The first thing that I notice about “Winter is Coming” is that for a show that is known for its violence and nudity, they sure seem to shy away from it a lot. This is either because people see a nipple and immediately proclaim that the entire show is about sex, or simply because this is the pilot and they were still trying to figure out what they could get away with. I’m actually leaning very much toward the latter at this point; the acting too gives an indication of finding its footing and not knowing where to go.
The episode starts with a trio of Night’s Watchmen beginning a mission. There are small changes present in this scene, but they’re changes that make sense. One thing that any writer will quickly learn or suffer in their lack is that different mediums are capable of portraying different information at different rates. In the novel, it was enough for the characters to be aware who they were and where they came from. In the show, you can’t easily portray that, so it’s significantly improved by showing them traveling under the wall. There is one thing connected to this scene that may be worth commenting on based on my research, but since it’s not actually evident based on what appears in the show at this point, I’m going to hold off until I can verify.
When the Starks first appear onscreen, one thing is very apparent: the characters (the minors, at least) are notably older than they were in the novels. I’ve heard various reasons for this such as trying to appeal to modern sensibilities about sexuality, but if a 16 year old weeping during sex is more palatable to viewers than a 13 year old enjoying it, our society already has issues with its priorities (I’ve been assured the actors and actresses involved in the nudity are all above 18, though). This may be because actresses that are legally allowed to be nude can only believably portray so young a character before they break reasonable suspension of disbelief.
Before we get to nudity, though, the Starks are involved in the first scene of bloody violence. This is, of course, Bran’s first beheading, straight from the novel. After hearing how much blood and violence is in this show, I’m eager to see how this is handled…and it is handled by cutting away immediately as Ned beheads the deserter. Granted, this does show a little bit more than I’m used to seeing from shows marketed toward the general populace (we get to see some blood before the camera cuts away), but it’s nothing special. The scene proceeds to show us the introduction of the direwolf, one of the scenes where a large number of people are talking before we’ve seen enough of the actors to tell them apart. Robb, Theon, and Jon all have dialogue in this scene, but since they’re all so close to the same age it’s difficult to distinguish who is who when they’re not saying such things as “I take orders from your father, not you”. Come to think of it, that might not even be Theon, but a generic soldier. I sincerely wish that I could criticize this episode for lack of racial diversity (which always makes it easier to tell actors apart while you’re getting used to them), it makes little sense for anyone of a darker complexion to live among the northmen. This scene also gives us some rather stunted delivery – most notably from Jon Snow, no less – which is where I base a lot of my “still finding its feet” supposition from. We see the same from other characters later: Daenerys, for instance, often seems to be lost in the dark as to what emotion she should be portraying, and finds middle ground by simply not doing so.
We’ve gotten our violence, how about our nudity? Well, the king’s entourage arrives, and we’re introduced Tyrion Lannister in a scene with a prostitute, a new scene created for the show. This is a fitting introduction to Tyrion, and yet, something else seems strange…ah yes, Tyrion himself. Tyrion’s character is largely based on his physical disability and society’s reaction to it. He is originally a malformed individual whose primary visual trait is generally referred to as “extremely ugly”, something that does not apply to the actor who plays him in Game of Thrones and is not supplemented by makeup. Another major factor of Tyrion is that in addition to being very short (something they kept) this is accompanied with other disabilities: his legs are stunted and unsteady, and physical activity often causes him great pain due to his skeleton. Tyrion appears to be able to walk around normally here, so it’s going to be very interesting to see how this affects the way the character is written throughout the show.
We get some more added scenes at the banquet, which is a lot easier when you’re not focusing on a single character’s point of view. All of these scenes go a way toward showing (but not telling) the character’s personalities. Arya has barely had any lines beyond telling Bran to shut up, but the added scenes have shown that she is interested in learning to fight (and is talented at it), that she is a bit of a troublemaker, and that she is not the proper lady that Sansa is. Jon, a brooder like Ned, and especially Robb (who, truth be told, doesn’t get much personality development in the books) don’t get as much development, but Jon gets a few moments amidst everything else. Also in this sequence of scenes we get a conversation between Ned and his brother Ben, an officer of the Night’s Watch. I bring this up because this is one of the scenes in which the phrase “White Walkers” is used. In the novel’s setting, these are usually called “Others”, and it manages to be very ominous. Phrases like “Others take you” help to build the world and give these unknown Others an air of mystery. Using the late-series phrase “White Walkers” so early takes away some of this, which is something I don’t think the creators took into account in their excitement to finally have a proper descriptive name for these things.
Finally, let’s move on to the Targaryens. If my memory serves, the Targaryens’ first book plot is condensed into this first episode. While jarring, this is fitting when you consider that the entire point of that plot is to introduce the characters and set Daenerys onto the start of her Campbellian Journey. Starting her journey in the first episode is only good sense, and as Dany is one of my favorite characters, I’m definitely happy to have the chance to see more of her early on. Viserys loses a lot of chances to show his terrible personality, but I’m sure he’ll make up for that later on. Despite the multiple scenes (such as sex scenes) where nudity is cut from this episode, Dany is the one main character to be nude. I know I’ve been referencing the books too much (hopefully something I’ll be able to cut back on once I have more from the show to talk about), but Dany spends a lot of the time at least partially nude in the series and it makes sense to get used to her dressing lightly here.
Dany is also the star of one of the scenes I was most concerned about starting this show (though I assumed the scene would be in the season 1 finale, not the pilot). In the original version of the scene, Dany and Khal Drogo share a powerful characterization moment where Drogo – who only has the word “No” in common with Dany and uses it to the best of his ability when he can’t understand what she’s saying – tenderly undresses both himself and Dany, ensuring that Dany is comfortable with continuing before moving on to each new step, in order to consummate their marriage. It’s an immensely powerful scene, and one that connects these two characters and goes a long way toward showing the love that Daenerys feels for her new husband. While this scene isn’t modified quite as much as I had been led to believe, the tenderness is stripped from it. Drogo forcefully bends a submissive and weeping Daenerys over as he takes what is now considered his right. While it is within cultural expectations and doesn’t paint Drogo as a monster (ignoring, for the time being, the question of whether or not compliance in rape culture makes you one), it strips away everything that makes Drogo special in Daenerys’s and leaves him as just another “savage” that merits no special feeling from the audience, which cannot do anything good for drama.
This entry is probably a bit longer than most will be. After all, we’ve just skimmed over quite a few major plot points, more major character introductions than we’re likely to see in a single episode ever again, and my first impressions of the show itself. I’ve tried to leave some for later (I haven’t shipped anybody yet, nor have I mentioned Ser Jorah), but I’m not likely to approach 1500 words again. To wrap up, though, this is…a pretty good pilot. It actually is a little unfortunate that this episode moves at so high a pace, because it would have been nice to see some of these plot points in a show that had already found its footing. That said, I habitually give a show until the end of the first season to get past these growing pains, so this is no worse than anybody would have reason to suspect. The added scenes add just enough to fix any information lost in adaptation, and scenes removed from the plot at this point are minor enough that they simply would have padded out these major events anyway. Having more scenes in a show is great…but not when you’re trying to produce a first episode that introduces the characters and kicks off the plot. There is enough here to start Game of Thrones off on a good footing, and now I must continue to watch to see what it does with that footing. Even though I’ve been using the “footing” metaphor to point out what the show doesn’t have yet. Because apparently I’m over-using my analogies. Onward!