“You Win or You Die”
May 29th, 2011
“It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on.”
[You can also hear additional thoughts on this episode in a special edition of the Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast that I participated in.]
[Also, for more on “Sexposition,” check out my review of Season 2, Episode 2, “The Night Lands”]
There has been a lot of conversation surrounding the question of exposition with Game of Thrones, understandable given the high volume of material that has been revealed through conversations in an effort to capture the complexity of George R.R. Martin’s world.
“You Win or You Die” is not particularly exposition heavy, although there is one example that I will break down in greater detail, but the function of exposition is to provide a sense of history and context and I would argue that this episode is very interested in this idea. Some have argued that flashbacks might be considered another way to provide insight into history, and that it would beat the somewhat sloppy exposition that has to this point been deployed, but I would ask this: is the point of exposition to inform or remind the audience of particular information, or is it designed to inform the audience that the particular information in question is, in fact, important enough to be discussed in this context?
The answer, as always, is that it is meant to function as both, but I think those decrying the very existence of exposition in its current form should consider the latter more carefully. The role of history within this world is an important theme that is highlighted in “You Win or You Die,” as various threads comes to a point where the past is either given new meaning or forgotten entirely.
Or, rather, forgotten in some circles and remembered in others.
“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.
“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.
May 1st, 2011
“I wanted to be here when you saw it for the first time.”
In the opening moments of “Winter is Coming,” we saw the Wall for the first time. Directly after the credits rolled, we first set eyes on Winterfell. Shortly thereafter, we visit King’s Landing for a brief moment as Cersei and Jaime discuss the secrets that may have died with Jon Arryn.
These were the first moments that we, as viewers, saw these pivotal locations in this series, but two of these were never formally introduced: Cersei and Jaime rode north to Winterfell soon after that conversation, and we saw only a brief glimpse of The Wall at the conclusion of “The Kingsroad.” Our focus was on Winterfell, and on the parties who set forth from its walls, and on Dany’s struggles across the narrow sea.
In “Lord Snow,” the Wall becomes more than an imposing structure, and King’s Landing becomes more than a geographical entity. The episode opens with Ned riding into King’s Landing and immediately finding himself in a meeting of the Small Council, while we are catapulted into Jon Snow’s first training session with Ser Allister Thorne without any glimpse of his initial arrival. There is no time to rest or become acclimated to their new surroundings, as life in King’s Landing and life at Castle Black hold a new set of challenges which will shape the episodes to follow.
And yet, “Lord Snow” is perhaps the most narratively uninteresting episode of the first six, almost like a second pilot where no story truly finds its footing. While the political organization of King’s Landing is sketched out, and the reality of being a brother of the Night’s Watch is well-established, the actual payoff for these events are left for the subsequent installments. Returning to this episode after having seen that which follows, I found myself appreciating what it accomplished without necessarily finding it satisfying, the first episode where the narrative feels limiting rather limited.
“Winter is Coming”
April 17th, 2011
“That’s an honor I could do without.”
The moment which brings “Winter is Coming,” the series premiere of HBO’s Game of Thrones, to a close is meant to shock the viewer. It is the very definition of a cliffhanger, a moment which makes us anticipate its resolution and theorize as to the result. I would also argue that it’s quite an effective cliffhanger, one which shapes the remainder of the series’ narrative and one which is tremendously well-rendered in this adaptation.
However, for those who have read A Song of Ice and Fire, the George R.R. Martin-penned novels on which the series is based, it isn’t a cliffhanger at all. In fact, for those viewers, it was never a cliffhanger: when the event in question took place on page 85 of my well-worn paperback, all one had to do was turn to page 86 in order to see what happened next. The cliffhanger would last mere moments, unless one somehow had the willpower to stop reading at that precise moment and return to the book a week later. Martin’s novels are designed to be devoured, not savored, and yet his story is now arriving in hour-long segments that will air once every week.
Ultimately, “Winter is Coming” demonstrates the compatibility of Martin’s novels and the televisual form: David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have brought Westeros to life by capturing the spirit of Martin’s prose and by embracing the opportunities presented by both the visual and structural qualities made possible by HBO’s commitment to the series. The episode is a compelling introduction to this story and these characters, successfully navigating the plethora of pitfalls that are created in an adaptation of a high fantasy series.
But at the same time, let’s be frank: everyone, from fans of the novels to those who don’t know their Starks from their Lannisters, will need to adjust to the particularities of this particular form of storytelling.
And thus the Game begins.
15 Minutes in Westeros: Previewing HBO’s Game of Thrones
January 12th, 2011
There were two things which struck me as particularly strange while watching the fifteen minutes of footage from Game of Thrones which HBO has made available to critics (and which debuted at the TCA Press Tour last week).
The first was that it seems almost unfair that I’m seeing this footage while the majority of the show’s fans must deal with only detailed rundowns. I understand why it isn’t being made publicly available (it is unfinished, with temporary music and effects), but even as someone familiar with the books I know that there is a much larger audience out there who are much more anxious about this footage. Accordingly, I take on a sort of additional responsibility, knowing that the audience for my impressions (which are, of course, provisional based on the temporary nature of the footage) has an insatiable desire for information makes watching it a unique experience.
The other bit of strangeness is that it’s weird to see bits and pieces of a narrative, even when you know the rest of the story. Alan Sepinwall, who is going in without knowledge of the books by his choice, chose not to watch the footage simply because he didn’t want to see brief glimpses of a story that will, in the future, be a complete whole. And so while I might be in a position to fill in the gaps, knowing the meaning of each of these scenes and how they place within the larger narrative, there’s still the sense that we’re missing key pieces of the puzzle that would allow us to put to rest all of our curiosities surrounding the adaptation.
However, let’s not bury the lede here – it might seem weird to be sitting there watching this particular collection of scenes from Game of Thrones, but the more we see the less “weird” this adaptation seems. While the fandom has largely avoided snap judgments, resisting the urge to outright reject casting choices and waiting to see the final product, I still didn’t think that it would seem quite this natural. There are little hiccups here or there, but the world that’s been built is showing that a bit of faith, and plenty of talent and financial support, can go a long way in making a story work.
And, even in fragmented form, this story’s working.