“Dark Wings, Dark Words”
April 6th, 2013
“I try to know as many people as I can. You never know which one you’ll need.”
When HBO’s decision to order Game of Thrones to pilot was first announced, I went back and began rereading the books in preparation. At the time, I wrote a piece thinking about how the structure of the books—specifically the chapters told from specific characters’ points-of-view—would prove a challenge, but how there remained thematic through-lines that could be capitalized upon.
More recently, Benioff and Weiss have said that they aren’t structuring the show around themes, suggesting they’re for grade school book reports. It’s a silly comment, and I will continue to remark upon clear themes that run through both the series and the novels on which that series is based, but I do think that they’re right on one point: this is not, primarily, structured as a thematic story. And yet, given the fact that the narrative has become dispersed from a clearly outlined conflict—the War of the Five Kings—into a scattered collection of individual narratives, a question is raised: how exactly is the show being structured?
To suggest that Game of Thrones is a character-driven show is not exactly groundbreaking, but I was struck during “Dark Wings, Dark Words” how the show is actually organized by character. In thinking about some of my pre-air thoughts regarding how audiences might respond to some characters better than others, I watched the episode thinking through one primary question: who is this scene about? While the fragmentation of the narrative means that no single episode will be about one single person, the focus of a given scene nonetheless often falls to a single character, and not always the character we might presume it to be. And while there is a collection of new characters introduced in this week’s episode, none of them feel like their scenes were about them so much as the existing characters they were meeting. At the same time, meanwhile, some characters whose existence was once defined by their support of other characters have become subjects of their own storylines, even if their role within the larger narrative hasn’t necessarily changed.
There is inevitably a question of adaptation functioning in this question: readers are more likely to know which characters become more important later in the story and which ones don’t. However, I don’t think you need to have read the books to realize that Game of Thrones is not Lady Olenna’s story. Mind you, Diana Rigg all but steals her scenes with a wry and commanding performance, but her scene with Margaery and Sansa never feels like it’s about her. As much as we learn key pieces of information about the Queen of Thorns, the scene ends with a shot of Sansa in the garden, both Olenna and Margaery cut out of the frame. It foregrounds the fact that Sansa has finally spoken out loud, in plain terms, of the horrors Joffrey put her through and how they affected her.
We see a similar characterization with Jojen Reed, who with his sister Meera joins Bran, Rickon, Osha and Hodor on their journey north to The Wall. When the character is introduced, it’s within one of Bran’s vivid dreams of a three-eyed raven; when he eventually meets up with Bran, we learn that his only stated purpose is to help guide Bran on his journey. At no point is Jojen given any motivation other than helping Bran, a supporting character from the very moment he is introduced. As much as the burden of another new character might create another name to remember, Jojen doesn’t actually create any greater burden in terms of engagement. He is rather a way for the writers to provide Bran context for his dreams, and for his ability to move into Summer’s body—while it is Jon Snow’s wildling companions who explain to the audience what being a Warg means, it’s Jojen who tells Bran he is one, while telling us comparatively little about himself (other than that, like Bran, he needs a bit of help from his friends).
In these instances, the introduction of new characters does not change the fact that Sansa and Bran remain more prominent narrative threads: Lady Olenna becomes another figure in King’s Landing’s ever-shifting political landscape, while Jojen joins Bran’s increasingly sizable caravan with his sister. One could make a similar claim of Arya’s run-in with the Brotherhood Without Banners: more new characters, but there’s no point at which one expects we’ll be featuring a whole new story thread with Thoros of Myr. The show has to this point been pretty clear about signifying when a new character will become of greater prominence, whether it’s Stannis’ home on Dragonstone entering the opening credits or Davos’ rescue and return to Dragonstone being told as his story rather than Stannis’ as this season began. If someone is going to be part of a whole new narrative thread, the show hasn’t necessarily sought to hide this fact.
However, I’m more interested in scenes where the focus seems inverted from where it might have been a season ago. The last time we were in King Joffrey’s bedroom observing his romantic relations, it was when he was torturing two prostitutes, a scene very much focused on telling us something about Joffrey (and, as I noted at the time, not as interested in telling us about the two women involved as it could have been). However, in his scene with Margaery, I was struck by how we really aren’t learning anything else about Joffrey. We know he’s a masochist, and we know he’s a hateful person, but watching Margaery work over him was about her ability to play the political game more than it was about his growing affection for her. When Joffrey suggests making Renly’s “perversion” punishable by death, there’s this great moment where Natalie Dormer flinches to indicate Margaery acknowledging Joffrey is suggesting her own brother be put to death. But moments later Margaery is suggestively stroking Joffrey’s crossbow, putting aside her personal feelings—this is after Sansa has confirmed the rumors of his monstrousness—to do the job she has committed to. While the show’s expansion of Margaery’s character was clear from her introduction last season, this season it definitely feels like scenes shared between her and Joffrey are more about her than they are him.
In other cases, the separation of characters has transformed once supporting players into leading ones, at least on a smaller scale. When Sam falls on his march back to Castle Black, Mormont explains to him in no uncertain terms that he cannot die, and this is now truer than it was before. Whereas he was expendable as Jon’s second hand in his time within the Night’s Watch, Sam is now our most prominent link to the ongoing affairs of the crows north of The Wall. It’s not necessarily that Sam is given a terribly large amount to do in this episode so much as he has become the anchor for one of the various collections of characters moving from one place to another. It mirrors how Sam was elevated to a “Point of View” character in the third book, not so much dramatically changing the character as changing our perspective on that character for the remainder of the season.
