A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 1.01: Winter is Coming
State of Play
The choir goes off. There is a cold open running seven minutes set beyond the Wall. The first shot is three men of the Night’s Watch atop horses waiting for a gate to open.
The board is laid out thusly:
Direwolves of Winterfell: Eddard Stark, Catelyn Stark, Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Robb Stark, Bran Stark
Stags of King’s Landing: Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Sandor Clegane, and Tyrion Lannister
Dragons of Pentos: Daenerys Targaryen, Viserys Targaryen
Fleurs-de-lis of Pentos: Jorah Mormont
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
The Wall is unmanned.
The episode is in seven parts. The first runs nine minutes and is set in Winterfell. Its transition is via image, opening with the sole survivor of the White Walker attack in the cold open being captured. It features the death of Will, the deserter from the Night’s Watch, who is beheaded by Lord Eddard Stark.
The second runs two minutes and is set in Kings Landing. The transition is via hard cut from the Starks finding the direwolves and an establishing shot of King’s Landing as the funeral bells toll for John Arryn.
The third runs thirteen minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is via dialogue, with Jaime and Cersei talking about the death of John Arryn cutting to a raven flying towards Winterfell bearing the news. At the halfway mark, Tyrion is being introduced.
The fourth runs six minutes and is set in Pentos. The transition via dialogue, with Robert saying that not all Targaryens are gone to Daenerys Targaryen looking out her window.
The fifth runs ten minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is via theme, from Daenerys’s arranged marriage to Sansa’s.
The sixth runs even minutes and is set in Pentos. The transition is via dialogue, with Maester Luwin referring to Aerys Targaryen and a cut to an establishing shot of Daenerys’s wedding to Drogo.
The last runs three minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is via theme, from Daenerys’s rape by Drogo to Tyrion and the Hound talking about sex. The last shot is Bran falling from a window, shouting “Mornington Crescent.”
It is a Great Game, in the Sherlockian tradition. A literary game of foreshadowing and prophecy. It is legendary in its baroqueness. The books are one of those legendarily delayed numbers, in the Valve Time tradition. The reason is straightforward: an author with an almost Tolkienesque graphomania whose obsessive level of detail has left him with too many plot threads to possibly resolve them. The television show does not foreground its obsessions quite as much, but they are there, in the form of a frighteningly detail-oriented production. It is thus a game of labyrinths, one to reward the obsessive. Victory is impossible, even, at this point, for George R.R. Martin. All the same, the objective is straightforward: you win by successfully describing the rules.
The first episode exemplifies this. It is an hourlong demonstration of what a game of Thrones can look like. To this end, it works slowly, and leans heavily on genre tropes. But, crucially, those genre tropes are generally not fantasy. There is, of course, the one big exception – the cold open, which is the episode’s one explicit moment in which it is a work of high fantasy and not pseudo-historical drama, and which forms starting point for the season’s overall movement from ice to fire. But even this is not really framed as fantasy. It’s a basic horror movie opener – the sort of thing you’d expect to see at the start of Doctor Who or Buffy the Vampire Slayer in order to introduce the monster of the week.
The bulk of the episode, meanwhile, is a soap opera in the classic costume drama sense of I, Claudius. The camerawork makes this clear as day, opting for deep focus that resembles video more than film, emphasizing the fact that this is serialized television, not epic film. Its plot is, for all the baroque complexity to come, lean and efficient – the bulk of it concerned with setting up a murder mystery and pushing Ned into the role of detective.
In some regards, then, the two most interesting things about it are the scenes that aren’t in the North. And the most interesting thing about it is the first of these, a scene that exists largely to remove all suspense over the mystery. The audience is all but told that Cersei and Jaime killed Jon Arryn, with the entire notion of Arryn’s death, and, for that matter, the introduction of Cersei and Jaime as characters intertwined with the knowledge that they have some dreadful secret that Arryn knew. By episode’s end, the audience knows the secret as well. So the mystery is being played as a story of suspense – will Ned find out what the audience knows before it’s too late?
