Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Study In Ice and Fire

So, as you know, last Sunday was the premiere of the very first episode of Game of Thrones on HBO, titled appropriately: "Winter Is Coming." Now, beforehand much ado had been made about the opening credits sequence. Apparently it got a huge thumbs up from the rabid fan community, with some praising its innovative design cues while others applauding the main theme music. Well, here it is below for you to judge yourselves:

Now I for one don't see what the big deal is. It's nice, don't get me wrong. But I was told that the theme would be so memorable you wouldn't be able to forget it. And then I promptly forgot about it. Ironically enough, whenever I try to call it up in my head, I instead get the theme from the new show on Starz, Camelot. Hmm, that's not such a good thing in my book.

However, I do love all the inside clues and imagery that only true fans can pick up on. I know many of you are not walking, talking encyclopedias of all things related to the A Song of Ice and Fire (ASoIaF) series, but I thought I'd list two of the more intriguing aspects of this intro that might go without notice.

1) Scene locations. Each book in the ASoIaF series has a detailed map of the lands of this intricate world on the inside flap. Running with that theme, I thought it was rather apropos to use a moving map as the basis for the show's opening credits sequence. What's even more interesting is the fact that this portion of the opener will change from episode to episode depending on the locations being used for that night. So, because 4 specific locales were used in the premiere episode, we get to see those 4 cities highlighted here in the opener.

The map starts us off at the capital city of the Seven Kingdoms--King's Landing--which is dominated by the King's castle and seat of the Iron Throne, the Red Keep.

From there we travel far up the King's Road to the Kingdom in the North, and its central seat of power: the citadel of Winterfell. This is Lord Eddard Stark's residence, and the focus for much of this first episode. Note the giant white Weirwood tree with a face engraved on its trunk. Known as a "heart tree," this represents the religion of the Old Gods, which is only still practiced in the North.

Next the camera zooms a bit farther north to the Wall, where the Night's Watch man the frozen barrier to keep constant vigil for possible threats from the mysterious Far North. Note the special elevator which transports the men too and from the various battlements along the Wall. Nice!

Lastly, the camera returns south all the way back to King's Landing again, before suddenly turning east and dashing across the Narrow Sea toward Pentos. Here the exiled Targaryen children reside, with Viserys scheming a plan to gather a nomadic army to his cause in order to win back his rightful place on the Iron Throne.

2) Sigils. Along with the locales, interspersed throughout this sequence are brief flashes of Westeros' history, using engraven sigils to paint in broad strokes the political landscape as it exists in this opening episode. Before I explain further, however, you must first know what each sigil means.

In ASoIaF, each major House has its own sigil. This icon is used to identify not just the Lord of the House, but his seat of power and the bannermen under his protection as well. For the purpose of this first episode, 4 sigils in particular are important to bear:

The Dragon. -- The sigil of the three-headed Dragon belongs to the Targaryens, who were invaders from Valyria across the sea and whom used three dragons to conquer Westeros.

The Stag. -- This is the sigil of House Baratheon and, thus, the sigil of the current king of Westeros, Robert. Robert Baratheon led the rebellion which ultimately broke the nearly uninterrupted rule of the Targaryen Dynasty sixteen years earlier. The Stag, therefore, is now the patron sigil of King's Landing.

The Direwolf. -- This sigil belongs to House Stark, who's motto is "Winter is Coming!" For the sake of the show, it represents Eddard Stark and Winterfell. The direwolf is a fierce, dangerous predator larger and more powerful than a normal wolf. They can only be found in the Far North, beyond the Wall, at the start of the series.

The Lion. -- House Lannister's sigil. Tywin Lannister was Hand to the former Targaryen King, Aerys II, when Robert Baratheon's rebellion broke out. But by playing his cards right at the most key moment toward the end of the uprising, he made himself an invaluable ally to the rebels led by Robert and Eddard. After the war, the Lannisters became the richest House in all of Westeros and Tywin's daughter, Cersei, became Robert's Queen. The Lion is the banner which flies over the Lannisters' seat at Casterly Rock.

So there you have it. The 4 most important sigils you need to know for the sake, at least, of this first episode of the series. Now in the opening credits sequence, you see three events unfold with use of these sigils:

The very first one shows the Dragon sigil screaming in anguish as a volcano erupts. This represents the "Doom of Valyria," when the homeland of the Targaryens was destroyed and they fled across the sea to Westeros, conquering the Seven Kingdoms and ruling there for the next 300 years.

