This week's premiere episode, “Winter is Coming” is primarily concerned with the Stark family, led by patriarch Ned (Sean Bean). Ned oversees Winterfell, the aptly named territory that lies between the seven kingdoms of Westeros and the frigid, untamed northlands. In rapid succession, we meet the Stark family—Ned; his wife, Lady Catelyn (Michelle Fairley); eldest son Robb (Richard Madden); prim daughter Sansa (Sophie Turner); the tomboyish Arya (Maisie Williams); and carefree son Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright). There's also the bastard Jon Snow (Kit Harington), Ned's son from an affair, and Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), a longtime ward of the Starks. On paper, this sounds enormously clunky, but “Winter is Coming” manages to convey most of this information with passable subtlety (due primarily to some very tight writing and editing) during the first 15 minutes.
With the groundwork laid out, the true action in Game of Thrones begins when Ned receives a raven (the Westeros equivalent of a telegram) informing him that “King's Hand” Jon Arryn has died of a sudden illness, and that King Robert Baratheon (played with boozy bravado by Mark Addy) is on his way to Winterfell. Ned knows that Robert wants him to replace Jon Arryn as King's Hand—an honored but extraordinarily taxing position (Robert, cheerily describing the job: “Run my kingdom while I eat, drink, and whore my way to an early grave.”) Ned is less than thrilled about the task, but he's also suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Jon Arryn's death, and the post—which will require him to reside in the capital, King's Landing—will give him the chance to investigate.
Far away, across the Narrow Sea, we're introduced to Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen (Harry Lloyd and Emilia Clarke), the surviving heirs of a deposed former king. Viserys is scheming to retake the throne from Robert by marrying his sister off to be Khaleesi (think “queen”) to the fearsome Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa). At her brother's behest, Daenerys suffers through a nightmarish wedding of barbarism and sexual violence. It's in these scenes that the highly serialized nature of Game of Thrones is most problematic; “Winter is Coming” leaves Daenerys as she's being raped by her new husband, and the gauntlet of miseries she suffers throughout this episode is made even more disturbing by the total lack of resolution.
Back in Winterfell, King Robert arrives with his entourage in tow, which includes his wife, icy Queen Cersei Baratheon (Lena Headey) and her two brothers, Ser Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Tyrion Lannister (an epicurean dwarf commonly known as “the Imp,” played with terrific, scenery-chewing gusto by Peter Dinklage). Cersei and Jaime—who turn out to be a lot closer than viewers might expect a brother and sister to be—are secretly working a long con to shift the balance of power in Westeros, and Jaime doesn't take kindly to Ned being appointed the King's Hand. When Ned's inquisitive 10-year-old son Bran stumbles onto Cersei and Jaime in delicto, Jaime pushes the boy out of a castle tower to the hard ground below to keep the incestuous love affair a secret.