Game of Thrones premiered way, way, way back in April of 2011. 2011. Take a second to think about how long ago that was. I can wait.
Now we’re on the cusp of the show’s seventh season, it’s penultimate season, and while it’s tempting to spend all of our time either looking forward or casually looking back at season six, it’s easy to forget everything that happened in that first season and more importantly, how we felt about the show back when it aired. Remember, Game of Thrones was some weird looking shit when it first aired. Let’s not pretend everyone was on board from the jump. It looked like Lord of the Rings, but because it was HBO, the assumption was that it would be Lord of the Rings mixed with The Sopranos, which had wrapped up four years earlier. The Sopranos still hung heavy over HBO and the network was still looking for a tent-pole show to rally the troops around. Game of Thrones was not expected to be that show.
Just look at the HBO landscape in April of 2011. Big Love had ended a month earlier and the first season of the incomprehensible and ultimately doomed horse-racing drama Luck was just wrapping up it’s first and only season. That left HBO with Boardwalk Empire, which had started a year earlier and still had people wondering why the just hadn’t cast James Gandolfini as Nucky Thompson, True Blood and Treme, David Simon’s New Orleans-based follow-up to The Wire. Boardwalk Empire was expected to be the high tide that would raise all boats. Game of Thrones was expected to be one of those boats, albeit an incredibly expensive boat. The show’s price tag was one of the main talking points heading into the first season. It was one of the most expensive things ever done on television and as a result, it was a big topic of conversation.
The conversation soon changed though once the show got going. That was due in large part to Game of Thrones‘ first season essentially being book-ended by two HOLY SHIT moments that you could probably argue saved the show from obscurity.
There was the first one, which came at the end of the first episode, when Bran was shoved out of a window by Jaime.
And there was the second one, when Ned Stark was beheaded at the end of the season’s second to last episode.
Those two moments were HOLY SHIT moments for sure and served the show well when it came to making the talk less about the price and more about the content. The price wasn’t just crazy, the whole show was crazy.
Yet these two moments were bigger than that and were demonstrative of the unpredictably and table-turning that the show had in store for it’s audience. Seeing Bran being pushed out the window was wild on multiple levels because of A) how quickly it happened and B) dude, he was just a kid. I thought we didn’t do stuff like that to kids? We learned something when that happened though. We learned we should discard any previously held beliefs of what should and shouldn’t happen on a show and we should also realize that when it comes to it’s characters, Game of Thrones wasn’t messing around.
That was something made even clearer when good ol’ Ned Stark was killed. Through the show’s first eight episodes, Ned certainly seemed like the star of the show. He was even played by one of the few actors we recognized, Sean Bean. Ned Stark straight up seemed like our hero, the hero of Game of Thrones. I mean, he also kind of seemed like an idiot, but a heroic idiot nonetheless. But then halfway through that ninth episode, “Baelor,” the idea that Ned might actually die started to become more and more of a thing. I remember thinking to myself that hold on, I don’t think there’s a way Ned can get out of this and then subsequently realizing that the dude was going to die. Of course it still didn’t seem possible until it was.
In retrospect, things like the Red Wedding, when Robb and Catelyn were killed, or when Jon Snow was killed or even when Prince Oberyn was killed, shouldn’t have been nearly as shocking as they were. Game of Thrones let us know early on, everyone was at their mercy. Everyone could be killed*. And here we were, shocked when Walder Frey turned on Robb.
* The Game of Thrones Can’t Be Killed List:
The crippling of young Bran and the murder of dumb Ned are the two things that are probably most memorable from the show’s first season, with Daenerys emerging from the embers of Khal Drogo’s pyre, right behind them, and for good reason. But I think what has become lost is how haunting and creepy the first ten minutes of the show’s first episode were and how it also taught us another valuable lesson.
It’s just three members of the Night Watch, one who looks like Matt Damon’s younger brother, one who looks like the fourth Golic brother and the one who lives, riding out into the snowy north, looking for some Wildlings. They find them, but they also find what we’ll soon find out to be White Walkers. Now somehow, the White Walkers let the one dude live. I don’t get that. But either way, could the show have been anymore clear? Game of Thrones is about one thing and one thing only, the fight against the White Walkers. The drama in King’s Landing is fun entertainment and Stannis’ assault on the city in “Blackwater,” was amazing, but it’s also somewhat meaningless in the grand scheme of things.
It’s about the White Walkers. Plain and simple.
And the show has only reinforced this by how they’ve used the White Walkers – sparingly, but crucially. Every time they’ve shown up, it’s been with purpose. Whether it’s a corpse becoming one in Castle Black or one taking a baby from Craster, that creepy son of a bitch with all the wives. “Blackwater,” the penultimate episode of season two was the episode of that season that stuck with everyone and there was no shortage of memorable moments throughout that season, but given all that, the show ended the season with a powerful three minutes.
Yeah, White Walkers again.
This has continued throughout the show’s entire run. You get caught up with this plot or that plot and just like that, the show hits you with a reminder about the existence of these scary effin’ ice zombies rallying their base in the north country. This was even before “Hardhomme,” season five’s penultimate episode and easily one of the show’s best. That’s when the White Walkers were truly unleashed on us and that’s when it should have been made abundantly clear to everyone involved that the battle between the living and the dead was the only battle that mattered.
You can be forgiven for getting distracted, for getting caught up in the various struggles for power that has kept the show running. That stuff is juicy and interesting and as the show goes on, the only reason any of the Lannisters besides Tyrion are even still around. Cersei’s only objective throughout the entire season was keeping her family in power, but that is a narrow-minded goal. It’s caring only about your backyard while you’re neighborhood is falling into ruin. Talk about being foolish.
In the first full trailer for the show, my man Davos finally spoke the words that the show had been hinting at this entire time.
“If we don’t put aside our enmities and bound together, we will die. And then it doesn’t matter whose skeleton sits on the Iron Throne.”
Yes! Exactly. Finally.
Game of Thrones is a big show, it can easily be about more than one thing. It can be about the pursuit of power and it can be about the strength of women. It can be about believing in something bigger than yourself and it can be about dying for something you believe in, regardless how foolish that may be. But it’s ultimately about whether or not mankind, mankind damn near crippled by differences and conflict, can bound together when faced with dire circumstances and act as one. Taking it a step further, it’s about the younger generation having the smarts, courage and perseverance to make this happen, to eschew the old ways and create their old ways. Daenerys doesn’t even know about the White Walkers yet, but is there any doubt that when she does learn about them, she’ll quickly realize they are they are a legitimate threat and a bigger priority than securing the Iron Throne. You know, like the exact opposite of someone like Cersei.
It’s been there this whole time, since all the way back in 2011 when the show debuted.
If only they had told us.
Oh, never mind then.
Winter is here.