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Direwolves in the Woods: Thoughts on the Series Premiere of HBO's Game of Thrones

Winter is coming, as we're told several times throughout the first episode of HBO's lavish and gripping new series, Game of Thrones, based on the George R.R. Martin novel series "A Song of Ice and Fire." It's a belief that the halcyon days of summer will soon be behind us, that the icy grip of winter--true winter--will soon wrap its fingers around our throats. Those happy days are behind us.

In the series premiere of Game of Thrones ("Winter is Coming"), written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Tim Van Patten, the signs and omens are gathering around us. A direwolf has been slain by a stag, in turn killed by the great wolf itself, her children spilling from her bellies as orphans. In a world that moving forward away from superstitions, it's a tableau that should give even the deepest cynics of Westeros pause for thought. Change is coming to Winterfell and, by the time the closing credits of this first episode roll, the Starks have been changed forever.

You had the chance to read my advance review of the first six episodes of Game of Thrones a few weeks back but, now that the first episode has aired, we can discuss the series opener in depth. So put on your fur-lined cloak, sharpen your broadsword, get a good grip, and prepare to discuss "Winter is Coming."

The question I get asked more than any other about Game of Thrones is how this pilot episode compared to the original pilot, directed by Tom MCarthy (who has a consulting producer credit on the reshot first episode). Answer: night and day. While some of the original footage does make it into the redone pilot (Bran climbing the walls of Winterfell when he spots the king's retinue; Ned and Robert in the crypts), the overall effect is entirely different.

(Aside for the fans of the books: While this version captures the scope and scale of Westeros and the production, the original felt more insular, slightly more claustrophobic and narrow. Here, there's a sense of space and movement: the walls of Winterfell contrasting with the openness of the sea at Pentos, the brutal North at odds with the luxuriousness of Illyrio's mansion across the Narrow Sea. The opening sequence and Dany's wedding night are handled differently here than in the original pilot. The recastings are all fantastic in my opinion, though I do mourn the loss of the corpulence of Illyrio, originally played by the great Ian McNiece. Roger Allum, taking over for him, is fabulous, but lacks the physicality for the role. It is, however, a mere quibble amid a production that is as studied and accomplished as this one.)

This is grand fantasy, writ large. Seemingly no expense has been spared and bringing the world of Westeros to life, but writers Benioff and Weiss and director Van Patten also know that they can't coast by on grandeur and beauty shots alone. The characters as we meet them here are vivid and compelling, even though there are a lot of them. There's a fair amount of exposition to get through in any series opener and the first episode of Game of Thrones is no exception. We very luckily have the Stark children to fill in some of the blanks when King Robert's retinue arrives at Winterfell, allowing the audience some semblance of a toehold when it comes to keeping track of the Lannisters and who they are: haughty Cersei, arrogant Jaime, and vivacious Tyrion. (Tyrion should already been a favorite of the audience. While his accent is shaky at times, Peter Dinklage brings this remarkable and nuanced character to life brilliantly. If he's not already a favorite, he soon will be.)

But this is an episode that's largely full of set up for the plots to come, as Ned is offered the position of Hand to the King to his childhood friend Robert; Catelyn learns that her sister Lysa believes the last Hand, her husband Jon Arryn, to have been murdered by the Lannisters; Dany is wed to Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo; and little Bran is pushed out of a window after learning of the secret of the Lannister siblings: Cersei and Jaime are not just twins, but lovers as well. There's a lot of information to process, but I think the writers do a superb job at keeping the pacing moving, even as we're introduced to a myriad of plots and characters, meeting the major players from House Stark, House Baratheon, House Lannister, and House Targaryen. There's a lot to keep straight here, but it's also not being spoon-fed to the audience; it's refreshing in this day and age to see a production that doesn't denigrate the intelligence of the audience but instead plays up to it.

There's an aura of dread and of transformation at play here, as the King arrives in Winterfell and alters the fabric of the Starks' lives. Will Ned accept and move his family south? Will Cersei and Jaime's need for secrecy cause the death of wee Bran Stark? Will Catelyn heed her sister's warning? The game of thrones is just beginning once more and the players are already getting into position. Even as the court intrigues reach Winterfell, across the Narrow Sea, the two remaining members of the old dynasty, the Targaryen clan, are making preparations to reclaim their throne from the Usurper, Robert Baratheon.

Viserys sells his sister Daenerys to the Dothraki, making her a queen--or khalessi--in exchange for a Dothraki horde to reclaim his crown. A pawn in the quest for kingly conquering, Dany is a girl thrust into womanhood, a bride forcefully taken, a gift of beauty in exchange for warriors. Her innocence is in deep contrast to Viserys' brutality; his line about letting all of Drogo's warriors and their horses having her if it meant him getting what he wants was shocking and terrifying. Pale-haired siblings with nothing to lose and everything to gain, exiled royalty desperate to return home, wherever that might be.

Adaptation is always difficult and when you have a book as deep and dense as Martin's "A Game of Thrones" to work with, there are always going to be things that don't make it into the picture, due in part to the internal nature of Martin's work. By having a different character narrate each chapter, we're given the chance to view this story from the vantage point of third-person omniscient narration, allowing the reader to learn the backstory, the inner-most thoughts and desires of the character in question. Television is a vastly different medium and that's not an option for the writer here. (Trust me: we don't want to see voiceover.)

Which means that certain elements are going to be left off of the page and the screen, as it were. Characters will have to be composited or eliminated altogether, and plots may have to be rejiggered. Still, with the series opener, Benioff and Weiss deliver a staggeringly faithful adaptation of Martin's novel, and if the cliffhanger ending ("The things I do for love") wasn't enough to pique your interest, I don't know what is. What follows over the course of the next few episodes is gripping stuff: human-level fantasy that skimps on sorcery for magic of a different kind: making you care for a world that's vastly different to our own, yet in some ways hauntingly similar and to feel a sense of kinship to characters who are as humbly flawed as you or I. This is humanistic fantasy, a world of moral greys and hard choices.

