“The Wolf and the Lion”
May 15th, 2011
“How long can hate hold a thing together?”
One could argue that Game of Thrones tells the story of two houses – this would be categorically untrue, especially given the ways in which the series expands in subsequent volumes (or seasons, considering its renewal), but the battle between the Lannisters and the Starks is obviously at the heart of this particular narrative. Even those who were fundamentally confused by the pilot, and perhaps even by subsequent episodes, were likely able to draw out that these two families are what one might term “a big deal.”
“The Wolf and the Lion” obviously makes this distinction clear, to the point that the story follows the two families almost exclusively – ignoring The Wall in its entirety, and foregoing a trip across the narrow sea, the episode narrows in on the mutual hatred which fuels these two families as they each try to go on with their lives as members of the other families attempt to either kill them or bring them to justice. And yet, at the same time, this narrowing is misleading on at least a few levels, given that this episode also delves a bit further into a few other houses which will become more important as a the series goes on.
In other words, despite technically being narrower in its focus, “The Wolf and the Lion” actually does some important work in broadening the scope of the series within these two particular areas. It’s a necessary step forward for the series, a strong statement for its commitment to the depth of this story.
To be honest, the weakest material in this episode is easily the developments regarding the murder of Jon Arryn. Perhaps this is just because I have read the book, and thus know where this mystery is heading, but the way the mystery is unfolding seems particularly inelegant to me. Now, this is not to say that Arya wandering the depths of King’s Landing and stumbling across a dragon’s skull (which Viserys foreshadowed last week) is not visually evocative, nor that the conversation we overhear between Varys and Illyrio (who we last saw across the narrow sea, after all) was not illuminating, but when the show stops and looks at “plot” it often loses the sense of momentum that it has when it is simply delving into who these people are. That scene doesn’t tell us anything so much as it reinforces that there is a mystery afoot, a fact which has already been long established for those of us who have already read the books.
However, “The Wolf and the Lion” is the first time when it feels like the show is operating on about three different planes at once, rather than in three different locations. While the past few episodes have laid the basic groundwork for the activities of King’s Landing, here we seem to be simultaneously dealing with a combination of plot, action and the kind of stolen moments of conversation which are the series’ contribution to the pre-existing story. As plot and action begin to converge, with multiple storylines coming to a head simultaneously and creating intense friction between the Stark and Lannister families, the show still finds time to let the growing tensions simmer or resonate within various pairings. Without having to deal with juggling four different storylines at once, the show is instead able to focus on investigating the intersection of those storylines as things spiral out of control. By the time we get to the final scene, as Ned battles with Jaime and Jory meets his untimely end, we realize that this was all inevitable: as soon as Catelyn kidnapped Tyrion, this bloody conclusion was already set in stone, and all we did in the remainder of the episode was run around avoiding the issue.
It’s the first (non-sexual) climax that the show truly offers, and the way the episode rushes into it is a purposeful departure from the series’ pace to this point. It’s like that moment at the end of Ser Loras and Gregor Clegane’s joust, where what was considered to be a fun tournament suddenly turns into a near-death situation before the Hound jumps into the fray. That situation was volatile in its very making: a mare in heat, an angry temper, and the promise of prize money and honor to the victor. In the books, the pressure cooker of the tournaments even extended into the streets which were overflowing with people attending the tournament, and while the limitations of television means that this scale is somewhat lost the sense of spontaneous explosions of violence remains meaningful in the episode as a whole. Not only do these moments offer some exciting action, delivering on the promise of a series with this level of detail and scale, but they also remind us of the fragility of the slow pace the show has established to this point.
We can extend the same principle to Tyrion and Catelyn’s experience on the road: what seems like a brief moment of exposition regarding Catelyn’s plan to take Tyrion to the Vale is disrupted by the attack, during which Tyrion and Catelyn are forced to become tenuous allies for a brief moment before he returns to being a prisoner. While this scene is badass in its introduction of Bronn’s skill with a blade, and quite clever in its connection between Tyrion’s first kill and Robert’s discussion with Ser Barristan about first kills in last week’s episode, it also uses the hill tribes’ attack to demonstrate the fragility of peace within Westeros. It returns us full circle to that amorphous threat behind the Wall from the pilot, and is a key momentum shift at this halfway point of the first season.
Besides Tyrion’s kidnapping, the other major “plot” development that leads us into the bloody climax is the plan to murder Dany and her baby, a plan which is intelligently deployed without us actually spending any time with Dany in the episode. While we know more about Dany than these characters, even given the information they are receiving from Ser Jorah, the fact that we don’t see her allows us to at least briefly put ourselves in their shoes. It actually sort of reminds me (and this is a strange comparison, I know) of the storyline in AMC’s Rubicon where a set of policy analysts spent an entire episode debating whether they had probable cause to launch an airstrike given the data they had available. “The Wolf and the Lion” doesn’t linger on the point long enough to make it some sort of allegory for modern military strategy, but it does force us to consider what decision we might make without cutting to Dany a few minutes later. It feels like a plot point certainly, forcing Ned to give up the position of Hand and allowing for the bloody climax to unfold as it does, but the larger philosophical elements are well-handled and resonant despite their plot-driven function.
These storylines make up the bulk of the battle between the Lannisters and the Starks, leading of course to Ned losing his battle with Jaime and taking a spear to the leg in the process. However, as noted, it is really the Baratheons who offer the most interesting material in the episode, at least for me. The three extra scenes of private conversations we get in the episode all feature characters who have no point of view chapters in the books, and therefore are of extra interest to readers who are looking for greater insight. The first is more of a simple pleasure: Varys and Littlefinger matching wits in a brief altercation, allowing their battle of words to feel just as acidic as one might imagine. As a fan of the books, there’s a nice element of novelty here, letting them spar with one another and in the process reiterate their role as the whisperers of King’s Landing who pose as great a threat as Dany’s unborn child on some level.
