Game of Thrones: “Lord Snow” and “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
Posted by therebelprince on February 20, 2012
Last week, I took a look at the first two episodes of HBO’s soaring epic, Game of Thrones. As we countdown the days until Game of Thrones‘ second season, let’s check out the third and fourth instalments:
03. Lord Snow
“All men are made of water, did you know that? If you pierce them, the water leaks out, and they die.”
– Syrio Forel
What strikes me on this rewatch is how much is being achieved in each episode. The first two instalments introduced us to the Starks, the Lannisters, King Robert’s entourage, and the Targaryen/Dothraki alliance. This week, we expand yet further, venturing to the disparate locations of King’s Landing and The Wall.
In King’s Landing, Ned, Arya, and Sansa make their triumphant arrival, and we’re thoroughly inundated with court advisors and retainers, and the complex recent history of the Seven Kingdoms. In spite of this, not one scene feels needlessly expository. Instead, the writers pick a key trait of each character, and filter everything that happens through that lens.
For Ned, it’s his stubborn Northern honour, as he learns during his first Small Council that the realm isn’t just bankrupt, it’s severely in debt to the Lannisters. I feel like Ned’s response to this is too muted, and the scene doesn’t really have the effect it needs to (i.e., the implication that the Lannisters basically own the Seven Kingdoms). Whether that’s Sean Bean’s fault or the direction, I can’t tell. However, we are successfully introduced to the other members of the Small Council: witty eunuch Varys (Conleth Hill), aged Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover), King Robert’s younger brother Renly (Gethin Anthony) and the rat-like Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aidan Gillen). The first three actors disappear easily into their roles, but I’m still uncertain about Gillen. Littlefinger is one of the toughest roles in the season, since he’s the kind of guy who pretends to be on everyone’s side, yet is really only looking out for himself. His true allegiances remain a mystery, and I feel as if Gillen is playing it safe thus far, keeping his charisma in check and being far too guarded. I’ve liked him in some of his notable roles before (The Wire, Queer as Folk), but something’s off here.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, a scene with Ned and Jaime neatly lays the backstory of how the mad king, Aerys Targaryen, killed Ned’s father among many others, and Jaime ultimately killed him. This leads us to a character-based scene in which a drunken Robert discusses honour and warfare with Jaime and the head of the Kingsguard, Ser Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney). Thankfully, we get to see the negative, forcefully drunk side of Robert, which gives further hints as to why Jaime and Cersei are such, uh, close siblings, and how much Ned’s honour may blind him to the truth of the situation. (And I hope we get to see Selmy’s exploits in future seasons, as McElhinney is too good to waste.)
Unsurprisingly, the series courts controversy with fans most any time it introduces a scene not included in the books. This is, of course, manifestly ridiculous, as the books give us the points-of-view of select characters only. Some of my favourite scenes are the various duologues inserted into the proceedings, such as Cersei and Joffrey’s private lesson. On one level, it’s helpful exposition, as we learn about the complicated political status of the Seven Kingdoms, and why the North will never be led by anyone other than a Northerner. On another level, it’s refreshing to know that Cersei is not an idiot: she’s going to groom her son to be a king, even if he’s far from perfect. And Joffrey’s doubts about the betrothal are nicely offset by his attempts to plan what he would do when sitting on the Iron Throne.
Finally, Ned deals with his two daughters: Sansa is struggling with fears that Joffrey hates her (bonus points for the quietly powerful Susan Brown as Septa Mordane), while Arya is fighting back against the notion that she will ever be a lady. So it’s off to her “dancing master” Syrio Forel (Miltos Yerolemou) for swordfighting lessons. It’s a hugely pivotal moment for Arya (although she can’t know it yet), and the growing realisation on Ned’s face, that his children are unwittingly training for a war, is heartbreaking.
Also in King’s Landing News: Catelyn shows up. As I mentioned last time, the passage of time has not been very well shown thus far. In the books, Catelyn’s arrival is a whole production, with her hiding out for a while before being gradually discovered. It’s not hugely important, so I understand why the series has just skimmed the plot points of the top, but it’s hard enough to comprehend the series’ chronology when we’re cutting to various areas on a large map, without needless confusion!
Jon Snow, meanwhile, has arrived at the Wall, and quickly settled in. The politics at the Wall are so complex that they could have their own series entirely, so we quickly cycle through a range of characters: new recruits Pyp (Josef Altin) and Green (Mark Stanley); beleaguered Lord Commander Jeor Mormont (James Cosmo), recruiter Yoren (Francis Magee, who stands out from the crowd), and gruff trainer Alliser Thorne (Owen Teale). Thorne is the dominant figure, and Teale gives it his all, creating a brutal man whose entire life exists in fear of what lies beyond the Wall, and the knowledge that weak-willed criminals and sons of lords are not enough to destroy it. Then there’s Peter Vaughan as the Wall’s blind Maester Aemon. He’s a fascinating character in the novels, once his backstory becomes evident, although he’s mostly just a dab of colour here. (And Vaughan is pushing 90, so I hope he’s still up for the rest of his character’s storyline…)
Despite the episode’s title, comparatively little time is spent with Jon. He farewells his Uncle Benjen (Joseph Mawle), who will disappear beyond the Wall, possibly never to be seen again. He stands out a bit before eventually making a few friends. With so much going on, the series has to allow its characters to develop through tiny moments. Unlike a regular series, we can’t really get an entire episode of Jon maturing at the Wall. Instead, it will be a season-long arc where we’ll drop in on little vignettes throughout.