That said, the only real complaint I had with the first episode was the fact that I didn't think the emotional rapport between the Stark children and the direwolves was sufficiently developed. We get the sense that they're cuddly and cute and Bran's direwolf, Summer, moans nervously as his master climbs the wall, but I wanted to see more of an actual rapport between child and animal. To go back to the tableau established at the beginning of this post, these Starks were meant to have these creatures by their sides, as Jon Snow suggests. Which supposes some sort of divine intervention or fate. If that's true, I wanted to feel that there was an unbreakable bond between Stark and wolf, but our exposure to the animals is limited to the scene in the woods and two shots of Bran's wolf, now older. Without giving anything away, I will say that the direwolves are key to the plot and the overall narrative and the lack of rapport here was the one thing that I felt was lacking from an otherwise stellar series opener.

Still, it's a minor complaint amid a production that virtually did everything else right. The tension established by the prologue, occurring on the other side of the vast Wall, creates a ribbon of unease unfurling just underneath the surface. What does it mean for Winterfell and the world? What happened in those woods? What are the white walkers and why does it frighten Will so much that he deserts his post as one of the Night's Watch? Was he mad or is a terrifying omen of something far worse to come? For now, it's far from the goings-on at Winterfell, where matters both politic and personal rule supreme. But there's the sense that the walls as they were are closing in from all directions: something evil stalks the woods while across the sea an old enemy threatens the peace of the Seven Kingdoms once more. That is, if they're not destroyed from within first...

Now that the wait is over and the first episode has aired, I'm curious to know what you thought of the series opener. Did it grab your attention? Were you confused by the panoply of characters or the separate narratives? Were you shocked by the ending of the episode as Bran was pushed from the tower? And, most importantly, will you tune in again next week?

Next week on Game of Thrones ("The Kingsroad"), Branʼs fate remains in doubt; Ned leaves the north with daughters Sansa and Arya, while Catelyn stays behind to tend to Bran; Jon Snow heads north to join the brotherhood of the Nightʼs Watch; Tyrion decides to forego the trip south with his family, instead joining Jon in the entourage heading to the Wall; Viserys bides his time in hopes of winning back the throne, while Daenerys attempts to learn how to please her new husband, Drogo.


Brandon said…
I haven't read the books, but I'm immediately a fan of the show. Great episode - I wish it was a longer premiere :) I didn't have too much trouble figuring out who was who, although I do have you to thank for the character slideshow beforehand, which helped immensely. The discovery of the Lannisters as lovers really excited me, but I wasn't expecting Jaime to push Bran out, I let out quite a large gasp. Great stuff, looking forward to all your recaps of 2 amazing Sunday shows, The Killing and Game of Thrones. It shouldn't be legal to have two shows this good on on the same night!!
Anonymous said…
Great, great article! I have read the books and I agree with most of what you said. I have some mixed feelings about the overall message that some adaptations sent to viewers (the wolves, the introduction of Jorah Mormont, Dany's first night with drogo, etc). But that's ok, I am probably being too picky. I can't wait to watch the second episode!
shaxs said…
AMAZING! It was such a great pilot episode! My only dislike was the casting for Catelyn. I dont know why but she seemed off. Other than that, it was a great. Cant wait for the next!
Ally said…
I was definitely happy to have your glossary right next to me while I watched. I was engaged from the first frame. It's a lot of exposition, to be sure, but I am more than intrigued to see where it all goes. And that ending - wow! I can't say I expected it at the beginning of that scene, but as soon as Cersei turned his back on the boy, I knew what was coming. Still - I gasped.
Ally said…
I meant Jamie...of course. These names!
Unknown said…
The pilot was perfection. The prologue was genuinely frightening, the opening credits are entertainment in and of themselves, the cast was outstanding (possibly with the exception of the ice-faced Lena Headey as Cersei), the cinematography and sets exquisite...

Overall, a 10/10.
Brian said…
In regard to your comment about the rapport between children and wolves, I noticed its startling absence as well. As a fan of the books (and the show) it was one of the few things that struck me as missing in the adaptation. I would assume the writers were busy giving us so many human characters to care about that they ran out of room for the wolves. Of course, with what's to come in the next episode (based on the preview) regarding the young wolf pups and their fates, I'm sure they'll build up the animal characters a bit in the next episode. If they don't, a dramatic decision is likely to be rendered pretty meaningless and the writers were too faithful to this episode to have me believe that they would let such an integral part of the story fall by the wayside.

My other nitpicky complaint was the way that Daenerys' wedding night was handled. I noticed that it was mentioned in another comment here as well. Since the Targaryen princess seemed so uncomfortable with her marriage consummation, I am interested to see how she will come to accept her new Dothraki culture as she did at this moment in the books.
Jace Lacob said…

Both issues are dealt with in subsequent episodes. Next week's is extremely faithful to the book and contains some moments that advance the direwolves' plot, but the emotional rapport isn't as developed as it should be. As for Dany, we still get there even with the changes. (Interestingly, the original pilot hewed closer to the novel in this respect.)
I love the books (can't wait for the next one to finally come out!) and thought this was pretty faithful- some of the dialogue seemed to lift straight off the pages of the book.. but I do agree about the lack of direwolf/Stark interaction.. Also (not that I'm complaining) Jon and Rob seemed a little too old and muscular- aren't they about 14 or so at the start of Game of Thrones?
Bella Spruce said…
I had very high expectations and the first episode did not let me down. I knew the cast was going to be great but the pacing and look and feel of the whole thing was brilliant too. Looking forward to more!

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