Ultimately, the first season, like the first novel, is largely concerned with that precise question, although the answer to the question is arguably less surprising when one considers that the premise of a nobleman searching for proof of an incestuous and murderous plot is essentially the setup of Hamlet. But in terms of this specific phase of the game what is interesting is the change to the order in which information is presented to the audience. The Jaime and Cersei scene that fingers the Lannisters in Arryn’s murder has no equivalent in the book, and the first time the Lannisters are treated with any suspicion comes in the scene where Catelyn receives the letter from her sister. By moving the point where the Lannisters are treated with suspicion up to the very moment Jon Arryn’s death is established, the series shifts the emphasis towards suspense and away from mystery, although this is in practice a feint, as Cersei and Jaime are not, in point of fact, responsible for Arryn’s death.
This also results in a change to how Tyrion is introduced. The most basic difference between the television series and the novels comes in the question of viewpoint characters. The novels are split into chapters, each of which are told in a third person limited perspective according to a particular characters. In the first book, these characters are, in the order in which they first get chapters, Bran, Catelyn, Daenerys, Eddard, Jon, Arya, Tyrion and Sansa. It will not go unnoticed that all of these characters but two are Starks, and so the question of how they are introduced and how they fit into the overall design is pertinent.
In the case of Tyrion, his introduction is the chapter immediately after Bran’s fall – a section adapted in the second episode. This means that, initially, he serves as a partial defense of the Lannisters. His loyalties remain questionable upon his introduction, but he’s very pointedly uninvolved in Jaime and Cersei’s schemes. But by revealing information in the order that it does, the television series defers the question of Tyrion’s innocence, so that it’s initially not clear at all that he is not one of the Lannisters involved in the palace intrigue. Again, the result is to make a clear and straightforward, albeit not entirely truthful declaration of what the show is.
The other sequences set outside the North, namely those in Pentos, are a more fundamental issue. Again, it is worth contrasting how Daenerys is introduced in books and show. Where Jaime and Cersei were introduced early, Daenerys’s introduction is held back significantly. In the books, her first chapter comes immediately after the scene in the Godswood between Ned and Catelyn, and has no transition to speak of, whereas the show pushes it back slightly so that it can get a transition via dialogue.
This is, to be sure, less jarring, but the jarring nature of Daenerys’s introduction in the books, where she is the first character outside of the North to be shown and where she predates any significant discussion of her own context, is nevertheless worth highlighting. Where Tyrion makes his first appearance as a viewpoint character as a response to a specific textual problem, and after he had already been introduced and given a substantive scene with Jon, Daenerys is introduced sui generis, as an independent pillar of the mythology standing equal to the Starks.
But the degree to which Daenerys carries mythic weight is not entirely ignored by the television series either. Viserys’s declaration that “when they write the history of my reign… they will say it began today” is, of course, ultimately true in every regard save for whose reign it will be – the event Viserys identifies as the start of his reign is literally the event with which the written history of Daenerys’s reign commences. And the weight of this statement is further emphasized by having the next thing to happen be Daenerys’s walking into the too-hot bath without flinching, a moment that serves to foreshadow the eventual birth of her dragons. (In the book these two incidents are twelve paragraphs apart, for comparison, the bulk of them exposition about Daenerys’s backstory.)
A moment of similar heft occurs at Winterfell in the form of the procession from King’s Landing riding in. Amidst the numerous establishing shots for major characters are two sequences of shots that are determined by the larger plot, as opposed to by what’s actually going on in the scene. One of these is arguable – the sequence in which Joffrey and Sansa look at each other, with Robb pointedly looking at Sansa, then turning to glare at Joffrey is entirely explicable by character motivation at the time it happens. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that three seasons worth of plot are bound up in that. But the sequence of shots cutting from the Hound riding up to Arya and back to the Hound can only be explained as foreshadowing, doubly so given that the show invents an entire sequence of Arya donning a helm and sneaking onto a cart to get a closer look at the procession seemingly purely to get this sequence.
