Friday, April 22, 2011

Game of Thrones 1.01: "Winter is Coming"

“He won’t be a boy forever. And winter is coming.”
-Ned Stark

So with “No Ordinary Family” ending rather early, I decided to add another show to the blogging rotation. I’ll be covering HBO’s fantasy epic “Game of Thrones,” based on the “Song of Ice and Fire” series of novels by George R.R. Martin, here at MTVP. To be honest, if I had my choice of spring shows to add, I’d probably add BBC America’s “Doctor Who,” which premieres this Saturday, but Doctor Who is airing on a split season this year, and I don’t blog split seasons as a rule, because I never know what the blogging schedule will be like when the second half of the season is due to premiere. Anyway, I have not read the “Song of Ice and Fire” books, which seems to be a theme with my viewing of HBO series. I had not read any of the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries before watching “True Blood,” either. I’m planning to cover “True Blood” season 4 here, by the way, which is based on my favorite of the Sookie Stackhouse books, “Dead to the World.” I imagine I will probably be starting to read the “Song of Ice and Fire” series this summer after the first season of “Game of Thrones” ends. Which means, while some of the points I am about to make are somewhat critical, I by no means hated it overall.

Now that all that housekeeping is over, let’s get into the actual show. I did not find “Winter is Coming” to be especially inaccessible as a non-reader of the books. It took some time to keep the many characters straight, but with the help of Wikipedia and the HBO website, I think I have most of the names down. I was able to figure out most of their relationships to each other without extra help, so I think that’s a mark of fairly successful visual storytelling. I was a bit turned off by the way women in general were treated (the pilot on its own has two young women about to be placed in to marriages for political gain), but I loved the production values. I’m willing to give the story more of a chance, and frankly, I’m hoping it will seem a bit less misogynistic once the story gets going and the characters have a chance to grow and deepen. I will say that I enjoyed the episode more on rewatch, probably because I had gotten past the shock of some of the things that happened in the episode.

The episode opens with a really beautifully creepy horror sequence. The Night’s Watch, a group of men who pledge their lives to defending the land of Westeros from all means of nasty people and things that live north of the Wall, are on the wrong side of the Wall to check out some recent troubling happenings. The creepy sequence involves a bunch of frozen dead bodies, a reanimated little girl (who was extra creepy), and a lot of violence. One of the members of the Night’s Watch wants to go back to the Wall (and I don’t blame him), and he’s told that if he does, he’ll be a deserter and sentenced to death. White Walkers start attacking the Night’s Watch, and the would-be deserter starts to run and becomes an actual deserter. He’s apprehended of course, when he gets back on the Westeros side of the wall. Bran Stark, ten-year-old son of Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark of Winterfell, is brought to see the beheading. It’s an interesting take on how in a harsh world, kids need to grow up fast.

I’m not really going to go through the rest of the plot in detail, because I’m sure I’ll get something wrong. I think instead I’ll just briefly touch on some important things that happened, some things I liked, and some things that gave me pause. And not necessarily in that order. I thought the introductions to the major characters were for the most part very effective. I especially liked a scene near the beginning of the episode where we are first introduced to the Stark family. We see little Bran practicing and not really succeeding at archery, when all of a sudden his young sister Arya leans out of a window behind him and shoots a perfect bulls eye. I think this shows a lot about both characters. Other character introductions are handled equally well. We see older Stark sister Sansa excelling at what appears to be embroidery (or some sort of sewing) lessons, which flows very well into her later desire to become the future queen of Westeros by marrying Prince Joffrey. Through Ned’s interactions with Bran during and after the beheading, we are introduced to Ned’s personal philosophy of honor and justice- it is of prime importance to him that the person who delivers a sentence also carries it out.

I think the Lannisters, the in-laws, as it were, to King Robert Baratheon, are also introduced especially effectively. The initial introduction of twins Cersei and Jaime was a little dry, with the two of them having a conversation that generally just serves to download a bunch of information to viewers about how Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, is dead, and the Lannisters may have had something to do with it. Also important is the fact that Cersei is the Queen (she’s married to King Robert), and Jaime is one of the King’s guards. We get more characterization of Cersei once the King and his court take a trip to Winterfell to visit the Starks. The King intends to ask Ned to be the new Hand of the King. When the King’s party arrives at Winterfell, the King immediately wants to see the grave of Ned’s sister, to whom the King was once engaged. Cersei is not particularly happy about this. The King asks Ned to be the new Hand, and he also suggests that they should join their Houses by having Sansa marry the King’s son Joffrey. At a later feast, Cersei again shows her true colors by grilling Sansa and making her quite uncomfortable. The third Lannister sibling, Tyrion, gets the most effective introduction, I think. Or at least the most memorable. He missed the big Winterfell welcome from the Starks because he was too busy sampling the local brothel, and that’s where Jaime finds him.

Robert may be king now, but his family wasn’t always in power. We also meet the two known surviving members of House Targaryen, the former ruling family. Brother and sister Viserys and Daenerys are exiled to the land across the Narrow Sea from Westeros. Viserys is seriously creepy and wants nothing more than what he sees as his rightful throne back. What makes him the most creepy is the too-close-for-comfort relationship he seems to have with Daenerys. Like in the time of Cleopatra, the Targaryens, when they were the ruling family, tended to marry their siblings to keep the bloodline “pure.” He has decided he is going to essentially sell Daenerys to the Dothraki warrior Khal Drogo in exchange for Drogo giving him an army to help take back Westeros. There’s an early scene where Viserys “examines the merchandise” he’s about to sell to Drogo that definitely squicked me out. After watching this episode, I ended up going on a bit of a binge of other projects Harry Lloyd, who plays Viserys, has done to kind of quell the squick. I watched the two part episode from series 3 of Doctor Who, “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood,” where he plays a creepy early 20th century schoolboy who gets possessed by an alien. It was a more palatable brand of creepy. And I watched an episode of the recent BBC series “Robin Hood,” where he played Will Scarlett.

Anyway, Daenerys is presented to Khal Drogo, who decides she’ll do just fine as his wife. Daenerys wants no part of it, but she really has no choice. Viserys puts it in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t care what it takes to get “his” throne back. I think this whole plot was the plot I was least comfortable with in the episode, for a variety of reasons. The wedding was very hedonistic, and it seemed like there was, perhaps unintentionally by the production team, some real “Othering” going on that could be considered offensive. Then there was Daenerys and Drogo’s wedding night, which was just horrifying for Daenerys and leaves her crying. I know full well that this is significantly different in the book, but I think it was an important change, because it seems to me that the situation Daenarys found herself in was quite horrifying on every level, and any thought that she might actually enjoy what is happening to her is really just a fantasy.

So this episode did a decent job introducing the world of Westeros and the important characters. There was also some political intrigue set up that will certainly take us at least through the rest of the season. The Starks receive a middle-of-the-night message from the sister of Ned’s wife Catelyn. Catelyn’s sister was married to Jon Arryn, and the letter says that she thinks her husband was murdered. Catelyn really doesn’t want Ned to go to King’s Landing to be the Hand now, but Ned really has no choice. I imagine Catelyn will be even more unhappy about Ned’s choice once she finds out what happened at the very end of the episode. Young Bran was climbing the Winterfell walls to see a big hunting party leave when he accidentally sees Cersei and Jaime (yes, the twins…I know…squick) going at it in a tower. They’re afraid Bran will tell someone what they’ve been up to, so Jaime pushes him out the tower window. Quite the cliffhanger for next week.

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