(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first book in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read that book and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fourth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the second, third, and fourth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven't read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments.)
If I had to pick the characters on Game Of Thrones I’m less enamored of when compared to the others, I’d probably come down to Viserys and Sansa. (I wanted to add Theon to that list, but, uh, he’s mostly just being given kind of pointless storylines so we all know he exists when he starts becoming more important to the story. Viserys and Sansa seem to spend their time actively irritating me.) Now, granted, in both cases, George R.R. Martin and, by extension, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are playing around with various fantasy archetypes and pulling them apart to see what makes them tick and seeing if there’s a way to approach that differently. In particular, Sansa (like her dad) fits this mold: She’s the princess in waiting, the spoiled girl who would probably be the heroine of a more traditional tale (or at the very least one of the romantic leads).
And, sure, part of the fun of Game Of Thrones… sorry… A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE… is that the book and the show pry apart those archetypes and find ways to reanimate them. Ned isn’t wildly different from other noble heroes of previous fantasy epics, but as we see time and again in these first six episodes (and especially tonight), his nobility has a tendency to set things in motion he can’t control and doesn’t much want to. The problem with politics—even monarchical politics—is that it requires someone who doesn’t constantly attempt to shove their own solutions down everybody’s throat. It doesn’t always mean doing the right thing; sometimes, it means doing the thing that comes the closest to being right without fucking up the status quo. That’s what Ned, all nobility and ideals, will never understand, and that’s what’s making him enemies all over Westeros.
Sansa’s kind of a similar case. She’s all wrapped up in the romance of the idea of her marrying Joffrey and becoming queen that she can’t see all of the terrible things unfolding around her (and if she couldn’t see that Joffrey was no good after he had a peasant and wolf killed because he got bested in a fight, well, she’s either willfully blind or a teenage girl). And that’s cool as these things go, but as I’m rewatching these first six episodes, I’m realizing that I find the Sansa of the series much less palatable than the Sansa of the books. When I brought this up on Twitter, I heard from plenty of book fans who found her just as irritating on the page, but she’s a character who still highlights the difference between page and screen. Because we can’t hear her inner voice, she just comes off as an idiotic whiner, someone who’d endanger her family for a guy who’s clearly bad news. In the books, she’s almost innocent and definitely naïve; on screen, she just seems kind of petty, particularly toward her sister.
This isn’t a big complaint, granted, and the series has done a pretty good job of laying out everybody’s multiple, overlapping motivations without being too pedantic about it all that often. Sansa’s just a character that the writers of the show often seem to have trouble developing. It’s not like she’s my favorite character, but I do think she’s been a bit lost to the side, and of all of the point-of-view characters from book one (save maybe Bran), she’s the one I still have the least idea about based entirely on what’s been presented here. She seems almost… villainous, and I know that’s not what the book wanted me to think. Similarly, I’m pretty sure the producers of the series would rather I not think that of her. Yet there it is, all the same, and tonight’s episode, filled with her being a jerk to Septa and whining when she and her sister are about to go back to Winterfell, doesn’t exactly enhance this opinion. (It could be an acting problem, too, but I hesitate to write off child actors, who often can take a while to find their characters.)
Viserys, meanwhile, is a character I didn’t much like on the page who’s become more interesting for me as the series has gone on. In the first few episodes, I found Harry Lloyd’s performance disappointingly similar to a mustache-twirling villain in a movie serial. But since episode four—where he gave his monologue in the tub about his childhood and learning the names of the dragons—he’s taken on a stronger, more tragic air that underlines his proclamations about how he’s the dragon. And this episode, naturally enough, is the best he’s been since the show began. I say “naturally enough” because this is the episode where he dies, a bunch of molten gold proving that he is NOT a dragon, and bulking up a character right before their death is pretty standard operating practice on TV. But I like the growing sense we get here that Viserys never calculated that his sister would prove so good at becoming queen of the Dothraki. He expected her to always be the meek little girl he could intimidate, and now that his plan has spun out of control, he’s found himself screeching about what he was promised.
This is also by far the best episode for Dany since the first. Again, we’re looking at an archetype that’s allowed to do more than her archetypal journey—which would roughly involve her becoming the right-hand woman that pushes Drogo to greatness or something—and this is the episode where she starts to really take control. Watching Emilia Clarke chow down on that horse heart, no matter how much I was aware it was Hollywood trickery, was something that made me legitimately squeamish. And even though I knew that Dany and Drogo were going to kill Viserys (even though I remembered it occurring much later in the story), the episode absolutely nailed the visceral sense of that moment, of the decision being made, of the precise moment when Viserys realizes how screwed he is, of Dany’s sheer relief at him being dead. On the page, you can convey these moments via lots and lots of words, but on screen, you’re relying on actors getting them across with a look. Clarke and Lloyd more than seal the deal here.
But this was a strong episode for just about everybody (save Jon, who sits another week out). We’ve got Ned realizing that all of the Baratheons are dark of hair save one. We’ve got Tyrion improvising a way out of his terrifying cell in the Eyrie. We’ve got Arya doing her thing. We’ve got Robb saving Bran’s life with the help of Theon (who has to say goodbye to his favorite prostitute, continuing the show’s least interesting storyline). We’ve got Cat gradually realizing that even if Tyrion’s a guilty man, she’s probably made a mistake in bringing him to her clearly nuts sister. And we’ve got Robert giving Ned his job back and then embarking on a hunt.
