A Night’s Watch deserter is tracked down outside of Winterfell, prompting swift justice by Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark and raising concerns about the dangers in the lawless lands north of the Wall. Returning home, Ned learns from his wife Catelyn that his mentor, Jon Arryn, has died in the Westeros capital of King’s Landing, and that King Robert is on his way north to offer Ned Arryn’s position as the King’s Hand. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea in Pentos, Viserys Targaryen hatches a plan to win back the throne, which entails forging an allegiance with the nomadic Dothraki warriors by giving its leader, Khal Drogo, his lovely sister Daenerys’ hand in marriage. Robert arrives at Winterfell with his wife, Queen Cersei, and other members of the Lannister family: her twin brother Jaime, dwarf brother Tyrion and Cersei’s son and heir to the throne, 12-year-old Joffrey.
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From the moment we saw the Wall in all its majesty, Linda and I knew that we were going to love the grandeur of the show’s depiction of the locales of Westeros, even if not all the visuals necessarily fit our conceptions of how they looked. The production has stinted nothing in trying to capture the scope of the setting. Later on, we’ll discover that “stinting nothing” does not mean “breaking the budget”, but it’s a testament to the production’s passionate embrace of the novels that they’ve done their best to keep their fidelity high.
The prologue’s opening with three rangers of the Night’s Watch loses a great deal of the dialogue and internal monologue that defines the three characters. In fact, we notice that their names are never once spoken. Where the original prologue was written in such a way as to make one believe, at least for a little while, that these three characters might be significant, this adjusted prologue has a much more direct feel: these are largely disposable, nameless characters without much in the way of history. What little there is only hinted at – the leader’s youth, speech, and high-handed manner (as well as his finer clothing and his bejeweled sword) speaks of his being a nobleman, the bearded man’s gruffness shows he knows more of what lies beyond the Wall than the knight – but it’s enough to carry us through.
The gruesome discovery the young ranger Will makes is a departure from the novel, one that changes the eeriness of the novel’s depiction to a much more gruesome, horror-tinged approach. It’s no surprise, then, that the white walkers (as they’re incessantly called, “the Others” apparently being retired due to Lost) are much more direct. Where they were graceful, deadly, and alien, these white walkers are violent and brutal, monstrous in appearance. They murder Ser Waymar Royce without a fight, and then proceed to run down Gared and Will. Gared dies as well – this is the largest change in this prologue – while Will is left to stare at the older ranger’s severed head.
Before we see him again, we turn to the remarkable opening title sequence. It’s an absolute triumph which captures the grandeur of the world, with its far-flung castles and cities on both sides of the narrow sea. Ramin Djawadi’s theme is going to be stuck in many heads we suspect, as it fits flawlessly with the panning, tilting camera and the clockwork-castles springing out of the earth. I compared this segment to a video called Minecraft Inception, and I hope you can see why: the polygonal trees in Winterfell, the curvature of the world, the sense of hugeness to it all.
One feature not many have remarked on is the compass-sun that floats above it all, whose bands tell a tale of their own. First, a fire-breathing dragon, a city in flames, and a volcano: Valyria and the Valyrians. There’s what looks to be a flight from Valyria. The dragon conquers Westeros, and the great houses bow their heads… but in the end, the three-headed dragon is brought down by lion, direwolf, and stag, and the stag is now the crowned king. The symbolism is quite rich, and very neatly encapsulates centuries of history. The final logo, with the four emblems, focuses the attention of the story on the principal houses of the first season: Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, and Targaryen.
When we see Will again, he’s wandering aimlessly on the moors of the North and captured by Stark men-at-arms. A message is sent to Winterfell, where the writers and director Tim Van Patten expertly, and very efficiently, delineate the Starks. There’s something pleasingly economical in how much Jon’s, “Father is watching… and your mother,” reveals about his status and his feelings about it. The Starks otherwise seem a happy family, even if young Arya appears to prefer sport and fun to the embroidery we first see her trying to perform. The acting here from the children is quite good, but the centerpiece of the scene is Sean Bean as Eddard and Michelle Fairley as Catelyn.
The two actors have a fine chemistry, although the way the scene plays is not what we would have expected. Catelyn – despite seventeen years in the North – still seems to take issue with the notion that Eddard follows the old way; that the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. Her objections to his taking Bran to watch the execution feels like it might be more like her, though doubtless Robb already went through this once before. Otherwise, their warmth together seems real enough, even though we’re reminded as Eddard departs that the issue of Jon Snow still lies between them. As Jon, Kit really manages to capture something of the rough-hewn, “Northern” manner, and there’s a sense to a closed melancholy that should help cement the idea that he feels somewhat apart from his family.
