Thursday, May 26, 2011

Game of Thrones 1.06: "A Golden Crown"

Nikki: And welcome to Week 6 of the Nikki Stafford/Christopher Lockett rundown of this week’s instalment of Game of Thrones. I’m Nikki Stafford (excitedly waving from my desk), your TV guide of a select few shows over here at Nik at Nite, and that is Christopher Lockett (sagely nodding while sipping his scotch) over there at An Ontarian in Newfoundland. Together we’ll discuss the show with me talking about it as a newbie to the world of George RR Martin, and Chris as the longtime fan of the books.

Well, let’s start at the end of this episode, with a scene that most viewers will never forget: Viserys finally getting his golden crown. I LOVE this scene, even though it’s terrifying and gory and graphic, but how often do you see a truly vile character really get his these days? Viserys was worse than usual in this episode, mostly because he went from Mr. All That to realizing that maybe he’s really not. He watches Daenerys as she eats the horse heart (ew), and is held aloft before her adoring followers... and that’s when he realizes, oh my GOD she has adoring followers, and he has none. “Who can rule without wealth or fear or love?” he asks as he decides to make a break for it. The Dothraki aren’t a people who will follow his rule as his army, and so instead he decides to steal the only valuable thing Daenerys has – her dragon eggs – and get another army (one that would no doubt eventually rise up against the Dothraki).

We hear all sorts of predictions of what Daenerys’s son will be like, and at the end of the episode, she says bluntly that Viserys couldn’t have been the Dragon, because a Dragon can’t be hurt by fire. So, does that make her the Dragon? Perhaps her son? Chris, I was interested in what the scope of the books is when it got to this scene. Are we only watching the very beginning of a very long saga that will cover decades, or is it still moving along in a methodical pace? Is this just the first generation of the series or will the books continue to follow these people? (Now, try to answer THAT one without spoilers!) ;)

Chris: The heart-eating scene is brilliant, not least because the first shot of Emilia Clarke, with the blood on her mouth and her slightly manic grin, makes her look like a very sexy zombie. Or some kind of flesh-eating succubus. Either way, that whole sequence was beautifully done, and manages to be faithful to the novel while conflating the sequence with Viserys’ realization of his isolation (well observed, by the way). Ser Jorah was great in this episode, especially in terms of his quiet yet fraught dignity when he faces down the larcenous Viserys with the dragon eggs.

I can be relatively spoiler-free when I say that over the first four books, GRRM isn’t doing any long-term, multigenerational things. In fact from the start of A Game of Thrones to the end of A Feast for Crows (which I am just now in the process of rereading—not unpredictably, rereading GoT has sucked me back into the other books ... and now I have to wait until July for book five! Wah!), only about two or three years elapse. Now, GRRM has said some cryptic things about the timeline of A Dance with Dragons, so this may change. But as of now, we’re still in the thick of it with all the characters you know and love from GoT. Well, most of them. ;-)

And there is simply nothing I can say about Daenerys’ child that wouldn’t be spoilery. So you’ll just have to wait and see.

Can I add here that though this was an AMAZING episode, with all sorts of cool and mind-blowing moments that we’ll undoubtedly get to, that my hands down favourite moment was Arya’s look of horror at Sansa’s fairy-tale dream about her and Joffrey, and her appalled exclamation “Seven hells!” Heh. I don’t know where they found Maisie Williams, but that young actress is superlatively good. Arya is one of the best characters in the novels—if not in fact the best, which is saying a lot—and I was concerned that they wouldn’t be able to find a child actor who could do her justice. And not only is she doing her justice, she is going beyond and making Arya her own ... something few adult actors can do with a complex, nuanced character adapted from a novel. It’s a shame she gets killed by the sassy robot at the end of book one.

OK, I was lying about that last bit. Seven hells. Heh.

Nikki: You are evil. I should pour YOU a golden crown. ;) I agree, Arya is fantastic. In fact, in a complete aside, our family got a new female kitten this week and were on the hunt for a name, and a friend who has been reading these blog posts suggested Arya. I didn’t go with it, but I thought it was a great suggestion, especially her connection with cats. That scene with her sister is hilarious... the woman with Sansa notices she’s changed her hair style and seems quite happy to be integrated into the world of the Lannisters, and she’s right. Do you sympathize with Sansa, or do you find her rather annoying? I wonder if you get more of her own thoughts in the books... in the show, there are times when I think she deserves Joffrey. I did absolutely adore the line, “I don’t want someone brave and gentle and strong. I want him!” Hahahahaha... that’s like saying, “I don’t want to be with someone who’s smart and good-looking. I’m happy with you.”

Speaking of great lines, check out the back and forth between Cersei and Robert after he slaps her across the face:

Cersei: I shall wear this like a badge of honour.
Robert: Wear it in silence, or I’ll honour you again.

Yikes! As we’ve discussed before, I really do think the king is a washed-up, ineffectual ass, and despite Cersei’s Lady Macbeth tendencies and general miserable nature, I don’t blame her given the husband she’s had to be with all these years. Ned is a much more effective ruler in that scene where he actually holds court and DOES something when a civilian comes before the council with a problem. I loved that scene, and you could tell Littlefinger was relishing the fact he actually got to write down something interesting for a change.

