Game of Thrones: “Fire and Blood”
Posted by therebelprince on March 19, 2012
Game of Thrones concludes its season with an intriguing, decidedly aformulaic instalment.
10. Fire and Blood
“There are no men like me. Only me.”
– Jaime Lannister
Last week’s episode – Baelor – had all the trappings of a season finale: big battles, character clashes, changes of character dynamics and roles, and a shocking ending. Fire and Blood, on the other hand, feels much like a season premiere. Rather than clashing, the separate character groups reel from Ned’s execution and the capture of Jaime Lannister; various characters find the path – figurative or literal – that they’ll be travelling over the course of the next ten episodes; and interesting oppositions are set up (Cat v. Jaime, Cersei v. Tywin, Sansa v. Joffrey, Arya v. Luck and Fortune) that we assume will be centre stage soon enough.
So, I wasn’t terribly surprised to see lower scores when looking at other websites (from viewers, if not from critics). It’s an episode I think those viewers will appreciate more on a rewatch, when it becomes just an instalment of the series rather than a ‘season finale!’. TV exists in an odd limbo at the moment, halfway between the formula of the ’80s and ’90s, and the more experimental HBO storytelling methods of the ’00s and ’10s. In the meantime – aided by the nature of the source text – we’re gonna get some odd little structural niggles on the long road ahead. All the same, I rather enjoyed Fire and Blood. True, it doesn’t feel like a narrative culmination, but it does have a sense of culmination of character and production. If nothing else, the inter-relationships, and the writing and acting that brings them to life, are more mature than ever.
I was complaining mid-season about the jerky structure of You Win or You Die and The Pointy End. I guess I should resign myself to that plotting, since it’s going to be an inevitable outcome of adapting George RR Martin’s series. Still, where Fire and Blood succeeds in this regard is that the various plot strands feel so much more connected now. We only see Bran and Winterfell for five minutes at the start of the episode, but they’re reeling from the same news that propels Cat, Jon, Arya, and Sansa. Even if the structure is stretched near to breaking point, the episode still uses each storyline to further an overall sense of the narrative.
The Bran scenes, in which Osha realises that he and Rickon both dreamed of Ned in the family crypt just before getting news of his death (and we see that Rickon and his wolf, Shaggydog, have gone a bit feral lurking underground), are ultimately forgettable. They’ll tie in to Bran’s story next season, but for now they’re just colour. More powerful are Catelyn and Robb, camped somewhere in the Riverlands, plotting their next move. Their opening scene is the strongest, as Cat comforts her son, and goes from distraught to motherly to purely vengeful in just a few moments. I can’t wait to see Michelle Fairley and Richard Madden tackle some more meaty business next season. Robb is promoted to King in the North here, meaning that we’ve now got numerous claimants to the throne – Joffrey, Renly, the as-yet unseen Stannis – and Westeros is more divided than it’s been in years. At least everyone could hate the old Mad King together. In the book, the scene where Robb is elevated feels more ominous, as it’s from Cat’s perspective, and all she can think about is how many people are going to die. Here, it feels more triumphant, and is thus one of the few typical season finale moments.
Cat and Jaime chat, in a scene that’s actually from the second book – A Clash of Kings. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is doing beautiful work in what can sometimes be a small part. I imagine he’s going to act as a kind of imprisoned advisor figure next year, as a permanent millstone around Robb and Cat’s neck, since I can’t quite figure out what else they’ll do with his character. (It’s the first – but far from the last – time the adaptation is going to have to find a way to utilise a character who basically sits out a book!) The scene itself feels a bit redundant, since we know how the characters feel, and Jaime relays information we already knew (in the book, it’s more of a shock, because it’s the first time that we get any insight into Jaime whatsoever), but there’s something satisfying about seeing Cat bash the Lannister hunk with a rock, and him just taking it in his stride.
In an even smaller sequence, Tyrion’s father sends him to King’s Landing, where he will serve as Hand of the King. It makes perfect sense: Joffrey is a kid, and Cersei is both a woman and a seemingly inexperienced tactician. Cersei (who, in the absence of Jaime, is sleeping with her much, much younger – but kinda pretty – cousin Lancel) is not happy to learn this news, not happy at all. If there’s a rivalry I can’t wait to see, it’s Cersei and Tyrion. Siblings united only through Jaime. It’s impossible not to enjoy a Tyrion sequence, and it’s nice to see that Lord Tywin respects his son enough to send him to the capital. Meanwhile, despite his father’s strict warning, Tyrion decides to take Shae with him (or she forces her way into the position, depending on how you view it). It’s another moment that isn’t as strong as in the book, where I imagined Shae as more of a camp follower type, and not the self-assured woman portrayed here. I know Lord Tywin’s concern is with the idea of a Lannister bedding a whore at all, but on screen, it feels like a generic father/son conflict. Anyhow, here’s to Tyrion in power!
