“Fire and Blood”
June 19th, 2011
“There you will see what life is worth when all the rest is gone.”
Earlier this week, I rewatched last week’s penultimate episode, “Baelor,” with my brother who was seeing it for the first time. Generally, I’ve been watching Game of Thrones alone, and any interaction with other viewers has been done online (or, if done in person, was done with people who I had previously interacted with online). For the first time, I was sitting in the same room as another viewer as we watched the show, and the experience made clear what I had known from the beginning but had never seen quite so clearly visible: Game of Thrones is a show that every single viewer likely considers differently.
It is not just that we can separate between readers and non-readers, although that is certainly the most obvious distinction to be made. Rather, we need to also consider questions of genre, gender, sexual content, race, and other qualities which have been called into question over the course of the season: regardless of whether I individually had concerns with the show’s use of fantasy, or its sexposition, or the Othering of the Dothraki, the fact is that those concerns existed, and have created a divisive response even among those who generally like the show.
In a piece earlier this week, friend of the blog Cory Barker wrote about his ambivalence towards the series, and kept trying to find reasons for it within the text. While his process was enlightening, he couldn’t find the silver bullet: there was no one part of the show that was creating a lack of an emotional connection. How we view the series can be defined by issues like genre which are inherent to the text itself, or issues like viewing patterns which are entirely extratextual but can define one’s experience with the text. My brother, for example, watched the season on a staggered schedule of short marathons, while my parents watched it on a weekly basis; as a result, they remembered different things, retaining different parts of the show that were highlighted by their personal experience with the text.
I raise all of these points because after a season of open interpretation, at least for those who hadn’t read the books, there is something almost prescriptive about “Fire and Blood.” While “Baelor” delivered a fatal twist, and suggested a certain degree of carnage to come in the weeks ahead, “Fire and Blood” steps back to serve as a more traditional denouement, laying out the various threads which will be followed into a second season. Rightly treating the fate of Ned Stark as the season’s climax, it seeks to explore the scenario that Mirri Maz Duur lays out to Dany early in the episode: what is the worth of each of these characters and these storylines in light of recent events? It’s a moment where the show actually has to step forward and proclaim its identity in order to convince the skeptics that this is a show worth watching, and to convince the believers that their faith has not been misplaced as the show transitions into the next stage of its narrative.
“Fire and Blood” doesn’t beat around the bush: it shows its hand from its bloody opening to its fiery conclusion, laying out a pretty detailed framework for what the second season of the show will look like. However, it never feels like an artificial framework, and that sense of interpretation never disappears even as the storyline becomes less open-ended. Serving as a fitting bookend to what I personally feel was a very strong first season, “Fire and Blood” reinforces central themes and delivers on what matters most: reminding us why these characters are following the path they’re on, and informing us why we want to follow that path next season.
In one final hurrah for sexposition in the show’s first season, we see Ros cleaning up after serving the aged Maester Pycelle. The scene unravels slowly, playing off our uncertainty that someone that old would still have a sex drive, and as Pycelle goes through stories about King Aerys and his thoughts on the promise of King Joffrey we’re meant to find it a little bit funny, and a little bit unsettling. The latter point, however, has nothing to do with the “old dude having sex” factor: instead, at least for me, what was so unsettling was the fact that Pycelle believed Joffrey to have promise as a king. Just as he talks about Aerys with a sense of pity, expressing sympathy for a man who saw nothing but fire and blood in his warped mind, he seems to suggest that Joffrey’s reckless and childish behavior is somehow a good omen for his future as King. Here is this man who knows more of Kings than any other man alive, a man who was positioned as a trusted advisor early in the series, saying things that do not mesh with the narrative we have been presented.
Or, rather, they do not mesh with the definition of Kingly behavior as we may have wanted to understand it. Part of what this season has done quite spectacularly well is repositioning the notion of honor, one which is obviously important to Ned and yet has proven incongruous with King’s Landing in general. What might have originally been considered synonymous with good leadership has now become associated with treason, while the injustice of Joffrey’s rule has become (fittingly enough) the King’s justice. I love that little note of truth that Jaime throws at Catelyn as they have their interrogation scene of sorts: if the Gods are truly just, as Catelyn wants to believe, then why is there so much injustice in Westeros? It is not as though Jaime is the only man who did something heinous, or that his decision to throw Bran from the tower (to protect his secret and, frankly, his life) was in any way deviating from the general rule. While Jaime’s action may have initially been a shock to our systems, having entered this world through the framework of the honorable Ned Stark, over the course of the season that idea has been broken down: this world is built for men like Jaime Lannister and not men like Ned Stark, and the sooner people realize this the better.
