Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Game of Thrones 2.01: The North Remembers

Hello again everyone, and welcome to the Game of Thrones season two co-blog between myself and my good friend Nikki Stafford from Nik at Nite. It’s been a long, slow ten months since we signed off after the end of season one (briefly alleviated for me in July when book five, A Dance With Dragons came out). But we’re back, and how! In the time since, GoT has received countless accolades, and is firmly ensconced among the shows that have given HBO its reputation for smart, quality TV.

For those new to how we’re doing this, Nikki is a George R.R. Martin newbie, coming to the series without having read the novels, whereas I originally read A Game of Thrones in hardcover back in the dark mists of 1996. So we do a back-and-forth between the unbooked Nikki and the total Ice & Fire geek (that’s me).

So without further ado … Nikki?

Nikki: Game of Thrones is back with a brilliant return that hasn’t lost one iota of its action, character-building, sharp dialogue, and set design. What a glorious show this is.

So I’ll start with my favourite thing about this return, and what a lot of people were anticipating… Tyrion. He makes his grand entrance right near the beginning, walking in on Joffrey’s sadistic name-day ceremony, dropping a few verbal bombs just to piss off his insane nephew, and then marching into the Small Council, where he pisses off his sister even more by announcing he’s the new Hand of the King. When he first walks in he makes a big show of insincerely greeting all of his nieces and nephews, and then pauses and genuinely offers his condolences to Sansa, infuriating Joffrey. Sansa looks at him, pledges her undying love to Joffrey, and flatly calls her father a traitor. You can’t trick a trickster, and there’s a slight shift in Tyrion’s face that signals he gets it: Sansa is a very smart girl, and she’s playing the game just like everyone else is. She’s saying what she needs to say to stay alive, and is burying her emotions so deep the only concern is she’ll forget what they once were.

But Sansa’s not the only one who feels helpless, and must use her wits to stay alive. Tyrion is much the same as she is, and when he drops the bomb that he’s the new hand of the king, his sister goes mental. First, did you notice he signals his arrival with a creepy whistle now? You can hear him before you can see him. As soon as I heard this, I thought, “He’s Omar!!” that other fan favourite from an HBO series.

The biting words between the two of them are one of the highlights of this episode:

Cersei: What do you know about warfare?
Tyrion: Nothing. But I know people, and our enemies hate each other almost as much as they hate us.

Tyrion: You love your children. It’s your one redeeming quality. That and your cheekbones.

Tyrion: We had three Starks to trade — you chopped one’s head off and lost another. Father would be furious. Must be hard, being the disappointing one.

The smug look on Tyrion’s face at this last one, and Cersei’s sudden shocked silence, speaks volumes. What a turnaround this moment is. Cersei should have all the power now, with her son sitting as king, but she’s nearly as smart as Tyrion, and is ruled by her emotions for Jaime. I absolutely adored this scene.

Chris, one thing I kept wondering while watching this early episode was this: Tyrion was clearly a fan favourite in season 1, and Peter Dinklage was the one who garnered all the attention come awards season for his performance (which is brilliant, even though I must admit my nitpick again that I think his accent could be better; it’s nothing like the others and doesn’t sound right). This season he’s suddenly the major character. Is that because of the books? Was he a fan favourite in book 1 and so George Martin brought him front and centre in book 2? Or is this a television-led thing? Or, was Martin always intending to bring him forward from the beginning?

What were your general thoughts about this first episode?

Christopher: Without giving anything away, I think it’s fair to say that Tyrion takes over Ned Stark’s role as putative protagonist in book two, but then that’s also a hard case to make as Westeros gets Balkanized and our story fragments into even more disparate narrative threads. Tyrion does play a more central role than he does in book one; which was why, in addition to squeezing over Dinklage’s wonderful interpretation of Tyrion (accent notwithstanding, and yes, I agree with you on that front), diehard GRRM fans also breathed a sigh of relief—it would have been a painful thing for such a pivotal character to have been poorly cast. Fortunately, that is not an issue.

As for GRRM increasing Tyrion’s role after book one: unlikely. To hear the man himself speak of it, the Ice and Fire series took a few books to get going. I suspect that he either had planned Tyrion’s prominence from the start or realized that this snarky dwarf was the best thing in Westeros early on.

So … my thoughts on this episode. I can honestly say I have no complaints, and am deeply impressed both by what they’ve been utterly faithful with, and what they’ve added. I’ll first add a disclaimer that I haven’t had a chance to reread A Clash of Kings prior to April first, as this is my busiest time of year, but I’ll be getting on that this week. So if I lose a detail here or there, I apologize.

