Before Game of Thrones Got Big, Intimacy Was Its Greatest Strength

Ned Stark dispenses his own view of justice, as he opens himself up to a world where that justice has lost much of its meaning.
Ned Stark dispenses his own view of justice, as he opens himself up to a world where that justice has lost much of its meaning.
Image: HBO

This Sunday marks 10 years since Game of Thrones changed the television landscape as we know it—kickstarting a decade of imitators, influencing the way genre stories were told as prestige drama, and, for most of that decade, expanding itself into a pop-cultural behemoth. Revisiting its first season is like stepping into a strange world, one smaller and yet somehow just as complex.

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Regardless of how you felt about the way Game of Thrones ultimately ended, there’s always something of a challenge in revisiting a story’s past when burdened with the context of what that story will become. It feels strange, for example, to see the relatively grounded reality Thrones began its fantasy story in. Glimpses of an icebound zombie or the tiniest of dragons on Daenerys’ shoulder were monumental evolutions of its world. By the show’s end, we had seen whole armies of ice zombies, massive dragons burning cities to ash, and even a combination of both for good measure. Stranger still to see characters in their thematic infancy, knowing where they’ll end up—growing from these places to titanic movers and shakers of not just their families, but the entire world.

That’s the thing about Thrones’ first season that feels so radically different, even more so than the lack of the fantastical roots that would catapult the show to titanic scale as it progressed. Everything feels so small, and intentionally so—Winterfell feels like an entirely different world to King’s Landing, not physically distant but spiritually and culturally, making the contrast between the events in Westeros and the events across the sea with Daenerys all the more stark (pun unintended, but, I’ll take it). The problems people face mothball into larger events, but they’re all intimately messy and personal, a small secret here and there, an act of brutality that is short, sharp, and in the moment. It’s a season that only rarely ever lingers on these moments of tension or violence, instead choosing to ruminate on the moments that come after. There’s less, for want of a better phrase, torture porn, whether it’s literal acts of brutality or putting characters through emotional wringers to hyper accentuate their grief. In season one, things are normal, until very suddenly they are not.

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Image: HBO

Part of that intimacy is that, while there are a lot of moving pieces—something that would go on to spiral as it propelled a million more interweaving narrative threads as its titular game got more and more convoluted—it’s the rare period of the show where it feels like there is a singular protagonist above the ensemble in Sean Bean’s Stark patriarch, Ned. While the larger show is the story of multiple personalities, Daenerys and Jon in particular, season one feels like Ned’s story above all else. In grounding itself through his eyes, Game of Thrones introduces us to Westeros through blinkers—not just in what the world is meant to be versus what it would become, but in imagining a world where things are much, much clearer cut than they ever really could be.

In Ned Stark, we have the almost prototypical fantasy hero, a good man just trying to do the right thing. He’s not perfect, deliberately so, and we are immediately confronted with that from the moment we meet him, whether it’s in his execution of the Night’s Watch deserter from the show’s prologue to the introduction of his arm’s-length relationship with his bastard son, Jon. But he’s a simple man who sees the world in a similarly simple light. So far removed as he is in Winterfell to where his former best friend Robert Baratheon has ended up in the world of King’s Landing, Ned’s world is a one of cause and consequence, right and wrong, rules and justice. It’s what makes him so compelling at first, a man of honor in a world where honor feels hard to come by. But it also makes him a fascinating protagonist for what is essentially a murder mystery, in which only one person really actually cares about the outcome of that mystery: Ned himself.

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Jon Arryn’s death is practically the inciting incident of almost every calamitous thing to come in Game of Thrones; Cersei and Jamie’s coverup starts a war that rips seven kingdoms to shreds, lays waste to the ruling order of the land, and demolishes a sense of order just waiting for the White Walkers and Daenerys’ growing influence in Essos to come battle for its very fate. In hindsight, it’s crucial because of the many dominos it knocks over, not just immediately but throughout the show—and not simply the political fallout covered up by Cersei in King’s Landing, but everything from Catelyn’s quest to take Tyrion to the Arryn’s seat of power in the Vale over the course of this season, or the knights of House Arryn riding to Jon Snow’s aid in the battle of the bastards seasons later.