The beheading scene? That one seemed pitch-perfect to us. Bronson Webb as Will is sympathetic, if not quite the inarticulate man driven mad with terror. Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran deserves special kudos for his acting here, as he conveys a guileless, sweet Bran who’s trying to live up to his father’s expectations very well. The scene follows through to the direwolf discovery, and there are some changes here. The most notable for us is that the compression of dialogue, which unfortunately means certain things are lost in translation. The pups are a bit different as well: instead of being newborns, most of them still blind, they’re older, perhaps pups that were following their mother around. This is one place where the direction also felt a little off: there are Significant Closeups and Significant Looks galore in this section, and it feels a bit stiff and mannered.
Catelyn’s continued reticence about some of her husband’s sense of duty is reflected in the godswood. This is, again, a departure. Now, both Ned and she realize Robert is coming to ask Ned to be Hand… and this Catelyn doesn’t want it to happen. On that ominous note, we see the amazing display that is King’s Landing and the Red Keep. It’s a mangificent conception, even more fantastical than what George describes. We like it! There’s all sorts of details as Jon Arryn is seen on his byre, from the eyes painted on the stones placed over his eye (a funerary detail not from the books) to the seven jars which we suspect contain preserved organs as the silent sisters gather around him in quiet ceremony.
This is perhaps the next biggest change from the novels: the introduction of the Lannisters as independent “point of view” characters. Seeing Jaime and Cersei discuss Jon Arryn’s secrets, their past together, and more shifts the balance of the narrative from the novels. Where all the POVs are Starks except for Tyrion and Daenerys, now we have two additional Lannisters we might independently follow around. It gives a different sense to the story, not least because by seeing Jaime and Cersei speaking together, we’re allowed into their relationship with one another in a way that we never really are until the third novel.
Once the king arrives, things move along quite nicely. Tyrion’s detour to a brothel in the winterton (as the town outside the walls is called in the books) is entirely in keeping with his character. The introduction of the queen to the Starks is appropriately cool and reserved, as well, although her protest at Robert’s insisting on paying his respects to Lyanna is a bit muted and loses not having Jaime take her in hand. But this is a general point with Headey’s performance: her Cersei is acted and/or is written to be less volatile, more calculating and controlled than her novelistic doppelganger.
The shift to Pentos works fairly well, although it required the scenes in the crypt to be reversed to work smoothly. Harry Lloyd as Viserys is marvellously good, and of all the actors (except, possibly, Maisie Williams) he seems to be the one who has most captured the character from the novel. His domination of Daenerys is well-handled. Emilia Clarke has relatively little to do but look frightened (she does it well) and beautiful (which she is), and this holds for most of this first episode. But we can promise that as you watch her story unfold that she’ll prove up to the task of carrying such a significant part of the story almost entirely on her shoulders. The events in the east are among the trickiest to handle, because they’re largely disconnected from the bulk of the story in the Seven Kingdoms, so it’s a relief to know that Clarke’s able to capture attention so very well.
Back at Winterfell, the writers give fans a beautiful, if brief, depiction of Robert paying his respects to Lyanna. The writers add the lovely touch of Robert placing a feather in the hand of her effigy, doubtless something pretty he found alongside the road. Although we can’t help but think it’d have been even better if he placed a blue rose in her hand, we quite like the touch. If anything, Mark Addy seems likely to muscle Sean Bean out of the way as the most memorable male lead in the series, as he plays the part of the drunken, irresponsible, burdened Robert – a man of faded glory, seeing nothing before him but a life he didn’t really want – to perfection.
Matters proceed quite briskly after this, as we dash from one scene to the next, establishing character relationships – the easy camaraderie of Jaime and Tyrion, for example – quite deftly, if briefly. Of particular note is the addition of several scenes in which Catelyn directly interacts with her children, something that’s missing from A Game of Thrones – we have the POVs of her children and herself thinking back on having interacted, but it’s different when we get to see it in present time. Michelle Fairley plays this earthy, maternal aspect of the character very well, and is a strong and appealing presence in the midst of all the activity in Winterfell.
So, too, is the Imp. Peter Dinklage has a particularly good turn when he and Jon speak with one another. That scene leaves us missing some details, such as the presence of Ghost, but the core of it is there: “All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.” Harington and Dinklage mesh well together, and we can say that will continue in future episodes. Although Tyrion here is not so misshapen or unpleasant in appearance as the character Martin describes, the sense that the Imp is a figure of disdan for most is effectively conveyed.
Once we’re at the feast, matters play out just as briskly as everything else. Cersei is again cool and hard-to-read, although her looking on as Robert canoodles with a serving wench speaks volumes. Her prosaic question as to whether Sansa’s reached puberty also says quite a lot, not just about her, but about Catelyn and Sansa as well – they’re taken a little aback by such a blunt question. This likely reflects the writer’s thinking of a small detail from the second novel, which is a fine attention to detail. Of course, this scene also lets us see Arya get into mischief (aimed, naturally, at Sansa)... and include new moments in which we see Eddard speak first with Benjen and then Jaime.
