(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first three books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the fourth and fifth 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. Those of you who haven’t read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.)
In a lot of ways, Game Of Thrones is like a really high-budget version of something like I, Claudius or one of those other BBC/PBS historical dramas. This isn’t a complaint. (Obviously, because I, Claudius is awesome, and if you haven’t seen it, you should.) It’s just a reality of this sort of thing that no matter the budget, no matter the production values, a lot of stuff is going to have to get relegated to the sidelines, because doing everything would simply be too expensive. You saw this most often in the first season, where the show hit Tyrion in the head so he wouldn’t see a major battle, but it also pops up in things like Sam cowering in terror from White Walkers at the end of season two, then wandering through the snow in confusion to start out season three. Gotta save the money somewhere.
What this means is that the show has fallen in love with the idea of just letting its actors talk. That’s rarely been more apparent than it is in this episode. I’m reading the book along with the show, in hopes of examining the adaptation choices, and what I’m reminded of is just how much George R.R. Martin will lose his characters in reverie. Take, for instance, some of Jaime’s chapters in A Storm Of Swords, which explain his behavior and motivations by taking readers back into his past in a way that might have eaten up 10 minutes of screentime. We learn a bit more about his connection to Cersei, and getting to know the character better is one of the chief pleasures of that book. (Martin’s greatest strength as a writer may be revealing just how much a villain can seem like a hero once you’re situated within their perspective, and just how much the “heroes” seem like “villains” from that point-of-view.) In the show, there’s simply not time for that—nor money to hire an actor to play the younger Jaime or to set up the battle for the Iron Throne that earned him the nickname “Kingslayer.” Sure, if the adaptors really thought it was necessary, they could get away with it. But it, ultimately, isn’t to the story the show is trying to pare down.
So, instead, everybody resolves to lay most of this on the actors. I don’t know how much the individual actors know about their back-stories, but there’s so much weight in the way that Nicolaj Coster-Waldau (a name I will never remember how to spell) says that people will do strange things for love. Seeing his eyes as he says it, hearing the waver in his normally confident voice, and just watching his demeanor shift almost imperceptibly accomplishes almost as much as Martin can in several pages of outlining Jaime’s back-story. In an instant, viewers are back in King’s Landing with Cersei, knowing just how driven Jaime is by that relationship, no matter how illicit or unusual. He’s a man possessed by something, by an indefinable past. Then again, all of the characters in this story are.
“Dark Wings, Dark Words” is a nice step up over last week’s episode, though not yet as good as this show is capable of. Where last week’s episode seemed trapped in catching us up with seemingly all 40 regulars (save a few), “Dark Wings” starts spinning the story forward, watching as the characters hatch their latest schemes. There are a few weird scenes—and a few questionable adaptation choices, which I’ll get to—but for the most part, this has the confidence and coherence the show has at its best. When Game Of Thrones is at its best, it finds some way to link characters, whether by overriding thematic concerns or visual motifs or something like that. In this episode, it’s not so subtle as all that, but it does find a way to link everybody. Notice just how often somebody says another character’s name—someone who may be thousands of miles away—and then we cut to whatever they’re up to. (So, naturally, Daenerys doesn’t appear.) It could feel strained; instead, it ends up underlining the series’ scope and just how exciting it can be to watch these people, sprawled across a giant continent, scheming away.
My favorite scenes ended up being the ones between Brienne and Jaime, which take the novel’s Jaime chapters—which can be rather brooding—and give them a frisson of Sam and Diane. The two argue and squabble, and there’s surprising chemistry between Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie as well. It’s just fun to watch these two bounce off of each other, and the sword fight at the end—complete with Jaime’s hands bound and taking place on a narrow bridge (as all the best sword fights must)—is enthralling. It also illustrates the way that the show nods at least somewhat to being an episodic TV series by coming up with smaller stories to nest inside of the larger whole. Here, it’s as simple as Brienne letting a man live that Jaime says should die, then said man coming back with those who would capture Jaime. It’s not really a story—in that it doesn’t have a traditional plot or character arcs—but it provides enough of an illusion of one to keep us salivating for next week. (The cliffhanger doesn’t hurt either.)
