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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Fire and Blood”

“Fire and Blood”

June 19th, 2011

“There you will see what life is worth when all the rest is gone.”

Earlier this week, I rewatched last week’s penultimate episode, “Baelor,” with my brother who was seeing it for the first time. Generally, I’ve been watching Game of Thrones alone, and any interaction with other viewers has been done online (or, if done in person, was done with people who I had previously interacted with online). For the first time, I was sitting in the same room as another viewer as we watched the show, and the experience made clear what I had known from the beginning but had never seen quite so clearly visible: Game of Thrones is a show that every single viewer likely considers differently.

It is not just that we can separate between readers and non-readers, although that is certainly the most obvious distinction to be made. Rather, we need to also consider questions of genre, gender, sexual content, race, and other qualities which have been called into question over the course of the season: regardless of whether I individually had concerns with the show’s use of fantasy, or its sexposition, or the Othering of the Dothraki, the fact is that those concerns existed, and have created a divisive response even among those who generally like the show.

In a piece earlier this week, friend of the blog Cory Barker wrote about his ambivalence towards the series, and kept trying to find reasons for it within the text. While his process was enlightening, he couldn’t find the silver bullet: there was no one part of the show that was creating a lack of an emotional connection. How we view the series can be defined by issues like genre which are inherent to the text itself, or issues like viewing patterns which are entirely extratextual but can define one’s experience with the text. My brother, for example, watched the season on a staggered schedule of short marathons, while my parents watched it on a weekly basis; as a result, they remembered different things, retaining different parts of the show that were highlighted by their personal experience with the text.

I raise all of these points because after a season of open interpretation, at least for those who hadn’t read the books, there is something almost prescriptive about “Fire and Blood.” While “Baelor” delivered a fatal twist, and suggested a certain degree of carnage to come in the weeks ahead, “Fire and Blood” steps back to serve as a more traditional denouement, laying out the various threads which will be followed into a second season. Rightly treating the fate of Ned Stark as the season’s climax, it seeks to explore the scenario that Mirri Maz Duur lays out to Dany early in the episode: what is the worth of each of these characters and these storylines in light of recent events? It’s a moment where the show actually has to step forward and proclaim its identity in order to convince the skeptics that this is a show worth watching, and to convince the believers that their faith has not been misplaced as the show transitions into the next stage of its narrative.

“Fire and Blood” doesn’t beat around the bush: it shows its hand from its bloody opening to its fiery conclusion, laying out a pretty detailed framework for what the second season of the show will look like. However, it never feels like an artificial framework, and that sense of interpretation never disappears even as the storyline becomes less open-ended. Serving as a fitting bookend to what I personally feel was a very strong first season, “Fire and Blood” reinforces central themes and delivers on what matters most: reminding us why these characters are following the path they’re on, and informing us why we want to follow that path next season.

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Game of Thrones – “Baelor”

“Baelor”

June 12th, 2011

“I learned how to die a long time ago.”

It has been a bit of an adventure tiptoeing around the events of “Baelor” over the past eight weeks.

It’s been a bit of a game, honestly – from the moment the show was announced, people who had read the books were well aware that this episode was going to come as a shock to many viewers. This was the moment when the show was going to be fully transformed from a story about action to a story about consequences, and the point at which the series would serve notice to new viewers that this is truly a no holds barred narrative.

On some level, I don’t know if I have anything significant to add to this discussion: as someone who read the books, I knew every beat this episode was going to play out, and can really only speak to execution as opposed to conception. The real interest for me is in how those without knowledge of the books respond to this particular development, and how it alters their conception of the series. While I don’t want to speak for them, I am willing to say that “Baelor” was very elegant in its formation, rightly framing the episode as a sort of memorial to that which we lose at episode’s end.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll save my other thoughts for after the break so that I can finally talk about this without fear of spoiling anyone.

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Game of Thrones – “You Win or You Die”

“You Win or You Die”

May 29th, 2011

“It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on.”

[You can also hear additional thoughts on this episode in a special edition of the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast that I participated in.]

[Also, for more on "Sexposition," check out my review of Season 2, Episode 2, "The Night Lands"]

There has been a lot of conversation surrounding the question of exposition with Game of Thrones, understandable given the high volume of material that has been revealed through conversations in an effort to capture the complexity of George R.R. Martin’s world.

