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Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming

“The things I do for love.”

[This review contains some back-story that hasn’t been covered yet by the show, but it does not spoil future events, just a few future revelations. It is safe for all but the most spoiler-phobic.]

The kingdom of Westeros is sort of shaped like the island of Britain, stretched out, with a cinched waist. The farthest north (Scotland) is extremely cold, populated by “wildings”—roaming bands with little or no centralized government. Thousands of years ago, the north also contained “white walkers,” and the Wall was built to separate them from the seven kingdoms to the south. While no one south of the Wall believes in the walkers anymore, the opening scenes of the series premiere indicate that the Westerosi may be in for a rude awakening. The Wall is guarded by the Black Brothers, whom we saw ranging beyond the Wall in the opener. We also met Benjen Stark, one of the leaders of the Black Brothers, when he came to visit his blood brother Eddard “Ned” Stark at Winterfell (the north of England).

Ned Stark (Sean Bean) is Warden of the North. Many, many years ago, when the seven kingdoms of Westeros were governed independently, the King in the North was a position of great power. Now, that power has waned somewhat, but as the North is roughly as large as the south (albeit sparsely populated), Ned is a formidable political player. He is also a good man: moral, upright, given to doing what is right and just rather than what is easy or fun. And Sean Bean is so hot.

Ned and his wife Catelyn “Cat” Stark (nee Tully) are attempting to raise their five children the same way: Robb, the eldest son and inheritor to the position of Warden; Bran, the middle son who likes to climb; Rickon, whom we didn’t meet (but trust me, he’s there somewhere); Sansa, the older daughter who likes pretty things and is rather shallow; and Arya, the younger daughter, a tomboy. Ned is also father to Jon, whose surname “Snow” indicates that he is bastard-born. Catelyn Stark doesn’t like Jon, because he represents Ned’s one betrayal of his marriage vows.

A generation ago, Ned supported Robert Baratheon’s rebellion against Aerys the Mad, Targaryen king from a long line of rulers, the first of whom consolidated the Seven Kingdoms. Ned and Robert Baratheon were fostered by Jon Arryn, which means their ties are nearly that of brothers (Robert was supposed to marry Ned’s sister, but she died)—and, most importantly, both Ned and Robert care deeply about this episode’s big reveal that Jon Arryn was murdered. (Also, Jon Arryn married Catelyn Stark’s sister.)

Robert Baratheon, whose seat of power is in King’s Landing (London), likes pleasure. Whores, drinking, hunting. He liked winning the kingdom but does not like ruling it—as Catelyn said, he is king because he likes taking things. He’s not a bad man, but rather a short-sighted one. He cannot imagine that what he wants might not correspond with what someone else wants. Did you notice how he assumed Ned would want his daughter Sansa to marry Robert’s daughter Joffrey?

Robert is king, but his genealogy matters less than his previous might in battle, his alliance with Ned, and his marriage to Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey). The Lannisters are from Casterly Rock (Wales), and are notoriously wealthy, pragmatic, and selfish. Cersei has two brothers: Jaime her lover (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and Tyrion the Imp (Peter Dinklage).

One threat to Robert’s reign lives across the Narrow Sea: Viserys and Daenerys, the last surviving Targaryens, children to the dead Mad King Aerys. Because the Targaryen kings traditionally married their siblings, the children are left with almost no loyal retainers or family ties except each other. They have lived in exile for most of their lives as Viserys attempts to raise an army with no cash and no friends. In the series premiere, Viserys finally sells the one thing he has when he gives Daenerys to Khal Drogo, leader of a Dothraki clan of marauders who roam the equivalent of Eurasia, killing, spoiling, raping, and looting.

