June 15, 2014
“You remember where the heart is?”
Each season of Game of Thrones has been an exercise in selective adaptation, but its fourth season has been a feat of adaptive engineering. Working primarily with material from the third book but leaning heavily on the fourth and fifth in certain storylines, it is the season that has emphatically taken the “book-to-season” adaptation comparison off the table.
At the same time, though, the season has been organized around key climaxes taken directly from the third book in the series. Moreso than in other seasons, you could tell the writers were having to stretch storylines to maintain the timing they had established, creating material to flesh out the scenes on The Wall to justify the Battle of Castle Black taking place in episode nine or finding things for Arya and the Hound to do so that their scenes in “The Children” wouldn’t take place until the end of the season.
By and large, I would argue the show was successful in making the season work despite the delaying tactics. This is in part because the storyline in King’s Landing, arguably the most consistently substantial, was built for this timeline, clearly marked by two major events—the Purple Wedding and the Mountain vs. the Viper—with plenty of political intrigue in between. The other reason is that even if the material at the Wall was a bit thin in ways that even last week’s epic showdown couldn’t make up for, the season as a whole maintained a sense of forward momentum. Did this momentum extend to Bran, forgotten for multiple episodes, or to Stannis and Davos’ trip to Braavos? No. But it extended to pretty much every other storyline, and makes “The Children” the most climactic finale the series has managed yet. The inconclusiveness of “The Watchers On The Wall” may have been frustrating, but it guaranteed that there was still lots to resolve even for those of us who aren’t sitting at home with checklists of what’s “supposed” to happen in the episode.
And “The Children” resolved some of it, left some of it untouched, and by and large served as one big—and mostly effective—teaser for what’s to come.
“First Of His Name”
May 4th, 2014
“I need to be more than that.”
There’s two characters that this week’s episode title refers to, even if only one is made explicit.
“First Of His Name” directly refers to Tommen, who is indeed the first King by that name to rule over Westeros. Tommen doesn’t actually do much in the hour, though, his fate a topic of conversation for those around him more than something he gets to decide on his own. Whether in Margaery’s conversation with her grandmother last week, or Margaery’s oh-so calculated performance with Cersei this week, or Cersei’s careful conversation with her father, Tommen’s future is very much a matter of procedure.
By comparison, however, Petyr Baelish makes his own procedure. There is no coronation for “Littlefinger,” as he operates in the slimy underbelly of the political underworld (yes, underworlds have underbellies). He comes from no strong lineage, with no family to support him or noble deeds to give him claim to glory, and so he has had to toil for everything he’s ever earned. He is the first of his name in a different way, in that he is the first member of his family to be Machiavellian enough to angle his way into a position of power, providing the foundation for a legacy of his own moving forward.
This balance between the self-made Littlefinger and the anointed Tommen sits on the periphery of an episode that functions as a highly logical mid-point of the season. And yet their respective paths are placed as guideposts for other characters who are faced with decisions that could lead them down one path or the other, depending on the choices they make in a moment of transition.
April 27th, 2014
“You want to fight pretty, or do you want to win?”
Later this evening, a feature will go live at The A.V. Club that focuses on some of the changes between A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. [Edit: You can find said piece here.] When completing my own contributions to this feature, my interest was less in discussing whether or not the changes involved were good or bad, but rather to consider how the logistics of making a television series necessitated certain changes that had a clear effect on how this story is being told.
It’s fitting that it’s emerging on a night when there’s plenty more to add to the list. “Oathkeeper” is written by Bryan Cogman, who of the show’s writers had the most to live up to when it comes to the text of the original novels. Now a co-producer on the series, Cogman has been the person in the writers’ room with the closest relationships to the books and their lore, and has been the most active of the show’s writers in engaging with the series’ rabid fanbase. Although he never outright swore an oath to fans of the books regarding keeping their spirit intact, he’s been the most directly tied to fan communities, drawing both praise and anger in equal measure as the two narratives play out.
I say “two narratives” because I think it’s necessary at this stage in the game. Ultimately, I feel safe in saying that A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones are telling the same story, but they’re following two different narrative paths to get there, as evidenced by an episode that does a lot of labor in the interest of condensing a sprawling narrative into something more manageable for a television series. The result at times feels like pieces on a chessboard being awkwardly pushed together in ways that break the rules, but they’re rules only some of the show’s audience will even know exist, and rules that—unlike oaths—are made to be broken in the interest of a new set of rules that have developed over the course of this new narrative.
