game of thrones season one: winter is coming (eventually)

So after watching S8E1 I realised I had NFC what was going on in GoT and so I had to go back to S1E1 so I could … and I really wanted to keep up this thing where I kept talking in acronyms and initialisms, but I can’t so—yeah. Anyway I went back to the first episode of the first season and … really weird experience you guys.

My basic feeling about the first season was that it was thematically and narratively coherent in a way that did an excellent job of setting up for series 8, but I couldn’t help but have a niggling suspicion that I remembered this coherence falling apart pretty much the moment Sean Bean got his head cut off.

Oh yes, spoilers, by the way. For a ten year old TV series in which the most shocking plot twist is that Sean Bean’s character dies at the end.

There was a lot I’d forgotten about the first series of Game of Thrones, although the thing I’d most forgotten can best be summed up as “boobs”. I mean seriously, I know it’s a running joke, I know it’s what the series is infamous for, to the extent that there were cake-and-eat-it style gags in the most recent episode about the “sexposition” but I hadn’t remembered quite how bad it was. I mean I’ve just finished watching Harlots, a show distributed by Starz and in which virtually all of the major viewpoint characters are actually prostitutes and it didn’t have anything like the number of nipples on display that early Thrones did. It’s been a darned long time but I can’t quite remember what we were thinking back in the 2010s, but I have this vague recollection that we’d just got to the point where it was socially acceptable to show nudity on TV and people went completely bananas over it, and it took us a good five or six years to turn around and say “hang on, are we sure this isn’t maybe just a little bit skeevy and exploitative?”

On the subject of “skeevy an exploitative”, my perception of the all-tits-all-the-time policy of the series isn’t helped by an impression I’ve picked up from somewhere (and I can’t really source this, so please for the love of the Old Gods and the New don’t cite me as any kind of authority) that Emilia Clarke was not super comfortable doing nude work. Certainly she stops it entirely after the first season and the way I’ve heard it told (again, I should stress, only from nebulous “they say” type sources) was that the position she took after the first series was along the lines of “you know how the character I play is completely essential to the plot and I’ve become so iconic in the role that there’s no way you could recast it or make the show without me? Yeah, I’d like to keep my clothes on, thanks.” Which might not be true, but if is, then (and I apologise, because this is what people are going to say every time Emilia Clarke does anything even remotely cool for the rest of her life) that is some mother of dragons shit right there.

Dany’s arc in the first season is, on rewatching, kind of problematically brilliant. On the one hand it’s great to see her grow from a terrified child into a confident leader and commander, but on the other hand it’s hard to shake the awareness that this is essentially a story about a white woman who goes to a decidedly non-white (I suppose quasi-turco-mongolic if we’re being specific) culture, alternately excels at or is contemptuous of all of their practices and traditions, convinces their leader to risk everything in support of what—despite all her brother’s talk of heritage and her supposed rejection of his hypocrisy—is still ultimately a vain and petty desire to rule a country she doesn’t even remember. And even when she gets her husband and their unborn child murdered by a witch she was explicitly warned not to trust, an opportunity that said witch only got because he was wounded in a fight that she started over her adopted people’s right to take slaves from a battle she started that was explicitly designed to finance a war that she wanted to happen somehow a fair number of them remain loyal to her, and the audience seems genuinely to be asked to view her as noble and heroic rather than, when you get right down to it, scarcely better than her brother.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love Dany, but her story isn’t exactly written from a perspective of ethnographic sensitivity. I mean you could make the case that her season one arc in particular is almost a deliberate subversion of a white saviour narrative, in the sense that she rocks up with her smug sense of western superiority and gets all outraged at the Dothraki doing things that are … actually pretty much part of what conquering armies do everywhere in the setting, and ultimately part of what she herself wants them to for her in Westeros, and ultimately it loses her everything. Even the bit with Mirri Maz Duur seems fairly explicitly set up to subvert audience expectations (much as everything in early Thrones or for that matter early Ice and Fire was set up to subvert audience expectations). Looking back on when I first read these books nearly two decades ago, I honestly can’t remember how surprised-or-otherwise I was when the woman who the Dothraki constantly denounced as maegi turned out to actually be working against Danaerys rather than for her. With my 2019 head on I look at that plotline and think oh come on Danaerys, she’s so clearly evil what in the seven Hells do you think you’re doing, but back in the early 2000s I’m pretty sure I was actually suckered in, because we have been super trained by years of fantasy tropes and cliches to assume that women who claim to be healers but are accused of being witches by angry men with swords are always 100% innocent, honest and benevolent. Especially when the angry men with swords come from a denigrated ethnic group that our culture still tends to characterise as nothing more than unthinkingly violent.

