‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘Winter Is Coming’: Reviewing the series premiere

“Game of Thrones” just made its long-anticipated debut on HBO tonight. I reviewed the first six episodes as a whole earlier in the week, and I posted an interview with George R.R. Martin on Friday. Now I have a review of the debut episode, coming up just as soon as I explain to you the meaning of a closed door in a whorehouse…

“He won’t be a boy forever. And winter is coming.” -Ned

I think I’ve told this story before, so forgive me for the repetition, but there’s a point here. About a year and a half ago, Mo Ryan came to New York, and she invited James Poniewozik and I out to a pizza dinner that eventually sprawled into a long discussion of the state of television, TV criticism, etc., which Mo posted a long transcript of back at her old Chicago Tribune blog. At one point in the transcript, you’ll see Mo and James giving me the “homework” assignment of reading “A Game of Thrones,” and after the recorder turned off, the two of them worked on me some more on that score. They pushed so relentlessly, and were so laudatory in their praise of the book series, that if the hardcover copy I got from the local library hadn’t been so darned big, I likely would have brought it on a trip I took a few weeks later and read it then.

Instead, I ultimately decided that since I had yet to read the books, I wanted to go into this show cold – to see if the show could stand on its own, and be both understandable and compelling without the background of the books. And as I said in my pre-season review, I found that it was, though I also have to confess that, starting with the second episode, I usually had a Wikipedia page listing the show’s characters open on my laptop so I could refer to it whenever I wanted to be sure of somebody’s name – and that, on occasion, skimming that page helped clarify a relationship I don’t know that the show concretely explained.

But, as I often do with pilot episodes – particularly for complicated, immersive shows like this – I watched the pilot episode with no computer handy, took no notes, made no references, and had to rely entirely on what David Benioff, Dan Weiss, Tim Van Patten(*) and company presented in front of me. And, again, I was able to follow more of it than I wasn’t. Admittedly, I enjoy deconstructing these kinds of complicated shows as quickly as I can – to bring back “The Wire” comparison I made in my review, I was able to identify the major players in the Barksdale crew more quickly than a lot of other people I know who were watching at the time – but I think the core ideas and people are presented as well as possible in an hour’s time.

(*) And, to an extent, Tom McCarthy, who directed an earlier version of the pilot (before Michelle Fairley and Emilia Clarke were brought in to replace other actresses, and before a bunch of other location shooting was redone), a few scenes of which survived to the finished version.

The horror movie-style opening sequence introduces us to the period, and to the many dangers (in this case, the monstrous “White Walkers”) that lurk on the edges of this kingdom. Then we meet Ned Stark and his family, most of whom are introduced economically: that younger daughter Arya is a tomboy, that older daughter Sansa is a teacher’s pet who enjoys the feminine trappings her sister hates, that Ned Stark is tough but fair and kind, that Ned’s wife Catelyn is uneasy around Jon Snow (who’s clarified as a bastard in a later scene with Tyrion Lannister), etc. Seeing Ned personally execute the runaway guard is another reminder of this tough environment, but also of Ned’s particular sense of honor and personal responsibility, and the discovery of the direwolf cubs – exactly enough for the five legitimate Stark kids, plus a white-colored runt for Snow – offers another hint of magic, or destiny, ala the White Walkers.

Then we swoop down to King’s Landing to meet the Lannister twins, Cersei and Jaime, and get our first hint of palace intrigue. And after lusty King Robert makes it all the way up to see his old friend Ned in Winterfell, we race across the Narrow sea to meet the Targaryen siblings, would-be conqueror Viserys and his sister Dany(**), learn that Viserys is yet another with designs on Robert’s throne, and that he’s ready, willing and almost eager to pimp his sister out to local warlord Khal Drogo to amass the army necessary to pull it off.

(**) As I noted in in the George R.R. Martin interview, I have never once successfully spelled her full name correctly, so I shall refer to her by the nickname I’m told many of the fans use. She is Dany. Done. And I apologize in advance for the inevitable misspellings of other names going forward. I’m 99.99% certain that at some point Jaime Lannister will be referred to as Jamie, just for starters. I’m just thankful that our central character goes by “Ned.”

These are a lot of people, places and pre-existing relationships to learn in a short period of time – and that’s not even mentioning clever Tyrion, or Ned’s brother Benjen, or exiled Jorah Mormont, who helps explain Dothraki customs to Viserys and Dany – in an episode that also features an execution, a wedding, a raucous party and a whole lot of sex involving prostitutes, a child bride and even siblings(***). And yet I was only occasionally confused, and never outright lost.