“The Lion and the Rose”
April 13th, 2014
“Blackwater” has often been cited as the definitive Game of Thrones episode, capturing the scale and sheer expense that have come to define the series within television culture. It was also an episode that George R.R. Martin scripted himself, finally seeing the scale he had taken to literature to obtain come to life onscreen (albeit still with a degree of sacrifice to his most ambitious visions for the episode).
At the same time, though, Martin’s scale only rarely manifests as the episode’s bombast. It tends to manifest in minutia, in the sheer detail of individual scenes. This has primarily come in the form of feasts, gallant affairs where Martin revels as much in the food on the table as the people sitting at it. It’s an effort to provide scale not in the form of giant explosions, but in the form of atmosphere—he wants you to feel like you’re there, which is often more about tone than anything else.
It’s something the show has rarely been able to communicate the same way: few scenes have lasted long enough to luxuriate in the environment, and to create that sense of becoming lost in the splendor. The closing sequence of “The Lion and the Rose”—detailing Joffrey and Margaery’s wedding and reception—is one of the first, a carefully designed piece of theater that is all about moving pieces, each more detailed than the next. It’s also a scene that deploys that detail for a specific purpose, crafting a sequence that builds to its conclusion at such a rate that even those who don’t know what’s about to happen know that something is about to happen.
That it’s something both readers and non-readers alike have been waiting for is just the icing on the cake.
June 9th, 2013
“Here only the family name matters.”
As Varys explains this fact to Shae, he’s being pragmatic: he’s trying to help someone whose very existence at King’s Landing threatens her own life and the life of the man she loves. Varys acknowledges that she has made Tyrion better. Varys acknowledges that hers is a true love. And yet Varys also gives her a collection of diamonds, telling her to sail to Pentos and start a new life for herself so that her love can do something good for Westeros without the threat of a single-named woman hanging over him.
It’s dark advice, advice that Shae refuses to take. Despite the fact that we just saw both Robb Stark and Talisa die for following true love over pragmatism, and despite the fact that Jon Snow just took three arrows from the woman he loves, Shae proves what many other characters have learned as well: there is still power in love even when all signs would suggest that trusting in such power will be your undoing.
“Mhysa” is about this love, which may seem strange in light of the fact that last week ended on such a foreboding sendoff for Robb and Catelyn Stark. And yet Game of Thrones needed a new motivation beyond ascending to the throne, a sense of purpose that could evolve beyond the War of the Five Kings and the deaths of Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark which set it off. What “Mhysa” seeks to accomplish is reframe the actions of its characters not as part of a larger power struggle, but rather as actions designed to protect their families or to protect the realm. This is not to say that we are to support the Lannisters’ cruelty or to endorse Melisandre’s sorcery, but rather that we can shift our understanding of their actions away from a part in a larger plot and instead toward what motivated them to take those steps in the first place.
It’s an enriching move that works to build a strong foundation for future seasons, although one that has some issues retroactively making some of the season’s storylines resonate in the way intended. “Mhysa” concludes a third season that was only retroactively revealed—for non-readers, at least—to be the season where Game of Thrones could no longer be simplified to a battle between the Starks of Winterfell and the Lannisters of Casterly Rock, one that did its job without necessarily connecting in the process.
“The Rains of Castamere”
June 2nd, 2013
“The closer you get, the worse the fear gets.”
Every season of Game of Thrones has built to a big event in the season’s ninth episode. As a result, the end of each season has continually created a conflict between those who have read the books and those who haven’t: the pattern means that both parties know the season is building to something major, but only those who have read the books know what that is. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if those people didn’t really, really want to talk about it.
In the first season, I would say fans mostly tried to keep quiet about Ned Stark’s death. The first season hinged on Ned’s story, and the initial shock of his beheading gave the show its big hook that could make casual viewers into fans and help sustain the show moving forward. In the second season, the Battle of Blackwater Bay was a fairly spoiler-free form of anticipation, as there’s nothing to really spoil: no one major dies, Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing is never kept a secret, and the episode was more about execution than surprise (and well-executed it was).
The third season was always going to be the problem. The “Red Wedding” has been on the tips of readers’ tongues since they read the books, considered by most to be the definitive moment in the series. It’s the moment that makes Ned’s death look like just a drop in the bucket, and the clearest evidence of George R.R. Martin’s wanton disregard for his own characters and their happiness. From the time the show first sprung into existence, this has been the moment that book readers were waiting for, and by the time it arrived in the third season there was no longer any concern about letting viewers engage with the series on their own terms out of fear for its future. This season has all been a buildup to this moment, to the point where the phrase “Red Wedding” was something that even those who tried to avoid spoilers were probably familiar with because readers could not contain themselves.