Ned seems to be coming to the realization that his old friend is incompetent as well, which could be why he makes such a drastic ruling in that scene. Of course, from the conversation he has with Sansa, he begins to put things together and realizes that while the Baratheons all have hair of black, his “children,” as the old Brady Bunch song used to say, “Have hair of gold, like their mother, the youngest one a douche.” (I could be remembering that song differently.) That was a big moment. I can’t wait to see what he does with this information.

Chris: Sansa is one of the key POV characters throughout the books, and her development is quite nicely done. She is irritating for the balance of book one, especially when seen from someone else’s perspective. She’s still in the irritating phase in the series, but if they hold true to the book, she’ll get substantially more sympathetic by the end.

On rewatching the episode this morning, I caught the little smile that Ned and Arya share at Sansa’s oblivious comment about Joffrey. Arya is so totally her father’s daughter, even more so than in the novels.

And yes, there were some amazing lines in this episode. The one you quote between Robert and Cersei is actually taken verbatim from the novel, as is his threat to make Jaime Lannister Hand if Ned throws it in his face again. Among my other favourite lines were Tyrion’s confession about jerking off into the turtle stew, “Which I do believe my sister ate. At least, I hope she did,” and his attempts to bribe the gaoler Mord. His first attempt, when he talks about wealth and ownership being an “abstract” thing had me howling, as did his slow, precise “Because you’re a smart man.” Also, Bronn’s word’s after he wins the duel:

LYSA: You don’t fight with honour.
BRONN: No. [indicates where Vardis fell] He did.

But I think my favourite line, and it’s one the writers added themselves, was Syrio’s comment “There is only one god, and his name is Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: not today!”

One of the great themes running through this episode was the contrast between effective leadership and not. King Robert, we see again and again, is a moral coward—fearless in battle, but quails before any sort of difficult decision. We saw it when Cersei browbeat him into killing Sansa’s direwolf, we saw it in his inability to see reason on the question of the remaining Targaryens, and we saw it when he basically begs Ned to settle the dispute with the Lannisters in such a way that (1) Jaime will never be called to account, and (2) he won’t have to deal with the sticky question of standing up to a man whom he owes a vast amount of money. It sort of goes without saying that if he’d been sitting the throne when the despoiled peasants petitioned him, he’d have fobbed them off with vague promises. Ned’s condemnation of the Mountain and Tywin Lannister was ballsy.

Across the narrow sea, we see a similar contrast between Viserys and Daenerys. I think your reading of those scenes is spot-on. Viserys continues his downward spiral unto death, but we see Dany maturing and, as Jorah observes, becoming more queenly. Is it just me, or does it seem that Emilia Clarke has lost some weight? In her face, at any rate—she looks older, leaner, as if she’s lost her baby fat. And she is more poised now. The look in her eye when she tells Viserys that Drogo will give him his golden crown is both heartbreaking and chilling. She knows Drogo’s intent right away even as Viserys is cheerfully oblivious, but does not flinch from it.

Nikki: Absolutely. There is a hardness in her face, but also a determination that she’s doing the right thing. And, at the same time, you can tell this is difficult. He may be an ass, but he’s also her brother. However, he’s an interloper who claims to be the Dragon, when he’s not. Back in the fourth episode a couple of weeks ago, Ser Jorah tells her that her other brother was the last dragon, not Viserys, and so in this moment she has this look like, “Fine. You’re the real dragon? Prove it. If you are, this won’t hurt a bit.” But she knows if it DOES kill him, he died a charlatan and a fraud, and the world’s better off without him. Amazing scene. Probably the most vividly memorable of them all (except for the horse being decapitated... that still gives me the heebs).

The scene of Tyrion’s champion fighting the other man is excellent, and worthy of mentioning that when HBO sends out the screeners, they’re not always complete. Often there will be a scene where you can see flashing in the corner, “Temporary audio” or “Temporary VFX” and it’s usually very minor, like the wind whipping around the Wall that’s not as harrowing as it will ultimately become. But in the Tyrion scene, when the queen’s sister’s champion is bested, he fell through the hole and sort of laid there, flailing his arms while a green screen appeared behind him and “Temporary VFX” flashed in the corner. My husband and I were laughing, and we got the gist even if we didn’t quite see what happened, so I was looking forward to seeing the drop for reals this time.

Tyrion’s confession is brilliant, as you say. As are his discussions with the aptly-named “Mort.” (I wondered how long it would take for Mort to get clunked on the head after Tyrion leaves the castle so someone else could take his purse.) As Tyrion marched out, my husband and I said in unison, “A Lannister always pays his debts.” LOVE it.

Did you notice that the man who steps up as Tyrion’s champion is actually the same guy who was at the inn when Tyrion was captured by Catelyn? I happened to be rewatching the fourth episode again this week with my father, and sure enough, the champion is the one who, when Tyrion walks in and demands a room, clinking his gold piece on the tables, holds up his hand and says, “You can have my room.” Strange that the same person has stepped up twice to help out Tyrion when it was needed. I never would have noticed that if I hadn’t gone back to see the earlier ep.

