28 May 2011

Game of Thrones 1x01: Winter is Coming

If only they had that kind of budget for every episode.

So we get a a cold (HAR HAR) start with a trio of horsemen clad in furs and black cloaks exiting a tunnel. They are rangers, scouting north of the “wall”. In the ASOIAF series, there aren’t any necromancers or liches or zombies or monsters you see no end of in run-of-the-mill fantasy books, but there are numerous legends and stories about how they were terrifying mankind way back when. It’s nice how it’s so long ago, and there’s no real evidence of them, so it’s up to the characters to decide if they’ll believe the silly monster stories, the serious ones don’t; for all the fantasy aspect of it it’s still all remarkably similar to our world in this way. Anyway, supposedly all the monsties come down from the north when the multiannual winter (lol, silly climate science, keep out of my fantasy book!) arrives. I guess they melt otherwise or something. Maybe they just like playing snowballs.

Oh, the name for these monsties, collectively, is “Others”. “The Others take him!” is a popular curse.

The Wall, as you can see, is huge. The words “hundred” and “meters” should give you an idea- it’s far taller, thicker and longer than any real wall (maybe not longer than some though). It was built of stone thousands of years ago, it’s only covered in ice. How did they manage to do this feat of engineering? Some guy called “Bran the Builder” did it is the in-universe explanation. Maybe he was a wizard or something. Incidentally, the whole continent has a very medieval England-ish feel to it, and it's hard to look at the Wall and not be reminded of Hadrian's Wall.

The cocky boy with the “noble” (I’m on a roll with these puns today) features is Waymar Royce. He is cocky, because his dad is a lord with lots of land and power. Now, the Night’s Watch is a bunch of people who have dedicated their lives to manning the wall for when Others come down. They’re a bit of a laughing stock at this point, since no one’s seen an Other in ages, and the whole Night’s Watch thing is starting to sound like a silly religion. People don’t come here if they can help it.

Which leaves two kinds of people, pretty much. When a criminal is caught, they get a choice of “taking the black” - convert their death sentence to lifelong service in the watch. Hence, the majority of the Watch is scum – rapists, thieves, murderers, and the like. Authorities (the lords) love doing this because they get rid of petty criminals, and the Night’s Watch stops pestering them for help. (they’re a donation-funded non-profit, see)

Also, in Westeros when a Lord dies his oldest son takes his place. What about the other sons? In the real world, when things like this happened, the younger sons would always scheme and plot and try to get the older brother killed so they can inherit instead. But if they take the black, they’d have to forswear of all claim to their inheritance, so it’s a great way to prevent civil war. A bit mean, sending your kid to what amounts to a gulag, but hey. (Speaking of which, it's also interesting how the Night's Watch is this cold, desolate place in the North where life is miserable and hopeless, which is used as a penal facility for degenerate thugs and political enemies)

I also really like how well Rob Ostlere works in his role, this is almost exactly how I had imagined Royce looks. It's a shame he's only around for one episode. I really loved the beautiful snowy landscapes, too.
Guess the stories were true after all.

Surprise! They see a ghost! In the books, this was the first books prologue. They all have a prologue, and then the book jumps between the handful of that books “POV characters”. It’s a bit of a running gag, Martin always kills everyone in the prologues. By the way, the White Walker’s sword isn’t just a fancy icicle- it cleaves right through Royce’s expensive longsword. These guys mean business.

We see that the lowborn boy from the prologue in a grassy field- he has managed to sneak past the wall and run south into the lands controlled by Lord Stark. In Westeros, there are 7 big name houses – the continent is called the land of the Seven Kingdoms. They are the strongest lord in the area and answer only to the King. There’s lots of other small-time lords (they have armies and keeps and lands though, too!) but they all do what the ruling house says, they’re his “bannermen” because they fly both their own banner and that of the great house they serve. They only do this because they the ruling lord would kick their ass otherwise, but you can probably guess, if they get a nice opportunity to rebel they rarely think twice. House Stark is the great houses of the north, their lands are also the first thing after the wall, which is why they are traditionally the first defense against the Others, besides the Watch.