Unfortunately the Dany-as-subversion-of-white-saviour interpretation is slightly undermined by the fact that the series ends with her literally having a miraculous rebirth from the flames. At which point she is kind of, well, literally a saviour figure. A complicated saviour figure, admittedly, but still a saviour figure.

Aaaand we’re a thousand words in and I’ve only talked about Danaerys and bosoms, so I should probably skip over the narrow sea and say some things about goings-on in Westeros.

Let’s start with our boy Ned. In fact, let’s start with the throwaway joke I always make about Game of Thrones, which is that I love the fact that because they cast Sean Bean as Ned Stark, his accent became the default accent of “the North” and so every other actor playing a Stark or Stark bannerman has had to spend the next eight years talking like Sharpe. I just find near limitless joy in the idea that Winterfell will forever, in TV canon at least, be Sheffield.

Anyway, blah blah honour blah blah Hand of the King, blah blah oops he’s dead. I’d forgotten quite how quickly the whole “Jon Arryn had evidence that Cersei’s children were bastards born of incest and that evidence was based entirely on hair colour” thing comes out, or how slowly it comes together after that. On reflection I am … I am not sure how I feel about it. Especially given that Jon Arryn’s last words were the seed is strong, which makes it sound like the evidence against Cersei is essentially a peculiar faith that Robert Baratheon had magic spunk. I mean based on my very, very, very cursory research the actual genetics of hair colour are quite complicated, and since human hair colour actually often changes with age and circumstance it probably isn’t a purely genetic phenomenon at all. And when you think about it, it’s kind of weird that the Lannisters are somehow the only blondes in Westeros. And it’s even weirder that they’re blonde at all if we accept that apparently in this cosmology non-blonde DNA overrwrites blonde DNA infallibly. Tywin Lannister’s mother was a Marbrand, what did her hair look like? What did it look like I ask you? Perhaps she was bald.

But I digress.

Jokes about King Robert’s all-powerful semen aside, what I most like about Ned Stark’s arc is how deeply it gets you to invest in a worldview that’s actually completely alien to the modern world. In fact zooming out for a moment, that’s sort of what I like most about the whole series, in print and on TV. Although fantasy is almost always set in a world that has pre-industrial technology and pre-modern social institutions, the characters usually care about the kinds of things that modern people care about—especially the kinds of enlightenment values that animated the American Revolution. Your generic fantasy hero might be born on a farm, but there’s always a sense in which he’s an old west homesteader or a colonial-era yeoman farmer rather than a feudal serf, and while he might be fighting for honour in some abstract sense, his values are likely to be more-or-less recognisable as variations on Truth, Justice and the American Way. But the characters in Game of Thrones are legitimately motivated by ethical frameworks that really did kind of go out of fashion with the Tudors.