My last question to you is, we’ve now twice seen Bran’s strange dream of the three-eyed raven. I guess you can’t really say what it is without spoilage, but is that dream also in the books?

Chris: I hadn’t noticed that Tyrion’s champion—Bronn—was that same man. I looked for him later when they were fighting on the way to the Eyrie, because Bronn becomes a fairly significant character as the novels go on. He’s a great character, actually, doubly because he never loses his simple mercenary pragmatism. He fights for Tyrion here because he knows he’ll be well paid, and he stays by Tyrion’s side for a long time for the same reasons. But he’s no fool for honour, and—mild spoiler—when the time comes in book three, he refuses to stand for the Imp.

There are a number of things we haven’t yet discussed, and since you’ve left the last comment to me, I think I’ll run through them before answering your question about Bran.

  • Robert’s admission that he never loved his brothers, and that Ned was the brother he chose … oh, so heartbreaking. Poor Robert. Poor stupid, cowardly, oblivious Robert. You should have made Ned your Hand so long ago.
  • Catelyn didn’t have much to do in this episode, but I have to give her credit for some great face-acting throughout Tyrion’s “confession”—in particular, the look she gives her batshit sister when she realizes they’ve all been played by him.
  • Syrio! I love Syrio.
  • The scene between Joffrey and Sansa was utterly cringe-inducing. Seeing him playing the gracious prince (at the behest of his mother, no doubt) and Sansa’s buying of the act, was painful to watch. So much so that on my re-watch, I fast-forwarded through it. Seven hells, indeed.
  • King Robert’s excruciating monologue about the good old days, and how simpler it all was. A bit heavy-handed, perhaps, but it did a nice job of showing the fissures between him and Renly, and also set up a necessary plot point.
  • I love love love how the penny drops for Ned. The first part, when Sansa points out that Joffrey is nothing like Robert, is exactly how it happens in the novel. Ned’s perusal of the “ponderous tome” is implied in the novel, but not depicted. Watching him realize Jaime and Cersei’s incest is brilliant. Can’t wait for the next instalment.
They’ve modified the dreams somewhat, but the three-eyed raven is quite prevalent in the books. I can’t really say why here without being REALLY spoilery, aside from saying that Bran becomes an increasingly important and central character as the books go on. And the three-eyed raven (and wolf with wings, heh) is quite prevalent.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Game of Thrones Episode 1.05 -- "The Wolf and the Lion"

Hi everyone, and welcome to installment five of the Game of Thrones co-blogging project, wherein I write as the GRRM veteran, and Nikki Stafford writes as one who has not read the books. I think it's safe to say that this most recent episode was a barn-burner, and we're sorry this week's post is a day later than usual. Nikki had to rush her direwolf to the vet -- poor thing ate a Lannister, and choked on the smugness.


Anyhoo, without further ado ...

: Before I start, I thought I should offer a “what they changed” list for today, as there was a lot of deviation from the novel in this episode … almost always in intriguing and interesting ways.

What They Changed / Added

• Ned’s conversation with Barristan Selmy. Well, it’s broadly the same as it unfolds in the novel—starting with their discussion over Ser Hugh’s body, and ending with Barristan stating the King’s plan to take part in the joust (though in the novel it’s not the joust, it’s the melee). What’s interesting here is the establishment of Barristan’s bona fides as a knight—the bit where Ned says he’s happy they had not met in battle is added.
• Bran’s geography lesson. This was a neat little way to educate the audience about the geography of Westeros and its noble houses. Interesting that Bran cannot recall the Lannister family motto (which is, incidentally, “Hear Me Roar!”). Is this part of his mental block about how he fell?
• Theon and Rosie. The red-haired prostitute of Winterfell is having an interesting half-life on the show, considering she does not appear in the novel. I can’t decide whether this is HBO upping the skin factor (there was a lot of it in this episode), or using her as a means to give voice to the exploited and subjugated classes of Westeros. Though I suppose it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.
• Varys and Littlefinger. This conversation is entirely invented, though it is more or less implicit in the novel—Varys and Petyr are the two most devious characters in the books. I liked this exchange—it was sort of like the spy’s version of the pissing contest, seeing who knows more about the other. There has been the suggestion that they work together—such as when Varys informs Littlefinger of Catelyn’s arrive in King’s Landing, and shows up at the brothel—but this scene makes very clear that not only don’t they trust each other, they may well be enemies.
• No Brynden Tully! One of my favourite secondary characters in the novels has been left out—Brynden “Blackfish” Tully, Catelyn’s gruff uncle, who is in the service of her sister. Perhaps he will show up later, but I was looking forward to seeing him in this episode.
• Loras and Renly! There is the faintest suggestion in the novels that Robert’s brother and the Knight of Flowers are lovers, faint enough that it only occurred to me on later rereadings of the books. But there is nothing explicit. Well, so much for subtlety here—not only are they obviously lovers, but Loras is goading Renly to jockey for the crown. And all I’ll say on that point for the benefit of the other GRRM geeks reading this … veeeeerrrrrry interesting.
• The conversation between Robert and Cersei. I loved this, even though it goes farther toward making Cersei a more sympathetic character. His description of the state of the realm is lovely.
• The confrontation between Ned and Jaime. Almost spot-on, except that in the novel Ned is injured when his horse falls on top of him, and there is no swordfight between him and Jaime. In the novel, we never get a glimpse of Ned actually fighting—we assume he knows what he is doing with a sword, but no actual evidence, whereas Jaime’s prowess is constantly mentioned. So, interesting that they show us here that Ned can hold his own against the Kingslayer … until he is stabbed in the leg.

