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.
May 19th, 2013
“I always have a choice.”
“Second Sons” opens with a choice. Arya wakes up to discover that her captor has fallen asleep, and picks up a rock with which she intends to kill Sandor Clegane, a man she believes to be taking her back to King’s Landing. However, as she grows closer, it turns out the Hound isn’t sleeping at all, and he gives her a choice: she can put the rock down, or she can take one shot at killing him with it. The catch is that, should she choose the second option and the Hound remains alive, he’ll break both of her hands.
It’s not really a choice when you think about it, as Arya’s trust in her own strength isn’t quite enough to make her hands worth the risk. It’s also not much of a choice given that she’s his captive, even if he intends to take her to Robb and Catelyn on the Twins as opposed to taking her to King’s Landing and the Lannisters. As much as Arya struggles against the place in life that was determined for her, and as much as she tried last week to go back to the independence she craves, she still finds herself in a position where choices are not available to her.
It’s far from a complicated theme, but what I like about “Second Sons” is the resignation of it all. Arya sitting on the Hound’s lap as he rides toward the Twins is an evocative image, both because of the beautiful countryside mirroring Arya’s hope at seeing her family and because she’s not bound or tortured or anything of the kind. Rather, she’s accepted her fate as the fate put before her, and will comply if only because it’s the most effective way to survive until the day where you have choices you did not have before.
It’s a position that comes to bear on many episodes as the season goes on, as characters struggle with the lack of agency that comes naturally with being born—or being treated—as a second son.
“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.
“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.
“The Night Lands” and Sexposition
April 8th, 2012
People who coin new terms are very rarely trying to coin new terms. When I used the term “sexposition” to describe a particular kind of scene in Game of Thrones, I wasn’t staking a claim to a corner of the cultural lexicon so much as I was trying to be clever. In fact, for a while – and still, really – I refused to believe it was possible to “invent” such a simple portmanteau – all I did was add an “s” at the end of the day. However, the word has caught on, leading to a bizarre couple of weeks in which Esquire magazine and The Guardian were contacting me on the subject, I was listening to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and writer Bryan Cogman talking about it on the DVD commentaries, and now it even has a Wikipedia page not to be confused with “sex position.”
What I realized in chatting with these journalists, though, is that we (as a larger Game of Thrones-viewing community) had never come to a clear understanding of what sexposition even was. The first thing the Esquire journalist did was run a definition by me, and I realized that I didn’t really have any corrections because I had never actually thought much about it. While I had a number of scenes connected to the term in my mind, expanding it beyond Game of Thrones would require a more rigorous set of criteria, something that became clear when Michael Hann at the Guardian began talking about sexposition in the context of Showtime’s Homeland.
While Hann’s article captured the overall issue quite well, asking broader questions that speak to why the word is useful in considering the implications of this particular narrative device, I was confused by the evocation of Homeland, a show I would not associate with the term (which is a larger conversation that would require spoilers, so if you really want me to expand on that let me know). Also, in following fan discussion around Game of Thrones, I’ve seen sexposition become more of a catch-all term for the overuse of sex and nudity in general, something that obscures the specific implications of the neologism.
“The Night Lands” features what I’d consider the season’s first explicit use of sexposition as a narrative strategy, but it also features other sequences that feature similar amounts of nudity but which I would not associate with the term. Before delving a bit more into the rest of the episode, which features some of my favorite moments in the early parts of the second season, I want to tease out this distinction in an effort to consider what this sex is accomplishing, and what we make of the show effectively doubling down on the practice.