Once you join the watch, you don’t ever leave, so the boy technically deserted the Watch by running. That’s why Stark men catch and arrest him, and the penalty for deserting is death. It’s interesting how seriously Starks take this - on the one hand, who cares about their stupid cult all the way up in the middle of nowhere? But then again, if Watchmen just walked out and got away with it, can the nobility trust them to keep younger sons out of the way?

If by my sword or my...

The poor kid tries to tell his story, but Lord Stark isn’t that gullible. “I saw a ghost” doesn’t work too well. The huge sword is called Ice, it’s the Starks’ oversized ceremonial execution sword passed down from generations. 

"I wonder what that could possibly mean. HMMMMM."
Then there’s the direwolf. If you’ve read any fantasy at all you probably know what one is, but it’s this kind of superwolf that’s bigger and nastier than normal wolves. They’re like orcs or dwarves or something, every fantasy setting has dire animals.

In Westeros, all noble families have sigils, or signs, or coats of arms. It’s a kind of special symbol, usually the picture on the symbol has some historic meaning, especially for the houses that were founded recently. GRRM loves to go on about heraldry in the books, and there’s a LOT of sigils. Anyway, the 7 great houses all have just an animal, unlike the cool small houses. Starks have a direwolf. Baratheons (a house in the east, but the king is also a Baratheon so they’re like the top dog house that gets to boss everyone else around) have the stag. The Stag and the Direwolf have slain each other in battle, and only the pups remain, alone and helpless! DUN DUN DUN.

By the way, most noble houses have one city/castle where they hang out most of the time. The great houses for example, of course expect to be treated as honoured guests if they ever visit a bannerman’s keep. The Stark “capital” is Winterfell. The Baratheon capital is “King’s Landing”. It’s also a huge city which happens to be the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, since the king lives there and all. It’s a bit weird with Baratheons, though, since the king’s two brothers didn’t take the black – one hangs out at court at Landing, one has his own castle… Somewhere.

Guess he won't be running any more... arrynds.

That’s Jon Arryn. Arryn is another great house, they’re the guys with a white bird symbol. They hang north of King’s Landing, in this fertile hilly area called the Vale. I guess it’s cause birds like hills or something? I dunno. Wait till we see a small lord’s sigil- great houses are boring as hell.

Jon used to be the Hand of the King. That’s like the vice-king, except he does all the work.

In the Seven Kingdoms, there are two common religions. The one popular in lands besides the Starks’ is the Faith of the Seven. There’s seven gods, I think they’re meant to be aspects of one god. One is a mother, one is a son, and so on. There’s all sorts of dreary religious symbolism and what not. That’s who is conducting Jon’s ceremony.

"Morning wood, hubby?"
The second kind: In the North, mostly in Stark lands and among the crazy hobo people who actually live north of the wall, they worship the “Old Gods”. They have these weird trees (called weirwood! Hah!), that look like they have faces, so they plant a bunch of them in a circle and go sit there and pray to “the Old Gods”. Well, there’s only one in Ned’s “Godswood”, not sure what’s up with that, and the face is really lame too, so yeah. Supposedly the farther north you go, the cooler the weirwood faces start to look.

Ned’s wife Catelyn is actually a Tully- they are a great house south of Starks and west of the Vale. They rule the “Riverlands” which is like a land with a lot of rivers, and their sigil is a fish, because you know, fish live in rivers and these guys are all about rivers. Anyway, the Tullys worship the Seven, not the Old Gods, so there’s this religion thing between them.

"King angry! King SMASH!"

King Angryface is actually Ned’s old friend from when before he was king. They haven’t seen each other in a while. In the books, Ned worries that becoming king made his old friend haughty, proud, lazy… And just the general disappointment at seeing him let himself go, so to speak.