OK, so there we are. Nikki: what did you think of episode five? Two of our main storylines were simply ignored, as we don’t see the Wall or Daenerys.

Nikki: Thanks for that list, Chris! You covered off many of my questions right there; as I watched the Bran geography lesson, I immediately wondered if that was a way to sum up a lot of history in one quick scene. Great stuff.

And yes, I noticed the complete lack of Daenerys and the Dothraki. I missed her for sure. I enjoyed this episode a lot, but it was by far the goriest. From the joust in the beginning and what the Mountain does to his horse (gah!!) to the ambush on Catelyn’s group and Tyrion smashing the attacker’s head repeatedly with a shield (gyaaahh!!), to the fight at the end between Jaime and Ned’s group, complete with a dagger in the eye socket (nnnggggaayahhh) it was one cringeworthy episode. Definitely the one where you realize this ain’t for the squeamish. Luckily, despite my noisemaking throughout (which pretty much echoed what I wrote there), I thought it was pretty amazing.

But I really must begin by asking you about Catelyn’s sister… whose name escapes me (of course). That woman gave me the heebs from the moment her 10-year-old (or older?) son stopped breastfeeding momentarily to look up. Good god. I’m a big proponent of breastfeeding, but… :::shudder::: And that kid does not appear to be playing with a full deck. Have you seen the episode of 30 Rock where Paul Reubens plays the inbred prince? Yep. He reminded me of THAT guy.

Her castle was glorious in its frightworthiness, though. Did it live up to the description in the book? And is she as loopy in the book as she is on the show?

Chris: Actually, believe it or not, they’ve downplayed Lysa’s batshit insanity a little bit. Not much, mind you—but still. I think the boy is supposed to be six years old in the novel. If you want a comparison, here’s a representative passage from the novel, from Catelyn’s POV:

Quiet!’ Lysa snapped at her. ‘You’re scaring the boy.’ Little Robert took a quick peek over his shoulder at Catelyn and began to tremble. His doll fell to the rushes, and he pressed himself against his mother. ‘Don’t be afraid, my sweet baby,’ Lysa whispered. ‘Mother’s here, nothing will hurt you.’ She opened her robe and drew out a pale, heavy breast, tipped with red. The boy grabbed for it eagerly, his face buried against her chest, and began to suck. Lysa stroked his hair. Catelyn was at a loss for words.

The little Lord Robert actually gets ever creepier as the novels go on, as does his mother.

The Eyrie—Lysa’s castle—I was so-so on. I thought the interior was brilliantly done, as was Tyrion’s cell. But our first view of it from a distance was the first time the series has disappointed me with its mise-en-scene—it looked pretty fake.

A friend of mine who has been watching the episodes on torrent recently told me that in the comments on episode four there were complaints about how slow-moving the series has been—that it wasn’t like a fantasy novel at all. I think this episode puts those complaints to rest. All of the swordplay and violence we’ve been waiting for sort of just comes all at once here, no? And if the series keeps faith with the books, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Next week’s episode is titled “A Golden Crown”—and all I’ll say to the n00bs is: (1) We’ll be seeing Daenerys and the Dothraki again, and (2) Gah!

I think my favourite part of the episode was the war of words between Littlefinger and Varys. Knowing what I do of their characters, I have a much better sense of who is plotting what, and where their respective loyalties lie. What did you make of that exchange, Nikki? If you had to trust one of them, whom would it be?

Nikki: That passage from the book made me shudder. Eep.

I’m surprised to hear the criticism. The people who would complain that these episodes are slow-moving are probably the same ones who said they just didn’t “get” The Wire. It’s too bad. (And having seen next week’s episode, I second your “Gah!” and can tell everyone it’s probably my favourite episode of the six.)

I, too, was intrigued by the scene between those two, because I don’t trust either one of them. They’re both underhanded and seem to be playing Ned in one way or the other, and both actors have this way of looking at him in a sidelong glance that makes you think they’re up to something. So when they go head to head… it was almost as if they were both lying, both bluffing in this game of chess they’re playing, tiptoeing around the issue and daring the other one to go further than he has already gone. So you’ve stumped me with that question. If I had to choose one of them, I might choose Baelish, because there are moments of humanity in him, especially when he talks to Catelyn. I haven’t seen anything similar in Varys yet. But I simply don’t understand why they’re offering to help Ned, and what could be gained by doing so.

