(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first two 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 third, 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.)
I don’t know if Game Of Thrones has ever felt quite so breathless as it does in this episode, the culmination of a bunch of stuff this season has been building toward. Part of that, yes, is the fact that it’s constantly switching between locations and perspectives, trying as best it can to cram in everything it needs to do before the hour is up. Part of it is that the episode is only a little bit longer than 50 minutes, which means it’s on the short side for an HBO episode. Therefore, there’s no fat here, just lean storytelling that rockets forward, propelling the characters toward conflict. And part of it is just that the source material is that much richer than the book that preceded it, allowing for more room to expand on themes and interesting plot points. When “Garden Of Bones” gets in the zone, it really does feel like staying up late to breathlessly turn the pages in some book that’s sucked you in.
Unlike the previous two episodes, there’s not a strong central theme here, and the episode suffers a bit from that. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with an hour of all of these characters jostling for power, filled with moments that are damned bleak, even for this show. If anything, this episode does about as good a job as this show can at getting at something I was talking about last week: It figures out a way to show (even just a little bit) just how damaging this war has been to the peasants and “smallfolk” who make up the ruled, instead of the ruling class. Robb helps a nurse (about whom more in the spoilers section) care for a Lannister soldier whose foot has to be cut off. Joffrey orders one prostitute to beat another. Arya is witness to all manner of terrors while imprisoned at Harrenhal (one of two new locations to pop up in the credits this week). The contrast couldn’t be more clear: While Robb, Joffrey, Stannis, Renly, and a host of others all jockey for power, the smallfolk are dying, and their lives aren’t going to be substantially enhanced by the horse they backed ascending to the throne.
This is a big idea, and it’ll be a hard one to express in a TV series. The scene that gives me the most hope the writers can pull this off is the one between Robb and the nurse. She’s comforting the Lannister who’s lying in the middle of the battlefield, his foot taken by the rot and the rest of him soon to follow. Robb rides up and—perhaps taken by her—helps her out by holding down the man and giving him something to bite on while she saws through his ankle. It’s a quick and brutal sequence, but it sets up a dynamic we think we’re aware of: Robb is a good guy, and even if he’s just trying to impress a pretty girl, he’s doing so by being a good man to one of his enemies. Robb is the closest thing we have to a proxy for his dad at this point: the honorable ruler who tries to do the right thing by those he rules.
But what follows flips this all on its head. The nurse doesn’t have any patience for Robb’s actions, because she knows that his battle has doomed this young man to a life without a foot. When he tries to argue he’s on the side of right, she asks what he plans to do once he boots Joffrey from the throne. Well, Robb says, he’ll just ride on back to Winterfell and take back his old seat. He has no interest in ruling. Again, on the surface, this is an appealing quality. We all long for the sort of leader who will know his place and accomplish the big task, then march back to where he “truly” belongs, to let others rule. (Among other places, this makes up the basis of the “happy warrior” motif, and every election is preceded by pundits arguing one presidential candidate or another should pledge to serve only one term for the good of the country. Because that would work.) But this is a comforting lie, just like any other. As the nurse points out, you can’t unbalance the power dynamic in a country and have no idea what you’re going to do after that. You can’t revel solely in glory without thinking about what the aftermath will bring. (See also: Iraq.)
Robb, obviously, has a point. Joffrey isn’t a good king. He needs to be unseated. And the other competitors for the throne aren’t all that attractive, at first blush. Stannis is cold and somewhat brutish, and he’s not above using underhanded tricks to get his way. (Every time your personal witch gives birth to a demon baby, you should probably assume nothing good will come of it.) Renly is warmer and more conventionally ruler-ish, but he seems far more into the trappings of being a ruler than actual ruling. And if not one of those two, who’s left? Dany? She’s stuck in the desert and threatening people to let her into great cities. Jon? Psh. Like that would happen. One of the many, many women, who would make at least competent rulers? Westeros doesn’t seem inclined to agree to this idea, considering how shocked everybody seems by the mere existence of Brienne. Our best bet would likely be Tyrion, but I doubt he’s anywhere near the line of succession.
No, if we want a good ruler, then Robb’s pretty much it. But as the nurse points out, he doesn’t really understand the consequences of his decisions. A truly great ruler gets that every decision he makes has consequences, and while Robb obviously understands consequences on the battlefield, he’s yet to grasp that there’s more to the idea of cause-and-effect than winning or losing a battle. He’s riding a hot streak right now, but if he actually wins and somehow becomes king, there are going to be a lot of angry smallfolk, formerly faithful to the Lannisters, who will see him as a usurper, someone who came and ravaged their lands on the way to deposing the rightful king (who just happened to be a Lannister, natch).
That’s one of the things I love about this series: When it asks you who would make the best ruler, it’s acutely aware that your perspective shifts, based on your own experiences. Most novels that depict ongoing conflicts between different people vying for the same seat of power put us firmly into one side and take that side’s point-of-view. (If they attempt to take both sides, it’s usually to make some sort of “war is Hell” point.) We watch the build-up to glory—or shattering defeat—for “our” side and revel in our victories and losses.
Game Of Thrones does something much cannier, in that it all but forces us to see things from multiple points of view. We really like the Starks, but if they ever got hold of Tyrion, they’d probably have him arrested for treason. We really like Tyrion, but he’d almost certainly kill some of our other favorite characters. We really like Dany, but she wants to kill everybody. Game Of Thrones doesn’t just force us to consider these multiple perspectives; it forces us to briefly want incompatible things to both be true at the same time. Yeah, we probably all have a rooting interest in this series (I definitely want to see Arya kill everybody on the list she whispers to herself at night), but the series only works if it makes you briefly want the exact opposite of what you think you want. That the TV series has gotten so deft at doing this (the book series already was good at it) marks perhaps its strongest central improvement from season one, which fell into the standard “heroes vs. villains” dynamic too easily at times.
