Game of Thrones – ‘Winter Is Coming’ (1×01)

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What strikes you about Winter Is Coming, the opening episode of Game of Thrones, is the children.

George R.R. Martin’s book saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, famously had the two central characters embodying the dual elements, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, as roughly around fifteen years old. For the purposes of producing a palatable, adult fantasy television show, HBO aged them up by around three or four years (though in casting terms near enough ten). The children we see, therefore, in the TV show adaptation are in some cases even younger than Martin’s original conception of these young Royal figures thrust into a story of war, magic, conquest and sexual misfortune. Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, even Joffrey Baratheon, all are demonstrably children when the show begins.

The show very much begins reminding us children are the heart and soul of Martin’s epic.

The world of Westeros often feels like it is being seen through children’s eyes in Winter Is Coming. From the terrifying spectre of a blue-eyed Wildling wight girl beyond the Wall, to Arya & Bran witnessing the coming of the King into their home of Winterfell, all the way through to the climactic fate suffered by Bran upon witnessing a licentious act. Indeed it isn’t just the children of youth who provide the prism through which Martin’s story begins – Jon and Tyrion Lannister both frame themselves as ‘bastard’ children in different perspectives, Daenerys and her brother Viserys Targaryen are children displaced of a hereditary entitlement they believe is their due, and Jaime & Cersei Lannister of course are children embroiled in a bond that goes beyond nature.

You can therefore position Game of Thrones, right from the very beginning, as a show about paternity, childhood and of course primogeniture, the Medieval right of the lands and titles of a realm or lordship being passed down to the first born son. The bigger world Martin created beyond the Seven Kingdoms covers a wide variety of governance styles but Westeros, immediately, we see is a feudal society, akin in many respects to Anglo-Saxon Britain with a variety of men who would be King. If anything, as a state Westeros has regressed following the rebellion of Robert Baratheon against the centuries old rule of unity by the Targaryen dynasty; whereas once the land was whole, despite Robert’s King title, it lies divided and carved between various ‘kingdoms’, some of whom rest under Robert’s rule, some of which openly reject it.

Feudally, therefore, we have a society where the rights of the male are immediately considered more important than the female, all the way from Queens down to children. Cersei is already here a coiled spring of resentment and frustration toward her husband – in love with her biological brother, thrust into a political marriage with a man who openly toys with other women in front of her, and quietly disdainful of both men and women around her. She may be the most powerful woman in Westeros but here, she’s aware, she has no real power at all. The same can be said for Daenerys – incredibly meek when first we meet her, innocent, corrupted in a sense by the sleazy, vengeful aspirations of her weak brother, she is a long way from the powerful, inspiring ‘Mother of Dragons’ she will become by the season finale. Dany, like many of the most important women in Game of Thrones at this point, is submissive.

In truth, the only woman in Winter Is Coming treated with any true accordance of respect and warmth is Catelyn Stark, which is somewhat ironic given (perhaps down partly to Michelle Fairley’s performance) there is an ice around Cat which belies her status as Winterfell’s matriarch. Ned Stark, as one of the few decent, honourable men in a decaying feudal society riven with conspiracy and corruption, treats his wife accordingly with the kind of decency and equality in many respects as women should be afforded—and eventually fight for in Martin’s narrative—but even Ned must abide by the rules and structures of ‘the system’, laws decreed by both Gods and Men from time immemorial in the grand historical tapestry underpinning Westeros.

Anyone who had read Martin’s tomes before watching the TV series will be aware of that tapestry but writers David Benioff & D.B. Weiss try not, advisedly, to front-load their pilot episode with too much incidental and historical detail. Given the deep complexity of Martin’s world-building, Game of Thrones benefits from putting character and story first over exposition and explanation – there would be plenty of time to understand quite what happened to put Robert on the throne, why Dany & Viserys are across the Narrow Sea in exile, and what the Wall and the Night’s Watch guard against. Hints, nonetheless, are present and correct in Winter Is Coming – none so more than the very title of the episode itself.

