This looks at how the pilot episode fits to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet and shows that it is unusual, for it actually fills the role of Act 1 only. Later episodes will then deliver more of Blake’s beats, in effect elongating the structural elements over the larger run-time of a series. But it’s interesting to see how Game of Thrones‘ untraditional approach impacts on the episodic structure.
A notable feature of the series is how multiple parallel stories unfold, which for a significant amount of time develop largely independently of one another, until eventually they may weave together. In fact some of them might not weave together at all. Two of these stories are explicitly set up in the pilot and develop within it separately from each other.
Broadcast pilot runtime (in UK): 59 min
Written by: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by: Tim Van Patten
Genre: Dude with a Problem (Ned, our innocent hero, is dragged into a sorry mess after the sudden death of the Hand of the King. He is offered the vacant role and after discovering a claim of murder and conspiracy, he must take the job to protect the safety of his King.) It’s worth noting that, across the series, many of the other key characters’ stories are in the Golden Fleece genre (Daenerys will be one of these).
Opening Image (1 min): Three riders, static on horseback, wait as a portcullis slowly opens in front of them. They travel through a long dark tunnel and out through another portcullis, as they emerge from a staggeringly vast defensive ice wall. These, we will later learn, are men of the Night’s Watch. They ride off separately into a snowy landscape. One of them soon discovers brutally dismembered bodies. This man fetches the other two. All three quickly discover the murderer as a White Walker appears – a supernatural being made of ice. The White Walker slaughters two of them. The other man flees.
This episode is called “Winter is Coming” because, while the actual temperatures are indeed dropping, so too looms the threat of these ice-monsters. Also the titular phrase is a metaphor foreshadowing the general theme of death and destruction that pretty much defines the entire series.
Theme Stated (3 min): The first dialogue of the episode is after the first of the three Night’s Watchmen informs the other two about the dismembered bodies. One of them replies, believing it to be the work of a people called the Wildlings: “What do you expect? They’re savages. One lot steals a goat from the other lot, next thing you know, they’re ripping each other to pieces.” This in fact describes not just the perceived behaviour of the Wildlings, but unwittingly he’s making a damning judgement of the behaviour of many of this show’s key characters – as men and women will savagely wreak death and destruction in pursuit of greed for power and justice in their “Game of Thrones.” This is the theme of the show and the series – the jostling for power and for revenge – and the brutal methods people will employ to attain it.
Set-Up (1-18 min): This set-up is unusually slow for an hour-long drama (but still excellent). First we meet the Night’s Watchmen (minor characters) and the White Walker (whose kind will form a background threat in Season 1 and beyond but won’t be featured again in this episode except through mentions in dialogue). After the opening credits, we see that the Night’s Watchman who fled is now captured by soldiers.
It’s not until 9 minutes in that we meet NED STARK (Sean Bean), the protagonist of this episode, along with his family and Ned’s ward, Theon Greyjoy. They are watching Bran practising archery while the girls sew. Note a Save the Cat! moment – when people mock Bran’s archery, Ned gently puts them in their place: “And which one of you was a marksman at ten? Keep practising Bran,” he encourages the boy.
12 minutes in we learn more of Ned’s character and the brutal justice of his world. Ned executes the man from the Night’s Watch for being a deserter, but Ned takes no pleasure in this. He’s a man who fulfils his duties with just intentions, honour and integrity – for example he swings the sword himself, saying: “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.” It’s also established that one of Ned’s children, Jon Snow, is not a true-born – a bastard – and is a slight outcast for being so.
18 minutes in we meet the antagonists of this episode (and much of the series): Queen CERSEI (Lena Headey) and her brother JAIME LANNISTER (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). We discover a man has recently died – Jon Arryn, the Hand of the King (aka protector of the king). From their conversation it’s clear that they are involved in some sort of conspiracy, discussing whether of not Jon Arryn knew and whether he’d told anyone. (What exactly they’re talking about isn’t yet made clear.)
