(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.)
Like a lot of HBO series, Game Of Thrones ended its first season with an hour that reflected on what had come before and pointed the way forward. A lot of this was from the book the series is based on. Clearly, the season was always going to end with Dany’s eggs hatching to reveal real, live dragons (though I like the ending the show chose more than the one the book chose, in this regard), and we were always going to see Robb being named the king of the North and Jon riding off beyond the wall with the rest of the Watch, off to see whatever it is that’s terrorizing the Wildlings. Similarly, we were always going to get Arya disguising herself as a boy and leaving King’s Landing or Sansa realizing just how screwed she is. (Honestly, if those people who run the Game Of Thrones/Arrested Development mash-up site don’t caption every screencap of Sansa from that scene where she’s watching Joffrey punish the would-be jester with “I’ve made a huge mistake,” they are FALLING DOWN ON THE JOB.)
But the ruminative material showed some of the strengths the series has developed over the book at this point in its run. The series, especially, has shown that it’s willing to stretch some of these emotional or philosophical moments out, to really get the most out of the actors’ performances and give them scenes where they can expand their characters beyond what’s on the page. The series can’t do the inner monologues of the books for obvious reasons, but it can give us scenes that more or less represent the conflicts of those inner monologues, and it’s often these scenes that are the best. It’s why I think this hour—which strikes me as a slight step down from the last two on first watch—seems like the sort of thing that will really grow on me on a rewatch.
My favorite scene was unquestionably that scene between Cat and Jaime. I don’t know if it was in the books, but even if it was, it really gained something by being acted out by Michelle Fairley and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (and how much am I looking forward to not having to look up how to spell THAT name on a weekly basis?). After some sniping back and forth between the two about how Jaime seemingly doesn’t fear death, Cat says she hopes that when he does die, he is condemned to the deepest depths of the seven hells. Jaime doubts the gods Cat and her husband pray to would send him there because, indeed, he doubts they even exist. There’s so much injustice in the world. How can there be just gods? Cat follows up with the idea that there’s only injustice in the world because of men like Jaime. But Jaime—quite rightly—points out that there’s only one of him. There are no other men like him. Just him.
It’s a great little scene in and of itself, but I also think it speaks to one of the central themes of Game Of Thrones. This is a show about how honorable ideas and intentions are constantly thwarted by the fact that people carry them out. And every single person on Earth (or in Westeros) has their own set of motivations, and many of those motivations are self-serving. The Lannisters have caused misery for the Starks in the immediate past, sure, but the Lannisters cause misery for themselves as well, as Tywin learns when he has to deal with the aftermath of Joffrey’s rash decision to behead Ned, a decision driven as much by his desire to show his toughness and fitness to be king as anything else. Everything in Westeros is connected, and events that seem like they wouldn’t have a huge effect—like Cat arresting Tyrion in what she surely thought was a moment of justice—end up kicking off whole wars. The strength of Game Of Thrones comes in pulling back the skin of the story to show us the connective tissue running between seemingly disconnected incidents.
This idea runs through the episode’s weakest scene, which is the latest example of someone just sitting down and telling us a bunch of shit we already know. This time, it’s Grand Maester Pycelle, who gets done having sex with our favorite prostitute/exposition hearer, Roz (whose expression of, “I have to hear a bunch of this shit AGAIN?” was very amusing), then explains to her all about all of the kings he’s served and how he feels that Joffrey just might have the makings of greatness in him. It’s not awful—Julian Glover is always going to be good delivering a tumult of words—but it certainly doesn’t serve much of a purpose, outside of, I guess, showing us that Pycelle isn’t as feeble as he seems and also giving us some backstory on Aerys and some ominous foreshadowing for Joffrey. But still, it’s a scene that just sits there, like many of the more expository scenes have all season long. (Also, are Maesters supposed to remain celibate? I genuinely have no idea on this one, though the monk’s robes sure would seem to indicate so, at least as a handy visual shorthand.)
