The show begins on a cold open, literally and figuratively. A gate slides open and three men on horseback are riding through a tunnel. We don’t know who these characters are or what they are doing. One of the men comes across the aftermath of a slaughter – dead bodies, mutilated, bloody, strewn in almost a ritualistic fashion. He turns to run and comes face to face with a young girl’s corpse nailed to a tree.
The man, a ranger from the Night’s Watch we later learn, runs back to tell the other two. He has seen enough and wants to head back to the castle where they rode from, but the leader of the group says they should investigate further to find out what killed them. Big mistake. That man is attacked and killed by something large coming up from behind him. We see a scary sight – the young girl from the tree is now moving. She’s ghostly white with shocking blue eyes and blood around her mouth. Children of the Corn meets The Walking Dead. Just then the second man is beheaded. And fade to black.
The opening credits give you a map of the locations in each episode. No fast forwarding through this part. You are introduced to King’s Landing, Winterfell, the Wall, and Pentos. You also see the Game of Thrones insignia, with the lion, dragon, direwolf, and stag profiles. These are the sigils (symbols) of four of the great families of Westeros – the Lannisters, the Targaryens, the Starks, and the Baratheons. Learn those names.
The next scene opens on men from Winterfell coming across the last of the three men who had the close encounter with the carnage (and scary blue-eyed girl) north of the Wall. In the previous scene, that man had been told if he were to escape and head south, he would be captured and punished for treason. Weighing his options, he apparently chose a nice, warm beheading over the craziness in the snow.
Switch to Winterfell where a young boy is practicing his archery. That is Bran Stark, one of the five children of Eddard (Ned) and Catelyn Stark (née Tully). He is there, we later learn, with his brothers Jon, Robb and Rickon.
In a different part of Winterfell we see girls working on their sewing, two of whom are the Stark sisters Sansa and Arya.
News comes to Winterfell that guardsmen have captured a deserter from the Night’s Watch. Ned heads off to deal with the deserter. We hear the man mumbling something about “white walkers.” He admits to being a deserter and knows he should have gone back to the Wall to warn others, but he saw what he saw. Ned, as Warden of the North, sentences the deserter to death and then executes him.
Bran heard the deserter mention the white walkers and asks his father about that, but Ned tells him not to worry. The white walkers have been dead for thousands of years. He also has some fatherly advice about the one issuing the sentence being the one to execute it. This was young Bran’s first time at a beheading, an apparent rite-of-passage in these parts.
On the way back to Winterfell, they come across a stag that had been killed by some kind of animal. They explore the area further and find a dead direwolf that had apparently fought the stag. They also find five newborn wolf pups. The children convince Ned to let them keep the pups as there is one for each of the five Stark children and the direwolf is the sigil (symbol) of the Stark house. One of the boys notes the strangeness of a direwolf being south of the Wall. Ned lets each child take one of the pups. As they leave, they find a sixth pup, all white, and they say that one belongs to Jon, the dark-haired boy who we later learn is Ned’s son.
Next we move to King’s Landing, capital of the Seven Kingdoms. Bells are ringing and a man is lying in state. We meet a brother and sister who talk of their childhood together raised in the House Lannister. This is Jaime and Cersei Lannister and they have a special relationship as twins. The woman is worried, “what if Jon Arryn told someone?” Her brother is less concerned, “Who would he tell?” … “If he told the king [her husband], both of our heads would be skewered on the city gates by now.” “Whatever Jon Arryn knew died with him,” Jaime assures her.
Back at Winterfell, we get a little taste of the relationship between Ned and Catelyn – they’re from different areas with different religions, yet these crazy kids have seemed to overcome these problems to be happily married (despite his having bedded another woman and fathered a child during the marriage, the dark-haired Jon Snow — snow being the Westerosi way of denoting a bastard child of the north).
Catelyn brings news to Ned that his old friend Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King, has died. Arryn’s wife (Catelyn’s sister) and son are fine, by the way. The king is heading to Winterfell with the queen and an entourage in tow.
Bran climbs the wall of the castle and sees the king arriving. His mother catches him and scolds him, pulling from him a promise that he never climb again. Meaning that he will climb again and it will go very badly.
The king and his legions arrive and you can tell that Ned and King Robert have a long, fond history together. You can also tell that the queen is not at all as warm and fuzzy as her husband. Or as a piranha. Her twin, when he takes off his helm and shakes loose his sandy brown hair, looks like he should be kissing a dozing princess or returning another’s glass slipper. Twice, Arya Stark asks “where is the Imp?” and Cersei also asks the whereabouts of her younger brother who we meet…
But first, King Robert and Ned are down in the crypt visiting dead family members and talking old times. Robert asks Ned to take over for Jon Arryn and be the new Hand of the King to run the realm while he he does what he apparently does best – “eat, drink and whore my way to an early grave.” How can Ned say no to an offer like that? Plus, Robert pulls out his secret weapon, reminding Ned how they were almost brothers – Robert had been in love with Ned’s sister, Lyanna, but she died before they could wed and then Robert had to settle for marrying the Ice Princess Cersei.