“The Rains of Castamere” arrives with intense expectation, and like many other book readers I sat through the episode with a slightly higher heart rate. As much as I think the fans went too far in proliferating the use of “Red Wedding” and hyping this particular episode as noteworthy, thus providing non-readers enough information to potentially spoil the episode’s conclusion, I can understand why they were excited, and felt that excitement in the moments leading up to the episode and throughout. This is as intense an hour of television that Game of Thrones will produce over the course of its run, and I’d argue it’s a particularly well-executed adaptation that makes some smart choices to salt the wounds left behind by this most storied of literary–and now televisual—weddings.
“Dark Wings, Dark Words”
April 6th, 2013
“I try to know as many people as I can. You never know which one you’ll need.”
When HBO’s decision to order Game of Thrones to pilot was first announced, I went back and began rereading the books in preparation. At the time, I wrote a piece thinking about how the structure of the books—specifically the chapters told from specific characters’ points-of-view—would prove a challenge, but how there remained thematic through-lines that could be capitalized upon.
More recently, Benioff and Weiss have said that they aren’t structuring the show around themes, suggesting they’re for grade school book reports. It’s a silly comment, and I will continue to remark upon clear themes that run through both the series and the novels on which that series is based, but I do think that they’re right on one point: this is not, primarily, structured as a thematic story. And yet, given the fact that the narrative has become dispersed from a clearly outlined conflict—the War of the Five Kings—into a scattered collection of individual narratives, a question is raised: how exactly is the show being structured?
To suggest that Game of Thrones is a character-driven show is not exactly groundbreaking, but I was struck during “Dark Wings, Dark Words” how the show is actually organized by character. In thinking about some of my pre-air thoughts regarding how audiences might respond to some characters better than others, I watched the episode thinking through one primary question: who is this scene about? While the fragmentation of the narrative means that no single episode will be about one single person, the focus of a given scene nonetheless often falls to a single character, and not always the character we might presume it to be. And while there is a collection of new characters introduced in this week’s episode, none of them feel like their scenes were about them so much as the existing characters they were meeting. At the same time, meanwhile, some characters whose existence was once defined by their support of other characters have become subjects of their own storylines, even if their role within the larger narrative hasn’t necessarily changed.
“The Ghosts of Harrenhal”
April 29th, 2012
“I still can’t believe that you’re real.”
Perhaps it’s my relatively unromantic disposition, but I’ve never really considered love in the context of Game of Thrones. It’s obviously part of Martin’s books, but it’s so often quashed, or forbidden, or broken, that it’s hard to identify it as one of the key themes (or even as a theme in some instances). However, as I noted in last week’s review, the introduction of Robb’s love interest reminded us that romance and desire are not entirely foreign concepts within the framework of this story.
However, as “The Ghosts of Harrenhal” observes (and as we’ll see continue into next week’s episode as well), that love is rarely consummated. Sam speaks of Gilly in hypotheticals, in love with a memory more than a real person, while Jorah’s love for Dany (captured in the quote above) makes both of them uncomfortable, an unspoken reality they dare not bring to the surface lest it shatter their existing relationship. In other words, their love remains unromantic out of fear of what romantic love would look like, relying instead on the love you have for a brother or a sister or for your King. It’s this love that ultimately threads through “The Ghosts of Harrenhal,” and the season at large, and it’s a love that may be equally tenuous depending on its object.
“A Golden Crown”
May 22nd, 2011
“That was not Kingly.”
Considering the title of the series, and the number of people who appear to be playing the eponymous game, the notion of what makes a true ruler is growing increasingly important as Game of Thrones continues its run. We’ve seen numerous conversations about what it takes to lead Westeros, as Viserys fights to reclaim his throne, Robert fights to keep it, and others on the margins consider whether it is a job they would ever truly desire (Renly, Joffrey, etc.).
We get some definitive action on this accord in “A Golden Crown,” which reveals a more deep-seated question of identity within these kingly questions. Throughout the various stories, notions of power and leadership are merged with questions of gender and sexuality while the duplicity of numerous figures is highlighted in order to further expand the series’ complexity, and further break down any single image of what it means to be the leader of Westeros.