Okay, that’s out of the way—and that’s part of the problem with this series premiere. I loved it, because I got to see characters that I care deeply for in hi-def color. Tyrion! Ned! Even the Hound! But I can’t imagine that anyone who hasn’t read the books felt any sort of excitement: this wasn’t a TV episode so much as the opening of a long series of novels. We are accustomed, in reading a novel—especially a fantasy or SF novel—to feel discomfited at first, as we try to discover the rules of the universe, the necessary vocabulary, the history and relationships already in place. We are less accustomed to that defamiliarization in a TV show, especially without a character to stand in for us, guiding us on our way through an unfamiliar universe as he or she discovers it along with us.

“Winter is Coming” asks viewers unfamiliar with George R.R. Martin’s novels for a lot of trust. And so will I: trust me, you will come to love this world and the people in it. Do you all remember the opening seven episodes of The Vampire Diaries? They were boring, but all that boring turned out to be incredibly useful and important world-building. Hopefully, Game of Thrones will manage to create audience devotion more quickly, but the same rules that apply to VD apply here. Go with it, trust the show, you’ll get hooked soon.

That’s not to say that this episode was rambling, though. The thematic tension centered on the question of sacrifice: what we ask others to do, what we are willing to do, and the costs of those sacrifices. Robert asked Ned to sacrifice his life, his land, and his family to support the throne. Jaime asked Tyrion to sacrifice his leisurely whoring to support the Lannisters and King Robert. Cersei asked Jaime to turn into a child-murderer to protect their incestuous secret. And Viserys asked Daenerys to sacrifice everything for his crown.

Everyone agreed. Those are the things we do for love, and love—not romantic love, but the love that springs from loyalty and binding oaths—is the currency of Westeros. Alliances, bonds, and promises mark a man as rich or poor, powerful or nothing. Game of Thrones is about the force of those bonds, but also about what happens when the bonds of loyalty are stretched too thin and ultimately break.

There is a fine line between a loyal friend willing to sacrifice, and a bitter enemy bent on vengeance. This isn’t The Hobbit. It’s violent, angry fantasy with rapes that make you cry, deaths that make you angry, children falling off buildings, and a rampant lack of justice for almost all the characters. It is wonderful. Trust me.

Bitter Enemies and Uneasy Peaces:

• My goodness, how much did all this cost?

• Tyrion Lannister is my favorite character, and Peter Dinklage did an incredible job.

• Sean Bean is so sexy.

• The exchange between Tyrion and the Hound (the man with the burned face and hairline) was hilarious. The Hound ruined Tyrion’s pun, but it was a good pun.

• Mmm... Sean Bean.

• No book spoilers, please. We’ll send the white walkers after you.

I’m going to let all of you rate this. It was a four-direwolf episode for me, but I know these books fairly well. What did you think? If you haven’t read the books, do you feel confused? Are you going to tune in next week?
Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)


  1. I watched it again last night and it was alright. Not the best opening episode I've ever seen but decent enough and I will stick with the series for the time being.

    The families are all an interesting enough bunch, especially Ned's with his several kids and loving wife.

    John Snow is the bastard child. Amazing how they managed to remind us of that at least six times in one scene, isn't it? I'm guessing he will get better storylines as the series progresses.

    The brother selling his sister to a warrior for an army was skeevy. The sex scene between sister and grunting army guy was one I could've done without seeing as well.

    Liked Tyrien the imp. One of the strongest characters in this one.

    Similarly, Cersei and Jamie shagging at the end and Ned's youngest boy being chucked off the building, saw it coming but still didn't like it.

  2. "Ned and his wife Catelyn “Cat” Stark (nee Tully) are attempting to raise their four children the same way"

    Make that five.

    Strong beginning, but Lena Heady as Cersei.. nope.

  3. I wondered when you were going to get to the review part, Josie! :)

    I had a very similar reaction. I loved seeing it all come to life. I kept having this surreal feeling that I was rewatching a pilot for a series I already loved. But I felt like it had to be off-putting to newbies.

