JON SNOW: First lesson: stick ’em with the pointy end.
ARYA STARK: I know which end to use.
Game of Thrones, in many respects, has more than one pilot episode. There is an argument the entirety of its first season, or at least a sizeable proportion of it, constitutes the introductory beginning. ‘The Kingsroad’ very much continues layering in themes, concepts, symbols, ideas and character arcs which will pay off across the next half a dozen seasons.
This is where, of course, serialised television differs significantly from traditional storytelling, particularly when adapting literary source material. Game of Thrones isn’t the first serialised show to be described as a ‘novel for television’ (you can go back, at least, to J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5 in the 90’s which considered itself such), but never before had a TV show attempted to adapt such a grand, complex series of novels as George RR Martin’s. Unlike plenty of serialised series before it, and indeed which launched afterwards, Game of Thrones from the beginning knew in broad strokes the beginning, middle and at least part of the end, given the majority of ‘A Song of Ice & Fire’ has long been written. This gives the beginning of the series a confidence many other shows struggle to find or maintain.
Game of Thrones in later series has been accused, not unfairly, of racing through plot beats. Seasons 6 and particularly 7 are almost certainly guilty of this, for better or worse. Season 1, however, is already taking its time. ‘The Kingsroad’ merely builds on what was established in ‘Winter Is Coming’, which essentially was not much, in the grand scope of Westeros. It gave us our primary characters around which the entire show would orbit (given if you look at the pilot, the majority of key players are still with us going into the final season). It set up the principal antagonists of the series, and the main narrative through-line of Season 1, being the conspiracy at the heart of King’s Landing. Foundations. Good foundations but with a huge amount of scope to add more scaffolding to.
‘The Kingsroad’ begins what Game of Thrones, in many ways, would become famous for – travelling. Never has a show quite leant so heavily on characters moving from one place to another and exacting drama from the process. Many characters begin journeys, literally and figuratively – Ned Stark heads south with the King and his daughters towards King’s Landing; his ‘bastard’ son Jon Snow heads with uncle Benjen and guest Tyrion Lannister north for the Wall; Daenerys Targaryen, newly wed to Dothraki leader Khal Drogo, makes for Vaes Dothrak on the other side of the world. Significant characters heading for significant locations, and at this stage writers David Benioff & D.B. Weiss are concerned with using those journeys to establish a mixture of personal character stories, historical backstory, and continued plot development and foreshadowing.
The key factor of children being central to the narrative of Martin’s saga continues to play out here. We are consistently reminded of the reckless folly of youth, or their innocence. Ser Jorah calls Daenerys ‘child’, telling her about the mystical far away lands of Asshai, under-scoring her lack of knowledge about the world beyond her vision, and later she is schooled in the ways of sex from her handmaiden Doreah. Jon questions his parentage openly to his father, aware he knows little about his lowborn mother and where he truly comes from. Then of course we have the important skirmish between Arya and Joffrey, with Sansa stuck in the middle, which proves more crucial to the future of the realm than anyone could have realised. Children continue to see and understand the world of Westeros as we do. They remain our window.
What’s interesting is how many of them are trying to be older than their years. This is partly what causes such trouble. Joffrey wants to be seen as the strong, brave Prince who can lord it over everyone and make Sansa swoon – not because he *is* brave or charming, but because he wants to be perceived as such. Perception is key, as we will see, to the Lannister psychology. Sansa, conversely, actually wants to be a Princess, wants the life of courts, balls, beauty, fame and adoration. She can’t see through Joffrey as her sister Arya, or his uncle Tyrion, can – she wants to believe the perception. It’s telling she screams “you’re spoiling everything!” when Arya and Joffrey have their skirmish – what they’re ruining is her romantic, heraldic fantasy. Would Prince Charming have dropped the ‘C bomb’? That’s the harsh convergence of adult reality on the ostensible fantasy world Martin’s story inhabits.
Oddly enough, perhaps the only child who actually still wants to *be* a child is Arya. She enjoys her family, enjoys playing, and when Jon gives her a sword as a parting gift, she names it ‘Needle’ as a direct rebuke against Sansa’s Princess instincts, a rejection of her intended destiny as a ‘Stark Lady’. Arya already doesn’t want that life, hence the irony she is forced to grow up faster than any of the other Stark children by circumstance. Even stranger, as the genuine children are pretending to be adults with the courtier games, the grown-up children of rulers, Kings and Lords are consistently being reminded of their place as children. Catelyn expressly describes Jon here as being roughly either 16 or 17 years old here too, as likely therefore is Daenerys, but given the casting involved that’s a bit hard to swallow. Game of Thrones wants to have its cake and eat it there.