Catalyst (18 min): That death of Jon Arryn is the catalyst that will upend Ned’s world and his family’s.
20 min – Ned’s wife, Catelyn Stark, informs him that Jon Arryn has died and that the King is on his way. Ned says there’s only thing he’s after. (It’s not yet explicit, but the King is going to ask Ned to be the new Hand of the King.) Catelyn tells him he can always say no, though we get the impression it won’t be that simple. This is the beginning of the…
Debate, which isn’t resolved for a while: Should Ned accept the dangerous job of Hand of the King?
25 min – King Robert arrives (with Prince Joffrey). Ned and King Robert head down to his crypt and here King Robert offers Ned the job of Hand of the King. It’s clear to the viewer that Ned doesn’t want it, but feels he can’t easily say no. Nonetheless an answer is not yet given.
29 min – We first meet TYRION LANNISTER (Peter Dinklage), in a brothel of course! He’s a dwarf and so in many ways an outcast. As a drunk with a quick wit, he plays the role of wise fool and offers comic relief.
32 min – Ned and King Robert chat about the death of Ned’s sister, whom Ned was in love with. We learn that the Targaryens killed her. The Targaryens are now gone (some killed, but not all) but Robert wants to kill the remaining.
CUE Set-Up of B Story (at 32 min): This B Story is out of sequence from the standard BS2 beat order, but unlike the traditional B Stories for Blake’s Beat Sheet, this B Story doesn’t fully interweave with the journey of the main protagonist. The B Story is about an opponent of King Robert’s from the past that may suggest an upcoming conflict in the future, but the interaction during Season One is limited. There are mainly just occasional cross-references and just one moment when King Robert’s forces act, via an intermediary, to affect his B Story opponent. This actually has the result of helping her. But she certainly won’t come face to face with Robert or his heirs for a long, long time.
So in fact this B Story is what you might call a largely “parallel” i.e., independent story. And importantly that means it isn’t structurally subservient to the main story, but rather it is distinctly a story in its own right – with its very own story beats from Blake’s Beat Sheet…
We meet the Targaryen siblings: DAENERYS (Emilia Clarke) is a victim figure (though she will become a key protagonist later in the series) and her brother, VISERYS (Harry Lloyd), is the antagonist in her story. He is cruel – and his sister fears and obeys him. He treats her as a slave, demeaning her whenever possible, including sexually. We learn he has ambitions of becoming King by giving his sister away for a marriage, intending for the allegiance to gain him an army. His decision to marry her off is the Catalyst of her story. Her Debate is whether or not to accept her fate with the man she is betrothed to marry.
We briefly meet her intended husband, KHAL DROGO (Jason Momoa), a large warrior who says nothing and then rides off. Daenerys says to her brother that she doesn’t want to marry Drogo, but Viserys couldn’t give a damn what she wants.
A Story (continued) 38 min: Catelyn and her daughter Sansa Stark chat about the possibility of Sansa wedding Price Joffrey (Robert’s son and heir to the throne). If Ned accepts the position of Hand of the King, it would make him the second most powerful in the land. It seems the marriage is only in the cards if he accepts the job. Sansa begs her mum to convince him to accept, saying that being Queen is the only thing she ever really wanted. It seems even lovely sweet Sansa lusts for power. Catelyn explains that if he accepts, Ned would have to leave the family. Sansa seems unfazed by that because she is overtaken by the excitement of the idea of being Queen one day.
39 min – Jon and his Uncle Benjey chat about Jon wanting to join the Night Watch. It becomes clear, partially from his following chat with Tyrion, that Jon feels pushed to do this because he’s such an outsider as a bastard. This isn’t relevant to the main plot that is now driving the story, but it is planting strong seeds for another important story-thread, though it won’t evolve further during this episode.
43 min – Cersei and Catelyn chat about whether they will one day be sharing a grandchild. Still Ned hasn’t made a decision.