    My husband (who hasn't read the books) watched with me, and when it ended, he didn't think he wanted to keep watching because it was all over the place. The next day, he decided to give it a few more episodes (with no prodding from me), so I started trying to highlight what he should have taken away from the premiere. The relationships, basic story bits, etc. And surprisingly, he kept saying, "OK, OK. I got that." So I guess it wasn't as confusing for newbies as I feared.

    I think they've done a stellar job casting. All the characters felt right to me. Even Lena Heady. I loved her scenes with Catelyn at the feast dinner. She brought just right superiority and cutting bile, all with the pained embarrassment at Robert's behavior evident underneath.

    My favorite at the moment is Emilia Clarke as Dany. She's doing simply fantastic work already. I can't wait to see her develop. Harry Lloyd is also great as Viserys. I'm so eager to see their story unfold this season.

  4. Yeah, that isn't so much a review as an introduction, is it? :-) I have no intention of providing that much backstory in each review, in case anyone is worried.

    I agree completely about Dany. She was captivating and managed to portray the stillness of a lifelong abuse victim without seeming wooden.

  5. sorry but dany and vyserys are sons of mad aerys, in the books viserys often refer to the fact that dany was too young to marry reagher witch caused the conflict between robert ned and the mad king when reagher become infatuated with ned's sister and kidnapped her.......

  6. giandomenico,you are correct. My copy of A Game of Thrones split that genealogical list onto two pages and I got confused with the spacing.

  7. Should the information about what caused the conflict with the king be considered a spoiler? I know it relates to past history for the characters we've met, but I don't believe it has been revealed on the show yet. I don't think we've even gotten mention of Viserys and Dany's older brother. Or did I miss it? There was a lot going on in the pilot.

    I imagine it is going to grow increasingly hard to separate what the show has revealed about our characters from what we book readers might know.

  8. I have the disadvantage of having neither read the book nor been raised in an Anglo-Saxon culture, so I was confused and left wondering what was happening in almost every scene. And I can't say I understand htem after the ep was over. The story didn't engage me and the characters didn't captivate me. Besides, it had virtually the same rhythm and a je ne sais quoi of other medieval shows like The Pillars of the Earth and Camelot, which were/are horrible.

    That said, after reading your review I've decided to give it another chance. I wish I had a friend who's read the books to guide me through along the episodes in real time.

    In the hair department, I have a rant: if you have to have a platinum blode character, why not cast a blonde actress? Emilia Clarke is a beautiful girl, but her hair looks terrible. It's either a wig or a very bad dye job, and it looks totally artificial. And before anyone says it's because they liked the actress (she's good, indeed), if they liked her so much they could have changed the character's hair to suit her. Rant over.

  9. Well, I can’t say Wales is the first thing that’s ever come to my mind when I think about the Lannisters. This must mean that Casterly Rock is Cardiff. Wonder if they have their own Torchwood? :)

    Fantastic review, Josie. As a pilot it did have its fault but I still loved regardless because of how brilliantly it managed to bring George R.R. Martin’s world to life. Everyone and everything just looked and felt right.

    Giandomenico, Dany had no part to play in the cause of Robert’s Rebellion as she wasn’t even born until after the war was all but over.

    And sorry to be another nitpicker, Josie, but, as interesting as it sounds, Joffrey isn’t Robert’s daughter.

  10. I haven't read the books and although I wasn't exactly excited about the pilot, it seems to me the story has a lot of potential. I have to say the way they introduced so many people and plot elements all at once put me off a little. On the other hand I haven't felt lost - it was obvious that I was missing a huge amount of backstory, but the pieces that were shown all made sense to me. So I will definitely be coming back, at least for a few more episodes.

    As for the characters, I can see why Tyrion is your favorite, Josie. One episode and I already love that guy. And on the other end of the spectrum, Viserys - wow. I think calling him a slimy bastard could actually be an insult to slimy bastards. Great job by Harry Lloyd. Also Jaime Lannister looks like he could be a fun character - with all his charming, nonchalant selfishness he almost makes evil look attractive :-) And Daenerys - oh my god, it's like someone took the most tragic of all the greek tragedies and distilled them into a form of one little girl. I don't know whether I want to hold her and tell her everything's gonna be all right, or just put her out of her misery.