The other two are more meaningful, however, as they sketch out key characters in interesting and fascinating ways. In the first case, the scene between Renly and Loras is a bit of subtext being turned into text: while there were always indications in the books which indicated they were lovers, the lack of point of view chapters meant that this was information extrapolated from smaller scenes. Here, we get such a scene with Littlefinger none too subtly gesturing towards Loras as he wages a war of words with Renly at the tournament, but then we see Renly and Loras in a scene that…well, it sort of reads like slash fic if I were to describe it as “Loras shaves Renly,” doesn’t it? However, the scene doesn’t play out as fan fiction, in part because it rightfully allows the scene to focus primarily on Renly’s feeling of marginalization within larger issues, and the question of whether he could ever truly be a leader. To this point, Renly was Robert’s brother without much context beyond that, so sketching out his relationship with his brother (and the notion of war) is an incredibly welcome development.
There’s a whole other question to be raised about how the series uses homosexuality, and perhaps comparing it with how the series presents heterosexuality – for example, while “The Wolf and the Lion” features the only instance of full frontal male nudity in the first six episodes, it is Theon (in his rendezvous with Roz at Winterfell) rather than Renly or Loras. I think it’s too soon to suggest that the series is treating male nudity within homosexual relationships as more taboo than male nudity in heterosexual ones, but as we continue to discuss the use of nudity in the series these are the types of discussions that I think are useful. The decision for so many scenes of exposition (Viserys in the tub, Tyrion in the pilot, Theon and Renly/Loras here) to revolve around sex is another larger question: personally, I think the pattern is growing tiresome due to overuse more than due to an inherent creative bankruptcy, but I’m curious how others are responding to their use.
However, “The Wolf and the Lion” is really all about the Lion and the Stag, as Robert and Cersei sit down to talk frankly about their relationship for what seems to be the first time in their entire relationship. You’ll note that we’ve actually never seen them speak privately before this point: in fact, outside of the scene at the end of “The Kingsroad,” we have rarely ever seen them in the same room together. In an episode where chaos had a tendency to break out at a moment’s notice, the quiet fire of their conversation was even more thrilling. I love how it transforms from what seems like simple exposition, discussing the threat of a Dothraki invasion and Westeros’ ability to fight off such an invasion, into something decidedly more profound. At the point where the backstabbing and money-grubbing becomes a metaphor for their own relationship, and Cersei drops that little joke about their marriage, things escalate, and by the time Cersei brings up Lyanna Stark it becomes even more profound. While Cersei claims that it doesn’t make her feel anything, it made me feel a whole host of emotions surrounding this portrait of a broken marriage that was never whole to begin with, and it gave me new perspective on these two characters that I never gathered from the books. While the simmering tension between the Starks and the Lannisters explodes in violence, the simmering tension within the royal marriage is released in a brief moment of honesty before turning to the status quo.
It’s easily my favorite scene of the first six episodes, as it manages to merge a sense of history, exposition, and character development amidst an episode in which the plot begins to reach a fevered pitch. As “The Wolf and the Lion” switches from scene to scene, it rarely feels as though we’re abandoning the larger story (with the Winterfell sojourn being perhaps the one exception), always maintaining a sense of momentum that is gained as much through conversations as it is through sword fights. While the cliffhanger leaves us on the sword fights, as we have been left with cliffhangers in the past, it’s Cersei and Robert’s conversation that sticks with me the most. It’s one of the first episodes where there is real competition for our interest that isn’t driven by a sheer volume of storylines – this is not to say that other episodes have been poorly plotted, but the artistry has been more limited, and the resonance has been more dispersed than multiplied.
When I finished “The Wolf and the Lion,” the first thing I did was turn on the next episode – I am aware that you will not be able to do the same, but there’s enough to chew on here that the week of conversation ahead will be among the most fruitful in the series’ run thus far.
- I love how quickly Ned takes ownership of Catelyn’s actions – while their relationship never really had a chance to get sketched out before first his departure and then hers, his loyalty is a nice beat here.
- Speaking of Catelyn, we get our first glimpse of the Eyrie here – I actually haven’t seen the final visual effects, but the Sky Cell is intimidating even in print, and the temp version captured this nicely. Still, though, this is simply a brief slightly off-kilter introduction that builds into next week’s Eyrie storyline, so I’ll have more to say about Lysa then.
- Love the opening scene with Robert and his breast plate stretcher – just a lovely bit of humor before the episode heads in a most humorless direction.
- I think my favorite thing about the scene between Littlefinger and Varys is that it doesn’t feel like we’re learning important details: the various insults they throw back and forth is telling without feeling like exposition, more of an exploration than an explication. Actually, I lie: my favorite thing is when they talk about Littlefinger getting corpses for fetishists, which was suitably disturbing.
- News that next week’s episode will be immediate preceded by the seventh episode being made available on HBO Go is interesting, but also sort of concerning – what does this mean for online discussion when some viewers will not have access, often even if they have access to HBO (as many cable providers have not made deals with HBO to offer the service). I hope to write about this more later in the week, but we’ll see how things go down between now and then.
- *QUASI-SPOILER THEORY-ISH THING* So, this isn’t really a spoiler since it’s just a fan theory that has gained considerable traction, but writing about the episode I came to wonder if Ned’s vehement refusal to order Dany’s death has something to do with theories surrounding the identity of Jon’s Mother. I’ll say no more, but something to chew on.