GAME OF THRONES: A book fan’s review of “Winter is Coming” & “The Kingsroad”
Read on for my thoughts on the first two episodes of Game of Thrones, “Winter is Coming” and “The Kingsroad”:
I started reading George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones in August of 2009, after my brother recommended the book to me earlier that year, praising it effusively. He had sped through the four existent novels (about 800-1,000 pages apiece) that make up the A Song of Ice and Fire series (a fifth book is forthcoming), and even got his girlfriend hooked too. He explained to me that the series was on par with Tolkien in terms of quality, but “with less magic and stuff.” I was sold. I learned about the television series soon after I purchased the novel, and upon hearing that it was going to air on HBO, and that Sean Bean (Lord of the Rings) and Jennifer Ehle (Pride and Prejudice) would star, I was thrilled. (Of course, the role of Catelyn Stark ended up being recast, and is now played by Michelle Fairley.) Anyway, after I finished reading the book, I continued through the series and am currently about 80% through the fourth book, A Feast for Crows, on my Kindle. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, over the past 21 months I have been anticipating the HBO adaptation, and immersing myself in the world that Martin created. (Yes, I know that many people have spent years and years enveloped in this world, but I’m just citing my experience.) I have fallen in love with the Starks, Tyrion, Dany, and oh so many other characters (but I don’t want to spoil you), smiling over their victories and crying over their tragedies. (Warning: there is a lot of tragedy.) Basically, I’m invested in this world and in these characters, so that affects the way I view the television adaptation. Thus, when it came to writing up my thoughts on the pilot, I really struggled. I just had too many thoughts swirling around. So I decided to wait until the second episode aired, and write up something less recap-y and more review-y. N.B.: While I promise not to spoil any future plot points, I will be referencing the books a lot in my discussion of the HBO series.
We open the series on a group of Rangers leaving The Wall—the massive wall covered in ice that marks the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms. I was very impressed with the visual rendering of the wall, though it was no surprise, given all the promo materials released by HBO. This group includes three men who are members of the Night’s Watch—a sort of army/ penal colony/ monastery. They are a brotherhood sworn to protect Westeros from the threats behind the wall, and swear an oath that they will never marry, sire children, or own any land. Without wealth or family, the brothers of the Night’s Watch must spend their lives dedicated to their posts, and desertion is punishable by death. Unfortunately, this group of Rangers, while sent out to track some Wildings—people who live outside of civilization, north of The Wall—runs into a scene of carnage. Someone, or something, killed a whole lot of Wildings. We soon learn that it was the White Walkers, or as they are also referred to in the books, “The Others.” (No, not the kind who massacre aging Hippies or run from Smoke Monsters.) They are sort of like Ice Zombies. Their piercing blue eyes make them particularly creepy. Two of the three Rangers are killed, with the third fleeing for his life from the reanimated corpse of a child.
I found this opening to be a bit slow. I remember struggling through the prologue when first reading A Game of Thrones, so while the opening scene with the White Walkers was well done, I’m not sure if seven minutes featuring some nameless guys, who will never appear in future episodes, running from Ice Zombies in the snow, was the best way to open the HBO series. I mean, it’s very true to the book to organize it this way, and it sets things up for my very favorite scene in the pilot. However, it doesn’t really capture what makes the story so compelling (at least to me), and with eight hundred and seven pages to adapt into a ten episode season, some fat might have been cut. It could have been far shorter, or we could always get to the story of the Wildings and the White Walkers later.
We then cut to the opening credit sequence, which I really love. The music and maps set a lovely tone for the series, as well giving us a sense of its scope. King’s Landing, Winterfell, The Wall, and Pentos will be the main backdrops against which the game of thrones will play out. If you are a map geek (I know there must be some of you out there), a more detailed interactive map can be found on HBO’s site. Also cool: the map in the credit sequence changed in the second episode, to reflect the movement of the Dothraki. I will definitely not be fast-forwarding through the credit sequence on this show.
We were then introduced to the Starks at Winterfell. In a story full of people who do terrible horrible things, the Starks are the closest thing we have to heroes, so the casting here is key. Also, while this sprawling epic tells a complicated tale of the battle for the Iron Throne, it is the Stark children who are really at the heart of the books for me. It seems that all the children have been aged up on the show, in contrast to their ages in the books. This makes sense, given the logistics of filming, and the importance of their roles. So, Bran, for example, was seven years old at the start of the books, but is ten in the opening of the series. Isaac Hempstead-Wright seems to make the perfect Bran so far, and I look forward to more from him. While Jon and Robb are about fourteen years old at the start of the books, Kitt Harrington (Jon) looks to be in his twenties, and Richard Madden (Robb) looks to be in his late thirties. (Madden is only twenty-four, so I think it’s the facial hair—he does seem to shed about fifteen years when he shaves later.) Despite appearances, Ned’s oldest children are supposed to be seventeen or eighteen on the show, as Ned rode off to war leaving his pregnant wife seventeen years ago, and returned with a bastard son. So far, I like Harrington as Jon, but I don’t love him. Robb has barely had two lines, so it’s probably unfair to judge him yet. I think the show may have missed an opportunity here with Robb; the show could have diverged from the books, and given us the untold perspective of Robb from early on. I would have appreciated getting to know that particular character better than we did in the books. Also, the youngest child, Rickon, is there, just hanging out for now. He’s really too young to play any role for now, but I’m glad they kept his character.