…At last, Arya’s question is answer. The “Imp” is being visited by a lovely lady of the evening, though it’s the middle of the day, who teases him about his identity while giving him quite the welcome to the north. As she mounts Lord Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf brother to the queen, they are interrupted by his brother Jaime. Unlike his humorless sister, Jaime seems much more relaxed. He kids around with his brother and even brings in a handful of additional whores to entertain Tyrion before the banquet. Tyrion, we are told, has a reputation for debauchery and drunkenness. He also has a quick tongue.
Back to the crypt, Robert is pining over the dead Lyanna and blames it all on the House Targaryen, whose king his rebellion had dethroned. Despite sitting on the throne and defeating them, Robert still wants revenge. Ned reminds him that the Targaryens are long gone, Robert says not all of them, so we are whisked away to see two not-gone Targaryen children, Viserys and Daeneyrs, across the narrow sea, on Pentos.
They are white haired and golden eyed. The brother is unctuous and perverted, derobing his sister to inspect her; the sister is a fair-haired goddess. He makes odd threats about not waking the dragon and talks about how things will be when he takes the throne. Daenerys steps into a scalding bath despite her hand maiden’s warning. She prepares for her wedding day. We see her intended, Khal Drogo, king of a sect of the Dothraki, the khalasar. He is dark and intense, with long braids signifying that he has never lost a battle. When they wed, she will be his queen and his army will belong to Viserys.
Drogo quickly inspects his future bride then rides off, the courting and engagement period more truncated than on The Bachelor. She is acceptable. Viserys’ plan is once his sister is wed, he will take Drogo’s army across the narrow sea and reclaim King’s Landing on behalf of the House Targaryen. But Daenerys doesn’t want to do her part (marrying a total stranger who speaks another language and looks like he could break her in two on their wedding night). Like Dorothy, she just wants to go home. Her brother says, not without an army. And, in a touching brother-sister moment, he tells her that he would let Drogo’s entire tribe, all 40,000 men and their horses too, rape her if that’s what it took to get his army. Such a sentimental fool!
Elsewhere, Ned’s daughter Sansa is hoping that she can wed a future king. She has her eyes on King Robert’s son Joffrey. As appalled as Daenerys is at her matrimonial obligations, that’s how much Sansa hopes her father will agree to her marrying the future king. Such a, if you pardon the pun, stark contrast between the two.
The dinner celebration for the king has music, wine and merriment, but outside Ned’s bastard son Jon is taking his adolescent angst (I’m not good enough to be at the feast) out on a pretend foe as his uncle Benjen Stark arrives from the north. Benjen lets his nephew know he always has a home “on the wall” and Jon is all gung ho to go off with his uncle to join the Night’s Watch. He knows it means taking an oath, giving up his family, having no sons, bedding no women, but none of that is dissuading him. Is this because Catelyn has made him feel not one of the family, or for some other reason? While Jon entertains the notion of taking the black (as it’s called), Benjen says he best get inside to rescue Ned from his guest…not unlike Jaime asking his brother Tyrion to come to the feast and rescue him from the Starks.
After Uncle Benjen departs, Tyrion Lannister comes over to talk to Jon. We don’t know how much of their conversation he heard, but Tyrion discusses with Jon the Night’s Watch and his own interest in seeing the famed wall. He is direct with Jon and calls him by what he is – the bastard. Jon is in no mood to be reminded of this and bristles, but Tyrion gives him some good advice: “Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor and it can never be used to hurt you.” When Jon questions how Tyrion would know what it’s like for him, Tyrion shows how not unalike they are. “All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes.” Yet Tyrion is welcome in the feast and Jon remains outside.
Remember that guy who was spooked at the beginning of the episode and later beheaded by Ned for deserting the Night’s Watch? Ned asks his brother about the boy and tells Benjen the crazy thing the deserter said about seeing “white walkers.” Benjen muses that the whole world is mad – talk of white walkers, direwolves found south of the wall and now his brother Ned to be Hand of the King. And we hear the saying of the House Stark and the episode’s title, “Winter is Coming.”
Catelyn tries to make small talk with Cersei about her first trip to the north, but Cersei is not in the mood to make friends. Sansa comes to the table and Cersei gives her the once-over and she seems to pass muster – she’s young, pretty, tall and she can sew! What more would a woman want for her son and future king? Sansa makes googly eyes at Joffrey and he extends her a lipless grin.
Jaime puffs out his chest a bit and gets into it with Ned Stark over news that Ned may be the next Hand of the King. There is a little macho BS between them and we can only assume there’s a good backstory for why they dislike each other so much, considering they both seem to be on the side of the same king, Robert Baratheon.
