April 27th, 2014
“You want to fight pretty, or do you want to win?”
Later this evening, a feature will go live at The A.V. Club that focuses on some of the changes between A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. [Edit: You can find said piece here.] When completing my own contributions to this feature, my interest was less in discussing whether or not the changes involved were good or bad, but rather to consider how the logistics of making a television series necessitated certain changes that had a clear effect on how this story is being told.
It’s fitting that it’s emerging on a night when there’s plenty more to add to the list. “Oathkeeper” is written by Bryan Cogman, who of the show’s writers had the most to live up to when it comes to the text of the original novels. Now a co-producer on the series, Cogman has been the person in the writers’ room with the closest relationships to the books and their lore, and has been the most active of the show’s writers in engaging with the series’ rabid fanbase. Although he never outright swore an oath to fans of the books regarding keeping their spirit intact, he’s been the most directly tied to fan communities, drawing both praise and anger in equal measure as the two narratives play out.
I say “two narratives” because I think it’s necessary at this stage in the game. Ultimately, I feel safe in saying that A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are telling the same story, but they’re following two different narrative paths to get there, as evidenced by an episode that does a lot of labor in the interest of condensing a sprawling narrative into something more manageable for a television series. The result at times feels like pieces on a chessboard being awkwardly pushed together in ways that break the rules, but they’re rules only some of the show’s audience will even know exist, and rules that—unlike oaths—are made to be broken in the interest of a new set of rules that have developed over the course of this new narrative.
This was a difficult episode in which to put myself into the place of someone who hasn’t read the books. This isn’t just because there were a number of new story developments that do not come directly from Martin’s novels, but rather because as a critic I could also see the logic behind the changes as they were emerging. Few of the changes in “Oathkeeper” were chaotic, throwing aside things we thought we understood about this story and replacing them with others. Instead, they were practical changes, ones that when made were immediately legible as being both purposeful and functional.
There’s a disadvantage to this, admittedly, a sort of domino effect that tends to pull you out of the story. First Locke appears at Castle Black, posing as a recruit while searching for Bran and Rickon’s location, then Jon and Sam loudly speak of Bran’s potential location, placing Bran near Craster’s Keep with Locke in earshot, and then Jon is given permission to take a group of soldiers to attack the mutineers for which Locke volunteers. It’s therefore no surprise that we catch up with Bran and his traveling companions nearby Craster’s, nor is it a huge surprise when they’re captured and await Jon and his brothers’ arrival. The end result is a clear set of narrative stakes: Jon is traveling North not only to eliminate a threat regarding the security of Castle Black, but also to (somewhat unknowingly) rescue his little brother.
That end result makes a lot of sense. I was just saying last week that the show faces the challenges of storylines that are historically isolated from others in the books, and Bran’s storyline is one such example. This is not to spoil for non-readers what will happen once this piece of convergence is done, but this particular construct is entirely new, working overtime to create an additional point of interest at the Wall. Cynically, we could refer to it as an effort to kill some time before the major conflict we know is coming, in the form of the Wildlings’ attach on the wall led by Mance Rayder. However, it also helps make a storyline about a character aimlessly wandering through the wilderness on a sled into something with a bit more dramatic interest, which I think can help to build momentum in areas that may not come by them naturally in the adaptation.
Those kind of large changes are always going to be a distraction for book readers, but I’ve always embraced the smaller changes that have often created just as much discussion. In this case, the abandonment of the point-of-view structure allowed for an episode that focused on perspectives the books rarely gave audiences a chance to see. It was fascinating to see the episode open with Grey Worm and Missandei talking about their former lives, and imagining who they were in the wake of the amount of their lives and histories lost to slavery. It foregrounds the struggle that newly freed slaves have in becoming functioning members of society, particularly in circumstances like Grey Worm where he was stripped of all humanity. While the Meereen portion of the episode ends with Daenerys standing atop the city with the Targaryen sigil flying above her, and there is another scene in which she parades through a freed city being cheered by its people, the challenges facing the people she freed and her efforts to rule them are being planted. While Dany fights injustice with justice by nailing the masters to the posts in the same way they did the city’s child slaves, Ser Barristan makes the objection that mercy may serve her future interests more effectively, an objection that is ignored. And while arming the slaves of Meereen won them their freedom, it has not made them true citizens, and they will each face the same struggles Grey Worm and Missandei were facing in the tent at the beginning of the episode.
Victimhood resonates throughout the episode, although not necessarily in the ways one might expect. Without delving too far into an issue that we’ve talked so much about in the past week, the episode does not spend a considerable amount of time with Cersei following Jaime raping her at the Sept. This could be seen as fuel for the show’s reading of the scene as—eventually—consensual, and indeed Jaime is very much positioned as an honorable man in the hour: he battles with Bronn, he visits with Tyrion, and eventually he sends Brienne off with his Valyrian steel to find Sansa Stark and keep her safe and keep the oath they made to Catelyn. Jaime is very much the same character he was before, unchanged in the eyes of what we could perceive as the basic point-of-view presumed for the audience (which is to say that the performance remains keyed to be more devilish rogue than devil).
