(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.)
(Stray observations and spoiler talk will be coming momentarily.)
As I said way back in my pre-air review of Game Of Thrones, one of my chief concerns about the series has always been the fact that all good TV series need space to evolve. A strictly faithful adaptation of a book or play can sometimes work on film because you’ve got, at worst, three hours to play with. A strictly faithful adaptation of a book on TV, however, runs into the fact that all series need to work with what pops while filming (or when the audience is watching the show). Because Game Of Thrones is based on a beloved series of books, however, it can’t very well slowly change into a show where Hodor runs an elite detective agency catering to the wealthy tyrants of Westeros. It needs to more or less capture the flow of events in the book, and if an actor isn’t working or if the chemistry’s off somewhere or if the story needs to shift radically in another direction, well, there’s no real way to DO that. (This is not entirely a problem; some shows and showrunners can have hair triggers about trying to give the audience what they want.)
“The Wolf And The Lion” is proof enough that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are going to stick more or less to an adaptation of the EVENTS of the books by George R.R. Martin, but they’re also going to find room around the edges to come up with their own stuff to do. The first four episodes have certainly gotten bolder and bolder in this regard, doing whole scenes that didn’t exist in the books and couldn’t have existed (due to the books’ point-of-view character structure), but episode five is the first that’s more than half invented material (by my rough math). Extremely important scenes in the books—like Tyrion’s introduction to the Eyrie or Arya ending up overhearing people talking about how the Lannisters and Starks may come to war—are reduced to scenes that more or less recount the events, then speed right along. Even though this episode takes plenty of time for the long, leisurely scenes of people talking that are the show’s hallmark in its early going, this thing fucking MOVES.
Still, the best scene—and, arguably, the best scene in the entire series so far—is a late scene that’s just two people talking. Cersei comes to the king while he’s in his chambers, to talk with him about the fact that he’s just dismissed Ned from the position of Hand. Ned, of course, balks at the idea of sending an assassin to take out Daenerys, since she’s just a child, and doing so would, well, be the sort of thing a corrupt and evil king would do. But Robert, while lazy and slothful and past his prime, isn’t REALLY corrupt or evil, just kind of stupid. He’d rather deal with the problem of a Targaryen heir before that heir is born, and that means killing a teenager, no matter how much his Hand might find that distasteful. Cersei, interestingly enough, tries to argue from Ned’s position. (She doesn’t do so forcefully, which mostly suggests she’s trying to make the dissension between the two men permanent, among other things.)
But after Cersei and Robert discuss just how the Dothraki allied with the Targaryens would be able to defeat the sitting king—by having a united army behind a common cause—the scene takes a brilliant turn. What’s holding Westeros together? The marriage of Robert and Cersei. And yet even as this notion comes up, both have to dissolve into laughter. Their marriage is a sham, a political one made entirely to hold the kingdom together, and yet it, like Westeros itself, is splintering, cracking apart under the strain of two parties who have little in common but found themselves thrust together by a cause so very long ago. And now, they’re so distanced from each other that they don’t even fight. Robert still loves a dead woman he can barely remember. Cersei, well, we all know whom she loves. And here they are, all of that bitterness between them long since devolved into weariness. They’d fight, but there’s no real reason to. Fighting is for the young, for the hungry. And all around them, the young and hungry long for battle, even as they seem to have seen their mutual dislike coming since the day they were wed.
It’s a scene that doesn’t exist anywhere in the books—how could it, since neither Robert nor Cersei is a point-of-view character? It’s also quite wonderful, a look into the marriage that’s both faithful to the books (well, I’m not sure if that dead child Cersei mentioned a few weeks ago and seems to allude to here is meant to be canonical in the series, since it doesn’t appear in the books, so far as I know, but we’ll treat it as such for the show, at least for now) and playing on the strengths of the actors. Lena Headey’s Cersei has been a bit of a puzzle up until this point, but this crystallizes her perfectly: She’s a woman who was willing to try at one time, but only a very little bit. And when that didn’t work out, she simply stopped bothering. And Mark Addy’s been great throughout this series, and he has an even better moment here, as a king who’s fallen so far from a heroic leader of men and wants only wine, a king who knows if the Dothraki come to Westeros, he can’t exactly hold them back, can only escape into his castle and hide.
