Game of Thrones, Season 1: A Tale in Endings
I wrote a post about the structure of epic stories, and I mentioned how the writers Benioff and Weiss may have structured their adaptation of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series into the Game of Thrones TV show by laying out each of the final scenes for each of the episodes. When I heard this—thought it felt promising: stories are often as strong as their climaxes, and there's a probably lot to be said for that approach.
So, here I am, writing about Game of Thrones on this blog. (I didn't think I would do this—for a number of reasons—such as, I wanted to keep away from analyzing popular culture too heavily, because, after all—if you start with one storyworld, property or franchise; what would there be to stop you from doing them all? Also, Game of Thrones contained such graphic, explicit, and often bone-chilling, content, that I wouldn't have had to have been a former fundamentalist, to be uneasy with promoting it, talking about it, or giving it much more attention. But, despite all this—one fact remains clear, after 8 seasons, 9 years running, and over 70 hours of television, Game of Thrones is truly a saga that compelled the world.
I'm going to be looking at each of the endings from the episodes in the first season, analyzing why they were chosen as the scene on which to finish, and/or see how they relate to each other in the context of a larger story-arc throughout season 1. Following this, I'll take a brief look at lessons that can be learned from this, how I might be able to apply the ideas here to my own story-writing projects, and have a chance to say any final thoughts I may have.
The procedure of starting one's outlining with each final scene or "image" of a chapter, episode, or other narrative unit does two things: one is that, in finding the most momentous ultimate moment for each episode to end upon, it grants a greater sense of gravitas to the show as a whole, while offering momentum to the audience to 'tune in next week.' For the writers' this method is helpful too, as it is a way to set up up a story-skeleton by creating sign-posts for the story as a whole to follow.
It would go without saying that if you want to not have the story of Game of Thrones spoiled, do not read any farther! (Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)
…and, without further ado, here are the episodes' final scenes for Game of Thrones, season 1.
Defenestration of Bran (Love, Jaime) — S1 E01: Winter is Coming
Bran Stark, climbing a tower, comes upon Jaime and Cersei Lannister in a compromised position. Jaime, at Cersei's behest, pushes Bran from the window, to his (supposed) doom. This sets up, (A) the tone of the series (grim, unflinching, irreverent, and dark—wherein no one is safe) and sets a certain mood, while (B) it gives us both a look into, and inciting spark of, the story's main conflict: Lannisters and Starks killing one another.
Bran Wakes Up — S1 E02: The Kingsroad
This moment serves to increase the tension, leaving question, of course, of whether or not Bran will tell what he has seen, or whether he will remember anything at all. It honestly seemed like it had been a lot longer from the moment that Bran was pushed out of a window until he opened his eyes again for the first time… much more than a single episode, so I was surprised to see that it was only one show later, that he came out of his coma . Keeping the audience waiting can be good, but can't be done for too long—since they'll be apt to forget.
Ned Watches Arya Learn Swordplay — S1 E03: Lord Snow
Approving father, Ned Stark looks on while his daughter, Arya, learns from her 'dancing master,' Syrio Forel, how to fight with swords. Though pupil and student duel and spar with wooden weapons, the most key element of this scene is actually in the audio track, wherein the sound of steel clashing can be heard. Subtly, we can hear that war is coming. See my notes on episode 8 for more on this.
Catelyn Arrests Tyrion — S1 E04: Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things
Believing she has caught the one who tried to have her son Bran killed, Catelyn Stark has loyal northmen draw their swords and arrest Tyrion Lannister, a dwarf, and little brother to Jaime, who stands his ground, chagrined: finally at a loss for words. This follows a throughline from the final scenes of episodes 1 & 2, which set up the Bran storyline, whereas this scene pays it off by complicating the life of Tyrion, the Lannisters, and all those involved.
Ned, Left for Dead (Love, Jaime) — S1 E05: The Wolf and the Lion
Jaime and Lannister men surround Ned Stark, and in a scene almost exactly mirroring the last episode's finale (this time in reverse), Ned is surrounded by Lannister men, with their weapons drawn. He is speared in the leg, and Jaime and his men ride off after demanding the release of Tyrion. Obviously, this scene is a direct consequence of last episode's ending, and prepares us for what more is to come. (P.S. Ned is not actually dead, just fallen over.)
Khal Drogo Kills Viserys — S1 E06: A Golden Crown
Barbarian horse-lord Drogo, chief of the Dothraki, kills his new wife's brother Viserys Targaryen with molten gold—the eponymous "golden crown." Viserys' sister Daenerys looks on distantly, and notes that her late brother could not be a true heir to her bloodline because he lacked resistance to fire. This scene features our first Daenerys end-scene, marking her transition into the "contender status," as, with her brother's passing, she now has—or appears to have—the only rightful claim to her family's royal, draconic, bloodline.
