“What good is power if you cannot protect the ones you love?”
Game of Thrones episodes seem to fall into two distinct styles. There are the ones which focus very strongly on one or two of the major plotlines, perhaps paying lip service to a couple of the others, which are usually very strong. Then there are the more scattershot ones which take in so many (though rarely all) of the ongoing plots that we see little more than a tantalising vignette from each.
With showrunners Benioff and Weiss on scripting duties once again, this week’s ep fitted into the latter category. There was a lot going on, to be sure – much plot advancement, oodles of exposition, and even the odd bit of character development. But it all felt workmanlike rather than amazing, as though so much had to be crammed in there was little time to craft it into something special.
Still, if you’re gripped by the continuing intrigue, there was plenty to chew on here. With new king Tommen crowned at the outset, we saw the various factions trying to influence him already jostling for favour. “He could be the first man to sit on that Throne in fifty years to deserve it,” opined Cersei; but Tommen’s just a boy, and not a psychotic one like Joffrey. To use the categories popularised in Sellar and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That, he looks sure to be a Weak King. And like all Weak Kings, that means the real power will be behind the Throne, and the true competition is for who will get to wield it.
As mother, Cersei would have first dibs; but we’d already seen Cersei aggrieved at Tywin’s very obvious (but apparently successful) first attempt at taking the boy under his wing. Then there was Margaery Tyrell’s romantic midnight visit to the boy, which has clearly entranced him. Such a shame Sansa’s no longer available, as his fanciful notions of courtly romance would seem much more closely aligned with hers than Joffrey ever was.
The opening scenes showed us these factions jostling at Tommen’s coronation, all prominent in the front row of the Great Sept. Michelle MacLaren’s clever camera direction juxtaposed them all at various points. Margaery’s affectionately locked gaze with the boy broken as Cersei stepped into shot; and best of all the wide shot with Margaery in the foreground, Cersei between them and Tywin right next to the new King in the background.
“There could be an alarming amount of weddings soon,” ventured Margaery in a truce-like chat with Cersei. Given the fate of most weddings in Westeros, one would hope not. But it was a nice touch to see, once again, Cersei acknowledge the nature of the monster she’d borne. “He would have been your nightmare,” she (accurately) told Margaery, before going on to say that even she had been shocked at Joffrey’s antics. And Cersei is demonstrably a hard woman to shock.
With Jaime and Loras sidelined, and Tyrion and Olenna absent this week, that little chat was sadly the only real character moment we got in King’s Landing. Charles Dance and Lena Headey did manage to import plenty of telling moments into their discussion of the Lannister family’s debts to the Iron Bank of Braavos, but the real purpose of that scene was to deliver mountains of exposition. The Lannisters are broke; they owe “a tremendous amount of money” to the Iron Bank; the Tyrells could help them pay it back. Important plot stuff, but it was down to the actors to add the character. Thankfully, Dance and Headey are more than up to the task.
Going in the opposite direction – focusing on character with little advancement of plot – were the scenes featuring Brienne and Pod, and Arya and the Hound. These were shorter vignettes than some of the other plots on display, but I actually found them more enjoyable; probably because they did focus on the characters, and that’s what, for me, makes Game of Thrones so enjoyable.
The show loves coming up with odd couples of buddies. Arya and the Hound have become an established double act, with plenty of dry wit in their exchanges; but this week’s interlude served to remind us that, even if they’re temporarily allied, he’s still on Arya’s ever-growing list of “doomed men” that she’s going to kill. We also got confirmation of the death of the flamboyant Syrio Forel back in the first season, something the books have never explicitly stated. There again, it could simply be Arya’s impression that he was killed by Ser Meryn Trant – as I recall, she was running away at the time.
Brienne and Pod too were shaping up into a nice little double act, as the exasperated ‘knight’ tried unsuccessfully to get rid of her bumbling squire. Despite being considerably aged up from the books (where he’s young enough to be a similar height to Tyrion) Daniel Portman’s performance has made Pod every bit as endearing as he is there.
We know he’s capable of courage and action, as he reminded us with his tale of killing the Kingsguard man at the Battle of Blackwater; but these scenes also reinforced his comedy value, as he proved unable to ride a horse (rather a failing in a squire), or cook a rabbit (“the cooks did that”). Despite her scepticism, Pod’s clearly winning Brienne over, so I think we’re liable to see a fair bit more of this particular double act, which is (again in the words of Sellar and Yeatman) a Good Thing.
The other plot threads seemed to balance character and plot advancement rather better. Over in Meereen, we got a brief glimpse at the progress of Dany’s crusade to eliminate slavery, which wasn’t going well. Dany may be well versed in history, but she clearly hasn’t picked up on the precedent that every revolution tends to be followed by bloody civil war. So since her departure, Yunkaii has been recaptured by the Masters, who are enacting bloody retribution for the slave rebellion; and in Astapor a power mad slave has declared himself King.
