“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.
- 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.