Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Game of Thrones 2.02: The Night Lands

Welcome to week 2 of our Game of Thrones recaps, where we look at the episodes and analyze their development purely as a television show (Nikki) and as an adaptation (me). Nikki started us off last week, so I've got first kick at the can this time:

Christopher: Oh, where to begin this week? Some beautiful moments in this episode, from Yoren unflinchingly staring down the gold cloak to Arya’s conflicted realization that it wasn’t her they were after, to Tyrion’s barbed joust with Varys, to Tyrion’s lovely little dinner with Janos Slynt, to Patrick Malahide’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Balon Greyjoy, to the lovely conversation between Davos Seaworth and Salador Saan.

There was so much in the episode that beautifully and faithfully realized parts of the novel; there was also a fair bit that departed substantially from it. Not just in terms of invented scenes that offered exposition or character development (such as Littlefinger’s cruel disquisition on what happens to bad investments), but actual changes that could potentially affect future storylines. Perhaps the best place to start is to outline these changes.

The death of Rakkharo: Wow, that one caught me by surprise. He’s with Daenerys pretty solidly through the books. It’s unsurprising that the writers wanted to re-emphasize for us the dangers facing the queen of dragons, but kind of a bold move to kill off one of her main lieutenants.

Gendry figuring out Arya’s a girl; Arya revealing her identity: This was a bit of a misstep, I think. In the books, Gendry doesn’t discover her identity until A Storm of Swords, and it doesn’t really make sense for her to tell him. Arya’s no fool, after all—one of her main attributes is a very clear-eyed survival instinct, and telling someone (anyone) who she really is is very dangerous. It’s all well and good to show that Gendry’s astute enough to figure out her gender, but I don’t believe Arya would be so foolish as to give up her identity so easily.

Melisandre seducing Stannis: Now, to be fair, it’s never precisely ruled out in the novels that Stannis and his red priestess are knocking boots … but one of the things about Stannis is that you can completely believe that he’s the kind of man who would keep this alluring, stunningly beautiful woman close to him and not ever consider sleeping with her. That ambiguity is one of the lovely nuances GRRM adds to this painfully upright and stilted character, and it just felt a little egregious (and kind of painfully symbolic) to have them fuck on top of his military planning. (See my comment below about the rather large amount of sex in this episode). That being said, my comment in my notes about this scene was “Yup, Stannis is totally a sex-with-clothes-on kind of guy.”

Jon Snow following Craster out into the woods: Well, they certainly know how to end an episode on a cliffhanger, and this is one left readers of the books shocked as well (well, this reader of the book, anyway). When I said last week that the question of what Craster does with his sons would be something we returned to, I had no idea it would happen this soon. The fate of Craster’s men-children is implied in A Clash of Kings, and made explicit in A Storm of Swords; I was genuinely shocked that we saw it in this episode. Now, what Jon saw was vague enough that I won’t make it plain, but I imagine people have a pretty good idea … and again, this might be just an instance of the series making the subtext text (to quote Rupert Giles), but for one thing: Craster conking Jon on the head!

All right, with that out of the way … Was it just me, or did they ratchet up the sex in this episode beyond anything we’ve seen before? When even Stannis Baratheon is getting laid, you know there’s sex in the air. The scene in Littlefinger’s brothel sort of put it over the edge, especially with the little moment where he thoughtfully wipes the semen from the corner of the prostitute’s mouth before passing her on to a disgruntled patron. I’m no prude by any stretch of the imagination, but from an aesthetic and narrative point of view, I do worry that GoT invites the fairly common criticism that it’s simply a sensationalistic and lurid sword-and-sorcery-and-boobs show, and that it obscures its genuinely brilliant storytelling when it overindulges in the sexy. What do you think, Nikki?

Nikki: There’s definitely an element of that, but then again, I think the B in HBO has often meant Boobs, so it’s inevitable there’s going to be an element of that. A friend of mine was telling me that her 10-year-old is on the third book already, and while on the one hand I’m deeply impressed that the kid is reading that well at that age, on the other I think of scenes like those and worry they’re not really suited for an audience quite that young.

Very interesting about the Craster revelation! They will make it explicit in the next episode, and I had no idea that was something readers waited a long time for. I wonder how many things they’ll begin to speed up and switch around?

While you’ve covered off many of the major elements of this episode, let me go back to the very opening. Last week’s episode ended with our first season 2 shot of Arya, hair cropped short and dressed as a boy, in a group of men being escorted to the Night’s Watch with Gendry, the reputed bastard son of Robert Baratheon. This week’s episode opens with her, and she is just as wonderful as she was in S1. Referred to as someone who has “more courage than sense,” she’s just as insolent and defensive as she ever was, with her trusty “Needle” sheathed at her side. I liked the rapport between her and Gendry; not only do they both seem to mock the same idiots, but when he discovers she’s actually of the House Stark, he at first seems to defer to her, apologizing for pissing in front of a lady, before it’s all revealed to be just more taunting, with him mockingly bowing to her and telling her she’s not exactly ladylike. He’s a great character.

Yoren, the man escorting the group to the Night’s Watch, is also a great character, threatening the King’s Watch with a sharpened dagger that he says could “shave a spider’s arse” if he wanted to. Yoren, audiences might recall, is the last person Ned Stark called out to before he lost his head, shouting, “Baelor!” at him to indicate Arya sitting atop the Baelor statue. Yoren, who was a close friend of Ned’s, made his way quickly through the crowd and snatched Arya and covered her eyes, sparing her the soul-scarring image of her father being beheaded.

Something I keep thinking while watching this season is that for us, Ned Stark’s death happened ages ago, but for these characters it was quite recent; probably just a number of days. Arya is still reeling with shock, as is Sansa, and what we’re seeing is more immediate grief than it may seem to those of us who have been waiting almost a year to catch up with them again.

Christopher: H Boobs O, heh. Too true much of the time (not that I’m complaining). I’ve been teaching a grad course on HBO this term (you can have a look at our course conference here), and one of the frequent observations my students have returned to is how frequently the full frontal tendencies of HBO can be either discomfiting or decidedly unsexy (or both) as often as they can be titillating (the violence-tinged sex on Oz, for example, or the overly-modified strippers often in the background of The Sopranos). But GoT does seem to like to err on the side of titillation … even as it does on occasion combine elements, as we saw in Theon’s shipboard sex scene, which was an excellent bit of exposition on that character’s particular sense of self.

Speaking of … Theon was kind of a nonentity in season one (unlike his presence in the novel), so it was lovely to see him finally get a bit of traction—especially considering it meant he totally got humiliated, the self-important little git. What did you think of this new foray out to a previously-unseen part of Westeros? (That’s one of the things I love about the credits—readers of the books get a really nice little heads-up when the series is about to take us somewhere we’re familiar with in print, while non-readers get a nice little frisson of expectation). As already mentioned, Patrick Malahide’s performance as Balon Greyjoy is about as perfect a portrayal as we’ve yet seen. Theon’s sister Yara (Asha in the novels—why the name change, I wonder?) isn’t anything like how I pictured her, but I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve seen more of her. I thought she did a workmanlike job, but she doesn’t yet have the gravitas of the character in the novel … unlike Malahide’s Balon, who has more, if possible.

The theme so far this season seems to be an extended consideration of what makes a king. Theon shares Stannis’ belief in the absolute right of patrilineal succession, and is horrified when his father favors his daughter over him. By right of being eldest and only son, he thinks the crown is his (even though it doesn’t yet exist), whereas Balon privileges deeds. Yara has spent her time fighting and sailing while Theon learned how to ride and wear nice clothes and jewelry purchased with gold, ergo has more right to Balon’s seat. This debate is interestingly paralleled in the theological discussion between Davos and Sallador and Davos’ son. Both the smuggler and the pirate have a much more pragmatic approach to whom they owe their devotion, while the son’s devotion to the God of Light reflects a belief in transcendent principles like divine right.