    The other characters didn't make that much of an impression on me yet, but all of them seem to have a clearly defined role, none of the seemed pointless, and I'm quite looking forward to getting to know them better.

    Don't know what to make of the white walkers yet, but I suppose it will become clearer in the following episodes.

    All in all, I'd say three out of four cute dire puppies :-)

  11. Mark, good catch. I'm leaving that error in so I can claim to be supporting equal marriage rights in the subtlest possible way. (Unrelatedly, I am beginning to think I shouldn't ever post something I write before I've had my daily allotment of chocolate chip pancakes.)

    Michael, weren't they adorable? I especially liked it when Bran's little guy was all legs and ears.

  12. Gustavo, I'm not sure I would say that I've been raised in an Anglo-Saxon culture, although I see what you mean. Anyway, feel free to ask any questions here on the blog if something isn't clear.

    And they couldn't change Dany's hair. The hardcore fans would have been outraged.

  13. They got pretty darn tweaked about the dark eyebrows! Can you even imagine if they'd try to change the hair? Yikes!

  14. I haven't read the books (despite having the first one sat right next to me on the shelf... so I suppose at some point I must), but I really enjoyed this. It's just my cup of tea (and I don't drink tea). I've been put off extended fantasy sagas in the past due to a glut ridiculously over-long series' turning into absolute dross. Maybe it's time to saddle up the old fantasy horse again. (There is no horse). If the books eventually end up sucking... I'll just blame everyone here ;o)

  15. Josie, thank you for the offer. Sorry if I sounded bitter in the other post. It's just that I was very disappointed by this show.

    Josie and Jess, I agree. That's why they should have cast a blond actress and just dyed her hair a little lighter. The contrast between hair and eyebrows just adds to the effect of artificiality.

    (On a side note, I personally believe nobody should be darker than their own hair)

  16. Just my 2 cents...I have not read any of the books (so I am a n00b), and I wasn't put off by this opening at all. I have read enough articles leading up to this though that I pretty much had the characters and relationships worked out. I do think all the introductions were necessary - so even though that may not have thrilled the fans of the books, it was needed for the n00bs like me - especially those that went into it cold without all the pre-reading ;-)
    And Josie, agreed, Sean Bean is yummy. I also thought Harry Lloyd and Peter Dinklage were particularly good.
    I will definitely tune in for more!

  17. I haven't read the books either but I am definitely hooked on this show. I thought everything about it was amazing and the story is compelling. I am going to order the books and get started.

  18. I'm excited about this show. I haven't read the books but I love epic scale endeavors and I have a good feeling about this show. Read in another review that the queen is not just in an incestuous relationship with her brother--he's her twin (double ewww). Just thought I'd pass on that lovely factoid.

  19. My advice for anyone who hasn't read the books is - READ THEM!!! Seriously, if you enjoy reading at all, you'll enjoy this series. As a devoted fan I found myself practically gasping for breath as I saw this incredibly detailed and rich universe being rendered in living colour before my eyes. I am going to Love this series if Winter Is Coming is any indication.

    Practically everything and everyone was spot on with the books. And I am outraged enough that Emilia Clarke doesn't have to wear dark purple contacts (the eyes of the Targaryens), if they'd lost the hair too I would have been gutted. She was fantastic. So were Ned and Jon and Jaime and Catelyn and Tyrion. I am going to wait and see about Cersei, Sansa and Arya. Wow, it really is a lot of characters to get your head around. Just think how much easier it would be to get started on the books if you'd already seen this episode.

    Great summary Josie. I am sure most people will appreciate a little bit of backstory that pertains to each episode - the show likely won't have time to spell it all out.

    Hurrah Winter is Here to stay!