44 min – Jaime blocks Ned’s path and they have a bristling conversation, creating in the viewer a significant dislike and distrust of Jaime and suggesting reasons Ned wouldn’t want to join these people and leave his family behind.
45 min – Ned and Catelyn discuss what he should do. Neither want him to go and take the job, but Ned feels he can’t say no to the King. Then Maester Luwin arrives with a sealed message from Catelyn’s sister. The note states that Jon Arryn was murdered by the Lannisters. A shocking revelation. Maester Luwin says Ned must protect the king from them – he must accept the job. He swore an oath to protect him. But Ned’s father was killed trying to protect the previous King and Ned worries that he also may find that answering a King’s summons will be the end of him. Maester Luwin says: “That was a different time, a different king.” The case for both sides of the Debate have been made. Ned has a decision to make.
B Story (continued!) 48 min: It’s the day of the wedding of Drogo and Daenerys. The ceremony is underway, which involves barbaric rituals including deaths. Drogo seems nothing better than a savage brute. We now meet SER JORAH MORMONT (Iain Glen)(who will be a significant figure for her story over the series), delivering a wedding gift of books. Amongst Daenerys’ gifts from others is three dragon’s eggs (a crucial fact for later in the series). Drogo gifts Daenerys a beautiful horse, which she is put upon and, following Drogo’s lead, they ride off.
They are now married and on their own in the sunset. She is crying. Drogo wipes away her tears. A moment of sensitivity? Of hope? But perhaps not. He decides now they must have sex and he aggressively undresses her. Now forcefully disrobed, she prepares to oblige for intercourse, as she feels she must. The scene ends here and that’s the last moment of this story for this episode. It might seem her Debate is now over (and that it was never a meaningful debate anyway as she had no choice). Either way, now begins her new life with her new husband.
Significantly, in the next episode, there is an important transition about to happen to her. Under counsel from one of her ladies-in-waiting, she manages to take control in the bedroom and this small act is a massive moment for her. It’s the first moment we see of her not being a slave-like victim and of her exerting free-will. Coinciding with this moment is a shift in her relationship with Drogo. Now in her moment of liberation and even control, she looks at him with longing, with love. She has now made a decision to enter this new world willingly, even if in practise she had to anyway. She has also shifted from victim to an active protagonist. She will face many challenges, but she is now beginning a mission to carve a life for herself where she makes her own decisions and pursues her own choices and ambitions. Her B Story Debate thus actually continues into Episode 2 and her Break into Two is when she decides to accept her fate and make the most of it.
It’s interesting to note I’ve read a script of the pilot that was written before the broadcast pilot went into production and there are several notable distinctions: There’s multiple differences in the ordering of scenes and corresponding shifts in the exposition of dialogue and the settings for those scenes. For instance, the script spreads out the introduction of the Stark family over Pages 4-26, whereas the broadcast pilot sets up all of the Stark family in the same scene, almost immediately after the Opening Title Credits. But the essence of the A Story is nonetheless much the same.
The biggest differences affect the B Story. The script introduces Daenerys and her story much earlier – page 11 of the script, so approximately 11 minutes in as opposed to 32 minutes in. But the most important difference is that the script makes a stronger, more obvious Debate as she realises there are both pros and cons of this marriage. In the script, after Drogo presents Daenerys with her horse, at first she’s scared, but then, for the first time we’ve seen, she is happy… she smiles. The crowd cheers. Even Drogo smiles for the first time. But the unpleasantness of her brother, and his threatening command to make Drogo happy, ruins the moment of happiness. Fear returns. She then goes off with Drogo. (This moment of fleeting change foreshadows what will be her transformation of character.)
