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.
“The Laws of Gods and Men”
May 11, 2014
“We prefer the stories they tell. More plain, less open to interpretation.”
This is why the Iron Bank of Braavos prefers numbers.
They’re strange, in this way: whereas the other groups who jostle for power in Westeros (and across the Narrow Sea) are interested in histories and lineages, the Iron Bank is only concerned with numbers. It’s why they’re unmoved by Stannis’ claim to the throne by blood, and why they’re won over by Davos’ claim that Stannis is the closest Westeros has to a stable ruler should Tywin Lannister meet his end.
Interpretation is at the heart of law, of course, and of the men and women who enact it. Although the majority of the episode is taken up by an actual trial, the storylines that precede it show the reverberations of other forms of justice, in which similarly cruel acts are taken for fundamentally different reasons.
The question becomes whether history will interpret them differently.
“Breaker of Chains”
April 20th, 2014
“I will not become a page in someone else’s history book.”
As is often the case with watching Game of Thrones as a book reader, I left “Breaker of Chains” with questions about how non-readers would receive the episode.
These are not simple evaluative questions like whether readers would enjoy this scene or that scene in the episode. Like most, it’s a compelling episode, with some fantastic scenes in the fallout of last week’s major events. Rather, they are questions of whether or not reveals that are obvious to readers—we know what’s about to happen—are anticipated by non-readers in the way the series would seem to be hoping for.
April 6th, 2014
“Killed the right people, I suppose.”
The beginning of Game of Thrones’ fourth season is caught in evaluative limbo.
We are past the point where it is a critic’s job to tell you what Game of Thrones is. At this stage, the show is the show, and nothing in the first three episodes of the season—which were sent to critics—changes that. To write an advance review of a season of Game of Thrones is less about evaluating its quality and more about offering vague previews of what’s to come for those who haven’t read the books but nonetheless want some sense of where their favorite characters are headed in the early-going, or for those who’ve read the books and want a basic gutcheck on how certain details were translated. If something in these first three episodes actually changes someone’s mind regarding the series, it would shock me not unlike the Red Wedding shocked non-readers.
This might be the last time I say this. The fourth season marks the first that will begin to actively and aggressively merge material from multiple books, likely resulting in some of the most substantial deviations from the source material to date. As someone whose interest in writing about the show comes in large part based on how the series approaches narratives, characters, and themes from the book in a different medium, we are on the verge of one of the most exciting periods for the series, one where the discourse will take on considerably higher stakes. Will readers embrace the changes? Will non-readers even notice that something is amiss?
“Two Swords” marks the calm before the storm, hence the evaluative limbo—although we are approaching the moment when I expect we’ll see far more interesting ranges of critical response to the series, the season premiere has the series firmly in transition, still holding onto the familiar instability we’ve come to understand. It’s a delicate transition, mind you, and one that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—who doubles as director—handle extremely well, but it’s ultimately a familiar feeling returning to Westeros in season four.
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.
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.
“Walk of Punishment”
April 14th, 2013
“A person could almost be forgiven for forgetting we’re at war.”
“Walk of Punishment” opens with something of a comedy routine. Edmure Tully is attempting to send his father off to the afterlife with a flaming arrow, but the arrow misses. And then misses again. And then misses again. It’s only then that his uncle, the Blackfish, steps in to fire the arrow necessary. Edmure is made to look the fool, the Blackfish is made to look like a man who suffers no such characters, and our first glimpse of Riverrun has served its function, in part, through comedy.
Of course, it’s also a funeral, which makes its comedy somewhat dark. It helps that we don’t actually know much about Hoster Tully, a character in the books and more of a symbol in the series. It also helps that the scene works the joke perfectly: I resisted laughter on the first miss, found it on the second, and felt the tragedy sneak back in on the third. The scene never feels at odds with the moment or the episode around it except when it’s supposed to feel like it’s at odds with the moment because, well, it is. A world of war and tragedy is not a world without comedy, but rather a world where comedy is rarely allowed to continue unabated for very long.
Catelyn’s quote above, spoken to the Blackfish, captures Benioff and Weiss’ approach to lightening the mood in Westeros. At any given point, there are characters in situations where they could forget about the gravity at hand, where the inherent humor of human interaction overwhelms the threat of widespread conflict. Sometimes it’s Talisa tending to two young captives, wanting to keep them from thinking about the world around them; sometimes its Tyrion wanting to give Podrick a gift for his loyal service. And in a previous time it was Jaime and Brienne, alone on the road, bantering their way toward King’s Landing.
But banter, like all men, must die.
March 31st, 2013
“You’ve got to invent a story about where the ship is going and why.”
As Sansa and Shae look out on Blackwater Bay imagining where the ships are going, it’s hard not to think about the last time we as an audience watched the ships on Blackwater Bay. “Blackwater” brought a striking amount of clarity to the show, its tight focus clearly defining where the ships were going: Stannis Baratheon intended to take King’s Landing, because he believes himself to be the one true king of Westeros.
As Game of Thrones returns for its third season, such clarity seems long gone. As Robb notes, his men haven’t had a real battle in weeks, their “war” more of a glacial march in search of Lannister men more likely to “raze and run” than fight in the open battlefield. Stannis has retreated to Dragonstone to burn men alive in sacrifice to Melisandre’s lord of light, in hopes they will provide a path forward. Westeros is still at war, that much is certain, but the terms of that warfare are as muddled as they’ve ever been: much as the Narrow Sea separates Daenerys from her place on the Iron Throne, the other would-be Kings are equally unable to directly and openly lay claim to the title.
And yet they keep moving. Indeed, outside of those who remain at King’s Landing, nearly every character or group of characters are on the move, although it’s not always clear where they’re moving to precisely. “Valar Dohaeris” might reintroduce us to a collection of the show’s characters, but it’s an introduction that mostly finds characters exactly where they were before. The result is a premiere that lacks excitement not because things don’t happen, but rather because there’s little new information to hint toward what will happen next, relying on more general anticipation—often, to Sansa’s game above, of the viewer’s invention—as the narrative moves at its own pace.