Game of Thrones – “The Prince of Winterfell”

“The Prince of Winterfell”

May 20th, 2012

“One game at a time, my friend.”

Tyrion speaks true, in this instance: for the last two weeks, I’ve prioritized my professional responsibilities over what are ultimately my personal ones, meaning that writing about Game of Thrones became infeasible. Accordingly, one might expect that I’d have a lot to say about “The Prince of Winterfell,” the eighth episode of the show’s second season, given that I haven’t had a chance to say anything about the two episodes that came before.

However, in all honesty, we are reaching the point in the season where I don’t have a whole lot to say. With very little being introduced, and with so many storylines fully in motion, evaluating the show at this point is difficult: we have not yet reached the climax, the moment where everything is meant to coalesce, but we are also past the point where new ideas are being introduced. “The Prince of Winterfell” falls pretty much in line with what we’ve seen in the past few episodes, taking us mostly down a logical path toward what previews for next week position as the “Clash of Kings” that the season’s literary origins refer to.

Until we reach that point, though, the show is continuing to ignore Tyrion’s advice and tackle as many games as it possibly can. It’s a strategy that makes “The Prince of Winterfell” a wide-ranging episode which has to do a little work in a lot of places to get the show into position for the next moves in a whole new set of directions.

“The Prince of Winterfell” wastes plenty of time with one of its cliffhangers and very little with the other. In the latter case, we quickly learn that Catelyn has in fact set Jamie free with Brienne to return him to King’s Landing. However, in the former case, it takes until the very end of the episode for the show to absolutely confirm without a shadow of a doubt that Bran and Rickon remain alive and well, camped out in the crypts of Winterfell. I highly doubt anyone was truly convinced that Bran and Rickon were dead (although the show never actively showed its hand beyond the reminder in the “Previously On” segment that Bran had suggested it was too risky to go to the farm for food), and so I doubt anyone spent the whole episode worried for the two boys, meaning that it likely wasn’t delayed because that made it more suspenseful. Rather, it was delayed because in an episode with a whole lot of ground to cover, the two events that make up the Winterfell storyline (Yara’s arrival and Osha and Luwin’s conversation) serve as bookends rather than actual narrative threads within the storyline.

You can see similar patterns throughout the episode, of course. Jon’s experience north of the Wall gets two scenes: one where he is brought to the Lord of Bones (Rattleshirt, by another name) and discovers that Qhorin has also been captured, and another where he and Qhorin are marching and the latter seems to have some sort of plan to get them out of this circumstance. Similarly, Robb’s relationship with Talisa is built in two sequences: one where he is walking with her in the woods, and the other when she arrives at his tent and then they fall into a passionate love-making session.

I raise this point not because these storyline were inherently ineffective, but I actually thought most of them worked pretty well. However, we are reaching a point at which each episode is juggling so many storylines that it raises questions about what work these scenes are supposed to be doing. With at least two scenes in an episode, Benioff and Weiss seem to be arguing, you can show narrative progress – all of these storylines advance from where we left them, transitioning from one circumstance (like Robb and Talisa’s flirtations) to another (like Robb and Talisa stripping off one another’s clothes). Without an inbetween, though, this progress hinges on the audience being able to fill in the gaps, and to bring in information from previous episodes. It requires moments of exposition (like Osha explaining to Luwin their strategy once they escaped the castle, or Qhorin telling Jon what happened once he disappeared), and it requires a certain shorthand in that these are the only scenes we’re going to see with these characters in the episode. Subtlety is often absent when you only get two scenes in an episode, as nobody is going to remember subtlety when it comes time for next week’s climax.

This is the struggle of Game of Thrones when it’s balancing this many storylines, trying to keep certain circumstances “in play” in order to lay the groundwork for the future. For example, Sam’s scene with Grenn and Delorous Edd discovering the giant stash of dragonglass is a scene that has zero connection to anything we’ve seen before, and sticks out like foreshadowing as a result. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to suggest that the dragonglass will be important later, as the singular nature of the sequence and Sam’s overly descriptive historical context would indicate this is something we may want to remember. It serves the same basic function as the scene with Dany and Jorah, or the scene with Stannis and Davos: it reminds you the characters exist, it allows them to explain their current circumstance, and it gives you enough information to reactivate your awareness of that circumstance so that something can happen there in the episodes which follow.

I raise these points not to suggest that “The Prince of Winterfell” was devoid of artistry, but rather to emphasize that it was a compartmentalized, functional episode more than a larger, cohesive unit. While some storylines are given slightly more time to work with (with Arya, Tyrion, and Robb all given a bit more room to stretch their legs as they prepare to make their next move), this was ultimately that calm before the storm, the roll call in which viewers are reminded where everyone was before all hell breaks loose. The scenes were all generally well-rendered, and the show largely eschews a sense of urgency for that sense of uncertainty that rests in waiting for one’s fate to be determined.

