“Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
May 8th, 2011
The timing of the next few episodes of Game of Thrones couldn’t be worse on a personal level – it’s a busy time of year for me, what with the end of the semester, and it’s coming just as the series is entering some more distinctly complex episodes. While I had hoped to get these reviews done in advance, the truth is that things just became busy too quickly, meaning that I won’t have time to dive as far into “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” as I might like.
However, because of this, I do want to focus in on one part of the episode in particular, comparing and contrasting it with the episode surrounding it. Jon Snow’s time at the Wall is maybe my favorite central location of those introduced early in the series, and it is in large part due to the work done in this episode. Part of this has to do with my affection for the new arrival introduced here, but it also has to do with some key decisions which give the storyline a sense of camaraderie and humor which is more or less absent from the rest of the storyline.
It’s also a part of the story which disappears for two weeks, which means focusing my analysis on it makes even more sense given that I’ll have plenty of time to discuss Ned’s investigation into Jon Arryn’s death, the viciousness of the tournament, and the slippery nature of the metaphorical dragon in the weeks ahead.
The arrival of Samwell Tarly is exciting for readers of the books; I don’t know if everyone feels this way, but for me the character is an important note of innocence in an overwhelmingly dire world. I consider Jon Snow one of my favorite characters in the novels, but he has a certain dourness to him given his current predicament, and Sam is the one character who is really fleshed out as something of a “friend” to Jon (although Pyp and Grenn certainly get drafted as part of the group).
He’s also the kind of recruit that one doesn’t expect to see at the Night’s Watch, and John Bradley does a nice job of making Sam as pathetic as possible without losing an inherent charm. Bradley, in what is labeled as his first professional appearance, is particularly strong at emphasizing Sam’s inherent kindness as it emerges throughout the episode, slowly pulling a more charming and heroic side of Jon in the process. Part of this is just the function of the character as Martin wrote it, but Bradley’s performance deserves credit, and so does Bryan Cogman (the first writer outside of Benioff and Weiss to take control of this world).
I think it’s important to note that Sam is pretty much the only character who is allowed to wholly introduce his own back story, standing at the top of the Wall with Jon and explaining why an overweight coward from a castle has chosen to take the Black. There’s no Tyrion there to regale us with stories of House Tarly (as we see with a conversation with Theon early in the episode that lays out the history of House Greyjoy and its role in ensuring Theon’s prisoner-like position as Ned Stark’s ward), and no characters in faraway lands offering context which we then see play out in other scenes (as was the case with Viserys and Dany being alluded to by Robert on numerous occasions). Sam, to that point simply an enigma for Jon and the other Brothers, is allowed to explain how his father forced him out of his own family for his cowardice, a tragic tale of forced adulthood for a young man who still more closely resembles a boy in spirit if not in size.
His level of agency within his introduction is important, as part of the episode’s charm is the way it begins to fall into the rhythms of Castle Black for its young recruits without being constantly interrupted with talk of what was going on beyond the Wall. While those details were important last week, we never got to see Jon’s personal experience, which robbed us of glimpse of Ghost (here seen helping Jon, Pyp and Grenn put the fear of the direwolf into Rast to keep Sam protected in the training yard) and an opportunity to see Jon in quieter moments. Here, there’s almost a Band of Brothers-esque feel to the story at the Wall, with Ser Allister Thorne filling the role of the hard-nosed superior who has experienced enough to know that the days of late night pranks and cleaning duty will soon be replaced with cannibalism and threats they can’t imagine. It’s a story that allows for Jon and Sam to get into a play fight as they talk about their shared lack of sexual experience, a scene that I thought was both a lot of fun and a great bit of resonance from Kit Harington, but it also ensures that such moments are disrupted, signalling towards the future while also establishing a compelling space within Castle Black on which to build future stories.
In truth, Castle Black is maybe the most structured location that the series will focus on this season, with the day-to-day activities a major component of its storytelling – without spoiling where it will be headed in episodes 7-10 (as it does, as noted, take a break for two weeks after this), seeing the experience through the new recruits gives it a constant sense of discovery and a clear sense of order which other spaces within the series will lack. Based on this episode, it is clear that the power structures of the Dothraki will remain fairly loose, and that the sheer breadth of King’s Landing will make any sense of day-to-day activity seem impossible to establish. The Wall is the one place where character development is inextricably linked to the basic operations of the location in question, which means it’s the one space where the level of detail in the book feels as though it has been condensed rather than fundamentally limited.
