‘Game of Thrones’ Pilot Recap: “Our Way Is the Old Way”

The arrival of any new HBO series is always cause to take notice, especially when the network has so obviously poured all of its resources into making an event. This past Sunday saw the premiere of ‘Game of Thrones’, HBO’s latest prestige production. This is clearly an expensive show to make, and the network brass damn well wants you to know that in every frame. Does all this effort pay off? So far, I’m intrigued.

‘Game of Thrones’ is based on the ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series of novels by George R.R. Martin. I’m not going to pretend to have read any of them, nor to have much inherent interest in the subject matter, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. The story is set in a vaguely ‘Lord of the Rings’ type of medieval fantasy universe on a continent called Westeros, which is divided up into seven kingdoms. Thus far, all of the characters are human, and seem to be living in an age where magic and monsters are part of the distant past. (One character is presented with fossilized dragon eggs as a wedding gift.)

The pilot episode, ‘Winter Is Coming’, takes place primarily in the kingdom of Winterfell, which is ruled by Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark (Sean Bean). Stark is paid a visit by King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and his family because the king’s right-hand man (and Ned’s brother-in-law) Jon Arryn recently died of fever. Robert wants Ned to take Jon Arryn’s place, but Ned is hesitant to leave his home. To seal the deal, Robert wishes to arrange a marriage between his young son and Ned’s daughter.

Years earlier, Robert had claimed his throne by usurping a former king in a bloody rebellion. That king’s creepy and conniving son Viserys fled across the sea with his twin sister Daenerys. Viserys plots to reclaim the throne by marrying his virginal sister off to a barbarian warlord in order to gain backing by his army. Viserys is cruel and calculating, and also has an incestuous infatuation with his sister.

Incest appears to be a major theme in Martin’s universe. At the end of the pilot episode, Ned’s 10-year-old son accidentally witnesses the king’s wife Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) having sex with her brother Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Jaime heartlessly tosses the kid off a tower to his death to protect their secret. He flippantly remarks, “The things I do for love…”

The Lannisters likewise seem to be plotting to overthrow the king. Just before the death of her son, Ned’s wife receives a confidential letter from her sister (Jon Arryn’s widow) stating that Jon Arryn had been murdered and the king is in danger.

Typical for a pilot episode, ‘Winter Is Coming’ is heavy on plot and set-up. Martin’s novels clearly have a labyrinthine mythology and countless interweaving storylines. (I needed a lot of help from Wikipedia to keep the characters straight while writing his recap.) There’s so much going on here that you even need to pay close attention to the opening credits sequence to get the lay of the land. And honestly, I typically have an aversion to these sort of “epic fantasy” novels that are overloaded with such precious character names and terminology. (In discussing the books, one commenter to the Topless Robot blog recently remarked, “I don’t know. I got to ‘Mad King Aerys of House Targaryen’ and my eyes glazed over.” I’ll be damned if that isn’t exactly how I feel.)

With that said, the storytelling here is confident, and the episode builds a tremendous sense of atmosphere. The cast is excellent (with special credit to Peter Dinklage as a womanizing cad). The production design is stunning, and the visual effects are first rate. To let you know its “adult” intentions right off the bat, the pilot is also filled with gruesome gore, profanity, and quite a lot of nudity – all of which are appreciated by this viewer. I’m also thankful that the story seems to be more rooted in real human concerns like political intrigue and personal betrayal than orc-slaying or dragon-riding.

In my experience, most HBO series need a few episodes to build up steam. I expect that to be the case here. Fortunately, there’s enough of interest in the pilot episode to grab my attention and make me want to come back for more.


  1. Glad someone here is covering this show. I always enjoy your write-ups. I find it interesting how many people seem confused that a show called “Game of Thrones” is about groups and families backstabbing and manipulating each other for a throne.

    The story is going to become more and more intriguing, and hopefully the pilot has made it clear that no character is safe.

  2. The first episode seemed to follow (what I know about) the first book very closely…so much, that I’m shying away from reading them so as to not spoil the series.

    Anyone else surprised HBO allowed the incest storyline to play out? Several incest storylines, to be precise. Okay, so this show won’t be winning any Parents Television Council raves…but it may darn well win a chock full of Emmys if Episode 1 is any indication of the quality to come (I enjoyed the first show more than any episode of Boardwalk Empire to date).

    • Well I’m pretty certain that if you took the main incest plotline out of the book an entire legion of readers would rise up against HBO. It is pretty much Cersei Lannister’s entire motivation for what she does and what happens later on.

      As for Viserys, well his motivations aren’t so much incest as it is power and that too will become more apparent. He is the son of a king and a spoiled evil little brat basically. He looks at everything in the world, including his sister, as things to own etc. And he is more worried about getting his throne and cares very little for his sister, as is apparent in the way he talks to her in the first episode.

      Daenerys is actually one of the most interesting characters in the books and in this first season she have a very interesting arc and be very different by the end of it. People in the US are just so uptight about this sort of thing but if you read any historical literature, incest and sex are just a fact of life then due to the mindset of figures who think they are above the average commoner. Either way it’s just an important part of the plots and machinations of Cersei and the Lannisters and taking it out would be a bad move.

  3. I was pretty worried about how this would play out but the first episode is so true to the novel it is really quite stunning. While I imagined someone other than Sean Bean as Eddard Stark it was really because they didn’t give his age early in the book. But Sean Bean nailed this role as well as many of the others. My one problem is that Sansa seems to be way too old and I pictured her as much younger in the book since she is just 13 years old.

    As for supernatural events, there are truly only a handful of those in the entire first novel, which is the only one I’ve gotten through as of yet and they aren’t explained very much.

    As for how close the show is to the book, the opening sequence is so close to the book that I felt I had seen it before. I am very much looking forward to the other episodes.

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