And then there’s fan favorite Arya (Maisie Williams). I loved her introduction. Bran is practicing archery, but before he can shoot, his sister Arya hits the bull’s eye, from much farther away, and then curtsies. Oh, the curtsy! So ironic and hilarious, and it makes the perfect introduction to our beloved tomboy. Also, in the second episode, I absolutely loved the scene between Arya and Jon, when Arya is packing to go to King’s Landing. We really get to see their close connection. Jon may be only half-brother to his siblings, and his relationship to their mother is severely strained, but his siblings clearly love him and he loves them. And of course, Jon gives her Needle in that same scene, which is a big deal. “Stick ‘em with the pointy end!” Hee.
The contrast between Arya and her older more well-behaved sister is striking, as it should be, and I like the way the show has depicted their conflict from their first scene together. Sansa seems to exist in a different world than her siblings. She’s in a Disney Princess movie, while everyone else is in a political thriller. After meeting Joffrey (the most horrid child to ever live) she asks her mom, “Do you think Joffrey will like me? What if he thinks I’m ugly?” Catelyn replies, “Then he is the stupidest prince that ever lived.” I think that Joff has definitely got “stupidest prince that ever lived” covered, Mama Stark, and more. Sansa continues: “He’s so handsome. When would we be married? Soon? Or would we have to wait?” Again, the girl just met him that morning. When her mother tries to urge her to slow down, as her father hasn’t even agreed to the match, she begs, “Please make father say yes. Please please! It’s the only thing I ever wanted.” Such a naïve teenage girl, and we see what this romantic outlook costs her in episode two: her beloved direwolf, Lady. A lot of Sansa’s story revolves around learning these tough lessons about whom to trust and these lessons will continue to cost her dearly. I know a lot of people hate Sansa in the books, but I always see her as a rather tragic figure, and like with everyone else in Martin’s world, don’t get too comfortable in your views, because character growth never ends for these people.
Next, let’s discuss the adult Starks. I think Sean Bean was perfectly cast as Eddard “Ned” Stark. Absolutely perfect. We get to the heart of his character in the beheading scene of the pilot. The condemned man admits to his crimes as a deserter and oath breaker, but he adds: “I saw what I saw. I saw the White Walkers. People need to know.” Then Jon tells Bran: “Don’t look away. Father will know if you do.” Ned says some words, and then beheads the guy, cleanly in one stroke of his sword. Jon tells Bran, “You did well,” and then Robb and Bran walk off together. A short time later, Ned approaches Bran. He tells his son, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” Bran asks, “Is it true he saw the White Walkers?” Ned: “White Walkers have been gone for thousands of years.” Bran: “So he was lying?” Ned: “A mad man sees what he sees.”
This scene is my favorite part of the pilot, and also one of my favorite parts of the book. “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” With those words, we learn who Ned Stark is and the kind of world that he inhabits. He is a man who will always do his duty, even if he doesn’t like it. But he won’t do it lightly. Ned could have had any of the men under his command handle the beheading, but he didn’t. Ned is a Northman who follows “the old ways” and he teaches these ways to his sons. As Jon tells Bran, “Don’t look away. Father will know if you do.” And Bran doesn’t look away. Bran is only ten years old, but he may well carry the burdens of leadership someday. One must understand the consequences of the orders one gives. In the book, Ned elaborates: “If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.” It is implied that older sons Robb and Jon have already been taught this lesson, probably at a similarly tender age. Yes, it may seem harsh to subject your seven year old son to viewing an execution, but it is really a lesson in how to be a just man in a violent and harsh world. Children grow up quickly in this world, by necessity, but luckily for the Stark children they have role models in Ned and Catelyn so that they can face the challenges ahead. Ned is shaping his children’s worldviews in a way that is very different from the lessons given to King Robert Baratheon’s children.