There are numerous invented scenes like this throughout the episode. The relationship between Renly and Loras, for example, was hinted at in the books but is shown in the flesh here, as the two have a very tender moment where Loras shaves Renly’s chest and armpits and tells him what a good king he would be. (I dunno. If we’re picking kings in this scene, I think Loras, who doesn’t seem squeamish about blood, would be a better fit, but lines of succession are a bitch.) Or we’ve got a scene between Theon and a prostitute that mostly seems to exist to give Theon something to do for now. (It’s not horribly compelling, frankly.) Or we’ve got a scene where Baelish and Varys snipe at each other angrily in the throne room. These are all scenes that have been either wholly invented or extrapolated on from mentions here and there in the books. And outside of the Theon scene, they’re all pretty terrific.
But it’s not like the episode skimps on stuff from the book either. Game Of Thrones, in many ways, is a mystery story, with the twin mysteries involving just who tried to kill Bran (and thanks to the discussion between the two men wandering by the giant dragon skull Arya hides in, we can be pretty sure the Lannisters had a hand in it, even if it seems certain Tyrion wasn’t the one ordering the hit) and just who killed Jon Arryn if, indeed, he was murdered, as seems fairly obvious now. (The larger mystery of just what the hell happened so many years ago in the war is one we’ve only just begun to untangle.) The episode features interesting material in both mystery storylines, with Ned going off to find the latest bastard of Robert—a baby girl who has his black hair and ruddy complexion—and Cat dragging Tyrion to the Eyrie.
The Eyrie is perhaps my favorite invention of Martin’s in the first book. An impregnable fortress atop a giant mountain, it’s the stuff grand visuals are made of, and I was worried the series would skimp on the visual effects here. Instead, they’re tremendously impressive, especially once Tyrion is tossed into the dungeons, with their non-existent fourth walls opening to the air and a drop thousands of feet long. (I also like how the camera is tilted ever so slightly to indicate visually that the floors are just slightly slanted, without anyone coming out and saying, “Hey, the floor is slanted!”) It was already a terrifying idea on the page for anyone with the slightest fear of heights, and it’s been beautifully realized on screen.
Actually, I like just about everything about the Eyrie, including Kate Dickie as Lysa Arryn, the widow of Jon, who now sits implacably, breast feeding her son (who looks to be 6 or 7) and issuing judgments to help out her sister, Cat, who’s clearly realizing that bringing her prisoner here might not have been the soundest idea in the world. Tyrion, who proved his valor when the little party escorting him was ambushed by mountain men and he was forced to make his first kill in sickening fashion, by smashing in the face of an assailant with a shield, has already pointed out to Cat how obvious it would be to frame him, and he’s also backed up by the Lannisters, who may not have any great love for him but will do what it takes to save him nevertheless. He IS a Lannister, after all, and the Lannisters don’t take well to having other families get one over on them.
I also love the way that Ned hears about his wife’s rash action but doesn’t really have any way to do anything about it, since the small council meeting where Robert outlines his plan to assassinate Daenerys is called before Ned can talk to Robert about the Tyrion arrest. And, of course, that’s the meeting where Ned’s idealism and Robert’s bloody pragmatism come to verbal blows, leading to Ned’s resignation. But before he can leave King’s Landing, where there are clearly so many people who wish him ill, Baelish arrives to say, “Hey, if you want to know who Jon Arryn last visited before he died, come on over to Littlefinger’s House o’ Whores.” And Ned, bless him, just can’t resist the urge to find out all of the deceit going on in Westeros, even as we’re screaming at him like horror movie viewers telling the girl not to go upstairs. If Ned really started digging, of course, he’d probably head to the North anyway, having realized that the core of his country is rotten. But he still seems to think that good will triumph if he just finds the right answers.
