“The North Remembers”
April 1st, 2012
“For the night is dark and full of terrors.”
Game of Thrones is a very different show now than it was when the first season began last April. “Winter is Coming,” the series premiere, was an introduction to the world of Westeros, the characters who inhabit it, and the basic principles of honor which would be torn asunder over the course of the next ten episodes. It was a hint at the dangers that lurked beyond the wall, a glimpse of the paths being forged for those south of it, and a beginning of what would become a much larger, and on some level never-ending, journey.
By comparison, “The North Remembers” tells a very different story. Those dangers are now more real, those paths well trodden, and that journey more expansive than that first episode could have established. Where there was one king there are now four, each staking a claim on power that might well lie in the hands of those who wear no crown and yet play their games behind the scenes, and there are more Kings and Queens waiting in the wings for their opportunity to strike in the future.
However, the strategies of these two episodes are nearly identical, each tasked with providing a bird’s eye – or, rather, comet’s eye – view of the narrative map of the series as it stands at this very moment. While “Winter is Coming” was introducing characters for the first time, “The North Remembers” is fittingly enough about restoring the audience’s memory. Using similar strategies to the series premiere, the episode drops in on the various story threads we left back in June, a helpful reminder for those who haven’t revisited the first season on DVD or HBO Go.
On some level the reliance on exposition – and, yes, maybe even a little bit of sexposition to go along with it – is disappointing for those of us who don’t necessarily need the refresher. However, even if we take the basic function of “The North Remembers” to be jogging the audience’s memory, that doesn’t preclude it from being entertaining or compelling in its own right. Indeed, what struck me about the exposition in the second season premiere is how thrilling it was: because of the new potentials it reveals, and because of the connection we have made to these characters, it is exciting simply to drop in to see how they are faring, an excitement the premiere harnesses quite brilliantly. It may not be the start of a new story, per se, but it successfully transitions the audience from fevered excitement to focused anticipation, transforming the vague path forward into clear journeys up the Kingsroad, beyond The Wall, across the Red Waste, and through the complicated battle lines of the clash of kings.
As with “Winter is Coming,” “The North Remembers” is a very writerly episode of television. While the following three episodes transition fairly casually between scenes, much as one would expect from a television show balancing multiple storylines, this episode is very interested in threading together particular story developments. It uses the fiery comet, newly appeared in the sky, to serve as a direct bridge between various journeys. It doesn’t connect every scene to the point of being a gimmick, mind you, but its presence offers an excuse to visually connect storylines happening worlds apart, the kind of excuse that the show will take given the difficulties in balancing these diverging narratives.
There is also a bit more hand-holding here than there is elsewhere. While the credits already lay out some of the changes in location, introducing Dragonstone into the equation for example (followed by another new locale next week), the brief chyrons from “Winter is Coming” reappear to remind us what Winterfell looks like, or making sure we know that a military camp featuring Stark banners is, in fact, the “Stark Camp.” [Edit: Because HBO is tricky like that, these chryons disappeared between when screeners were sent out and when the episode aired, so this no longer applies]. I would question their necessity in these instances: even the most casual of viewers should be able to figure out that Joffrey celebrating his name day is happening in King’s Landing. However, it’s probably not a bad idea to remind viewers that Jon and the Night’s Watch have gone “Beyond the Wall,” and that Dany and her Khalasar have traveled into the Red Waste. While you could have simply handled these all through dialogue, the chyrons offer a clarity that dialogue would not.
They also help justify the inclusion of a chyron for Dragonstone, the most prominent new location that appears in the episode (and, really, the season at large). While there is a conveniently located stone dragon in the very first shot of the island, a brilliantly-lit journey as the castle’s Maester runs to stop Melisandre’s burning of the Seven, the chyron immediately confirms that this is a new location. While the show has done a good job of constructing distinct worlds, budget still constrains them from building an entire Dragonstone, meaning the scene is shot on a largely nondescript beach. In these instances, the chryons achieve immediate recognition, allowing the viewer to focus on the implications of the scene in question rather than at guessing its location.
