I’ll be honest with you: I haven’t read the novels this show is based on. Fantasy isn’t really my genre of choice; at most I’m a fantasy dilettante (I’ve read Harry Potter and watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s pretty much it. I haven’t even seen Star Wars all the way through). So maybe it’s a bit odd that I’m recapping this, but I figured it’s got swords and horses and wimples and whatnot, so why not give it a go? Plus, it’s HBO, so I figured it would be good. Thankfully HBO was kind enough to provide plenty of supplementary info for those of us newbies, so hopefully I won’t make a complete idiot of myself here.
We start off with three men on horseback waiting for a gate to slooooowly rise. The one in front is all cropped hair and attitude—we’ll call him Snide in Charge (SIC). Behind him is a bearded veteran type—Bearded and Experienced (BAE), and the third man is skinny and nervous. Taking what happens to him soon into account, we’re going to go ahead and call him Scared Shitless (SS). The men ride through a tunnel, then emerge through another opening in the side of a snow-covered mountain. They split up when they hit the wintry woods and the camera follows SS. He spots something, dismounts, and crawls up to the top of a small bluff, which overlooks a horrifying spectacle of dismembered bodies set out in what looks like some kind of ritualistic circle. SS turns to flee and finds a little girl impaled on a tree behind him. Lovely!
SS finds his comrades and tell them what he’s seen. SIC is all blasé, but BAE thinks they should head back to “The Wall”. SIC wants a closer look at the carnage and tells the others to mount up, reminding SS he’ll be beheaded if he disobeys. And you thought your boss was tough, right?
The three men arrive at the clearing and find…nothing. The bodies have mysteriously vanished. Hmmm. BAC tells SS to scout around and see what he can find. SIC has just enough time to fling off a couple of snarky comments before some creature (an Orc? I have no idea what these things are) appears behind him and apparently slices him in half.
SS hears BAC scream and turns to see BAC’s and SIC’s horses galloping towards him. Dude, any time you see animals running in the opposite direction of screaming, follow! They have good instincts about this sort of thing! Run! SS looks like he’s about to, but then he spots the impaled little girl, no longer impaled, in the woods a little ways off. She creepily turns towards him, her eyes glowing blue, and that’s when he starts to haul ass, apparently pursued by the Orc things, or whatever they are, and soon joined by BAC. The guys stop at one point, for no reason at all, and that’s when an Orc emerges from the woods, neatly slices off BAC’s head, and tosses it at SS’s feet. OK, then.
After some pretty cool, steampunk-inspired opening credits, we arrive at Winterfell, where SS is running across the fields, pursued by horsemen. He’s finally stopped by a line of guards with lances. Game over, man.
At the castle of WInterfell’s lord, Ned Stark, the youngest Stark kid, Bran, is practicing archery with his older brother, Robb, and his half brother, Jon. Cruelly, both Jon and Robb look really, really similar, so if I mix the two up, I’m terribly sorry. The kid mucks up a shot, and Jon encourages him to try again, telling him his mom and dad are watching, Yeah, that should help him relax and do better.
Inside, the girls of the household are embroidering under the watchful eye of a nanny. She compliments the work of a teenage redhead (Sansa Stark), while her dark haired younger sister, Arya, looks bored.
Bran screws up another shot, and the two older brothers laugh. Ned reminds them that they weren’t marksmen at that age either, and tells Bran to try again. He lines up another shot, but before he can take it, an arrow slices through the air and hits a bullseye. The boys all turn to see Arya standing behind them with a bow, smiling impishly. So, she’s our Adventure Girl, then. Bran chases after her, and everyone chuckles warmly.
Ned’s master at arms, Rodrik, tells Ned that SS has been captured and needs to be dealt with. Ned’s not enthusiastic but he knows what needs to be done. He tells Rodrik to have the men saddle their horses, and says Bran’s coming too. His wife, Catelyn, protests but Ned says the kid has to learn sooner rather than later how the world works. After all, he intones, “winter is coming.” Not something we on the east coast want to hear after finally having emerged from our long deep freeze.