Speaking of power, the best scenes this week are in King’s Landing. Jack Gleeson has believably transformed from the boyish jerk to a somewhat regal jerk. This young actor’s talent is going to mature quite nicely, and I look forward to what lies ahead for this character. Sophie Turner and Lena Headey are both stellar here, putting in nuanced performances of women who’ve made choices under pressure, and are starting to ask some questions. Okay, that hardly begins to describe Sansa Stark, who is now spending her days being beaten, shown her father’s rotting head, and promised that her loving King will “put a baby” in her as soon as she’s ready. The episode’s most beautifully directed moment occurs when Sansa spies her chance to kill Joffrey on top of a castle walkway. She doesn’t get there in time, but it’s a disturbing moment: she’s already given up so much hope that she’d risk certain death by killing the King. It looks like all of Sansa’s illusions have been swept away, and she’s another character whom I hope isn’t stuck in a holding pattern in season 2. (Although there’ll be plenty going on in King’s Landing, so I’m sure it won’t be the case.)
Cersei, meanwhile, barely appears – which is a shame, since I would’ve liked to see her response to Ned’s death – but there’s a sense from that short scene in the throne room that she’s concerned about her son’s ability to rule. Perhaps, like Pycelle, she sees just a little of the Mad King in this boy.
Yes, Pycelle. 77-year-old Julian Glover is one of the hardest-working older actors around, and I so enjoy his subtle portrayal of the Grand Maester. His monologue is the most indulgent scene in the first season, and I can appreciate why some viewers were as bored as Ros was. I’ve wanted to understand Pycelle this season, as I was stunned by how vociferously he argued against Sansa Stark. In light of this, it makes sense. He was there throughout the Targaryen dynasty, the Mad King, Robert’s rise, and now Joffrey’s. Like Littlefinger and Varys – if, in a very different way – Pycelle knows how to serve kings. He knows how to get the job done, and do the best he can for all around, while still placating his master. There’s a sense that much goes on in King’s Landing of which the King – any King – has no idea. No two minds in King’s Landing are exactly the same (one of the greatest joys of the books), and everyone is ultimately acting for themselves. Pycelle’s speech was Game of Thrones’ Deadwood moment this season. I’m sure it won’t be the last – there are dozens of characters who don’t get much elaboration in the source text – and I for one don’t mind. Even if the season finale isn’t the best place, structurally, we should always be able to find time for a break from whores, thieves, and brigands.
Arya meets some of those lowlifes after Yoren – the Wall’s recruiter – cuts her hair, and presents her as a grubby orphan boy named Arry. It’s an effective way of getting her out of the city (whether he’s taking her all the way, or planning to drop her off at Winterfell, is unknown) but it’s clearly not going to be a smooth ride for Arya. She’s saved from two aggressive Wall prospects by another, Gendry -a young man with two useful traits: he’s got great arms, and he’s the bastard son of Robert, although he doesn’t know his heritage. It’s another short sequence that sets up season two, so we’ll leave it there, while I figure out what pronoun I’m going to use for Arry/Arya next season.
In my least favourite storyline, we simply cut to Samwell trying to stop Jon from leaving the Wall (and failing, of course). The scene feels like it should’ve followed directly after the Wall scenes from Baelor, which should be a point in its favour, but the transition just comes out of nowhere. I just found myself irritated throughout this plot. Samwell’s voice seemed grating this week. The scene in which the Wallies ride after Jon, and recite the Oath around him, unintentionally reminded me of a similar scene in Kevin Costner’s terrible film The Postman, in which a bunch of post-apocalyptic postal workers chant the USPS creed. I’m yet to be convinced by this storyline: this band of eager-but-exiled young men proving themselves at a tough academy for wayward boys has felt stereotypical and lacking in dimension. Still, their final scene gives me hope. The wonderful Lord Commander Mormont informs Jon that the Iron Throne is just a distraction: the real concern, for every citizen of the Seven Kingdoms, lies beyond the Wall. As we leave him for the season, Jon Snow has taken his place alongside his brothers in black, although I’m not convinced that he’s given up on Stark loyalty, but that could just be because we haven’t spent enough time with the character this year to grasp him.
