Game of Thrones – “Garden of Bones”

“Garden of Bones”

April 22nd, 2012

“Too much pain will spoil the pleasure.”

One of my general criticisms for “Garden of Bones,” which is Vanessa Taylor’s first script credit on Game of Thrones after joining as a co-executive producer this season, it’s that choosing a pull quote was a bit too difficult. It was an episode filled with lines that felt like they were aiming too much towards broader thematic ideas, pulling me out of the moment and placing me into the head of the writer.

It doesn’t mean that the episode isn’t filled with a lot of great sequences, or that those lines aren’t evocative of key themes that are valuable to the series’ future. However, there’s something about the episode’s exposition that calls attention to itself: a rarely seen character emerges with new confidence early on so that his comeuppance later has relevance, a single character out of a larger group is awkwardly signaled out by his full name for no reason other than informing the viewer who he is, and another name is conveniently used in a conversation just as another character needs to learn it.

It’s not enough, as noted, to entirely derail the larger function of “Garden of Bones,” but there does come a point where an episode that begins with a Westerossi Meet Cute begins to flow less naturally, a point that this episode reached as the exposition burden of the early parts of the season seems to come to a head.

That introduction came out harsher than what I expected when I sat down to write it, but it’s something that became far clearer watching the episode through the second time. Part of it comes from knowing the books, and thus mentally categorizing information into “Things From the Books” and “Things Not From the Books” – for better or for worse, that categorization makes exposition far more apparent than it would to a non-reader, who is actually learning all information at the same time. While my Mother might be more confused watching the show than I am, for example, she might be less distracted by the way information is imparted, which could be a blessing.

To clarify, I do think that the show has done a good job expanding the story in general, and I am not suggesting the show should have followed the books slavishly. However, the aforementioned Westerossi Meet Cute between Robb and Oona Chaplin’s mysterious Volantis-born field medic fell flat on second viewing especially, so clearly serving a particular function that I’m wondering if even non-readers could tell it was an expansion of the book’s narrative. While Robb’s story is told through the actions of other characters in the books, his absence used as a narrative device my Martin, the show is smart to ignore this and actually give Richard Madden something to do given that “out of sight, out of mind” is a major problem in ensemble dramas like this one – my Mother, if she’ll excuse me using her as an example, was confused about who Renly was last week because we hadn’t seen him in so long.

The option of Robb sitting out much of this season was not a viable one, but this felt too contrived. This wasn’t a seed being planted so much as a plant being moved into place, fully formed in our brains based on the romantic tropes being played with. In truth, the show actually hasn’t dealt much with actual romance to this point, so this is the first time they’ve had to deal with a more traditional romantic pairing that wasn’t caught up in some sort of arrangement (Sansa and Joffrey, Renly and Margaery) or already established as a couple (Ned and Catelyn, Cersei and Jaime). The problem is that I’m pretty sure any viewer who watched this would know immediately that she is intended as Robb’s love interest, and there’s a simplicity to that which I object to. Oona Chaplin is fine as the character, and I actually feel the relationship will help the show in the long run, but for the moment it lacked the fluidity of the show’s more compelling narrative moves.

This discussion of romantic relationships does raise one more point that I wanted to address, based around Joffrey’s less-than-romantic interaction with Ros and one of her companions. In a great interview with Alyssa Rosenberg, Bryan Cogman discusses the now ubiquitous “sexposition,” rightfully objecting (as I did a few weeks ago) to the term’s use to describe nudity more generally. However, he also makes a more general statement about the term that I want to address briefly in connection with this scene (which is not sexposition, to be clear, but shares something in common):

“Of course, there were plenty of exposition scenes that did feature sex (hence the term) but I also take exception with the idea that the sex is unrelated to what’s being discussed… but that’s a whole other conversation.“

Without perhaps getting into the whole conversation, I do agree that sexposition often says something about sex. However, I’d also argue it says something very problematic about sex, at least in its most common manifestation. There is a logic to using sex as a space for exposition, as it’s an environment which takes place in private and shows people often at their most vulnerable, thus making them more likely to open up. The sequences also often reveal something about the sexual politics of Westeros, which are a key part of Martin’s books even if he explores them through language more often than through the carnal act in and of itself.

The problem is where that lesson about sexual politics actually lands. Scenes between characters who are both tied into the story, like Renly or Loras, end up developing those characters in relation to those sexual politics. By comparison, scenes in which Ros or another prostitute are effectively tools to be used to reveal information doesn’t allow for that lesson (about the power dynamics of Westeros as they relate to gender and sexuality) to develop within the female party. Ros was featured in countless exposition sequences, but we never really learned anything more about her character even through her cumulative – oh jeez, that unintentional pun is too terrible to delete – appearances would create that potential. Ros was being positioned as an object within this world, but the fact that she was simultaneously functioning as a narrative object seemed to devalue any larger political statement that could be made here.

