“Garden of Bones”
April 22nd, 2012
“Too much pain will spoil the pleasure.”
One of my general criticisms for “Garden of Bones,” which is Vanessa Taylor’s first script credit on Game of Thrones after joining as a co-executive producer this season, it’s that choosing a pull quote was a bit too difficult. It was an episode filled with lines that felt like they were aiming too much towards broader thematic ideas, pulling me out of the moment and placing me into the head of the writer.
It doesn’t mean that the episode isn’t filled with a lot of great sequences, or that those lines aren’t evocative of key themes that are valuable to the series’ future. However, there’s something about the episode’s exposition that calls attention to itself: a rarely seen character emerges with new confidence early on so that his comeuppance later has relevance, a single character out of a larger group is awkwardly signaled out by his full name for no reason other than informing the viewer who he is, and another name is conveniently used in a conversation just as another character needs to learn it.
It’s not enough, as noted, to entirely derail the larger function of “Garden of Bones,” but there does come a point where an episode that begins with a Westerossi Meet Cute begins to flow less naturally, a point that this episode reached as the exposition burden of the early parts of the season seems to come to a head.
That introduction came out harsher than what I expected when I sat down to write it, but it’s something that became far clearer watching the episode through the second time. Part of it comes from knowing the books, and thus mentally categorizing information into “Things From the Books” and “Things Not From the Books” – for better or for worse, that categorization makes exposition far more apparent than it would to a non-reader, who is actually learning all information at the same time. While my Mother might be more confused watching the show than I am, for example, she might be less distracted by the way information is imparted, which could be a blessing.
To clarify, I do think that the show has done a good job expanding the story in general, and I am not suggesting the show should have followed the books slavishly. However, the aforementioned Westerossi Meet Cute between Robb and Oona Chaplin’s mysterious Volantis-born field medic fell flat on second viewing especially, so clearly serving a particular function that I’m wondering if even non-readers could tell it was an expansion of the book’s narrative. While Robb’s story is told through the actions of other characters in the books, his absence used as a narrative device my Martin, the show is smart to ignore this and actually give Richard Madden something to do given that “out of sight, out of mind” is a major problem in ensemble dramas like this one – my Mother, if she’ll excuse me using her as an example, was confused about who Renly was last week because we hadn’t seen him in so long.
The option of Robb sitting out much of this season was not a viable one, but this felt too contrived. This wasn’t a seed being planted so much as a plant being moved into place, fully formed in our brains based on the romantic tropes being played with. In truth, the show actually hasn’t dealt much with actual romance to this point, so this is the first time they’ve had to deal with a more traditional romantic pairing that wasn’t caught up in some sort of arrangement (Sansa and Joffrey, Renly and Margaery) or already established as a couple (Ned and Catelyn, Cersei and Jaime). The problem is that I’m pretty sure any viewer who watched this would know immediately that she is intended as Robb’s love interest, and there’s a simplicity to that which I object to. Oona Chaplin is fine as the character, and I actually feel the relationship will help the show in the long run, but for the moment it lacked the fluidity of the show’s more compelling narrative moves.
This discussion of romantic relationships does raise one more point that I wanted to address, based around Joffrey’s less-than-romantic interaction with Ros and one of her companions. In a great interview with Alyssa Rosenberg, Bryan Cogman discusses the now ubiquitous “sexposition,” rightfully objecting (as I did a few weeks ago) to the term’s use to describe nudity more generally. However, he also makes a more general statement about the term that I want to address briefly in connection with this scene (which is not sexposition, to be clear, but shares something in common):
“Of course, there were plenty of exposition scenes that did feature sex (hence the term) but I also take exception with the idea that the sex is unrelated to what’s being discussed… but that’s a whole other conversation.“
Without perhaps getting into the whole conversation, I do agree that sexposition often says something about sex. However, I’d also argue it says something very problematic about sex, at least in its most common manifestation. There is a logic to using sex as a space for exposition, as it’s an environment which takes place in private and shows people often at their most vulnerable, thus making them more likely to open up. The sequences also often reveal something about the sexual politics of Westeros, which are a key part of Martin’s books even if he explores them through language more often than through the carnal act in and of itself.
The problem is where that lesson about sexual politics actually lands. Scenes between characters who are both tied into the story, like Renly or Loras, end up developing those characters in relation to those sexual politics. By comparison, scenes in which Ros or another prostitute are effectively tools to be used to reveal information doesn’t allow for that lesson (about the power dynamics of Westeros as they relate to gender and sexuality) to develop within the female party. Ros was featured in countless exposition sequences, but we never really learned anything more about her character even through her cumulative – oh jeez, that unintentional pun is too terrible to delete – appearances would create that potential. Ros was being positioned as an object within this world, but the fact that she was simultaneously functioning as a narrative object seemed to devalue any larger political statement that could be made here.
