Castles, schemes, beheadings and more sex than you can shake a direwolf at

By James Hibberd
April 18, 2011 at 03:25 AM EDT
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I, James, of the House Hibberd, swear this oath to EW readers, to recap Game of Thrones every Sunday for the next 10 weeks; to praise, mock, explain and critique the finest new show in all the land, and to never spoil the stunning plot twists to come. May I sleep with my sister should I fail.

First, the semi-bad news: Sunday’s heavily re-shot super-sized 65-minute pilot — despite its big revelation and shocking ending — is one of the more sluggish-feeling of the first six episodes of Thrones I’ve seen. So if you watched Thrones and didn’t see what all the fuss was about, you must stick with the series through next week. And if you loved Sunday’s debut, you’re going to lose your head in the weeks to come.

Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss had to introduce an overwhelming number of characters, settings and inappropriate relationships to get us to the Big Cliffhanger at the end of this first episode and, overall, did a terrific job of compressing George R.R. Martin’s novel. But they had one tough decision right at the start: Whether to include the White Walkers.

When a TV show opens with a supernatural attack, viewers tend to assume the show is about supernatural attacks. But the first season of Thrones is about the struggle for power among several ruling families. The prologue is a tense and atmospheric opener, yet wasn’t entirely necessary, and in some ways plays a bit like a scene from a different show.

But how can anybody argue against that opening shot? So cool. The Night’s Watch patrol framed by darkness, the contemptuous look on the doomed young lordling’s face, the grinding of the door, the brief dip into pure black, the bleak tunnel, and then we reveal … The Wall! A visual marvel, an imposing man-built structure a la Hadrian. The Wall separates the “civilized” part of Westeros from both the human Wildlings tribes and the legendary creatures of the northern forest that most folks have relegated to fairy tale status (The Wall was built by “Brandon the Builder” — show of hands, who really wants to be named after their profession?).

The Night’s Watch patrol finds a massacre of Wildlings laid out in ritualistic fashion. The Wildlings vanish, then reappear as reanimated corpses. Young Will sees his two companions killed — one in a gruesome beheading — by the blue-eyed creatures known as The White Walkers.

Will somehow survives and runs right past his buddies stationed back at The Wall and gets picked up by a patrol. Cut to Winterfell, home of the Starks. Let’s quickly meet them:

Lord Eddard “Ned” Stark: Stark governs the northern territory in Westeros, a land where seasons last for years. He’s a moral and battle-weary warrior married to–

Catelyn “Cat” Stark: Loves her family, but resents the presence of–

Jon Snow, her husband’s 17-year-old son (we’re using HBO’s ages here, not those from the novel). Snow is the surname given to all bastards in the North, so they can never forget they had the audacity to be born out of wedlock. His surname also results in everybody calling him “bastard.” Understandably, Snow is a tad bitter about this. The other Stark kids are:

Bran Stark: Adorable 10-year-old tousle-haired scamp who loves to climb castle walls in a land without ERs, let alone a conveniently heroic spinal surgeon (“We have to go back!”). Nothing bad could possibly come of this.

 

NEXT: Direwolves make great pets!

 

 

Arya Stark: Feisty 11-year-old tomboy who doesn’t want to wear frilly dresses and do needlepoint and instead wants to learn to use weapons and slaughter her enemies like her brothers.

Sansa Stark: Stark’s eldest daughter, 13-year-old Sansa is shallow, stuck up and only cares about marrying a wealthy prince. But in a country where women are prostituted to horse lords, getting humped by their brothers, can you blame her? Who’s to say Sansa doesn’t have the wisest plan? Cross-stitch, Sansa, cross-stitch for your life!

Robb Stark. The eldest Stark son. Good guy, though not exactly Mr. Personality.

Rickon Stark. He’s just six, and is sort of the Maggie Simpson of the Starks.

We see a series of beats that convey a lot of information quickly and subtly: Arya glaring resentfully at her sister Sansa; Lady Catelyn’s disapproval of Jon Snow; the older brothers’ love for young Bran.

Then, our first crucial sequence: The Stark version of a family picnic. Eddard takes the kids out on a beautiful desolate summer day to execute that deserter from the prologue, Will. Not that his sons seem to mind. When you don’t have TV, this is as good as it gets.

Eddard gets out ol’ lopper as the prisoner explains he saw the legendary White Walkers. “Don’t look away, father will know,” Snow warns Bran.

There’s a gory decapitation (again!). Bran gives a slight pained twitch but otherwise takes in this action with the lack of empathy a father hopes to see from his ten year old.

The trip home is interrupted by the discovery of a giant direwolf corpse and its young pups. Direwolves are normally found above the Wall and their presence this far south is taken as a bad omen. Bran wants a wolf but we see Eddard eyeing those pups thinking: “Off with their heads!” The Starks don’t get to wear those rock star pelts by being polite to the local wildlife.

