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'Game of Thrones' Season 1, Episode 1 Recap (Series Premiere)

by Maureen Ryan, posted Apr 17th 2011 10:00PM
['Game of Thrones' - 'Winter Is Coming']

Before I jump into my reaction to the first episode, 'Winter Is Coming,' a word about how I'm writing these weekly reviews of the show. I'm writing this review without having seen the other five that HBO sent to the media.

I didn't want to be ahead of you, the viewer, and I didn't want to have to try to forget what I've seen in subsequent episodes when I sat down to write weekly reviews.

So, over the last few weeks, my procedure was this: After I watched an episode twice, I wrote my review of that episode, then I went on to the next one. So at this point, you and I have both seen exactly one episode of 'Game of Thrones.' (I wrote my non-spoilery overall review of the show after watching all six episodes that HBO sent, and if the tone of that review strikes you as somewhat different from what you read below, remember that review contains my assessment of the show based on half a dozen episodes, not just one.)

My general verdict on the first hour is: It's a solid piece of storytelling, and though it contains a lot of set-up and expository dialogue, that's to be expected at this stage. And in any event, it's as visually rich as I'd hoped it would be. It's simply exciting to see this world with my eyes, rather than imagining it with my mind.

Those of us who've read George R.R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' book series will inevitably be comparing the version of the story we've carried around in our heads with what we'll be seeing on the TV screen. That kind of commentary will creep in here from time to time, but I'll try not to beat you over the head with point-by-point comparisons.

We'll get to my impressions in a minute, but I'm especially interested in the reactions of 'GoT' newbies -- those who've never read Martin's books. Did the first hour instantly inspire loyalty in those who weren't already devotees? That's a big question looming over 'GoT,' and it may affect how long the drama sticks around. If you're a first-timer in this world, did this episode pull you in? Or do you need to watch more episodes before you decide whether you want to spend more time with the people of Westeros? Do tell in comments, I'd love to know.

In any event, I found it surprisingly easy to immerse myself in the HBO version of the tale. For instance, the Winterfell I've had in my head looks nothing like the structure in the HBO show; the castle I'd imagined didn't have all those chunky towers topped by thick discs. But never mind, the HBO version of Winterfell is nevertheless impressive in its bulk and wonderfully detailed in every important regard. There's some fine craftsmanship on display here, and I especially like the fact that all the clothes, personal quarters and public spaces look a bit muddy and battered. It's a working castle and thus it's subject to a lot of wear and tear; a too-pristine Winterfell would have been jarring indeed.

Given that I'm familiar with the seven kingdoms of Westeros, I can't entirely judge the show the way a newbie would, but I thought the pilot and the opening credits did a solid job of carefully and thoroughly laying out the geography of the show's world.

The opening credits were not at all what I expected for this show. Given that so little in the world of Westeros is mechanized, to have an almost toy-like version of that world come to life in the credits caught me off guard at first, but I've come to love the inventive, humming energy of the sequence. It's not only gorgeous to look at, it seems as though it'll definitely be helpful to newcomers to this world. And, by the way, don't fast-forward through the opening credits -- they'll change some weeks, based on where the action takes place in that episode.

The episode began sketching out the personalities and the relationships in this world, obviously, but in his books, Martin works on a big canvas that keeps expanding all the time. It's important to get your bearings and know where things are happening before you plunge too far into the tale, and, as I said, in purely logistical terms, I think 'Winter Is Coming' did a good job of introducing the Wall, Winterfell and Pentos, as well as the intrigues that are broiling away in each place.

The best adaptations take advantage of the possibilities of the new medium in which they find themselves, and being able to see the rich, layered visuals of this world was exciting. I mean, the Wall -- wow. That shot looks more impressive every time I see it.

In that one brief shot of the Wall, 'Game of Thrones' visually conveys the scale and the scope of this world. It tells you that you're in a very different place with forbidding dangers and a cold, mystical beauty. There were many fine visuals in the first hour (the circle of body parts, the misty, melancholy execution scene and the vast, exotic site of the "wedding reception"), but the Wall supplies one of the most memorable moments of the pilot, for my money.

