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Episode 1: Winter is Coming

Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran Stark in HBOs Game of Thrones.

*Warning:  This post contains mild spoilers for Episode 1 of Game of Thrones.

Episode One. Winter is Coming. I’d waited for this hour of television more than I’d ever waited for anything on TV. And it was marvelous. Not perfect, but a great start to something I hope gets better and better with each passing week.

When a great master would begin a painting, he started from the beginning. He drew up several sketches and transferred the final drawing onto a canvas. Next he broke out his paints and laid down the imprimatura, a first layer of paint that essentially primed the work for the more detailed and intricate layers that would follow.

David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are our masters. HBO is their canvas. All the fantastic actors, set dressers, costume designers, and crew members are their paints. And Winter is Coming, the first part of this 10-episode series, was their imprimatura. We didn’t get a lot of plot, but we were given a hazy view of the direction in which the work is heading. More than anything, the first episode gave us a basic understanding of the story’s central characters: a father struggling to be honorable in an unjust world; a scared and lonely princess, exiled from her home; an outcast dwarf putting mind before might; a young girl who would rather wear gauntlets than gowns; and so on. George R.R. Martin fuels his novels with his characters, who constantly change, follow unexpected paths, and challenge our morality. I whole-heartedly expect HBO’s version to follow suit, and they’ve already painted the base needed to create a beautiful and emotional final work. Each week they will give us another layer to the painting, and by episode 10, we’ll be able to discern the moments they’ve been working toward since the beginning.

Even though the most intense scenes are yet to come, this episode had its moments as well. In the Winterfell crypts, King Robert Baratheon remembers Lyanna Stark, his one true love, who he lost long ago. Actor Mark Addy shows such grief and regret that part of me wanted to weep (an urge I didn’t feel with the corresponding passage in the book). During the king’s feast, Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf, both enrages and instructs Jon Snow with his use of the word “bastard.” An unspoken, implicit bond is formed between the two outcasts. And in the tensest moment of the episode, Ser Jaime Lannister shocks us all (even if we know what’s coming!) when he proves just how far he’ll go for love.

The first episode of Game of Thrones was not perfect. Some of the scenes felt rushed, bits of the dialogue felt off, and there were perhaps too many shots of people just standing against beautiful backdrops doing nothing (Theon and Jory at the execution, Robb and Ser Rodrik in the direwolves scene). The episode is mostly exposition. But that in no way invalidates it. The series has to start somewhere, and with so much to establish early on, it can only tackle so much in its first hour. And I have the utmost faith it will only get better: Just as a Renaissance masterpiece would fall flat without its foundation layers, so too will Game of Thrones find itself lifeless unless it builds up from the beginning.

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