I raise this point in part because Cogman’s statement (which I’d love to see him expand on) pushed me to think about more carefully about sexposition in these terms, but also because tonight’s scene with Joffrey and Ros reminded me of this. This isn’t sexposition, eschewing sex entirely for a brutal torture sequences that truly cements Joffrey as television’s worst villain, but it has the same issue in that the prostitutes are underserved by the narrative. The show even suggests narrative that it doesn’t explore – Joffrey tells Ros to deliver the brutalized girl to Tyrion after she’s done under threat of torturing her as well, and yet we never see Tyrion receive that delivery, and he seems no worse for wear when we see him interacting with Lancel later in the episode. The scene is incredibly evocative, with the time-consuming process of loading a crossbow used in a particularly effective fashion to create tension – sorry for all of these terrible puns – in that moment, but the fact that we never pick up on the scene after the fact does create certain narrative and thematic limitations the show would be better off exploring.
Of course, the show doesn’t have time to explore them – it’s a sad reality of a ten-episode season, and I do wonder if that scene of Ros delivering her companion to Tyrion’s chambers was in an early draft of the script. In a way, though, it reveals the tension where exposition is involved: by telling or showing us some things so explicitly, it calls attention to what we don’t know. Sometimes this is valuable, raising questions that we are supposed to be asking, but other times it makes it entirely unclear (as I was discussing with Rowan Kaiser, who’s doing a bangup job covering the show at Press Play) as to what’s going on. Where, for example, was Melisandre birthing that shadow baby at the end of the episode – while “What’s the Shadow Baby going to do?” is a good question, “Where the heck are they?” is one that damages the clarity experienced by the audience for both readers (who are reconciling the scene with one in the novels) and non-readers (who just don’t know what’s going on). It’s a mistake the show has generally done a good job of avoiding since the early parts of the first season, and one that feels like a misstep at this stage in the season.
The sense of place is clearer in the two new locations introduced to this week’s credit sequence. There was a noted thrill during the credits when the move across the narrow sea seemed to be taking a different direction, and the appearance of Qarth likely caught the attention of even those who aren’t eagle-eyed and scouring the credits each week. Going back to James Poniewozik’s pre-season wariness about how the racial dynamics of Qarth would be handled, it’s interesting that Xaro Xhoan Daxos is introduced as a refugee himself (from the Summer Isles), a characterization that helps reconcile the casting with the way the Qartheen are described in Martin’s books and creates an immediate connection with Dany. As a single scene of introduction, outside of the aforementioned awkwardness by which Xaro’s name is mentioned in its entirety, it did its job well: strong material for Emilia Clarke, nice establishment of the uneasy welcome greeting her, and the first scene of real progress in a storyline that doesn’t progress at the same pace as some of the season’s other storylines.
As for Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie’s arrival at Harrenhal, there’s an economy of space – while Qarth is all about the vista Dany sees as she walks through the gates with her dwindling khalasar, the expanse of the city being opened to her, Harrenhal is about that small corral tucked in a little corner. It’s a cost-saving measure, but it’s also a nice metaphor for their captivity, and the little set does some good work in establishing Polliver’s cruelty and eventually their rescue at the hands of Tywin Lannister (which is one of those book to screen changes that I doubt many non-readers would pick up on). Arya adding to her list of names has become a valuable trope (even if their way of getting Polliver’s name into the open was a bit too well-timed), and the momentum from last week remains in place for Arya’s journey.
Of course, much of the momentum lies in the larger plot, which you know is about to get started with a fire priestess is birthing a shadow the night of an ultimatum between two warring brothers. While I may have my quibbles with this episode, that storyline is still largely in interesting shape, and I don’t feel like this has actually derailed anything beyond my personal thoughts on this episode. The storylines that were working will keep working, and the foundations being laid are (for the most part) likely to work well for where the story goes from this point. I expect this will prove a divisive episode among the fan community given how many current changes it reveals (and how many future changes it portends), but I’m less concerned about the impact of those changes and more worried about the awkward impact their forced introduction had on my engagement with this episode. “The Garden of Bones” is not a bad episode of television, but it brought to the surface reservations that the season has to this point avoided.
- I’m not sure how I feel about Littlefinger so easily waltzing into Renly’s camp (and his on-the-nose conversation with Margaery, which just seemed like an excuse to have the character deliver more barely-veiled subtext we already went over last week), but the scenes with Catelyn showcased some great work from Michelle Fairley, who hasn’t had much to do this season.
- I didn’t get to Tyrion above, but his interrogation of Lancel and his rescue of Sansa were both really great sequences. With no Cersei this week, the character’s connection to larger plots was somewhat more abstract, but that didn’t stop Peter Dinklage from doing a fine job with those scenes. One thing I did want to put in a pin in for future weeks is the idea discussed in previous weeks: given how he saves Sansa, is Tyrion a hero in this story? The show seems to be coding that way more than the books, albeit subtly, and I’m finding it quite interesting.
- Charles Dance’s reading of “This one’s a girl, you idiot” was truly delightful – while it’s a departure from the books, using Arya as his cupbearer makes a lot of sense in terms of taking advantage of the great actors playing these smaller roles.
- Speaking of smaller roles, is the show playing coy with the fact they recast the Mountain that Rides? Perhaps it was just the poor quality of the screener, but the decision to obscure his face seemed purposeful, and the fundamental lack of personality seemed at odds with the anger we saw back in the first season.
- As of today, HBO hasn’t sent out any episodes beyond tonight’s, so I have no knowledge of where the show heads from here – very curious to see, though, given the changed laid out here.