“Winter is Coming”
April 17th, 2011
“That’s an honor I could do without.”
The moment which brings “Winter is Coming,” the series premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones, to a close is meant to shock the viewer. It is the very definition of a cliffhanger, a moment which makes us anticipate its resolution and theorize as to the result. I would also argue that it’s quite an effective cliffhanger, one which shapes the remainder of the series’ narrative and one which is tremendously well-rendered in this adaptation.
However, for those who have read A Song of Ice and Fire, the George R.R. Martin-penned novels on which the series is based, it isn’t a cliffhanger at all. In fact, for those viewers, it was never a cliffhanger: when the event in question took place on page 85 of my well-worn paperback, all one had to do was turn to page 86 in order to see what happened next. The cliffhanger would last mere moments, unless one somehow had the willpower to stop reading at that precise moment and return to the book a week later. Martin’s novels are designed to be devoured, not savored, and yet his story is now arriving in hour-long segments that will air once every week.
Ultimately, “Winter is Coming” demonstrates the compatibility of Martin’s novels and the televisual form: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have brought Westeros to life by capturing the spirit of Martin’s prose and by embracing the opportunities presented by both the visual and structural qualities made possible by HBO’s commitment to the series. The episode is a compelling introduction to this story and these characters, successfully navigating the plethora of pitfalls that are created in an adaptation of a high fantasy series.
But at the same time, let’s be frank: everyone, from fans of the novels to those who don’t know their Starks from their Lannisters, will need to adjust to the particularities of this particular form of storytelling.
And thus the Game begins.
The Stark family motto, which gives the premiere its title, is a foreboding promise. In a land where seasons are of an indeterminate length, it is a reminder that summer will eventually end: even when that summer has lasted for nine years, and even if it were to last for another nine, winter remains on the horizon.
It is meant to inform us about the Stark family themselves, of course. It captures their sense of honor and justice, perhaps best encapsulated by Ned’s position as the Warden of the North. He is the protector of these lands, guardian of its people and also guardian of his family, and it is his job to always be aware of the coming Winter. During times of peace, this means simple things like acknowledging that Bran will not be 10 forever – he is a child of Summer, having never known the harshness that comes with the more challenging season, and Ned very much takes it upon himself to ensure that the next generation of Starks is not shielded from the harsh realities around them. Ned insists on killing the deserter himself not because he takes pleasure in it, but rather because he believes it to be his responsibility. When you live as though a grueling winter could be around every corner, the best strategy is to take complete control of your own life and the life of those around you.
However, “Winter is Coming” is also saying something else entirely. The opening prologue, our first introduction to the “White Walkers,” establishes the threat beyond the Wall. A Direwolf has strayed far south of its traditional territory beyond the wall and met its end during an altercation with a Stag. Jon Arryn, Hand of the King, has fallen ill despite being a gentle man with few enemies to speak of. In these instances, “Winter” refers less to the season and more to an existential dread that builds throughout the premiere. It is Arryn’s death that becomes our narrative drive, his untimely death transformed into a potential conspiracy by the time the hour is done, but those other two points should remain in the back of your mind as this story continues.
That is, of course, the joy of serial narratives: the back of your mind becomes as important as the front. It also makes writing about the show without going into spoilers inherently challenging, given that the back of my mind is already full of this information. As I noted when tackling my impressions of the series as a whole, it’s impossible to turn this off, but one sort of has to when discussing “Winter is Coming” as a standalone episode. I can’t focus on particular scenes that have meaning to me because they don’t yet have meaning to those who haven’t read the books, this despite the fact that there are moments that feel as though they are being aimed at those of us with such knowledge. There are layers on display here, layers that will pay off later this season and even in hypothetical seasons beyond that.
That being said, I think that even non-readers will get a clear sense of the depth Benioff and Weiss are trying to capture. Even without the inner dialogues present in Martin’s books (where each chapter is from a particular character’s perspective), there is a sense of complexity in the way these characters interact with one another. We may not get direct flashbacks to the rebellion in which Robert Baratheon became King of Westeros, but Robert and Ned’s discussion in the crypt beneath Winterfell reveals key details about the bond between these two families (or, rather, the bond that was meant to be before Ned’s sister was murdered during the rebellion). It’s a shortcut, but one which successfully highlights the characters’ history with one another beyond their titles – even the “You got fat” sequence, as simple and funny as it is, does a great deal to humanize characters who risk seeming like chess pieces in the larger “plot.”