What does lie beyond the Wall? The final shot – of the Wallies riding out behind Mormont – gets me very excited for season two. They’re making the choice to face a shadowy enemy, one that most of the other citizens believe to be but a myth or – at best – a long-extinct threat. They’re fighting a David-and-Goliath battle, one suspects, and I can’t wait.
From ice to fire: somewhere in the Dothraki sea, Daenerys Targaryen wakes to learn that her newborn son is dead, and her husband is all but. Dany’s pregnancy was an example of a storyline that worked on page, but not really on the screen. Chronology has been Game of Thrones‘ most consistent weak point, and I never got the impression that Dany’s pregnancy was far enough along to go into labour (even if we assume that labour wasn’t entirely natural?). Amidst the horse slaying, swordfights, and demise of Khal Drogo, I’d forgotten entirely about her son. Props to Emilia Clarke for delivering a completely flattened Dany, but the importance of the baby to Dany was all in the psychological subtext of the novel, and feels lost on the small screen.
Better is the demise of Khal Drogo. Like Sean Bean, Jason Momoa doesn’t really get a big exit scene, but legions of fans shall salute him for delivering a performance of astonishing power, despite speaking entirely in a made-up language. Drogo could easily have been some kind of cheap Conan the Barbarian figure, but he became something else entirely. Clarke is quite heartbreaking in the scene where she realises Drogo’s mind is no longer alive in his body, and smothers him to death. (Typical of this series – as with Varys’ smackdown of Ned last week – we’re not allowed to sympathise entirely. Mirri Maz Duur coldly informs Dany that she deliberately killed both Drogo and the baby. The last thing the world needs is another man to stride the narrow world and take men, women, and children with each step. Of course, the other side of this is one of the series’ central conceits: no matter how many Kings you take down, more will always line up to take their place.)
So, after burning the body of her husband, and a screaming witch, Daenerys Stormborn – as she’s re-branded herself – is left with a motley crew of followers: some leftover Dothraki, a few shaggy ex-slaves, one exiled Knight who happens to be in love with her, and three dragons. Oh, yes, did I not mention the dragons? They’re a bit of a boon really – definitely a good idea for the heiress who has everything.
Like the witch’s ritual last week, the burning of Drogo’s pyre could have so easily been camp. Instead, Dany walking into the fire is one of the iconic moments of season one. It’s one of the few moments I wish I were a newcomer to the series, so I could enjoy it with the added awesomeness of surprise. When she wakes in the early morning light, naked but unburnt, and suckling three baby dragons, well… things have changed. Dany may be even further from the Iron Throne than she was when we started our journey, but she’s gone from being a threat only on virtue of her blood, to a self-assured warrior princess. She has a long journey ahead, but – as with most every storyline – I’m excited to join her.
* I love the way Charles Dance pronounces “whore”. It’s a thing of beauty.
* I also love Mia Soteriou’s absolutely spiteful look, giving a great final moment to Mirri Maz Duur when Dany begins her speech, only for half the crowd to walk away.
* Is Ros one of the people who helps Littlefinger get his immense knowledge of the politics of King’s Landing?
* I’m not complaining about seeing Lancel unclothed, but it’s rather amusing to see Cersei replace Jaime with such an obvious Jaime surrogate. Maybe she just figures that the chances of word leaking out about her sexy funtimes will be diminished if she keeps it in the family?
* Marillion (Emun Elliott), the singer who accompanied Cat and Tyrion to the Vale, is brutally tortured by Joffrey, after he is arrested for singing terribly pointed political songs. The character of Marillion plays a semi-important role in the third book, A Storm of Swords, but I assume they’ll replace him with a new character: someone who still has his tongue.
* The best news about Dany’s dwindling coterie is that Rakharo stayed on. I do love me some Elyes Gabel.
* On the other hand… the final shots are simply exquisite, but I assume they’re supposed to be in “early morning light” rather than “sometime during the day”. It kinda seems like everyone casually went to bed after Dany walked into the fire, and they just woke up and thought, “Maybe I’ll go check on that burning princess”. Good job, Mormont.
Game of Thrones returns to HBO on April 1, when we’ll rejoin the tales of the Starks, the Lannisters, and the Targaryens, as well as meeting a retired smuggler, a female warrior, a would-be king, and his red priestess. Hope to see you then.