I’ll start with my first genuine squee moment, which happened during the credits. Dragonstone! The island fortress guarding the approaches to King’s Landing plays a much more significant role in the novels than it has in the series so far, and not just because we haven’t seen it until now: it was where the first Targaryen king planned his conquest of Westeros, and it was where Daenerys was born while her mother and brother fled the armies of Robert Baratheon. And it was the seat King Robert granted his brother Stannis, which always rankled with the dour martinet, as it meant the youngest brother Renly (who wasn’t old enough to fight in the war) got the ancestral Baratheon seat of Storm’s End.

In book one, both Stannis and Dragonstone are spectral presences, spoken of but never seen. So one of the great pleasures of A Clash of Kings was finally meeting Stannis there. And I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the way that fell out in our opening episode: what we see of Dragonstone is appropriately grim and dark, and Stannis himself is likely appropriately dour and humourless. Casting Stephen Dillane in the role shows that series continues with its deft casting choices. I loved the scene in which he drafts the letter revealing Jaime and Cersei’s incest and making his claim to the throne. On occasion, the series has been a bit clunky in its exposition. In this case, it was beautifully done, and utterly faithful to the text. His refusal to countenance even a lie of courtesy in calling Renly “beloved”; his insistence that Jaime be labeled “Kingslayer,” because that is what he is; but also insisting on the honorific “Sir” because, “whatever else he is, he is still a knight”; this short sequence tells us everything we need to know about Stannis’ character, and Dillane’s severe, harsh delivery is pitch-perfect.

Other new faces! We meet Melissandre, Stannis’ red priestess who has seduced him (not literally) into renouncing the seven gods of Westeros, and his devoted and trusted right-hand-man Davos Seaworth. I won’t say anything more about these two for fear of spoilers … suffice it to say, they are also pretty much exactly as I imagined them.

So far, the new season seems to be preoccupied with the question of how to rule—with what makes a king, or queen, or simply a leader. We shift thousands of miles between scenes, with the ominous comet as our segue and reminder that, however distant, all of these stories are intertwined … and fated to meet. Nikki, what did you think about the way the episode dealt with all of the different threads left over from season one?

Nikki: Funny you should ask that, because the first time I watched this episode that’s exactly the point I brought up with my husband: that “The North Remembers” is the perfect blend of wrapping up the previous season while opening up the new threads that will be carried through this season. Bran, left behind in Winterfell, is now a lord, having to listen to the complaints of villagers. But he’s having different visions (remember he had those strange dreams in season one) that, this time around, appear to be aligning him with his direwolf. Is he somehow sharing the soul of his direwolf in a way? Robb, “King of the North,” is maturing as a leader, working alongside his mother to try to broker peace, but on his terms. Daenerys is in The Red Waste, and her baby dragons are with her. I know a lot of us were dying to see those dragons, and they really looked amazing. I thought there was a bit of incongruity with the special effects, as in Emilia Clarke wasn’t looking right at the dragon, but more in front of her, as if her eyes weren’t aligning with the dragon properly (which obviously wasn’t on her shoulder). However, when she reached up and let it move to her hand and put it in the cage, the effects were amazing, and she moved her arm as if there really was a dragon on it. I LOVE them so far, and hope we see more of them. Jon Snow is with the people from the Wall at that vile man’s house (his daughters become his wives to make more daughters… Jee-SUS), Joffrey is showing how absolute power corrupts absolutely, and Sansa is reeling from what is probably post-traumatic stress disorder and covering up her hatred to save her own skin. And Arya, that character we fell in love with in season 1, only shows up in the closing seconds of the episode, looking every bit a boy on her way to the Wall.

But for season 2, there are the new people at Dragonstone, as you pointed out, and the Fire Priestess and Stannis, and his brother Renly. We only heard about the other Baratheons last season, so it’s good to actually see them now. I was thrilled with your rundown of them, because I did find these scenes a little confusing, not being familiar with the characters. I will certainly be turning to you week after week to explain things to me! Does the Fire Priestess worship dragons at all? Why is she at Dragonstone? Is there a connection between her and the Targaryens? Is it too soon for me to be asking all these questions? ;) The priestess is creepy as hell, but gorgeous with those chiseled features, and her words ring through the episode. “The night is dark and full of terrors… but the fire burns them all away.”

