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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Mhysa”

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“Mhysa”

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.

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Game of Thrones – “Dark Wings, Dark Words”

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“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.

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Game of Thrones – “The Ghosts of Harrenhal”

“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.

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Season Finale: Game of Thrones – “Fire and Blood”

“Fire and Blood”

June 19th, 2011

“There you will see what life is worth when all the rest is gone.”

Earlier this week, I rewatched last week’s penultimate episode, “Baelor,” with my brother who was seeing it for the first time. Generally, I’ve been watching Game of Thrones alone, and any interaction with other viewers has been done online (or, if done in person, was done with people who I had previously interacted with online). For the first time, I was sitting in the same room as another viewer as we watched the show, and the experience made clear what I had known from the beginning but had never seen quite so clearly visible: Game of Thrones is a show that every single viewer likely considers differently.

It is not just that we can separate between readers and non-readers, although that is certainly the most obvious distinction to be made. Rather, we need to also consider questions of genre, gender, sexual content, race, and other qualities which have been called into question over the course of the season: regardless of whether I individually had concerns with the show’s use of fantasy, or its sexposition, or the Othering of the Dothraki, the fact is that those concerns existed, and have created a divisive response even among those who generally like the show.

In a piece earlier this week, friend of the blog Cory Barker wrote about his ambivalence towards the series, and kept trying to find reasons for it within the text. While his process was enlightening, he couldn’t find the silver bullet: there was no one part of the show that was creating a lack of an emotional connection. How we view the series can be defined by issues like genre which are inherent to the text itself, or issues like viewing patterns which are entirely extratextual but can define one’s experience with the text. My brother, for example, watched the season on a staggered schedule of short marathons, while my parents watched it on a weekly basis; as a result, they remembered different things, retaining different parts of the show that were highlighted by their personal experience with the text.

I raise all of these points because after a season of open interpretation, at least for those who hadn’t read the books, there is something almost prescriptive about “Fire and Blood.” While “Baelor” delivered a fatal twist, and suggested a certain degree of carnage to come in the weeks ahead, “Fire and Blood” steps back to serve as a more traditional denouement, laying out the various threads which will be followed into a second season. Rightly treating the fate of Ned Stark as the season’s climax, it seeks to explore the scenario that Mirri Maz Duur lays out to Dany early in the episode: what is the worth of each of these characters and these storylines in light of recent events? It’s a moment where the show actually has to step forward and proclaim its identity in order to convince the skeptics that this is a show worth watching, and to convince the believers that their faith has not been misplaced as the show transitions into the next stage of its narrative.

“Fire and Blood” doesn’t beat around the bush: it shows its hand from its bloody opening to its fiery conclusion, laying out a pretty detailed framework for what the second season of the show will look like. However, it never feels like an artificial framework, and that sense of interpretation never disappears even as the storyline becomes less open-ended. Serving as a fitting bookend to what I personally feel was a very strong first season, “Fire and Blood” reinforces central themes and delivers on what matters most: reminding us why these characters are following the path they’re on, and informing us why we want to follow that path next season.

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Game of Thrones – “The Pointy End”

“The Pointy End”

June 5th, 2011

“Written by George R.R. Martin”

The credits for Game of Thrones has always read “Created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss,” but the question of authorship has always been considerably more complicated. The fact is that this is very clearly George R.R. Martin’s world, and George R.R. Martin’s characters, and even George R.R. Martin’s story – while we can certainly argue that Benioff and Weiss have taken certain liberties, adding scenes and shifting character allegiances, it has not utterly transformed Martin’s vision. And yet, at the same time, we can’t say that this is Martin’s show, as he was ancillary to the myriad of decisions which move beyond the initial creation to the execution and design. A Song of Ice and Fire may be his story, but Game of Thrones is not his television show, and there’s an odd shared ownership of Westeros that has been evident throughout the season.

I say evident, mind you, and not problematic. The scenes that have been added have been strong, and the decisions made have been mostly logical if not necessarily ideal in every instance (or for every fan). However, here you have an instance where the person doing the adaptation is Martin himself, given a chance to return to key moments and characters and tell the same story all over again. And yet, he’s now working within someone else’s show even when he’s working within his own story, an intriguing scenario that I thought going in might make for an intriguing case study.

However, there’s honestly nothing to really see here: while this is a very strong outing, and maintains the momentum from last week’s episode quite brilliantly even as it hits the fast forward button on the narrative action (and thus risks missing key pieces of the puzzle), I don’t think we see some sort of crisis of authorship. Martin’s return coincides with the period where exposition goes out the window, and where major story events are starting to take shape. It is a period where characters are making decisions instead of pondering them, and where key themes are beginning to filter throughout the storylines at a rapid pace, and so any authorship is swallowed up by the sheer presence of the realm and those outside its borders who threaten it.

In other words, it’s just as Martin intended it, and thus as Benioff and Weiss intended it as well.

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Game of Thrones – “A Golden Crown”

“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.

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Game of Thrones – “The Wolf and the Lion”

“The Wolf and the Lion”

May 15th, 2011

“How long can hate hold a thing together?”

One could argue that Game of Thrones tells the story of two houses – this would be categorically untrue, especially given the ways in which the series expands in subsequent volumes (or seasons, considering its renewal), but the battle between the Lannisters and the Starks is obviously at the heart of this particular narrative. Even those who were fundamentally confused by the pilot, and perhaps even by subsequent episodes, were likely able to draw out that these two families are what one might term “a big deal.”

“The Wolf and the Lion” obviously makes this distinction clear, to the point that the story follows the two families almost exclusively – ignoring The Wall in its entirety, and foregoing a trip across the narrow sea, the episode narrows in on the mutual hatred which fuels these two families as they each try to go on with their lives as members of the other families attempt to either kill them or bring them to justice. And yet, at the same time, this narrowing is misleading on at least a few levels, given that this episode also delves a bit further into a few other houses which will become more important as a the series goes on.

In other words, despite technically being narrower in its focus, “The Wolf and the Lion” actually does some important work in broadening the scope of the series within these two particular areas. It’s a necessary step forward for the series, a strong statement for its commitment to the depth of this story.

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