This is somewhat echoed in episode two, when Sansa’s direwolf is condemned to die. Once again, Ned takes on the responsibility. In this case, the sentence is blatantly unfair, but he respects the direwolf as a creature of the North too much to deliver it into the hands of a butcher. The contrast between himself and Robert Baratheon, and between his family and the Lannisters, could not be more clear. But Robert is King, Cersei is Queen, and Joffrey is Prince. Ned must do his duty. He does something despicable and unfair in the most noble way that he can.
And speaking of the direwolves, I really enjoyed the scene where the puppies were discovered. When they see the dead mama wolf, at first Ned wants to kill the pups to spare them a long-suffering death by starvation. But Bran appeals to his father to spare the wolves’ lives. Jon points out: “There are five pups—one for each of the Stark children. The direwolf is the sigil of your house. You were meant to have them.” Ned finally agrees, but warns, “You will train them yourselves, you’ll feed them yourselves, and if they die, you will bury them yourselves.” Bran then asks Jon, “What about you?” There are only five puppies for the five trueborn Stark heirs. Jon says, “I’m not a Stark.” But luckily, we can dry our tears for poor Jon, because soon he hears a noise and discovers a sixth direwolf puppy. It’s all white, and the runt of the litter. Hurrah for Ghost! It is one of the happiest moments in the books for me when Jon discovers that there’s a direwolf for him. Awwww. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get to see Arya, Sansa, and Rickon meeting their puppies, and naming them in the pilot. I really love how much the children immediately bond with their new pets/ friends/ protectors in the books. However, we do get to see some awesome direwolf scenes in episode two, which clearly establishes that these wolves will protect the children by any means necessary. Sorry, would-be-assassins, you’re wolf-meat.
Next, there is Catelyn Stark, mother to five of the aforementioned children. She is one of the main narrators in the first book, and we see a lot through her eyes. I have seen a lot of chatter online discussing whether or not Game of Thrones features strong female characters (and I’ll talk more about that below), but I think people are severely undervaluing Catelyn Stark. Hopefully, the HBO series will begin to show us what her inner monologue in the books demonstrated so well. That woman may not have been born in the North, but she is as strong as any Northman, and as strong as Ned for sure. She is hard-core. I think it’s easy to be a bit alienated from her early on because of her treatment of Jon, but she is a proud woman, and Jon is a reminder of her husband’s betrayal. Also, the way that Ned treats his bastard son is very unusual in the world of Westeros. Her reaction is much more normative for the general society. (But still, Team Jon!) I also really enjoy the way that with so few scenes, the love between Cat and Ned is so clear. They obviously love and respect each other very much. As for the casting, I am still getting used to Michelle Fairley. She is not what I imagined, and like I said earlier, I had been really excited that Lizzie Bennett from the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice, Jennifer Ehle, was going to play the role. However, Cat’s character is one that it took time for me to love, so as Fairley’s portrayal evolves along with the character, I’m sure I’ll come to love her as Cat.
Now, let’s discuss the Lannisters. Tyrion Lannister is arguably the coolest character in the book series. He’s the smartest and he gets the wittiest lines, and with his connection to the Lannisters, he has a really complicated family dynamic. Really complicated. And yet, the show decided to for Tyrion’s first scene to be in a whorehouse. I mean, it is true to his character that he is fond of brothels, but I didn’t really like this introduction of him as a careless playboy who drinks all the time. I mean there are parts of that portrayal in his character, but that is not really the essence of who he is. And it did nothing to sell me on Peter Dinklage’s performance. (Still reserving judgment on Dinklage, and I am having trouble adjusting to his accent.) Luckily, Tyrion was far more Tyrion-like in the second episode, and I really enjoyed his exchange with Jon, discussing why he reads so much. Actually, to be fair, there was one really good exchange between Tyrion and Jon in the pilot. He tells the surly teenager: “Let me give you some advice, bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor. They can never use it to hurt you.” Jon retorts, “What the hell do you know about being a bastard?” Tyrion: “All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes.” Good stuff. And straight out of the books.
Tyrion has two siblings, twins Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). From their first scene, we know that they are in up to no good. In the scene at King’s Landing in the pilot, as Jon Arryn’s dead body lies in state, surrounded by candles and incense, we learn disturbing information. (Also: it only now occurred to me that Jon Snow was probably named after Jon Arryn, as he was Ned’s mentor. D’oh.) Cersei asks Jaime, “What if Jon Arryn told someone?” Jaime: “But who would he tell?” Cersei: “My husband.” Jaime: “If he told the king, both our heads would be skewered on the city gates by now. Whatever Jon Arryn knew or didn’t know, it died with him. Robert will choose a new Hand of the King—someone to do his job while he’s out f**king whores and hunting boars. Or is it the other way around? And life will go on.” Cersei: “You should be the Hand of the King.” Jaime: “That’s an honor I could do without. Their days are too long, their lives are too short.”