The second event displays the Stag, Lion, and Direwolf sigils locked in combat against the three-headed Dragon, representing the uprising known in Westeros' history as "Robert's Rebellion," which would eventually remove the corrupt Targaryens from the Iron Throne.

The last event shown in this sequence is the peace after the rebellion, with the Lion and the Direwolf paying fealty before the triumphant Stag. Houses Baratheon, Lannister, and Stark become the most powerful in the Seven Kingdoms.

If you note, all 4 sigils are situated around the emblazoned lettering "GAME OF THRONES" at the very end of the opening sequence. I can't confirm it, but I wonder if this will change in later episodes as more sigils and their Houses are introduced into the mix? I would think so.

All in all, while it might not be HBO's best series opening sequence, it does in fact share the same gravitas and grandeur as, say, the openers for Rome or maybe even Carnivale. So in other words, not bad at all.


  1. Maybe it's because you are into all of this type of stuff, but me, as a lay person looking in, I was very impressed. And it kept my attention something that is not not an easy feat for an ADHD person like myself! :)

  2. I loved the first episode... more than Camelot.

    Cool dissection of the opening, David!

  3. Yvonne -- I'm not so sure that's it. The rabid fans I mentioned above are way into this genre too, and they absolutely went nuts over this intro. And I'm not saying it's bad--I think it's plenty good--just not *that* great like the intros for other great HBO shows over the years.

    Jen -- I haven't seen the first episode yet, but will in time for the 2nd episode this Sunday. I can only imagine it must be better than Camelot. I mean, how could it NOT be? :)

  4. Wow, David. You pretty much work non-stop to promote this show on your blog and then DON'T watch it? I am utterly shocked!!

    Personally, I think this intro was simply amazing for a bunch of reasons, the biggest of which is how much information they cover in such a short amount of time. And that was BEFORE I read your analysis of the intro. I'm even MORE impressed now!

    After you watch the ep, David, check out my review:

  5. Oh, believe me, the only reason I wasn't there watching it the minute it aired was because I had a prior engagement that Sunday. Plus, I promised a friend we would watch it together and it dawned on me that the next best time to do so would be when the 2nd episode aired next Sunday. This way we get 2 uninterrupted hours of pure AWESOME instead of just 1!

    See, I have my reasons. :) I'm very willing to put off something I've been waiting years for if the payoff for that wait is even bigger.

    You know, I think I'm going to have to post a retraction. The more and more I watch the intro (and I've seen this clip now, like, 10 times!), the more it's growing on me. I think it might just be as awesome as everyone says it is. Hmm, go figure.

    And I'm heading over to your blog now . . .

  6. David as JH said, I really enjoyed your synopsis of the opening credits.
    Being that I am a 'newbie' to the Game of Thrones it helped me to understand what's going on.

    Good write up!

  7. I'm so glad to hear that, WT! My intention was to enhance the experience for those who enjoy the show but might not know the ton of backstory that can be gleaned from the books. As such, I'm also trying not to spoil anything beyond what you know from the 1st episode.

    Glad to see it worked! :)

  8. I would love to hear read your review (so far) on the series. I found it incredibly detailed. The opening sequence is really cool. I haven't read the books, so I don't have anything to compare it to (unlike, say, the Harry Potter series, where I know instantly what is /left out/changed).

    I LOVE this genre, so I'm really enjoying it, thus far. How does it measure up to the books, in your opinion?

  9. It's really, really darn close! One of the more faithful screen adaptations of a written work I've seen. Way closer than Tru Blood, not that that show is not still awesome.

    To be sure, there are plenty of places in Game of Thrones where they stray off the path . . . but they're usually small instances. Or, at the very least, very well done to the point where it only enhances the story, not detracts from it.

    I've caught up with all the episodes now and am in the process of writing up my impressions. The review of the first episode will go up later in the day tomorrow (Tuesday). Hopefully I'll have the second one done in time for Wednesday.

    Very quickly, though: I'm in hog heaven! This show is soooooo good! I can't believe I'm going to get this, and then Tru Blood right after. HBO in 2011 is the best so far!


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