May 19th, 2013
“I always have a choice.”
“Second Sons” opens with a choice. Arya wakes up to discover that her captor has fallen asleep, and picks up a rock with which she intends to kill Sandor Clegane, a man she believes to be taking her back to King’s Landing. However, as she grows closer, it turns out the Hound isn’t sleeping at all, and he gives her a choice: she can put the rock down, or she can take one shot at killing him with it. The catch is that, should she choose the second option and the Hound remains alive, he’ll break both of her hands.
It’s not really a choice when you think about it, as Arya’s trust in her own strength isn’t quite enough to make her hands worth the risk. It’s also not much of a choice given that she’s his captive, even if he intends to take her to Robb and Catelyn on the Twins as opposed to taking her to King’s Landing and the Lannisters. As much as Arya struggles against the place in life that was determined for her, and as much as she tried last week to go back to the independence she craves, she still finds herself in a position where choices are not available to her.
It’s far from a complicated theme, but what I like about “Second Sons” is the resignation of it all. Arya sitting on the Hound’s lap as he rides toward the Twins is an evocative image, both because of the beautiful countryside mirroring Arya’s hope at seeing her family and because she’s not bound or tortured or anything of the kind. Rather, she’s accepted her fate as the fate put before her, and will comply if only because it’s the most effective way to survive until the day where you have choices you did not have before.
It’s a position that comes to bear on many episodes as the season goes on, as characters struggle with the lack of agency that comes naturally with being born—or being treated—as a second son.
“And Now His Watch Is Ended”
April 21st, 2013
“Influence is largely a matter of patience.”
As Olenna Tyrell sits in her garden at King’s Landing, she schools one of her young charges on the silliness of the House Tyrell words. “Growing strong,” she argues, lacks any of the strength associated with “Winter is coming” or “We do not sow”; the golden rose, meanwhile, certainly doesn’t strike fear in the way the direwolf or the kraken might.
And while Olenna is willfully eliding the thorns of which she is queen, and the way we could see Margaery’s growing power in King’s Landing as evidence of the sigil’s representativeness, I also think there’s something about Game of Thrones’ approach to storytelling here. This is a show where stories don’t always progress like direwolves or krakens, often growing incrementally on a week-by-week basis. Watching the show, you sort of have to take the Tyrell words as your motto: if you give stories time to grow, you may well be rewarded.
“And Now His Watch Is Ended” concludes on one of the series’ best sequences, Daenerys’ overthrow of the slavers of Astapor and her triumphant freeing of the Unsullied. It’s incredibly satisfying, perhaps impressively so given that it is told through a grand total of four scenes over the first three episodes. It’s a unique story structure for the series, as it really lacks any relationship to other ongoing storylines: while Joffrey’s talk of Targaryens certainly reminds us of Dany’s claim to Westeros, her actual storyline has to serve as its own engine. This isn’t a new phenomenon for Dany, but this is the most effectively her storyline has been managed, in part because the four scenes we get are paced extraordinarily well.
It’s a model the show would do well to follow, and one the show will have to navigate at least once more this season.
“Walk of Punishment”
April 14th, 2013
“A person could almost be forgiven for forgetting we’re at war.”
“Walk of Punishment” opens with something of a comedy routine. Edmure Tully is attempting to send his father off to the afterlife with a flaming arrow, but the arrow misses. And then misses again. And then misses again. It’s only then that his uncle, the Blackfish, steps in to fire the arrow necessary. Edmure is made to look the fool, the Blackfish is made to look like a man who suffers no such characters, and our first glimpse of Riverrun has served its function, in part, through comedy.
Of course, it’s also a funeral, which makes its comedy somewhat dark. It helps that we don’t actually know much about Hoster Tully, a character in the books and more of a symbol in the series. It also helps that the scene works the joke perfectly: I resisted laughter on the first miss, found it on the second, and felt the tragedy sneak back in on the third. The scene never feels at odds with the moment or the episode around it except when it’s supposed to feel like it’s at odds with the moment because, well, it is. A world of war and tragedy is not a world without comedy, but rather a world where comedy is rarely allowed to continue unabated for very long.