By comparison, Shae has no literary precedent for her elevation from a supporting role, although I’m not sure I would categorize her role as a leading one. That being said, Shae has more agency here than she has in the past, to the point where her brief scene with Tyrion is more about her—and her concerns about Sansa—than it is about Tyrion himself. The episode delivers an earlier scene with Shae and Sansa in which her concerns from last week regarding Littlefinger are reactivated, which allows her reunion with Tyrion at the end of the episode to be both a continuation of her narrative—including last week’s scene with Ros—as well as a postscript to Tyrion’s discussion with Tywin in which Shae’s life was put at risk. Tyrion is still the primary character in that relationship, and perhaps the primary character in the show along with Daenerys, but I would argue the episode constructed the Shae and Tyrion scene from the former’s perspective, even if subtly.
This effort to elevate certain characters is not always successful: one could argue that Shae’s characterization remains too thin to elevate her, similar to the show’s efforts to bring Talisa into a more prominent role. Talisa is surrounded by two Starks, which means that when she’s talking with Robb the scene feels like it’s about him, and when she goes to speak with Catelyn it’s mostly so Catelyn has someone to tell a story to. That story was the focus of much controversy after Jace Lacob referred to it as “character assassination,” which I’ll speak to in the observations below, but at the end of the day it was decidedly about Catelyn’s character. We still know precious little about Talisa, a decision that feels purposeful but also ensures that the character for now remains someone for more prominent characters to converse with.
In most of the above examples, characters are within larger groups, often supported by a range of different characters. Jon Snow might be the focus with his group of Wildlings, but he has Mance Rayder, Ygritte, and more—there is a whole ecosystem of characters he interacts with. Similarly, King’s Landing is consistently growing in scale as the series moves forward, while Robb and Catelyn’s journey to Riverrun will expand their ecosystem as well. Bran’s journey north now includes two more characters, while Daenerys’ time across the Narrow Sea—while not featured in this week’s episode—has added Barristan Selmy to her party of sorts (to use an RPG term). Even when we have no idea where Theon is, we still meet both a torturer and a potential savior who will support—and, you know, torture—the character going forward.
However, the strongest storyline in “Dark Wings, Dark Words” is the one that lacks an ecosystem at all. Jaime and Brienne’s buddy comedy was a highlight when it was introduced last season, but it has blossomed this season precisely because it doesn’t feel it is about one character or the other. More than any other storyline, they feel like equals: although we haven’t spent as much time with Brienne as we have with Jaime, their banter never feels like it’s servicing one character more than the other. Jaime’s teasing about her being in love with Renly certainly works to build Brienne’s backstory—while also reminding viewers in case they forget how precisely she came into Catelyn’s employ—but it also allows Jaime to reflect on the fact one cannot choose who one loves. Their battle on the bridge is partly about Jaime discovering what kind of fight he has left in him, but it’s also about Brienne proving she has skills he hasn’t respected; it’s the most satisfying one-on-one combat the show has delivered in a long time, precisely because I care about both characters involved. Even knowing that it wasn’t going to necessarily end on their terms—interrupted by Bolton’s men—it still feels like a moment not for one of them but for both of them. While their story will no longer be told in isolation, what with them having been captured and all, it will nonetheless be their story rather than two separate stories of different values tied together. The show as a whole might belong to no single character, but there are nonetheless characters that can emerge to “own” an episode, as I would argue Jaime and Brienne did here, and as other characters will do early this season.
- I’m not sure I’d view Catelyn’s admission about Jon Snow as character assassination. It certainly doesn’t portray her in a positive light, but there’s something about her pridefulness that has been evident throughout her characterization to me. It’s a pride tied up in love, certainly, but refusing to accept Jon fits with her commitment not to a general principle of family but to her family, a fitting precursor to her arrival at her father’s funeral and her reunion with both her brother and her uncle. And, without spoiling anything, it also fits with where the character is heading in the future, in my view.
- Speaking of character elevation, the show literally plucked Iwan Rheon’s “Boy”—that’s his actual character name as scripted—from the background, where he had been sweeping like a regular extra. It’s an interesting choice, and I’m curious to know if anyone who didn’t know he had been cast recognized him before he revealed himself to Theon.
- Speaking of Theon, meanwhile, I was interesting that he asked “Where am I?” before he asked “Who are you?” Both are important questions, but I’m always interested in how space functions in the show due to the credits: note that Theon isn’t “on the map” yet, despite (we presume) being in a new location.
- As much as the show’s fragmentation can be frustrating, I do love a good “Mention character than immediately jump to character” edit—we got three here: cutting to Theon after Robb tells Catelyn about the bad news from Winterfell, cutting to Jon Snow after Catelyn’s admission, and cutting to the Night’s Watch after Orell—the warg—spots “dead crows.”
- Enjoyed, if only for a brief moment, seeing Robb and Jon with Bran again. It did call attention to how much taller Isaac Hempstead-Wright has gotten—it’s unavoidable, really—but even hearing Sean Bean’s voice did a nice job of contextualizing what he’s been through.