I also found myself surprisingly engaged by Bran’s introduction to Jojen and Meera Reed, two kids who join our little band of Starks, Oshas, and Hodors because Jojen and Bran have started encountering each other in their dreams. The show’s fantasy trappings tend to take on the guise of creatures—Dany’s dragons or that giant last week—but I almost prefer it when they have this odd sense of things not being quite right, as when Melisandre gave birth to the shadow creature last season or Dany’s visit to the House of the Undying. At their best, Martin’s books provide a window into how strange it is for these characters to come in contact with the magic that’s supposedly left the world behind, and the show captures that in moments like Bran trying to shoot down the three-eyed crow in his dreams. What’s even more interesting about this is that Bran adapts fairly quickly to the idea that a kid he’s meeting in his dreams has popped up in his real life, perhaps because as someone who can’t walk, he relishes the opportunity to develop his other powers, strange though they may seem. Bran’s never been my favorite character on page or screen, but I’m intrigued to watch how the series adapts this story, which it’s already made several changes to. (Also, I really like the kids the series found for these parts. This show so needs a casting Emmy.)
The odd adaptation choices I refer to involve Catelyn. On her way back to Riverrun to stand vigil at the bedside of her dying father, then bury him, Cat breaks for a moment to talk with Talisa about how only mothers can knit the weird dreamcatcher type thing she was making. (Forgive me if this is something from the books. If it is, the prop was presented in such a way that I couldn’t recognize it.) Her monologue involves the night she waited for one of her children to recover from the pox, since the Maester told her that if said child made it through the night, he would survive. It turns out the child was Jon Snow, and I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, Michelle Fairley sells the hell out of this moment, in a way that speaks to, again, the strengths the actors bring to the material. I also liked the way that the monologue worked itself back around to how Catelyn could never forgive her husband for sleeping with another woman and how she expressed those feelings in her antipathy toward Jon. But it’s just such a… weird departure from the character’s motivations in the books—in that she now seems to want to take that back, and I don’t get the sense book Cat ever even thinks about Jon—and I’m not sure what it’s there to do, other than to give Fairley something to do. Particularly when we consider that TV Cat is holding out hope that Bran and Rickon are still alive (where book Cat thinks they’re dead), the whole scene seems weirdly motivated. It’s well-written and performed, but it also seems to arrive out of nowhere and mostly seems to be there to give a powerful actor a monologue.
But never mind that, because this episode also catches us up with America’s Sweetheart Arya Stark, whose storylines continue to condense and deviate from the source material in ways that mostly shoo away the nagging book fan in the back of my head and just enjoy the actors up on screen. As we rejoin Arya, Hot Pie, and Gendry on their journey through the Seven Kingdoms’ back country, they’re mostly just trying to figure out where they’re going when they come across three travelers who quickly abscond with them to an inn. It’s never immediately clear if the three are being kidnapped or not, which is one of the things that makes the story fun, but it’s all a way to get Arya’s path to cross with another character we have yet to see this season: the Hound. Watching these two characters—and these two actors—together should be fun, and I’m cautiously optimistic about all of this. (Okay, and the archer firing his arrow into the air, then telling Hot Pie to move was pretty awesome, too.)
I also very much enjoyed Dame Dianna Rigg as Margaery’s grandmother and the whole Tyrell subplot in general. Because Margaery’s motivations are off-page for so much that goes on in the books, seeing her as a major character in her own right immediately reminds me just how good this show is at coming up with material to fit in around the plots of the books, and the scene where Margaery tries to find the things that might stay Joffrey’s temper—or even endear him to her—is one of my favorites. The way she dances around the fact that he’s holding a crossbow and eventually works that crossbow into one of the weirdest bits of foreplay you’ll ever see (not that they end up having sex) tells us so much about this woman and just how smart she is, and Natalie Dormer, an actress I’ve always liked, is doing such great work as someone who hides her cunning beneath her external sweetness, sort of the Jennifer Lawrence or Taylor Swift of Westeros.