Christopher: We met Renly last season, remember? He sat on the Small Council with Ned, tried to convince him to usurp the Lannisters while he had the chance, and is closeted gay (remember the bath scene with Loras Tyrell). Renly’s sexuality is only ever hinted at in the novels, so it will be interesting to see how they play it on the show when we meet his betrothed, presumably in the next episode when Catelyn journeys to meet with him.

I’m not sure how much to say about Melisandre, the fire priestess, as I don’t know how much the show will choose to reveal, and whether or not they’ll hew to GRRM’s specifics. But this much is safe: she worships the god R’hllor, the god of heat and light and life. Her belief system is Manichaean, positing R’hllor on one hand, and the god whose name must not be spoken on the other, Voldemort. No, wait … I kid. R’hllor’s foe is the god of anti-life, of darkness and cold.

Sort of like what might, I dunno, be lurking in the “real” north? Heh.

Speaking of the real north … that scene in Craster’s Keep was (pardon the pun) chilling, no? I wondered how they were going to treat that particularly revolting character. I must say I always imagined him bigger; he’s described in the novels as a huge man grown egregiously fat, but still powerful. (Actually, whenever I read his parts, I always find myself thinking of Judge Holden from Blood Meridian). But they captured his particular mix of petulance and pride, and the smugly proprietal way he treats his “wives”.

And remember the pregnant question (sorry, couldn’t help myself) “What does he do with his sons?” That one will be something we return to.

And to return to what I guess we now have to consider the fake north—what did you think of Robb Stark’s confrontation with Jaime Lannister? That was not in the novel, but was, I thought, very well done and did a good job of laying out just how dangerous a prize the Kingslayer is. And: holy direwolf! They do get big, don’t they?

Nikki: Oops, sorry, in my haste I meant to say seeing Renly being incorporated more directly into the Baratheon battle was new. Yes, I absolutely remember him in the first season (my first comment to my husband was, “Isn’t that the gay king?”) and yes, we will see his significant other(s) in next week’s episode.

I thought Robb Stark’s confrontation with Jaime Lannister was brilliant, and it brought up something I wanted to talk about in this last segment: that this episode was all about power. Who has it, who is willing to use it, and what power actually is. The best ways they demonstrate that is by showing the two very different mother/son relationships on the show.

Tyrion, as I mentioned earlier, has the power of words. He knows just what to say or do to make people listen, or piss them right off. Since he doesn’t have any physical or political power, he makes do with what he has, and is able to take people like Cersei and make her wither in his presence.

Robb Stark faces off with Jaime, who mocks him for being a boy. Even tied up, filthy, sitting on the ground, Jaime believes by being a Lannister, he will always be more powerful than Robb. Robb, however, sees it differently, spitting back, “You’ve been defeated by a boy, held captive by a boy, perhaps you’ll be killed by a boy.” Jaime is unfazed. “Three victories don’t make you a conqueror,” he says.

“It’s better than three defeats,” says Robb smugly. And then he lets his direwolf step into the cage to sniff Jaime. Who promptly pees his pants (offscreen).

Robb is stronger than he seemed in season 1. When he discusses his position with his mother, Catelyn, you can tell the two of them see their role in the war as a partnership, working together. He sends her off to Renly, and has everything in hand, and she agrees to go, telling him he’s doing a great job. She looks upon him with the same pride she looked upon her son.

Cersei, on the other hand, doesn’t have that relationship with her son. After being shown up by Tyrion, she decides to bring someone else down to make herself feel better. She confronts Baelish and asks him what power is. He replies, “Knowledge is power.” Which is what Tyrion would argue. Then she uses her guards as little toy soldiers, instructing them to slit his throat, then stop, then walk three paces away, turn around, close their eyes… and do the hokey pokey. They do it all, and she looks at Baelish with a sneer, saying, “Power is power.”

Is it? Those guards only do what she wants because Joffrey has told them to respect and obey his mother. But the moment he says otherwise, she will be nothing but a speck of dust to them. And if the Lannisters are overthrown, Joffrey has no power, either.

After this moment of triumph, Cersei speaks with her despicable rat-son Joffrey, who throws the possible incestuous relationship with “Uncle Jaime” in her face, and she slaps him across his. He stares at her and says, “What you just did is punishable by death. You will never do it again. Never.” And suddenly Cersei realizes she has very little power indeed. She can make her guards put their left foot in and take their left foot out before shaking it all about, but he can tell his guards to go all King Herod on the place, killing every bastard child who has dark hair. For now, that is power. But how long will that last?

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