Watch clips from the 'Game of Thrones' premiere


But beyond the aesthetics, the TV show holds out the possibility of helping me latch on to two characters who, for whatever reasons, remained remote to me on the page: Cersei and Daenerys. Though they've had their moments in Martin's 'Song of Ice and Fire' series, I can't lie: I never cared as deeply for them as I did for Arya, Tyrion, Jon Snow or other, more sympathetic characters in the novels. Heck, I began to feel more empathy for Jaime and the Hound over time, but I never quite got to a similar place with Daenerys.

Part of the issue with Dany in the books is that she is usually a long way off from the main action, often surrounded by people who weren't particularly nice to her (or anyone else). 'GoT' will have that challenge as well -- keeping us interested in Dany and her crazy-eyed brother, despite the fact that they're very far from everyone else. But the TV show may well have an ace up its sleeve in the form of Emilia Clarke.

Over the course of this first season, we'll see Dany negotiate the difficult journey from child to woman, a transition that was already underway in this episode. Dany's got more than just the awkward phases of adolescence to get through, however; she's got an arrogant brother who cares nothing about her well-being, just about using her as a bargaining chip. And now she's also got a new husband who comes from a brutal, bloodthirsty tribe. In the books, Dany's situation is described in great detail, but I never felt for her the way I felt for the Dany of the TV show. Through Clarke's performance, I can see Dany's vulnerability and her courage, I can see her bravery and her fear. I hope the show continues to round out and give complexity to the Khaleesi.

Now, it's unlikely that Cersei will ever inspire warm and fuzzy feelings from anyone, in any version of the story, and the jury is still out on HBO's Cersei, because I've only seen one episode of the show. Still, I appreciated the way that Lena Headey played the role. Cersei is a woman who's husband clearly makes no effort to be faithful to her, and you can see at the feast that she's still, on some level, humiliated or at least annoyed by his constant, sloppy conquests. Yes, it's creepy that she's sleeping with her brother, and yes, she was the complicit in the push that Jaime gave to poor little Bran. For those reasons and more, I'm not sure I could ever actually like Cersei, but Headey's performance is one to watch. The queen's cunning and cool intelligence are not to be discounted.



All this talk of Cersei and the Targaryens has brought me to an important topic: Wigs! Forgive me if you can, move on to the next section if you must, but this topic actually matters to me, because the onus is on 'GoT' to create a believable fantasy universe. The details matter. I don't know about you, but if I'm thinking about whether or not someone's hair looks fake, it takes me out of the story. And in early photos and clips from the show, Dany and Cersei's hair looked off.

I'm glad to say that I didn't have a problem with the wigs that Dany and Viserys wore -- which is surprising, considering how off they'd seemed before I saw full episodes. I don't know if those issues were toned down through the magic of post-production, but the Targaryen hair didn't bug me here (though Dany's eyebrows look a little too dark and big at times).

If I'm being brutally honest, Cersei's hair still doesn't look quite real to me. She appeared to be purposefully wearing an overdone headdress-wig arrangement for the feast, so I can accept that look as being intentional. But in other scenes, something about her hair didn't sit quite right with me. It may be difficult to make someone with Lena Headey's dark eyes and brows look like a believable blonde, but I expect the best from HBO. Generally speaking, though, aside from some residual quibbles about Cersei's wig, most of the hair and makeup in the series looks acceptable.

Another thing I didn't love: The Heart Tree (that's where Catelyn told Eddard about the death of his old friend and the King's Hand, Jon Arryn). The tree's leaves looked too red and the pond at the foot of the tree didn't look quite right to me. Taken as a whole, it looked like a set on a soundstage, not a completely real, lived-in place. In all other regards, however, the Wall and Winterfell were well-realized and well-used locations, and I look forward to seeing how the rest of this world looks in upcoming episodes.

Given that I'm getting into various likes and dislikes, I'll just throw these final observations into a bullet-point list. Here we go with the first-ever 'Game of Thrones' hail of bullets (though a hail of arrows would be more appropriate):

• Thoughts on the opening scene in the forest? Very good acting by all involved, and the arrangement of the butchered bodies was very creepy indeed. But I thought the child corpse nailed to the tree looked a teeny bit fake and waxy. In any event, the opening sequence worked as a whole, and I think it was wise for 'GoT' not to give us a detailed view of the White Walkers yet -- it's easier to be afraid of a monster you haven't seen up close yet.