Winter Is Coming has become as iconic a television catchphrase for Game of Thrones as ‘Make It So’ became for Star Trek: The Next Generation, or ‘The Truth is Out There’ for The X-Files. Catchphrases are often born of dialogue which resonates beyond the series they are spoken in. To use the above examples – in The Next Generation, “make it so” as decreed by Captain Picard showed his strong sense of command and reliable authority in exploring the final frontier of deep space. “The truth is out there”, espoused by FBI agent Fox Mulder in The X-Files, was a beacon of hope in a world of conspiracy and lies, a resolute reminder of the determination that whatever secrets were being kept from the American people, and the world, would be exposed. Both caught on because they struck a chord.

In the 1980’s, people responded to a character like Picard, with his unerring sense of dignity and trustworthiness, in the midst of Reagan-era austerity and growing levels of despair, wanting to believe in a leader who could guide everyone to a more prosperous, warm, hopeful future. Once the 1990’s had given way to a zeitgeist ensconced in mistrust of the government, Mulder’s belief served too as a salve in a different sense – his crusade was ours, looking for the truth within a nebulous tangle of deception, truly hopeful his belief would be validated. Both dignified, honourable men, much like Ned, who becomes the mouthpiece of “winter is coming” and establishes in that line the very tone Game of Thrones would radiate: uncertainty.

The double meaning is not hard to fathom. While ostensibly Ned refers to the unique weather system of Westeros, in which seasons are unnaturally extended for many years, in truth given Sean Bean’s dour, anxious delivery, Winter very much serves as a worrying metaphor for change. Summer has raged across the continent for many years, within an age of relative peace since Robert seized the throne, but the warning advent of Winter—both literally and metaphorically—encapsulates the social and economic forces which would underpin the Game of Thrones narrative. Ned knows ‘summer’ cannot last forever, senses the peace they have enjoyed cannot last on the wind, and throughout consistently bears the weight of this anxietal fear until its essentially confirmed by news Jon Arryn, Hand of the King (essentially Prime Minister of the realm), has apparently been murdered by an insidious conspiracy.

Game of Thrones, therefore, rests fairly comfortably alongside several of its televisual forebears in reflecting the concerns of its age. Martin wrote what would become the first season of the show, in his first book A Game of Thrones, in the mid-1990’s, at the point The X-Files and conspiracy fiction was at the height of influence and critical buzz that Game of Thrones itself would reach roughly twenty years later. The fact Martin, once he realised he was writing a fantasy series, instilled that same existential uncertainty about our world and governance into the realm of the Seven Kingdoms is telling, and in 2011 when Game of Thrones premiered those fears and concerns about the scope of corruption at the very top once again were beginning to rear their head.

The episode title and Ned’s brooding, ominous warning therefore is vindicated by him needing to head for capital city King’s Landing to become Robert’s new Hand, not because he seeks any level of power but rather because his innate dignity, that determination to protect the realm and his family from forces who would seek to control and subjugate, means it’s his ‘duty to serve’. Service, too, is very important in the framework of Game of Thrones, as indeed is duty. They are the lynchpins which keep together the feudal society of the Seven Kingdoms, and very early on the story communicates this through the execution of Gared, the Night’s Watch ranger who Ned, with no pleasure, has to kill because he left his post escaping the White Walkers. Desertion is considered equivalent to betraying not just the realm but its people, and traditions die hard in the North, as we will see.

What’s interesting, when you look back, is how Game of Thrones—both in the show and the books—positions the White Walkers as a terrifying threat from the very beginning of the entire story. Myth and legend are key to the world-building Martin gives us, and many stories would be told in both versions of Game of Thrones which play up to these legends, but Game of Thrones immediately leaves no ambiguity that the Walkers exist. They are real, they are beyond the Wall, and they are deadly. Incidentally, they were known as the Others in the books, but the name was perhaps changed to avoid confusion with the recently ended TV powerhouse Lost, and by calling them ‘Walkers’ we further find comparisons between their portrayal and the zombie genre Martin clearly takes a cue from in their presentation. The word ‘zombie’ doesn’t exist in the show or books vernacular but those touchstones are very clear.