I raise this point in part because Cogman’s statement (which I’d love to see him expand on) pushed me to think about more carefully about sexposition in these terms, but also because tonight’s scene with Joffrey and Ros reminded me of this. This isn’t sexposition, eschewing sex entirely for a brutal torture sequences that truly cements Joffrey as television’s worst villain, but it has the same issue in that the prostitutes are underserved by the narrative. The show even suggests narrative that it doesn’t explore – Joffrey tells Ros to deliver the brutalized girl to Tyrion after she’s done under threat of torturing her as well, and yet we never see Tyrion receive that delivery, and he seems no worse for wear when we see him interacting with Lancel later in the episode. The scene is incredibly evocative, with the time-consuming process of loading a crossbow used in a particularly effective fashion to create tension – sorry for all of these terrible puns – in that moment, but the fact that we never pick up on the scene after the fact does create certain narrative and thematic limitations the show would be better off exploring.

Of course, the show doesn’t have time to explore them – it’s a sad reality of a ten-episode season, and I do wonder if that scene of Ros delivering her companion to Tyrion’s chambers was in an early draft of the script. In a way, though, it reveals the tension where exposition is involved: by telling or showing us some things so explicitly, it calls attention to what we don’t know. Sometimes this is valuable, raising questions that we are supposed to be asking, but other times it makes it entirely unclear (as I was discussing with Rowan Kaiser, who’s doing a bangup job covering the show at Press Play) as to what’s going on. Where, for example, was Melisandre birthing that shadow baby at the end of the episode – while “What’s the Shadow Baby going to do?” is a good question, “Where the heck are they?” is one that damages the clarity experienced by the audience for both readers (who are reconciling the scene with one in the novels) and non-readers (who just don’t know what’s going on). It’s a mistake the show has generally done a good job of avoiding since the early parts of the first season, and one that feels like a misstep at this stage in the season.

The sense of place is clearer in the two new locations introduced to this week’s credit sequence. There was a noted thrill during the credits when the move across the narrow sea seemed to be taking a different direction, and the appearance of Qarth likely caught the attention of even those who aren’t eagle-eyed and scouring the credits each week. Going back to James Poniewozik’s pre-season wariness about how the racial dynamics of Qarth would be handled, it’s interesting that Xaro Xhoan Daxos is introduced as a refugee himself (from the Summer Isles), a characterization that helps reconcile the casting with the way the Qartheen are described in Martin’s books and creates an immediate connection with Dany. As a single scene of introduction, outside of the aforementioned awkwardness by which Xaro’s name is mentioned in its entirety, it did its job well: strong material for Emilia Clarke, nice establishment of the uneasy welcome greeting her, and the first scene of real progress in a storyline that doesn’t progress at the same pace as some of the season’s other storylines.

As for Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie’s arrival at Harrenhal, there’s an economy of space – while Qarth is all about the vista Dany sees as she walks through the gates with her dwindling khalasar, the expanse of the city being opened to her, Harrenhal is about that small corral tucked in a little corner. It’s a cost-saving measure, but it’s also a nice metaphor for their captivity, and the little set does some good work in establishing Polliver’s cruelty and eventually their rescue at the hands of Tywin Lannister (which is one of those book to screen changes that I doubt many non-readers would pick up on). Arya adding to her list of names has become a valuable trope (even if their way of getting Polliver’s name into the open was a bit too well-timed), and the momentum from last week remains in place for Arya’s journey.

Of course, much of the momentum lies in the larger plot, which you know is about to get started with a fire priestess is birthing a shadow the night of an ultimatum between two warring brothers. While I may have my quibbles with this episode, that storyline is still largely in interesting shape, and I don’t feel like this has actually derailed anything beyond my personal thoughts on this episode. The storylines that were working will keep working, and the foundations being laid are (for the most part) likely to work well for where the story goes from this point. I expect this will prove a divisive episode among the fan community given how many current changes it reveals (and how many future changes it portends), but I’m less concerned about the impact of those changes and more worried about the awkward impact their forced introduction had on my engagement with this episode. “The Garden of Bones” is not a bad episode of television, but it brought to the surface reservations that the season has to this point avoided.