  20. I haven't read the books, but I understood the large majority of what was going on. My only troubles arose because I'm really bad with faces and names and remembering character relationships, so I didn't catch that that was the queen (just thought it was some random blonde lady) and that it was her brother she was having sex with. Your backstory brought a lot of depth to what I'd seen, though.

  21. I haven't read the books, but this series has been so praised by so many people that I thought I would give it a shot prior to the second series starting in a couple of weeks.

    Within the first fifteen minutes, I was completely lost. I had no idea who was what or how they were all connected. So, I gave up.

    I came onto to the site to leave a review and read Josie's excellent backstory. Wow, did that help. Armed with a pen and a piece of paper, I started it again. I drew up a chart as the characters were introduced with arrows that showed how they were all connected. A messy piece of paper, but it worked.

    It very, very quickly came together. Yes, there are a lot of characters and there is a lot of backstory, but it all makes sense. And it doesn't hurt that this is one of the most spectacular casts I have seen in a long, long time. Not as big a fan of Sean Bean as Josie, but I would watch Mark Addy do anything and I have had a crush on Nikolaj Coster-Waldau since forever.

    I am hooked. What a great story, filled with drama and tension and a cliffhanger finish. I can only imagine that the backstory is going to be as compelling as the story moving forward.

    Another reason I love this site. How many TV sites do you know that strongly recommend someone reads a book? Fantastic!

  22. ChrisB, I'm so glad it was useful! The show only gets better, and you'll have plenty of time to watch all of the first season before the second start on April 1st.

  23. ChrisB, so glad you tried again - this show is one of the best things on TV...as far as reading - have you checked the site's "what are you reading" thread? There are all kinds of great recommendations for books to read. I am trying to work through many of them....but keep getting behind as I pick up another show to watch (I'm looking at you, Supernatural!). But, seriously, if you are a big reader, check out the thread, it's great.

  24. Sooze -- funnily enough, I had not read that thread. Thanks for the suggestion. Of course, I could not help leaving a comment on the Twilight series.

    I am one of those sad people who would literally shrivel up and die without books. I usually have four or five on the go at any one time and there are books in every room of my house and in every bag that I carry out the front door.

    Right now, I am going through the Southern Vampire series and I ordered Game of Thrones last night. I would love to get that read before the second series starts.

    Enjoy Supernatural. I discovered it through Billie and loved it!

  25. There's also this thread, about the best SF and fantasy novels: http://billiedoux.blogspot.com/2011/08/top-100-science-fiction-and-fantasy.html It's linked at the bottom of the Book Reviews page.

  26. I have a question and this seems like the place to post it. (I haven't read the review or comments yet, so if this question is already answered here, I apologize in advance.)

    I've just finished the first book. Can I watch the first season now or do I need to read the second book before watching? Thanks!

  27. Yes, a.m.., you will be totally fine watching the first season.

    You should also be fine reading the reviews and the comments. Each season, we kept spoilers for book-readers in a separate thread, and I think we maintained a pretty strict quarantine.

  28. Thanks, Josie! I really enjoyed the book, so I hope the show lives up to my expectations...we shall see :)

  29. Finally, after waiting for my husband to have a free night to watch Winter Is Coming, I have to say, I loved it! As my previous comment says I've read the first book (and actually I've finished the second book now too). This was a great intro and got me excited to see more of the series. I thought they did a great job with casting--Sean Bean is perfect as a strong lord with morals and Joffrey really looks the part. I also thought the intro of all of the Stark children (including Jon Snow) was perfect. Arya (one of my favorite characters) doesn't play a huge role at the beginning but they did a great job of explaining a lot about her (and Sansa too) with only a few scenes.

    Finally, the one thing that others haven't mentioned that I really loved is the opening credits. I loved the clockwork-like building of the cities as we zoom around Westeros and the surroundings. I'm such a geek, but geography excites me!

    My husband wasn't as much of a fan, but I think I can get him to watch the second one, it just might take a little while. I'll come back and comment when I do...

    Great review, Josie!


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