“You Win or You Die” is not particularly exposition heavy, although there is one example that I will break down in greater detail, but the function of exposition is to provide a sense of history and context and I would argue that this episode is very interested in this idea. Some have argued that flashbacks might be considered another way to provide insight into history, and that it would beat the somewhat sloppy exposition that has to this point been deployed, but I would ask this: is the point of exposition to inform or remind the audience of particular information, or is it designed to inform the audience that the particular information in question is, in fact, important enough to be discussed in this context?

The answer, as always, is that it is meant to function as both, but I think those decrying the very existence of exposition in its current form should consider the latter more carefully. The role of history within this world is an important theme that is highlighted in “You Win or You Die,” as various threads comes to a point where the past is either given new meaning or forgotten entirely.

Or, rather, forgotten in some circles and remembered in others.

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Game of Thrones – “A Golden Crown”

“A Golden Crown”

May 22nd, 2011

“That was not Kingly.”

Considering the title of the series, and the number of people who appear to be playing the eponymous game, the notion of what makes a true ruler is growing increasingly important as Game of Thrones continues its run. We’ve seen numerous conversations about what it takes to lead Westeros, as Viserys fights to reclaim his throne, Robert fights to keep it, and others on the margins consider whether it is a job they would ever truly desire (Renly, Joffrey, etc.).

We get some definitive action on this accord in “A Golden Crown,” which reveals a more deep-seated question of identity within these kingly questions. Throughout the various stories, notions of power and leadership are merged with questions of gender and sexuality while the duplicity of numerous figures is highlighted in order to further expand the series’ complexity, and further break down any single image of what it means to be the leader of Westeros.

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Game of Thrones – “The Kingsroad”

“The Kingsroad”

April 24th, 2011

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

In chatting with one of my colleagues who has not read A Song of Ice and Fire earlier this month, he raised an interesting question: why, precisely, do some Stark children go to King’s Landing while others remain in Winterfell?

It was a question that never occurred to me while watching “The Kingsroad” since I already knew the answer before I popped in the screener, but it’s one that strikes me as important during these early episodes. There is no avoiding the fact that Game of Thrones has a dislocated narrative, with various locations (highlighted in the opening credit sequence) housing storylines that are often operating on their own frequency, and such dislocation risks feeling arbitrary. It is, arguably, the greatest challenge that Benioff and Weiss faced with the adaptation, and facing that challenge will require more than a clever title sequence that places the various locations into context.

“The Kingsroad” is the first stab at really tackling this challenge through thematic material, something that embraces the parallel storytelling that the series necessitates (as compared to the books, which go long stretches without visiting particular locations/characters). While the shifts in location were minimal (and very strategic) in “Winter is Coming,” with “The Kingsroad” we see a more traditional structure wherein we consistently shift from one location to another, a structure united by a growing sense that these characters may wish they had taken a different fork in the road.

It doesn’t quite bring the entire episode together, but the maps drawn for each of the show’s numerous storylines are at least all on the same piece of paper, and focus on the degree to which each individual character is prepared for the path that they have chosen (or that has been chosen for them).

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Series Premiere: Game of Thrones – “Winter is Coming”

“Winter is Coming”

April 17th, 2011

“That’s an honor I could do without.”

The moment which brings “Winter is Coming,” the series premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones, to a close is meant to shock the viewer. It is the very definition of a cliffhanger, a moment which makes us anticipate its resolution and theorize as to the result. I would also argue that it’s quite an effective cliffhanger, one which shapes the remainder of the series’ narrative and one which is tremendously well-rendered in this adaptation.

However, for those who have read A Song of Ice and Fire, the George R.R. Martin-penned novels on which the series is based, it isn’t a cliffhanger at all. In fact, for those viewers, it was never a cliffhanger: when the event in question took place on page 85 of my well-worn paperback, all one had to do was turn to page 86 in order to see what happened next. The cliffhanger would last mere moments, unless one somehow had the willpower to stop reading at that precise moment and return to the book a week later. Martin’s novels are designed to be devoured, not savored, and yet his story is now arriving in hour-long segments that will air once every week.

Ultimately, “Winter is Coming” demonstrates the compatibility of Martin’s novels and the televisual form: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have brought Westeros to life by capturing the spirit of Martin’s prose and by embracing the opportunities presented by both the visual and structural qualities made possible by HBO’s commitment to the series. The episode is a compelling introduction to this story and these characters, successfully navigating the plethora of pitfalls that are created in an adaptation of a high fantasy series.

But at the same time, let’s be frank: everyone, from fans of the novels to those who don’t know their Starks from their Lannisters, will need to adjust to the particularities of this particular form of storytelling.

And thus the Game begins.

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