Bastard Jon Snow suggests the Starks were meant to have pups since their number is equal to the number of non-bastardy Stark kids. (Must try this: “Dad, there’s only one boat for sale next door, and I’m your only child, therefore I am meant to have it”). Bran promises to walk his wolf and pick up its wolf poop and feed the monster small animals every day and Eddard relents. Snow’s maneuver totally pays off a moment later when he finds another pup nearby. Snow claims the stray, and snuggles the pure white one who’s all snowy just like his bastard surname. Aww, the pup is SO cute! Who wantz a wittle wuff!? Who wantz a wittle wuff!? Who wantz— OK.

Cut to the sprawling and decadent capital city of King’s Landing where we see…

NEXT: An offer Stark can’t refuse…

 

The Hand of the King, Jon Arryn, lies dead. We meet two crucial characters: Jamie Lannister, an infamous knight of the Kingsguard (a sort of Secret Service for the king) and his cunning sister, Cersei, the queen of Westeros.

Like many scenes in this episode, people address each other by pointing out their relationships (“As your brother…” etc). It’s not the most natural way to speak, but it gets the job done — we got millions of viewers to education about this fantasy kingdom, dammit. We quickly realize these two are shady, that Arryn died before he could spill some terrible secret. “If he told the king, both our heads would be skewered on the city gates by now,” Jamie says lazily. Hmm….

Back at Winterfell, Eddard is lovingly polishing his precious head chopper. Catelyn arrives to deliver the bad news/bad news: 1. Her sister’s husband and Eddard’s friend, Jon Arryn, is dead. 2. King Robert Baratheon, Eddard’s old war buddy, is riding to Winterfell. They realize that Robert will want Eddard to become the new Hand of the King, an honored position that, as Jamie noted, has historically been a bit like a Chief of Staff crossed with a Spinal Tap drummer. What will Eddard do?

About a month later: A young Bran is scaling the Winterfell walls and spies the king’s party approaching. When he climbs down (and promises his mother he won’t climb anymore) she notes how big the direwolf pups have grown, giving us a sense of the time that’s passed.

The king’s procession enters the courtyard. We get our first look the portly King Robert and arrogant young Prince Joffrey, who’s eyed by the smitten Sansa (the pretty ones always go for the jerks). Ayra arrives late, wearing an armor helmet, presumably having been pretending to kill things. We also check out Joffrey’s imposing bodyguard, The Hound, who has the raddest and least practical helmet ever.

King Robert approaches Eddard. “You got fat,” he declares. Eddard gives a rather perfect flick of the eyes at Robert’s massive belly. Robert laughs, ice broken.

Much to Cersei’s annoyance, Robert wants to visit the crypt of his true love, Eddard’s sister, who was killed by a Targaryen many years ago. There Robert makes his offer-you-can’t-refuse to Eddard: “I’m trying to get you to run my kingdom while I eat, drink and whore my way to an early grave,” Robert says, sounding a bit like Charlie Sheen hiring a new publicist. Robert also acts as an efficient matchmaker: “I have a son, you have a daughter, we’ll join our houses,” he says.

On the surface, this is all good news: Eddard will become the second most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms, his daughter Sansa will marry the king’s son Joffrey, setting her up to become queen and further secure the Stark legacy. But King’s Landing is a political “rats nest” — not Stark’s style — and this will mean separating from his family since most of the Starks will have to stay behind to govern the North. Catelyn says, “You can always say ‘no,'” but Eddard knows that you shouldn’t reject the king, no matter how many war stories you share.

Now we meet Jamie and Cersei’s younger brother…

NEXT: Mom, he’s touching me again!

 

Tyrion Lannister, in — where else? — a whorehouse. This scene was added from the books to give Tyrion a more impactful introduction. Peter Dinklage is perfectly cast and I suspect many will be talking about him and his character by midway through the season. Jamie interrupts his brother’s debauchery and sends in a trio of giggling floozies to finish him off.

Meanwhile, in TV Show No. 3, we meet the exiled ultra-blonde Targaryens. Prince Viserys Targaryen is the exiled heir to the Seven Kingdoms who wants to build an army and cross the Narrow Sea to reclaim his crown from King Robert. Also, a jerk. His sister, Princess Daenerys “Dany” Targaryen, is 17 (well, 13 years old in the books and in HBO’s early press materials, but nothing hastily adds a few years to a teenage character like getting harshly deflowered on American TV by a horse lord). Together Dany and her brother prove that no matter how harsh life is in the land of Westeros, there’s still easy access to bleach.

Viserys inspects his sister for her impending betrothal. He strips her down and fondles her breast. At this point, viewers who didn’t read the books are probably assuming these two will be the only blonde brother-sister duo with an incestuous exchange in this episode. Ha!

“I need you to be perfect today,” Viserys says. “You don’t want to awaken the dragon, do you?”

He’s referring to his rage as a mighty Targaryen prince — his great ancestors used dragons to conquer the Seven Kingdoms — so he’s not talking about his … you know.

After examining his sister’s body with all the studiousness of a prospective buyer of a Honda Civic, Viserys decides he approves of her womanliness.

Dany then walks naked into a super hot bath to scald the touch of her icky brother off her.

