Friday, May 13, 2011

Game of Thrones, Ep 4: “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”

OK, a bit of weirdness -- both Nikki's and my posts that went up last Saturday disappeared. We have no idea why, aside from the fact that Blogger sometimes sucks. So here is mine again, and I know Nikki's will be up again shortly on her site. Unfortunately, all comments have been lost, so please -- comment again!

Hi all—welcome to instalment four of the Game of Thrones parallel blogging project, in which my good friend Nikki and I react and respond to the series, she as a GRRM n00b and yours truly as a long-suffering GRRM devotee.

Though I’m not nearly as long-suffering or as devoted as a certain subset of GRRM’s fans, some of whom have apparently suffered psychotic breaks in response to how long he’s taken to produce book five, A Dance With Dragons. This New Yorker article is pretty eye-opening ... the vitriol the poor guy has had to deal with is truly shocking. And speaking as someone whose own writing productivity tends toward the glacial, I really feel for the guy. Anyway, if you are so inclined, read the article ... and please feel free to comment on it. I mean ... I love the Ice & Fire series, and have been increasingly impatient to read the next one, but I’m not about to turn around and start calling the man names. Lighten up, people ...

At any rate. This week Nikki and I are trying a different format, so let us know if you like this conversational style better.

Nikki: And Game of Thrones knocks another one out of the park with this week’s stellar instalment. Chris and I were both talking last week about how much information was jammed into episode 3, and how that episode was a bit of a welcome lull in the action to stop, go back, and fill in a lot of backstory on several characters. This week we take that information we now know... and add more. There were many new scenes of exposition, but these seemed more anecdotal and less integral to the history of the series. They were told with thrilling suspense, and I couldn’t help but wonder time after time if these scenes were taken right from the book or if they were bringing various histories together to convey it to us very quickly. A real standout is Viserys telling the slave girl about the dragon skulls that used to decorate his father’s throne room, with Viserys being understood to be the last of the dragons (I find that hard to believe). This story was fascinating. Do the books go back in time and fill in more details about the dragons themselves? Or was it summed up in this succinct scene in the books as well?

Chris: I’m still somewhat speechless over this last episode. I think you’re spot on, Nikki, in noting that the exposition is more anecdotal—but that imparted more background information and context almost by dint of being anecdotal, which is kind of impressive when you think about it. And while the series is far more compressed in its exposition, this is more or less the way it falls out in the novels. There are no flashbacks or historical sequences per se—there are a few instances of characters reminiscing or dreaming past incidents—but for the most part, we get a sense of history in the books precisely by characters talking, sharing stories, and so on. Now, that may change in A Dance With Dragons, the new novel coming out in July; GRRM has said that the timeline will blow our minds, which has been variously interpreted as meaning that he does go back in time to give us backstory, or possibly just that the various overlapping narratives will make it hard to figure out chronological sequence. Given the nature of the books so far, I’m assuming it’s column B, but we’ll see.

I think my favourite backstory moment was Tyrion’s nasty taunting of Theon Greyjoy. I’ve been wondering when we were going to get to his story: he’s been present at Winterfell this whole time, obviously not one of the Stark children but not exactly a servant, and I was getting a little concerned … thinking that the longer they went without fleshing him out, the more awkward it was going to be when they did. And I needn’t have worried: Tyrion’s lovely little condescending disquisition on Theon’s father’s failed rebellion was beautifully succinct. But then, I know the history there—did you find any of the moments like this confusing or opaque?

Nikki: Great scene choice, because yes, the first time I watched this scene I looked at my husband with a completely puzzled look and said, “Wait... who is he supposed to be?” There had been hints along the way that he wasn’t one of Stark’s sons – I remember when they were passing out the direwolf pups he said something about not being able to have one – but it still wasn’t clear exactly who he was. Even with the explanation it was still a little foggy, but many of the backstories of the secondary characters are pretty difficult to follow. It doesn’t bother or worry me – I figure in time, it’ll all be clearer once we not only know these people better, but their stories begin to converge and/or take on lives of their own.

My favourite anecdote in the episode was Littlefinger’s story of the The Mountain and The Hound. You mentioned last week that you thought the Hound’s face was disappointing, that it should have been far more horrifying than it actually is on the show. Did you continue to think that this week? There’s something very interesting in his face, I think... it’s horrific from one side, normal from the other, and I don’t know if that’s a comment on his personality but it certainly seems so (he comes across as gruff, but not vicious, and I wonder if you actually tried to speak to him on a normal level if he’d respond). I also found some sadness in the way his hair falls on the right side of his head, as if he’s trying to cover up something that simply can’t be covered up. He doesn’t get one of those masks Jack Huston’s character, Richard Harrow, wears in Boardwalk Empire.

This episode had a lot of one-on-one moments, where you simply had two characters in a scene (many scenes have been like that, actually). I LOVED when Daenerys whacked Viserys in the head and threatened him. It’s a moment that turns her story around completely... it began as something almost misogynist and became a very feminist take on this powerful character. Are GRRM’s books as openly feminist as this or have they twisted the story for TV?

Chris: One of the most amazing elements of GRRM’s books is their strong women. The fantasy genre can be pretty regressive sometimes in terms of its representations of women—though to be fair, it has gotten better. But GRRM’s women are remarkable and, if anything, they’re more muted in the series. Though that might just be the natural advantage fiction has over film to provide nuance. And for the record, the scene between Daenerys and Viserys is pretty spot-on to the way it unfolds in the novel.