Cultural Observations

  • I’m not sure how I feel about Littlefinger so easily waltzing into Renly’s camp (and his on-the-nose conversation with Margaery, which just seemed like an excuse to have the character deliver more barely-veiled subtext we already went over last week), but the scenes with Catelyn showcased some great work from Michelle Fairley, who hasn’t had much to do this season.
  • I didn’t get to Tyrion above, but his interrogation of Lancel and his rescue of Sansa were both really great sequences. With no Cersei this week, the character’s connection to larger plots was somewhat more abstract, but that didn’t stop Peter Dinklage from doing a fine job with those scenes. One thing I did want to put in a pin in for future weeks is the idea discussed in previous weeks: given how he saves Sansa, is Tyrion a hero in this story? The show seems to be coding that way more than the books, albeit subtly, and I’m finding it quite interesting.
  • Charles Dance’s reading of “This one’s a girl, you idiot” was truly delightful – while it’s a departure from the books, using Arya as his cupbearer makes a lot of sense in terms of taking advantage of the great actors playing these smaller roles.
  • Speaking of smaller roles, is the show playing coy with the fact they recast the Mountain that Rides? Perhaps it was just the poor quality of the screener, but the decision to obscure his face seemed purposeful, and the fundamental lack of personality seemed at odds with the anger we saw back in the first season.
  • As of today, HBO hasn’t sent out any episodes beyond tonight’s, so I have no knowledge of where the show heads from here – very curious to see, though, given the changed laid out here.
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29 Comments

Filed under Game of Thrones

29 responses to “Game of Thrones – “Garden of Bones”

  1. j

    “Jeyne” (Is it Jeyne? Hard to know if they changed the name and I didn’t catch the name given in the ep) and Robb has the big danger of being a large plot tumor.

  2. This week is pure tension and creep. Plus, lots of new developments. Torture seems a major theme of this episode. Things grow dark. Very dark. And I’m liking it. My full review here. Includes what exactly was going on with those rats!

  3. Dasein

    Your style of critique might be better served toward shows that have already run their course eg the Wire, Sopranos, etc.
    You know what is ‘supposed’ to occur. Yet, you question where this or that is going to or should happen. I took this to be about the tv show Game Of Thrones, not ASOIAF.
    As to the ‘sexposition’ nonsense. Enough. If you invented the term, congrats, we know. If not, who cares. Does HBO use sex to give background information in EVERY show they do? Yes. Get over it or cancel your subscription.
    I have enjoyed many of your essays, but lately you seem to name drop and attempt to ingratiate yourself to others in your line of work.

    • First off, regarding sexposition, fair point – personally, I think we talk about it more than we need to, and I am certainly a part of that. However, given Bryan’s comments in that interview and my issues with the scene in tonight’s episode, I felt it was worth considering more carefully in this instance (and you’ll notice I didn’t focus on it in last week’s review at all, because it wasn’t relevant). For better or worse, the term has become quite prominent, and regardless of whether I “invented” the term (which I didn’t – the most I can claim is framing/popularizing it within critical discourse) I do think there are issues at stake that go beyond “unnecessary” sex that will on occasion be worth exploring in this space.

      As for the balance between the books and the show, I think it would be disingenuous and maybe even impossible to separate the two as someone who has read the books. When so many people are writing about the show, the distinction between readers and non-readers is part of the diversity of that audience, and the idea of removing the books from the equation would be to strip the discourse of its inherent diversity. My response to this episode, whether or not you agree with it, was decidedly framed by my knowledge of where things go from here – this review was an effort to explore the specificity of that response, not a definitive evaluation of its failures, and so I personally think not including some context regarding my experience with the books would be unfortunate.

      As for your last point, I’m not entirely sure what you’re insinuating – I have colleagues who are writing about the show elsewhere whose work I admire and whose work helps frame the way I and others write about the show. Writing into a vacuum seems a silly exercise with such a diverse range of discussion – the purpose is never “name-dropping,” but rather reflecting the inherent intertextuality of the commentary on the show given that many people reading this will likely read multiple reviews. This week, I chose to send people towards an interview that provides some additional context and another reviewer who isn’t getting picked up in the fan community to the same degree – that has nothing to do with ingratiating, and everything to do with acknowledging that this review does not stand alone in the grand scheme of things.

      • The SmilingKnight

        Very good review mr. McNutt.
        Not that i agree with somewhat positive review of Daenerys and Quarth but generally very well thought out piece. Fair – and that is most important.

        I would expect you not to loose that edge in the future.

        As for sexposition, Brian (or random fans) can complain about it all he wants. The fact is that previous such scenes and “moves” work retro actively bad on any further scene even involving anything like sex, in whatever form.

