(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
Game of Thrones, as far as I can tell, is the closest television has ever come to just reading a novel right at you and making that experience fun. Sure, we've had other shows like The Wire dubbed "novelistic," but Game of Thrones really feels like it's just jumping from chapter to chapter, moving each piece slowly around the board, layering in background knowledge in dribs and drabs as we acclimatize to the world. It can be a jarring experience, especially at first: We'll drop in on a hugely important character, spend 10 minutes with them, and then we won't see them again for the rest of the episode. Watching the first episode of the show, I wasn't sure I could handle such narrative technique, but three episodes in, it's becoming second nature.
I've never read the books this series is based on, and my interest in fantasy literature is dim at best, which is, I think, why I'm taking the reins from Todd this week (don't worry, you'll have him back next week). I was both drawn to and repelled by the pilot for the almost plodding way it introduced characters and concepts—it was daunting and a little off-putting at first, but you just knew that if you kept coming back to the show, you'd inevitably get hooked by the slow drip of plot and backstory for every character. Game of Thrones is almost audaciously plotted for what you would call genre television; it ended on a cliffhanger the first week but hasn't done so since, and after an impressively scary opening sequence it has given us very little action at all. After the third episode "Lord Snow," its best so far, I think, it's obvious that the formula is working. Game of Thrones isn't resorting to anything too cheap or sensational to draw you in. It's just assuming, correctly, that by spending time on its characters and building its world out, piece by piece, audiences will come back for more.
Let's get on to the recapping. Jon Snow is the namesake of the episode, and I suppose, if I think about it, he's its largest focus, although, as usual, we're just hopping between the three locales at this point—Winterfell, Kings Landing, and the Dothraki lands (do they have a name apart from "across the Narrow Sea"?). Finally at the Wall and beginning his training for the Night's Watch with the other hobos and criminals that have been recruited, Snow is in for a bit of a rude awakening as he discovers his skills are more of a hindrance than anything else, smacking of arrogance and his lordly heritage. Although the plotting going on here, concerning Snow's maturation from eager rookie into hardened leader, is simple stuff, I love the concept of the Wall and the Watch so much I'm happy to take it. The Wall is a wonderfully striking image every time we see it, especially when contrasted to the relative finery of Kings Landing and the prettiness of the Lannisters. It's a physical symbol of this kingdom's unwillingness to acknowledge what's going on outside its borders, no matter how many harbingers of doom may crop up, and the makeup of the Watch, a mix of earnest types like Snow and the dregs of society gathered from prisons and poor-houses, features exactly the kinds of people such a society would rely on to do its dirty work.
We get a lot more of that kind of info this week, mostly through Snow's eyes, but it's nice to have Tyrion around up north for one more week to keep things a little light. But he's more than comic relief: Tyrion is definitely the show's most inscrutable character in terms of motivation. This week, we watch him disarm a room without raising a hand (the threat of his name alone carries far, as he well knows), help teach Snow how to be a leader of men, and play it cool when Benjen accuses him of being a tourist in the north looking for more tales to tell. Most importantly of all, we learn that the knife used in the assassination attempt last week belongs to the crafty little dude, and it's left to us to decide whether that's a misdirect or not. It's hard to tell at this point. Tyrion is obviously a man whose mind is constantly at work, and there has to be some ulterior motive to his visit to the wall beyond mere tourism. As we keep seeing, he's aware of his own limitations and knows the right people to associate with. The hardiness of the watch has struck his fancy, but whether he's also in league with his horrid siblings or has his own angle to work remains to be seen. Dinklage, the obvious standout of the cast, is living up to his reputation and doing fine work so far.
His scheming sister has a little less to do, which is good since Cersei's intervention on behalf of her son last week was a little too irritatingly petty and cruel, undoing the more interesting character work of her speech to Catelyn earlier on. Lena Headey is fine in what is a tough, unsympathetic role. Her preening, idiotic son is taking everything down a notch in that he disproves every notion of cleverness you might expect such a crafty Queen to have imbued. Case in point this week: Her lesson in diplomacy and why bringing the north under control will never be possible was well-written and played, but the rest of her advice essentially amounted to, "Don't worry, when you're the king you can do whatever you wan,t and no one will have a problem with that." Which is probably why this kid is such a petulant, cowardly douchebag. For such a wily Queen who's somehow maintained a clandestine affair with her brother for all these years and is plotting to take down her husband, you'd think she'd have raised more of a survivor for an heir.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, on the other hand, got his first real material this week that didn't involve him standing around and looking ridiculously fucking dashing and smug. And, I gotta say, I liked it a lot. Jaime is a character you'd automatically think poorly of even before he shoved Bran out a window. He looks like he just walked in from the Round Table, except with none of the honor and even more armor-buffing. But going up against the two powerhouses of the show (Ned and the King), he proves he's a bit more than their (and our) assumptions. The whispered talk of the Mad King, Robert's predecessor who was obviously a bit of a nutcase, was just a great example of how to make exposition as gripping as possible. We still don't know the exact circumstances of Robert's rise to the throne, but right now, it seems like there were parallel coups at hand: Robert's rebellion of the people and the Lannisters' betrayal of their king. And while everything the Lannisters do seems motivated by selfishness, it's obvious even the aloof Jamie is still shaken by what he saw. Asked by Robert what the Mad King's last words were, he recalls, "He said the same thing he'd been saying for hours. Burn them all." That Robert, in a particularly foul kingly mood in his one big scene this week, is silenced by this, is telling in ways we don't really understand yet, but the scene is so intriguingly played, you're just desperate to hear more.