Although one could argue that this episode is largely setup for next season, the sense of realization is more than enough momentum to carry it through. There is certainly dramatic weight as the news of last week’s tragedies are revealed, whether it’s Dany waking up to the news about both her child and her husband or the Stark family all receiving word of Ned’s death at the hands of Joffrey. All of these scenes are well drawn, whether it’s Sansa being forced to see her father’s head mounted on a spike or Robb falling into his mother’s arms after attempting to murder a tree just outside of camp. The entire cast was on top of their game, with Sophie Turner and Richard Madden stepping up in what is perhaps their most important seasons to date, but these initial reactions are only one small part of the equations. The really important part of “Fire and Blood” is what they decide to do next: given that Khal Drogo is effectively brain dead, and that Ned Stark has been murdered, what do these characters do now that their initial path has been eliminated?
Answering this question does render “Fire and Blood” a “moving pieces” episode, if we want to get technical about it: they need to find a way to take Dany from grieving wife to Dragon Mother, just as they need to transform Robb from a grieving son to King in the North. They need a way to take Jon from a brother who desires to help avenge his father to a brother who commits to protecting the realm from those outside The Wall. All of these goals are achieved quite effectively, but all in different ways: the scale of each decision is decidedly different, and the speed at which they take place is variable. While Jon’s storyline is handled in only a few minutes of screentime, there was something powerful about that shared recitation of the Oath of Brotherhood in those woods, and something exhilarating about the speed at which Commander Mormont was willing to ride beyond The Wall to discover the truth about the threat that lies in the Mountains beyond. The storyline plays out Jon’s reaction to his father’s death, connects with season-long concepts of honor, and then seamlessly transitions into the character’s storyline in the season ahead – it is not a particularly complex storyline, but it nonetheless feels honest to the character’s journey to this point in the story, driven more by his specific view of this world than by larger forces operating within the narrative.
By comparison, Robb’s ascension to “King in the North” is meant to feel as though it is being defined by larger forces: it is more a battle cry than a fact, something that his bannermen rally around in a time of uncertainty. They marched south to free Ned, first and foremost, but their victory in battle and Joffrey’s spurious actions have given them a new sense of purpose. Robb becomes “King in the North” because of Joffrey’s fundamental misunderstanding of the way the Game of Thrones is played: Ned could have been used to broker peace with his son if he had been alive, but his death has only emboldened them. Going back to last week, we can see that Robb has sort of lost control of his own destiny: he sold away his marriage in order to cross at The Twins, and now he finds himself a rebel King largely thanks to the circumstances in front of him. He is playing the game, perhaps before he is supposed to, and the character feels simultaneously dwarfed by the enormity of the situation and distinct amidst the chaos to the point where I’ve come to empathize with him even without a great deal of screentime.
Of course, this is obviously Dany’s big finale, given the fact that she gives birth to three dragons at episode’s end. There is obviously a great deal of symbolism to this storyline, with magic finally playing a substantial role in the tale as Mirri Maz Duur’s life and Dany’s sacrificial walk among the coals are traded for the lives of three dragons who are certainly worth more than the dragon’s eggs they once were. Those of us who have read the books have spent the entire season waiting for this moment, seeing the various bits of foreshadowing and knowing that they were all dependent on how this storyline was brought to life. They can have Dany walk into scalding bathwater, or touch a burning dragon’s egg without being burned, or look at the dragon’s eggs longingly during important scenes as much as they want, but if this moment didn’t deliver then it was all for naught. This is not a storyline which relies on subtle themes or recurring motifs: this is a big, bold statement, announcing the arrival of magic into this series and reframing Dany’s storyline in ways that (while hinted at) are certainly far different than what they were before Khal Drogo’s death.
As has been the case all season, the big moments are not a problem for Benioff and Weiss. Emilia Clarke was tremendous throughout, Alan Taylor’s direction was particularly evocative during these sequences, and the CGI on the dragons was showy without seeming too out of place. No, it wasn’t movie-level CGI, but there was something about the visual signature of those closing moments that made it all seem more cohesive than I could have imagined. I don’t know how much they can keep the CGI up in the future, and I don’t know how it will look outside of the almost post-apocalyptic color palette, but this reveal landed in a major way.
If the episode was largely about realization, it ended on revelation, albeit a revelation that will land differently across the audience. As a reader, this felt like a perfect end note to what has been an imperfect but confident adaptation; although I would not say that I agree with every decision they made, I understand almost all of them, and feel that I now understand (and trust) Benioff and Weiss’ sensibility towards this material. For non-readers, “Fire and Blood” promises that Ned was not the narrative we were looking for, and that there is something else going on here.