After the feast, Ned continues to protest leaving his home and family in the north and moving south to become Hand of the King, thus starting a theme that will persist throughout the show. Family versus honor. Ned wants to be a good father and husband and to do that, he believes he should stay in Winterfell. But his king and friend is asking for his help in running the kingdom, meaning he should move to King’s Landing. Which side does he choose?
Ned says prophetically “King takes what he wants. He’s king,” as he and Catelyn talk post-feast. Maester Luwin (maesters are scholars/healers/advisers) comes in with news of a rider in the night with a message from Catelyn’s sister in the Eyrie (a location which surprises her). Her sister has fled the capital (King’s Landing) and claims that the Lannisters had her husband Jon Arryn killed and that the king’s life is in danger. Now, hearing that the last Hand of the King may have been killed, this is not a job anyone would want. Catelyn, speaking for “family,” says as much. But Maester Luwin, speaking for “honor,” asks who but Ned could stop the Lannisters and protect Robert?
Catelyn tries one more Hail Mary – reminding Ned that his own father had gone south to serve a king and that didn’t turn out all that well. Maester Luwin waves that away, “different time, different king.”
Back to the wedded bliss of the very distressed Daenerys Targaryen and the snarling Khal Drogo. They have yet to consummate and already her brother wants to discuss gathering the army and planning the invasion. He’s told to cool his heels and wait for the Dothraki stars to align, but the future UN ambassador says he “pisses on their omens.” Way to make friends, Viserys. The tribal music, forced sex and violence are upsetting Daenerys, but this is apparently a typical Dothraki wedding. One party guest stands out from the rest – Ser Jorah Mormont, who’s not from around there but from Bear Island. He brings as a gift some books about the seven kingdoms and says he had served her father and hopes to always serve “the rightful king.”
Her wedding gift registry included dragon’s eggs, and she scored three from the shadow lands beyond the shire. Now, they are very old and fossilized, but her family’s sigil is the dragon and so they are much appreciated and will not be regifted any time soon. Even better, her new husband gets her a horse as white blond as she is. We learn the Dothraki have no word for “thank you,” so she won’t have to spend all that tedious time sending appreciative notes for all the gifts.
Then we get the forcible sex scene. Drogo wipes away a tear from his bride and speaks as softly as he can, yet we can’t ignore that he is raping her on their wedding night. She does not want this and though the only word he says is no, there is yes in his eyes.
Back at Winterfell, Tyrion is feeling the after effects of a night of partying and is commiserating with Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound, who works for the Lannisters. Ned is going off with King Robert and we see Bran defy his mother’s orders not to climb. As he reaches to top, he comes across the Lannister twins mid-coitus. Well, that’s awkward. He is spotted, it’s clear what he’s seen. What to do?
Cersei is in a cold panic. Jaime is calm. He considers his options, then sighs, “the things I do for love,” as he pushes the ten-year-old out the window.
And end of the first episode. If you’re like me, that was a lot to digest. Ned and Catelyn and their five children, Ned’s bastard son, another boy who hung with them but was unnamed, a maester and a septa (the lady who was teaching the girls to sew), and Ned’s brother Benjen just in Winterfell. Then with the King’s arrival, we have King Robert Baratheon, Queen Cersei, her twin Jaime Lannister, their brother Tyrion, the royal children Joffrey and his siblings, and their entourage. Across the narrow sea we have tens of thousands of Dothraki, their leader Khal Drogo, his new bride Daenerys Targaryen and her brother Viserys, and the fugitive from Westeros Jorah Mormont. We’ve also heard mention of Jon Arryn (the late Hand of the King and Catelyn’s brother-in-law), his widow and son. And we’ve seen zombie-like people and direwolves. Finally, we’ve already seen the debate of what to do when honor and family collide, with Ned picking honor (leaving his family to serve the king) and Jaime picking family (pushing the boy out the window lest the incest become known).
Ned (to Bran): The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.
Robert: Lord Eddard Stark, I would name you the Hand of the King.
Ned (kneeling): I’m not worthy of the honor.
Robert: I’m not trying to honor you. I’m trying to get you to run my kingdom while I can eat, drink and whore my way to an early grave. Damn it, Ned, stand up. You helped me win the Iron Throne, now help me keep the damned thing.
Tyrion: Should I explain the meaning of a closed door in a whorehouse to you, brother?
Jaime: You’ve much to teach me, no doubt, but our sister craves your attention.
Tyrion: She has odd cravings, our sister.
Jaime: A family trait.
Ned (of King Robert): How did he get so fat?
Catelyn: He only stops eating when it’s time to drink.
Viserys (to Daenerys): You don’t want to wake the Dragon do you?
Tyrion: Let me give you some advice bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.
Jon: What the hell do you know about being a bastard?
Tyrion: All dwarfs are bastards in their father’s eyes.
Jaime: The things I do for love.