"We are not amused."

Queen Angryface (oh good lord, even their children are angry!), well, they’re not on great terms with the hubby. He only married her because he couldn’t get the girl he wanted and she’s from House Lannister and it made political sense. The Queen is aware of this. House Lannister is west of Tullys, on the shore, their capital has gold mines and they’re filthy rich. They have a lion sigil. Also Lord Tywin Lannister (he doesn’t show on screen for a while) is one mean motherfucker.

"Get your mouth off my cock, woman! My facial tic's acting up again. MORE WINE!"

Peter Dinklage is incredible as the Imp. The only problem is that he is too handsome. The book Imp was always described as very ugly, although that may just be because of his height. Tyrion the Imp and Jaime are the two sons of Tywin Lannister. It’s weird for Lannisters - everyone hates the Imp, including his father. He’s actually a really smart guy, but eh. Except, that is, his brother Jaime. They get along pretty well. Jaime is in the Kingsguard, he’s like a bodyguard for the king. It’s like the Night’s Watch in that you don’t leave it, and can’t be heir to your dad’s lordship anymore. That leaves Tyrion as the only heir, but Tywin hates his guts so much. Lions.

Tyrion loves whores, by the way. You can see how he’d have trouble with being liked by people, what with the stigma of him being short and all, but whores don’t care so long as he has money.

"Dear diary. Today I decided that maybe I should go easy on the atropine after all."

Remember how I said King Angryface wasn’t always king? Actually, before there were Targaryens. They had a dragon sigil and liked to marry their sisters (no really). They were the Kings for a very long time, legends say they rode dragons to battle, but there’s no dragons anymore (OR ARE THERE!?!?). Thing is, the later Targaryen kings were kind of sort of dicks, I mean not that Angryface isn’t a bit of a dick himself, but the Targs were HUGE dicks, I mean, metaphorically, that is. So anyway, Robert figured he’d rebel, so he did, he got a bunch of noble houses into his scheme and dethroned the then King Targaryen. Dany and her brother Viserys are the two remaining members of the dynasty, they are on the run somewhere on another continent. Dany is supposed to be 13 or so, obviously the actress isn’t, you’ll see why later.

Watcher in the Night

Benjen Stark is Ned’s brother. Taken the Black! He’s actually one of those crazy people who think being in the Watch is still about sacrifice and selflessness. Jon Snow really admires him. Jon is Ned’s son, by the way, but not from Cat. He’s a bastard, literally. For some reason Ned keeps him around, but Cat hates his guts. He’s a bit like Tyrion, everyone always disses the poor guy. Anyway, his last name is Snow. In the seven kingdoms, each land has its own “default bastard surname”- in the Riverlands it’s Rivers, in the Vale it’s Stone, in the Baratheon lands (they have lots of stormy coasts) it’s Storm, in the Southmost desert-y area called Dorne (another house as well) it’s Sand.

"They don't call me the Kisslayer for nuthin', hun!"

Jaime Lannister may be nice to his brother, but he’s a bit of a douche. Thing is, he’s the best swordsman on the continent, supposedly, and he’s famous for it, so he doesn’t really have to care. He’s called the “Kingslayer” – he used to be the Targaryen king’s bodyguard too, but then he killed him, and people hate on him for that, like Ned does here.

Pearls before swine.

The Dothraki are a sort of nomadic horse people. Reading the books, I thought they were sort of kind of pseudo-Mongolians. Except these guys live in much warmer climates, and they look nothing like any middle-asian peoples, and honestly the language sounds really out of place. All the middle-asian horse nomads spoke Uralo-Altic languages. One of their features is that adding suffixes to a word doesn’t alter the word itself, unlike, say, Russian (замок -> замки with the o “disappearing” in the plural, for example). From what I’ve seen of Dothraki, the inflection is all over the place. Tradition and culture wise, they don’t really fit either- the Mongol, Hun and miscellaneous Turkic hordes were fairly conscientious about the treatment of women and unnecessary killings, unlike what we see in the series. The hair that would get in the way during fighting doesn’t fit, and they use melee weapons almost exclusively, while actual Asian horse-borne nomads relied a lot on mounted archers. If you think about it, they're really not all that Mongol or Asian at all, but it’s so strange how the moment you see them, you can’t help trying to interpret them as if they are.