• Scenes I enjoyed quite a bit: King Robert's arrival at Winterfell; Robert and Eddard together in the crypt (Sean Bean and Mark Addy have a great vibe together); Eddard talking with his brother Benjen (those two actors also have a great rapport); Jaime confronting Eddard.

• As expected, Sean Bean was absolutely the right choice to play Eddard. His face in the scene in which Catelyn and Maester Luwin argued about whether he should be the Hand was perfect: This upright, honest, decent man was torn between duty to his family and duty to his king. Given how important Eddard is to the show, I think they cast that role just right.

• From what I recall of the books (and others have reminded me of this), in the book version of the tale, Catelyn isn't necessarily against her husband going to King's Landing to be the Hand. But I can see why it was dramatically necessary to have the battle about what Eddard should do externalized and turned into dialogue that took place in front of the Lord of Winterfell. When changes are made in the interest of creating good drama, I'm fine with that.

• Jason Momoa was terrific in the role of Khal Drogo (another nitpick that I hereby withdraw: I don't mind his guyliner. I'd felt odd about it when I saw some earlier footage, but it looks fine now). Despite a lack of dialogue (or perhaps because of it), he had a commanding presence in his scenes and looked every inch the fearsome Dothraki horse lord. It makes me even more irritated that 'Stargate Atlantis' underused him for much of that show's run. Sigh.

• Roger Allam gave perfect delivery to this line: "A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair."

• So, thoughts on Jaime and what he did to poor Bran? Hate him? Hate him lots? Thoughts on Nicolaj Coster-Waldau's performance? I thought he did a good job of getting a grip on a character who could have been unlikable yet still manages to have a certain kind of slippery charm. Another case of good casting.

• Thoughts on the accent Peter Dinklage is using as Tyrion? It seems much more noticeable and, well, bright and shiny than that of Tyrion's siblings. It's distracting, if I'm being totally honest. My husband thinks that's a choice the actor is making -- that Dinklage's Tyrion uses his voice for effect and consciously draws attention to himself and to his elocution and education, etc. I don't know if I agree with that, but we'll see whether the accent settles into a groove as the show moves forward.

• There was a lot of nakedness in this episode, most of it female. I'm not anti-nakedness, goodness knows, but it seemed to me that a lot of minor (and one major) female characters were presented in a sexualized light, but few male characters were presented in that way. Martin's novels have a goodly amount of sex in them, but on the page that sort of stuff seemed more evenly distributed between the genders. I don't know if they were just trying to distract people from the more exposition-y parts of the pilot with naked women, but it's something I couldn't help but notice as I watched the episode (The AV Club's Todd VanDerWerff had some thoughtful commentary on this topic in his excellent review of the first episode.)

• As the season goes on, if we can have a polite yet spirited discussion of everything I've brought up here -- including the topics in the bullet point above -- I'd be thrilled. There's so much in this series that is ripe for debate and further study. But I must say, I wrote the paragraph above a couple of weeks ago, well before a reviewer whom I can't bring myself to link to made many sigh-inducing assertions about 'Game of Thrones,' sex, fantasy literature and ladies. In the interest of avoiding the kind of spittle-inducing brainmelt I experienced after reading that review, I'll keep it short and just say this: My book club reads literary fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, history, science fiction and (at my recent suggestion) 'The Hunger Games.' Like pretty much every thinking adult I know, we're open to all of it. And as far as rebutting that review, I'll just link to these folks, who took it on far more coherently and amusingly than I would have been able to: Annalee Newitz (check out the reader input and photos in the comment area, especially this perceptive and accurate comment), Ilana Teitelbaum, Matt Zoller Seitz, TV writer Doris Egan and George R.R. Martin himself.

Finally, here are a few housekeeping notes. Please keep in mind that every commenter will be held to the standards set forth below.

• On this site, we observe the Lurkers Rule: The environment here should be so accepting, so calm and so non-screechy that the most timid lurker should feel it's safe to express his or her opinion. If you have a problem with any comment on this site, hit the "report this comment" button or email me at maureen.ryan@teamaol.com.