Next, Daenerys and Drogo are alone (similarly to the broadcast pilot). Daenerys cries in front of Drogo. He wipes away the tear. He undresses her. She is scared. But, unlike the broadcast pilot, he is surprisingly gentle as he undresses and kisses her. He enquires whether she consents – she says yes. And this is in a manner which seems not to be simply because she feels she has to, but is perhaps her choice, in a first moment of free-will. She has decided she does want to be with him.
Note the similarities with what develops on the broadcast Episode 2 mentioned above – this scripted scene is effectively a compressed version of that. I think the broadcast episodes better demonstrate this key moment for her isn’t just her accepting her fate, but rather it coincides with a shift from passive slave-like victim to an active protagonist, beginning her mission to exert her free-will. This marks her Break into Two and it’s interesting that the script chose to end her role in Episode 1 on this Act break, unlike the broadcast pilot.
Anyway, back to the unfolding story of the pilot as broadcast…
55 minutes in, almost the end of the episode, we return to the A Story: The Debate finally is resolved. As Ned chats with Robert, it becomes clear he has accepted the offer of Hand of the King.
Break into Two (57 min): Bran climbs the castle walls and discovers Queen Cersei and her brother Jaime Lannister having sex. Cersei is worried that he has seen this. Jaime goes up to the shocked Bran – and coldly pushes him clear off the wall, leaving us with the…
Final Image: Bran plummeting from a great height, straight down towards the camera.
This is the first bloodshed between the families in this episode – seemingly delivering on the theme and expectation of death coming (suggested in part by the Opening Image and repeated references in the programme’s titular metaphor “Winter is Coming”). This horrific action reveals the brutality of the Lannisters. Ned’s family are, for the first time ever, clearly and absolutely no longer safe. This will be a point of no return for Ned and his family – even though he doesn’t know it yet – and reveals the new, horrendous, world into which he is about to enter. And of course it’s a brilliant emotional shocker to end the pilot episode with! It leaves you with not just shock, but a cliff-hanger, begging the questions: What will happen next? Is he dead? And how will the Starks react?
SO, THE MAIN STORY OF THE PILOT EPISODE IS STRUCTURALLY THE EQUIVALENT OF JUST ACT ONE FROM BLAKE’S BEAT SHEETS, though the relative timings aren’t standard. As for the parallel B Story, it wasn’t even a complete Act One. By the end of the pilot, Daenerys is now married, but she hasn’t yet made the proactive decision to challenge her shackles of slave-like victim and pursue a mission of autonomy and ambition for herself.
Although a few other series have also opened with structurally unusual pilot episodes, it is still very unusual and commercially brave to not deliver a three-act structure within an episode. Thankfully Game of Thrones has done a masterful job and although shocking dramatic beats will occur across the series, the writers have intentionally spread these out. The deliberate slow-burn and detailed set-up of the characters gives chance for a deep emotional connection with them, which would otherwise be particularly hard to achieve given such a complex inter-tangling of multiple key characters and storylines across the series.
But this is not for one moment to imply there isn’t dramatic structure to the series. The pilot episode, particularly with its ending, clearly suggests to the viewer that a dynamic plot is about to unfold, tempting the audience back to watch as Act Two begins for these characters. Blake’s other beats are simply yet to come, in a story that will unfold over the larger runtime of a series.
The story structure in Game of Thrones seems initially complex because the beats are elongated and the show quickly splinters into several more multiple parallel stories, with different intersections with each other, some taking a long time to intersect (if ever). Several have their seeds sown in this episode, but the most explicit is Jon Snow’s story of feeling an outcast and stating in this episode that he wants to join the Night’s Watch (which he indeed will, very shortly). Also all the Stark children and Theon will develop their own parallel stories, as will Catelyn, and all the Lannister family members, not to mention a raft of characters not yet introduced in the pilot!
Furthermore, unlike a single stand-alone drama such as a feature film, many of the storylines weaved over the series often will not simply resolve where their Act 3 would normally otherwise end, but rather they then evolve into a new story.
See next week’s blog for more on how the beats map out over the season!