Are we to assume that Jon Arryn was trying to round up the king’s bastards to prove they were all dark-haired, as opposed to the platinum-blond non heirs that are roaming the castle right now as his children? Presumably the queen’s children are ones she’s had by Jaime, and not Robert. But what’s to be gained by this? I’m intrigued by what Ned will put together here… and why Baelish is leading him down that path.

Speaking of the king and queen, how about that scene between the two of them? There are times where the king is absolutely loathsome, and I wonder if he’s very different from the man that Ned once knew? Becoming a king has not only made him too fat, but he’s excessive in everything and seems quite ineffectual as a king. He’s heartless to Cersei in this scene as she reminisces with him over their sham of a marriage. He tells her that nothing has filled the hole that Ned’s sister left behind, and she admits that she actually felt something for him once and asks if there’d ever been a single moment in their marriage where he felt the same. “No,” he declares after a thoughtful pause, followed by, “Does that make you feel better or worse?” She replies, “I don’t feel anything.” The conversation was shocking and devastating to watch.

Was the conversation the same in the book? It also made me wonder about the relationship with Jaime: she may trust him and be having an affair with him, but I wonder if that weighs on her? Could someone be truly happy being in a sexual relationship with her brother? Isn’t there a part of her that is in anguish that this is the only love she can find? Is he using her in some way? He doesn’t seem to love her so much as possess her.

Chris: The conversation between the king and queen was quite well done, I thought—and it’s not actually in the book. Every chapter is from a particular character’s point of view, and we don’t have that from either Robert or Cersei—so while the conversation might have happened, we could never know (ditto for the Varys/Littlefinger exchange). However hurtful Robert and Cersei have been to one another, there was a sense of understanding between them in this scene, however grudging or underlined with malice. We don’t get that in the book—the only feelings between them are Robert’s contempt for Cersei and her loathing of Robert.

The sexual relationship between Jaime and Cersei is played somewhat more ambivalently in the series, at least on Cersei’s part. In the novels, it is more of a long-standing thing—basically since even before they knew what they were doing, they were together sexually. Though they are not of one mind: Jaime is utterly devoted to Cersei, and is oddly faithful to her … but there is the sense that she is more opportunistic, and more concerned with her own power and ambition. That’s one of the reasons I loved Jaime’s chilling promise to kill everyone but him and her—that captured his ruthless, single- minded devotion perfectly. He would be perfectly happy having the world know about them, and damn the consequences. Cersei, conversely, it rather more circumspect.

I said something to this effect in my first post on GoT, but I have to imagine it’s the Littlefingers and Varyses, much more than the jousting, swordplay, and other staples of fantasy, that drew HBO to GRRM’s books. This goes to those who find the series boring, you are probably absolutely right to observe, are the same as those who just couldn’t get into The Wire. HBO certainly does not stint on giving us violence, or graphic sex and nudity, but the commonalty between its best shows is this degree of complexity and the frequent preoccupation with power. The scheming and plotting in King’s Landing echoes that which we see between the prisoner factions in Oz, the mob politics of The Sopranos, and the nascent democracy of Deadwood. As we see with such a spectacularly bad series as Spartacus, the blood and sex is easy to do. But without good, intelligent writing, it collapses on itself.

Nikki: So well put. I agree that writing is king on HBO. I think going hand-in-hand with that is the acting. The ensemble cast is so well put together on this show – they work well together, there’s chemistry where there needs to be, and the acting is absolutely superb. I have to point out Dinklage again: the look on his face when he sees Catelyn’s sister (and her tiny weirdo) is priceless. And when she accuses him of killing the hand of the king, he says, “Oh! Did I kill him, too? I’ve been a VERY busy man.” I just love Tyrion.

Even the secondary characters are superb. That scene of the king’s council flatly telling Ned how they need to put the Targaryens down is superb, with Littlefinger using the analogy of slicing a woman’s throat without a second thought, Robert simply raging against their family, Varys quietly agreeing with everyone, and Ned standing there in utter shock at the madness of it all. I loved that scene.

It’s interesting that HBO could take a book that, by your description, sounds like it’s entirely in first person from various points of view, and turns it into an objective, third-person narrative. Amazing. Yes, the writer is definitely king.

Chris:Just to clarify: the character POVs in GRRM’s books are third-person limited, not first person; but that doesn’t take away from your observation that the writers’ accomplishment is tremendous.

Speaking of the writers, it’s probably high time we gave them a shout-out: D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, who are responsible for having brought this to the small screen to start with, have done the lion’s share of the work on this series in terms of the writing. Looking at their resumes on, one wouldn’t have predicted it: Benioff has graced us with such brilliant screenplays as X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Troy (though also Brothers and The 25th Hour, which I can’t comment on, not having seen them), and Weiss’ only credit for anything is Game of Thrones. But even if everything they do from this point on is shite, they will have my eternal respect for this series. They have managed at once to be faithful to the source material, to deftly incorporate GRRM’s own dialogue at key points, and augment the narrative with scenes of their own invention that work seamlessly.