Because when you think about it, every single man, woman, child and direwolf in the Seven Kingdoms knows that Joffrey will be a shit king. They know he’s shallow, venal, prone to violent tantrums and dangerous outbursts, and utterly unwilling to listen to advice or accept correction. Yet Ned Stark spends the whole of the first series gathering evidence not that he will be bad at the important job of governing Westeros, but that he wasn’t made using the correct jism. Because Ned Stark has a medieval worldview and from his perspective who Joffrey’s real father is actually a more important question than will Joffrey flat out ruin the kingdom and kill a bunch of innocent people. This is patently absurd, and it’s testimony to how well Ned comes across that it’s so easy to buy into this as both acceptable and honourable. You see reflections of this throughout the series, like the way everybody is a colossal dick to Jaime Lannister about his betrayal of Aerys Targaryen even though Aerys Targaryen was definitely a dangerous psychopath. You see it most clearly in the Starks, who seem to genuinely despite him for his status as the “Kingslayer” even though the king he slew was the one that Ned Stark was actively rebelling against (and who, let’s not forget, literally burned Ned’s father alive). And it’s interesting, on rewatching, to notice that from a certain perspective Ned’s honour isn’t just naive, it’s actively hypocritical. He’s happy to accept terrible things happening, and to accept terrible rulers being in power, as long as those terrible things are done and those terrible rulers rule, within the confines of a completely arbitrary set of rules that only really exist in his head.

Incidentally this perspective also makes Joffrey’s decision to go full off-with-his-head in episode nine weirdly more sympathetic. It’s easy when you’re reading a book or watching a TV show to forget that the characters aren’t reading or watching along with you. Ned’s only objection to Joffrey’s rule (and for that matter his marriage to his vulnerable underage daughter) is that he’s a bastard (in the technical rather than colloquial sense). A conclusion he reaches on the basis of remarkably scant evidence and barely shares with anyone (and with no-one who can be relied upon to back him up) before publicly denouncing Joffrey at his moment of succession. Now yes, Joffrey’s a shit, but he doesn’t know he’s a bastard. As far as he’s concerned he is unambiguously, unequivocally, the King of Westeros, and Ned Stark has come out of nowhere with a half-baked lie and attempted to strip him of his throne. Honestly at this point cutting his head off is kind of a fair call. Yes it’s politically ill-advised, but not that ill-advised. As far as anybody knows, Ned Stark is a traitor to the crown, so in a sense it’s kind of odd that so many people kick off so hard in his defence. I mean yeah, Stannis gets the “bee-tee-dubs, Joffrey’s a bastard” raven, but Robb didn’t, he just goes to war because he doesn’t like the idea of his father being executed for what as far as he knows is an actual crime of which he’s actually guilty. And Renley rebels because he … wants to?

Looking at this from the hindsight of season 8, it all feels a bit immaterial—it feels almost silly to worry about little questions like whose balls Joffrey started off in given that he’s been dead for almost half the series now. The war stopped being about honour or glory or legitimacy long ago and is now about—what, exactly? And I don’t mean that in a negative way. The whole point has always been that it was pointless. In some ways the thing that Season 1 sets up best for season 8 is that everything going on in the south is, in fact, meaningless. Because it doesn’t actually matter who winds up on the Iron Throne. We see this reflected in characters like Pycelle, Littlefinger and Varys, all of whom have served multiple kings, and who weather changes of regime much like the Seven Kingdoms weather the changing of the seasons. And of course we see it reflected in the show’s ultimate tagline, the House Stark motto that Winter is Coming. Indeed perhaps the most petty and futile thing about the war that—depending on who you ask—Joffrey, Ned, Stannis or Renley needlessly start at the end of the first book-slash-season is that the absolute last thing you want to be doing in your final growing season before a winter that might last a full decade is having a bunch of armed men trample all the crops and burn all the farmers.

On which point, one last thing that has actually been bugging me. And warning, this is going to get nerdy ay-eff.

