May 1st, 2011
“I wanted to be here when you saw it for the first time.”
In the opening moments of “Winter is Coming,” we saw the Wall for the first time. Directly after the credits rolled, we first set eyes on Winterfell. Shortly thereafter, we visit King’s Landing for a brief moment as Cersei and Jaime discuss the secrets that may have died with Jon Arryn.
These were the first moments that we, as viewers, saw these pivotal locations in this series, but two of these were never formally introduced: Cersei and Jaime rode north to Winterfell soon after that conversation, and we saw only a brief glimpse of The Wall at the conclusion of “The Kingsroad.” Our focus was on Winterfell, and on the parties who set forth from its walls, and on Dany’s struggles across the narrow sea.
In “Lord Snow,” the Wall becomes more than an imposing structure, and King’s Landing becomes more than a geographical entity. The episode opens with Ned riding into King’s Landing and immediately finding himself in a meeting of the Small Council, while we are catapulted into Jon Snow’s first training session with Ser Allister Thorne without any glimpse of his initial arrival. There is no time to rest or become acclimated to their new surroundings, as life in King’s Landing and life at Castle Black hold a new set of challenges which will shape the episodes to follow.
And yet, “Lord Snow” is perhaps the most narratively uninteresting episode of the first six, almost like a second pilot where no story truly finds its footing. While the political organization of King’s Landing is sketched out, and the reality of being a brother of the Night’s Watch is well-established, the actual payoff for these events are left for the subsequent installments. Returning to this episode after having seen that which follows, I found myself appreciating what it accomplished without necessarily finding it satisfying, the first episode where the narrative feels limiting rather limited.
I want to be clear that this is hardly a bad episode of television, filled as it is with satisfying sequences that capture many themes key to the series. I love the way Ned, exhausted from the road, so quickly discovers the corruption of Robert’s rule in that initial meeting of the Small Council – it’s exposition for Ned as much as it is exposition for us, smartly using his ignorance to help inform the audience. Similarly, that scene where Robert and Ser Barristan Selmy discuss their first kills is just tremendous: I love the fakeout where it seems like they’re discussing their first sexual experiences, playing with our expectations of the series’ sexual deviance, and the way Jaime and Robert’s relationship is sketched out in the sequence.
Now, that scene is our first opportunity to meet Ser Barristan Selmy, more commonly known as Barristan the Bold, who is given very little in the way of an introduction. In fact, as Elio and Linda observed at Westeros following their screening of the first six episodes, the Kingsguard (of which Jaime and Ser Barristan are both members) remains fairly vague throughout the first six episodes. This is the kind of material that the books did a better job of sketching out, able to go into some extensive detail on the individual knights and the history of their order. However, I think it’s one of many instances wherein information is being saved for when it is most important, rather than when it could first be revealed.The Kingsguard is an important part of this story, but is it problematic for the audience to just see them as more experienced soldiers tasked with protecting the King? While we have not yet seen evidence of their extensive history and meaning in this kingdom, we also haven’t reached the point where that evidence is most important. While the actual narrative has been left more or less intact, adapted in a pretty direct fashion, they appear to be parceling out the back story more strategically.
In other words, it might be too early to feel that something is missing in terms of explanation. Of course, I think it would be fair to argue that it does feel like there’s something missing here, as King’s Landing is only painted with broad strokes. We meet Renly without really meeting Renly (that’s coming up), gleam Grand Maester Pycelle’s authority without really exploring it, and discover Varys’ network of sources without fully understanding the breadth of the spider’s web. Only Littlefinger, who intercepts Catelyn on the road and reunited her with Ned, is given any real sense of purpose, but even he is left fairly ambiguous. King’s Landing is meant to seem like an unstable and unsafe location for Ned to operate, which he should have expected given his daughters’ experience on the Kingsroad, but there’s something unsatisfying about just scratching the surface. It’s sort of like Catelyn’s visit to King’s Landing, a hit and run without any time to develop into something meaningful: just as soon as she arrives with her information for Ned, she’s headed back north to Winterfell following an emotional goodbye.
It’s the same problem we have in the North, where we find Castle Black as a gateway for numerous characters to the point where it never really gets to be Jon’s story. While the books could allow us to see Castle Black exclusively through Jon’s eyes, the story here focuses on Jon’s first experiences as a brother of the Night’s Watch along with Tyrion’s brief stay at Castle Black, Benjen’s return before heading out on another trip north of the Wall, and the concerns of Ser Jeor Mormont (known affectionately as the Old Bear) and Maester Aemon of what precisely this Winter might bring. These scenes are all important, but they keep Jon’s story from truly starting in this hour, and that does feel as though it slightly damages the series’ sense of character momentum. Now, I am willing to accept arguments that this is purposeful: part of the challenge Jon faces is the idea that his old life has been replaced with this endless toil and disrespect, and so to have these figures connected to his past life remain almost makes the transition more challenging. It’s just not getting to the meat of the story, something saved for next week’s episode (in which the storyline at the Wall really comes into its own).