Now, if you’ve read the book, any number of these events will make you raise your eyebrow. But even if you’ve just seen the series, I love the way that this episode just barrels on ahead, carrying along the pace we’ve been at since, roughly, Gregor Clegane chopped off a horse’s head last week. There’s a breathless quality to “A Golden Crown” that befits the events taking place on screen, the sense that absolutely everybody in the show is doomed and the only people remaining in Westeros when this whole series ends will be a couple of direwolves and maybe Tyrion (who will clearly always find a way to survive). What I love about how the tension has grown is that the sense of doom hanging over everything feels like it could erupt in almost any way possible. Granted, the way the show built that tension wasn’t always as strong as it could have been, but now that we’re there, it’s difficult to see a scene like, say, Cersei hovering over Ned as he slowly awakens and not wonder if the blood’s going to start flying.
The scene that’s key to this whole series, I think, is where Ned hears the complaints of the farmers whose village and fields were raided and decides to take justice to Tywin Lannister and his sidekicks, regardless of whether that’s the wisest course of action. Game Of Thrones is a fantasy novel, sure, and it’s a vaguely historical tale as well, but it’s also essentially a political work, a story about how sometimes the only thing that’s keeping you alive is your ability to bullshit the right people and thread the right needles. Ned lacks that ability, perhaps because of how he’s been shut away in the North (where the direct approach seems to be the best approach) or perhaps because that’s just how he was taught to live his life. And now he’s made enemies of the Lannisters—who, let’s not forget, have enough gold to win whatever war they might launch, at least in the estimation of several—and he doesn’t seem terribly upset about it. He’ll do the right thing, even if it ends up with him stalked by powerful foes.
I’ve seen plenty of people who haven’t read the books asking what the series is supposed to be about, what its major theme is. Other HBO dramas had deep, intriguing themes that animated every single episode of their runs. The Sopranos was all about whether people could change. The Wire was about how systems fail people. And Deadwood was about how people can come together to build great things. (Obviously, all three of these series have more on their minds than just those questions, but bear with me here.) And I don’t think Game Of Thrones is any different, ultimately. The question of Game Of Thrones, then, the central theme, is the idea of whether this kind of nobility can survive in any way, shape, or form in a political system that rewards those who play the game the best. The characters who seem to do the best at simply surviving, like Tyrion or perhaps Littlefinger, are the ones who will do whatever it takes to just stay alive. Tyrion certainly has a moral code, at least as established so far, but he’s also someone who, so far, seems more interested in saving his own skin. (And the less said about Littlefinger in this regard, the better.)
Contrast that with the Starks, to a man. They all seem to believe (well, maybe except for Arya) that if they do the right thing, then everything will work itself out. Or maybe they don’t believe that. Maybe they realize that at the end of the day, if they do the right thing, it might destroy them, and they understand that doing the right thing is, in and of itself, a sort of reward. And, sure, we could quibble about just how much Ned’s efforts to take the blame for his wife’s actions or strike against Gregor and Tywin have to do with his dislike of the Lannisters, rather than his own moral code, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that Sansa’s inability to discern fantasy from reality, romance from realism, is endemic to her whole family. We mock Sansa’s delusions because they’re so obviously wrong. But is it any less of a fantasy to believe that if you’re a good person, then the right things will happen to you than it is to believe that someday your prince will come?
- I love the new position of the giant Eyrie window thing in the floor. As I recall, it was just in the wall somewhere in the book, and now it’s a giant gaping hole waiting for someone to fall through it, which the two fighters in Tyrion’s trial nearly do.
- This may have had to do with my screener (which had several incomplete visual effects shots), but the stuff with the duel in the Eyrie had a very strange sound mix that made it sound as if this were a sword fight taking place in the pool down at the local Y, watched by one or two enthusiastic people who shouted words of encouragement from time to time. I’m sure they sweetened it for broadcast.
- Somebody could probably write a thesis of some sort about the similarities between the leadership styles of Robin Arryn and Joffrey Baratheon.
- The scene where Ned discovers that Joffrey isn’t in keeping with the mighty genetics of the Baratheons could be one of those scenes where the show too obviously spells out something most viewers will have figured out already, but it’s something that nicely builds. We know where it’s going, but that doesn’t make the destination any less exciting.
- I also like the way the constant discussion of the various houses in past weeks has set us up for the moment where Ned makes his big discovery. Everybody here’s obsessed with who belongs where.
- Man, Bran’s really kind of getting the shaft, compared to the books. I like his dream sequences, but he still seems like quite a cipher, based on the series alone.
- I swear to God Sims and I will give a different grade to one of these episodes eventually.
Here Be Spoilers:
- I believe this is the first mention of Mance Rayder, who will become more important as the series goes on. Is it also the first mention of Tywin Lannister? It can’t be.
- Tyrion and Bronn become allies tonight, and this is a partnership that’s going places, as many of you well know already.
- OK, Ned’s serious now. He’s gotta get his girls out of King’s Landing. And man, don’t I wish that he actually had (and that he had followed soon after).