The final piece of the Kings Landing machinations concerns the Starks. Ned's first day on the job reveals what even I could have guessed, that the King is heavily indebted to the Lannisters and his coffers are dry. Meanwhile, Catelyn tries to arrive in secret to do a bit of intelligence-gathering about the assassination attempt on her son. It's implausible that she'd think she could operate like that without being detected, and we quickly dispense with the very notion with the proper introduction of Petyr "Littlefinger" (Aidan Gillen, of Queer as Folk and The Wire), the King's moneyman who obviously holds a torch for Ned's wife. I almost rolled my eyes. Yet another schemer in a cast of two dozen with ambiguous motivations? But Gillen's definitely up to the task, and while I definitely wouldn't bet against his alliances getting compromised later on, Ned will definitely need someone to bounce dialogue off while he's down in Kings Landing who isn't his wife, and Petyr seems like an excellent foil in that regard. Ned, in general, will function as a great eyes-and-ears for the audience catching up on life in Kings Landing, as the place is so alien to him, much the same purpose that Tyrion served up north, or that Daenerys serves in Dothraki-land.
Daenerys' plot this week was the first time I've been satisfied with the goings-on across the Narrow Sea. Her pathetic mustache-twirler of a brother was impossible to take in the pilot episode, and the lingering focus on Daenerys' naked body as she was betrothed and deflowered to Khal Drogo was juvenile at best. Now, maybe I just liked this week because Daenerys' stupid brother really got his ass handed to him. He probably should have seen it coming that making his sister the Queen of a bunch of noble warrior types would make her the focus of attention, rather than him. Maybe I was just happy that they kept Emilia Clarke's breasts largely out of sight for a week. But I think it's just that we're finally getting a bit of nuance and a bit of character shading for the Dothraki, who had been the worst kind of "noble savage" fantasy stereotypes when we started out.
Ned also gets a bit of quality time with his most adorable and interesting family member, Arya, this week (Bran is also up again, although still confined to bed and crippled for the rest of his life). All of the younger cast on the show have been impressive so far, but Maisie Williams is a real find as Arya. The episode could have put its climactic focus in so many places, and it's telling that it ended with Arya getting her first swordfighting lesson as Ned looked on smiling; since the plot had been played lightly thus far, it was very nicely undercut by subbing in real combat sound effects over their bashing wooden swords, as Ned's face falls a little and he realizes there's only so much pleasure he can take in training his daughter to be a warrior. Better that she is able to protect herself, sure. But given how fragile the situation seems in Westeros (and it just gets more fragile as Ned delves deeper), it felt like another silent repetition of that old Stark adage, "winter is coming," reflected in his eyes. Arya might be having fun now, but it ain't gonna last forever.
It's not really surprising that Game of Thrones is growing on me. This episode still isn't quite there yet in terms of being superb TV, but it's now advanced everything forward enough that it's tough not to be hooked at this point. Maybe it's too much of a slow burn for some (although the steady ratings suggest otherwise), but it's the slow burn that always draws me in. As incongrous as it seems for this show to be on HBO (its pairing with Treme is particularly funny), this is definitely the home for it, because when you strip out the dragon eggs and the encroaching zombies, it's a show that builds up an elaborate world and has the time and money to truly explore its environment and its characters without spoon-feeding the viewer information. There are flaws to be worked out, but there's a breathing universe at work here, and that's a hell of a lot of fun to experience.
- Jaime gets a few good jabs in to Ned. "What's the line? The King shits and the hand wipes."
- Also: "If I stabbed the mad king in the belly instead of the back, would you admire me more?"
- The Queen's advice to her son is maybe a little too indulgent. "If you'd rather fuck painted whores, you can fuck painted whores."
- Jaime is the least scheming of the Lannister siblings, as we learn this week from his talk with his sister. He assures her she'll kill everyone "until you and I are the only people left in this world."
- Although his line "They can write a ballad about us. The war for Cersei's cunt" doesn't go over quite as well.
- Mark Addy is doing fine work as Robert, but I didn't love his speech about bashing in some lordly fool with a hammer in warfare. It felt too much like speeches we've heard in countless war movies.
- I kept referring to Daenerys' assistant as the "concubine-in-waiting" in my notes, which I now realize was maybe a little mean.
- Does anyone else get the feeling Benjen isn't coming back from his latest expedition?
- Apparently the Dothraki god is some sort of "Great Stallion."