It’s a measure of Dany’s growing self-awareness that, being told of this news alongside the news of Joffrey Baratheon’s death, she thought the wiser course was to stay in Essos and deal with the consequences of her actions. Yes, as Jorah Mormont pointed out, it was an ideal time to try to conquer Westeros, with the Meereenese navy Daario had so thoughtfully provided. But as Dany herself pointed out, if she can’t even manage to rule three cities in Slaver’s Bay without losing control of two of them, she obviously has a lot to learn before she tries to rule the Seven Kingdoms.
In the wake of the recent furore concerning the show’s depiction of rape, I’ve read more than a few outraged articles claiming that the show is fundamentally misogynistic. I don’t think that’s true; it depicts, in detail, a society that is misogynistic, but that doesn’t make it misogynistic in itself. And moments like Dany’s realisation that she still had a lot to learn reinforced that for me. Like Cersei, like Brienne, like Arya, she’s a strong, complex female character dealing with a society that is biased in favour of men. Unlike them, she’s coming close to winning out against that attitude (to be fair, the dragons help). And she’s also displaying more wisdom than most of the men in knowing when she still has lessons to learn rather than grabbing for power at the first opportunity. Westeros could do far worse for a ruler (and indeed usually does).
Of course not all of the women on the show are strong and self-aware, as we saw with the return of the excellent Kate Dickie as Lysa Arryn. Previously mad as a bat, this time she seemed to be a little saner (though her son hasn’t mellowed at all). However, one genuinely scary scene with Sansa revealed the sanity to be only a mask after all, as she jealously accused the poor girl of bedding her beloved Petyr Baelish.
Poor Sansa went from the frying pan to the fire yet again; having convinced Lysa otherwise, she learned that she was now to be married off to mini-Joffrey Robin. Sophie Turner has, over the last few years, developed a trademark expression of tearful shock frequently to be seen on Sansa’s face; it was visible again here, for obvious reasons.
We did, however, learn one interesting plot point during these scenes. The murder of Jon Arryn, which started the whole plot rolling in the first place when Robert Baratheon selected Ned Stark to replace him, was down to his wife Lysa – at Littlefinger’s urging. This puts the quietly scheming brothel owner behind the two most important murders in the story, and almost singlehandedly responsible for everything that’s happened since episode 1. That, and his endlessly quotable dialogue (“know your strengths, use them wisely, and one man can be worth ten thousand”) make him possibly the most formidable player in the show – even Tywin Lannister hasn’t been so ambitious. Still, I wonder if Varys can counter him; he was briefly to be seen this week, but had no lines. As ever though, he plays his cards close to his chest.
The final plot thread put a bit of action into an otherwise talky episode, as Jon Snow and the Night’s Watch party caught up with the mutineers at Craster’s Keep. This whole plot thread has been added to those taken from the books, and that’s possibly because the books themselves start to drag out the plot interminably at about this point. A bit of swordplay and a hissable villain keep the pace up quite nicely.
Actually, two hissable villains; besides the vile Karl, Locke was still keen to appropriate Bran Stark for Roose Bolton. Again, this is an entirely new plot thread, and as of this ep, it looks like it might be over, what with Locke’s neck snapped by a warging Bran in the body of Hodor. And with Karl also despatched, courtesy of one of Craster’s wives and Jon Snow, it looks like the plot’s back on the books’ track. Bran having resisted the urge to reunite with Jon Snow in favour of his Mystical Quest North, we’re now back in alignment with what George RR Martin wrote.
Sex and violence
Perhaps mercifully after recent heated debate, there was no sex on display this week. Having said that, we did hear some – Lysa promised that “when my husband makes love to me, I shall scream so loudly it will be heard across the Narrow Sea”. She was true to her word, much to Sansa’s embarrassment. Cries of lust they may have been, but it sounded more like a deranged seagull.
Not much onscreen violence either. Most of what was to be seen occurred during the Big Fight between the Night’s Watch and the mutineers, but since it took place in firelit darkness, it was generally hard to make out. However, one moment that will stick in the mind is the loathsome Karl’s final despatch, courtesy of Jon Snow’s sword stuck right through his head and out of his mouth.
A busy episode this week then, with so much plot to be addressed there was little room for anything else. I do wonder though whether the lack of the show’s trademark explicit sex is a result of that, or of online outrage. If it’s the latter, I think that’s a shame. You can’t recreate an analogue of medieval Europe while pandering to the delicate sensibilities of a modern audience who found commonplace actions of such a time offensive. However, fans seems just as incensed that some of the sex is different than it is in the books. I can understand the diehard fans wanting as faithful an adaptation as possible, but this is a different medium. What works on the printed page doesn’t always work when transcribed utterly faithfully to the screen. Just compare Kubrick’s version of The Shining to Stephen King’s own, more faithful (and utterly lacklustre) TV adaptation.
And the books are not perfect even in their own right. As we’re close to the end of book three now, I have no objection to tightening up the narrative from books four and five, which frequently resembled a plotless travelogue moving characters from place to place while the plot stayed static. I do like a balance between plot and character – too much of either at the expense of the other is where the books, and the show, sometimes fall down.