Awesome TV: “Winter is Coming”
WTF is “Winter is Coming?”
“Winter is Coming” is the first episode of Game of Thrones, a series popular with HBO subscribers and internet pirates alike. In a nutshell, Game of Thrones is a sword and sorcery story about power – how people get it, how they hold onto it, how they lose it, what they do with it. It is known for having extremely high production values and surprising plot twists that defy our expectations of the genre.
“Winter is Coming” introduces us to the fictional kingdom of Westeros, in which most of Game of Thrones is set, and the story’s inciting incident – the mysterious death of the king’s chief advisor, Jon Arryn. In response to this, the king travels north and asks his old war buddy, Ned Stark, to take Jon Arryn’s place, so that someone will have his back in capitol. As a little incentive, the king also offers to have his eldest son marry Ned’s eldest daughter, fulfilling her strongly-held desire to be a princess.
Ned debates whether or not he should accept this opportunity, but it’s not like he can really say no, so the debate doesn’t last very long. In the meantime, we meet the other members of his household, including his wife, his five legitimate kids, his bastard son, and some other guy he raised as a hostage for reasons that are disclosed later.
Meanwhile, on the fictional continent Essos, a girl with really blond hair and a weird capacity to tolerate heat is sold into marriage and raped by the warlord who buys her.
Also, there are zombies in the woodlands to the north.
Why is that awesome?
First things first – I don’t think the rape part is awesome. The warlord/blond girl story line is the story line I hate most on the show, for reasons I’ve unpacked before. But, putting that aside – and I know it’s a big thing to put aside – “Winter is Coming” is one of the best first episodes I’ve ever seen.
Before I outline all the reasons why, it’s worth remembering that first episodes – especially of genre shows – are usually noticeably worse than the rest of the series. That’s partly because they’re sometimes produced under less than ideal conditions, but also partly because the first episode has to do a lot of work that the rest of the series won’t have to do. It has to explain all of the key elements of what the series is going to be – it has to introduce the main characters and the situation; it has to teach us what the story’s going to be about, thematically; it has to establish a tone; and it has to answer the question, “Why would someone want to watch this show?”
Often, the first episode is either literally the pilot episode or a re-shot version of the pilot episode – so, it’s an episode that mainly exists to show the network that the series has possibilities. It is much more self-conscious than the other episodes, and there’s much less room to experiment.
With a science-fiction or fantasy show, there’s also an added element, in that the first episode has to establish the rules of how the science-fiction or fantasy stuff works, and explain the basic principle of what’s going on to the audience.
All this is to say that, usually the first episode of a science fiction or fantasy show – even if the show turns out to be really good – is a really long info dump, interspersed with some action scenes. It is a live action, dramatized version of the pitch for the show. So it’s extra, extra, extra impressive if a series manages to make a good first episode under those conditions.
The list of reasons why “Winter is Coming” is a good first episode
1. It leads with the zombies – Now, leading with the zombies is also a little bit of misdirection, since the zombies are not important for about four and a half seasons after this episode, but introducing the zombies right away lets the audience know that there are going to be supernatural elements in the story. It stops that from being a weird surprise later on, and it gives us what has, so far, been the correct impression that the ratio of normal stuff to weird supernatural stuff is going to be, like, 5:1. In other words, it flags the weird fantasy stuff that’s coming, and then works to reassure us that the show isn’t all about that.
2. It tells us what we need to know and nothing more – “Winter is Coming” has a shitload of characters to introduce and, as we learn later, the characters all have a really long, complicated back story. So does the political situation in Westeros. So does virtually everything else. It’s only in retrospect, after learning so much of this information through other scenes in other episodes, that we can see how careful “Winter is Coming” was, and how mightily it resisted the urge to just tell us all the stuff. We come away from the first episode with an accurate idea of the characters and their relationships at a fairly broad level without getting overloaded by the details. Part of the pleasure of the series is that it builds that depth of understanding over time rather than trying to download everything into our brains at once.
3. It has very well-prepared actors – Usually, it takes a while for actors to warm up to a role, and to develop chemistry with each other. Even when the characters are supposed to have a pre-existing relationship, the first episode of a series can feel like strangers meeting each other at work for the first time. In “Winter is Coming,” most of the actors already seem to have a strong read on their characters and, with one or two exceptions, the performance doesn’t change very much as the series moves forward; the essential traits that make the characters who they are are already there in the first episode. This is a big part of the reason why the series immediately feels huge, and like it has layers and back story, even though it doesn’t tell us everything at once.
4. It covers a lot of ground in a very short time – Not a whole lot happens in the episode, but it introduces 18 characters and gives us at least one thing to know about each of them. It also manages to introduce most of the important relationships between those characters (Daenerys’ brother is a creep to her; Ned’s wife hates his bastard son; there’s incest in the royal family, etc), a little bit of context for the present situation, and zombies. It’s an impressive laundry list of things to get through in one episode, and works because the scenes are scripted in a purposeful, economic way.
5. It figured out right away that it could break up exposition with nudity and beheadings – I’m not advocating this in general, but it’s clearly been a very successful strategy for the series, and it was happening right from the start.
6. It clearly established the most important feature of the series – The most important feature of Game of Thrones is that it plays with our expectations by introducing unexpected twists. The very last scene of “Winter is Coming” surprises us with the first shocking twist, teaching us in one short push that this is a story that’s not afraid to go to awful, unexpected places.
7. It does some heavy lifting for later episodes in the season – The first season of Game of Thrones is a masterpiece, in that, like so many scenes of *spoilers* getting pushed out of *spoilers*, it shrewdly leads us to expect one kind of story while delivering us into another. It seems like it’s a standard protagonist-restores-order-to-chaos narrative, but it turns out to be a spiralling-toward-destruction narrative instead. “Winter is Coming” has to work as the opening to both of those stories – it has to be able to pass as the opening chapter in a conventional narrative and the opening chapter in a narrative that completely reverses conventions. That’s not easy, but the show pulls it off.
8. It has a really good title – “Winter is coming” is the motto of the Stark family, and it means that, literally, winter is coming, because Westeros has different seasons than we do, and their winters can last several years, but it also means, metaphorically, that you need to prepare for the hard times ahead. Given everything that happens as the series goes on, “Winter is Coming” is the perfect seemingly-innocuous-but-actually-really-ominous way to start the series.
One of the things that makes Game of Thrones a really strong show is that – perhaps because it’s based so closely on a series of books – it has a plan. The story’s beginning knows how the story ends, and everything else along the way feels deliberate and purposeful.
“Winter is Coming” is an usually strong first episode for the same reason – it’s doing all the work it has to do by setting the stage for the rest of the series, and it’s doing that work so well and so subtly that you don’t even know what’s been done until you watch it again, later on.
Not every series has the luxury of planning its story so far in advance, but “Winter is Coming” takes full advantage of the plan by creating an episode that feels like part of a larger narrative, both because the characters and story already seem developed at the outset, and because it expertly lays the groundwork for the rest of the series to come.