On the flipside of the Stark children, we see, indeed, a very young Myrcella Baratheon showing the kind of compassion towards Bran’s injury that almost seems the anthesis of her progenitors. Myrcella is, of course, like Joffrey & Tommen, not a child of Robert and Cersei, but rather Jaime & Cersei, and while Joffrey inherited all of the callousness of grandfather Tywin & cruelty within Cersei, perhaps Myrcella inherits the deep sense of nobility within Jaime (hidden, often, far down) and the kindness of Tyrion. It’s hard to say, but its evident here. Tommen would of course struggle terribly with a similar compassionate side later in life, and what it proves right from the off is that the Lannister’s cannot be pigeonholed as simple ‘villains’. They are, undoubtedly, the most complicated and in some senses contrary family in the Seven Kingdoms, and this arguably makes them eternally the most fascinating.
Take Cersei. Already she is proving to be a contradictory figure. Spiteful of tongue, having sex with her brother, party to the attempted murder of a child, a woman who clearly despises her husband and is broiling with protective rage over a vile, vicious son and heir, we nonetheless see a moment of true sadness and emotion when Cersei confides to Catelyn about the son to Robert who died as an infant. Later episodes would bear out this story, which could be construed as a power play under the guise of sorrow for Bran’s condition, but turns out to be true – Cersei has lived with loss, going back to her mother’s death bearing Tyrion, all her life. Couple this with the prophecy about losing her children she’s aware of (even if we aren’t yet), it explains her dysfunctional attachment issues to her children born of the obsession with her twin brother.
The power of Nature and animals play a symbolic and literal role once again, perhaps even in stronger fashion here. When first we see Tyrion, he awakens amongst an animal pen in Winterfell, hungover, but soon counters his ‘low’ surroundings by chastisting Joffrey in front of the ‘Hound’, who is referred to on more than one occasion as “dog” in this episode. Dogs, or wolves more potently, are very quickly established as symbols of violent power and protection, and in ‘The Kingsroad’ they spill a lot of blood. The Hound may be there to protect the Prince, but he has no problem ‘running down’ Mycah the butcher’s boy following the skirmish. The Direwolves show they are more than just pets, given how Summer violently savages and kills Bran’s would-be assassin. Hence why when Ned is forced to kill Lady, Summer and undoubtedly the other wolves feel it. They retain a sense of power – indeed there is more than a basic suggestion Lady’s death may have contributed to the ‘rebirth’ of Bran by the conclusion.
The wolves don’t quite yet work in communion with their owners, however. Game of Thrones symbolically is often about climbing, rising after a fall, and the children are some distance away yet from actively reaching the point where they can commune and command their wolves – which in the books, a psychic transference known as ‘warging’, the Stark children are very much able to do. Arya attempts to get Nymeria to perform for Jon at one point but the wolf refuses – it’s only later, when sensing great danger and peril, Arya can command the wolf to run off and leave her – it’s remarkable how early in Arya’s story, incidentally, this actually happens, and Nymeria forced to run and hide foreshadows what Arya herself would need to do by the end of the season. Equally, when Summer attacks and kills Bran’s assassin, there is no direct suggestion Bran warged into Summer to protect himself. It wouldn’t be too far removed to suggest the Three-Eyed Raven could well have warged into Summer to save Bran at this point, but that will always remain supposition.
Established in the pilot episode, ‘The Kingsroad’ also sees the continuing rejection and pillory of myth. Tyrion talks about “pissing off the edge of the world” as his motivation to visit the Wall, later mocks the legends of the monsters the Night’s Watch have spent millennia protecting as “grumpkins and snarks”, and Jaime himself lightly mocks Jon for his planned devotion to an order that for eight thousand years have ‘protected’ the realms of men – he cannot conscience a life whereby men would give up everything to guard against creatures nobody believed ever existed. We haven’t seen the Watch yet but already ‘taking the black’ is described as worse than ‘castration’, seen perhaps equivalent to a monastery life in some sense. This speaks to the sense of entitled masculinity across many of the characters in Game of Thrones – most fear and reject such emasculation, believing the Watch retaining any sense of honour a fraudulent lie, hence why reprobates and exiles now mainly populate the order.
Another reason Tyrion undoubtedly seeks to visit the Wall, however, is thanks to his understanding of isolation. He mocks those myths but in many respects remains fascinated by them, fascinated by the ‘Other’, simply because he has always felt isolated himself. Finding a level of kinship with Jon on their journey, Tyrion makes the point only his wealth & privilege have kept him alive having been born a dwarf, that he could well have been banished to the Wall himself. There’s a sense at this point Tyrion equates himself with the same ‘monsters’ the Watch exist to guard against, undoubtedly thanks to the many years of abuse from within his own family where he has been called as much. Tyrion values knowledge, consequently, as central to his survival, and it’ll be interesting exploring the meaning and value of knowledge in Game of Thrones down the line, as the show has a fascinating relationship with it.
Jon, of course, shares levels of Tyrion’s psychology, even if their lives and circumstances are very different. Jon is looking for his place, his meaning. Cat’s cold rejection of his presence alongside Bran, and Jon’s later assertion to Robb that “you Stark’s are hard to kill”, further underscores how Jon doesn’t see himself truly as a Stark. Those words will oddly turn out to be prophetic as regards his own life, and Ned is at pains to affirm Jon *is* a Stark. “You may not have my name, but you have my blood” is the closest Ned can get to explaining Jon’s true parentage (a discussion for much further down the road), but he wants Jon to believe he’s a Stark, especially given how the Stark’s have always been crucial to the Watch and the Wall. It’s telling Ned promises to talk about Wylla, Jon’s paternal mother, when they see each other again – did he know he would never see Jon again? Did he know that he would be able to keep his promise, his secret, while leaving Jon with hope he may understand his family line?
