A WINTER’S TALE
Was the ‘Game of Thrones’ Pilot Actually Any Good?
It seems like eons have passed since Game of Thrones’ unassuming debut on HBO in 2011. On the eve of the final season premiere, we revisit that first episode. Does it hold up?
It’s been almost eight years to the day since we were first warned that “winter is coming.” I’ll be honest: I didn’t take the warning very seriously.
That’s because it’s been roughly seven years and six months, you see, since, exasperated by hearing about this Game of Thrones show that couldn’t sound less like anything I’d ever be interested in, I sought out one of those shoddy Megavideo pirated links from the days of yore—the internet in 2011—and finally watched the pilot. (Don’t tell the feds.)
Was it worth the myriad viruses I gave my laptop that night? I think so! The truth is, I don’t remember much about my reaction to it, or frankly much about it at all.
Over the next seven years, I’d pop in and out of the show—binge some episodes here, some more there—and eventually started to watch them live when my then-roommate and I decided we were adults and therefore were going to get HBO.
I’ve loved the show. I’ve been angry at it. I’ve marveled at its popularity, been annoyed by its fans, and angered by some of its problematic motifs. Mostly, I’ve been confused by it; turns out this is not a series to pop in and out of sporadically. But that hasn’t taken away my appreciation for it.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that, on the eve of the final season premiere, I thought an interesting experiment would be to revisit that pilot and see how it holds up. As objectively as possible, is this a show that would be well-reviewed today? Would it inspire the phenomenon it eventually grew to? We’re so enamored by the series now. But was that first hour really that good?
What shocked me is how emblematic that very first episode is of what the show would become, in all ways good and bad. I remember reviews at the time were largely positive, entranced by the scope of production, if slightly dismissive of the series as too niche and directed at a certain fantasy-fan demographic. (A survey of Metacritic corroborates that critical assessment, while a survey of my soul forces the admission that, yes, I too had that anti-fantasy bias.)
Perhaps the most impressive thing about that first 68 minutes—simpler times, when we thought that was a long running time—was the amount of confidence co-creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, who co-wrote the pilot, and Timothy Van Patten, who directed it, had in their ambitious vision and how a production of this magnitude and complexity would unfold. It blasts off as if out of a cannon.
It opens on a group of Night's Watchmen traversing a tunnel through the Wall. Not even 15 seconds in and the show’s swagger is on display: The shot is breathtaking. The scale is unreal, contrasting their bodies against the bare, white monolith in the blizzard.
They come upon the bodies of Wildlings that have been dismembered and impaled, body parts frozen in the snow. The show was gorgeous and gruesome from the start.
As they try to piece together what happened to the Wildlings, the White Walkers emerge, a jump-scare as if out of a classed-up creature feature. It’s a proper horror show start to the series, and as captivating an opener as any modern drama series has crafted.
The blunt violence arrives early, when Ned Stark (Sean Bean) beheads the Watchman who deserted his post to warn of the White Walkers. So too, comes the cumbersome exposition. We’re quick to meet dozens of characters and their relationships. Some are easy to decipher—the Stark children—others not so much. What is Jon Snow’s (Kit Harrington) place? And what of Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen)?
For all the virtues of Game of Thrones on display from the start, so too are its biggest pitfalls.
When we say there’s cumbersome exposition, we mean there’s a lot of it. Trying to imagine a time when these characters are all still new, it’s a lot to wrap your head around.
The king’s Hand died, and so the king is coming with his wife, Cersei (Lena Headey), and her two siblings (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jaime and Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion) to ask Ned to be the new Hand. But it turns out the king’s Hand, Jon Arryn, may have been poisoned...and maybe it was the Lannisters...and maybe the king is at risk?
Then there are the Targaryens, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Viserys (Harry Lloyd), who halfway around the world are making a play to return Viserys to the Iron Throne by marrying Daenerys off to Dothraki leader Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) in exchange for his army. And just when your head stops spinning, you learn that Cersei and Jamie, who are twin siblings, are having sex with each other.
This doesn’t even get into the business of setting up Tyrion as a boozy, tortured cad, the introduction of Jorah (Iain Glen), the motives of Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the complicated relationship between the Stark girls, or the fact that—and I can’t believe I forgot this—there is a scene in which Jon, Theon, and Richard Madden’s Robert Stark stand around shirtless waiting to be shaven clean for a party.
It’s a miracle that any of us were seduced by the show’s many attributes into following its storytelling.
What struck me about the pilot, however, is that things just happen. The moralizing and more existential discussions would come later. The recklessness with which the show rewarded or punished goodness and evil, which made it one of the most consistently shocking series on TV, hadn’t quite developed.
We’re just meeting characters, piecing together things about them based on tropes we’re already familiar with, and finishing all 68 minutes on an ellipsis, not yet entirely sure of the point.
Based on the timing of when it premiered, a few years after The Sopranos left HBO, and at a time when the network was still struggling to find its next big drama, you might have transposed the power struggle for the Iron Throne onto the machinations of a certain New Jersey mafia. (Benioff even once joked that the show’s tagline should be “The Sopranos in Middle-Earth.”)
While the style and the creative cojones to tell this tangled web of a story may still be praised if this was a new series today, there are certain elements that have not aged well. The show’s tendency to exploit naked women as set-dressing and, on the other hand, fetishize sexual violence for the sake of plot is on irritating display here.
The brothel scene that introduces Tyrion is one thing. That Daenerys is naked and fondled by her brother within five minutes of her entrance is another. By the end of the episode, she will have been raped on her wedding night, pushed down on all fours while crying.
It’s also uncomfortable to rewatch the scenes featuring Khal Drogo and the Dothraki, who are reduced to racist, problematic tropes about “savages.” The worst tendency of fantasy and genre storytelling is to assume that retrograde stereotypes and storytelling devices shouldn’t be elevated or evolved because of when or where a narrative takes place, for fear that doing so would no longer signal a certain thing to a viewer, or rob the story of verisimilitude. (It’s fantasy, people. That couldn’t be further from the truth.)
It’s also maybe aggravating to see all these scenes again because it’s so hard to remain objective about the show. As a TV critic, I’ve seen all the ways the popularity of Game of Thrones gave rise to a concerning increase in sexual exploitation, nudity-as-set-dressing, and the unnecessary usage of sexual violence against women as a narrative tool. This is not to say that there’s not a place for any of it, but it snowballed into a worrisome, damaging trend.
To that end, the episode ends in a truly wild way, a reminder of how cheeky the show was when it started and the sinister sense of humor it had. There’s a lot of lightheartedness to this pilot that I think dimmed down as the series went on.
Yes, the final sequence of the Game of Thrones pilot is a twin incest sex scene and then a 10-year-old boy pushed out a window for being a witness to it.
Of maybe everything that happens in the 68 minutes of that first episode, that may be the scene that changed television fundamentally afterwards: A dogged pursuit of the WTF moment. (The series would of course up the ante in that regard several episodes later when Ned Stark meets his fate.)
But to the question at hand. Was the Game of Thrones pilot actually any good? It’s one of the breeziest episodes of the series—even with all that scene setting—and, in my estimation should rank among the show’s best ever. But it wasn’t an easy sell. Only 2 million people watched that first episode when it aired. More than 16.5 million watched the season seven finale the night it aired.
What a humble—a word not often used with Game of Thrones—beginning.
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