In that sense, Dany’s scene with Jorah becomes a microcosm for the episode’s larger struggle: in a situation where a battle must be fought, are you going to barricade yourself from the enemy, run away to a safer location, or take the fight to those who dare to challenge you? Dany wants to run to the House of the Undying to rescue her children, while Jorah wants to take her on a ship to Astapor, but no one—it seems—truly believes that staying in that room is a sound strategy. Doing nothing is not an option in the world of Westeros, at least not unless you’re Lysa Arryn sitting safe in the Eyrie or Walder Frey holding a tight grip on a key bargaining chip. Sometimes this means that people like Theon have to take drastic action (or at least fake taking drastic action by taking another drastic action) to prove themselves worthy, and in other cases it means Robb Stark being unable to keep it in his pants when his lust for Talisa overwhelms his commitment to the Frey girl he’s never met. Of course, both of those situations are consequences of other situations in which their parents had to make similar decisions while in tough circumstances, whether it’s Balon giving up Theon to Ned Stark as part of his surrender or Catelyn bartering Robb’s husbandry in order to cross at the Twins and potentially save her husband.

It is for this reason that discounting episodes like this one as uneventful seems short-sighted, as there are always consequences to even the smallest of actions. This seems to be the point the show is making in turning Ros into a martyr, with Cersei believing her to be the whore that Tyrion loves in King’s Landing. It’s something that I know a lot of people have been predicting based on the absence of certain characters and Ros’ continue prominence this season, and it largely works in terms of dovetailing with the books (where Cersei mistakes another woman for Tyrion’s whore) while using someone we have become familiar with over the course of the series. We may have had many conversations about the relevance of the character to the larger plot, which Jace Lacob talked to actress Esme Bianco about late last week, but Ros was someone we recognized, someone we knew Tyrion was familiar with, and someone who we could at least vaguely relate to.

This isn’t to say we couldn’t relate to her more, of course. We know nothing about her beyond what she’s told men within the context of her employment (albeit not always while performing sexual acts), and that ultimately keeps the character at arm’s length even in this moment. If we feel sympathy for her, it’s a basic sympathy of recognition, of feeling that this person just trying to make a living has been unjustly singled out based on a gift Tyrion gave her months ago (which the show first introduced during her time with Theon). While I give them credit for elevating the character and using her somewhat bizarre omnipresence within the series to create a more substantial narrative moment untied to her nude body, it feels more like making lemonade with lemons than a true narrative progression. After all: how much narrative progression can one actually achieve in a single moment in a single scene?

That does become the challenge for “The Prince of Winterfell,” which is always wondering how much narrative progression is necessary to satisfy viewers. Is Brienne and Jaime launching off into the river enough to keep your mind racing wondering about their fate? Or does that end up fading away compared to the more extensive time with Arya, who learns of Tywin’s departure, makes plans with Jaqen regarding her final deathwish, and then makes her escape with Gendry and Hot Pie? That potential correlation between narrative time and narrative impact is something that I’m really curious about, and something I’m not sure I can properly judge given how often my mind is filling in the gaps. Next week, though, it appears we’re reaching the point where the show plans to start filling in some gaps of its own, a different challenge that the show will need to face head-on.

Cultural Observations

  • Lots of talk about childhoods this week, with Yara reminiscing about Theon as a baby (he was terrible) and Tyrion and Cersei both thinking back to their own childhoods (and Jaime’s) in preparing for war.
  • The show finally got around to telling the “Onion Knight” back story, laying out the siege of Storm’s End in greater detail as Davos and Stannis chat on their approach to King’s Landing. It’s an interesting character detail, and a nice piece of history, so I was glad to see it communicated even if it wasn’t exactly subtle in its deployment.
  • Catelyn’s decision to free Jaime makes sense on paper, but it’s interesting how the show chose to bury the logic in Littlefinger’s speech to Catelyn back at Renly’s camp as opposed to giving Catelyn more time to explain herself here. It resulted in Michelle Fairley getting very little screentime to justify her decision, and I’m wondering if there might have been value in giving her and Robb more time to talk about it. In the books, Catelyn comes to this conclusion on her own (without Littlefinger laying out the potential for her), and her relative silence here didn’t do much to emphasize her agency, which is a criticism some fans have had for the show’s portrayal of the character.
  • I love that little moment when Jaqen accuses Arya of having no honor and she just shrugs – as we’re often reminded, her father was a man of honor, but Arya is following a different path. Heck, so is Robb given his pre-adulterous affair – the Stark children are always going to walk in their father’s footsteps, and so it’ll be interesting to see how his memory remains as the show moves forward.
  • If you want to read yet more about sexposition, albeit this time tied to questions about race and ethnicity within the context of the adaptation, check out Racialicious for a particularly interesting take.


