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).
In his review of the first six episodes, Ryan McGee suggests that these early episodes don’t have “themes,” but I would respectfully disagree. I think it goes back to a discussion that Matt Zoller Seitz and I had last summer about Mad Men, in which we differentiated between “theme episodes” and “episodes with themes.” Both are strategies used to tie together potentially disparate storylines to a central idea, but the difference is that the former presents a central idea distinct to that episode, while the latter uses themes that are more generally relevant to the series at hand.
Based on his review, McGee is more or less discussing the former:
“With the exception of Episode 4, there’s little in the way of unifying theme to any of the episodes. It’s just a string of actions that occur more or less concurrently with the others. Not having narrative or visual echoes between the pieces really heightens the separation between the tales set in King’s Landing, The Wall, or the various other locations featured in these initial six episodes.”
As noted above, I think this is a perfectly legitimate concern, but I feel these early episodes actually do something very important in not attempting to unify these storylines. Part of the point of Martin’s story is that everyone is getting pulled in different directions, and that the only thing that they might have in common is a sort of ignorance to the reality of their situation. “The Kingsroad,” at least for me, finds less a unifying theme and more a unifying purpose: to tear down most (if not all) romantic notions about going north, south, and everywhere in between by opening the eyes of its various characters.
Admittedly, early in a series, this is a somewhat problematic endeavor. It risks seeming like “moving pieces into place,” especially since this is basically a travelogue: Ned, Arya and Sansa head south with the Royal caravan (with Catelyn eventually following), Jon heads north with his uncle and Lord Tyrion, and Dany crosses the Dothraki Sea (which, if it wasn’t clear, is actually a sea of grass/trees) with her new husband. Not only are the storylines separated, but they’re moving in completely different directions: Ned and Jon literally reach a fork in the road as they leave Winterfell, sharing a brief moment before the latter heads to Castle Black and the former prepares to take over as the King’s Hand. Meanwhile, Dany and Viserys continue to move further away from their homeland as the Dothraki Khalasar returns to Vaes Dothrak (pictured in the credits, but not yet reached) until their omens favor war.
I don’t think this really constitutes a cohesive theme, but the lack of cohesion feels very purposeful to me: all of the characters are heading places for different reasons, and often with varying degrees of willingness. Jon and Sansa, for example, believe that they are fulfilling their destinies on their respective roads: the former is searching for a home where he will no longer be marked as the bastard, a true brotherhood compared to the half-brotherhood he shares with his siblings, while the latter is already imagining what it will be like to be a princess.
They learn quickly that their roads are not that simple. For Jon, he realizes that he has been romanticizing the Night’s Watch: as Tyrion so kindly explains (in a scene that nicely builds on their scene in “Winter is Coming”), most of his “brothers” will be criminals who chose to take the black to avoid further punishment, and by the time he reaches the Wall any optimism is wiped off his face. I love that scene as they approach the wall, both for how effectively it presents its scale (with Castle Black seeming so puny at its base) and for how ragged Jon looks. Kit Harington is great at capturing Jon’s brooding, but there was something in that moment that stripped away the repose in favor of legitimate fear, a sign of the kind of performance we’ll be seeing from him in the remainder of the series.
Sansa, meanwhile, has everything planned out: she’s going to go to King’s Landing, she and Joffrey are going to be married, and she is going to pop out little princes and princesses after he becomes King and she becomes Queen. If there’s anything that this series punishes, though, it’s the idea of having your entire life mapped out: while Jon discovered that his destination wasn’t quite what he anticipated, Sansa discovers that her journey won’t be as smooth as she imagined it to be. When Joffrey’s intolerability runs headlong into Arya’s determination at the river’s edge, Sansa finds herself unable to do anything but urge Arya to stay out of Joffrey’s torture of Micah and scream “You’re spoiling everything!” When she is eventually brought before the King to explain her side of the story, she again resists taking a stand: she pleads that she doesn’t remember what happened, hoping that remaining above the fray will help things return to “normal.” The problem, of course, is that this situation was never normal to begin with, a fact that Sansa is both too naive and too young to realize.
By comparison, Daenerys is one step beyond these two characters on her journey. While Jon and Sansa are coming to understand the harsh reality of the choices they’ve made (or, in the case of Sansa, the choice that was made for her but which she had wholeheartedly endorsed), Daenerys saw that reality in last week’s premiere. In “The Kingsroad,” we see her looking to find ways of coping with her situation, and the beginnings of a sort of self-awakening.
Yes, in this particular episode, this is very much defined by sex, which seemed to be a problem for one journalist in particular. Jon Weisman at Variety suggested that “in episode two, there’s a plot point involving Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) that was so appalling, I almost quit the show right then and there.” Expanding on this in the comments at Winter is Coming (a choice which I respect a great deal), he makes the following argument:
In the premiere, Daenerys is forced to marry and then of course sleep with the Dothraki, against her will…In the second episode, without explanation, she suddenly decides that she wants to please him in every way possible…I have to watch this poor girl instantaneously decide to become sexually assertive and welcoming with her captor. Stockholm Syndrome happens, but even allowing for the time period, this topic just has to be dealt with more nuance. Or at least we have to be made to feel on some level how sad this is – think Elizabeth Smart – rather than it being played just for titillation, as it was in the show.
