“And Now His Watch Is Ended”
April 21st, 2013
“Influence is largely a matter of patience.”
As Olenna Tyrell sits in her garden at King’s Landing, she schools one of her young charges on the silliness of the House Tyrell words. “Growing strong,” she argues, lacks any of the strength associated with “Winter is coming” or “We do not sow”; the golden rose, meanwhile, certainly doesn’t strike fear in the way the direwolf or the kraken might.
And while Olenna is willfully eliding the thorns of which she is queen, and the way we could see Margaery’s growing power in King’s Landing as evidence of the sigil’s representativeness, I also think there’s something about Game of Thrones’ approach to storytelling here. This is a show where stories don’t always progress like direwolves or krakens, often growing incrementally on a week-by-week basis. Watching the show, you sort of have to take the Tyrell words as your motto: if you give stories time to grow, you may well be rewarded.
“And Now His Watch Is Ended” concludes on one of the series’ best sequences, Daenerys’ overthrow of the slavers of Astapor and her triumphant freeing of the Unsullied. It’s incredibly satisfying, perhaps impressively so given that it is told through a grand total of four scenes over the first three episodes. It’s a unique story structure for the series, as it really lacks any relationship to other ongoing storylines: while Joffrey’s talk of Targaryens certainly reminds us of Dany’s claim to Westeros, her actual storyline has to serve as its own engine. This isn’t a new phenomenon for Dany, but this is the most effectively her storyline has been managed, in part because the four scenes we get are paced extraordinarily well.
It’s a model the show would do well to follow, and one the show will have to navigate at least once more this season.
I don’t quite have time to write an exhaustive review, so I’m going to focus on Dany’s storyline as it has unfolded this season. I went back and rewatched the scenes to this point, and wasn’t shocked to discover they are small in number:
Scene 1: Dany and Dragons at Sea [1:49]
Scene 2: Viewing the Unsullied, Barristan’s arrival [7:16]
Scene 3: Walk of Punishment, Bartering a Dragon [6:49]
Scene 4: A Dragon is Not a Slave [6:20]
Outside of the introduction sequence, these are long scenes for the show, sustained glimpses of Dany’s storyline that nonetheless function as part of a larger whole. They’re also scenes that are nicely transformed by the reveal at the end, something that I’m guessing worked particularly well for non-readers. The fact that Dany speaks Valyrian isn’t something that only readers could figure out: while the show has never explicitly discussed her language abilities, it’s part of her heritage, and I can imagine some people wondered given the protracted interest in translation whether Dany could understand what was being said. Knowing doesn’t make it any less satisfying when she first speaks Valyrian to the Unsullied, as it’s still a triumphant moment for a character who spend too much of the second season scrambling instead of acting.
However, once you realize that she’s understood everything Kraznys has said, going back and watching that first scene takes on a whole new meaning. You can see the exact moment when she decides she’s going to purchase them in order to save them, in order to set them free. It’s a great performance from Emilia Clarke, in that her confidence is such that it can be read as both ignorant hubris and calculated strategy depending on your level of knowledge. The clues are all there if you’re paying attention, and revisiting only heightened the satisfaction of seeing Dany put Kraznys to the flame, and called attention to how the direction by Alex Graves and the great music by Ramin Djawadi played a huge role in making the sequence in tonight’s episode so successful.
It’s a tightly constructed narrative, necessary because it’s not able to connect with any other storylines. In the second season, it seemed like they didn’t know how to handle this, and struggled to get the Qarth story moving quickly enough to keep Dany a vital part of the series. Here, they’re managed to do a lot with a little, increasing not the amount of scenes featuring Dany but the length of those scenes, and the clarity of the storytelling. The use of the audience’s ignorance to Dany understanding the subtitles—at least among those who didn’t piece it together—also gives this episode a sense of revelation, something else they struggled with last season. As more characters are dispersed in this way, treating those narratives as isolated structures with their own story beats—rather than necessarily part of larger narratives—may well be a necessary step for the show.
