Cast your mind back, way back. To a time when a handful of TV networks — none of them streaming — unquestionably ruled the TV landscape. To a time when looking at Twitter did not make you want to set rage fires every day. Back when the number of Supernatural seasons was in the single digits and Broad City hadn't even premiered. Bless the old gods, we were all so young back then.
Here's how different that the spring of 2011 was: I can recall a subset of hardcore Game of Thrones advocates expressing concern on fan sites about whether the fantasy saga would get renewed for a second season. And those fears weren't entirely unjustified.
The ratings for the first couple of episodes were respectable, but not break-out-the-champagne gargantuan. The overnight ratings for the pilot showed that more than two million viewers watched it — a mere fraction of the 16.5 million viewers the Season 6 finale had in a far more fractured television environment, but an okay premiere number nonetheless. As a show of faith that was quickly justified, HBO renewed Game of Thrones early into the first season. But it's worth remembering that Game of Thrones did not start out as a Big Deal. The death of Ned Stark (Sean Bean) late in Season 1 certainly propelled the drama into the public consciousness in a major way, but its growth into a colossus took a few years — years that occupy an interesting niche in the history of TV.
A re-watch of the show's pilot and second episode serves as a reminder that Game of Thrones acted as a bridge between two important television epochs — the male-centric, "Prestige Drama" Golden Age, and the slightly more egalitarian and friskier streaming era.
From the start, Game of Thrones was suffused with the anti-heroic flavor of a world in which characters struggle to make morally complex choices in an environment that does not encourage selflessness and altruism. Those themes were all over many of the most well-regarded programs of the aughts, which flowered mainly in the cable and premium cable realms on dramas that were commercially appealing but not generally franchise-friendly.
But the Game of Thrones premiere, like that of The Walking Dead in 2010, marked a turning point toward what I call Tentpole TV. The way both shows quickly became spin-off-generating, hugely profitable franchises convinced TV executives to start commissioning an enormous array of programs based on of comic books, science fiction, and fantasy properties — anything that would be likely to whip a San Diego Comic-Con crowd into a frenzy.
Of course, TV was doing all those things before the world become more acquainted with George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire saga. But the way that Game of Thrones succeeded — on the then-flagship network of Prestige TV, no less — put that trend into maximum overdrive. We'll be living with the beardy, sword-intensive results for decades to come.
In addition to turning TV toward tentpole territory, Game of Thrones was a step forward from the sausage-fest that TV had been almost forever, but especially in the anti-hero age. Of course, this attempt at a transition toward greater gender balance was fraught. Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) and Cersei (Lena Headey) were just two of a number of notable female characters who played key roles in the story from the start. But the show's treatment of its female characters, especially when it came to gratuitous nudity and sexual violence, was problematic, to say the least. For example, if you didn't get enough of Dany sobbing while Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa) rapes her in the pilot, she cries again while he forces himself on her in the show's second episode. Then there's a Skinemax scene of one of Dany's handmaidens writhing around while teaching her how to please the Khal in bed. Sigh.
The way Game of Thrones has and hasn't transitioned into the new TV era is a fascinating case study to any student of television. And returning to the first two episodes offers plenty of examples of TV's most dismaying tendencies. The streaming era isn't perfect, of course, but TV now gives more quality screen time to female, LGBTQ, and non-white characters than it did a decade ago. However, at the start, and through most of its run, the core Game of Thrones cast was white, and Khaleesi's wedding in the pilot is a festival of tired tropes in which the non-white people on display are depicted as animalistic "savages." It's one of the most cringe-intensive part of Game of Thrones' series premiere, and the show's tin ear on race extended well beyond the first season.
The show's treatment of violence, sexual violence, and race turned some viewers off completely. Even as I continued to soldier on, I could see why. Game of Thrones could be so subtle, so haunting, so moving at times, and then at other moments hit the viewer over the head with clumsy cliches, offensive stereotypes and superficial dime store nihilism. Those breaks between seasons sometimes almost became permanent breaks for me as well.
Still, as frustrated as I got with Game of Thrones on a number of fronts, it was impossible to ignore. It so often embodied what was best and worst about TV, and I could never tell which was coming next. And it had dragons. I'm not made of stone; I had to see the battles and the dragons and the next holy sh-- moment.
