What strikes you about ‘Winter Is Coming’, the opening episode of Game of Thrones, is the children.
George R.R. Martin’s book saga, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, famously had the two central characters embodying the dual elements, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen, as roughly around fifteen years old. For the purposes of producing a palatable, adult fantasy television show, HBO aged them up by around three or four years (though in casting terms near enough ten). The children we see, therefore, in the TV show adaptation are in some cases even younger than Martin’s original conception of these young Royal figures thrust into a story of war, magic, conquest and sexual misfortune. Arya Stark, Bran Stark, Sansa Stark, even Joffrey Baratheon, all are demonstrably children when the show begins. And the show very much begins reminding us children are the heart and soul of Martin’s epic.
The world of Westeros often feels like it is being seen through children’s eyes in ‘Winter Is Coming’. From the terrifying spectre of a blue-eyed Wildling wight girl beyond the Wall, to Arya & Bran witnessing the coming of the King into their home of Winterfell, all the way through to the climactic fate suffered by Bran upon witnessing a licentious act. Indeed it isn’t just the children of youth who provide the prism through which Martin’s story begins – Jon and Tyrion Lannister both frame themselves as ‘bastard’ children in different perspectives, Daenerys and her brother Viserys Targaryen are children displaced of a hereditary entitlement they believe is their due, and Jaime & Cersei Lannister of course are children embroiled in a bond that goes beyond nature.
You can therefore position Game of Thrones, right from the very beginning, as a show about paternity, childhood and of course primogeniture, the Medieval right of the lands and titles of a realm or lordship being passed down to the first born son. The bigger world Martin created beyond the Seven Kingdoms covers a wide variety of governance styles but Westeros, immediately, we see is a feudal society, akin in many respects to Anglo-Saxon Britain with a variety of men who would be King. If anything, as a state Westeros has regressed following the rebellion of Robert Baratheon against the centuries old rule of unity by the Targaryen dynasty; whereas once the land was whole, despite Robert’s King title, it lies divided and carved between various ‘kingdoms’, some of whom rest under Robert’s rule, some of which openly reject it.
Feudally, therefore, we have a society where the rights of the male are immediately considered more important than the female, all the way from Queens down to children. Cersei is already here a coiled spring of resentment and frustration toward her husband – in love with her biological brother, thrust into a political marriage with a man who openly toys with other women in front of her, and quietly disdainful of both men and women around her. She may be the most powerful woman in Westeros but here, she’s aware, she has no real power at all. The same can be said for Daenerys – incredibly meek when first we meet her, innocent, corrupted in a sense by the sleazy, vengeful aspirations of her weak brother, she is a long way from the powerful, inspiring ‘Mother of Dragons’ she will become by the season finale. Dany, like many of the most important women in Game of Thrones at this point, is submissive.
In truth, the only woman in ‘Winter Is Coming’ treated with any true accordance of respect and warmth is Catelyn Stark, which is somewhat ironic given (perhaps down partly to Michelle Fairley’s performance) there is an ice around Cat which belies her status as Winterfell’s matriarch. Ned Stark, as one of the few decent, honourable men in a decaying feudal society riven with conspiracy and corruption, treats his wife accordingly with the kind of decency and equality in many respects as women should be afforded—and eventually fight for in Martin’s narrative—but even Ned must abide by the rules and structures of ‘the system’, laws decreed by both Gods and Men from time immemorial in the grand historical tapestry underpinning Westeros.
Anyone who had read Martin’s tomes before watching the TV series will be aware of that tapestry but writers David Benioff & D.B. Weiss try not, advisedly, to front-load their pilot episode with too much incidental and historical detail. Given the deep complexity of Martin’s world-building, Game of Thrones benefits from putting character and story first over exposition and explanation – there would be plenty of time to understand quite what happened to put Robert on the throne, why Dany & Viserys are across the Narrow Sea in exile, and what the Wall and the Night’s Watch guard against. Hints, nonetheless, are present and correct in ‘Winter Is Coming’ – none so more than the very title of the episode itself.
The double meaning is not hard to fathom. While ostensibly Ned refers to the unique weather system of Westeros, in which seasons are unnaturally extended for many years, in truth given Sean Bean’s dour, anxious delivery, Winter very much serves as a worrying metaphor for change. Summer has raged across the continent for many years, within an age of relative peace since Robert seized the throne, but the warning advent of Winter—both literally and metaphorically—encapsulates the social and economic forces which would underpin the Game of Thrones narrative. Ned knows ‘summer’ cannot last forever, senses the peace they have enjoyed cannot last on the wind, and throughout consistently bears the weight of this anxietal fear until its essentially confirmed by news Jon Arryn, Hand of the King (essentially Prime Minister of the realm), has apparently been murdered by an insidious conspiracy.
The episode title and Ned’s brooding, ominous warning therefore is vindicated by him needing to head for capital city Kings Landing to become Robert’s new Hand, not because he seeks any level of power but rather because his innate dignity, that determination to protect the realm and his family from forces who would seek to control and subjugate, means it’s his ‘duty to serve’. Service, too, is very important in the framework of Game of Thrones, as indeed is duty. They are the lynchpins which keep together the feudal society of the Seven Kingdoms, and very early on the story communicates this through the execution of Gared, the Night’s Watch ranger who Ned, with no pleasure, has to kill because he left his post escaping the White Walkers. Desertion is considered equivalent to betraying not just the realm but its people, and traditions die hard in the North, as we will see.
Foreshadowing has been mentioned previously but it seems more keenly presented within the prism of the younger Stark children. Bran, before being crippled, has the agility and spirit we would later see exuded by his sister Arya. She too shows a clear, visible interest in the Hound aka Sandor Clegane when he reaches Winterfell with the retinue of Kingsguard. Crucially, Arya also wears a guard’s helmet until Ned, lightly chastising her, removes it. This is arguably the first ‘disguise’ Arya would present in a journey which would cut to the core of what identity itself means. Sansa, meanwhile, is reinforcing the heroic, heraldic fantasy she would have read about in sagas – imagining Prince Joffrey as a handsome Prince Charming, with she as his Princess. Hers is a romantic fairytale which doesn’t quite fit the cold, harsh realities of Northern life. Cersei, too, notices this in her from the very beginning, seeing no doubt a reflection of her own fantasies and beliefs at a similar age.
What we find in ‘Winter Is Coming’, therefore, is a potent and telling mixture of prophecy, portent, symbology and anxiety about a world on the verge of major sociological and historical change. Characters are placed at the forefront, story points are established, but there is a very clear understanding of the deeper mythology at the heart of the book series, which will ripple out in significant detail across the seasons to come. The blueprint, and plenty of foreshadowing, lies within a pilot which establishes not just its place within the world of Westeros, but its place within the world of current television and society around when the series was made.
Game of Thrones, already from its opening episode, reflects a great deal more reality than its fantasy trappings may actually admit.
This is an abridged version of a review first posted on Cultural Conversation, my personal blog. You can find the full essay here.