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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Three men in black pass through a long, dark tunnel and exit on its northern side into a wintery landscape. The camera pulls back to reveal that the tunnel was a passage through the Wall, a 700-foot-tall wall of ice that stretches hundreds of miles. With this hint of a barrier against an unknown threat, we follow the rangers into a forest, where they soon discover that not all is at it should be… and they’re confronted with an unexpected enemy, an implacable enemy who hasn’t been seen in millenia. Two men die, and the third runs as far as he can.
Far to the south, in Winterfell, we’re introduced to the Starks of Winterfell. Familial happiness – undermined by an unspoken tension between Lady Catelyn and Jon Snow – soon turns serious when a deserter from the Night’s Watch is captured. Taking his young son, all of ten years old, with him, Lord Eddard carries out justice personally. The deserter? None other than the man who witnessed his fellow sworn brothers slaughtered. He speaks of the “white walkers”, but he’s believed to be a mad man. Returning to their castle, they come across an omen: a dead stag, and a dead direwolf with a stag’s antler in her throat. She has pups with her, and as it happens, there are five: three male, two female, a perfect match for the trueborn children of Lord Stark. Before they leave, a sixth – the runt of a litter, an albino – is found by Jon Snow, who claims him for his own.
Lady Catelyn meets her husband on his return, in the godswood of Winterfell, and delivers two items of news: Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, and a man he loved like a second father, is dead; and the king, Robert, whom he loved like a brother, is travelling North. The two know what’s coming, and Lady Catelyn dreads it. Away in King’s Landing, we meet the queen, Cersei, and her twin brother, Ser Jaime. They wonder if Lord Arryn revealed any dangerous secrets to anyone before he died.
When the king arrives, he’s a changed man, no longer the “demon of the Trident” who slew Prince Rhaegar and overthrew the Targaryen dynasty that had ruled for 300 years; he’s grown fat, preferring wenching and drinking to ruling. What Ned feared happens: Robert desires Lord Stark to become his next Hand. He needs a man to help him, someone he can trust, in these times. Dark times, made darker still because, across the narrow sea, the last surviving Targaryens plot their return.
Prince Viserys plans to sell his sister Daenerys to Khal Drogo, a barbaric warlord who rules a tribe of the nomadic Dothraki. Though the Targaryens married brother to sister for centuries, he’s prepared to give up Daenerys for his dream of winning back his father’s crown. Daenerys is less than willing, but years of abuse and domineering from her brother leaves her frightened and unwilling to assert herself. Magister Illyrio of the Free City of Pentos introduces them to the khal, who finds Daenerys pleasing to his eyes, and so the wedding preparations commence.
The Targaryen dynasty which Viserys hopes to re-establish was overthrown seventeen years ago, when Lord Arryn, Robert, and Ned fought together against the Mad King, Aerys II. Robert was betrothed to Ned’s sister, but she was taken from him by the Targaryen heir, and that – combined with the murder of Eddard’s father and older brother at the command of the Mad King – led to that war. The realm is now fractious, barely kept together, and Robert needs Eddard’s help. While they’re in the crypts, Ser Jaime’s seeks out his brother, Tyrion the Imp, who’s ensconced himself in a brothel to enjoy himself with Northern prostitutes. A dwarf, Tyrion is very little like his beautiful older siblings, but shows a self-depreciating wit. Jaime reveals Tyrion’s presence is demanded at the feast.
The king’s plans include marrying his heir Joffrey to the eldest Stark daughter, beautiful young Sansa. Sansa, love-struck at first sight of the fair-haired, gallant prince, wants nothing better than to one day be queen, and begs her mother to convince her father. much to Catelyn’s exasperation. Later that evening, while Robert enjoys himself with wenches and drink, Lady Catelyn and Queen Cersei discuss the North and the marriage plans. The queen tells Catelyn that such a beauty as Sansa should not be hidden away in the North, but it seems Arya might not agree about her sister’s beauty, as she causes a commotion by flinging food at her sister. Outside the hall, Benjen Stark arrives from the Wall and speaks with Jon Snow, who reveals he wants to join his uncle in the Night’s Watch. Benjen admits he’s capable of being man of the Watch, but believes Jon should experience more of life – perhaps find love and have children of his own – before committing himself to the hard, celibate life of the sworn brothers. Jon protests, and Benjen promises to discuss it with him later. After he departs, a drunk Tyrion arrives. He advises Jon to never forget he is a bastard, and to make that his armor. When Jon questions what he knows of bastards, Tyrion informs him that all dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.
That night, as Eddard and Catelyn discuss the king’s plans, a secret message arrives for her from her sister Lysa, Lord Arryn’s widow. She accuses the Lannisters of having poisoned her husband. Realizing that the king is in danger, Eddard begins to realize he will have to go south to protect Robert. Catelyn, however, speaks against it, fearing for her family and her husband. But Eddard must decide, and he decides for Robert and for the realm.
The next morning, he joins the king on a hunt outside of the castle, with most of the king’s retinue going with them. Bran remains at the castle, and immediately turns to climbing about the walls and towers of Winterfell, his favorite pastime. Hearing a noise from a room in an overgrown, abandoned tower, he moves closer only to discover the queen coupling with her own brother, Ser Jaime. She sees Bran spying at them through the window, and cries out.
Jaime grabs hold of Bran before he can escape, and questions him. He asks his age, and then after a pause regards his sister. A moment passes.
“The things I do for love,” he says, as he pushes Bran down to fall dozens of feet to the hard ground.
[HBO has posted a brief recap of the episode.]