Catelyn’s quote above, spoken to the Blackfish, captures Benioff and Weiss’ approach to lightening the mood in Westeros. At any given point, there are characters in situations where they could forget about the gravity at hand, where the inherent humor of human interaction overwhelms the threat of widespread conflict. Sometimes it’s Talisa tending to two young captives, wanting to keep them from thinking about the world around them; sometimes its Tyrion wanting to give Podrick a gift for his loyal service. And in a previous time it was Jaime and Brienne, alone on the road, bantering their way toward King’s Landing.
But banter, like all men, must die.
March 31st, 2013
“You’ve got to invent a story about where the ship is going and why.”
As Sansa and Shae look out on Blackwater Bay imagining where the ships are going, it’s hard not to think about the last time we as an audience watched the ships on Blackwater Bay. “Blackwater” brought a striking amount of clarity to the show, its tight focus clearly defining where the ships were going: Stannis Baratheon intended to take King’s Landing, because he believes himself to be the one true king of Westeros.
As Game of Thrones returns for its third season, such clarity seems long gone. As Robb notes, his men haven’t had a real battle in weeks, their “war” more of a glacial march in search of Lannister men more likely to “raze and run” than fight in the open battlefield. Stannis has retreated to Dragonstone to burn men alive in sacrifice to Melisandre’s lord of light, in hopes they will provide a path forward. Westeros is still at war, that much is certain, but the terms of that warfare are as muddled as they’ve ever been: much as the Narrow Sea separates Daenerys from her place on the Iron Throne, the other would-be Kings are equally unable to directly and openly lay claim to the title.
And yet they keep moving. Indeed, outside of those who remain at King’s Landing, nearly every character or group of characters are on the move, although it’s not always clear where they’re moving to precisely. “Valar Dohaeris” might reintroduce us to a collection of the show’s characters, but it’s an introduction that mostly finds characters exactly where they were before. The result is a premiere that lacks excitement not because things don’t happen, but rather because there’s little new information to hint toward what will happen next, relying on more general anticipation—often, to Sansa’s game above, of the viewer’s invention—as the narrative moves at its own pace.
May 27th, 2012
“The worst ones always live.”
The discourse around this week’s episode of Game of Thrones has been fascinating to watch. For fans of the series, particularly those with familiarity with George R. R. Martin’s novels, “Blackwater” was always going to be the season’s high point: scripted by Martin himself, and focusing on a large-scale battle central to A Clash of Kings (and A Song of Ice and Fire as a whole), no fan of the series needed to be convinced to tune into this particular hour.
And yet HBO has very much promoted the episode as though people needed convincing. Press were alerted to an extended promo in advance of last week’s episode, an interview with producers Benioff and Weiss hit Entertainment Weekly as soon as “The Prince of Winterfell” concluded, and the Game of Thrones twitter account has been pushing the “#Blackwater” hashtag throughout the week, retweeting responses from those anticipating the episode.
I’ve found all of this fascinating because this feels strange when promoting the ninth episode of the second season of a television show. While this promotion serves the show’s fanbase, building further anticipation and increasing engagement and attachment to the series among those fans (as the Twitter account aims to do every week), it seems hard to imagine that the expanded discourse around this episode would convince anyone who hasn’t seen the previous eighteen episodes to tune into this one. HBO’s promotions have positioned “Blackwater” as “Event Television”—or perhaps “Event NOT Television” if we want to get take their slogan at its word—rather than simply an eventful episode of Game of Thrones, placing further expectation on an episode that was already burdened with both fan anticipation and the narrative pressure of serving as the season’s penultimate hour.
