The Game of Thrones series premiere took its time. The wannabes could learn something.
The Game of Thrones series premiere was not some kind of revelation. When HBO's fantasy epic launched 10 years ago, it was the second straight big-budget genre drama with a mutilated-zombie-girl prologue. And The Walking Dead's prosthetic zombies were more stunning than the White Walkers, in their early was-that-a-loincloth? incarnation. Forget the gory specifics of that opening scene beyond the Wall. Recall, instead, the magnificent fact that Game of Thrones begins with a seven minute scene about three doomed characters. You only knew their names if you read George R. R. Martin's novels. That opening shot of a door opening — rising, rising, rising — sets a patient tone. There are so many people, and you meet all of them. There are a lot of settings, and you get your bearings. There is much story to prepare for, but — in serialized-saga terms, with a special focus on The Mystery — the first proper plot point doesn't arrive until minute 48.
Game of Thrones could take its sweet time. Martin's books weren't as famous as they would become, not yet the thing you saw twice a day on the subway. But they were popular, and offered a roadmap that some TV viewers (and many network executives) craved after controversial endings for Battlestar Galactica and Lost. HBO believed so much in the material that showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss got to make this first episode twice. (The original pilot has achieved mythic levels of awfulness; unseen by the public, it is Peak TV's Day the Clown Cried.) So there's a patience in the ensemble's introduction: Trueborn Starks and the bastard Jon (Kit Harington), King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) and his parasitic Lannister appendages, silver-haired Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) in the sunbaked continent eastward.
Game of Thrones became so successful that almost every TV drama with a decent-to-huge budget would try to be another Game of Thrones. The imitation invariably bent towards the show's later, huger seasons, when the concept of a "battle episode" moved from a once-a-year treat to every other week. This was a ruinous TV trend, even worse than all the wannabe Breaking Badlings that started their antiheroes already fully corrupted down the Heisenberg spiral. Wannabes like Altered Carbon or Lost in Space came on strong with explosive premieres, only to dead-end into 10-hour-movie delaying tactics. A promising saga like Lovecraft Country suffered an obvious mandate to fit three action set-pieces into one pilot. The Walking Dead: World Beyond's premiere shamelessly apes Thrones pilot's structure — a royal visit from another world power, with lots of inter-cultural clashing — and then undercuts its own world-building by killing off all the background characters.
Death is all around in "Winter is Coming" — heads off, intestines out — but it's more of a lingering mood. We learn in conversation how Ned Stark (Sean Bean) lost a sister, a brother, and a father. Memories of those old fights haunt the Lord of Winterfell. But his children are bright and hopeful, with destinies pointed in every direction. Martin's initial brilliance was to begin A Song of Ice and Fire as a kind of post-fantasy, where characters remember magic as a bygone possibility. The arrival of a gigantic direwolf is just more evidence of mystical degradation. It's a corpse, and it's newborn pups are are apparently so unimpressive that they're almost killed (foreshadowing!) by Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen).
In 2011, premium cable maturity could still be a tantalizing come-on. Popular screen fantasy at the time was a regurgitative Hobbit trilogy and climactic Harry Potter victory laps, "dark" in style but safely PG-13. We meet Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) mid-orgasm and pre-fivesome. Everything around Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) is an M-for-Mature riot. Your mileage may vary, and Thrones got more abashed with its sexual content as expanding popularity brought harsher critiques. Worth noting that Esmé Bianco plays the first great new-for-TV character, the prostitute Ros, whose vibrant grin (and, yes, clothing-optional mentality) contrasts all the stuffy patrician grimacing. The leisurely pacing nails the darker tones, too. Bean is great throughout, but I don't think he was ever better on the show than the moment Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) finds Ned under the Godswood. He hears some bad news, and looks unhappy. But look closely at his face beforehand, as he polishes his sword. You imagine that he's already anticipated every bit of bad news, even his own death. He knows the sword can't ever be sharp enough.
The events in Essos could feel like a vestigial tail even in the show's best years, and Pentos lacks the texture of Winterfell. It's essential, though, that this premiere is so Dany-heavy. whatever you think about the burlap slasher orgy of non-white foreignness at the Dothraki wedding — whether you think it's purposefully hilarious or accidentally hilarious or unforgivably offensive or necessarily offensive, whether you think the wedding-night rape is a crucial part of a character's journey or an embarrassing feat of misshapen adaptation — you have to admire this world's immediate scope. There's no sense of a single important character, and no feeling that one tone has to dominate. As my brilliant former colleague and reigning Westeros correspondent James Hibberd wrote in his series premiere recap: "When a TV show opens with a supernatural attack, viewers tend to assume the show is about supernatural attacks." In this episode there are winter zombies up there and summer cavemen down here, grim knights of romance there and prissy inbred aristocrats there. The worst instinct in fantasy is to say This Is Our Vibe. Spread yourself far: One continent, no, two!
There is not yet a true inheritor of the Game of Thrones tradition. I guess the Disney+ shows have taken over as pure content fodder, but those are universes, which (for better and worse) is not quite the same thing as "a story." Westworld looked like Thrones' heir apparent when it killed off main characters, which is very Ned Stark. But then they kept coming back to life, which Game of Thrones only did once (and not well). The recent Star Trek spinoffs bear a strong anxiety of Thrones influence with their preference for epic action, but I'm not sure any of them could stand the dinner test. By which I mean: Can you set your characters down at a table and make their conversation fascinating? It's drama you can't fake, and it's maybe the only real stylistic connection Thrones ever had to the rich ensembles of The Sopranos or The Wire. Plot machinations triumph over character now, every time.
One big frustration with this solid series premiere is the ending. It's intended as a double-shock — twincest and kid-tossing! — but it's a way-too-shameless cliffhanger, with poor Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) falling right toward the camera. It's the kind of come-back-next-week trick that premium cable avoided in the 2000s, before True Blood started doing it every week. Now cliffhangers are rampant, and inevitably disappointing; everything becomes a Quicksilver cameo, a rush-to-social-media Moment that won't ever matter as much as it should. I prefer to imagine a somber closing scene — an epilogue to this episode-long prologue — where everyone in Winterfell assembles around Bran's broken body. While the Maesters do their medieval ER efforts, all the Starks and Lannisters and Baratheons cast reacts quietly: Sorrowful siblings, crushed parents, devious future in-laws, a ruminative little man with rather-too-golden hair. Everything they know about their world is about to change. Credit Game of Thrones for taking the time to show us what these people were like before Winter started coming.
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HBO's epic fantasy drama based on George R.R. Martin's novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.