Contrast that with the scene where Sam and the others run down Jon after he opts to leave the Night’s Watch in favor of joining Robb on the fields of battle or the scene where Jeor tells Jon just what’s going on beyond the Wall. Jon’s journey all season long has felt truncated and perfunctory, but in this episode, he finally gets the beginnings of an arc toward greatness. I think it’s telling that the scene where Jeor convinces him that his place is alongside the others as they head out into the great white expanses is right next to the scene where Dany sets fire to her husband’s corpse. Jon and Dany, in many ways, represent a new generation of power, and they represent the two real threats to Westeros. Jon is going out to battle one, while Dany hatches the other out of her ancient eggs. In those two final sequences, we get a real sense of just what’s at stake. Jon and the others ride through a murky tunnel toward an uncertain tomorrow. Dany is rewarded for her faith and sits, naked, in the midst of her husband’s funeral pyre, cradling her three dragons. They’re both beautiful images, and they link two characters separated by thousands of miles and a narrow sea, two characters you might not think to link.
The episode also does a good job of making us feel the depth of sorrow the many Starks feel at the death of Ned. The scene where Joffrey shows Sansa her father’s head—and her Septa’s head, while we’re at it—gains strength from Jack Gleeson’s sneer and Sophie Turner’s gradual, calcifying stoicism. In that moment, you can see Sansa snap, begin plotting revenge, even if she won’t admit it to herself. (To those of you worried about spoilers, don’t worry. I’m merely relaying what Turner’s expression read like to me.) And then you have Arya, shorn of her long hair and adorned with a terrible wig, heading out down the long road back North, threatening fat boys with her sword. And you have the absolutely wonderful scene where Cat goes to find her son and sees him beating the shit out of a tree with his sword. He doesn’t know what else to do. But she does. They get Sansa and Arya back, and then they kill every last Lannister they can find. (You also have Bran and Rickon meeting in the crypt, a scene that once again highlighted just how little the show has done with Bran, in comparison with how the books built him up as quite an important character, rather than a catalyst for the story.)
That’s one thing the series has done beautifully—show us how all of these characters can be united or divided by one event that happens in a far-off location, then is spread throughout the world via raven. Even knowledge of Dany’s pregnancy made its way back to Westeros eventually, and the characters reacted to it in a variety of ways, some vowing to kill her and her unborn child, others horrified by the idea of killing a teenager. If the great theme of Game Of Thrones is how fragile the idea of nobility is, then the secondary theme is probably the idea of consequences and just how unpredictable they are. You can never be quite sure what will happen when you do something, and you don’t really know how anyone will react. When you come down to it, no one is just like you. You are the only man like you, and even if you’re pretty sure how someone will react, you can’t be sure until they do. Really, you can only trust yourself.
It’s Dany who learns this the hard way. She’s lost her child, and her husband is in some sort of deep coma, thanks to the witch’s blood magic. (Also, if you’re an all-powerful witch with power over life and death, it’s probably best not to be an asshole about it when someone confronts you about how you misled them.) She trusted that her act of saving the witch would lead to some sort of added advantage. Instead, her act of saving the witch prolonged a life that had already grown miserable. Without her village (or her temple), without her people, living in a world where she had to be around the men who had raped her, the witch wasn’t too thankful for Dany’s gift, and Dany was too blinded by her own ideas of her generosity and power to realize that. Plus, by ridding the world of Rhaego before he was born, the witch kept her eye on the long-term, taking away the child who would have overrun the world and burned more villages and led a force that would have raped more women. The strength of the books is that it takes one event and forces you to see how different people feel about that event. Increasingly, that’s a strength of the series too. The witch isn’t exactly too kind about expressing her opinion, but it’s also hard to miss her point. More war, more destruction, how could that be a good thing? And yet that’s Dany’s destiny, as she all but acknowledges when she chains the witch to the funeral pyre and marches in herself. She’s either going to unleash hell or die. There’s not really middle ground.