We should also note that episode eight, “The Pointy End,” is written by GRRM himself—so it will be interesting to see how the novelist’s episode compares to those of his adaptors.

And with episode five, we are also at the halfway point in season one: five down, five to go, and I have to say it has thus far exceeded my expectations. For the final word, Nikki, what are your thoughts as we sit at the Ides of Game of Thrones?

Nikki: Only that I’m enjoying co-blogging with you immensely. This is fun!

Thanks for the shout-out for Benioff and Weiss… I wonder if Benioff’s background as a novelist has helped him envision how a novel could be brought to the screen? I think they’ve done a helluva job. I was shocked when I first saw this season would only be 10 episodes (I was hoping for the usual HBO 13) but so far they’re doing a brilliant job in truncating such a vast book into 10 hours.

I can’t wait for reader reactions to this Sunday’s episode… it was the last of the episodes that HBO sent to me in advance, and it’s a shocker. Enjoy!

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.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Game of Thrones Episode 1.03—“Lord Snow”

Hello again all, and welcome to installment three of our Game of Thrones co-blogging adventure. As ever, my friend Nikki Stafford from Nik at Nite is providing the GRRM n00b perspective, and I will be providing the impressions of the GRRM nerd.

All set? Well then, here's Nikki ...

Episode 3, “Lord Snow,” is where we get a lot more backstory on the characters than before. This episode, while still boasting a lot of action, is more dialogue- and character-driven, with slow-paced scenes that you must watch as closely as any episode of The Wire, and even then you probably have to go back and watch it a second time just to get the nuances. Chris is going to cover many of the smaller details of those scenes below, so I’ll just say that this was the first week where, as a viewer, I found myself a bit lost (and desperate for a list of names of people!) Thankfully, Chris will provide that below, too (thank you, Chris!) That said, I still loved the episode very much.


• The beautiful construction of the throne room at King’s Landing, with that incredible throne of swords. I don’t know how it’s described in the book, but in the show it’s magnificent.
• Carcetti!! Chris and I have chatted endlessly to each other about The Wire for years, so I was excited about him getting to this episode and finally seeing him. I’d have to check this, but I believe he’s actually Irish, so the accent he’s putting on for this show is as convincing as the American one he did on The Wire. Brilliant. I love when HBO finds a talented actor and uses him/her again.
• Arya looks remarkably like Catelyn… I don’t know how they found these two actresses, but what a beautiful match.

Character Development:

• Oh Joffrey, you sniveling little whiner. How much did I love the depiction of him this week as a foot-stomping toddler, with his “Oh, do I have to marry that yucky cootie girl?” while he sucked on his thumb. The scene between him and Cersei is at once a perfect portrait of a mama’s boy, but there’s a sinister undertone throughout of just how dangerous he will be, especially with her fierce encouragement. “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.”
• Sansa. When I first watched this episode, I cringed at how ungrateful she is, thinking man, she and Joffrey are perfect for each other. But I think she’s a more complicated character than perhaps they’re making her seem in the show. Remember, last week’s show ended with the death of her direwolf, and if those dogs become intrinsically linked with their owners, there’s something missing in her now (I don’t know how deep the link runs, but I’m assuming there’s more in the books about them?) She’s been taken ahead with Ned rather than staying back with her mother, and it’s clear Ned is more at ease dealing with men than women. He gives her a doll because she’s a girl… and girls play with dolls, right? Not when they’re teenagers looking for a husband, they don’t. She reacts harshly, and he looks out of his element and unable to deal with the situation.
• Arya. She, too, shows that side of Ned in his dealings with her. Arya is the tomboy who’s interested in swords, and you can feel the relief that washes over Ned when he talks to her because this, this is the kind of girl he can deal with. Ned: “You know the first thing about swordfighting?” Arya: “Stick ’em with the pointy end.” He gives her exactly what she wants, signing her up for her “dancing” lessons (I adore these scenes) and watches her proudly from the wings. However, that final scene in the episode grows dark when we hear the clash of steel on steel in his mind as he watches his daughter pretend killed… what was he thinking there? Is he remembering the great battles? The death of his sister? The death of Targayren? The death of the woman who gave birth to Jon Snow? I’m intrigued, and perhaps the readers know these answers, but I like the subtlety of the scene.
• If winter itself could be a character, then we get a sense in this episode of just how long and awful the winters can be, both from the old lady telling her ghoulish tales to Tyrion talking about how many winters he’s seen in his lifetime. God, I think Canadian winters last an eternity, but three years? Talk about Seasonal Affective Disorder.
• Daenerys is pregnant, and she’s becoming more confident and powerful. The scene where she leaves her horse only to be followed by the horrible Viserys is brilliant. He’s as vile as Joffrey, and watching him being choked by the whip is nothing short of AWESOME. It’s trumped only by the guy who choked him (someone whom Viserys sees as a slave) saying, “You? Walk.”
• One final question for Chris (that I meant to ask last week): That guy who’s always talking to Daenerys (I can never pick up on his name), is he the same in the book? Does he give the Dothraki backstory throughout, or are they using him as a convenient Johnny the Explainer character in this show?