If myth and legend are crucial, right from the beginning, so then are symbols, signs and portents. In those opening White Walker scenes, a strange symbol is presented to us out of, in macabre fashion, severed body parts, which turns out to be a level of significant foreshadowing which we’ll discuss much much later (or go here if you want to know now what it means). Portents are conveyed through one of the other powerful channels of understanding and visibility in Westeros – Nature. Ned and his sons discover a gruesome animal slaughter tableau which prefigures significant future events in the political sphere of Westeros – a stag (sigil of the Baratheon house) gored to death, in much the same way Robert would later die in suspicious, possible assassination circumstances. It feeds into the continued depiction in this pilot of birth and death, even beyond the death of Jon Arryn representing the passing of the old guard and beckoning the advent of a new world, where the children are the future.

The ‘direwolf’ puppies being discovered—animals which shouldn’t be as far south as they’re found—amidst the animal slaughter clearly represent how the Stark dynasty will be surrounded by death and loss, but many of them will rise up from the ashes. The puppies are born in the midst of death, born to parents who would soon after die. It’s telling that Jon gets, as Theon puts it, “the runt of the litter”, being the least regarded of the Stark children, as it tracks with the major narrative device already being employed in this pilot episode – how it won’t be the conventional heroes or powerful figures who will change the world of Westeros. It’ll be Jon the bastard. Tyrion the drunken dwarf. Daenerys the subjugated sister. Note that Dany is given her dragon eggs in this episode too and while they won’t hatch until the finale, the symmetry is being positioned. Similarly when Dany climbs into the tub which is ‘too hot’ or Jon volunteers to become part of the Watch in the cold north. Ice and fire. The wolf and the dragon. It feels as though the Gods are trying to foretell the future through symbols, animals and the natural world.

Gods are legion in Martin’s world. Within the books, there are dozens, if not more, amongst a variety of different Kingdoms and races across the entire planet, but Winter Is Coming doesn’t delve too heavily into them at this stage. Ned & Cat discuss them at the Godswood tree, a setting which radiates an ancient source of power, and in Ned suggesting to her “it’s your Gods with all the rules”, we immediately do learn that Westeros has a polytheistic religious establishment. Unlike Anglo-Saxon or united Britain, the Christian-style monotheistic belief in a singular God hasn’t taken hold in Westeros, rather the idea of a multitude of Gods to worship. Religion will play a much bigger role in the lives of these people as the series continues, but the key elements are lightly established in the pilot episode.

Foreshadowing has been mentioned previously but it seems more keenly presented within the prism of the younger Stark children. Bran, before being crippled, has the agility and spirit we would later see exuded by his sister Arya. She too shows a clear, visible interest in the Hound aka Sandor Clegane when he reaches Winterfell with the retinue of Kingsguard. Crucially, Arya also wears a guard’s helmet until Ned, lightly chastising her, removes it. This is arguably the first ‘disguise’ Arya would present in a journey which would cut to the core of what identity itself means. Sansa, meanwhile, is reinforcing the heroic, heraldic fantasy she would have read about in sagas – imagining Prince Joffrey as a handsome Prince Charming, with she as his Princess. Hers is a romantic fairytale which doesn’t quite fit the cold, harsh realities of Northern life. Cersei, too, notices this in her from the very beginning, seeing no doubt a reflection of her own fantasies and beliefs at a similar age.

What we find in Winter Is Coming, therefore, is a potent and telling mixture of prophecy, portent, symbology and anxiety about a world on the verge of major sociological and historical change. Characters are placed at the forefront, story points are established, but there is a very clear understanding of the deeper mythology at the heart of the book series, which will ripple out in significant detail across the seasons to come. The blueprint, and plenty of foreshadowing, lies within a pilot which establishes not just its place within the world of Westeros, but its place within the world of current television and society around when the series was made.

Game of Thrones, already from its opening episode, reflects a great deal more reality than its fantasy trappings may actually admit.

Check out our reviews of the first season of Game of Thrones:

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