And in a finale that could have felt too scattered—we drop in on every major character of the season who’s still alive—that sense that cooler heads would rather prevent greater war but were thwarted by hotter, younger heads was what united the story. Outside of Cat—who’s pretty much done with trying to negotiate—the others in a position to put a stop to things were hoping to at least slow things down a little, though they inevitably realized that everything was too far gone for that. Tywin would have liked to parlay some sort of truce, but without Ned, he doesn’t have any bargaining chips. (He seems acutely aware that killing Ned was something Joffrey can’t walk back.) The witch—and maybe even Jorah—would like to stop the war before it even starts, but she ends up dead. And Tyrion is the only one smart enough to see how all of this is going to play out, for which he earns himself a job as the king’s hand and a trip to King’s Landing. With the Lannisters, Baratheons, and Starks all rattling sabers, war is an inevitability. It’s just a question, at this point, of who wins and how much death will be spread in their wake.
I wouldn’t call the first season of Game Of Thrones perfect television, but it was a first season that moved with confidence and corrected any small flaws it had on the fly. The best thing a season of television can leave you wanting is more, and at the end of this episode, when the dragon’s screech matched the cut to black and HBO brought up the text saying we’d get more in spring 2012, all I wanted was to see where this was going, even though I already knew. And given how well the show’s production team corrected for minor errors on the way throughout this season, I think we’re just settling in for something that’s going to be very good indeed. Bring on whatever’s next.
- I knew Sansa wasn’t going to push Joffrey from that weirdly railing-less bridge they were standing on, but, man, if ever I wanted the show to break from the books even a little bit… (Also, the way the scene was shot was weirdly reminiscent of that scene where Furio almost pushed Tony into the helicopter propeller over on Sopranos, a scene I just watched.)
- Somebody in comments was joking about how every time the show gives you attractive female nudity, it follows that up with naked Hodor or something. The rule again proves true this week, as we see naked Ros, then get IN THE VERY SAME SCENE, the full silhouette of Pycelle in his dressing robe thing. And a good time was had by all! (He appears to be jazzercising.)
- Sophie Turner wasn’t my favorite earlier this season, but she more than made up for it in this episode in her performance. You could really feel the poor girl coming apart at the seams as Joffrey was talking about putting a son in her.
- Sean Bean’s name popped up in the opening credits because, y’know, he was going to rise from the dead or something. (His disembodied head didn’t even really look like him.)
- I know HBO isn’t big into merchandising, but I’m betting they could make millions by selling real baby dragons. Those things are cute!
- These last two episodes have both ended with expertly executed sequences designed to evoke chills. Ned’s execution was terrifically done, and the scene where Jorah comes upon Dany amidst the ashes of the funeral pyre with her dragons, then bends his knee to her was also goosebump-inducing.
- This week’s spinoff proposal: Rickon and Shaggydog wander Winterfell and pop out of the shadows to terrify people chosen at random.
- It’s been good fun wandering through this series with you folks (and I’m sure David agrees). We’ll both be back next spring to tackle whatever’s next. See you then!
Here Be Spoilers:
- I’m realizing how little I remember book two in this series (to the point where I wonder if I’ve even read it, though I remember book three well enough to think I’ve read that), so I’m going to be re-reading it over the summer. Anything I should be on the lookout for? And what will be your favorite sequences and characters that appear next year? (Remember: Mark this stuff with spoilers for the uninitiated.)
- The popular fan theory that Jon is the offspring of Rhaegar and Lyanna gets a shoutout here, as Bran, for the first time in the whole series, talks about Lyanna’s kidnapping.
- And speaking of that, should we get a flashback of that whole event, wouldn’t Sean Bean have to come back and appear? I’m hoping he’ll pop up again in the show’s waning seasons (though I can’t possibly imagine him doing so in the present tense).