And now… here’s Chris to clear up many questions:

And here we are at King’s Landing—as the caravan enters its gates, I keep hearing the Star Wars line—“You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”—running through my head. Ned has no time to rest before being thrown into the snake pit, having a confrontation with Jaime Lannister in the throne room in which we get some background—how Ned’s father and brother were killed by the previous king Aerys Targayren … and how Jaime was the one who killed him, despite being sworn to protect him.

This particular confrontation does not happen in the novel, but this episode departs more from the book than the previous two have. Departs in detail, but not in spirit: many of the set-pieces making up the episode—Jaime and Ned, Robert and Barristan the Bold exchanging war stories, Cersei tending Joffrey’s wolf bite—are invented, but for the purpose of clarifying themes and conflicts and character traits that the novel develops more gradually. On first viewing, it was a bit off-putting; on second viewing, I appreciated the artistry of it. The characters are deepening and the stakes are getting higher.

The title of the episode is a little misleading, considering that we don’t see a huge amount of Jon Snow. Also, we don’t see Daenerys until thirty-five minutes in. Most of the action unfolds in King’s Landing, with a fairly heavy emphasis placed in history and background—in particular, Jaime Lannister’s act of treason in killing the previous king is revealed as something more ambivalent than most of the characters would seem to want to think. Both Robert and Ned obviously hold Jaime in contempt for such a flagrantly dishonorable act, and both express their fundamental distrust of him because of it. However, we get hints of their hypocrisy: Robert has his throne in part because of Jaime’s supposed dishonor, and Ned rebukes him both for not acting to save his father and brother when the Mad King tortured and killed them, and subsequently killing Aerys Targaryen. You can’t have it both ways, Ned—but then, that is the contradiction of Eddard Stark’s painfully rigid sense of honor.

All in all, yet another excellent episode. Some more thoughts:

New Characters

This episode added a bunch of new faces to the ensemble. As a frequent complaint of those unfamiliar with the books has been the difficulty of keeping names straight, here’s the episode three primer:

• Varys the eunuch—The Spider, the master of whispers. Basically, the clearing-house for intelligence gathering at court. Varys knows everything that is going on, usually before it happens. Case in point, Catelyn’s “secret” arrival in King’s Landing.
• Renly Baratheon—The king’s youngest brother; handsome, louche, and a bit of a gadabout.
• Grand Maester Pycelle—Shrewd and canny, and ostensibly a font of wisdom.
• Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish—Master of Coin, nicknamed Littlefinger because his family holdings are on the smallest of a cluster of peninsulas called The Fingers. He was once in love with Catelyn when they were youths, and dueled Brandon Stark, Ned’s older brother, when she was betrothed to him. Littlefinger lost, but Brandon Stark spared his life at Catelyn’s request. Baelish plays his own game, and is one of the slyest players in King’s Landing.
• Allister Thorne—Master at Arms at Castle Black. A thoroughly unpleasant character.
• Lord Commander Mormont—Father of Jorah Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
• The boys at the Wall—We meet Grenn and Pyp, who ultimately become Jon Snow’s friends and allies.
• Barristan the Bold—Legendary knight, who even in his advanced age is renowned for his fighting skills.
• Lancel Lannister—Cousin of Cersei and Jaime, one of the many Lannisters inserted into service at King’s Landing.
• Yoren—A Night’s Watch recruiter.
• Maester Aemmon—The maester for Castle Black; ancient, wise, blind.
• Syrio Forel—Arya’s “dancing master,” a master swordsman from the Free City of Braavos.

Best Lines

• “War was easier than daughters.”
• “I hate your stories!” “I know a story about a boy who hated stories.”
• “Well, Lord Snow … It seems you’re the least useless person here.”
• “You’re a funny man! A very funny man!” … though obviously this one loses something on the page. Spoken however by Sean Bean as he chokes Littlefinger, he gives us a brief but striking insight into why Ned Stark is dangerous.
• “Ah, Starks … quick tempers, slow minds.”
• “They never tell you how they all shit themselves. They never put that part in the songs.”
• “I’m the First Ranger. The job is out there.” Am I the only person to hear an echo of Omar in The Wire here? “The game is out there.”
• “Here, a man gets what he earns. When he earns it.”
• “Boy, girl. You are a sword. That is all.”