The weakest portions of the episode all take place up North, where the show is running up against the budgetary limitations I talked about up top. This isn’t such a big deal when we’re hanging out with Jon and Mance, because they’re usually up to something interesting (though this episode feels a bit like a stall in that regard). However, the story with Sam literally just involves whether he’s going to take another step or not. Now, this is drawn directly from the books—where Sam finally just stops moving forward in order to die (and in order for Martin to flash back to just what is causing him such grief)—but in this case, losing the flashbacks hurts the story. Because we don’t really know much about the battle between the Night’s Watch and the White Walkers (outside of what we bring to the story from the books), this just becomes a scene about getting a guy to walk through the snow again, and you end up sort of wondering why these people care so much. In the books, it’s clear they’re doing this because they’ve all been through the shit together; here, it’s just another thing that happens.
But that’s just the way these things go sometimes. There are some things that can be conveyed through a heartfelt monologue or an actor’s raised eyebrow or even a particular bit of framing; there are some things—like a huge battle against ice zombies—that just can’t, because they’re so far outside of the realm of our normal, everyday experience. This is always the problem of adapting genre fiction, however, and it’s one Game Of Thrones avoids most of the time. Update of I, Claudius or no, “Dark Wings” is still a terrifically paced episode of the show, and it’s got me very excited for everything that’s to follow.
- Jack Gleeson is just the best at seeming like he’s even kind of pissed off about the outfits he has to wear. His Joffrey is such a tempestuous little shit, yet he always makes him seem vaguely human, as if this were the natural result of someone being so coddled his whole life.
- Tyrion is in this episode, but he doesn’t have a lot to do, compared to his usual shenanigans. (I’m half convinced the writers feel the need to put him in every episode to preserve the illusion there’s a “lead” character.) He’s mostly just warning Shae away from him and failing to do so because he loves her—and what she does to him—so much. It’s as if he’s never seen a horror movie with really obvious foreshadowing.
- I mentioned her briefly in the review, but Rigg is so much fucking fun as the Queen of Thorns. She’s one of my favorite book characters, and Rigg does her justice, turning her into King’s Landing’s own Dowager Countess. Most of her dialogue is direct from the book, where the character is already a scream, and Rigg lands every line, even when they’re awkwardly condensed.
- Hearing Sean Bean’s voice filter down to Bran through the treetops during his dream really made me hope this show breaks its “no flashbacks” rule to bring back Bean at some point for a flashback or something. Yeah, he’ll be old enough by then that, say, flashing back to the War of the Usurper wouldn’t make a lot of sense, but I still hope it happens (especially considering how much of the narrative is driven by things that happened back then).
- In rereading the third book, I’m reminded of just how powerful Tywin’s arrival—which is basically the scene he shared with Tyrion last week—is. I do think by bringing the character in from season one on, the series lost some of the power of that moment, but Charles Dance gives one of my favorite performances on the show, so it evens out.
- Back-story corner: Since it appears these characters have mostly been left out of the show so far, it seems safe to let you know that Brienne and Jaime are taken in in the books by a group called the “Brave Companions,” who worked under the employ of Tywin, then broke ranks with him and essentially did their own thing. (They were sellswords.) I think that’s what I can say without spoiling the books, though they’re not a very major part of the books to my mind.
- Oh, yes. Theon is also in this episode. He’s getting tortured, then he learns one of his sister’s men is there undercover and will free him at some point. I have to say I’m not looking forward to the show trying to work this into the storyline, but maybe it will work out.
Here be spoilers:
- I rather miss the way that the book depicts the inn that Arya goes to, as there, it’s clear that Jaime and Brienne have just passed that way. It might have been too much to work into the show, but I did like that indication of just how close all of these characters are to each other. (And, also, collapsing the Hound into the story this early seems done mostly to get a popular character into the storyline earlier than he might otherwise be.)
- We’ve also lost Sam fighting the White Walker with the dragonglass (though I assume this will be moved to later in the season) and Sansa’s hope that she will move to Highgarden to marry Willas (and I assume this will be expurgated entirely). I’ll actually miss the latter, as it shows just how much Sansa is grasping at straws at this point in her story.
- It does strike me as a very odd choice to let TV Robb and TV Cat think that Bran and Rickon might be alive, since it makes so many of their motivations—particularly the latter’s—coming up make less sense. But we’ll see.