Guards bring SS to a very picturesque execution spot, where he’s met by Ned and his boys, who stand at a slight distance. SS says he knows he’s in the wrong and that he should have gone back to The Wall, but he was too freaked out. He saw the fabled White Walkers, you see. So, not Orcs, then. He asks Ned to get word to his family that he’s sorry for what happened. The guards wrestle him down to the bloodstained block and Ned reaches for his historically accurate broadsword and sentences the man to die. He slices off the head in one neat stroke. Bran manages to watch without flinching (much) and Jon tells him he did well. His father approaches him and asks if he understands why he had to do the executing himself: he believes the man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. Seems reasonable. If Henry VIII had lived by that philosophy a lot of people might have lived good, long, productive lives. Bran asks if it’s true the White Walkers are back and his father says they haven’t been around for thousands of years. He thinks SS was crazy.
The crew heads back to the castle, but on the way they come across a deer, dead in the middle of the road, its guts spilling out of it. Man, the bloodlusters sure are getting their money’s worth with this episode, aren’t they? A quick scout of the area finds the deer’s killer—a she wolf, which also lies dead, with an antler sticking out of it. A small litter of pups are still feeding off of her. Can’t fight nature, I guess. Ned identifies it as a direwolf, which isn’t normally seen around these parts. Ned and the other men think they should kill the wolf pups, since they’ll die without their mother. None of the Stark boys are keen on this, and Jon points out that a) there’s one wolf pup for each Stark kid, and b) the direwolf is a symbol of the Stark family, so it’s a sign! Pets for everyone! Ned sternly tells his youngest that he’ll feed and care for the puppy himself, just like any other suburban dad who can’t resist his kids. Jon gets the runt of the litter—a pretty pure-white boy pup.
In King’s Landing, the capitol of the Seven Kingdoms, a man lies on a bier in a church, surrounded by candles and parading priests. Cersei, the queen, watches from an upper balcony. She’s soon joined by her twin brother, Jaime, who looks an awful lot like Aaron Eckhart to me. She frets that the dead man, the king’s former Hand, Jon Arryn, knew some secret, but Jaime tells her if the man did know, they’d both be dead. Hmm, what could that secret be, now?
Winterfell. Cate finds Ned in his favorite spot, under a spectacular red-leafed tree that looks like the offspring of a birch and a Japanese maple. Cate regretfully tells Ned that a raven has brought news of Jon Arryn’s death from a fever. Arryn and Stark were pretty close, and Arryn was also Cate’s brother-in-law. The raven also brought news that the king’s on his way to Winterfell with his whole court. Ned realizes the king would only come so far north for one reason—presumably to ask Ned to be the new King’s Hand.
Winterfell kicks into high gear as preparations for the royal visit get underway. The boys are all shaved and given haircuts, which means it’ll be even harder to tell them apart. Thanks, HBO.
Bran takes a position against a really poor green-screen job that’s supposed to be the top of the castle wall. He spots the royal entourage coming and climbs down the wall to tell the family. Cate spots him and scolds him for climbing, something she’s yelled at him for doing before. Should we go ahead and call this Chekhov’s Wall right now? I’d put money on him taking a good tumble before the end of the episode’s out.
The family and household gather in the courtyard to greet their royal guests. Arya’s late to the show but arrives at her family’s side just before the king rides into the courtyard, accompanied by his blonde son, whom you can already tell is going to be a little prick. He’s got a distinctive Draco Malfoy thing going on. He smiles smarmily at Sansa, who smiles back.
The king, mounted on a magnificent black Fresian, enters the courtyard, dismounts, and strides over to Stark, who bows low. The king’s a bearded, florid-faced, Henry VIII type. He waves for Stark to stand, teases him a bit, and then they embrace. The king moves on to hug Cate, then greets the kids as the queen descends from a big carriage and greets her host. The king asks to go to the crypt so he can pay his respects. Cersei tries to stop him but he goes without even acknowledging her. Annoyed, she sends Jaime to find their other brother, only known so far as “the Imp”.
In the crypt, Ned asks what happened to Arryn. The king says that the fever burned through him fast, whatever it was. Then, he formally asks him to be the Hand of the King. He also suggests Ned’s daughter marry his son. Ned doesn’t give an answer to either request just yet.