        As for this “dasein” and that garbage he wrote… well, youre just experiencing the mental height of a TV show fan desperately trying to make tv show seem better than it is by strawmaning and insulting anyone that doesnt agree with that in entirety.

  4. Great review, as usual!
    I’m curious though–I’m very interested in your argument that the prostitutes are used as objects, rather than characters, in the telling of the plot. However, I think this episode’s particular instance of sexposition was actually an important complement to the episode’s overall theme of choices of lack thereof getting people killed. I wrote a fuller exploration of the theme here: http://hellmouthtvreview.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/dont-end-up-in-the-garden-of-bones/
    Also, the prostitutes are where the audiences sympathy is meant to lie, and the vulnerability and victimization of both women invokes empathy from the audience, bringing them a level above objects. Finally, in terms of long term plot I think exhibiting Joffery’s sexual sadism is very important for where is plot will head a season or two down the line. No one’s likely to forget a scene that brutal.
    I’d also like to respectfully disagree with your argument that the shadow spawn introduction was part of an “awkward impact that forced introduction had on my engagement with this episode.” Of course everyone views an episode in their own individual way, but I think the shadow spawn’s little buildup, no context or explanation introduction both stuck close to the books and worked to really jolt the audience in a different way. The fact is that Westeros is not our world, and given how horrifying the rest of the episode is it’s nice to be reminded that this stuff is all pretty removed from us. I think the crazy intro of the magic is meant to be awkward and jolting, because you’re left screaming at the television and dying to know what happens next.
    Don’t mean to quibble–I really always enjoy your analyses!

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      Two things. First, I wasn’t intending for the shadow baby to be a part of that particular sentiment – that more referred to the exposition issues throughout. I do wish they had made their location more clear, but I certainly wanted the surprise/reveal to be left intact as it was.

      And as to the issue, I’d argue that you can easily have objects of empathy or sympathy – while we might feel for the character, we feel for them in the abstract, with no real narrative continuation of their stories beyond this moment. I’ll be glad if we pick up some remnants of that moment in future episodes, but here they do end up becoming objects of torture and sympathy as opposed to real agents within that sequence, at least for me.

  5. Good review as always Miles! I think that so fat the second season has been pretty good, but when they deviate from the books, the results are mixed. Sometimes I love it, like last week when we had that conversation between Theon and Balon, and later with Theon burning the letter, but then we also have things like Littlefinger’s proposition to Cat. I think that taking this from Jaime is a colossal mistake. The fact that Jaime proposes this to Cat, and actually tries very hard to make it happen is important for that characters journey, and adds nothing to Littlefinger’s.

    • LV

      Moreover, the character of Catelyn gets ever more passive and shallow. I agree with the people of westeros.org: Catelyn Stark, one of Martin’s best, most layered characters gets butchered by Benioff and Weiss at every term. It’s jarring, firstly, because it’s totally unneccessary and secondly, because the television series’ Catelyn is tremendously less interesting than the novels’s. I can find no reason for this kind of treatment by the writers…

      • bigbuffguy95

        Eh, I don’t know about all that. Although the Catelyn of the show is certainly even more ineffectual than she was in the books, we’re really talking about degrees. In the book, she still falsely arrested Tyrion, which basically set off the entire war with the Lannisters. She still did other things (I won’t mention them, since they’re in the future, but book readers should know what I’m talking about) that were just downright idiotic. And she had a much higher opinion of herself than the evidence would justify (though not to the same degree that Cersei and Theon did). I never found Catelyn’s chapters all that interesting for her. They might have been interesting because of what was going on with Robb or Renly or something. But if it was a chapter with her at the bedside of her dying father? Ugh. Those were the worst chapters of the books.

        • Agreed. Catelyn was probably my least favorite main character in the books.

          • pinandpaper

            Seconded. She was a decent mother to her boys, I think, but she was a terrible mother for Arya and Sansa. Neither of them got enough (any?) education on how being marriageable women of a powerful house was going to affect their lives. It was ludicrious to send Sansa off to King’s Landing full of romantic ideals (appropriate for her age, but completely counterproductive) without a female mentor to guide/educate/protect her sexually and politically. (The Septa doesn’t count, for many reasons.) Sansa needed a Cersei on her side, and all Catelyn could do was whine about Ned having to go so far away. (And then, later, whine about how Rob was too young to lead an army.)

  6. Anazagar

    Mountain had to be recast because the guy who played him in season 1 is in Hobbit and they couldn’t make the schedules work.