The show’s clearly building a much stronger presence for Jaime, and making a clearer rivalry between the two. Although we’re not entirely overjoyed by the implicit suggestion here that Eddard Stark is a noted swordsman (he’s not, in the books, where GRRM has indicated he was competent but no great hand at it like his elder brother Brandon), it sparkles thanks to Bean’s gruffness and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s arrogant, preening performance. Though his Jaime is not quite larger-than-life in the way that the character is conveyed in the books, he provides a good balance to the rough-hewn, plainspoken Ned.
What to say about Ned? Bean was born for this part, although some may say that he comes off as “tougher”, gruffer, than the Ned from the books. At the same time, this is also a Ned who seems to smile and laugh more than in the novel – a man who’s easier with his motions. Possibly so, although there are suggestions in the novels that he wasn’t humorless, merely a reserved, “quiet wolf”. The chemistry with Fairley plays well, and though Catelyn would almost certainly never, ever joke in the novels about addressing Robert as, “fat man”, it works in this scene: she’s irreverent, but beneath that is the steely core that refuses to let Ned leave her for Robert, when he’s already twice gone off to fight in Robert’s wars. But a message from Lysa changes everything…
For Ned, in any case. Not for Catelyn. We’ve remarked a lot about this, but this is perhaps the most radical change in the first episode: Catelyn’s ambition has been stripped out of her, she no longer wants to see honors heaped on her (deserving) husband, nor is she particularly desirous of seeing her daughter married off. She wants nothing more than to keep her family together for as long as possible. Even in the face of the alleged murder of Jon Arryn and the likely danger of Robert, she is unbending: she wants Ned to stay no matter what.
For us, this is a change we’re not happy with. It feels like the decision was made to try and make her more appealing – anyone who’s followed the fandom knows that she’s a controversial character who gets blamed for a lot of things (unjustly, we add) – and the end result is she’s now a homebody, rather than the more fully-fleshed, complex character of the novels. Fortunately, we can say after the first couple of episodes, her story and character seem to flow back into the story we know.
The Dothraki wedding is one place where the scale of the production falters: it should have been a vast khalasar of tens of thousands in attendance, and instead it feels like a small detachment of a few hundreds. Which is fine, as such, but it’s also a shame. We can’t say we are very pleased with the Dothraki as they’re depicted, largely because the costuming simply makes very little sense to us. It’s so… distressed and made to look poorly-made, with bits of leather cord sticking out here and there. It doesn’t feel like the clothing of an actual, living society, but someone’s idea of “primitive” clothing. Perhaps we’re wrong in this, but in general our understanding is that more primitive cultures have always taken some degree of pride in the making of things like garments, in part because the care taken would help to ensure they’d last as long as possible. Poor quality garments would not stand up to the rigors of such a rough life.
Still, that aside, everything else seems to flow well… up to the point where the gift of a horse is presented. There’s no dialog here about Drogo having given Daenerys the wind, no joyous leap on horseback over the flame. We go directly from there to the nuptial night (actually sunset), and where Drogo’s “No” seems to mean he recognizes she’s afraid and he doesn’t desire it, here it just seems like a senseless, brutish remark as he forces her down to the ground after stripping her naked.
While some may find the novel’s depiction difficult to take – a 13-year-old girl being enticed and seduced into a willing relationship with a frightening, savage warrior that she doesn’t know and doesn’t love – it did serve two important purposes: it revealed that Drogo was not so brutish as he might seem, and that Daenerys was able to assert herself (even if through her sexuality) if only given the chance, a chance Viserys never afforded her.
Now that’s gone. The reasons, from a roundtable conference with the executive producers, are simple enough: it complicates her narrative arc, giving a brief suggestion that things may well work out, before returning us to a more dire reality. Instead, they chose to make things rather awful from the start, to then show a gradual improvement. It feels like a loss, a loss in complicated characterization, but it’s understandable that they’d prefer a cleaner, more straightforward arc for her character.
It’s only a shame that the adaptation has lost so much of her internal monologue, which does a great deal to establish and contextualize her character. Although we feared this would make it hard for viewers unfamiliar with the series to care or sympathize with her, Clarke’s performance is good enough, and the through-line of her narrative strong enough, that reports from critics who’ve not read the books at all suggests this won’t be a problem; the executive producers certainly know what they’re doing when they make these cuts, or have to drop things by necessity simply because they’re almost impossible to adapt properly.
Finally, we return to Winterfell, and that fateful moment with Bran. A strong cliffhanger ending, the sort that Martin excels at, and the writers leave it almost untouched. We wouldn’t have minded more of the dialog between Cersei and Jaime from the novels, and we admit that the final line was not quite delivered in the way we hoped – it’s hard to find the “loathing” in it. But it’s a bold, sudden ending, and we hope it will leave millions of viewers hungry for more.
[HBO has posted an “inside the episode” featuring the executive producers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss.]
This episode covers the following chapters of the novel: Prologue, Bran I, Catelyn I, Daenerys I, Eddard I, Jon I, Catelyn II, Bran II, and Daenerys II. Arya I is skipped entirely, while Daenerys II is pulled forward ahead of chapters that will be covered in the next episode.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter: