Game of Thrones, in many respects, has more than one pilot episode. There is an argument the entirety of its first season, or at least a sizeable proportion of it, constitutes the introductory beginning. ‘The Kingsroad’ very much continues layering in themes, concepts, symbols, ideas and character arcs which will pay off across the next half a dozen seasons.
‘The Kingsroad’ begins what Game of Thrones, in many ways, would become famous for – travelling. Never has a show quite leant so heavily on characters moving from one place to another and exacting drama from the process. Many characters begin journeys, literally and figuratively – Ned Stark heads south with the King and his daughters towards King’s Landing; his ‘bastard’ son Jon Snow heads with uncle Benjen and guest Tyrion Lannister north for the Wall; Daenerys Targaryen, newly wed to Dothraki leader Khal Drogo, makes for Vaes Dothrak on the other side of the world. Significant characters heading for significant locations, and at this stage writers David Benioff & D.B. Weiss are concerned with using those journeys to establish a mixture of personal character stories, historical backstory, and continued plot development and foreshadowing.
The key factor of children being central to the narrative of Martin’s saga continues to play out here. We are consistently reminded of the reckless folly of youth, or their innocence. Ser Jorah calls Daenerys ‘child’, telling her about the mystical far away lands of Asshai, under-scoring her lack of knowledge about the world beyond her vision, and later she is schooled in the ways of sex from her handmaiden Doreah.
Jon questions his parentage openly to his father, aware he knows little about his lowborn mother and where he truly comes from. Then of course we have the important skirmish between Arya and Joffrey, with Sansa stuck in the middle, which proves more crucial to the future of the realm than anyone could have realised. Children continue to see and understand the world of Westeros as we do. They remain our window.
What’s interesting is how many of them are trying to be older than their years. This is partly what causes such trouble. Joffrey wants to be seen as the strong, brave Prince who can lord it over everyone and make Sansa swoon – not because he *is* brave or charming, but because he wants to be perceived as such. Perception is key, as we will see, to the Lannister psychology. Sansa, conversely, actually wants to be a Princess, wants the life of courts, balls, beauty, fame and adoration.
She can’t see through Joffrey as her sister Arya, or his uncle Tyrion, can – she wants to believe the perception. It’s telling she screams “you’re spoiling everything!” when Arya and Joffrey have their skirmish – what they’re ruining is her romantic, heraldic fantasy. Would Prince Charming have dropped the ‘C bomb’? That’s the harsh convergence of adult reality on the ostensible fantasy world Martin’s story inhabits.
Oddly enough, perhaps the only child who actually still wants to *be* a child is Arya. She enjoys her family, enjoys playing, and when Jon gives her a sword as a parting gift, she names it ‘Needle’ as a direct rebuke against Sansa’s Princess instincts, a rejection of her intended destiny as a ‘Stark Lady’. Arya already doesn’t want that life, hence the irony she is forced to grow up faster than any of the other Stark children by circumstance.
Even stranger, as the genuine children are pretending to be adults with the courtier games, the grown-up children of rulers, Kings and Lords are consistently being reminded of their place as children. Catelyn expressly describes Jon here as being roughly either 16 or 17 years old here too, as likely therefore is Daenerys, but given the casting involved that’s a bit hard to swallow. Game of Thrones wants to have its cake and eat it there.
On the flipside of the Stark children, we see, indeed, a very young Myrcella Baratheon showing the kind of compassion towards Bran’s injury that almost seems the anthesis of her progenitors. Myrcella is, of course, like Joffrey & Tommen, not a child of Robert and Cersei, but rather Jaime & Cersei, and while Joffrey inherited all of the callousness of grandfather Tywin & cruelty within Cersei, perhaps Myrcella inherits the deep sense of nobility within Jaime (hidden, often, far down) and the kindness of Tyrion.
It’s hard to say, but its evident here. Tommen would of course struggle terribly with a similar compassionate side later in life, and what it proves right from the off is that the Lannister’s cannot be pigeonholed as simple ‘villains’. They are, undoubtedly, the most complicated and in some senses contrary family in the Seven Kingdoms, and this arguably makes them eternally the most fascinating.
Take Cersei. Already she is proving to be a contradictory figure. Spiteful of tongue, having sex with her brother, party to the attempted murder of a child, a woman who clearly despises her husband and is broiling with protective rage over a vile, vicious son and heir, we nonetheless see a moment of true sadness and emotion when Cersei confides to Catelyn about the son to Robert who died as an infant.
Later episodes would bear out this story, which could be construed as a power play under the guise of sorrow for Bran’s condition, but turns out to be true – Cersei has lived with loss, going back to her mother’s death bearing Tyrion, all her life. Couple this with the prophecy about losing her children she’s aware of (even if we aren’t yet), it explains her dysfunctional attachment issues to her children born of the obsession with her twin brother.
Established in the pilot episode, ‘The Kingsroad’ also sees the continuing rejection and pillory of myth. Tyrion talks about “pissing off the edge of the world” as his motivation to visit the Wall, later mocks the legends of the monsters the Night’s Watch have spent millennia protecting as “grumpkins and snarks”, and Jaime himself lightly mocks Jon for his planned devotion to an order that for eight thousand years have ‘protected’ the realms of men – he cannot conscience a life whereby men would give up everything to guard against creatures nobody believed ever existed.
We haven’t seen the Watch yet but already ‘taking the black’ is described as worse than ‘castration’, seen perhaps equivalent to a monastery life in some sense. This speaks to the sense of entitled masculinity across many of the characters in Game of Thrones – most fear and reject such emasculation, believing the Watch retaining any sense of honour a fraudulent lie, hence why reprobates and exiles now mainly populate the order.
Daenerys begins to experience the blossoming fruits of change in ‘The Kingsroad’, and more crucially a suggestion of agency. She is meek, still a victim of Khal Drogo’s non-consensual sexual liberties, but the iconography of dragon eggs surrounded by fire is not lost on her, and she begins learning more about dragons & how they connect with Westerosi myth. Her lack of agency is also compared to slavery by Doreah, a chain which would become central to Dany’s own motivations and psychology.
Doreah begins brainwashing Dany with empowering romantic fantasies about women able to use sex to tame their beasts; the girl is almost certainly part of Lord Varys & Illyrio Mopatis’ Targaryen restoration conspiracy (more on that here) – actively encouraging Dany to use her sexual prowess to influence Drogo and corrupt him in new, arguably Targaryen-friendly ways. In the end, once she tells Drogo “NO” and rides him, she prefigures riding her dragons. It’s the first sign of Daenerys taking charge.
As a piece of continuing narrative therefore, ‘The Kingsroad’ is filled with a deep level of complexity already, brickwork being constructed on the foundations of the pilot episode instantaneously. Game of Thrones remains in the establishment phase, developing the long-running narratives and character journeys that Season 1 will begin and will rumble on beyond, but in many respects it can best be described as ‘pilot part two’ – few series have ever been able to kickstart their runs with so much happening in such short order.
This is an abridged version of a review first posted on Cultural Conversation, my personal blog. You can find the full essay here.