It’s especially important in that scene, given how much information is being communicated. It’s our first introduction to three prominent characters, one of whom we know based on reputation (Stannis Baratheon), and two who we have had no interaction with. It’s a scene that is filled with exposition but never feels like exposition, as most of it is told through subtle interactions. We realize Davos holds some power when the Maester turns to him for advice on how to proceed, and we learn he’s somewhat conflicted with this new development when he is among the last to kneel to their new god – Liam Cunningham doesn’t actually get much to do in the scene, but he sells those moments beautifully, nicely connecting with the character I know (and, I would hope, communicating those same values to non-readers). I also loved that brief moment at the end where Stannis forgets to wait for his wife: she doesn’t speak a word (in any of the four episodes I’ve seen, actually), and it’s not a terribly important point, but it does “pay off” in due time.
Obviously, Melisandre’s introduction is less subtle, but that’s part of the point. While I very much enjoy the subtlety that Stephen Dillane is bringing to Stannis, in particular his editing of the letter being sent to the realm regarding his claim to the thrones (revealing quite definitively that copy-editing is the window into a person’s true nature), Carice Van Houten makes the greater impact through Melisandre’s forceful presence here. She’s the one delivering the powerful monologues and rallying Stannis’ troops, and she’s also the one downing poison without any ill effects when the Maester tries to poison her. While Stannis may be the King by name, it is Melisandre who seems to wield the power.
It’s a thread we could follow into King’s Landing, where Cersei and Tyrion both position themselves to gain control of an unruly Joffrey sitting on the throne. It’s also a thread we could follow to Jon Snow, who still believes himself to have power despite being only a lowly steward as Lord Commander Mormont leads them deeper beyond The Wall. Neither storyline advances particularly far in the premiere, but they follow two separate paths: while Tyrion’s arrival in King’s Landing shakes up the existing dynamic, giving Peter Dinklage new foils and breathing more life into Lena Headey’s Cersei, Jon’s objection to Craster’s behavior is a pretty basic continuation of his inability to handle authority from last season. There is nothing wrong with continuation, per se, but the show is definitely balancing the new and the old in this premiere, with some other storylines (like Robb’s camp) lacking the injection of new blood that we see elsewhere.
That’s natural, though, given just how many different storylines we’re following at this point. While Game of Thrones is telling a story with an incredible sense of scale, it is very much a macro-level of scale, established through a large number of storylines which cover a wide geographic area. In truth, the show remains limited in its depiction of scale on the micro-level: the CGI shot of King’s Landing as Shae observes her new domain fails to achieve the verisimilitude it strives for, and “Beyond the Wall” just means “the immediate area around Craster’s Keep.” However, the earlier establishing shot of the frozen lands beyond the Wall sells the scale that the show wants to evoke, and we’ve come to know the general appearance of these locations enough that we no longer need to see Winterfell’s courtyard to know that it’s there. We’ve also come to understand, as the season’s pre-air discussion has established, that the show needs to cut corners in early episodes to allow for scale where it matters most later in the season, a trade-off I think most of us are willing to take provided there is no world in which unlimited funds could be made available.
Instead, the focus remains more on mapping out the broader areas of Westeros, the kingdom that these kings desire to rule. It’s particularly prominent this season given the painted table that sits in Stannis’ throne room (shaped, in case it wasn’t clear, like Westeros), and the concerns over the dissolution of that continent within any power-sharing arrangement. Logic would suggest that Stannis – should he be unwilling to mend fences with his brother – join forces with Robb Stark, splitting the kingdom into two, but Stannis refuses to allow for Westeros to be dissolved. Robb would be willing to take those terms, already suggesting to the Lannisters that the North be split on its own, but for others the idea of limiting power is off the table. Meanwhile, while the North sees itself as distinct, and the South sees itself as superior, wildling Craster seems them all as Sourtherners compared to those who live beyond The Wall.