“Blackwater” answers these expectations by steering away from most of them. Isolating Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing and the storylines found within the city, the series tells a contained story about a war and the people who fight it. It would be a dangerous move if the episode had disappointed on that front, abandoning the other half-dozen narrative threads left hanging at the end of last week’s hour, but “Blackwater” is a tense, thrilling hour of television that lives up to its event billing and delays—rather than interrupting—the narrative climaxes which will now carry into next week’s finale.
“The Prince of Winterfell”
May 20th, 2012
“One game at a time, my friend.”
Tyrion speaks true, in this instance: for the last two weeks, I’ve prioritized my professional responsibilities over what are ultimately my personal ones, meaning that writing about Game of Thrones became infeasible. Accordingly, one might expect that I’d have a lot to say about “The Prince of Winterfell,” the eighth episode of the show’s second season, given that I haven’t had a chance to say anything about the two episodes that came before.
However, in all honesty, we are reaching the point in the season where I don’t have a whole lot to say. With very little being introduced, and with so many storylines fully in motion, evaluating the show at this point is difficult: we have not yet reached the climax, the moment where everything is meant to coalesce, but we are also past the point where new ideas are being introduced. “The Prince of Winterfell” falls pretty much in line with what we’ve seen in the past few episodes, taking us mostly down a logical path toward what previews for next week position as the “Clash of Kings” that the season’s literary origins refer to.
Until we reach that point, though, the show is continuing to ignore Tyrion’s advice and tackle as many games as it possibly can. It’s a strategy that makes “The Prince of Winterfell” a wide-ranging episode which has to do a little work in a lot of places to get the show into position for the next moves in a whole new set of directions.
“The Ghosts of Harrenhal”
April 29th, 2012
“I still can’t believe that you’re real.”
Perhaps it’s my relatively unromantic disposition, but I’ve never really considered love in the context of Game of Thrones. It’s obviously part of Martin’s books, but it’s so often quashed, or forbidden, or broken, that it’s hard to identify it as one of the key themes (or even as a theme in some instances). However, as I noted in last week’s review, the introduction of Robb’s love interest reminded us that romance and desire are not entirely foreign concepts within the framework of this story.
However, as “The Ghosts of Harrenhal” observes (and as we’ll see continue into next week’s episode as well), that love is rarely consummated. Sam speaks of Gilly in hypotheticals, in love with a memory more than a real person, while Jorah’s love for Dany (captured in the quote above) makes both of them uncomfortable, an unspoken reality they dare not bring to the surface lest it shatter their existing relationship. In other words, their love remains unromantic out of fear of what romantic love would look like, relying instead on the love you have for a brother or a sister or for your King. It’s this love that ultimately threads through “The Ghosts of Harrenhal,” and the season at large, and it’s a love that may be equally tenuous depending on its object.
“What Is Dead May Never Die”
April 15th, 2012
“They are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.”
This central idea has been at the heart of Game of Thrones from the very beginning: the children we’ve come to know, and the younger characters who jostle for power, do not know the true struggles of both the actual winter (starvation, struggle) and the metaphorical winter (war, bloodshed) that await them in the future.
Unfortunately, almost all of these characters have been faced with this reality sooner than they anticipated, pushing characters like Sansa and Arya Stark, Theon Greyjoy, and Renly Baratheon into positions where they must reconcile their fears and insecurities with a path they might not have chosen if not for the circumstances. Their struggles, however, must remain largely personal: while Theon Greyjoy might struggle to decide between his two families, for example, he has no one on the Iron Islands to talk to but a single flame and a piece of parchment. When he chooses to burn what he’s written, he makes his decision by isolating himself and accepting that this is his burden to bear as his father’s son.
“What Is Dead May Never Die” is about exploring these kinds of relationships, and exploring really is the right word: although partnerships both begin and end in the episode, other scenes are more about the complicated politics of those partnerships as winter approaches. While the show is still at the point where plot remains on the backburner, the pieces moving into place no longer seem motivated by the whims of the script; characters are taking greater agency in this environment, and the result is a strong thematic piece which lays some important groundwork for characters both new and old.