This is primarily because, at this stage, the plot feels very much driven by each character’s motivations and desires. Not much actually happens in “Winter is Coming,” but we do get a clear sense of what might be about to happen for each of the characters, what is lurking just around the bend and which causes either impatience or uncertainty. For Viserys across the narrow sea it is the former, as he struggles to sit through his sister’s wedding ceremony when there’s an invasion to be planning. For Ned Stark, meanwhile, it is the latter, as he knows he will accept Robert’s offer to serve as his hand but in doing so must accept that the road south is a dangerous one and could create unintended consequences. However, these are characters who have wholly accepted their respective roles: Viserys is every bit the entitled heir to the Targaryen throne, while Ned is nothing if not loyal to his King (and, perhaps more importantly, to his friend).
However, their perspectives are less important than those who are not yet in a position to know what their roles will be. The very first “perspective” that Martin takes in the novels is Bran, and he becomes our first perspective here as well. That opening scene lays out the various Stark children in vivid fashion, getting a lot done without having to have each character explain themselves through dialogue. Note, however, that we don’t learn everyone’s names: in fact, it is only Bran who gets explicitly named by his father, while we learn the identity of the other children more gradually (through Robert’s introduction, for example). The character of Bran is extremely well-realized here by both the writers and Isaac Hempstead-Wright, and really is a perfect perspective: a summer child, having never known a harsh winter, Bran is the very definition of carefree. His climbing is a source of freedom, literally giving him a bird’s eye view of the lands surrounding Winterfell. While his father takes him to see justice done, warning Catelyn that Bran will not be a boy of ten forever, there is still that sense of hope in Bran that is so tragically shattered with the episode’s final moments.
Bran’s fate (however that scene might resolve itself, to avoid spoilers) is demonstrative of the struggles facing all of the younger characters in the books, albeit perhaps an extreme example of the potential consequences. Daenerys Targaryen, still a young girl, finds herself being sold off to a Dothraki horse lord when all she wants to do is go back home. Arya wants to be firing a bow and arrow like her brothers, but is expected to sit and cross stitch with her sister. Other characters, meanwhile, know precisely what they want but may not be in a position to know such things. Jon Snow, his status as a bastard making him a Stark only by blood, yearns for the sense of belonging that will be provided by the Night’s Watch, but given what we saw in the prologue does he really want to head further north? Sansa, upon learning that she could potentially be betrothed to Prince Joffrey, decides that being Queen is the only thing she’s ever wanted, but given what Cersei witnesses at the feast – Robert snogging what appeared to be the very definition of a serving wench – is that truly the life she wants to lead?
Admittedly, these questions are pregnant with meaning that will be revealed over the course of the entire series, but I think that Benioff and Weiss do a tremendous job of highlighting their importance from the very beginning regardless of whether or not one has read the books. I love how we witness the arrival of the royal family through the eyes of Bran (climbing the walls of Winterfell for a first glimpse of the procession) and Arya (putting on a helmet and sneaking away from her family for a closer look). We get the same with Dany as she is presented to Khal Drogo, as anyone whose heart isn’t with the young girl being put on display just doesn’t have a heart. And who among us haven’t at some point felt like Jon Snow, not allowed a seat at the dinner table and instead taking out his frustration on the dummy in the practice yard? For better or for worse, these characters are outside of the main action of the narrative, but Bran’s “fall” from the tower emphasizes that convergence is inevitable: winter is, in fact, coming.
Generally, “Winter is Coming” resists outright exposition in favor of these shifts in perspective, shifts that really do mirror Martin’s use of narrative in the novels. However, what exposition there is comes from carefully chosen sources. For example, while there are various signs of Jon Snow’s position as a bastard revealed through a combination of dialogue – “Father is watching, and your mother” – and brief moments like Jon and Catelyn’s staring contest, the true “meaning” of his position comes through Jon’s conversation with Tyrion Lannister. We can talk about how perfect Peter Dinklage is for this role, and how imagining it being played by anyone else is almost unthinkable, but the character is perhaps most notable because he never feels as though he is beholden to a particular plot. While his sister is Queen, and his brother is a knight of the Kingsguard (although you don’t entirely know what that means, yet, if you haven’t read the books), Tyrion is free to stop by the local whorehouse upon arriving in the North and waltz into the feast at any time he pleases. He’s also a character who, because of his own experiences, has a certain authority – his words lack an agenda, and his ability to cut through the political bullshit makes him an ideal foil for…well, just about every character in the entire series.