That said, the show doesn’t go so far as to say that there are no truly monstrous people in its world. Put people in absolute power at any time, and they’ll almost certainly abuse it. Joffrey gets his jollies from raging first against Sansa—who has the temerity to be the sister of a man who keeps defeating Lannister forces in battle—then against the prostitutes, who act as stand-ins for his anger at his uncle for keeping him from unleashing the full fury of his sadism. (And, okay, it’s also entirely possible Joffrey just really likes watching women get hurt, which is horrifying.) The forces in charge of Harrenhal—led by Gregor Clegane, whom we met briefly last season and gets the briefest of name-checks from Arya—use their ostensible goal to find out about the “Brotherhood” as an excuse to torture smallfolk with buckets and torches and rats, in another absolutely horrifying scene. Even the Thirteen of Qarth, who seem to be much nicer than any of the above at first blush, don’t blink at consigning Dany and her forces to dying outside of their gates. It’s not as immediately cruel as either Gregor or Joffrey, but it’s still a form of cruelty by inaction. Regardless of their fears of the Dothraki, this is a helpless kid who talks a big game but has nothing to back it up just yet, beyond her own conviction that she’s right. There’s no compassion in Qarth, but from one guy with a rags to riches story of his own, who sees something in Dany.
One of the things that first made the fantasy genre popular was that it became a new way for literature to battle back against modernism. It was a genre filled with good guys and bad guys, with the kinds of larger-than-life stories that were once the provenance of mythology and national epics. Game Of Thrones works best when it suggests the good guys aren’t all that good and the bad guys aren’t all that bad, then asks just what all of them are going to do about the truly awful elements in their midst, like the White Walkers, or King Joffrey, or the torture of smallfolk. What this season seems to be coalescing around is the idea of “justice.” What does it mean, and can anyone who’s ever been wronged truly feel vindicated by more blood spilled? Put another way: Arya Stark spends the night listing the people she needs to kill to feel properly sated in her desire for revenge. But every night, the list gets longer, and she’s still just one girl.
- Stannis Baratheon earns his way into my heart by being a word usage nerd. His correction of Davos on “fewer” vs. “less” was both accurate and exactly what I’d want to see in my king.
- I’m starting to wonder what the casting call for Melisandre looked like. “Must be comfortable with nudity, appearing pregnant while nude, giving birth to demon child.”
- Line of the week goes to Bronn, though Tyrion had several contenders: “There’s no cure for being a cunt.” Wiser words have never been spoken, Bronn.
- We’ll talk more about changes from the books in “spoilers,” but I do feel like this season is slightly underusing Davos so far. He’s always been one of my favorites, and I feel like he’s getting the short shrift here. Am I just misremembering his prominence in this novel?
- Littlefinger gets quite a bit to do in this episode, first having a verbal sparring match with Margaery (which was like getting to see Superman and Batman meet, if Superman and Batman were really good at twisting events to go their own ways), then trying to avoid Cat’s wrath while tricking her into releasing Jaime by saying he’d seen both of her girls. He also dropped off Ned’s bones, which probably made for a pleasant traveling companion.
- Backstory corner: I think this may be a new feature, in which I explain to those of you reading this who haven’t read the books a bit of backstory that the dialogue glosses over. I promise it will always be non-relevant to the plot at hand. This week, we have the history of Harrenhal. It was built by a guy to be his grand palace, and as soon as he finished it, the first of the Targaryans, Aegon, started his invasion of Westeros. Harrenhal was built to be an impregnable fortress. It was, but it could still suffer under a barrage of dragon fire. Its ruler suffered and cooked within its halls, and ever since then (for centuries), it’s been a sign of bad luck to whomever rules there. We’ll see how Tywin does with it.
- With the return of Robb this week, I think the only series regular we haven’t checked back in on since the season premiere is Jaime, who’s presumably still rotting in a cell somewhere.
Here be spoilers!:
- Lots and lots of book changes this week. One of them works really well, actually, in that Dany’s predicament outside of Qarth gives her something to do, where her character just spends the first half of the book wandering around the desert before Qarth greets her with open arms. Emilia Clarke always plays fiery anger well, and this is a chance for her to show that off again. The Robb scenes are all inventions, as are the scenes with Littlefinger. Tyrion getting Joffrey a prostitute is alluded to in the book, but never explicated on, and you can sort of feel the series’ writers circling that particular section and saying, “Oh, we gotta do something with that.” Once again, the biggest shifts are from Arya, as I don’t believe she once meets Tywin in the book, and now she’s his cup-bearer. Hm.
- That little scene between Tyrion and Sansa, which is from the book, I believe, made me think just a bit on what's coming for those two crazy kids.
- I know this section is marked with a spoiler warning, but, seriously, the next two spoilers are very, very spoiler-y. They could definitely ruin this season and the next for you, if you read them. Proceed with caution.
- The nurse Robb meets is almost certainly Jeyne Westerling, whom he will later marry, thus setting up his eventual death. There are both clues in her dialogue and clues in the fact that she’s played by The Hour’s Oona Chaplin, who was announced to be playing her.
- Shadow baby! Shadow baby! Honestly, I like the shadow baby more here—for the little bit that we see it—more than in the book, where it’s damned hard to visualize. That said, this is another plot streamline, where we see Melisandre give birth to the shadow that’s sent to kill the lord of Storm’s End, rather than the one that kills Renly. (Storm’s End appears to have been largely written out, which is fine.) Oh, right. Renly’s dying, probably next week. Seriously. Spoilers.