So the episode is mainly designed to reassure the audience that this is a familiar and approachable show very much like the serious dramas they have come to expect from HBO. That it quietly lays the groundwork to do very different things, and that many of its reassurances are in fact complete lies are largely beside the point. Or perhaps more accurately, are the real point, in that they, more than anything, establish how the game is actually played.
February 10, 2015 @ 12:22 am
I can remember when I first watched this episode, as a book reader, just feeling an enormous sense of relief – it was good! The next moment of relief was when they confirmed it would get a second season. For me, it was a familiar story brought to life with so much care.
I followed all the news from when it was just talk. I remember The Sword of Truth series (one of the other big fantasy series going at the time, though nowhere near as good) getting a TV series. It actually burned itself out in 2 seasons before Game of Thrones even started. It just basically took some character names and plot elements and then did its own thing.
And in those 2 years, all we heard of Game of Thrones was some casting rumours and then a pilot which was apparently underwhelming so they completely redid it, recasting Catelyn Stark and Dany. I don't think that original pilot ever leaked, and I am curious to watch it.
Good analysis, looking forward to more.
February 10, 2015 @ 4:20 am
The last shot is Bran falling from a window, shouting “Mornington Crescent.”
I started watching the series forewarned that we were in emphatically nobody-is-safe country, but was still slapped across the face with a wet fish by that one, which really does make a big statement about what kind of storytelling this is. Then slightly disappointed come the second episode, when it turned out to be not such a boldly impudent move as it seemed.
February 10, 2015 @ 4:22 am
Fleurs-de-lis of Pentos: Jorah Mormont
Shouldn't that be Bears? Or is this a Book Thing or later development which I have not got to yet?
Also a big dollop of foreshadowing with the wolves, regarding Ned of course, and also Theon. Maybe diegetically recognised in the former case? Being TV-only I'm guessing from appearances here, and Ned's significant exchange of glances with Rodric Cassel may be just a winter-is-coming thing, but that and his general bad-tempered air about the incident could suggest that he's conscious of the symbolism and not amused. The role of the stag doesn't quite seem to match up to events so far for me, but maybe I'm still too early in the game to read that one in full.
February 10, 2015 @ 6:27 am
The last shot is Bran falling from a window, shouting “Mornington Crescent.”
Or, as we shout here in the States, "Calvinball.'
February 10, 2015 @ 6:49 am
In the book at least we're set up to think that it's a straight battle between the Starks (good) and the Lannisters (bad) from almost the beginning. Probably even before Bran falls. It's only really after the Wedding that it's completely clear that's not the sort of story we're in.
February 10, 2015 @ 6:53 am
In the books they're explicitly conscious of the symbolism. It makes Catelyn at least a little more hostile to Robert. (And Joffrey and if I understand Westeros custom Cersei are technically Baratheons.)
February 10, 2015 @ 8:52 am
Damn – now I want to see GoT with Bran (or perhaps Joffery) replaced with Calvin but with a talking stuffed tiger + plus the Wall being a giant defensive structure designed to protect people from mutant snowmen.
February 10, 2015 @ 9:01 am
That and it's ultimately Ned's loyalty to Robert that does him in just as much as the Lannisters.
As for bears, yes, it should be, and I was surprised to see that they did not give him the correct sigil in the opening credits for this one. Rest assured that as soon as they do, the Progress of the Game section will be updated accordingly.
February 10, 2015 @ 9:04 am
The Lannisters are treated with suspicion, certainly – the withholding of any viewpoint sections for them until Tyrion arrives to partially bail them out casts its own sort of suspicion. But it seems to me a more diffuse sort of suspicion than the TV series goes for, where the Lannisters are fingered at the moment Jon Arryn dies, such that the fall is confirmation and a revelation of what their secret was.
February 10, 2015 @ 1:35 pm
Can I confess that this is my first actual exposure to A Game of Thrones, and that I was instantly thrown out of it by finding out that one of the factions actually calls themselves "The Direwolves of Winterfell" and isn't doodling that as a logo for their heavy metal band during Social Studies class?