This, together with how they’ve been portrayed as wild Barbarians, has caused a bit of a stir over how women are portrayed and how the show is racist and what not. If you ask me, I dunno. It’s fantasy and the Dothraki really aren't that distinct at all. I wouldn’t be as weirded out if GRRM didn’t give them such a strong Mongol-y feel without any actual Mongol-ness but then again, it’s interesting how he goads your stereotypes into making you uncomfortable without actually showing anything substantial.

We see Jorah Mormont here, he’s a knight from one of the noble houses normally loyal to the Starks, I think. They have an island or something. Their sigil is a BEAR. Among some TREES. Now how awesome and manly is that? This isn’t some lame fish and bird crap we’re doing here. Anyway, Jorah got deported from the kingdoms because of a crime, that’s what he’s doing all the way in Essos, the larger continent to the southwest of Westeros (the seven kingdoms). The Dothraki, the city of Pentos (where they are now) and all sorts of cool crazy stuff is in Essos.

Speaking of which, Viserys’s buddy with the loud red vest and the funny beard is Magister Illyrio. He is mayor of Pentos of sorts. Pentos is a city state, I think they elect their rulers, too.

Dany was sold to Drogo, the Dothraki khal, because Viserys wants to use his huge army to go back to Westeros and retake his throne. Dany doesn’t care, she’s terrified of the guy and their whole culture, and she only really just wants to go home. This is gets important later on.

Also, I just love how pitiful this girl can make herself look with them eyebrows. I mean, look!

"Can I keep this horsy daddy? PWEEEEEEEEEASE?"

Speaking of linguistics, Mormont’s line here is ridiculous (yeah I know we finished speaking of that way back when, but whatever. I’m a sucker for linguistics). I don’t recall if it was in the books. But in any case, the gravity of his tone aside, he’s espousing here something called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. If you happen not to have heard of it, the core is the idea that if you don’t have a word for concept, your culture can’t understand that concept. It’s an old idea and the specific formulation depends on the person formulating it. Anyhoo, that’s not true. First off, primates without a language (though there’s experiments showing vocalizations used by one group of monkeys are meaningless to another, for example) as complex as what humans have can still understand quite a few concepts. So can children raised without exposure to language, although it’s understandably harder for them to do so.

Even more specifically, there was one case where they found a tribe whose language had words only for two colors, white and black. They only had two numbers, which I think mean something like “few” and “many”. According to SWH, these guys must SUCK at distinguishing colors, and counting. So the researchers made them do some counting problems, and to sort colored chips by color. Well, they didn’t suck at all. It’s one of the very strong counter-evidences against the SWH; I think the tribe is called Pirahã.

Of course, it’s logical to expect that you tend to have a lot of words for something you busy yourself a lot with. The eskimos don’t have an absurd number of words for snow, as the urban legend goes, but they do have a big vocabulary dealing with igloo building. And language can be a very powerful aid in memorization and learning, hence obviously there is some link between culture, language and cognition, but the SWH in the strong form is just too hamfisted to do anyone any good.

What is it doing in my ASOIAF then? Search me.

Sorry this has been such a long post, but I guess there’s a lot of background they ended up invoking with the fast paced first episode. Hopefully I can keep the later ones short. I’ll wrap this up with one of the most important events in the series:

Yup, that's the queen you see fucking in a barn. Yup, that's not the king she's fucking. Yup, that guy is her brother. Welcome to A Song of Fire and Ice! Enjoy your stay.

What? No, of course you didn't just see Lena Headey's ass. That's a double, silly!

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