• If you express yourself in a hostile, repetitive or unpleasant fashion, or if your starting point is that 'Game of Thrones' is not something that should be subjected to thoughtful, rational discussions of its positive and negative aspects, this is not the site for you. Please read Alan Sepinwall's Six Simple Rules for Commenting if you want to know the rules that apply here. This excerpt should help: "Be nice. This is an opinion blog, and a place where people can and should argue passionately for their point of view. But there's a difference between arguing with passion and arguing with hostility. If you can't find a way to express your viewpoint without insulting other commenters, or getting strident and self-righteous -- say, equating your opinion with fact, and deriding other people for not seeing the truth of your words -- then either tone down your words until they're more respectful to other people, or don't comment."

• Please, please don't mention any spoilers about what happens in subsequent episodes. No talking about what happens in the books beyond the story lines we saw here.

• If you're new to the world of 'Game of Thrones,' do check out the fan sites Westeros, Winter is Coming and Tower of the Hand. They've got active message boards and a ton of interviews and intel, and if you want to get deeper into this world, you can't go wrong with those sites. HBO's got an extensive Viewer's Guide here. And of course, if you want to check out our features and interviews with the 'GoT' brain trust, including Martin and executive proucers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, go here.

• Finally, and this really is the last thing, go here for an exclusive interview with George R.R. Martin on the recent 'Lost' - 'Game of Thrones' kerfuffle.

'Game of Thrones' airs 9PM ET Sundays on HBO.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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dru

how was there more female nakedness than male? For every boob there was a guy without a shirt on. That you saw bare female chests as sexualized says more about your perceptions than it does about the show. I'd say there was an equal amount of nakedness.

June 14 2011 at 4:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
GingerGirl

I can honestly say that I was drawn into the HBO series immediately, and have since purchased the books and am working through them as quickly as possible! I love the visual effects, and ever episode tends to end with my jaw on the ground! I initially had a problem with the wigs, as well, but I must have grown accustomed to them, because it no longer seems to be an issue.

May 27 2011 at 2:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
adam

all episodes http://gameofthrones.earthstudio.pl/

May 19 2011 at 1:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mitch Guerrerio

Good review. I finished GoT (book) a day before the show premiered. Now I'm halfway through Storm of Swords. I noticed in episode 2 a conversation between Jaime and Cersei that was not in the book. But when Jaime is introduced as a POV later on he has a flashback and there was the exact scene that I saw. I was impressed. I disagree with you on Dany. I liked her while I read the book, more so after the golden crown. Clarke's rendition of her is spot on in my view. I pictured Cersei a bit younger but she is well portrayed. Theon was not what I expected and I knew Robert was fat but not what I expected him to look like. All in all great show.

May 14 2011 at 12:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jacob Klein

Great overview of a great series! Theres a preview of the next episode (I think we're on #5 now!) over at HBOWatch.

http://hbowatch.com/?p=949

Anyone else disturbed by how far they're deviating from the books?

May 11 2011 at 5:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Amy

I have never even heard of these books, but I am absolutely HOOKED on the show! HOOKED!!!

May 08 2011 at 10:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
T

I had not heard of the books and fell on the episode by accident, and I have anxiously anticipated each new episode. I am truly hooked. At first it was hard to keep up with all the characters and their names and roles, but I got it now. I am very impressed with the casting, from Eddard to Tyrion to Daenerys. It has so many dimensions to it that I enjoy. I didn't like seeing Lady the Direwolf being killed, but it showed what real pricks the Lanisters are. I am sure they will get their just rewards, as well as trying to kill Bran, they seem to be pure incestuous evil beings. I was somewhat confused with the opening with all the mechanical pop ups but that's ok. All the characters are well cast for their roles. I can't wait for episode 4, ( I may even read the books afterward)

May 04 2011 at 8:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mohamed Madoo

http://gameofthrones10.blogspot.com/

April 28 2011 at 2:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mohamed Madoo

http://gameofthrones10.blogspot.com/

April 28 2011 at 2:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mohamed Madoo

http://gameofthrones10.blogspot.com/

April 28 2011 at 2:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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