Monday, May 23, 2016

Game of Thrones Rewatch 1.1: "Winter is Coming"

Welcome to the first part in the flagship Tales after Tolkien blog series of 2016-17.
Read the next post here. -GE

This is the first in (what I hope will be) a weekly series of re-watching Game of Thrones and each episode’s commentary.  There will be some slight recapping, but primarily analysis, and I welcome (polite) discussion.  Spoilers will abound, as will criticism and comparison to A Song of Ice and Fire.  Without further ado—

1.1 “Winter is Coming”
Writ. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Dir. Tim Van Patten
Commentary by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Original Air Date: April 17, 2011

Episode 1.1 is (aptly) titled “Winter is Coming,” and it sets up the overall plot, aesthetic, and ethos of the show, while introducing most of the major characters. Like the books, the show begins with Ser Waymar Royce, Will, and Gared heading out north of the Wall and encountering the wights and the White Walkers. This scene helps to set up one of the central themes of the book and the title of the episode—winter is coming, and it’s not coming alone.  That’s why I was so surprised to hear David Benioff and D.B. Weiss discussing how close they came to not including this scene at all.  They were going to start with the Starks, but realized that characters kept talking about the Wall, but no (non-book-reading) viewers would have any idea what they meant by “the Wall,” so they shot and included the scene while reshooting the pilot.  This scene isn’t just the prologue of A Game of Thrones; it helps to establish the central struggle of the novels, that most of the people of the southern kingdoms have no idea what kind of danger they’re in and are in no way prepared for the coming winter.  With the hindsight of knowing how much of a mess the show becomes in later seasons, this is an early red flag for trust in Benioff and Weiss’ understanding of the nuances and deeper themes of the novels.

Some almost throwaway lines in this scene also explain the one immediately following, in which Will stumbles through the green lands around Winterfell and is caught by armed horsemen.  Royce’s comments about being caught and executed as a traitor set up why Will is in this predicament, and why Ned Stark has to kill him later (without having to do quite the whole discussion with Bran about the Night’s Watch and deserters). One thing the writers (in this case, Benioff and Weiss) do very well in these early seasons is drop hints that must be carefully connected; while they do more work to connect these hints for the viewer than Martin tends to do for the reader (though I find that half the fun of the books; figuring out one of Martin’s puzzles can cause quite the rush), they still don’t talk down to the viewers and do expect them to do some of the work.  (According to the commentary, they almost did that a bit too much—in the original pilot, the blood relationship between Jaime and Cersei wasn’t clear enough for non-book-readers, and so the reason Cersei was so upset that Bran caught her and Jaime wasn’t as clear as it needed to be.)

Benioff and Weiss add a few scenes that don’t occur in the books but help to establish the personalities and relationships of several of the characters more quickly and dynamically than happens in the books; as they mention in the commentary, a lot of the heavy lifting as far as exposition can be done through the point-of-view characters’ thoughts, but they don’t have that luxury on screen.  Thus, the addition of a small scene showing the Silent Sisters preparing Jon Arryn’s body and Cersei and Jaime discussing their relationship—in veiled terms.  Similarly, the first we see of the Starks isn’t at Will’s beheading, but in a lighter moment, with Robb and Jon teaching Bran to shoot while Cat and Ned watch, Septa Mordane praising Sansa’s stitches, and Arya escaping her needlework to show off her archery.  Later, they also include a scene with Catelyn and Sansa that helps establish Sansa’s personality and her relationship with her mother a bit more, as up to this point, Sansa hasn’t had much airtime, and once the family is split, Sansa and Cat never see each other again.  Tyrion also gets a different introduction in what is the first of many “sexposition” scenes; Ros and Tyrion further establish Jaime and Cersei’s relationship, then establish Tyrion’s identity as the other brother and a “drunken little lecher, prone to all manner of perversions.”

The feast following Robert et al.’s arrival is a crucible that shows the social hierarchy and relationships between most of the characters.  The Starks and Lannisters don’t like each other; Robert’s also a drunken lecher and has no qualms about showing it in front of everyone, including his queen; Cersei insincerely flatters Sansa, who loves every second; Arya is a troublemaker; and Jon isn’t even allowed to come to the feast.  While this last is a slight change from the books, I think it helps to establish how alienated Jon feels from the rest of the Starks, since, again, we don’t have his internal monologue to do that for us.  It also allows for some quiet and space for Benjen and Jon to discuss him taking the black, and prevents a scene-change for Jon and Tyrion’s discussion from being necessary.

One other interesting change is in Catelyn’s personality.  In A Game of Thrones, Cat pushes Ned to take Robert’s offer and go find out who killed Jon Arryn.  In “Winter is Coming,” Cat is against it, not wanting to let Ned go south to potentially die like his father and brother; after all, Ned fought Robert’s wars “for him,” and has, in Cat’s mind, done all the duty he needs to for one lifetime.  Maester Luwin is the voice of duty in this case, reminding Ned that Robert is still his king, that he has a responsibility to heed his king’s call, and that his father and brother died “in a different time, [under] a different king.”

The next day is when everything goes to hell at Winterfell; Ned has accepted Robert’s offer and they’re headed out to hunt.  We get one tiny moment between Ned and Bran as Ned rides out, which is bittersweet since book readers and re-watchers know that this is the last time Ned and Bran will see each other.  Once the hunting party leaves, Bran heads up the side of the tower while his as-yet-unnamed wolf puppy watches him nervously.  We all remember what happens next: incesty sexytimes, Cersei’s freakout, “the things I do for love.”  And any bits of the Stark-Lannister plotline that hadn’t already been set in motion are now in motion.

Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys spends a lot of time staring at the ocean, presumably in the direction of Westeros, though of course Westeros isn’t visible from Pentos.  Her primary facial expression in most of her scenes is a distant spaced-outedness with a hint of sadness; I think this speaks to the level of abuse she’s suffered at the hands of her brother, though the full extent of this abuse isn’t made clear in this episode.  There are hints of it—he strips her naked and fondles her breast, reminds her that she doesn’t want to “wake the dragon,” and tells her he’d “let his whole tribe fuck [her], all 40,000 men and their horses, too, if that’s what it took” to get the army he needs to reclaim “his” throne.  So while the reasoning for her apparent PTSD isn’t as thoroughly apparent as it will become later, there’s enough that viewers probably aren’t completely bored by Dany’s lack of dynamic facial expressions.  There’s only really twice in the episode that she shows any other emotion: once when she tries to stand up for herself and refuse to marry Drogo, and once during the wedding night rape scene.

Which brings us to the wedding night rape scene.  Looking back, I think this scene is a harbinger of the larger changes (and, in my opinion, problems) Benioff and Weiss have introduced, especially with regard to women, sex, violence, and rape.  In the book, Daenerys has just had her first real taste of freedom, riding the silver horse Drogo gave her.  Her brother and Illyrio have essentially sold her into slavery, but Drogo has given her freedom.  Her attitude toward Drogo shifts a bit at this point, and a subtle dichotomy between freedom and slavery, Drogo and Viserys, begins to show itself.  The consummation scene is gentle and mutual, with Daenerys initiating the contact that leads to their (off-page) sexual encounter.

The show changes nearly every part of this.  Daenerys doesn’t get to ride the silver and experience freedom before leaving with Drogo; when Drogo puts her on the horse, it’s for the express purpose of taking her away to have sex with her, while Viserys tells her to “make him happy.”  The dichotomy isn’t set up; rather, Viserys and Drogo are aligned in abusing Dany.  When they reach the clifftop, there is no gentleness, no mutual undressing, just Drogo stripping Dany’s dress off, pulling her hands away from her breasts when she tries to cover herself, and ignoring her crying while he shoves her over to mount her from behind.  While the book scene could also be read as rape—Dany is only thirteen and will be deflowered whether she agrees or not—the show scene is much more overt about it.  This also problematizes their later relationship; it’s much easier to see how Dany falls in love with Drogo in the books than in the show from this beginning to their relationship.

At least in this case, Benioff and Weiss recognize that this is a rape scene (unlike a certain infamous scene in season 4 that will be discussed in due time), and that it is a marked change from the books.  However, they shift blame onto the actors, claiming that Jason Momoa and Emilia Clarke couldn’t seem to make the turn from coercion to consent, and thus they had to rewrite the scene to make it rapey.  Now, I haven’t seen the original script with the less-rapey bits, and I’m not an actor, but to me this speaks to problems with the writing and/or directing, and better writing or better directing should have been able to get the actors to the place they needed to be for the scene. In my opinion, rewriting a consent scene to a rape scene is a really bad change that does serious damage to Dany’s later character arc.

Despite that problem (and it’s a really big problem), overall this pilot was a good introduction to the world of the show that managed to cover the first 100 or so pages of A Game of Thrones in about 60 minutes, which is a feat in and of itself.  I remember on first viewing thinking that this was a very promising start, despite cringing my way through the Dany-Drogo wedding night scene (I wasn’t yet at the disillusioned, yelling-at-the-screen point).  And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the score; Ramin Djawadi is a phenomenal composer with some really great shows and movies under his belt (Iron Man, Prison Break, Person of Interest, Pacific Rim), and his music is wonderfully written and placed, adding depth and character to each scene.  Benioff and Weiss mention in the commentary that they almost didn’t get him and had to beg on their knees for him to come do Game of Thrones instead of a movie he’d been hired for, and I’m very glad they did so.

RIP: Waymar Royce, Will, Gared, and unnamed Dothraki partier(s)

Next week: Bonding time between the Imp and the Bastard.  Arya spoils everything.  Joffrey is a twerp.  Sansa’s disillusionment begins, as does Dany’s empowerment.

All images from


  1. First, I'm glad to see another poster post to this webspace; thank you, Shiloh.

    Second, I love the term "sexposition." It is a wonderful portmanteau, and I am now going to find a way to work it into my own discourse.

    Third, in which I pull from something Carroll Jamison motioned towards in the panel at Kzoo 2016, I wonder if the Anglo-Saxon overtones of the Starks factor into the changes presented on the small screen. Is this a thing you can speak to, Shiloh? Anyone else?

    I look forward to reading future iterations of this series.

    1. I didn't coin the term "sexposition" (I don't remember who did), but it is quite a clever turn of phrase.

      I think that one of the major issues with Game of Thrones is that Benioff & Weiss don't recognize a lot of Martin's influences. I don't know that they see that the North/First Men is Anglo-Saxon while the south/Andals are more Norman French. This puts Game of Thrones at an even more neomedieval remove from the Middle Ages than A Song of Ice and Fire already was. Benioff & Weiss might see that the Starks and other Northerners have an honor society and are less political than the southerners, but it doesn't go much deeper than that.