No? OK. Carry on.
February 10, 2015 @ 1:38 pm
The phrase is not actually from the books or the TV shows. I almost went with wolves, in fact. But the phrase, in this case, roughly translates to "these characters are depicted in the opening credit with an image of a direwolf next to the actors' names, and all spend the episode in a place called Winterfell."
February 10, 2015 @ 2:40 pm
The last shot is Bran falling from a window, shouting “Mornington Crescent.”
Oh this is going to be good!
February 10, 2015 @ 8:20 pm
That was an interesting opening. It's taken on a different structure from the TARDIS Eruditorium and, rather against my expectations, isn't called the Thrones Eruditorium. It's a ridiculous sounding name anyway.
Truthfully the structure of the Eruditorium wouldn't quite work for Game of Thrones. It's too different from Doctor Who to use the "It's MONTH DAY, YEAR." opening. The unique structure of it makes the way it is written intrinsically more fascinating than the Eruditorium, which focused more on the philosophies and ideas of Doctor Who, it's effects on culture and culture's (and history's) effects on it. Treating it as an object, a game that can be played (or in this case observed) is much more fascinating and works much better because the nature of Game of Thrones means that the personal/cultural examination won't work.
Instead we are treated to something more abstract – treating an audiovisual medium perceived through the eyes as a subjective on-going game, similar to chess, even. However it takes less the viewpoint of the player or the observer in that this game isn't chess nor is it really a game, and thus it must try to establish the rules of a game that exists in only the metaphysical sense.
I am looking forward to seeing how this will play out. (if you'll forgive the pun.)
February 11, 2015 @ 5:36 am
I am really looking forwards to this blog. I have my box set that my partner and I received as a gift for Christmas, and all of the books handy (which I have read too).
Really enjoying the laying out of the game board style of the intro to the essay, as well as the breaking down of the episode into sections with a description of the transitions. I found that the latter really added to my re-watching of the episode after reading the post.
Phil – The last shot is Bran falling from a window, shouting “Mornington Crescent.”
Brilliant. I love the fact that you use a reference to a bizarre game within a game designed to make fun of games. With references like this I look forwards to where you'll go with this analysis.
Interesting points about the ambiguity of Tyrion. I recall at the time feeling that there was a lot he was not revealing perhaps, and feeling is he involved in whatever plot was going on? (I had no idea of the overall story, I went in blind the first time). I did though find myself wanting to side with him as he was clearly and outsider, as clarified by the 'Bastards' speech with Jon Snow.
February 11, 2015 @ 7:47 am
Lay down your arms and come in peacefully – like the wolves of Winterfell!
February 11, 2015 @ 8:29 am
Oh thank goodness. 🙂 If it's just a casual descriptor on this blog, I completely understand; I'd just gotten the impression that that was what they called themselves in the books and on the show, and I'd have found that extraordinarily difficult to take seriously.
February 16, 2015 @ 12:54 am
This talk of an untransmitted pilot intrigue me. Are there any script transcripts of it? I'm interested in seeing why it was so different, but from a quick search online it seems that there are barely a handful of pictures from it that exist. It's the sort of thing that you'd think would pop up as a DVD extra.
February 16, 2015 @ 7:33 am
I googled "Mornington Crescent… And I still feel like I'm missing the joke X_X!
February 17, 2015 @ 12:41 am
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February 17, 2015 @ 12:52 am
Both in the book and the tv show though, Jaime and Cersei act ridiculously suspicious concerning Jon's death, and all but admit it in the chapter where Bran overhears them (I can't remember how the tv show goes but the book is fresh in my mind). I wonder if GRRM just changed his mind later down the road.
It seems odd that the revelations as to who 1) killed Jon Aryn and 2) ordered the attack on Bran comes so late in the game that it is old news rather than the fulcrum on which the drama swings. I guess that is life though.