But none of those big moments would work if individual characters' problems weren't intriguing. What's most striking when returning to the first two installments is how they set up the show's core moral questions quite efficiently. Should you be a good person? Well, that doesn't work — Arya (Maisie Williams) tried to do the right thing when Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) came across the butcher's boy, but her actions ended up causing pain, punishment, or death for everyone involved (RIP Lady).
Does coddling monsters mitigate the damage they can do? Probably not, because the attempts to pacify the aggrieved Joffrey didn't work in the short or long term. All right then — should you just be a scheming, selfish, amoral person? That's what Cersei is, but somehow she's more than that as well. What's incredible about Cersei's visit to the comatose Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) is that Lena Headey miraculously makes you feel a few shreds of sympathy for the women who helped engineer his near-death state. That is some next-level acting.
The world that the show lays out is brutal and confusing; it's one where "good" people can cause great pain and "bad" people can be the most fascinating individuals on the screen. Characters are often presented with multiple options, but much of the time, all those choices are scary, if not life-threatening. At its best, Game of Thrones thrived within that messiness and provided forward momentum, gorgeous visuals, and poignant conversations. And even laughs now and then (thank the gods for Tyrion's [Peter Dinklage] wine-soaked wit).
Even so, at various points in its run, Game of Thrones sometimes embraced a form of lazy pessimism, as if the writers challenged themselves to think of the most cynical outcome for a given situation and went with whatever came to mind first. But that wasn't the tone at the start: The feeling was that this was a scary, terrifying world that dwarfed the fragile, breakable human bodies in it. Two minutes into the pilot, we got that awe-inspiring look at the Wall, but what made it seem so overwhelming were the little human shapes in front of it. The pilot sequences north of the Wall and at Winterfell are full of mystery, psychological insight, and well-wrought terror, and they did a fine job of setting the stage for what followed: There were ominous developments and an epic sense of scale, all of it anchored by humane performances. And that one scene where a bunch of the drama's hunky guys were shirtless (and we never got a scene quite like that again. Thanks for nothing, HBO).
Of course, the first two hours were mostly occupied by laborious set-up: The first half of the debut season was more efficient than excellent, and sometimes that efficiency faltered. Never forget that the Season 1's Hand's tournament looked like a bargain-basement ren faire in a forlorn corner of the Midwest. Seriously, revisiting the early days of Game of Thrones is like looking at your high school yearbook: Oh hey, tiny Arya! Remember how sketchy Cersei's early struggle wigs were? Sansa (Sophie Turner), do not make googly eyes at Joffrey, he is the literal worst! Ned Stark, you beautiful moron, don't leave Winterfell! Rickon (Art Parkinson), I guess you exist! And we can't forget Tyrion Lannister telling Jon Snow (Kit Haringon) to wear his outsider status "like armor" and slapping Joffrey repeatedly, which is, let's face it, something Tyrion should have done in every episode.
It was all there at the start: intrigue, power plays, eerie threats, quips, an array of storylines of varying quality, leather waistcoats, boobs (so many boobs), and incest. You can't argue that the first two hours of Game of Thrones failed to give you a reasonably accurate accounting of what was to come.
All in all, as I watched, what I was most nostalgic for was the general lack of expectations for Game of Thrones back in the day. A decade ago, the TV show wasn't that big a deal to anyone but hardcore fans of the books. In 2011, a fantasy series with castles and magic and sad aristocrats could just be another TV show. Unlike the upcoming Lord of the Rings TV adaptation, Game of Thrones didn't face a crushing burden of expectations right out of the gate. It took more than half a season to truly find its feet, and back then, before certain precincts of TV became tentpole territory, that slow and steady build was perfectly acceptable.
All the first two episodes needed to do was convince me to keep coming back. Those early installments ticked that box, and started the process of getting me to care about many of the characters we will say goodbye to in 2019. Thank the new gods for HBO GO: Once Game of Thrones is over, we'll be able to watch every messy, dumb, beautiful, glorious moment of this transitional game-changer forever. What is dead may never die.
Game of Thrones premieres Sunday, April 14 at 9/8c on HBO.