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And yet, no one really cares about uncovering this mystery in the first season other than Ned. His family is there to take in the radically different culture King’s Landing provides, the people in power either know enough about Arryn’s death to keep quiet or the idea of why he would suddenly expire is just part of “playing the game” that is Game of Thrones’ central conceit. Already our focal character, in being the only one really invested in “solving” Jon Arryn’s murder, the show invited us to be as blinkered as Ned is in his worldview of Westeros throughout the first season. Even when we are pulled away from him and granted the bigger picture he lacks (until it’s crucially too late), it makes the shock moments of when the people of real power pull the rug from underneath him—the duel with Jamie, his meeting with Cersei, Littlefinger turning on him—hit much harder than they arguably should, and still hit even today.

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Image: HBO
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Ned, and our window into Game of Thrones’ world, is naïve not just to contrast the harshness of life in the north to the excesses of the capital, but because that huge, physical distance between the two has isolated him so much from people he once knew that their evolution into the characters they’ve become is incomprehensible to him. That’s the importance of scale in the show’s first season, so much more than the high, world-ending stakes and big battles of later entries in the series: Westeros is a world that feels so much larger and our characters that much smaller, and parts of it are just so different and alien, neither our heroes nor the audience can truly notice until it’s too late.

When it is too late for Ned, and we are given the shock that catapulted the show onto an entirely new level of pop culture discourse—the death of our “protagonist”—we’re given a fascinatingly simple lesson. Ned is never given the chance to evolve his worldview when the world he lives in is revealed to be much bigger, much more complex, and a lot less orderly than he thought it was. He just dies. That’s his punishment, his reward, once the blinkers are lifted they are just as quickly permanently shut. The reminder for us, beyond the surprise, is that this is a world where this kind of thing happens—after all, it’s what happened to Jon Arryn, we just didn’t spend time with him. But because it robs us of our focal insight into Game of Thrones’ world it becomes something debilitating and hectic, the idea that everything is fine until it suddenly isn’t striking again.

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Illustration for article titled Before Game of Thrones Got Big, Intimacy Was Its Greatest Strength
Image: HBO

But it also presents us with an unlikely connection across season one’s vast, yearning world that is likewise slowly built up over the course of the season; suddenly, Ned Stark’s character journey becomes clearly entwined with that of Daenerys Targaryen. While Ned is presented to us the audience as a man who has a sense of the world in which he lives—even as it becomes clear he very much doesn’t—Daenerys is introduced to us as an explicitly naïve character. She is a tool to be used by the men around her, a bartering chip first for her brother Viserys and a token to pillage a whole new kingdom by her husband, Kahl Drogo. But while Ned remains blind to his own detriment until it’s too late, Dany is repeatedly reminded of her role in the world and the game of thrones. She internalizes that and ultimately decides she has the chance to play it herself. In doing so, her reward is survival in the way Ned’s was death, and in the process, she takes the chance to become someone else, literally reborn in fire as the prophetical mother of dragons.

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It’s what makes season one work so well on its own, try as you might to separate it from the context of what Game of Thrones would go on to become as it secured its place with the zeitgeist of the 2010s. In a vast world, two characters so far apart they never intersect physically go on a journey of exploring that world’s true state. No wars, no grand moments, no dragons—well, no ginormous city-wreckers, just yet—Game of Thrones’ first season is a story of understanding power told by two people, engulfed in the vastness of a world so much bigger than them. And yet it’s one that is grounded and made fascinating by its intimate view of those characters far more than it is the scope of that world.

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James is a News Editor at io9, where you can find him delivering your morning spoilers, writing about superheroes, and having many feelings about Star Wars. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

DISCUSSION

lightninglouie
lightninglouie

One of the reasons why Game of Thrones went off the rails so spectacularly — apart from running out of material to adapt — was that it went from a realistic show (from a psychological/dramatic POV at least) about people caught up by forces beyond their control to a power fantasy about people on dragons nuking their problems from a safe distance. In the early seasons there is this sense that nobody — not kings or brave warriors — is in control of anything, and even in their triumphs there are always factors beyond their control or foresight, often bound up by social, economic, or religious issues. By the end of the series, it was a bog-standard fantasy adventure with clear good guys and bad guys to slay, and the bigger questions raised by the show, like whether kings, heroes, or messiahs are even good ideas, fell by the wayside.

I suspect this is one of the reasons why GRRM lost the thread of the plot of the novels, because he didn’t want it to become another fantasy saga about attractive young identification figures fulfilling their destiny. For the showrunners, ultimately it could never be about anything else.