On some level, I don’t know how much of my appreciation for the character work here is about Benioff and Weiss meeting my expectations from reading the books as opposed to truly creating compelling characters. But I think that what “Winter is Coming” does so well is provide something for viewers to consider over the course of the next week beyond the resolution of the cliffhanger. Yes, the cliffhanger sets in motion a mystery that will linger throughout the series, and Jon Arryn’s death plays a similar role in driving the “plot” of this piece. But I feel as though the breadth of the world will spawn more questions about the characters, and their backstories, in much the way we expect from high fantasy.
While some throughout history have argued that television erases the imaginative capacities present within literature, I would argue that it instead shifts them. Yes, the world has now become visually realized, meaning that readers’ image of various characters and locations have been altered significantly. But in those week-long breaks that those watching on HBO will have between episodes, there will be speculation and discussion even among those who do not know where this story is headed. It’s the reason why serialized television was such a perfect fit for these novels, as it mirrors the pre-existing discourses surrounding Martin’s narrative.
And yet, at the same time, it does render “Winter is Coming” a somewhat strange beast when it comes to pilots. Personally, I thought it was tremendously well executed, but I wasn’t really the one who needed to learn anything here. For new viewers, it risks feeling like we learn everything yet nothing, enough to establish a sense of history but not enough to establish a history. This is a fair concern, but I think that there’s value in keeping the viewer in the dark about certain details. There’s nothing wrong with viewers asking questions so long as they are driven by equal parts confusion and curiosity, and I never felt that anything was problematically opaque here. There were moments that were vague, and certainly moments where I could imagine a clearer explanation, but the end result felt cohesive (which is all I ask given that comprehensive is completely out of reach).
Ultimately, I would argue that Benioff and Weiss chose their perspectives very carefully, allowing the plot to filter through Ned while allowing the world itself to filter through the younger characters. This choice does not hide the episode’s exposition, a necessary evil in a story of this nature, but it does provide it context. Perhaps we are given too many perspectives on this world, our attention divided countless times over as the premiere unfolds, but that seems like effective preparation for the complex, dynamic, and divided narrative that is set to unfold.
Preparation, in other words, for the uncertainty and insecurity of winter.
- Those opening credits are pretty spectacular, aren’t they? I hope to have more on them in the future, as I’m currently working on a paper that will address their relevance to the series as a whole, but for now let us marvel in their splendor.
- A lot of beautiful shots in this episode: the establishing shot of The Wall in all of its imposing glory, that wide shot of King’s Landing, Dany and Drogo’s wedding night on the sunset cliffs, etc. Some fine work from Tim Van Patten.
- Tom McCarthy, who directed the original pilot (which featured different actresses for both Catelyn and Dany), remains in the credits as a consulting producer only on “Winter is Coming,” and it is unclear if any of his material actually remains in this version. I would tend to believe that it does not, based on its consistency, but others might know better.
- I think this is ultimately the most writerly hour of the series that I’ve seen: this is not to say that the performances aren’t tremendous (they’re pretty uniformly great), or that the production design isn’t stunning (it is), or that Van Patten’s direction doesn’t contribute to its success (it does), but rather there are moments where it becomes clear that the writers are doing particular things for particular reasons. It’s all well-executed, but the episode’s success hinges on the words on the page, and they’re very well chosen. Mind you, I think that some might find it a bit heavy on exposition as a result, and it does sort of wear its writing on it sleeve, but I don’t think that’s a terrible strategy for a premiere.
- Enjoyed the brief scene between Jon, Theon and Robb as the former is teased for his hair – it’s a simple scene, on some level likely included to spread around the sex appeal to the young male cast members, but I like brief scenes that aren’t about anything. While much of the episode feels purposeful, maybe at times to a fault, little scenes like that are just there to provide a glimpse of young men being young men, a welcome respite from the intrigue afoot.
- A question I’m curious about: did those of you who watched the 15-minute preview, or the five clips released earlier this week, feel as though this muted the impact of the pilot? I had seen bits and pieces of this over the course of the campaign, but saw the complete pilot before this material broke, and thus am curious how this affected your experience.