“Cripples, Bastards, And Broken Things” is the first episode of Game Of Thrones that feels as if it’s arrived via some sort of network note. You can just imagine the higher-ups at HBO looking at the first three episodes and saying, “Yeah, we’re really starting to get going here, but I’m sure there are going to be people at home who are still confused as hell about who’s who and what’s what, people who haven’t read the books. Could you maybe lay some of that out for all of us?” And because “laying some of that out for all of us” has already required four books (with a fifth on the way) to get to the bottom of this complicated web of relationships, the better part of this episode is given over to exposition. The characters open their mouths and start telling each other long, long stories about the olden days and how things used to be, reminding each other of things they already know, and there’s a whole bunch of crucial information about character motivations and the history of this world relayed. It’s not elegant, but it gets the job done skillfully and efficiently.
All of the above sounds like snark or a complaint. It’s really not, I swear. “Cripples” was my favorite episode of the show so far, an hour that simultaneously feels more propulsive and more relaxed than the last three, as though the show is starting to unfurl its grand, master plot, while also settling into the world it’s created. At the start of any adaptation of a beloved work of literature, there’s definitely a sense of all involved in the production pulling back the curtain to reveal sights long held in readers’ imaginations (the Wall! the direwolves! King’s Landing!), with the audience then oohing and ahhing. But now that the show has more or less introduced everybody it needs to, it seems much more comfortable just doing what needs to be done. Thus, the exposition here doesn’t feel clumsy. Instead, it’s kind of thrilling.
I’m hard-pressed to explain just why this is so. It might be the actors. (Joss Whedon always said on Buffy The Vampire Slayer that he liked having Anthony Stewart Head around because exposition sounds better when spoken with a British accent, and maybe this series is proving him right.) It might be that these monologues have a certain poetry to them, particularly that one Viserys delivers about how he walked through the throne room of the Red Keep as a child and had to learn the names of all of the long-dead dragons. It might be that having all of this information out there is helpful to someone who’s read the books, too, refreshing memories on just what was important on the page. Because this could very well completely fall apart, but it avoids that trap. Every time you stop the story dead to have a character explain something (particularly when they’re explaining something to someone who already knows that fact, as Tyrion tells Theon all about where he comes from), it’s a dangerous thing to do, particularly if those monologues are rote history lessons.
Much of the reason “Cripples” gets away with most of these monologues (OK, a few feel VERY shoehorned in—when Baelish leaned over and asked Sansa if she’d ever heard the story of the Mountain and the Hound, I had to chuckle at yet ANOTHER tale long past we were hearing) is because of tone. When Tyrion tells Theon a bunch of stuff he already knows, it’s useful to the audience, yes, but it’s also done in such a mocking way that a.) we can write it off as the character sarcastically dressing down someone who’s a member of a family that was once an enemy and b.) we can read so much about the relationship between the Lannisters and Greyjoys and how poor it was into the way Tyrion feels like he can treat Theon like dogshit. Tyrion’s the guy who has a soft spot for the disadvantaged. He gives Bran the schematics for a saddle he can use, and he was nice to Jon Snow. That he’s kind of a dick to someone who was taken from his family and raised in an unfamiliar landscape (“a shark on a mountain”) tells you essentially everything you need to know about who was on which side in the war long past, the one that still spreads its tendrils into everything everybody does in Westeros.
Another reason the exposition works is because Game Of Thrones is a series uniquely obsessed with history. It’s all invented history, granted, but there’s definitely a sense that the defining moment of these people’s lives—the battle to take the throne from the Targaryens—was so long ago that it’s already started to fade in their thoughts. It’s a place they can’t get to anymore, and they are no longer the people they once were. (For this reason, I really liked the scene last week, where Robert talked of how he was once a young, strong man, contrasted with the older, weaker man he is now.) There are a lot of interesting themes winding their way through this series, but this is the one I’m most taken with (at least in the TV adaptation): The more you try to remember the past, the more it slips away from you.
It also works because the central story of the season seems to be showing itself. Ned, who’s gotten trapped by the petty politics of King’s Landing, now finds himself on a quest to figure out just why Jon Arryn died. It’s a risky thing to balance so much of a season of television on making a dead character, one we can never meet, so important. (Maybe this show has more in common with The Killing than I thought…) But I enjoyed the scenes where Ned sniffed around the final days of Jon, discovering a big, fat book filled with descriptions and genealogies for all of the main families in the realm and a stable boy, strong with dark hair, who’s obviously the king’s bastard son. Even as Ned’s forced to deal with the pressing concerns of the kingdom—like figuring out a way to provide security for this ridiculous tournament the king insists on throwing in his honor—he can’t quite figure out what doesn’t smell right about Jon Arryn’s death. Answering that question seems like it would put him in danger, but I liked his response to Jory about how people would notice him visiting the blacksmith: “Let them look.” Ned’s the closest thing we have to a traditional hero here, and it’s nice to see him act like one (at least once per episode).
Even as Ned’s taking on the role of a hero, his kids are faced with their own “quests.” Arya continues her training in becoming a swordsman, now balancing on one leg at the top of a tall, bumpy staircase (tomorrow chasing cats!). The scene where she sits with her dad and he tells her how she’s going to marry a wonderful lord and all of her subjects will be beholden to her may be my favorite of the episode (and I’ll talk more about it in a bit). I love how Ned sketches this life for her and doesn’t seem to grasp that Arya might not want that, and I love how Arya has no illusions, even at her young age, about what she wants. That life is not for her. Sansa, maybe, but she’s going to fight.