That something else involves the broad storylines above, of course, but there are other threads hanging about. A quick scene between Varys and Littlefinger reinforces the role they play in King’s Landing, while whispers of Renly and Stannis’ movements towards the throne remain but tantalizing whispers. Arya is turned into Arry and whisked off North with Yoren, Gendry and Hot Pie (among others bound for the wall), but the show doesn’t stop to dwell on it for more than a few minutes because it doesn’t exactly need to. There is something procedural about Tyrion being named Hand of the King, but we’ve seen enough of Tyrion to know that there is a great deal of potential to be found there. Most of these scenes are just glimpses, small moments that point towards something larger without laying it on too thickly, but they’re enough to capture the breadth of this story when you place them all together.
It is quite possible that most people will only remember the dragons. However, part of what Benioff and Weiss have captured so well is that Game of Thrones isn’t just about the big plot points, or just about its main characters. “Fire and Blood” isn’t just about the dragons, nor is it just about setting up the second season: drawing heavily on themes of honor and justice which have run throughout the first season, “Fire and Blood” is a thrilling rumination, if such a thing is possible. Following Martin’s lead, Benioff and Weiss have taken a path which asks viewers to fully commit themselves to a show that is willing to kill off its supposed protagonist, a show that is willing to embrace magical elements it initially claimed were long dormant, and in time a show that is willing to question whether its villains and heroes are really villains and heroes after all.
In other words, “Fire and Blood” is the last session of a season-long lesson in how to watch Game of Thrones, and the fact that they managed to condition and entertain their audience at the same time is a truly impressive feat of adaptation that has me damn excited to see where things go from here.
- The one scene in the episode that felt a bit off was the reveal of Cersei and Lancel – it has been too long since we’ve seen Lancel (Robert’s squire) for the moment to land for non-readers, and something about the way the scene was framed just didn’t sell “They’re shagging, which means she definitely coerced him into conspiring with the boar to murder Robert” the way it needed to. Cersei seemed very ancillary to this finale, in a way she hasn’t been all season, so that will be something I’m interested in seeing develop next season.
- On a similar note, the Hound is arguably the most underserved supporting player who was credited as part of the main cast, so that’s another question mark given how his role will be expanding in the future.
- I continue to be impressed with Natalie Tena as Osha – she didn’t get much to do in the opening scene, but I just really liked her rapport with Bran, and something about the performance is just resonating with me.
- I won’t lie and say that I’m entirely satisfied with the show’s music, given that it has made almost no impression outside of the theme song, but it seemed well-suited to tonight’s episode: it was especially strong during the final moments, so I’ll be interested to see whether there’s more attention paid to it in season two (since there might be a bit more time to get the composer settled, as opposed to the sudden switch that came at the start of this season).
- Shaggydog and Ghost both make appearances, which is the first time two direwolves have appeared in an episode in a while. I remain curious to see what they do with the direwolves in the second season: although I don’t know if they necessarily appear more often, they become more important, which could present some challenges given how rarely they’ve appeared to this point. This was actually the first time we learned Shaggydog’s name, if I’m not mistaken, so they’re definitely late getting to the wolves in the grand scheme of things.
- There was a lot of talk about a character who Benioff and Weiss wanted to kill in the first season despite their recurring role in later books. I don’t consider it a spoiler to reveal that the character in question was the singer (or bard, if you prefer) Marillion, and it wasn’t so much a death as it was a mutation (pun intended, and heinous). Curious to see how they adjust if they get to a third season, but I guess they’ve got plenty of time to mull that over.
- I remember hearing during casting that the candidates for Joffrey and Sansa tested using the scene on the battlements, so I wasn’t surprised to see Gleeson and Turner knock it out of the park. Admittedly, I sort of imagined that scene with a bird’s eye view of King’s Landing, instead of the isolated space in which it took place here, but the gravity of the scene still landed, and Joffrey has never been more despicable than when he has Meryn slap Sansa instead of doing it himself. Very excited to see Gleeson grow into this role.
- If the show gains some unexpected traction with the Emmys, and Emilia Clarke makes an appearance in Supporting Actress, does she submit this episode? I’d argue it features her strongest moments, but it’s all fallout from the events of previous episodes, and lacks context. Some of the earlier episodes would offer more of a journey, I think, and perhaps a bit more screentime as well. Still, this one would definitely pack a punch.
- I’ll likely be back with some more coverage in the morning (with perhaps a “Game of Thrones the Morning After” review roundup/reaction), and then tomorrow afternoon I’ll be taking part in a live chat at the Daily Beast being organized by Jace Lacob, and featuring some fellow critics as well as some other prominent folks from within the post-air analysis community – you can join the discussion at 2pm ET via this link.