Filed under Game of Thrones

13 responses to “Game of Thrones – “The Prince of Winterfell”

  1. j

    I’ll repeat what I said on twitter: This was a terrible ep for TV Purposes. The one big exciting payoff that was set up last week? Didn’t happen…the house of the undying is likely delayed to ep 10 (if Blackwater takes up all of next week). So Dany feels entirely like delaying.

    We’re suppose to care about Qhorin being caught….why? And why would they believe Jon has turned when he’s been caught and turned in by Ygritte in the first place!

    Roz – you know, I bet you 90% of those viewing didn’t recognize her in that scene (I didn’t) and 95% of viewers have no clue when Tyrion gave her the lion. It just appears so random that Cersei would make that error (unless Varys told her, which seems odd).

    Why show Bran this week? You can show him Ep 10 – and the discovery of his survival in the book is far more suspenseful and interesting – and there’s no reason to change it.

    And the RomCom between Rob and !NotJeyne is terrible.

    Just… Nothing happens, more setup for things that won’t happen next week, and characters don’t make sense. This was the first GOT ep that failed miserably for me.

  2. Here on the eve of battle, things are moving fast. Ten hours can hardly retell 1040 pages, so this episode packs in a lot of story in a very rapid way. There are some great scenes, particularly with Tyrion (as usual), but the whole feels a little disjointed. My full episode review here.

  3. I look over the web and it seems that a lot of viewers are filling in the gaps in rather substantial ways, without even realizing it.
    Some are even claiming this episode folows the books more closely which is absolutely hilarious … except they do it as a reaction to previous episodes.
    To me it all looks like a giant attempt of inventing excuses and whitewashing across the board.

    I dont care what this episode “wanted” to do or what its “purpose” is.
    How it goes about what it shows is all that matters. and this one does so badly on many, many levels.

    Quick examples: Jaime and Brienne just happen to find a rowing boat left for them did they? All nice and new to boot.
    -were they not meant to steal a small sailing boat?
    – was that more logical solution or not?

    They are not carrying any food or water. Is Kinglanding so close or we are just supposed not to pay any attention to that because its a tv show so… what… it must be dumb and shallow?

    Worse – Jaqen refuses to kill Tywin.
    Did anyone notice that?
    He refuses. He actually says: “Nope, cant do that. Sorry.”(paraphrased of course)

    And then after two seconds he gets distressed about his name being named, after blathering about gods and vows to them.
    Does that make any sense at all? Just on its own.
    if you consider the book this crap is supposed to adapt, it of course gets even worse.

    Weasel soup?

    What about Varys suddenly and out of the blue telling Tyrion that Daenerys is alive and has Dragons? What for? I mean in that situation they were in.
    I think it was mentioned in the first season although… fortunately i can remember very little of it, But we never heard a word about that until now and now Tyrion dismisses it.

    and on and on and on…

    btw, if anyone is for some reviews this show deserves…
    Four Extra Emotionally Engaging reviews are up, in totally random order.
    See them all at:

    Dont worry people… its all in pretty pictures.

  4. Phoe

    In the book Cat releases Jaime after hearing about the alleged death of Bran and Rickon so she can at least save Sansa. For me in the book Cat becomes unhinged because of the destruction of her family while watching her father die and remembering certain things from her childhood which leads her to that decision.

    • Exactly, and she thinks Arya is most probably dead already.

      Plus this stupid episode didnt even f`ing show Catelyn making Jaime vow to her, not only that he will send her Sansa but that he will never again take up arms against Starks or their allies.

      And that after last episode ending with her drawing the sword from Brienne.

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  6. If I remember rightly there wasn’t much happening in episode 8 last season either, it was all set up for the climactic episode 9 with Ned in prison, Robb and Catelyn bartering for position and Dany mourning Drogo. For Ned’s execution in season 1 read Battle of Blackwater in season 2. Then just like episode 10 in the 1st season episode 10 this season will set the characters up for the 3rd season.

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  9. belinda

    i sort of wonder why there hasn’t been any emphasis/foreshadowing on tyrion’s battle plans in the past episodes concerning training the soldiers for one particular thing that Cersei didn’t think of – which was sort of the one defining thing that separated his plan of defense from hers.

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