Jon Snow, meanwhile, finds himself defending a fellow castoff from another major family in the realm. Samwell Tarly (does every fantasy need someone named Sam?), a bigger kid who’s clearly never fought a day in his life, finds himself at the Wall after his father essentially gave him the choice of the Wall or death, and his story sparks Jon’s latent sympathies for those who don’t fit the traditional masculine mold in Westeros. The material up at the Wall is very strong in this episode, and I particularly liked the two scenes Sam and Jon shared, the first where Sam told Jon his story atop the Wall and the second where Jon told Sam HIS story while scrubbing tables (interrupted by Ser Thorne, who tells yet ANOTHER story about just how cold it can get during the long winters). Plus, we got to see Jon use his wolf to threaten those who would pick on Sam. Of all of Ned’s kids, Jon seems the most likely to be the one who takes up his father’s creed of just putting your head down and doing the right thing.
Across the Narrow Sea, we spend more time with Viserys this week and get a better sense of what drives him. He was promised the world as a child, and now he’s stuck wandering around a large island with a bunch of people who seem incredibly reverent toward horses. I wouldn’t say that Viserys has grown on me (the actor still plays him a bit too much like a mustache-twirling villain for my tastes), but I like that he, like the other characters in the show, is getting some nuance and depth to him. The scene where he storms into his sister’s tent and is promptly rebuked by her (Daenerys having discovered that she really does hold all the power at this point) is another episode highlight, and, as mentioned, I liked his talk of his childhood.
This brings us to this week’s example of seemingly pointless nudity, as Doreah joins Viserys in the bath to talk with him about dragons. Now, look: Roxanne McKee is an incredibly attractive young woman, but the first time I watched this scene, it struck me as the latest example of the show’s inability to use nudity as anything other than titillation. And titillation is fine, as these things go, but it’s clear that this show is aiming for so much more than just giving us our jollies; it hurts the series’ aims if the use of nudity isn’t aiming at SOMEthing beyond, “Hey, look! Boobs!” (as, say, The Sopranos and Deadwood were). Obviously, Doreah is a prostitute who’s been purchased for the sexual training of Daenerys and the sexual satisfaction of Viserys, and the best way to show how demeaning that is is to show her actually having to satisfy Viserys. I get that, and it weirdly ties into the Arya scene that comes shortly after. But it undercuts much of the scene’s aims and some of its melancholy to have it occur like this. (If you’re at all interested in further thoughts on this—and I know you are!—they’re included in the latest episode of my podcast.)
At the same time, I found the scene less objectionable this time through than I did the first time. Perhaps it’s because I knew it was coming, and perhaps it’s because I knew that the show would soon contrast Doreah with Arya. One of the real strengths of the series is that it explores the ways that people were forced into specific molds in the Middle Ages, and anyone who didn’t fit that mold was cast aside. The episode’s title doesn’t just refer to Bran and Jon and Tyrion; it refers to Doreah and Arya, both women who might want something more than what they’ve been handed in life but simply can’t have it. Doreah’s doomed to be a prostitute all of her life; Arya’s doomed to a life as a lady. The range of options is limited, and the scene in the bath presents this to us in lurid detail. Doreah’s naked there because that’s what she does, but it’s also ALL she can do, all that society will ask of her. The Arya scene (and the scene where Sansa worries about only having girls) drives the point home: If you’re a woman in this society, you’re either the mother to little lords or you’re a whore. There’s not a lot of middle ground, much as we might like Arya to carve some out for herself.
But if this life is brutish and short, that extends to the men as well. As the tournament begins, Gregor Clegane—the Mountain—cuts down the knight he jousts with, who lands hard on the ground, a splinter of wood puncturing his throat and causing him to endlessly spit up blood. More than any other episode so far, “Cripples” seems intent on making us aware of just how hard and pointless a life in the Middle Ages could be, just how little anyone had in the way of options. It might have seemed fun to be a knight for a while, but as Ned points out, these knights have seen very little in the way of battle. If that battle should come, they’ll likely be as helpless as the knight Gregor kills. All of the exposition in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” could have killed this episode; instead, it gives a stronger sense of how many of these people hang on to their one moment of glory because that’s all the good that might reasonably be expected to happen to them in their entire lives.
- I’d like to thank David for taking over last week and doing a hell of a job. Though I was very sad I didn’t get to write about the final scene of last week’s episode, which remains my favorite scene of the series so far.
- My friend and fellow TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote of cable dramas (when writing about Boardwalk Empire last fall) that most of them get just four or five episodes to suggest that they have more going on than what you might have seen before. They also get just four or five episodes to suck you in. (Looking down the list of great cable series, I’d say he’s right.) So since we’re at episode four, I’ll ask all of you this: Are you sucked in by Game Of Thrones? I am, finally (and I’m enjoying the episodes much more on rewatch), despite quibbles here and there.
- Our cliffhanger: Cat comes across Tyrion in a little inn on the road, and she immediately has him taken into her custody for the attempted murder of her son. Here’s another scene where history comes into play, with the characters coming to her aid as she recalls their families’ histories.
- Bran hasn’t been as important of a character to the series as he was in the books (for obvious reasons, since books have much more leeway in portraying the thought processes of someone in a coma), but I think he really comes into his own in this episode. I enjoyed the dream sequence, which was appropriately hazy and strange, while still feeling “real.”
- Hodor! Hodor Hodor Hodor!
- Here are a couple of Game Of Thrones pans for those of you who continue to think the series doesn’t work. The first, from Nathaniel Rogers, is one I actually agree with in some respects. The second, from Brandon Nowalk, is about the series’ lack of humor.
- And finally, for the record, I think Aidan Gillen is killing it as Baelish. A very strong, very funny performance.