The other parts of the episode do all feel as though they have been essentialized, although not to the point of becoming ineffective. Bran’s dream, which opens the episode, is short but establishes the recurring motif of dreams and the role it will play in Bran’s recovery. While there is a workmanlike quality to Ned’s investigation of Jon Arryn’s murder, really tapping into tropes of the procedural crime genre if I’m being honest, we still get that small scene with Arya to emphasize his continued role as father within the process. And while we don’t spend a considerable amount of time at the Tournament, we do get to meet The Mountain That Rides, Gregor Clegane, and we do still see the jousting largely through Sansa’s eyes – that becomes more important next week, but it’s a good way to emphasize the impact of the brutality (and to give more impact to a death which seems like a (too) convenient stopgap in Ned’s investigation on some level). There was also time in King’s Landing for another “deleted scene,” this time between Jory and Jaime, which shows that the show sometimes sacrifices smaller details of existing POV stories in favor of adding details from areas the books were not able to explore. It continues to be a smart decision, as Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is quite adept at capturing this kind of bitter yet knowing Jaime that we didn’t see much of within the books.
Meanwhile, while I thought that the actual plot of the time over the Narrow Sea remained fairly similar to previous episodes, one scene in particular stood out. While I thought that there was something a bit too broad about Viserys and Dany’s confrontation (even if both actors nicely sold those broad qualities), for me the Dany story hinges on that moment where she speaks to Ser Jorah about her brother’s future. “My brother will never take back the seven kingdoms” is not a question but a statement, an acknowledgement that Viserys is simply incompatible with the title bestowed upon him. Emilia Clarke really nails the quietness of this moment, emphasizing the sense of awareness inside Dany which confirms her growing maturity within the role of Khaleesi.
At the heart of this episode is the question of agency: we see Dany reaching to take it back, we see the boys at the Wall learning to find it amidst the rigors of training, we see Tyrion offer it to Bran in the form of plans for a saddle which might allow him to ride, and we see Catelyn enact it at the Inn-at-the-Crossroads in order to arrest the man she believes is responsible for the attempt on her son’s life. This is the point in the series, I would argue, where the agency of the characters begins to feel stronger than the agency of the plot: characters have stopped traveling on journeys (except for Tyrion and Catelyn, whose trips back from journeys brought them together), reaching their final destinations and stopping to get a lay of the land. While King’s Landing still holds various mysteries, and there are still threats beyond the Wall, there is growing clarity among the characters and their purposes, clarity that the series will be building on quite successfully in the weeks to come by allowing the characters to express their agency for better or for worse.
- Some more blatant exposition this week: Viserys in the tub with Doreah was perhaps the most oddly staged (and will not be the last time sex is used to reveal details about young male characters), while Sansa and Septa Mordane in the Red Keep was functional if a bit simple. More effective, however, is the use of Littlefinger as storyteller – his walk through the gardens with Ned was a great way to emphasize the paranoia rampant in the capital, while his detailing of the story of the Hound and the Mountain was wonderfully unnerving (especially for Sansa, to whom he told the story more directly). Great stuff.
- Interesting final scene between Ned and Cersei – I honestly don’t remember if it’s in the books, but it more explicitly positions the two characters as enemies, perhaps to add some stakes to Ned’s investigation (which will be plentiful given Catelyn’s decision that directly followed the scene).
- That was a lovely shot with the blood spurting out of Ser Hugh’s mouth after being destroyed by the Mountain, was it not?
- The screeners I saw had only temporary visual effects and score from Episode Three onwards, so I’m curious how people are finding these two elements – I haven’t had time to watch the aired versions given my hectic schedule, but I look forward to checking to see how the music is coming together, in particular.
- You’ll notice that Ros, who we met back in the Pilot with Tyrion, pops up twice without actually appearing in this episode – she will return soon enough.
- We don’t get to see a lot of Marillion here, but I was very glad to see the annoying bard kicking around – a charming annoyance, that one.
- Also: HODOR!