The thing that I’ve always found most absorbing about Westeros is how plausibly like real medieval Europe it felt, from its social structures to its cultural mores to its castles. And it’s testimony to the detail and deftness of its worldbuilding that I’ve only recently begun to realise that its very familiarity might be the most implausible thing about it. Because its social structure is based on a society where 90% of the population spent their whole lives producing food, and they were just about able to survive in a climate where you could actually grow, produce, or harvest food for nine months out of every twelve. I am not a medieval historian by any stretch of the imagination, but my basic understanding is that over the course of a farming year in the middle ages the average agrarian society would produce just enough surplus that you could be reasonably sure of getting through a three-month winter and even then a bad harvest or a late spring could screw you.

And obviously in a fantasy world where things are different, systems and infrastructures will be different, and maybe they are, but Westeros is so specifically similar to our world that it’s hard to see where those differences come in.

This whole rabbit-hole of thinking was triggered by a scene (spoiler) early in the second season (I’ve been watching ahead) where Janos Slynt explains that the wars are damaging the fields and the city is filling up with refugees and there might be trouble laying in food for the winter, to which Cersei responds “so a few peasants will die”. To which I respond “you do understand that the peasants are the ones that grow the food? And that you’re talking about a world where winters can last five years.” In a world where getting enough to eat was that difficult and that important, you’d think that the social structures would reflect that, rather than being all about the value of swords, wars and dragons. And I do sort of get that the fact the nobility are constantly distracted by pretty baubles is kind of the point, because they’re worrying about thrones and crowns instead of livestock and harvests and this screws everyone, but that idea slips further and further away as the series progresses. Also, they’ve been acting like this for centuries, why didn’t everybody starve years ago?

That was when I started doing some maths.

According to a random google search, the average medieval peasant would consume 2-3lb of grain a day. That means getting a village of—say—a hundred people through a regular 90-day winter requires about 18000lb of grain. Which is about 8 long tons or 9 short tons. A lot, but not as much as it seems. According to a handy online food calculator I found 18000lb of wheat takes up about 355 cubic feet. Which fits in a silo about 7 feet by 7 feet by 7 feet. Very doable.

But that’s for a three-month winter, and for one village. The estimated population of King’s Landing (because of course there are estimates for these things on the internet) is 500,000. Over the course of a five-year winter, a population of 500,000 requires about 1.8 billion pounds of grain. Taking up about 36 million cubic feet. Which would be either a single silo three hundred and thirty feet to a side (Buckingham Palace is 79’ high, and the Tower of London is about 90’, assuming the Red Keep is of a similar size, that means that the skyline of King’s Landing should be dominated by a grain silo three times taller than its largest civic building). They could keep it in barns, I suppose. A barn 40’ by 50’ and filled 15’ deep with grain would contain 30,000 cubic feet of the stuff. Which means they’d need only 1,200 of these to store the city’s entire grain supply. Which almost works, but you can find maps of the city online and very few of them contain whole districts labelled “this bit is legit just food storage”. And that’s before you get into the question of spoilage, insect infestation (admittedly less of an issue in a years-long winter that threatens to eradicate all life on the planet) and just general unforeseen circumstances. I repeat, why haven’t they starved already, especially given how bad at governing we know half their rulers have been?

And I know I’ve way overthought this, and I will absolutely defend to the death the right of any fantasy setting to be built around thematic and narrative concerns rather than this kind of nerdview nonsense, but it is really going to bug me now. Like seriously, what do they eat in winter, why don’t all the wild animals basically starve? Do the large predators hibernate for years at a time? What storage solutions do they use and why do we never see them.

#showusthegrainsilos, man, #showusthegrainsilos.

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5 Responses to game of thrones season one: winter is coming (eventually)

  1. Kamala says:

    OMG YES! #showusthegrainsilos ! I hadn’t thought about food requirements in actual numbers but I have worried about everyone starving. Not only is food not being grown but the existing food is being pillaged. Sometimes, the “nerdview nonsense” can be very important or distracting (and not just in fantasy). For instance it drives me crazy when a young adult prince in line for the throne and who has been in line for the throne since he was born or at least for ages and ages, is given absolutely no training in how the government works, diplomacy, or anything related to being a king. Of course the king dies suddenly and unexpectedly and his adult heir is completely unprepared. (Did not like that book!) Or make it the founder/ceo of a company who can no longer work after being diagnosed with a disease several years previously and who plans ahead for his death and every little company detail except for telling his son he was dying and training his completely unprepared son to take over. (This was a romance and I suppose I was supposed to focus on the MCs penises but I couldn’t get past the stupidity and selfishness of the “great-at-business” father.)

    Ok, sorry. End rant.

    I’m happy you’re starting at the beginning. I have read (listened to) all the books and have watched the series up to the number of books or maybe minus one book. I don’t remember. I don’t remember if there are 4 or 5 books so far either. Maybe my waiting is pointless or silly but won’t how the last several books progress be different from how the series goes? Or are they coordinating with Martin? I don’t expect you to know this. It’s an outpouring of internal mullingmulling.

    Anyway, it was good to hear a different view on Ned’s death. I’ll have to ponder.

    I thought Robert’s magic spunk showed it’s virility by making all his bastards look like him and Cercei or someone was tracking them all down and killing them so that no one would notice? Or maybe Cercei’s eggs or vaginal fluid are actually counterspells to the magic of Robert’s sperm and so she will only produce golden children.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I think nerdview is one of those … difficult subjectivities. Because holding every text to private standards of self-designated realism can be really destructive–like is not the point of fiction to be solely mimetic–but also sometimes it’s just fun to obsess about grain silos for no reason. And it’s also entirely reasonable to have your personal bugbears, like supposedly business savvy people making terrible business decisions and stuff. I can remember getting my rant on somewhere in Season 4 where Jon Snow is telling people that the best way to confront someone duel wielding is to disarm them and I was like YOU KNOW NOTHING JON SNOW. THAT IS TERRIBLE ADVICE.

      I think there are … 5 books? But my copy of the third book was split in two (I mean, deliberately by the publisher, it didn’t just fall apart on me) because the book was literally too long for the glue to hold a paperback together. My understanding from what I’ve read on teh interwebs is the showrunners have Martin’s notes? So the TV show will play out broadly like the books, but obviously there’s already been some divergences (like some character plotlines being compressed, and some plots given to different characters – like Sansa does not, I think, marry Ramsay Snow in the books, that’s some other poor girl).

  2. Ellie says:

    I’m staying away from any spikers for season 8 which I can’t start until later but I thouroughly enjoyed your recap of the season 1. I have only the fondest memories of Ned and everyone at House Stark though I admit I never thought much of his motivation.
    I have this weird dissociation when talking/reading about GoT in England because I read the books in Bulgarian and then I watch the series with BG subtitles. It just adds to what seems to be a general feeling of who-was-that, didn’t-he-die-already because often it takes me a while to pair the name in English with be Bulgarian translation I have gotten accustomed to.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Yes, that feels like like an extra layer of connections needing to be made.

      We actually had an argument (I mean, not a real argument, a silly one) when Locke–the dude who chopped of Jaime’s hand–turned up at the Wall, pretending to be nice in order to try and find Bran for the Boltons. And I was all like “WHAT IS HE DOING AT THE WALL, HE CHOPPED OFF JAIMIE’S HAND, HE IS A BAD PERSON, WHY IS ALL NICE NOW?” and H was like “OMG IT’S A DIFFERENT GUY”. But it was *NOT* a different guy and I felt very vindicated.

      • Ellie says:

        I missed the whole season 6 when my son was born and R watched it on his own. You can imagine how annoying I was at the start of season 7 where I kep asking “Who is rhisy? What are doing here?”. I just gave up on following the minor characters and now I just stick with the main ones.
        Re Daenerys as a white saviour, there was an awesome article on racism in SFF on Twitter this week. If you haven’t seen it, I can send you the link.

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