Game of Thrones Review: “Winter is Coming”


Three rangers set out from the Wall

[Note: The recap immediately below covers the first episode of the new Game of Thrones series, while after that discussion extends to cover the books. There are spoilers!]

Beyond the Wall, three rangers of the Night’s Watch discover an enemy that has not been seen for thousands of years. One survivor, mad with terror, escapes safe… only to be captured as a deserter. In Winterfell, the Starks live their lives, unaware of the danger that threatens them and the realm. Eddard, Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North, leads his sons out as he passes sentence on the deserter, but as they return they come across the corpse of a direwolf, a huge wolf not seen south of the Walls for many years. Six pups are found with her body, five for Lord Stark’s true-born children, and one for his bastard son, Jon Snow.

News arrives that day of the death of the Hand of the King, Lord Jon Arryn, who had been like a second father to both Eddard and his best friend, Robert Baratheon, who is now the king. King Robert reveals his intention to travel to Winterfell, and Eddard and his wife Lady Catelyn realize that the king wishes to make Eddard the next Hand. The scene change to King’s Landing, where Queen Cersei and her infamous twin brother, Ser Jaime Lannister, discuss Lord Arryn’s death… and the fact that a secret may or may not have died with him.

Weeks later, the king arrives at Winterfell with his family and retinue. Robert has changed in the years since Eddard last saw him: gone to fat, preferring to eat, drink, and chase after women than rule his realm. Despite this, the bonds of friendship are strong. In the crypts of Winterfell, Robert pays his respects at the tomb of Eddard’s long-dead sister, killed by the Targaryens. He asks Eddard to be his Hand, and reveals that the surviving Targaryens are plotting their way towards gaining an army.

On the other side of the narrow sea, in the Free City of Pentos, Viserys Targaryen plans to marry his sister Daenerys to a warlord of the Dothraki, barbaric nomads who pillage their way back and forth across the great plain called the Dothraki sea. Khal Drogo, seeing the offered bride, accepts the bargain: an army with which to win back his father’s crown, in return for Daenerys. Daenerys tries to protest, but her brother has abused and dominated her all her life.

Winterfell, seat of House Stark, seen in the distance

In Winterfell, plans are made for marrying the crown prince Joffrey to Eddard’s eldest daughter, Sansa, which is all she wants in the world. After a feast in which Robert caroused with serving women, Lady Catelyn and Lord Stark retire to their chambers and discuss refusing Robert’s offer, something Catelyn is very much in favor of. However, when a secret message arrives, Eddard determines he must go south, no matter Catelyn’s protests. The very next day, Eddard and the king go hunting. The next youngest child, Bran, remains, and passes the time clambering about the walls of the castle. At an old, abandoned tower, he overhears a noise and climbs to the window to see.

What he witnesses proves fateful….

Winter is Coming.”

The Stark motto has served as the primary way that fans have been hearing about this show for many months, and at last, winter has actually come. It’s appropriate that the episode begins in the far north, at Castle Black and the lands beyond the Wall. Snow-clad, with that 700-foot-tall wall at their backs, the rangers of the Night’s Watch are only briefly sketched in this adaptation. Their purpose isn’t too fully bring us into sympathy with them, but instead to give us eyes to see the “white walkers”, creatures out of legend and nightmare. From the gruesome sight of severed body parts laid out in a mysterious pattern to the terror-driven flight through the woods, tension is kept high through the sequence.

In the novels, the white walkers – called the Others – are clad in strange, ice-like armor that shifts colors as they walk through the haunted forest. Their flesh is pale as milk, and they speak with voices of cracking ice. These first two aspects are gone – their clothing is primitive and basic, their flesh seems more like a dark bluish-grey – but if you paid attention, you probably did hear sounds that seemed like cracking ice. Those weren’t just effects thrown in for no reason: that was actually a language, developed by the same David J. Peterson who created Dothraki. The language is called “Skroth” in the end credits, and while we’re unlikely to hear any more of it any time soon, we might be learning a bit about just how that was developed.

Winterfell has lost a little something in translation, given the way it’s described in the novels: ancient, sprawling so much that some parts are abandoned or even half-ruined, all built on hills and dales. Perhaps it’s because we live in Scandinavia, but the rather flat roofs of the towers struck us as unsound in the North where there can be snow even in late summer. That aside, though, the visual effects were quite good – it’s remarkable to see how far they’ve come even in the last five years. But in the end, it’s the actors who matter most… and as it happens, the show has an amazing cast, doesn’t it?