‘The Kingsroad’ provides a great deal of very subtle hints and suggestions regarding the secret Ned has been guarding all these years. Besides his assertions to Jon, his conversation with Robert is crucial; he refuses to be drawn on details about Wylla, essentially falling back on the excuse that the great shame about having a child out of wedlock means the assignation should be consigned to history. The show doesn’t establish whether Wylla is even real, but Martin’s books do; she is revealed to be a Dornish wet nurse who was around when Jon was born at the end of Robert’s Rebellion. Benioff & Weiss don’t tip their heads too significantly to the truth but anyone who has seen ‘The Dragon and the Wolf’ watching this will note the key players involved are all mentioned in this conversation. R+L+J, the well known and now validated fan theory, begins right here.
We get a deeper look into Robert’s psychology during this discussion too. He wants nothing more than to relinquish the shackles of being King and be a free Knight, roaming the Seven Kingdoms fighting and whoring. Ironically he’s perhaps one of the most trapped characters in Game of Thrones at this point – instigator of a rebellion born out of fiery passion and injustice who ended up with a Crown on his head to stabilise the realm. Robert wears the duty of being King heavily, in a way someone like Ned respects – it’s why he hurts Cat by leaving to investigate Jon Arryn’s death quietly, and why he hurt her still previously by bringing Jon back to Winterfell and allowing her to believe he was Ned’s illegitimate son. Ned believes in duty. Robert finds it burden. This is partly why he’s so paranoid and suspicious of Daenerys and a possible Targaryen uprising, which Ned rubbishes – again, this time more via Robert than Ned, the ominous fear of change blows into the narrative. You can read the title of this episode, indeed, as more than the road the King travels on – rather the figurative road Robert has been travelling, a road he would sorely wish to part ways with.
Daenerys herself begins to experience the blossoming fruits of change in ‘The Kingsroad’, and more crucially a suggestion of agency. She is meek, still a victim of Khal Drogo’s non-consensual sexual liberties, but the iconography of dragon eggs surrounded by fire is not lost on her, and she begins learning more about dragons & how they connect with Westerosi myth. Her lack of agency is also compared to slavery by Doreah, a chain which would become central to Dany’s own motivations and psychology. Doreah begins brainwashing Dany with empowering romantic fantasies about women able to use sex to tame their beasts; the girl is almost certainly part of Lord Varys & Illyrio Mopatis’ Targaryen restoration conspiracy (more on that here) – actively encouraging Dany to use her sexual prowess to influence Drogo and corrupt him in new, arguably Targaryen-friendly ways. In the end, once she tells Drogo “NO” and rides him, she prefigures riding her dragons. It’s the first sign of Daenerys taking charge.
Culturally, the Dothraki continue to prove interesting. Martin has discussed how they were inspired by a mixture of nomadic, horse-riding cultures who lived on the open plains, but they perhaps most closely resemble the Mongols, known primarily thanks to the brutality of warlord Genghis Khan and the expansive Empire he forged across Asia in the Middle Ages. The comparisons aren’t precisely direct (Drogo certainly isn’t analogous exactly to Genghis Khan) but in the show their characterisation as ‘savages’, as they are considered disdainfully by Viserys Targaryen with his pure-blood, Aryan complex, isn’t quite as clean a definition. Jorah discusses how they too have not just creation by apocalypse myth, describing their belief the ‘ghost grass’ of the Shadow Lands will cover the world. The Dothraki have a complexity which belies their more overt, Cro-Magnon appearance.
This complexity is missed, of course, by Viserys. This is no surprise. We’re talking about a man who believes only in his God-like entitlement. He even encourages the supposed immorality which saw Jorah banished from Robert’s realm, promising his own rule would be very different. Morality ends up being important to the consequences of the skirmish toward the end of ‘The Kingsroad’. Would a truly moral Royal family brazenly lie? Cersei is already creating a level of false narrative she would take to new heights in how she spins the attack ‘on’ Joffrey. Sansa is compromised between this – she wants to protect her sister but cannot let go of the fantasy she has created, her own false narrative. This problem will plague her across the entire journey she undertakes but the moral drama, as small as it is here, reflects the deeper and much broader issues to come.
As a piece of continuing narrative therefore, ‘The Kingsroad’ is filled with a deep level of complexity already, brickwork being constructed on the foundations of the pilot episode instantaneously. Game of Thrones remains in the establishment phase, developing the long-running narratives and character journeys that Season 1 will begin and will rumble on beyond, but in many respects it can best be described as ‘pilot part two’ – few series have ever been able to kickstart their runs with so much happening in such short order.
Check out our reviews of the first season of Game of Thrones: