In a series like Game of Thrones, the first few episodes of the season are always going to be the most difficult. Even when we already know the majority of these characters like the back of our collective hand (which we do), and when we’ve already had a previous episode that was almost entirely devoted to “let’s re-establish what’s happened to everyone since the last season began” (which we have), things are still going to run a little slowly in these first few episodes.
It’s the way the game is played. First we get the buildup, and then only later to we get to the creamy, nougat-y center of the story.
Such is life.
I’d say that one of the most difficult aspects of covering these first few episodes of Game of Thrones is the sheer distance between these character, both physically and in their actions. It’s a safe assumption that there’s going to be some kind of clashing between kings later on this season, but for now everyone’s running his or her own little game separate from everyone else. The end result is something wildly different from most other programs on TV- a series of vignettes all connected by loose strands of plot, rather than a single decisive narrative.
And right now, in these few weeks before those loose strands of plot start to constrict, what ties most of our characters together is that they’ve all been thrown into new situations. They’re not having the easiest time staying above water. Throughout “The Night Lands,” Arya, Tyrion, Theon Greyjoy, Dany and the boys in black up North have all had new directions and new sets of rules thrown at them, and throughout the episode they’re just trying to stay abreast of everything.
Some seem to be having a better time of it than others. Tyrion is certainly deft enough in political matters to be able to hold his own as the new Hand of the King, especially when it comes to verbal sparring matches between him and Varys, Cersei, or anyone else, and Tyrion is one of the only characters to leave “The Night Lands” with some semblance of a victory. Appointing Bronn as the new commander of the City Watch is certainly a smart move, politically, but Bronn’s not so different from the others. He’d murder an infant, if he had to. The only difference between him and Janos is that Bronn would probably take a little something on the side (payment-wise) before committing such an awful crime. As skilled as Tyrion is (and even he knows it, stating “I’m not Ned Stark, I understand how this game is played”), he may be just a little out of his depth here.
Arya, too, is doing ok for herself. Already she’s gained a firsthand understanding of how the Night’s Watch protect their own, even when it comes to threatening the king’s guards at knifepoint. She and Gendry have developed a solid friendship that’s really enjoyable to watch onscreen, but how long can it last? What happens when Arya stops being able to pass as a boy? Will Gendry stand up for her? Might something romantic develop between them? It’s a little foolish to speculate when everyone who’s read the books already knows the answers to all of this, but that’s besides the point. All us folk in the audience who haven’t read the books can still make some guesses about the future.
Theon Greyjoy, on the other hand, seems to be having a much more difficult time getting acclimated to his new surroundings then some of the other cast members. The Iron Islands are just outstanding when it comes to a production design standpoint (I love seeing grizzled old seamen float by in boats in the background- it really makes everything feel lived-in and reinforces the idea that everyone here works themselves to the bone and pays the iron price), but the people who live there… not so much. Everyone from Theon’s father, Balon, to passersby on the street deem it necessary to comment on how Theon’s less of a man for dressing and acting like a Stark. And the one person there who shows him any kind of affection ends up being his sister, Yara, and that affection is just a vile (seriously- that was gross) practical joke. It paints a very peculiar picture of those that live there- they’ll gladly call Theon a woman or make fun of him for being less masculine with his Stark-like clothes, but they’ll gladly sail into combat under a woman’s orders and treat her like a fellow warrior. I can’t decide if it’s very sexist or very progressive. Maybe both.
But either way, I seriously doubt, unless there’s some kind of game-changing event later on, that Theon will be able to convince his father to ally with Robb.
And speaking of doubts, as much as I love this show there were two moments that didn’t quite speak to me the way I’d hoped they would. First off is the story of Dany in the desert with her Dothraki kin. I love the story of Dany and her rise to power was easily one of the best arcs of the first season, but I can’t help but feel that she isn’t being given enough to do here. If you take her progress from the beginning of last week’s episode to the end of “The Night Lands,” she hasn’t really progressed at all. She’s still stuck in the desert. She’s still struggling a little bit in her new role as khaleesi. There still aren’t as many dragons as I’d like there to be (although that may be due to budgetary concerns more than anything else). Granted, writers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss may just be following what was laid out in the novels, but I can’t help but want a little more Dany when I watch these episodes.
The same goes for those at Dragonstone. I love the time spent with Stannis and his followers, but I feel like I’m missing some necessary background on these characters (yeah, I know, read the books). Stannis is treated like an incredible, legendary hero, even to the point where Davos refers to him as his own personal god, but we’ve yet to see him do anything besides gruffly bark orders and defile a lot of very carefully set up maps. It’s something that applies to everyone in these portions of the episode (Stannis, Davos, Melisandre)- with all of them, I could use just a little more backstory.
So as I come to the end of this review, I’ll come to the end of the episode- specifically, Jon Snow getting bonked on the head by Craster at the worst possible time. I’m eating a little crow right now, in that I assumed that Craster was just offing his male children, but it turns out he’s up to something much more sinister and something that potentially involves the White Walkers. This is the perfect way to cap off one of these early episodes- not only do we get the initial cliffhanger of Jon getting smashed in the head, but the Craster situation is definitely the biggest physical threat to any character right now. In terms of keeping these episodes from getting bogged down with exposition, that’s the story you focus on, and keeping it at the very end of the episode makes it stick in our memories much stronger than any other point.
So here are a few quick points before I go:
- Sex apparently, has become so prevalent in this show that it’s now appropriate to use it as a transition point between different scenes. I understand that this is HBO, and a very sexualized show to begin with, but “The Night Lands” was probably the most sex-ified episode yet, and it’s starting to become just a little comical.
- Tyrion is easily the most worldly man in Westeros, having spent time nearly every part of the Seven Kingdoms, visited the Wall, fought in a war against Robb’s men (sort of), and is one of the only characters in this show to enjoy reading. And yet he’s promptly ignored by Cersei and almost everyone else in King’s Landing when it comes to political matters (Robb’s forces, the armies amassing behind the Wall). One day, Tyrion, those in power will respect you. One day.
- Ghost the direwolf looks much more convincing then Grey Wind, who we saw last week. If I can’t have weekly dragon fights, I’ll settle for the occasional glimpse of a direwolf.
See you all next week!