Outside, Dany’s fun continues as we learn that she’s being forced to marry a powerful “Dothraki” horse lord named Khal Drogo so her brother can gain a nomadic army and reclaim his throne. “I give him a queen and he gives me an army,” he says, making the math sound so simple, then adds sweetly, “I would let his whole tribe f— you, all 40,000 men and their horses, if that’s what it took.” Now, I don’t think we’ll see be seeing that actually happen on Thrones, but I wouldn’t put it past Starz’ Spartacus.

 

Drogo rides up on his horse to give Dany the once-over. Drogo is a warrior so muscular and imposing that nobody dares make fun of his eyeliner. He gives her a look, then takes off without a word — she has been accepted. (Granted, this is not the most pleasant way for a woman to find a spouse, but it’s still less demeaning than appearing on The Bachelor.)

NEXT: Murderous plots and wedding gifts…

Back at Winterfell, the Starks are hosting the king and his extended family. Sansa tells her mother she wants to marry Prince Joffrey and get the hell out of this 1000-horse town. “Please make father say yes, please-please it’s the only thing I ever wanted!” she cries in a perfect Veruca Salt.

Outside Jon Snow furiously beats off … his sword against a practice target. Seems stepmom Catelyn thought it might insult the royal family to have him bastarding up their nice dinner. Snow is eager to run off with his uncle Benjen to join the Night’s Watch — like those guys from the prologue who guard The Wall. Tyrion can relate to Snow’s role as an outcast, noting “all dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes” and advises him to “never forget who you are.”

At the banquet, Queen Cersei out-catty’s Cat by calling the North “lovely country” as if she’s talking about a swamp. The intrusive inspection of teen girls in this episode continues with the queen asking young Sansa, “Have you bled yet?” Cersei then tells Catelyn that “such a beauty shouldn’t stay hidden up here forever.”

That night, Eddard and Catelyn receive a letter from her sister, Lysa, widow of the newly deceased Hand of the King. Lysa writes that she fled King’s Landing and Jon Arryn was actually — dun-nun-nah! — murdered by the Lannisters, and that the king is in danger. Now Eddard’s choice is practically made for him. This isn’t just a matter of making King Robert happy, but of potentially saving the king’s life and protecting the realm. The stakes have been raised.

Back to the Targaryens: At a seaside wedding ceremony, Dany sits awkwardly next to Drogo, who’s decked out in neat blue body paint. The happy couple receive gifts of — OK, who brought the box of snakes? Really? Is there any culture that seriously thinks that’s a great wedding gift? Then there’s … oh. Sweet. Dragon’s eggs. Each a different color. We’re told “the ages have turn them to stone but they will always be beautiful.” So just decorative, then. Still, way better than snakes. And the eggs look cool –props to the Thrones‘, er, prop department.

On the dance floor, somebody tries to cut in on a tribesman doing a Dothraki version of The New Jersey Turnpike and a violent fight ensues. “A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair” we’re told as Drogo looks on, pleased.

Drogo takes his new bride to an isolated spot, where Dany tearfully watches the sun set on her virginity. He claims his wife in what we’re now realizing is the most popular sex position on this show (and has often been ranked in Cosmopolitan’s annual survey as womens’ favorite position — so who says Westeros ain’t progressive?).

Back to Winterfell for the big moment which, gotta say, was staged perfectly: Bran climbs high upon the castle walls again. He hears humpy noises from one of the open chamber windows. He looks inside and sees….

NEXT: !!!!!!!

Ewww!

And hot!

And ewww!

More doggy-style love but this time it’s Queen Cersei and her brother Jamie. This, of course, is a huge reveal. Not only did the blonde wonder twins possibly murder the Hand of the King, not only are they allegedly plotting against King Robert, but they’re also carrying on an affair. It’s adulterous! Incestuous! Treasonous! Outrageous! And, yeah, kinda hot. And did we mention these two are not just siblings, but twins? Does that make this affair more icky or less? Discuss.

Jamie gets his pants on with remarkable speed and rushes to the window to grab the boy. “He saw us!” Cersei says. Jamie asks Bran’s age and Bran tells him 10.

“The things I do for love,” Jamie says.

Haha, Bran caught the twins fooling around, whaddya gonna do, I guess Jamie will–

Throw Bran out the f—ing window!

And that’s it. For a week.

What happens next? Was there a cart of hay conveniently rolling past the window? Is Bran dead? Do the incest wonder twins get caught by the Starks? Is there a better possible cliffhanger to conclude this premiere episode?

This is James the Recapper turning the conversation over to you, my friends. What do you think of the first episode of Thrones? What were the best and worst moments? For readers of the book, did it live up to your expectations?

A Note About Spoilers: Unlike most shows recapped on EW, there’s a large fan contingent out there who know precisely what’s going to happen on Thrones later this season, and (gods willing) the next seasons. If readers want to know that information, they can find it many places online, or, better yet, read George R.R. Martin’s fantastic books. Nobody wants to find out spoilers accidentally while reading these boards. PLEASE RESPECT YOUR FELLOW FANS AND DO NOT POST ANY SPOILERS BEYOND THE CURRENT EPISODE. Thank you. Sorry for the all caps. Seemed important.

Follow me on Twitter for GOT news and recaps: @jameshibberd

 

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HBO’s epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
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