“Game of Thrones,” HBO’s adaptation of the book series “A Song of Ice and Fire,” premiered April 17, 2011. From the very first episode, GoT showed what a TV series is capable of by curtailing many of the tropes that held both the drama and fantasy genres back.
The show’s premiere hits a lot of familiar fantasy notes. Characters dress in medieval looking clothing, they talk in funny British accents, towns are grimy, castles are tall and gray, Jamie Lannister is literally Prince Charming from “Shrek” and the immediate threat is mysterious ice zombies with glowing blue eyes—sounds like a fantasy show all right. But throughout the first episode, GoT reminds its viewers its much different from the typical fantasy fodder.
The first scene introduces the Night’s Watch but also the White Walkers, those ice zombies things. A nightswatchmen stumbles upon a gruesome scene of mutilated bodies and decapitated heads formed in a peculiar figure before turning his head to a little girl pinned eye-level to a tree by a branch sticking out her chest.
The sight is enough to send him running for his life, afraid of who or what was capable of that kind of carnage. He finds his other two watchmen and pleads to go back to safety, but his superior wants to investigate. By the time they arrive, what once was was a scene out of “Chainsaw Massacre,” was now gone.
“Your dead men seemed to have moved camp,” the head watchmen said snidely.
But he, along with his buddy, eat crow pretty quickly after the zombies rise from the dead. This scene sets the tone of the show well. It’s dark, grim and brutal. The show’s brutality often gets criticized for being too much, but it’s a part of the show that keeps it grounded, it keeps the stakes present.
One of the watchmen is able to flee south of the Wall where Ned Stark, the lord of Winterfell, executes him for deserting his post. Very quickly viewers, through the first episode, see Ned as the hero of the story. He’s righteous, fair, even-keeled—the good guy.
Audiences are trained that good guys always prevail in the end, that stakes don’t really mean much because good will always triumph over evil.
“It irritates me when I’m a watching a movie and the hero is going through incredible dangers, him and his six buddies, and none of them die,” George R.R. Martin, the author of “A Song of Ice and Fire,” said.
It’s that kind of mentality Martin had when writing the books GoT is based on. There really isn’t a cut-and-clear good or evil in the world he created because it aimed to be as hazy as the one we live in. Zombies, dragons and magic aside, the idea that actions are propelled by a character’s motivations, desires and goals and that those same actions have lasting consequences is what keeps Westeros grounded. It’s also what led to Ned’s head on a spike.
Ned’s duty led him to King’s Landing, what he called a “rat’s nest.” He thought he could reform a corrupt system, but he was just a man. His beheading in the 9th episode made that clear. Who audiences thought was the protagonist was killed in the first season.
Season one is a rude awakening to the rules of GoT, but one that kept viewers glued to their screens.