Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Isaac Hempstead Wright in the Game Of Thrones premiere (Screenshot) and Emilia Clarke in the show's final season (Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)

How did we ever get so swept up in Game Of Thrones? Just look to the pilot

From left: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Isaac Hempstead Wright in the Game Of Thrones premiere (Screenshot) and Emilia Clarke in the show's final season (Photo: Helen Sloan/HBO)
Graphic: Rebecca Fassola

Game Of Thrones meant a great deal to me, both personally and professionally. Writing about the show helped me build a career. But I can’t get past my hatred over how it ended. That’s why I’ve been adamant about never doing a re-watch—Tyrion certainly doesn’t look back fondly on the first half of the Oberyn/Mountain fight. But I was willing to check out the first episode ahead of the show’s 10th anniversary, and that’s when the last thing I ever expected to happen did: Game Of Thrones hooked me right back in. That reversal means someday the superb storytelling that made up the show’s first six seasons—the very reason it was able to disappoint viewers so much in the final two—will eventually be what fans remember most.

After a decade of immersion in the Seven Kingdoms, it’s easy to forget how good the pilot really is. “Winter Is Coming” does the impossible: It makes George R.R. Martin’s sprawling saga accessible to viewers who know nothing about A Song Of Ice And Fire, all while setting the stage for a story defined by the TV-shattering idea that truly anything can happen, and will. The premiere opens with a giant wall of ice, blue-eyed zombie children, and ice demons. It ends with the dashing knight, who’s been caught having sex with his twin sister, the Queen, pushing an innocent child out of a tower. And in between it successfully introduces a ridiculous number of characters, all with complicated relationships and histories, spread out over two enormous continents.

The premiere works because the hallmarks of what made the show great were immediately in place. After their first shot at a pilot resulted in a $10 million disaster, showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss quickly figured out what changes needed to be made for the series to succeed. The second pilot, with its liberal use of wide shots and impressive real-world sets, establishes the grandeur of the many incredible places the series would explore. The episode looks as epic in scope as the story it was attempting to tell. The premiere also features movie-quality costumes and props, which only got better with time. This was a huge endeavor with an aesthetic to match.

None of that would have mattered if not for the performers and the script. Though no one knew it at the time, Game Of Thrones’ cast, made up primarily of non-stars and newcomers, is a murderer’s row of talent. That impressive group was able to excel right away because the writing was sharp, funny, insightful, and delivered needed exposition without feeling forced or heavy-handed. Go back and watch Tyrion’s interactions with a sullen Jon, when Tyrion compares being a dwarf with being a bastard. It’s as good as anything that followed.

The pilot also holds the great promise the show delivered on later in its run—it hints at an even bigger story hiding beneath the surface. Why exactly do Jaime and Ned hate each other so much? Is that why Cat’s sister said the Lannisters killed the Hand of the King? What does any of that have to do with the creepy Targaryen guy across the Narrow Sea? You know, the dude feeling up his sister who is marrying a giant guy on a horse? No, the other dude feeling up his sister. This is an episode that makes you want to watch the next one. There’s a reason so many of us did for years. It’s the same reason we watched each episode multiple times, read all those theories, and learned about the history of Westeros like we were preparing for a test—all of the elements that made the show a phenomenon are established in the premiere.

You couldn’t hope for a better pilot. I didn’t forget any of that before I sat down to re-watch it. (Jaime pushing Bran out the window might be my favorite moment in TV history.) But what I did forget is how “Winter Is Coming” made me feel. Since the show ended, I’ve been too upset that Jon’s real parents didn’t actually matter, and that the Night King was easily defeated because the White Walkers stopped paying attention. I wasn’t thinking about any of that during my re-watch. The show’s start is too good to waste time thinking about its ending. And with six seasons of that feeling available to me whenever I want, it would be foolish to ignore all those great episodes I still love and never watch them again.

Game Of Thrones will never be able to escape its last two seasons; those final 13 episodes won’t get better upon any rewatches. But seeing the pilot again made me realize that one thing will improve with time: our ability to appreciate everything that came before them.

Michael Walsh doesn't understand how the stock market works, but he can tell you all about Valyrian steel, Hogwarts, and the problems with time travel in Back To The Future.