David Simon once compared the way The Wire unfolded to a Russian novel—where you struggle through the first hundred pages or so, totally at sea in the multiple narratives and huge cast of characters, but after a certain point you stop doing the heavy lifting and instead the story carries you. I always thought that was an excellent description not just of how The Wire worked, but also HBO series generally … and GoT is no exception. At a certain indeterminate point, you just go with it. That may be a disadvantage to all us GRRM geeks … we miss that moment when the struggling to keep up stops and we’re just swept up in the narrative(s).

I find it interesting that they rejigged the story of The Mountain and The Hound to have Littlefinger telling Sansa. In the book, it’s the Hound himself who tells her, and it’s a moment of rare, raw sympathy for that character. What I do love about having the story come from Littlefinger is that you simply don’t know whether to believe him or not. Is this a true story? Or is he telling it to impress Sansa, whom he so creepily compares to her mother? Or is he playing some other inscrutable game?

I agree, the Hound’s scarring looked better in this episode. He still hasn’t been as terrifying as he is in the book, but that might also be a function of how the book unfolds from different characters’ points of view. In the novel, a lot of our impression of the Hound comes by way of Sansa, who in her love of all things unicorny and pretty would be doubly horrified by his disfigurement … and the comparable disfigurement of his character.

What did you think of the bits at the Wall? I think Jon’s confession that he couldn’t bring himself to sleep with Rosie because he was afraid of fathering a bastard was quite well done. Alliser Thorne’s subsequent rant about the dangers they would face was perhaps my least favourite part of the episode …

Nikki: I thought the same thing about Littlefinger’s story... I can’t figure that guy out at all. Was he just trying to spook Sansa when he told her she could never tell the Hound that she knew his story, or was he telling the truth? Similarly I liked the scene when he was pointing out all the spies in the garden to Ned, and I felt like I really couldn’t trust him. But the very point he’s trying to make is that you can trust no one (notice he tells Ned to send his most trusted man to the blacksmith shop, and Ned does send his most trusted man: himself).

In this episode I actually found the Wall moments to be less intriguing than the others; I was looking forward to getting back to King’s Landing every time they were at the Wall, although I thought Thorne’s talk about what the last winter was like was rather harrowing.

One moment that particularly intrigued me in the episode was Ned talking to Arya, who was standing on one foot and trying to become like a cat. He tells her in no uncertain terms that she will marry someone important and will give birth to boys who will be knights and will reign the lands. He tells her this thinking this is what she wants to hear, but it’s actually the sort of thing Sansa aspires to, not Arya, and she says as much, saying that’s not the sort of life she plans to lead as she goes back to the top of the stairs to continue standing on one foot. What was so wonderful about this scene is that it stands in complete contrast to last week’s scene with Joffrey and Cersei. She tells him that he will be king and will rule the land in any way he wants. He listens to the hype and believes every word of it, puffing himself up with such airs that you just want to stick a pin in him and watch him deflate. Like Ned, she states his future as if it’s already set in stone, but while Joffrey goes along with whatever Mommy tells him, Arya has a mind of her own, and she refuses to be pigeonholed into whatever her dad tells her she will be. And unlike Cersei, Ned actually seems to take pleasure in his daughter’s defiance.

But what about that last scene? Not only do we get a lot of Catelyn’s backstory, but it’s just pulled off with such aplomb I was thrilled by it. I really adore Tyrion (he shone throughout the episode) but Dinklage is superb in this scene, the way he looks to the side and is genuinely shocked and pleasantly surprised to see her sitting there, and then listens to her calling out to each of the clans without ever catching on to what she’s doing, and when he finally realizes what’s happening, his face is priceless. I’ve thought he was brilliant up to now, but in this scene he really rises up and brings it to a whole new level of really subtle facial acting. You seem to know a lot more about Catelyn than we know in the series so far; is her backstory something that comes later in the books or at this point in the action do you already know a lot about her?

Chris: Can I just say I cannot wait to see how they do the bit with Arya chasing cats? It’s wonderfully described in the book; the actress playing Arya has been so perfect, this can only bring the awesome.

The scene between Ned and Arya goes back to our comments above about the strength of GRRM’s female characters. Arya’s matter-of-fact rejection of the life Ned predicts for her is both a beautiful counterpoint to Joffrey’s arrogant acceptance of his mother’s dreams of power, and—taken in the abstract—a poignant, brief commentary on the constraints on women’s roles. Ned may indulge her tomboyish tendencies, but that doesn’t change the fact that a nobly born woman makes very few choices in her life. Of course, and this shouldn’t come as a galloping great shock to anyone who’s been paying attention, the fates have something entirely different in store for Arya than the life Ned outlines; and paralleling Arya’s resistance to those expectations is the slow realization on Sansa’s part that the life she dreams of is not golden and beautiful. The brutal death of Ser Hugh in the tourney right in front of her rips through the pomp and pageantry of mock battle to suggest the terror of true battle, and to show that not all knights are chivalrous ... all of which unfolds within the slowly dawning realization that princes can be sociopaths.

I think this last realization found expression with Septa Mordane in the Throne Room, when she interrupts her to ask of this was where the Mad King killed her grandfather and uncle. Several times in the books she is told, but several characters, that “life is not a song.” Here we see her starting to grasp that.

And yes—that final scene was superb, and another sequence that perfectly mirrors the book. Both Michelle Fairley and Dinklage were spot-on, and Dinklage’s expression as the swords are drawn on him is priceless. At this point in the book, you do know a fair bit about Catelyn—she’s pretty fully fleshed out. There is more to learn about her as the books progress, and more details and nuances emerge, but we have the broad strokes by this point. You learn a lot more in the book about her background as the eldest daughter of the Tully family, whose seat of power (which she mentions in passing in the scene) is the fortress of Riverrun—a nice little Joycean shout-out.


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