Later, Catelyn receives a letter from her sister Lyssa, widow to Jon Arryn. Lyssa suspects that her husband was murdered by the Lannisters, and that the king is in danger. All signs seem to point to Cersei and Jaime killing Arryn so that they could keep their secret safe. And we learn (at least one of) their secret(s) in the final scene: the siblings are having an illicit (and incestuous!) affair. Unfortunately, Bran becomes victim to this crime, when he catches sight of them while climbing the walls at Winterfell. After Cersei yells “He saw us! He saw us,” Jaime must react and fix it. He declares, “The things I do for love,” and pushes the boy out the window. Gaaaaaaah! Even though I knew it was coming, I still found myself shocked. Later, when Bran does not die, an assassin tries to finish the job—most-likely hired by the Lannisters. Villains, indeed. Though, I do find them in the love-to-hate category of villainy.
I think both Headey and Coster-Waldau are doing a great job in their roles so far. I was especially happy to see Lena Headey playing an evil queen, because that is like combining two of my very favorite things: Sarah Connor + Evil Queen. It’s interesting that the show is portraying Cersei a bit softer than I imagined her. I’m waiting to really see her icy steel come out. So far, her exchanges with Jaime make it seem that she is vulnerable and appealing to him for help and protection, which is not really the way I interpreted their relationship. Also, the scene between Cersei and Catelyn at Bran’s bedside, where she talked about her child who died, was surprisingly moving. It seems that they are really going to play up why Cersei is the way she is on the HBO series, from early on. She has suffered hardships and disappointments, and Robert has been a bad husband to her, etc. Both Cersei and Jaime’s characters evolve throughout the book series, and I look forward to seeing that process happen on screen too.
Finally, let us discuss the Targaryens and the Dothraki. At first, I must admit that Daenerys and Viserys ultra-white-blond wigs were a bit distracting. I mean, it’s true to the books, but on screen it all looks a bit much. However, once I got used to it, I was able to appreciate how good Emilia Clarke is as Dany, and I really look forward to seeing how she grows up over the season, and in future seasons. Harry Lloyd is perfectly loathsome as her controlling and abusive brother, Viserys, so good casting all around there. I would like to advise viewers of the the HBO series who might feel understandably nervous about Dany’s character arc, to please give it some time, if you’re willing. While she is certainly victimized quite a bit early on, don’t let that fool you. As I mentioned earlier, there has been talk about this series not portraying women well, or being a show that women would not enjoy. And then there has been a lot of talk in response to that. Without addressing any reviews specifically, I would like to address these issues more generally, and I think that Dany might be the best impetus for this discussion.
As an aspiring historian, who studies imperial women in ancient Rome, I am acutely aware that the status of women in the present day represents only a tiny fraction of the history of women. Guess what? Women have lived in patriarchal societies, where they were forced into marriage for monetary and/or political gain, for the majority of the known historical record. Women were not able to hold official office, and often their political roles were limited to the influence they could wield over husbands and sons. The world of Game of Thrones is such a world. I mean, yes, Game of Thrones is fantasy, but there is a great deal of realism. The social interactions seem to echo that of medieval Europe in many ways, with many other cultural variants mixed in. But there is so much more to the history of women than listing the grievances done to them. Characters like Dany, Catelyn, Cersei, Arya, and Sansa live in a world that limits and undervalues them in many ways. So what? This is the case for so many people—including the poor and the lower-class, or someone like Tyrion who was born different. But then what happens? Within this context, what were their lives like? What did they think and do? What were they able to accomplish in spite of these limitations? For me, that is what is really fascinating about the human condition, and we will certainly learn some answers to these questions over the span of this series.
Life is a long journey, and a hard one, for a lot of the female characters, but don’t imagine that their stories are worthless because they don’t have 21st century freedoms that the Western world takes for granted. And it’s not just girls like Arya, who break the bounds of established tradition, who are interesting. Martin has created a variety of female characters from all walks of life in his books, and with many different realities, dreams, aspirations, and political agendas. From the dutiful wife to the prostitute to the warrior to the little girl struggling to be herself, we can see so many ways to be a woman in that world. And the same goes for the portrayal of men in the books. Honestly, I think these books’ treatment of humanity in general is pretty impressive, and I hope to see that in the HBO series. And don’t count the ladies out of the game of thrones itself. Already in episode two, Robert Baratheon sees young Daenerys as a threat to his throne. It just may be that the ultimate winner of the Iron Throne could be female.
Luckily, we’ll have at least one more season to find out, as HBO has renewed the series for a second season. So, what did you all think of the first two episodes? Thoughts? Reactions? Comment below.
 George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones. (New York: Bantam Books, 1996), 16.