tiny details—like Illyrio Mopatis being the one to arrange Daenerys Targaryen’s marriage to Khal Drogo, or Ros the redhead being the one to suck Tyrion Lannister’s cock in the brothel—are better appreciated on third or fourth re-watch.
How far does the first scene go in defining a TV show? Depends on the show. Thrones lets us know right away that magic will be a key element going forward. It’s an instant taste of that nerd sugar to come. Star Wars opened with Darth Vader, Thrones opens with White Walkers.
And boy do those White Walkers kick some immediate ass. In a savage move by one of the muscled-up ice zombies, he severs the head of a Night’s Watchman and tosses it to his stunned partner. Come at me, bro, he’s saying. Tell your friends HBO ain’t playing around no more.
Just wait till season five, you’ll shit your pants.
Fantasy fans should be hooked already.
What hooked me was the way the rest of the episode was handled. Very patiently, the non-magical and far more interesting human-centric plot starts to unfold, and Game of Thrones reveals that its greatest strength is dialogue.
Sure, most of the dialogue is exposition (or sexposition), but it comes so naturally and is delivered so smooth that it hardly matters. An excellent cast will do that. Sean Bean as Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark of Winterfell (#wethenorth) is more than capable as a charismatic lead. Anyone recall Boromir, the freakin’ son of Denethor?
Ned Stark is an honest man, and that’s exactly the type of character I can rally around in a gruesome land like Westeros. But he’s got some antihero genes too—honesty to a fault. “The man who passes the sentence swings the sword” he tells his young son Bran after he has just beheaded a deserter of the Night’s Watch (the man from the opening credits, warning of White Walkers).
Ned’s a stern ruler but also a family man. I can get behind that too. Loving wife, Catelyn; handsome eldest son, Robb; prissy teenage daughter, Sansa; mischievous tomboy, Arya; young kindhearted Bran; and, uh, the other younger boy, Rickon. There’s also Ned’s bastard child, the emo heartthrob, Jon Snow. A loving close-knit family in the freezing castle of Winterfell is good to see.
The Starks are the easiest to follow because they are the most likable. When King Robert Baratheon travels north with his Queen’s family, the hefty plot inevitably starts to become a little busy.
The mysterious death of former Hand of the King, Jon Arryn (an old friend of Ned and Robert’s), prompts King Robert to choose Ned as his new VP. Queen Cersei (played by a stone-cold Lena Headey) and her twin brother, Jaime Lannister, aren’t too thrilled about their stay in Winterfell, and end up fucking each other in the tower.
The twins’ younger brother, Tyrion “The Imp” Lannister (played by Peter Dinklage), showcases potential to be one of the show’s best characters. And he’s not incestuous like his siblings, which is always a plus. He fucks whores instead. Admirable.
The culture clash of North meets South isn’t too jarring when compared to the far-flung plotline across the Narrow Sea (on the continent of Essos). Ned wrestling with the proposition offered by Robert is the stuff of great drama—this is truly Shakespearean shit.
However, when the episode traverses across the map to check in on the exiled children of the land’s former rulers (House Targaryen was overthrown by House Baratheon during Robert’s Rebellion, 20 years before the current events of the show), that’s when things really get disjointed.
Throughout eight seasons of Thrones, it has never been a secret that the political scheming happening in Westeros is far more interesting than the plight of the Great White Female Hope on the other side of the world. It’s a sticking point in the years to come, and it’s a bit of a sticking point already in “Winter is Coming.”
A sneaky cutaway introduces us to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her abusive, semi-incestuous (seriously?!) older brother Viserys. It’s jarring because the setting has completely changed—this portion of the world is almost like an entirely different show.
If the North is like medieval Scotland, then the city of Pentos is like biblical Babylon. And if King Robert is a dudebro who just wants to “crack skulls and fuck girls,” then Viserys is a bleach-blond douchebag who deserves molten gold poured in his eye sockets. Either way, it will be a little bit before this storyline starts to mesh seamlessly with the rest of the show.
The plotline in the North gets juicier and juicier—perhaps the Lannisters were behind the death of Robert Arryn? —but whenever we cut away to the Far East, it takes our interest out of focus. So many plotlines, so little time, and then we’re suddenly at a Dothraki wedding ceremony where savages cut out each other’s intestines and then start fucking slaves on the dancefloor? Boy oh boy.
The great cliffhanger that will undoubtedly propel the plot and raise the stakes—Jaime pushing Bran from the tower window to save his and Cersei’s secret—is a perfect ending to a very solid pilot.
Already, we’ve been immersed into a world that feels both lived-in and unexplored. And now the storied shit will begin to hit the fan, splattering all of us with plot developments that are both dirty and extremely addicting.
Already, Game of Thrones is showing what kind of show it can become—the greatest story ever told.
Oysters, Clams & Cockles
-Plenty of Thrones lore goes down in the pilot that will go unnoticed for years to come. Peep the arrangement of the Wildling body parts by the White Walkers, or the fact that the kicking-off point of the entire series is former Hand of the King Jon Arryn’s death.
-The woman King Robert was supposed to marry was Ned’s deceased sister, Lyanna Stark. And how telling is the symbolism behind the dead stag and dire-wolf, both sigils of House Baratheon and House Stark respectively?
-Um, Danaerys kinda gets raped by her new husband Khal Drogo on their wedding night. The whole point of the marriage is so that Viserys will be provided with a Dothraki army as he hopes to someday re-conquer Westeros. This storyline takes more getting used to than Westeros power struggle.
-At least Danaerys is gifted with a trio of Chekhov’s petrified dragon eggs.
-Religion will play a huge role in this show, and Ned Stark and most of the Northmen seem to believe in deities known as the Old Gods (faces on trees and such).
-Directed by Tim Van Patten (of Sopranos fame), there is a distinct visual aesthetic to Thrones, but it doesn’t rely on camera movement. Instead, the heart of Thrones is in the gritty period detail—you can practically smell the shit that is likely on the bottom of King Robert’s boots.