Somewhere in the city, “the Imp” is enjoying a pint and a blowjob, and I guess if there was some kind of sporting event on a plasma screen in the room, he’d have hit the male pleasure trifecta. Imp is actually Tyrion Lannister, Jaime and Cersei’s dwarf brother. He’s played by Peter Dinklage, who’s a great actor and someone I really admire. You have to figure the guy got a lot of skeptical looks when he said he wanted to be a professional actor, but he clearly just said “Screw it, I’m gonna do it anyway,” and he did. Very, very well.
His small stature doesn’t mean any kind of diminished appetites. He and his girl are about to go for round 2 when Jaime bursts in and informs him he has to be at a banquet at sundown, so move things along already. To help him in that, he ushers in a handful of extra prostitutes, who jump right on the delighted Tyrion.
Back in the crypt, the king lays a feather on the outstretched hand of a stone statue of a woman. This is Ned’s sister, who was supposed to marry the king, before she was killed by a Targaryen. Ned says that justice has been done, and the Targaryens are gone. “Not all of them,” the king says darkly.
Indeed, two of them—Daenerys and her brother Viserys—are cooling their heels in some vaguely Mediterranean looking southern locale called Pentos. Both have extremely distracting platinum blonde hair and much darker eyebrows. Daenerys also has a sad, pensive look about her, apparently because she’s about to be married off to the leader of the Dothraki tribe, Khal Drogo (why can’t characters in fantasy novels ever have normal names, like Bob and Mary?) Viserys removes his sister’s dress and feels her up creepily, telling her he needs her to be perfect that day. He leaves, and she steps into the large, steaming bathtub. Like Bran, she doesn’t flinch, even though the water’s super hot.
Later, Daenerys, Viserys, and their host, Illyrio, the Magister of Pentos, wait for Khal and some of his warriors to arrive. When they do, we see that Khal is a huge, powerful-looking man wearing enough eye makeup to make Adam Lambert blush. Viserys points out Khal’s long hair, which indicates he’s never been defeated in battle. This is especially important to Viserys, who wants to use Khal and his 40,000 warriors to win his throne back. Daenerys steps forward and Khal looks her up and down from atop his horse, then turns and rides away without a word. Viserys is freaked, thinking Khal was displeased, but Illyrio says that if Khal didn’t like Daenerys, they’d know.
Later, Illyrio pours all sorts of honeyed words into Viserys’s ear about how he’ll soon have his throne back. Daenerys suddenly speaks up and says she doesn’t want to marry this guy, she wants to go home. The men look at her, baffled, as if a rock just spoke. Viserys tells her the only way they can go home is if they raise an army, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get that army. He charmingly tells his baby sister that he’d let Khal’s whole damn tribe screw her, if that’s what it took to get his throne back. What a nice guy! Also: when did platinum blonde become the Hair Color of Evil?
In Winterfell, Cate’s helping Sansa get ready for the banquet. Sansa’s all a twitter at the idea of marrying the prince and being queen someday, as most 13-year-olds would be. Cate tells her to calm down, because her father hasn’t made up his mind yet. Sansa begs her mother to make Ned agree to be the Hand and betroth her to the prince.
Banquet! It’s quite the rowdy affair—very Viking, with lots of food and long tables and the king grabbing random serving wenches right in front of his wife.
Outside, Jon’s beating the crap out of a practice dummy with his sword. A new guest arrives and Jon happily greets him as “Uncle Benjen”. This is Ned’s brother, a member of the Night’s Watch from The Wall. Jon asks to return with Ben and be a Night Watchman too. Ben tells him the enforced celibacy kind of sucks, but he promises they’ll talk later before he goes in and joins the feast that Jon, as a bastard, is not allowed to attend. Tyrion materializes from the shadows, identifies Ben as a member of the Night’s Watch, and gives Jon some advice: you’re a bastard, so own it. Wear it like armor. I’ll bet Tyrion knows a little bit about this from his own life. Jon acts all wounded, though, and goes back to beating on the dummy once Tyrion goes.
Inside, the party’s getting wilder. Ben finds his brother, who doesn’t seem to behaving much fun. Ned immediately asks if Ben knew SS and Ben did, remembering him as a good lad. He’s heard some talk of the White Walkers as well.