It helps that they’re inheriting a more interesting Dany storyline, but it’s also something they want to work with in Theon’s storyline as well. It’s following the same principle, with brief sequences building to a reveal in tonight’s episode. While there are still questions left unanswered—like, for example, who Iwan Rheon’s character is—it avoids a more linear form of storytelling driven by plot. Instead, there’s that sense of revelation, of little mysteries being solved while larger mysteries remain. Knowing now that Rheon’s character is not Theon’s friend, the information he shared with him just before that revelation takes on a new meaning, depending on who Rheon is aligned with.
It functions as a way to activate meaning in a storyline that could lack meaning for non-readers. While the storyline might remain vague, and its connection to other narratives may yet be unclear to those who don’t know where this is heading, this initial reveal can at least push viewers to reconsider what they’ve seen in a different light. In writing my pre-air thoughts, I wondered how the fragmented narrative could cause issues for those who haven’t read the books, but rewatching the episodes week-to-week I was struck by how Dany’s reveal pushed me to want to revisit those previous episodes, something that I don’t think has to do with me being a reader. And the more viewers who want to revisit something, who want to explore the show’s seriality on a deeper level, the more those viewers will begin to emulate the kind of viewer engagement that enables the show to overcome its fragmentation and maintain viewer interest.
These storylines are part of a larger episode that doesn’t reveal anything new, mostly following the threads from the previous episodes in predictably linear—but effective—ways. None of those storylines feature a game-changing moment, nor do they explicitly push us to rewatch earlier sequences. However, the more the show seeks to redefined the rules of its storylines, the most scenes like Tywin promising Cersei he’s doing everything he can to save Jaime could take on deeper meaning when we learn what exactly his plan entails. Tywin has now had two similar scenes with Tyrion and Cersei where he’s been writing and then sealing letters: who are the letters for, and what do they say? It could just be a stage direction, but it could also be something that becomes rewritten later on, something that was hidden in plain sight.
As a result, while Dany and Theon’s storylines might currently be standing on their own, the way the storylines work to engage the viewer in rethinking what they’ve seen so far can have the added impact of reading new meaning—or at least the potential for additional meaning—into scenes that otherwise might seem procedural, helping the show overcome a lack of explicit “action” in some storylines as it moves further into the third season.
- Varys’ story with the sorcerer is an episode highlight, but it also serves to emphasize the presence of magic in an episode which also features both Melisandre and Beric Dondarrion discussing the Lord of Light and the sacrifices we make to him. We might not be seeing a lot of magic, but its presence is being amplified, and that’s something the episode drew out nicely here.
- Lena Headey did some really nice work in Cersei’s confrontation with Tywin, nicely building on how the Queen of Thorns’ talk of male stupidity put her in the frame of mind necessary to confront her father on the subject. That he chided her for allowing Joffrey to make so many mistakes only further twists the knife as Margaery proves more adept at influencing him than she ever was. The political side of King’s Landing has been complex and compelling this season, with a range of different characters making strong impressions.
- I know Olenna said to leave it to the philosophers, but “What happens when a non-existent bumps against the decrepit?” is too good not to raise again here.
- Not much all that shocking in the Night’s Watch storyline, but I did like Mormont’s pause during the funeral, having not known where the dead man had come from. It was a nice final beat for the character before his death, a sign of his humanity as well as his sense of honor (as he still spoke of a man he barely knew as though the Watch would never see another like him).
- There was some discussion in last week’s comments that perhaps Pod’s sexual prowess was some kind of trick on Tyrion’s part to give him a sense of self-worth, and the way Ros talks about the event to Varys offers no clear answer on that response. Is the scene meant to make us skeptical (since the prostitutes aren’t talking about details)? Or is it just meant to remind us of something light and funny?
- Alfie Allen did some really great acting in his scene confessing his sins—and his sense that Ned was his true father—to Rheon’s character, which only made Rheon’s sadistic smile upon throwing Theon back into his torture chamber more effective.
- Relevant to my day job: the University of Wiscons-Madison Carillon Tower played the Game of Thrones theme recently, which is quite a feat of tower bell playing.