Littlefinger Betrays Ned — S1 E07: You Win or You Die
After failing to capture Cersei's usurpational plans before they got out of hand (a matter more of a poor planning, rather than of honor as many assert), Ned Stark finds himself captured by those whom he had come to count on. We get the sense of the depth of betrayal possible for this show, and this scene visually echoes the last end-scene with Ned: where has surrounded and defeated—carrying on the idea of escalating problems, conflict and tension.
Sansa Begs for Ned's Life Before Joffrey, S1 E08: The Pointy End
Sansa Stark, debased, vulnerable and humiliated, kneels before Joffrey on the Iron Throne—while still managing to muster the courage to plead for her father's life. Though we'd seen Joffrey in the throneroom before as 'king,' but this is the first time we see him in an uncontested position of power—this scene establishes that it is his judgement and his alone that will determine the outcome and fate of our main characters. Our fear for Sansa only heightens our dread for Ned and our worry for the entire family, here—building on the forces that were ramping up in the last episode. Note that early in this episode we have a scene where Syrio Forel fends off Lannister men bent on apprehending / kidnapping Arya—even though he does so with a wooden training sword, he strikes Lannister metal, and the sound of clanging steel rings out clearly. Though this is not the first time we have heard this sound since the eerie audio premonition at the end of episode 3 (nor certainly the last) it is my personal opinion that this last moment with Syrio Forel is what that foreshadowing-of-sound was meant to point to.
The Execution of Ned Stark, S01 E09: Baelor
Despite promises made, and the pleading of Sansa Stark, Joffrey gives the order for Ned Stark to be beheaded, while his daughters (Sansa, publicly visible on stage with him, and Arya hidden in the crowd) look on. At this point, the tension of the last two episodes' final moments is paid off. Ned has been under threat, and now he has met his end. With his death, the characters, and perhaps audience vicariously, lose the patriarchal hero who establishes a kind of social safety structure, making way for new forms of governance power and heroism, which leads us to…
Death and Rebirth: Daenerys Reborn with Dragon Babies — S1 E10: Fire and Blood
Lighting a funeral pyre for her late husband Khal Drogo, Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen, steps into the flames with her three petrified dragon eggs, only to emerge unscathed the next day, holding three newly hatched baby dragons. As she rises to her feet, all her retinue kneels before her, knowing that in her is something remarkable, unique and, perhaps, terrible…
…with the passing of Ned in the last show's end-scene, a way has been made for a new order of things in the story/world of the show, and with fire-queen Daenerys and her newborn dragons on-hand, we feel we are about to see what it is.
The end-scenes, with the exception of the Arya and Daenerys scenes (which form a bit of a respite, a lacuna away from all the intrigue and threats of the main plotline) seem to tell a tightly woven story of their own... Almost being dominoes falling, consequences leading from Bran's being pushed, all the way to the execution of Ned, each moment being a growing, "snowballing," set of wrong-things rampaging forward to an inexorable dissolution of a safe-and-secure world.
Also, I did notice that one could make the argument that end-scenes centered on male characters do seem to be downbeat, to increase fear, worry or dread (Bran falls, Ned is wounded, captured and then executed) seem to be interspersed with more hopeful female-lead scenes).
The counterpoint to this, are the female-centered end-scenes that seem to have an upbeat ending, pointing towards possibility, hope or greater expansion: Arya builds her skills and joyfully embraces her passion, Catelyn arrests Tyrion* (a seeming triumph), Daenerys is finally rid of her horrible brother, Sansa offers us hope (maybe) that she may persuade King Joffrey to let her dad live, and Daenerys ' firey-rebirth with dragons points us towards a new dawn in the storyworld…
*It's possible the Catelyn arresting Tyrion scene could be considered to be a Tyrion scene, rather than a Catelyn one, but either way, it fits the mold—downbeat for Tyrion, but upbeat for Catelyn.
(You may argue that this depends heavily on your interpretation to who is central to the scene as well. For example, you could make the argument that while Ned is so far outside his agency, the execution in Baelor is actually an Arya centered scene—an argument which could be further extended to denoting whose viewpoint the story was written from when we see these characters in the books. And, if you )
This, of course, is probably just coincidence; especially considering the fact that Bran waking up is probably a positive note—for the hope of justice—and that it looks doubtful that this pattern will continue in subsequent seasons.
We'll just have to see.