Robb and Bran Stark with their bastard brother, Jon Snow

From Ned all the way down to Bran (little Rickon is very briefly shown), the characters feel as if they’ve stepped almost out of the page. There are differences here and there – most notably ages, with the cast being aged up anywhere from three to (in the case of Catelyn and Eddard) ten years. The dynamic that acts as a small wedge between the otherwise-happy relationship of Ned and Cat is also featured, in a telling look between the Lady of Winterfell and Eddard’s bastard son, Jon Snow. Snow, played by television-newcomer Kit Harington, seems to capture something of Bean’s portrayal of Eddard in his somewhat taciturn, very internalized performance. There’s deep wells of thought and feeling expressed in his rather guarded gaze.

A deserter meets Northern justice

Once the Starks ride out for the execution (in which it’s Will, not Gared, who gets executed) and find the direwolves, it feels like the pace of the show picks up quite a bit. There’s a lot of chapters to be covered in a single episode – nine – and when one adds in the added scenes that, in the book, might have stood as short chapters all on their own, it’s no wonder that it barrels along as it does. There are changes here and there, but the fidelity runs high. When the king and his entourage is introduced, their own dynamic is soon established, especially with an event mentioned in passing in the novel: Cersei’s protest at Robert wanting to visit the Stark familial crypt. Lena Headey’s performance is a reserved one, her version of Cersei having an admirable poker-face that masks ambition and willful intrigues.

The scene in the crypt highlights one thing that feels somewhat missing from this adaptation, in its rush to get through (its necessary rush, mind you, given that it still clocked in at over 60 minutes) all the events it needed to cover to reach that shocking cliffhanger: the tragedies of the past, and the shadow it casts over the lives of many of the characters. Those early chapters of A Game of Thrones almost luxuriate over the details of the past, of the rebellion and the Trident and moonlight flights to Dragonstone. Much of this is lost in the course of translation to the screen.

The romanticism inherent in the way that most characters look at the past in the novels is integral both to their characterization, and to understanding Martin as a writer. The reduction of it necessarily changes the tenor of the episode (and the show as a whole), but this seems almost inevitable. As some have pointed out, lingering very long on grandiloquent discussions of the past would either seem pompous or would bore viewers who didn’t have the textual context of the novels to make it flow. Television is a visual medium, and certain things that work on the page may not work on screen.

That said, it doesn’t mean these things aren’t integral and necessary to the story. Whether the shadow of the past, the bittersweet romanticism involved in believing that life was better before the Mad King and Rhaegar committed their crimes (was it really? And for whom?), is that integral is up to the viewers, but for our part, we missed it. Just to take one example, a great deal of Daenerys’s story is bound up in describing the past. Viserys’s stories of Westeros and her family, the exile, the constant running ahead of supposed assassins, feel like part of a mythologizing of her history. This half-mythical Westeros, which she knows only through stories, is larger-than-life and is a central influence on her life from the moment of her birth. Will viewers understand that?

Drogo and Daenerys receive wedding gifts.

Catelyn Stark may see her ambitions greatly reduced from the novels, the Lannister twins may be more sympathetically portrayed (because they’re portrayed at all in contexts other than combative or illicit, unlike in the novel), but it’s Daenerys whose character arc seems likeliest to feel different from the book. It’s not just the past: it’s the present as well. Her relationship to Khal Drogo is one that’s complicated by that nuptial night in the novel, as Drogo reveals himself to not be quite so cruel as his reputation and appearance might suggest, and Daenerys is able to make a choice for herself when she’s finally given the option. But these elements are gone as well, with a more straightforward starting point of dread and violence in their marriage which doesn’t (yet) hint at where it might be going.

Is that also a loss for viewers? The reviews, at least, suggest not; if anything, the narrative logic of it makes sense, as the reduction of complexity allows the story thread to be cleaner and easier to follow. But we can’t help thinking that viewers who go from the TV show to the novels are going to find themselves for a very pleasant surprise, as they encounter even greater complexities than what’s on display in a show that strongly hints at, but can never quite match, the layered depths of the source material.