It’s Tyrion, in fact, who gets the most focus at The Wall, although he spends most of his time being generally ambiguous and cocky. The season is full of misdirects, but if there’s one in particular that doesn’t translate from book to screen, it’s the idea that Tyrion could have been behind the attempt on Bran’s life. Peter Dinklage is just too damn likeable!
We also check in on our other two simmering plots. In the East, Dany continues to realise what a petty, little man her brother is. My favourite scene from the Dothraki storyline this episode is the little chat between Jorah and Rakharo (Elyes Gabel, who is – may I say – smokin‘). They alternate between Westerosi and Dothraki, as the two characters discuss their respective cultures. Beautiful stuff.
At Winterfell, the late, great Margaret John makes her first of two appearances as wizened Old Nan. Old Nan is one of those supporting characters who pops up regularly in A Game of Thrones telling stories as a reminder of the blurry line between reality and mythology, and of many of Westeros’ greatest terrors have been reduced to the stuff of childhood nonsense. It also plays with the idea that knowledge in this era is far from absolute. While Ned has to search through dusty tomes to find out why Jon Arryn died, news only filters through the Kingdoms as needed. Either way, Old Nan’s tale is particularly terrifying for us, as we’ve seen the prologue, which these characters have not. After episode 4, we don’t see Old Nan again (and, sadly, John passed away after production wrapped), which is a great shame.
04. Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things
“I am the wife of the great Khal and I carry his son inside me. The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands.”
– Daenerys Targaryen
After three episodes of lavish introduction to the world of Game of Thrones, episode four allows the existing characters and plots to simmer. It makes for an episode that isn’t quite as powerful as the preceding three, but there’s a lot being set up here.
Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), the Starks’ ward, is given a proper introduction, through a painfully expository conversation with Tyrion. He’s going to be a major presence in season 2, but so far remains an unlikeable being. The Dothraki caravan arrives at Vaes Dothrak (the only city of this nomadic people), but not much happens, outside of a wonderful scene in which Viserys and Daenerys’ handmaiden Doreah (Roxanne McKee) discuss dragons. It’s a beautifully lit sequence which is exposition-heavy but works better than the aforementioned scene because it exposes us to Viserys’ deluded idea of his own importance, and his sadistic sexual side. It’s the only time we’ll ever see Viserys in less than manic mode, so it’s worth it just for that. Or I might just like it because I’m in love with Harry Lloyd.
(Incidentally, Viserys uses the phrase “like so many —“, which is a trademark of the books, so it was nice to hear it!)
At the Wall, Jon and his friends stand up for chubby little lordling Samwell Tarly (John Bradley-West). It’s by far the most typically “television” plot so far, but it continues to provide some much needed levity to Jon’s character. The scene where he and Samwell bond over their virginal status, and the fact that they’re both broken, is lovely.
In Winterfell: HODOR! Yes, Kristian Nairn appears at the series’ most beloved character. HODOR! That’s all I have to say.
I have to put a big plug in for Ramin Djawadi‘s subtle, complementary score. It’s a great relief for any TV series – yet alone a fantasy one – to have slight, atmospheric music, which perfectly captures the majesty of the series and the conflicting psyches of the characters, without resorting to being overpowering.
Ned is stuck in a procedural drama this week, as he and Jory Cassel (Jamie Sives) investigate the mysterious death of Jon Arryn. It all has to do with a buff apprentice armorer (Joe Dempsie, who will always be the only member of the Skins cast who could act) who turns out to be Robert’s bastard son, and a book of royal genealogy. The pieces are all there, but the puzzle needs to be put into place. The plot is a little by the numbers, but it climaxes in a wonderfully subtle confrontation between Ned and Cersei, where it becomes clear the two are going to be enemies from now on.
The first day of the much-hyped tourney is over before it began, succeeding only in elucidating the backstory of the Hound and his brother, The Mountain (Conan Stevens, who looks a bit like a cartoon), and in killing off one of the few witnesses in the mysterious death of Jon Arryn.
My favourite scene from King’s Landing this week features Septa Mordane showing Sansa the daunting Iron Throne. As I mentioned last week, Sansa’s chapters in book one are vitally important, as they are the prism through which we see much of the conspiring and politics (even if Sansa herself hasn’t figured it out). But, as a character, Sansa’s storyline is about her slow maturation, and realisation that fairytale princes and princesses are not the same as real people. It’s hard to present on screen short of an obnoxious Disney family film, but this alternative – bombarding Sansa with the history and expectations of her new role – works wonderfully too.
The final scene is a bit of a letdown, as Catelyn ensnares Tyrion at a crossroads inn. We’ve never been given much reason to understand why Catelyn needs to be undercover, and there simply isn’t enough introduction to her state of mind here, that the whole thing comes out of nowhere. Michelle Fairley will get much better business as the season goes on, but Catelyn remains the most vaguely coloured of the lead characters thus far. The scene sets us up, however, for a wonderful battle of wills between Catelyn and Tyrion. Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things may be my least favourite episode of the series, thus far. But – with its strong cast, understated music, and beautiful cinematography – it’s still proof that this is one self-assured series. Even most of HBO’s dramas suffered either some middling episodes, or some languorous plotting, in their first seasons. So far, Game of Thrones is getting away with it.
Next time: Cat and Tyrion journey to the Eyrie in “The Wolf and the Lion”, and Viserys demands payment in “A Golden Crown”.