It’s here that I should mention one of the reasons this episode works so well is that it vastly limits the amount of locations we visit. Though we drop in at Winterfell for the Theon scene and a scene where Bran recites facts about the Westeros families (presumably to help us remember that the wolf and lion are the Stark and Lannister sigils, respectively), we spend the vast majority of our time with Cat and Tyrion on their way to the Eyrie and with Ned figuring out just what’s rotten in the city of King’s Landing. It’s not like we’re ditching the other characters, either. Though we don’t see Jon or Daenerys at all, we spend plenty of time with Arya (who climbs into that giant dragon’s skull to eavesdrop, then insists the guards of King’s Landing let her past), and the stuff on the way to the Eyrie breaks down nicely between Tyrion and Cat. It nicely lays out the major families we’re concerned with: The Starks and Lannisters are at each other’s throats. The Baratheons are done trying to keep the peace, tired and drunk. The Arryns are sidelined and/or crazy. And the Greyjoys have been utterly decimated, reduced to screwing around with whores. (In that respect, the Theon scene makes a little more sense.) It’s as good an episode at just laying out just what’s going on in Westeros as anything up until this point, especially since there’s lots of intrigue and action to help the exposition go down (though there’s far less exposition than last week).
And it all culminates in a wonderful scene where the tension that’s been simmering since Bran was thrown from a window finally explodes. After Ned visits the brothel to see the bastard daughter of Robert, Jaime arrives to take him under arrest, just as Cat has arrested Tyrion. (At first, he threatens to kill him, clearly not fearing that Robert will do anything, since Ned’s the former Hand and all, but he amends his statement to killing everybody else and taking Ned.) It’s a scene full of swordfighting and the gradual sense that the Starks, gutsy as they are, are pretty much outnumbered and maybe even screwed. Every one of Ned’s men—Jory last of all, thanks to a knife through the eye—falls. And then Ned takes a wound to the leg, collapsing to his knee, forced to kneel before Jaime, who doesn’t take him in but does let him know there’s more to come if Tyrion isn’t released. And since we already know the situation Tyrion finds himself in, well, we know there’s definitely more to come.
“The Wolf And The Lion” probably isn’t perfect, but I don’t want to nitpick it too much. Alan Sepinwall has always said that the great TV series teach you how to watch them, offering a few episodes up as a learning curve, then dropping you into the thick of things. And if the first four episodes of this show were a steep learning curve, well, this is the episode that hopes we’ve all figured out just what’s going on, because the shit’s about to start flying and flying heavily. For those of you who wondered why I wasn’t going as crazy for the first few episodes as I might have been, well, this was why. It’s hard to look back at the early hours—necessary as they were—and be as excited by them when you can see just how great the show can be in an episode like this.
- I’m kind of taken with that dragon skull. It would look pretty kick-ass in my living room.
- Everybody’s getting naked this week. Jory gets distracted by a prostitute showing him her breasts (then gets knifed in the eye for his troubles). Theon’s “lady friend” shows us her boobs, then we get to see Theon’s penis. It’s like True Blood up in here.
- In retrospect, the moment that set the episode racing along was when GREGOR CLEGANE DECAPITATED A FUCKING HORSE. I mean, honestly, that’s not really something you see every day or, well, ever. It was a tough scene to watch, but, Jesus, talk about setting up your characters effectively and with only the barest of moments. Also great: The King calls for an end to the fight. Sandor kneels, and Gregor’s sword swipes just over his head.
- Arya’s pretty bad-ass when she insists the guards let her back into the city. I remember reading the book and thinking this was why Ned wasn’t going to find out about the threats to his life (because she wasn’t going to get news to him), but Martin’s smarter than that.
- For those of you who enjoy myths and legends and such, doesn’t it look like Ned’s wound is in his thigh? That immediately started me thinking about the Fisher King, though I don’t have a great number of parallels to draw between the two characters.
Everything after this is a spoiler (including comments):
- Though this episode works because it limits locations, next week’s is also very good, and it once again incorporates Daenerys’ Dothraki Roadshow into the action. And for those of you who know, the title is “A Golden Crown.” Yeah. You know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.
- Nice foreshadowing: Everybody keeps mistaking Arya for a boy.
- Man, knowing what’s coming up for the character, I found myself really wishing that Ned could just hit the road and stop caring so much about who killed Jon Arryn. I know that what happens to him is a huge moment, but I do like the guy.