Back in 2011, the Game Of Thrones pilot had the unenviable task of introducing audiences to the fictional world of Westeros, at least three of its major families — the Starks, Lannisters and Targaryens — and the series’ big bad, the White Walkers, in a cohesive, clear manner. Somehow, it pulled it off.
…on the second attempt.
It’s well known that the original Game of Thrones pilot, shot over two months in 2009, was so abysmal that it never aired. Private screenings left audiences confused as the relationships between the numerous characters weren’t explicitly spelled out and there weren’t enough wide shots establishing the shifting locations. There were also several technical errors. “Since the wedding was shot at night, quite a lot of money had been spent on seeing absolutely fuck-all,” said actor Iain Glen, who played Jorah Mormont, adding that the episode was “ill-conceived” and lacked conviction.
Showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff, who had no prior experience in television, had spent four years adapting the text of George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire to a screenplay. Still, they rewrote and reshot 90% of the episode on the advice of director Craig Mazin, who later called it “the biggest rescue in Hollywood history”. They replaced Tamzin Merchant with Emilia Clarke in the role of Daenerys Targaryen and hired Michelle Fairley to play Lady Catelyn Stark after actress Jennifer Ehle dropped out. They also made sure to establish the sibling relationship between Jaime and Cersei Lannister, an important plot point, by having him begin his dialogues with phrases like, “As your brother…” Even the wardrobe was reworked. Queen Cersei went from looking like, in actress Lena Headey’s words, “a Vegas showgirl…a medieval Dolly Parton” to a regal monarch.
A fresh start
The 51-minute-long pilot that finally aired on HBO in 2011 is a delicate balancing act, cross-cutting between multiple storylines with skill and setting up themes of political intrigue within its larger worldbuilding. In the episode, King Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) arrives at Winterfell to ask his longtime friend, Lord Ned Stark (Sean Bean), to serve at his side. Ned is initially reluctant to leave his home and family but on learning that Robert’s last right-hand man was poisoned, takes the job to unravel the conspiracy. Across the sea, an exiled Viserys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd) plots to usurp the throne by marrying off his sister, Daenerys, to a warlord in exchange for an army to support his cause.
Directed by Tim Van Patten, the pilot, titled ‘Winter is Coming’, does its best work when it’s developing the characters, introducing us to the very characteristics that will eventually seal their fate. Military deserters face the death penalty by law but Ned’s insistence on being the one to behead them himself — “He who passes the sentence, swings the sword” — sows the seeds of his ability to do what’s right, even when it’s hard. It’s this noble, but ultimately foolhardy trait that later gets him killed. A wordless scene of Daenerys entering a scalding bath without flinching lays the foundation of her ability to emerge from fire unscathed, a nod to her Targaryen heritage. Another shot of Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) hitting the bullseye with her crossbow when her brother, Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright), fails to, is a solid indicator of the combat skills that ultimately aid her on the path to becoming an assassin.
The inherent value of these details becomes apparent only in hindsight, as does the rich symbolism of a scene in which the Starks find the corpse of a direwolf (their house sigil) gored to death by a stag (the sigil of house Baratheon), indicative of how Ned accepting a position at Robert’s court sets his family on a course that tears them apart. Over the years, the shot of the Stark family greeting Robert and his family would go on to accrue internet tears owing to its significance as a snapshot of the last time the family was safe, sound and all in the same place.
So good is the pilot at setting up arcs that the lack of payoff in season 8 becomes even more frustrating on repeat viewing. The spooky spiral symbol of the White Walkers, made up of the dismembered limbs of their victims, is an image that first appears in the pilot and recurs throughout the series but is never explained.
“We’re not sure exactly what they signify, but spiral patterns are important in a lot of different cultures in our world, and it makes sense that they would be in this world as well,” was Benioff’s unconvincing clarification in 2017.
The show also squanders the chance to make Robert’s words prophetic. “I have a son, you have a daughter,” he tells Ned in this episode. “We’ll join our houses.” An alliance is fixed between his sadistic son, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) and Ned’s naive daughter, Sansa (Sophie Turner), an abusive one that does not end in marriage, but cold-blooded murder. Cut to season 8, when Arya shared a romantic moment with her friend Gendry (Joe Dempsie). The reveal that he was actually an illegitimate Baratheon sparked hope that Robert’s words would come true, just not in a way fans originally expected. Sadly, they didn’t.
Also in the pilot are two elements that Game Of Thrones would become synonymous with in later years — sex and dragons. (Though the decision to change Daenerys’s wedding night from a consensual act to rape is still a poor one.)
It also ends on a beat so shocking that those watching it back in 2011 would no doubt have wanted to know what happens next with furious urgency. Their watch had just begun.