This being said, Kit Harington is definitely coming into his own as he gets to portray Jon’s anger and frustration with his current station. There’s a look of hatred in his eyes during that first scene at the Wall, and the way he bristles at Thorne’s nickname (which gives the episode its title) shows the way his pride is being challenged. In fact, the performances are strong across the board, it’s just that we don’t really spend enough time with them to really grasp their effectiveness. We see a fair bit of Aidan Gillen as Littlefinger, but the other characters at King’s Landing are far less detailed, and it really is like going through a whole new string of exposition not unlike back in the pilot. We learn Renly is Robert’s brother through dialogue in which he refers to Robert as his brother, and we learn who Pyp and Grenn are from Tyrion’s monologue about their reasons for being on the Wall with Jon. In the subsequent episodes, these locations will be used to greater advantage and other characters will be allowed to emerge, but for now it’s just another set of introductions.
There’s a thrill in this for fans of the books: we get to see the Spider come to life, for example, and we even get to meet Syrio, Arya’s dancing instructor. There are probably some disappointments as well: while I will admit that I had forgotten about Commander Mormont’s pet raven (which was often with him during these scenes), its absence is one of those situations where logistics gets in the way of a really interesting part of the character (if not one that I would consider wholly essential). Similarly, the absence of Ghost (that’s Jon’s direwolf) seems somewhat odd, but it seems like they are using the wolves as sparingly as possible given the fact that working with them was likely a challenge (and it probably isn’t too much of a spoiler to confirm that Ghost appears next week). For fans of the book, there is actually something exciting about new introductions, as it gives us a whole new set of discussions to have.
For those without knowledge of the books, though, it just seems like more bits and pieces. This is perhaps no more clear as in the scenes across the narrow sea, where Daenerys discovers that she is pregnant with what she believes to be a son. There is no storyline here, and not even much in the way of character development: we see that the conflict between Dany’s new position of power and Viserys’ notion of the family hierarchy is growing, and a brief moment of almost romance between Dany and the Khal, but it’s really just marking certain beats so that the storyline can move in different directions.
However, I don’t want to make it seem as though such small scenes are without value: while I think that a connective thread may have been better suited to this particular episode, I quite liked the scene where Jorah Mormont and one of the Khal’s bloodriders discuss the differences between their methods of war. Per the discussion we had last week about the presentation of the Dothraki, and whether it is anything more than a hodgepodge of ethnic stereotypes, I think that the scene encapsulates both the challenges and potential of this particular group. On the one hand, we never quite get the character’s name, and the only reason he really stuck in my mind is that I saw the actor again in The Borgias just a few nights later; if these scenes are going to be so short, there’s no way that any Dothraki will become a full-fledged character who is able to work against these stereotypes. And yet I quite like what the scenes says about the Dothraki culture, as the arakh is contrasted with the sword and the benefits of armor are debated. It’s nothing new for students of history: the Dothraki are built for speed, free of armor and other burdens, while the knights of Westeros hope to wear their opponents down with heavy blows while wearing heavy armor. And yet it doesn’t feel like anyone “wins” the debate: this is two men of war discussing their trade, with no sense of colonization in Mormont’s tone, which is the kind of scene I wish they had more time for.
“Lord Snow” tells us a lot of things. Cersei and Joffrey’s conversation lays out a hypothetical scenario should war break out between the Lannisters and the Starks, Jaime and Ned’s conversation reveals more details of how Jaime came to be known as the Kingslayer, Old Nan’s ghost story she tells to Bran further reminds us of the threat the white walkers might represent, and we are given the impression that it was Jaime who was behind the attack on Bran (or at least Cersei seems to presume this to be the case, as far as I was reading the scene in question). And in that final scene, as Arya has her first dancing lesson as Ned watches on, we see the episode in microcosm: what starts out as the clash of wooden swords becomes the clattering of steel blades, dancing slowly turning into war as a harsh reality knocks on the doorstep of King’s Landing, The Wall, and everywhere in between.
While it features many strong scenes, and there is always value in the calm before the storm, I found myself wanting “Lord Snow” to dive deeper into at least one of its storylines. That desire, just so we’re clear, is met by the subsequent episodes: starting next week, and especially in the weeks that follow, the broad strokes are replaced with fine detail, and the depth of the political, social, and psychological scenarios the show is drawing from become more clear. For at least this week, however, the show shifts back to leaning on our imaginations, to let us picture what these scenarios might become rather than seeing it for ourselves – an enjoyable experience, perhaps, but not quite as satisfying as in previous weeks.
- There’s a scene in this episode that has a tremendous amount of weight for those who have read the books, and yet likely seemed fairly boilerplate for those without such experience. I won’t spoil precisely what it was, but I found myself fairly moved by it, which bodes well for the depth of meaning the show is capable of tapping into.
- I know I talked about how much I enjoyed it above, but the scene with Robert discussing the true stories of death and war and what “they don’t tell you in the songs” really was fantastic. It’s one of two scenes in the first six episodes featuring Robert which are among the series’ best, as he is one character whose absence of a POV becomes a prime source of new material for Benioff and Weiss.
- As much as some of the exposition was perhaps a bit on the nose, I continue to enjoy the situations in which they choose to reveal this information: Ned and Jaime in the throne room was particularly effective at getting into the history that took place there, for example.
- I quite like the conversation that Tyrion and Benjen have as well – the idea of the Wall having been arbitrary, that “we” simply ended up on the right side, offers an interesting view of the arbitrary nature of certain divisions (like the Narrow Sea, for example).
- Continued strong work from Maisie Williams: great sentimental scene with Ned, nice combination of frustration/fascination with Syrio, etc.
- I don’t actually remember Pyp’s background from the book, but Tyrion’s story made it sound very Les Miserables-esque, non?