That should have been longer.
If I had a major complaint about the first episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, that would be it. At one hour and five minutes the premiere episode felt much more like prologue than anything else, and I’m not entirely sure that audiences really began to get what the flavor of George RR Martin’s epic fantasy is until right at the end.
I’m knee deep in Martin’s saga right now, nearing the climax of the third book, A Storm of Swords, and that certainly colored some of my perception of this episode. I know these people and I know where they go, and lots of this episode was about me being excited to see characters come to life - and occasionally being sad to see beloved characters who I know are very, very doomed. But I’ll try to approach this without bringing in the future, as I know many of your are unfamiliar with the twisted, wicked and hugely unpredictable story ahead.
Winter Is Coming sets up the main players in our saga, and introduces us to a threat that will loom throughout the season. It’s the fantasy world of Westeros, a realm made up of seven kingdoms ruled by one king, Robert Baratheon. Baratheon, played with wonderful joviality by Mark Addy, was once a great warrior but has gone to seed after his years on the throne. He has come north to the castle of Winterfell to ask his old friend, Ned Stark, to return with him to the capitol city of King’s Landing to be The King’s Hand - a sort of prime minister who runs the day to day government. The previous Hand, who was like a father to Ned and Robert, has just died - possibly under mysterious circumstances.
In Winterfell we have the Stark family. There’s Ned’s wife, Catelyn, and his two daughters - the beautiful, seemingly shallow Sansa and the tomboy Arya. There are three sons. Robb is the eldest, while Bran, at ten, is an irascible climber on the castle walls. Rickard takes up the rear as the baby of the bunch. And then there’s Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son; while Jon can never have the Stark name, Ned considers him part of the family.
Coming to Winterfell is the king’s entourage, including his wife, Cersei and her twin brother, the knight Jamie Lannister. Their brother, the dwarf Tyrion, comes along, whoring his way to the keep. And then there’s Robery and Cersei’s son, Joffrey, a wicked little shit.
Meanwhile, across the sea are Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, members of the royal family that Robert and Ned deposed a decade earlier. Viserys is marrying his sister off to Khal Drogo, a fantasy world Genghis Khan, so that the Targaryens can use Drogo’s army of horselords to reclaim their crown
In a lot of ways that’s what happened in this episode - lots of set up. By the end of the episode things begin going, but that’s after 60 minutes of introductions. Which isn’t bad - the show does a remarkable job of keeping things moving, especially since it’s dealing with such a huge cast of characters already (and just you wait until the third season). What might have felt like boring wind up is instead enthralling because of the incredibly detailed design, the gorgeous cinematography and the excellent acting.
Oh, and the boobs. This episode felt like it leaned a bit too heavily on the True Blood playbook; one of the things I don’t like about Martin’s novels is that they often read like they were written with one hand. There are breathless descriptions of sex (often incestuous or with underage people!) that read sort of creepy. I don’t begrudge the sex or the nudity, but I do hope that ‘Flash a tit’ isn’t just in the Game of Thrones director’s manual as a way to keep a scene moving.
I wonder if Sean Bean’s resume says ‘I own a suit of armor.’ He’s so identified with the medieval/fantasy genre that I would feel bad for him if Ned Stark weren’t the perfect character for him. Bean’s very presence is helpful; we understand this actor and we know who he is, even in the midst of some very disorienting character introductions. Bean has that Stark nobility and grimness down perfectly.
In that same boat is Peter Dinklage as Tyrion the Imp. There are not many meaty dwarf roles in film or television, but it’s wonderful that perhaps the greatest actor of short stature is just the right age and available for one of the great dwarf roles. Dinklage nails Tyrion the whoremonger and Tyrion the wit; I am excited to see him digging into further aspects of the character in future episodes.
There were a couple of other stand outs (in a cast where no one was bad, by the way - a remarkable assemblage so far), including Michelle Fairley as Cat. It’s Hermione’s mom! Seeing her seated next to Lena Headey’s Cersei almost told the story of these characters just visually. Also terrific was Emilia Clarke as Daenerys. She’s beautiful and expressive, getting across so much silently. She’s another one playing a character who goes interesting places, so I cannot wait to see what she can do. Harry Lloyd as Viserys was just delicious; this character is a delightful creep and weasel, and it’s obvious Lloyd has him down.
I must admit some concern about Nicolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister. Or at least his accent. While the show is a hodge podge of accents (as all works in the genre always are), his retains an Eastern European flavor that gets in the way of the suspension of disbelief that the Lannisters are all related. But beyond that Coster-Waldau is great - he looks the role and he seems to get the intricacies of Jaime, a character who has some interesting sides to him. I loved his interaction with Tyrion in the whorehouse.
All of the children were strong as well. Again, I’m curious to see how they turn out, as the children are major characters going forward. I particularly loved Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran; there’s just something about his eyes that are perfect for the part. I don’t know that I was feeling Kit Harington as Jon Snow until his scene in the courtyard during the feast; that’s a change from the book, but it’s a major change for the better. It’s cleaner, simpler and gets lots of character information across well, and Harington was great.
There are a few changes from the book so far, but like that one they all seem for the best. Martin is long winded and easily distracted from his story, so the adaptation process allows a streamlining that keeps everything on point. Like many fantasy authors Martin is fond of repeating things again and again as characterization, but the show takes lots of those elements and deftly incorporates them into the action.
Winter Is Coming is a dense episode of television. I don’t even know what it would be like to jump into this without knowing the characters, but as someone who DOES know the characters I must say I couldn’t imagine this done better. There’s dodgy CGI and the score sounds a little generic, but my biggest complaint remains a major compliment: I wanted more.