  7. imdoinggreat

    Above, you start a paragraph is “As for Arya, Gendry and Hot Pie…” and for some reason I can’t quite figure out, my brain wanted it to be “Arry, Gendry and Hot Pie.” Without the narrative voice of the book saying “Arya” every other paragraph — and maybe because of the haircut? — I’m apparently thinking of her as Arry instead. This is fascinating to me, because Arya’s relationship with her aliases is one of my favorite mini-themes in the books, and I’m wondering if it will become an issue for critics to navigate as the show progresses. Thoughts?

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  9. denny

    I love reading your Game of Thrones essays Myles! All of your writing is great, but it’s easy to tell these hold a special place in your heart.

    I get your reservations about the prostitutes’ scene this week, but I actually thought in this case that it did deepen their characters somewhat, and Joffrey’s as well. We’ve seen prostitutes endure a lot over the course of the series, from different people in different places and situations, but this was the first time I recall ever seeing any of them in such a vulnerable position. It also showed where their line is; you can tell from both of their reactions when Joffrey gives Ros the belt that this is not really something they have had to do before, and that it might even be crossing a line. We haven’t really heard or seen anything about their limits so far. Given the nature of King’s Landing, it would probably be fair to assume that there weren’t any limits, but the scene made it clear that there are. Personally, I’m not so much interested in Tyrion’s eventual reaction as I am in Littlefinger’s: How will he react to his girls being treated in this way, and what, if anything, will be his recourse with Joffrey and/or Tyrion? He has shown some sympathy towards the girls in the past, but within limits. Where is his line? And as for Joffrey, was this actually for his pleasure, sexual or otherwise, or was it about giving a message to his uncle? Tyrion seems to be the one person who actually strikes fear into Joffrey’s cold, twisted little heart, and this could be Joffrey’s way of fighting back against his uncle, away from Tyrion’s imposing presence and quick wit.

    Also, while I understand your issues with the show’s sense of place, more concerning, to this non-reader at least, is its sense of time. I can never tell how much time has passed between episodes, indeed, sometimes even with episodes. For example, just how long ago did Stannis impregnate Melisandre with the Son of Balrog (if that’s indeed what happened)? I didn’t really care where they were (I just connected it with the last scene we saw of Davos in the rowboat), and it didn’t seem to matter, really.

    • pinandpaper

      I think that whether Littlefinger has shown any sympathy towards his girls is open to debate. I’d argue that if he actually likes any of them as people (rather than objects that give him power/money), it would be Roz. And although he did “comfort” her a few episodes ago, it was essentially a threat (“Be happy and make me money, or else.”)

      (I’m sure there are places in King’s Landing that will satisfy anyone’s tastes, including all kinds of BDSM, but the scene made it clear that that wasn’t what these two prostutites were used to or expecting. Lack of foresight on Tyrion’s part? He knows that his little pr*ck of a nephew is a sadist.)

  10. Haymaker

    I’m under the impression that both Joffery’s seen with the prostitutes and Tyrion’s seen with Lancel are essentially happening simultaneously, thus why we haven’t seen Tyrion’s reaction yet. Thus I think its more of an editing issue likely, I assume, because they didn’t want back to back to back King’s Landing scenes. But yeah it was a poor editing choice but I bet we see his reaction next episode.

  11. Felagund

    @Myles:

    Yes, Ser Gregor has been recast after Conan Stevens left the show to play the great orc Azog in the Hobbit.
    The new Mountain is Ian Whyte (who has been in the show before in the guise of the White Walker)

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  13. As far as I could see the scenes with Joffrey and Ros, and the scene with Tyrion and Lancel could have happened at the same time. I’m a non-reader (I’ll read the books once the TV show has run it’s course). So it is entirely possible that Tyrion could be delivered the prostitute next episode and that could be one of the narratives next week with Tyrion still trying to reign in his nephew.

  14. Pingback: Game of Thrones' Sexposition and Race Quandary | GeekMundo.Net

  15. Did anyone else find that Qarth scene tons of awkward? That Qarth pronunciation bit was too much winking for my taste, and the whole idea of Dany refusing to pop open one of cages and show off a dragon didn’t make sense to me. What was the threat? I don’t remember gaining entrance to Qarth being a big deal in the books…

  16. Good review, though you were more harsh toward the episode than I think was justified. I thought it was really good. I did want to make one comment, though. You suggested that the show is making Tyrion out to be more of a hero in the show than he is in the books. I disagree. I’m re-reading the book as I watch the show, and it’s notable that the writers have cut out almost nothing from Tyrion’s story, except for a few scenes that aren’t that important. Just about everything has been kept intact. In the book, Tyrion rescues Sansa from Joffrey in exactly the same way that he does in the show. Even most of the dialogue was just cut and pasted from the book. So I don’t think this particularly point holds any water.

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