And yet I wouldn’t say that the situation is ignored. Although there is no scene where Cersei and Jaime explicitly discuss what happened, my position coming out of last week’s episode was that the changing nature of their relationship could be read as reflective of those shifts. Cersei’s scene with Jaime is terse and impersonal, as Cersei tears Jaime apart for failing to protect Tommen (and Joffrey) and for retaining an allegiance to Catelyn over his allegiance to his family. When he departs, she leaves him with an impersonal greeting, Lord Commander, stripping him of any familial or personal relationship with her. She works to retain her power over him, as she remains the Queen Regent and retains the ability to give him orders and to protect her sons at all costs. Although clearly emotional and, as Cersei has always done, relying on wine to help deal with those emotions, Cersei is at the same time asserting her authority and resisting victimhood. This doesn’t make her any less of a victim, but there is enough of a change in their relationship that I feel the text is open to interpretations of last week’s episode that more explicitly acknowledge the sexual assault committed versus the reading presented by that episode’s director, Alex Graves.
Rape appears again in “Oathkeeper,” and in this case there’s unlikely to be any kind of debate (not that there should have been last week): what Karl and the mutineers are committing at Craster’s Keep is undoubtedly rape, building on an existing culture perpetrated by Craster before they murdered him and took his home and his daughters. As we are reintroduced—on some level introduced, given that Burn Gorman barely registered in his earlier appearance—to Karl and his sadism, we see former men of the Night’s Watch forcing themselves on Craster’s daughters, fondling them against their will, and generally speaking being the scum of Westeros personified. It’s a group of men who were brought to Castle Black as the scum of the Earth, let wild in a land where there are no oaths or rules to be kept, and where their most base instincts run free and clear.
We’re supposed to be disgusted by Karl, obviously, in ways that we may not have been expected to be disgusted of Jaime; although the polysemic nature of television allows us to be disgusted with Jaime if we so choose, it seems less likely that there is room for an audience member to believe that what Karl, Rast and the others are doing at Craster’s Keep is anything other than deplorable. And director Michelle MacLaren finds a moment in Craster’s Keep to focus on a character whose name we don’t know, and who is never allowed to speak, but whose point-of-view we nonetheless see. As Karl speaks, the camera briefly focuses on the wife kneeling to his left, pulling our focus away from the men speaking to the women suffering at their hands.
It is true that the show has the tendency to use women’s bodies as they are here, as symbols that work to demonstrate the depravity of men that the show is by and large more interested in as characters (if in this case as clear villains). But through shots like this one, and through the way the character of Ros developed, there remains an interest in the show of finding moments to highlight and acknowledge the atrocities being committed against them. It’s a small moment of refuge from a space that otherwise dwells on violence against women, and female nudity that is consistent with the show’s modus operandi, and yet that moment sold that scene to me as something very different from—for example—the scene ahead of the Blackwater in which Bronn and the other soldiers cavort with their beer wenches. This isn’t to suggest there aren’t issues of gender at play in that “Blackwater” scene, but rather that the show seems much more aware of the issues of gender at play here, and that particular shot really informed my reading on the scene and the characters involved.
It’s probably not going to be the scene that most people are talking about. That honor this week will go to the final sequence, one that I imagine will be much-discussed for readers and non-readers alike. It’s meaningful in that whereas other changes in the episode registered very heavily as changes, this one was decidedly new territory. The White Walkers—or the Others, if you prefer—were even less of a presence in the books as they are in the series, an idea more than an actual presence. And so when the episode cut to the icy wastes far North of the Wall, it was a shock not because any of the information present was entirely new—we knew the White Walkers took the children, we knew they probably did something with them—but because this is something that books had not primed readers to expect. And it comes at a fascinating time for the show, over an entire season since we last saw the White Walkers and without any clear warning ahead of time. It was as though the writers decided that to return to the idea of the White Walkers—the “gods” according to Craster’s wives—required a more sustained glimpse, as we see their equivalent of a Small Council meet in the ice to transform the child into one of them.
Those kind of changes from the book are exciting. That’s not to say I’m not interested in the changes happening in Bran’s storyline, but in that case they feel like practical changes. In this instance, there is no real practical purpose behind the White Walkers reveal, except to say that the show is more invested in giving audiences a glimpse at this great threat instead of just talking about it. My hope is that as the changes continue to pile up—and they will continue to pile up—we’ll see changes as something other than a solution to a problem of adaptation. It says a lot, I suppose, that an episode filled with changes was nonetheless able to deliver an exciting conclusion, some strong character beats, and some new perspectives that will serve the show well moving forward. It may have been a bit awkward for the chess pieces to bump into one another, but I’m fine with that provided the game remains engaging.
- I was curious to see how quickly they addressed the issue of who was behind Joffrey’s murder: the answer was quite quickly, given the cut between Littlefinger and Olenna’s monologues to Sansa and Margaery respectively. I suppose it’s possible some people didn’t follow since it wasn’t spelled out in so many words, but I at least feel comfortable saying that Olenna’s scene with Sansa was a juicy bit of foreshadowing for those who were paying attention back in episode two.
- Speaking of Margaery, I thought her scene with Tommen was really well handled: we both get to see Margaery work her magic, get a better sense of a more mature Tommen, and get to see how Olenna’s return to Highgarden does not mean her spirit will not be wreaking havoc with the Lannisters through her granddaughters.
- “If I have to take one more leisurely stroll from these gardens, I’ll fling myself from this cliff.” I love this both as a great acknowledgment of Olenna’s character and as an acknowledgment they were limited to only so many locations and likely had to keep placing her in the same space.
- I hadn’t realized Ser Pounce was a thing on Twitter, but I guess it is? Either way, I approve of more cats in general.