“The Watchers On The Wall”
June 8, 2014
“Blackwater” was about convergence. It was the inevitable collision between Stannis’ claim to the throne and the Lannister powers controlling it. In truth, Stannis’ side of the battle was pretty thin, sketched in without a whole lot of detail beyond Davos and his son. It was really about how Stannis’ attack changed the power dynamics at King’s Landing, whether through Cersei’s steely resolve, Tyrion’s ingenuity and intelligence, or Joffrey’s cowardice. At a stage when this was still ostensibly a show with the Stark family as its protagonist, it was an early example of the richness of stories in King’s Landing, capable of carrying an entire episode on its own.
“The Watchers On The Wall” wants to be “Blackwater.” Neil Marshall has returned as director. Mance Rayder’s not dissimilar to Stannis, in terms of development at this stage in their respective narratives, an idea more than a person. We know characters on both sides. And like that episode, “The Watchers On The Wall” is exclusively focused on the attack on The Wall, eschewing other ongoing narratives in favor of the battle at hand.
The problem with this comparison is that I don’t know why I care about The Wall. Actually, that’s a lie: I know why I care about The Wall, which is the fact that I’ve known where this story is going from the beginning, and have been anticipating it playing out. But for those who aren’t book readers, this season has often struggled to make The Wall an integral part of this narrative. The season went through a lot of effort to flesh out the characterization. There was Jon’s attack on Craster’s Keep to keep the action quotient high and to build more content into the storyline to help delay the battle until the season’s climax. There was moving Gilly to Mole’s Town so she could offer perspective on the early phases of the attack. There was sticking with Ygritte and Tormund to preface the viciousness of the Thenns. And there was Ser Alliser and Janos Slynt conspiring to keep Jon Snow from preparing for the imminent attack in the proper fashion.
The problem is that none of this built momentum. It established the various players that are central to the battle, but it didn’t make it feel important, even though this is undoubtedly an important battle. It just paled in comparison to the immediacy of Tyrion’s plight, or the looseness of Arya and the Hound, or a range of other stories that were undoubtedly more dynamic. This doesn’t feel like the culmination of a season-long storyline. It feels like something that just got delayed, a logical climax to the season (and the book most of the season is based on) that required padding to land in this position.
The result is an episode that has to prove itself without the benefit of strong connections to the characters, or season-long storylines waiting for a climax. “The Watchers On The Wall” needs to be a self-starter, building anticipation for and delivering action that the episode’s pedigree has promised. And while a visceral piece of action filmmaking and a spectacle worthy of “Blackwater,” it proves less a climax so much as long-delayed rising action to finally bring The Wall into play in the season’s narrative.
“The Mountain and the Viper”
June 1, 2014
“Traditions are important – what are we without our history?”
One of the perils of being a book reader watching Game of Thrones has been the fact that so many of the biggest moments have been “surprises” in the context of the narrative. We look to events like the Red Wedding, or the Purple Wedding, or Ned Stark’s fate on the Steps of Baelor as key events in the narrative, but we can’t necessarily share the anticipation of those events with viewers who have no idea they’re coming.
This is why “The Mountain and the Viper” is such a fun episode as a reader writing about the show. For once, the show has built in its own hype machine, setting up the trial by combat and building suspense for it over the past two episodes. The week off for Memorial Day could have negatively affected momentum, but it’s worked nicely to give them another week to set up the stakes of this conflict. As readers, we may have the benefit of knowing how the battle between Gregor Clegane and Oberyn Martell ends, but at least our anticipation for seeing how the battle plays out onscreen is something that we can share with non-readers.
Just as we can both share the slight impatience created by an episode that waits until the bitter end to get to its eponymous showdown.
May 5th, 2013
“If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.”
“The Climb” begins with three groups of characters who share a common goal: reaching The Wall. While Jon and Ygritte are with the wildlings as they prepare to scale it, Bran and Sam are moving toward the Wall from opposite directions.
For viewers, The Wall has been a prominent object for the series, one of the first images we saw to introduce a sense of the scale of Westeros. It’s a prominent part of the credits, sure, but it was also key to the series’ prologue. When Jon Snow saw the Wall for the first time, it was a formative moment for the character, just as it’s foretold as a prominent moment for Gilly, who can’t even imagine the stories Sam tells her about the structure. It’s something so large that it persists even for those who have never laid eyes on it, something that holds power even when the vast majority of its expanse lies unguarded. The Night’s Watch may be in charge of protecting the Wall, but the Wall does most of the protecting itself, a single crack in the ice capable of nearly killing the entirety of the Wildling party.
The “Game of Thrones” would be difficult enough if its only threat were static obstacles like The Wall (or the threat of the White Walkers beyond it, which is ostensibly still the most prominent threat to the entirety of Westeros). But “The Climb” isn’t a solitary activity, something that you can survive on your own: there’s always someone there to cut your rope, or stand in your way, or give your life new—often less—meaning at the drop of a hat. With its central metaphor, “The Climb” reminds us that no climb is without the threat of not simply missing a foothold but someone doing everything in their power to make sure that no foothold even exists, a dark and often foreboding episode that despite closing on a hopeful moment offers little evidence of hopefulness overall.
“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.
“Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
May 8th, 2011
The timing of the next few episodes of Game of Thrones couldn’t be worse on a personal level – it’s a busy time of year for me, what with the end of the semester, and it’s coming just as the series is entering some more distinctly complex episodes. While I had hoped to get these reviews done in advance, the truth is that things just became busy too quickly, meaning that I won’t have time to dive as far into “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” as I might like.
However, because of this, I do want to focus in on one part of the episode in particular, comparing and contrasting it with the episode surrounding it. Jon Snow’s time at the Wall is maybe my favorite central location of those introduced early in the series, and it is in large part due to the work done in this episode. Part of this has to do with my affection for the new arrival introduced here, but it also has to do with some key decisions which give the storyline a sense of camaraderie and humor which is more or less absent from the rest of the storyline.
It’s also a part of the story which disappears for two weeks, which means focusing my analysis on it makes even more sense given that I’ll have plenty of time to discuss Ned’s investigation into Jon Arryn’s death, the viciousness of the tournament, and the slippery nature of the metaphorical dragon in the weeks ahead.
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.
April 24th, 2011
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
In chatting with one of my colleagues who has not read A Song of Ice and Fire earlier this month, he raised an interesting question: why, precisely, do some Stark children go to King’s Landing while others remain in Winterfell?
It was a question that never occurred to me while watching “The Kingsroad” since I already knew the answer before I popped in the screener, but it’s one that strikes me as important during these early episodes. There is no avoiding the fact that Game of Thrones has a dislocated narrative, with various locations (highlighted in the opening credit sequence) housing storylines that are often operating on their own frequency, and such dislocation risks feeling arbitrary. It is, arguably, the greatest challenge that Benioff and Weiss faced with the adaptation, and facing that challenge will require more than a clever title sequence that places the various locations into context.
“The Kingsroad” is the first stab at really tackling this challenge through thematic material, something that embraces the parallel storytelling that the series necessitates (as compared to the books, which go long stretches without visiting particular locations/characters). While the shifts in location were minimal (and very strategic) in “Winter is Coming,” with “The Kingsroad” we see a more traditional structure wherein we consistently shift from one location to another, a structure united by a growing sense that these characters may wish they had taken a different fork in the road.
It doesn’t quite bring the entire episode together, but the maps drawn for each of the show’s numerous storylines are at least all on the same piece of paper, and focus on the degree to which each individual character is prepared for the path that they have chosen (or that has been chosen for them).
“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.