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.