It’s all a reminder that, while every episode begins with the same map, people within different regions would see that map differently. “North” and “South” are discursive, not unlike the meaning of the red comet: as Osha points out, it means something different to everyone depending on what they need it to mean to give them the power to move forward. Similarly, the books make more explicit that the legend of Lightbringer suggests much more than a generic sword being set on fire, and yet the power of the legend is enough to get Stannis’ people to rally around the Lord of Light, which is all it really needs to accomplish. You can see Benioff and Weiss getting great mileage out of these discursive functions, drawing out the distinctions between different groups of people based on their approach to geography, astrology, or history.
Exposition, then, becomes less about establishing definitive accounts and more about the person providing the exposition. While Tyrion’s greetings upon his arrival at King’s Landing technically provide reminders about Tyrion’s own “victory” in battle and Ned Stark’s death at the hands of Ser Ilyn Payne, the way he broaches the subject says much about his attitude towards Joffrey, and his empathy for Sansa’s position. The scene is exposition, yes, but it’s exposition that contributes to our understanding of Tyrion, which will continue to play out as he works his way into the power struggles in the capitol, and is another fine reminder of just how terrible a person Joffrey can be.
There is nothing wrong with reminders, in other words, when they are engaging and compelling in their own right. “The North Remembers” does feature a fair deal of exposition, but it’s beautifully composed, telling a clearly crafted but undeniably effective story. It takes some tight storytelling to touch base with every single storyline, some of which will sit out some of the episodes that follow, but there’s a really natural flow to this piece. The murder of Robert’s bastards provides a stirring conclusion in general, but it’s particularly elegant (as elegant as it can be within tragedy) the way it transitions us into the question of Arya’s whereabouts after both Cersei and Catelyn were remarking on it earlier in the episode.
It’s also elegant in how it reminds us that small stories still matter. Martin’s narrative might be about war, but it’s more often about the people on the margins of that conflict. Although “The North Remembers” spends time laying out the importance of four kings staking their claims, those final scenes remarked on how those innocent children and the others marching up the Kingsroad are not truly part of this war. They are representative of the unseen refugees barred from the city, left to live or die in the field of battle, and their presence here reminds us once more that a crown does not make you the focus of this story, a reminder that will resonate with the season as a whole, as well as those beyond it (which I’d expect will at least number one, if not two, within 48 hours).
- While we’ll tackle sexposition more directly next week, where we get our first indisputable example of the season, the scene at Littlefinger’s brothel at the end of the episode is a fine example of a scene where sex was not necessary. You could have established that it was a brothel without the over-exaggerated simulated sex that opens the sequence, and the nudity was not necessary to position Ros as a figure of authority. However, a brothel is a place where those acts would logically take place, so the “realism” argument comes into play – curious to hear how others responded to it, and we’ll delve into that more next week.
- Interesting to note that Tyrion clarifies to Shae that he isn’t from King’s Landing – when we haven’t seen Casterly Rock, it’s sometimes tough to avoid associating the Lannisters with King’s Landing, but it’s an important distinction that I liked hearing.
- The other major shift between seasons is the move to CGI direwolves, which worked quite well for me. I’d actually argue Grey Wind’s threatening of Jaime is the weakest case, and I quite liked what I saw of the new wolves in subsequent episodes.
- Speaking of CGI, we get a brief look at Drogon, and I might as well warn you now – it’s the last look you’ll get at a dragon within the first four episodes. They’re being economical with them, as well, which is probably for the best budget-wise.
- One other word of warning heading forward: a lot of things will happen in some storylines, and not very much will happen in others. The pacing is definitely inconsistent, if not necessarily bad, as the season progresses, which reflects the book’s pacing quite well, actually.
- We only get a brief glimpse at Winterfell, but I quite liked Bran dealing with the various lords, and the way Maester Luwin knowingly brushed them aside quickly to keep from letting things get out of hand. There was a real “business as usual” feel to it that I appreciated.