What They Added / Changed

• “I haven’t played with dolls since I was eight.” Such a heartbreaking moment. Sansa still blames Ned and Arya for the death of Lady, and Ned’s clumsy attempt to make amends only worsens things. That he then shows his connection with Arya draws a line between him and his elder daughter. War, apparently, is only easier than daughters when the daughter in question isn’t interested in the arts of war.
• “You are my darling boy, and the world will be exactly as you want it to be.” Cersei here shows her doting love for her repulsive son, which stretches into irrationality, but then without missing a beat delivers a shrewd little lecture on governance and realpolitik. This is the best Cersei moment so far: demonstrating her cunning and cleverness, but also her blind spot where Joffrey is concerned.
• “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy.” This should be the Lannister motto.
• “The boy won’t talk. And if he does, I’ll kill him. Him, Ned Stark, the King, the whole bloody lot of them, until you and I are the only people left alive in this world.” In the books, we only start to see the nature of the interaction between Jaime and Cersei in book three, when Jaime starts to get his own POV chapters. But they nail it here—Jaime’s ruthlessness emerges in this chilling declaration, articulating his single-minded devotion to his twin. Incidentally, the bit about the singers making a ballad about “The War for Cersei’s Cunt” is a GRRM line that comes in book three (I think … it might be book four).
• Robert and Barristan the Bold exchanging war stories. I did not at first care for this scene, and then on second viewing turned completely around on it. I love that the impression you get at first is that they’re talking about losing their virginity … because, in a way, they are. As mentioned above, we get a better sense of history and background, especially when Robert calls Jaime in to taunt him. It is also a lovely way to introduce Barristan Selmy, who develops into such a great character as the books progress. And Lancel! Who looks, if possible, even more prissy and whiny than Joffrey.
• The top of the Wall. In the books, the Wall is described as simply being a flat expanse “about as wide as the Kingsroad.” Here, they’ve turned it into a warren of trenches, much like the battlements on the top of castle walls.
• Yoren. Odd, this—in the books, Yoren is described as sallow, laconic, and dour. They’ve obviously decided to go a different route here in making him a hale and hearty kind of fellow.
• The exchange between Benjen and Tyrion. Between this conversation and Ned’s interactions with Littlefinger, we begin to see where Starks have a reputation for being prickly. At the same time, Benjen’s speech about what lies north of the wall is (forgive me) chilling. One of the things this episode does is set us up for what is to come: the emphasis on the dangers of the coming winter gets almost a little heavy-handed.
• Ser Jorah talking swords with the Dothraki. I loved this little exchange, a great summary of the difference in how Westeros and the Dothraki approach war and battle. Curved blade versus straight, speed versus power. And then at the end, that suspicious departure as Jorah learns that Daenerys is preggers … hmm ….

What They Got Exactly Right

• The Small Council. The dynamic of the council was pitch-perfect, and Robert’s profligacy with the royal treasury yet another revelation about his efficacy as king. Three million owed to the Lannisters? That’s not good.
• Ned and Arya. The scene between them was poignant, more so as it comes just after his epic fail with Sansa. Arya, we see, is Ned’s daughter to the bone, and he is much more at ease talking to her and being a comfort. That he not only lets her keep Needle, but then gives her lessons in swordsmanship shows just how simpatico they are.
• Littlefinger! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again—I freakin’ LOVE Aidan Gillen. He was brilliant on Queer as Folk (the original British version), and even more so as the altruistic councilman turned politically savvy mayor Tommie Carcetti on The Wire. Littlefinger is a perfect role for him, and he plays it beautifully. We see, all at once, his need to impress and his shrewdness. A brothel is certainly a good place to hide Catelyn, but he so obviously wants to impress her with his success and/or make her jealous by being surrounded by beautiful half-naked women. Alas for Petyr, she is neither.
• Old Nan and her stories. Gods, that one gave ME chills. The woman they have playing Nan has her voice and tone down perfectly.
• Ned’s instinctive moment of violence with Littlefinger outside the brothel. As mentioned above, Sean Bean gets this perfectly. You understand why he has so frequently been cast as bad guys—he can be utterly terrifying, and there’s something about his intonation (combined with that accent) that makes you realize just how dangerous Ned Stark can be.
• Jon Snow practicing in the yard.
• Viserys freaking out on Daenerys. YES! The moment the whip curls around his neck and he lies gasping for air, I won’t lie, is deeply, deeply satisfying. And then when Jorah deliberately ignores his order to kill the Dothraki. Humiliations galore.
• Syrio Forel. In the book he is bald as an egg, but otherwise everything about him is spot-on—his accent, his words, his movement, his expressions. His grin when Arya describes the sword as a needle is worth the price of admission.

Answers for Nikki

• The Iron Throne: yep, they’ve done a very good job recreating the throne as it’s described in the books. The story behind it is that Aegon “The Conquerer” Targaryen, the first Targaryen king who united the Seven Kingdoms, had it made out of the swords of his defeated enemies.
• The direwolves do indeed have something of a connection to their humans—especially Bran, but that only really gets explicated in later books.
• The guy who’s always talking to Daenerys is Ser Jorah Mormont, an exiled knight. He went into exile because he broke the law in selling some poachers to a slaver, and it was Ned Stark he was fleeing from. And yes, he’s more or less the same in the book. He offers more in the way of exposition on the show than in the novels, but not too much. He is, incidentally, the son of the Night’s Watch commander.
• Littlefinger and Catelyn: in the books, Petyr Baelish was fostered with Catelyn’s family. The romantic attachment goes one way: Littlefinger was/is in love with Catelyn, but as she said in this episode, she has only ever thought of him as a little brother.