While I see where Weisman is coming from, and the pacing of the series does mean that we rush into this particular realization (and lack the inner dialogue that might more clearly represent Dany’s perspective), I think he misreads this section of the episode on a number of levels. First, I don’t think that this is about asserting her sexuality so much as it is about asserting control over her sexuality, a fine distinction if there ever was one. My mind keeps going back to that scene where she asks her handmaids about dragons, and how Doreah’s answer demonstrates a sort of playful relationship with the world around her. While the other repeat the traditional gospel, suggesting that “it is known,” Doreah has an alternate perspective, and what Dany is searching for is a way to take a situation defined by duty and servitude (to her brother more than Drogo, frankly) and find something more.
To Weisman’s point, perhaps it is strange that she doesn’t look for a way out, but who is going to help her? Her brother is the king-in-waiting, which means that Mormont’s sword is sworn to him, and Viserys was the one who put her in this position in the first place. Dany is in no position to fight against her circumstances, but she is in a position to start to control them. While Weisman suggests that she desires to “please” Drogo, I think her motivations are not about pleasure. Instead, they’re about taking some measure of control over her own destiny, much as Doreah chooses to believe that the moon is a dragon’s egg which exploded when it got too close to the sun. Dany’s still married to Khal Drogo, and she still has sex with him, but it’s different: note that despite being naked in the scenes in which he ravages her, she remains clothed as she is “on top,” an important distinction that resists turning the pivotal moment of (limited) empowerment into something exploitative. In a situation where you feel helpless, any measure of power or control can be a sense of hope, and I think the use of sexuality is consistent with a girl of that age (roughly 16-18) and the nature of her situation. Sure, Dany’s sex lessons with Doreah feel a little on the exploitative side, but the relative chasteness of her final scene with the Khal is deeply meaningful for what’s to come.
Now, as demonstrated here, one can create a theme that connects these three storylines. However, one could also argue that doing so is adding something to the text which is not actually present. After all, the episode also works in the action at Winterfell as a hired assassin attempts to murder Bran and Catelyn decides to ride to King’s Landing to spread word of the nefarious actions which we know led to Bran’s fall (and the attempt on his life, we presume), and the three storylines discussed in greater detail here were not dispersed evenly. The Arya/Sansa storyline, for example, plays out as a single sequence at episode’s end almost as if it were a chapter in a book, as the only earlier glimpse of the caravan was Robert and Ned’s roadside chat (which was enjoyable, and included some key information and context, but served no real narrative purpose). Meanwhile, Jon and Tyrion’s trip to the North is only a handful of scenes, and has a definitely feeling of “Point A to Point B” that might well define the entire episode.
The only direct attempt at drawing parallels between the storylines is the cut at the end, as Bran opens his eyes just as Ned slits Lady’s throat. Now, obviously, one could argue that this is not an instance of direct causation (although fans will know that it does hint towards something to come down the road), but it is something of a pivot between storylines. There was a similar moment earlier, as Robert and Ned discuss the Targaryens and we cut to Dany and the herd, but that’s felt mostly functional rather than stylistic. By comparison, the final scene is evocative and compelling, and I would argue that it marks a definitive end for the episode. To go with the theme that I’m suggesting, there’s something about opening your eyes that runs through every storyline here: Jon seeing the wall for the first time, Sansa seeing the truth about her would-be prince and trying to pretend it never happened, and Dany wanting to look her husband in the eye as they make love. And so for Bran to open his eyes seems purposeful, as he is about to wake up to a world that he never quite imagined.
To what degree am I reading this into the episode in a way that wasn’t intended by the writers? I am unsure. However, I think that Martin’s novel offers some nice elements of passive symmetry in the early going, and this type of literal translation can still serve a thematic function without being dramatically rearranged or altered. It’s not much more than pieces moving on a chess board if you were to sum up the events of the episode, but those pieces each respond to those movements differently, and in ways that I felt did a strong job of setting up the next moves.
- I don’t think I can say enough things about how adorable Nymeria is in that scene in Arya’s bedchambers. The entire scene is fantastic of course, with Jon’s goodbye with Arya and the delivery of Needle rendered wonderfully, but anyone who leaves this episode not wanting a runaway Nymeria showing up on your doorstep doesn’t have a heart.
- I think Lena Headey’s Cersei takes a while to fully come together, but for me it stats with her visit to Bran’s bedside. It’s the first time she has really felt like a Queen, free of a furrowed brow and able to command respect without it feeling owed to her. She’s still a bit cold and distant, but the story of her first son’s death is humanizing in what feels like a calculated fashion (coming, as it does, following her breakfast with a concerned Jaime and a curious Tyrion).
- There is nothing more satisfying than Tyrion slapping Joffrey – Jack Gleeson gets special mention for the patheticness of those girlie screams, which nicely foreshadowed Arya’s asskicking delivered at episode’s end.
- I’d already seen a fair bit of the attempt on Bran’s life in trailers, but it’s a really well-handled sequence. It’s a major turning point for Catelyn as a character, and I like the way they worked in Catelyn’s frustration with Summer’s howling into the story. In the books, for the non-readers, Catelyn bans Summer from his bedside and the direwolf spends the entire time howling below his window, only allowed in after saving his life. It’s a key bonding moment, and it’s been well realized (if not entirely contextualized) here.
- “He ran – not very fast.” A really chilling line from the Hound, and a nice way of emphasizing the consequences of that moment. Sure, our emotions are with Lady and her tragic end thanks to political maneuvering, but I think most people will have forgotten about Micah in that moment, so his body lying over the back of that horse was an eye-opening moment, if you’ll forgive the continuation of the theme discussed above.
- There’s been some extended discussion of the Dothraki and their characterization (or lack thereof), and to what degree they are simply a hodgepodge of ethnic stereotypes, and I think that’s a discussion for next week’s episode (and the episodes which follow) more than this week, where Dany is definitely the focus.