(***) For those of you who weren’t readers of the book, were you surprised to see Cersei and Jaime’s fun and sexy time together in the tower? I got one hell of a sexual vibe off of them in their opening scene, even as the dialogue was making it clear they were siblings.

Much of that’s to the credit of the many fine actors on display here, who are often required to establish what their character is about in very short order, and usually do. Maisie Williams has just the right mischievous expression when Arya shoots the arrow, for instance, and as Jon Snow, Kit Harrington carries himself much more cautiously than the legit Stark kids. Peter Dinklage needs all of five seconds to tell you most of what you need to know about Tyrion Lannister – not just because of his size (which informs so much about his role in the family and, as he explains to Jon Snow, how he’s chosen to deal with it), but because of the sheer joy on his face as he enjoys the prostitute’s company. Emilia Clarke makes an immediate impression, even before her brother takes off her robe to study the merchandise, etc.

But much of that is also due to Benioff and Weiss’s decision to have the characters deliver a metric ton of exposition – not only in this episode, but in the coming ones. And it’s there that I’m going to be most interested to see the reaction of both the book readers and the newbies like me.

I brought up the Ryan/Poniewozik story earlier because Mo’s reaction to the TV show was actually less positive than mine. I found the exposition to be frequently clumsy in execution, but welcome overall in helping me acclimate myself to this place, Mo (who knew all the backstory going in) only felt the clumsiness. She had other issues with the adaptation, too, which she found overly literal (you can read her full review here), but that was definitely one area where having read the books actually turned out to be a hindrance.

But that’s often the way with people who read the book first. Adaptations always have to cut things, or tweak things, and it’s very rare that you hear the phrase “the movie was better than the book.” (“The Godfather” is the most obvious example of that.) I’m sure there will be plenty of GRRM fans who will just be giddy to see the world of Westeros brought to life (Poniewozik liked the show much more than Mo did), while others either won’t be able to resist obsessing over the differences or getting impatient at all the scenes where the characters stop to expound at length on history that’s already familiar. Either reaction is natural, and understandable; I’m just going to be interested to monitor that, just as I am to see how many fellow novices can make heads or tails of the place, and how many decide it’s just not worth the bother.

Some other thoughts:

• One of the themes running through this episode – through the series, really – is the notion of men, particularly men of power and breeding, being able to take and do what they want, particularly from and to women. Viserys seems almost giddy to check out his naked sister and imagine the army she can fetch him (“I would let his whole tribe fuck you – all 40,000 men and their horses, too, if that’s what it took.”), and Dany in turn has no choice but to wed this alien hulk, and to tearfully let him have his way with her on their wedding night. As Ned notes of his best friend, King Robert gets what he wants, when he wants – up to and including making out with other women in full view of his wife. (Though Robert, of course, doesn’t know what we’ll learn about Cersei’s own extracurricular activities.) It’s not the most female-friendly environment, but the series is very much aware of that, and sympathetic to the plight of its female characters.

• As I talked about near the end of my pre-season review, the animated map opening title sequence is up to the standards of some of the best HBO has used. And it’s one where you’re actually going to want to pay attention to each week, as it changes depending on which parts of Westeros (and the nation across the Narrow Sea) are featured in that episode’s action.

• The pre-credits sequence also gives us our first glimpse of the Wall that separates the northern end of Westeros from the badlands where the massacre takes place. The Wall is home to Ned’s brother Benjen, and one of the more impressive pieces of CGI in the series.

• Roger Allam, who plays Illyrio, Viserys and Dany’s bearded host across the Narrow Sea, sounds so much like the actor Michael Gambon (Dumbledore from the later Harry Potter films) that it proved incredibly distracting for me during his scenes. Anyone else notice this?

• Dothraki wedding reception antics: a swell time for all involved, an apocalyptic nightmare, or mild compared to most cinematic frat parties?

Finally, let me include the warning that’s going to accompany these reviews for however long this series runs: I have not read the books yet. While I’m sure many of you have, I figure (at least in the early going) that just as many (if not more) of you have not. Regardless, this is going to be a place to discuss the show as a show, which means no talk of any kind about plot events from later in this book – let alone the other books in the series – before the show gets there. You can make comparisons to a comparable point in the books – talking about how you feel Peter Dinklage is playing Tyrion so far, or whether the direwolves looked the way you imagined them – but anything past where we are is not cool and will be deleted instantly. There are many places on the web in which you can talk about the books in great detail; this is not one of those.

What did everybody else think?