Whereas Cersei’s devotion is entirely to power, and is petulant and prickly whenever Tyrion suggests that there might be strategic value in being nice to common people. And we already see the effects of that attitude—and will see it get worse as the season goes on.

But of course, the most crucial question of this episode: again, Tyrion announces his presence by whistling somewhat ominously offstage. Does this mean he’s GoT’s Omar? Or is it an ironic allusion to the seven dwarfs?

Nikki: Seven dwarfs, I never thought of that! Last week I suggested it was an allusion to Omar, and when he whistled his eerie whistle again, I was thrilled. Oh, Tyrion. Once again he is the bane of Cersei’s existence. From telling her she’s perfected the art of ripping up papers to confronting her (passive aggressively) about Jaime, once again he knows how to cut her down. But Cersei has had enough, as is evident near the end, when she finally fights back:

Cersei: It’s all fallen on me.
Tyrion: As has Jaime, repeatedly, according to Stannis Baratheon.
Cersei: You’re funny. You’ve always been funny. But none of your jokes will never match the first one, will they? [OUCH.]… Mother gone, for the sake of you. There’s no bigger joke in the world than that.

Tyrion, for once, is silenced. Last week he looked at her and asked what it was like to be the disappointing one, finally throwing the burden of having been exactly that on her shoulders. But here she throws it right back at him, and he has nothing to say in response. Tyrion uses words as his weapons, and also as his armour. But as we see here, they can hurt him right back, if the proper ones are chosen.

Tyrion also goes toe-to-toe with Varys, who is one of the best players of the game. Ned Stark asked him last season which side he was on, and he simply replied that he was on the side of the realm. That guy is cool as a cucumber, and acts like he has nothing to lose, but he’s so cunning he can even make Tyrion nervous. (By the way, I just wanted to note that the “fish pie” exchange was positively Shakespearean. It was like something between Aguecheek and Toby Belch in Twelfth Night.)

And the best Tyrion scene is the one with Janos, commander of the City Watch. Tyrion opens by addressing him as Lord, and Janos is arrogant enough to think he’s on par with a Lannister. (Or, more likely, that he’s above him.) Tyrion is trying to get to the bottom of who ordered the slaughter of babies, and mentions that Janos had killed the last Hand of the King, Janos responds, flustered, “He tried to buy my loyalty!”

Tyrion: The fool. He had no idea you were already bought.
Janos: Are you drunk? I will not have my honour questioned by an imp!
Tyrion: I’m not questioning your honour, Lord Janos. I’m denying its existence.

Ha!! And then Tyrion shows him who really has the power. (For now.)

As for Theon Greyjoy, I’m very surprised they changed the name! Do you think the writers worried that Asha was too close to Arya, and silly TV viewers wouldn’t be able to keep them straight? It’s very strange they would randomly change a name. But yes, that took me by surprise, that she was actually his sister — I loved the look on Theon’s face as he realized it himself, and threw up in his mouth a little (the obvious or implied incest on this show is extraordinary… I should just start assuming every love interest is a brother or sister…) Last season I remember some TV critics suggesting that George RR Martin was a chauvinist, since the women all seemed to be subservient to the men or pushed into corners, but I find it quite the opposite. Catelyn is an equal to her son Robb, and Ned turned to her for advice. Daenerys is the Dragon, not her stupid brother, and the Khaleesi, despite slowly starving to death right now, will rally back to take care of her people, I just know it. Arya is one of the best characters on the show, and despite Gendry seeing through her exterior, she has tricked most of the men around her into believing she’s a boy because of her outward toughness and self-confidence.

Balon Greyjoy is an excellent character. Am I right in recalling that he went to war with Ned Stark, and Ned took Theon from him as some sort of hostage to keep Balon in line and raised him as a ward? And here’s my question: If Balon was the king of the Iron Islands, was the Iron Throne his? Is that another thing Ned took from him? (That giant squid sculpture above the fireplace was amazing, by the way.)

But back to what I was saying, his argument that Yara deserves high status, gender be damned, was an interesting one, and despite him being the enemy of the Starks, I found him intriguing in his loyalty to her. Though on the other hand, despite the fact I’m not a huge fan of the philandering Theon, I felt bad for him when he didn’t quite get the homecoming he was looking for from Daddy.

Just as Balon is arguing that women should be treated as men’s equals, Crastor and his daughter-wives (speaking of throwing up in one’s mouth a little) represent the opposite. As the boys from the Wall discuss previous sexual exploits, one with a milkmaid named Violet — “I wish I grew up on a farm,” says Sam wistfully — they give in to the typical locker room talk, but Sam still believes that women should be shown respect. Jon warns him about trying to help out one of the daughter-wives, saying she belongs to Crastor, and Sam counters, “She’s a person, not a goat.”

I’ll let you have the final word this week, Chris, but here are some of my questions. Some of the answers may be spoilery, so just avoid those:

In the group of people going to the Wall, there are three men locked in a cage. The one man seems to be someone who will become more important (it sounded like they called him Jackenheier, but I’m 100% sure that I did not spell that right). You don’t have to say whether or not he becomes important, but did you think he was well cast, whoever he is?

I loved the look of the scene between the priestess and Stannis – especially the symbolism of the armies falling off the map as they consummate their relationship. I know you talked about her last week, but could you just jog my memory: how did they meet? How did she become someone who follows Stannis’s group? Are we supposed to know these things yet or does that material come later? I still find that part a little bit hard to follow.

The scene with Davos and the pirate was great, especially him demanding Cersei in return for helping them out. Davos seems like a very smart man, whereas Stannis almost seems unhinged, more someone who could be manipulated than someone who is a born leader. Davos, however, seems intensely loyal to him. It seems Stannis helped him and his son at one time in the past. Is Davos aware that Stannis is falling apart?

And I agree with you; the opening part showing where all of the new places are is very helpful (though I fear that by season 5 the opening sequence will be 10 minutes long! Haha…)

Back to you, Chris, for the final word!

Christopher: The Balon Greyjoy backstory is that eight years before we begin, he rejected the authority of the Iron Throne and crowned himself. Ned Stark was Robert Baratheon’s right hand man when they attacked Pyke, and yes, Theon was taken as a hostage after that. And the Iron Islands and the Iron Throne are just serendipitously named … though we didn’t see it in this episode, the traditional seat of power in the Iron Islands is the Driftwood Throne.

As it happens, I had it from a student just an hour ago that the reason they changed Asha to Yara was indeed because they were worried about people confusing the names with another character—but Osha, the wildling woman (aka Nymphadora Tonks), not Arya.

The man in the cage you’re asking about is Jaqen H'ghar, and I won’t say anything about him other than, yes, he does seem pretty well cast. I’ll have to wait and see to be sure—in the book, he comes to play a fairly crucial role—but for the moment he seems good.

To offer the novels’ backstory about Melisandre, she came to join Stannis because she believes him to be a man of destiny, the one who will fight against the forces of cold and darkness … hence her devotion to him, as well as her manipulation of him.

I don’t want to say too much about Davos, as I don’t know yet how much the show will choose to reveal about his back story; but so far, he’s true to the books—and yes, he worries about Stannis, but is so absolutely loyal to him that he will basically follow him anywhere.

So that’s that for this week … I swear, this season just keeps getting better. Perhaps as the one of us who’s read the books, it shouldn’t surprise me that season one now kind of feels like the set-up for season two, that all we watched last year was essentially prologue. Because now the fun really begins …

Nikki: Thanks, Chris! Looking forward to next week’s episode, just to find out what the hell that thing was in the woods that took the baby (is that a white walker??) And also, looking forward to Daenerys’s story becoming more interesting, though I did like the way she calmed the grief-stricken woman in this episode, showing she rules with a kind heart, even if that heart is filled with vengeance.


StephD said...

Really enjoy your back and forth style episode reviews!

Just to note, the throne on the iron islands is called the Seastone Chair ... not the Driftwood Throne.


Blogger said...

I've just installed iStripper, and now I can watch the hottest virtual strippers on my taskbar.