Cate, seated beside the queen, tries to make small talk. Cersei calls over Sansa and admires her. She peppers the girl with questions about her height and her period and her dress, like one does, and then dismisses her. She tells Cate her daughter will do well in the capitol, and that a lovely girl like her shouldn’t be hidden up north forever.
Elsewhere, Jaime decides to be a dick and gets in Ned’s way as he tries to walk past. He confirms that Ned’s been offered the Hand position and suggests they have a tournament to celebrate the appointment. Ned doesn’t fight in tournaments, because he likes to be able to surprise his enemies.
That night, Ned and Cate are all cuddled up in bed, talking about the possibility of him going south. They’re interrupted by the arrival of Maester Luwin, who seems to be a sort of general secretary around the house. He has a message from Cate’s sister. Cate reads it and immediately throws it into the fire, telling Ned (and Luwin) that her sister has fled the capitol and believes her husband, Arryn, was murdered by the Lannisters (the queen’s family). She goes on to say that the king’s life is in danger. Ned tries to pawn it off as just something widows say. Yeah, you know widows and their delusions of homocide. Crazy women! Cate believes it, though, because she’s sure her sister wouldn’t have risked her life and the life of her son to send such a message if it wasn’t true.
Luwin puts in his two cents, telling Ned he’s the only one who can protect the king if his life is, in fact, in danger. Cate’s even less keen to send her husband off now than she was before. Ned looks conflicted.
Wedding! Daenerys and Khal are sitting side by side, watching bare-breasted dancers gyrate. I don’t know if this is true to the books, but all these “savage,” oversexed people are noticeably dark skinned, which I find a bit disturbing. Viserys whinily asks Illyrio when he gets his army and Illryio tells him to chill out. Two Dothraki men start to fight over the same dancer, to Khal’s delight. The victor ends up eviscerating his opponent, to Daenerys’s and Viserys’s horror. Illyrio tells Viserys that a Dothraki wedding with fewer than three deaths is considered a bummer. For the sake of the tribe, I hope weddings are rare, then.
A guest (who is clearly not Dothraki) approaches the not-so-happy couple and offers the bride the gift of some literature. He introduces himself as Jorah Mormont, a knight in exile who supports the Targaryen family. Daenerys thanks him for his gift. Illyrio then presents his own present: three scaly dragons’ eggs that have petrified with time. Nice to see that even in fantasyland, people still give useless dustcatchers as wedding gifts.
Khal rises, apparently tired of waiting for two more deaths to occur, and Daenerys takes the hint. She follows him to a beautiful white horse, which is his wedding gift to her. She asks Jorah what the Dothraki word for “thank you” is and learns there isn’t one. Yeah, this bodes well. Poor girl. Khal lifts her onto the horse’s saddle and she takes the reigns. Viserys tells her to make Khal happy, and she resists the urge to kick him in his smug little face before riding off after her new husband.
Khal takes her to a lovely beach somewhere, and they manage not to run in to Arthur and Guinivere while they’re there. I’ve never understood the appeal of sex on the beach. It sounds romantic, I guess, but if you think about it practically, it really doesn’t work. Sand gets everywhere when you’re at the beach, and there are some places you don’t really want sand ending up, right?
Daenerys weeps as Khal removes her dress and bends her over. And that makes two awful wedding nights I’ve had to witness in one night. Awesome.
Back in Winterfell, Ned and the King (his name’s Robert, by the way, so I guess there is at least one character named Bob) are getting ready to go hunting. We learn that Ned’s agreed to be the Hand after all, and Robert sincerely thanks him for what he’s doing. The men head out to kill some boar, watched by Bran. Once the others are gone, he naturally starts scaling Chekhov’s wall as his wolf pup watches worriedly from below. As the kid’s climbing, he hears the unmistakable sound of two people getting it on, and being a curious 10-year-old and all, he goes to see what it is. In what appears to be an abandoned attic, he spots Cirsei and Jaime engaging in some good old fashioned twincest. Wow, they beat The Borgias to it. If I wasn’t struggling to keep my dinner down, I’d be impressed. Cersei spots Bran and Jaime grabs him. Jaime looks down the long, long drop to the ground, looks for a moment like he’s going to let Bran go, and then sighs “the things I do for love,” before shoving the kid right out the window.