Spoiler alert: Before you read this post, set up your DVR to record the big joust later, and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.
One complaint, or at least comment, that I’ve heard about Game of Thrones so far is that the episodes are not really episodes. That is, even more so than most HBO series (excepting maybe David Simon’s) it is utterly serial; the episodes don’t contain individual stories but play like chunks of a book, so they don’t reach closure so much as stop.
This is true to an extent. Game of Thrones (this season anyway) is an adaption of one book, and can be seen more like a movie in ten parts than ten episodes of television. That said, even in the early episodes with a lot of exposition (episodes 5 and 6, no spoilers, pick up the action considerably), Thrones’ hours have still had unifying themes. In “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things,” there are at least two. First, as the title signifies, this is a harsh world for the weak and unconnected; and second, the harshness of the world means that respect is something that needs to be earned, not demanded.
The first unfortunate we encounter this week is Bran, still bed-bound and resigned to the fact that he will not walk again. As Tyrion mentioned earlier, however, it is much better in this world to be a rich cripple than a poor one—and in this case, one with a connection who is willing to custom-design you a saddle. Even if he may also have plotted your death! The episode does a nice job both setting up the swords-drawn cliffhanger, as Catelyn takes Tyrion into custody, and complicating our picture of him. On the one hand, his offer to Bran is an unrequired act of kindness (which also enables him to high-road the hostile Robb who receives him at Winterfell).
And yet there are just enough suggestions that Tyrion’s mission at Winterfell is not entirely altruistic, and about more than getting a bed for the night. He brings a gift but also questions: whether Bran remembers anything of his fall (the first thing Tyrion asks), where Catelyn has disappeared to, and whether Theon should really feel allegiance to the Starks (who appear to be treating him well, but who took him into their household essentially as a hostage of war, after a failed rebellion by his sealord father).
Bran, at least, is fortunate enough to have people looking out for him. Feudal families are not so kind everywhere in Westeros, we learn at the Wall, as Jon encounters Samwell Tarly–a tubby noble, unfit for the harsh service, who was given the choice between the Night’s Watch and a “hunting accident” by his own father. You and I did not grow up in Westeros; our society values compassion for the week and sponsors anti-bullying campaigns. So we’re conditioned to cheer, and become more sympathetic to the deeply feeling Jon, when the bastard puts himself in the role of protector, trying to bring Sam into the ersatz family of his new northern brethren.
Is it really a kindness, though? The recruits’ trainer, Ser Alliser, is clearly an old bastard of the metaphorical kind. But amid his taunting of “Lady Piggy” and attempts to unite his men in bullying the portly new boy, he has a chance to explain the harsh reality behind his methods: a story of a ranging expedition in winter—which, beyond the Wall, is more like a polar nightmare—that turned his men cannibal for survival’s sake. To Alliser, Sam is a sacrifice necessary to turn his men into a hardened, cohesive unit—not unlike literally feasting on his body to survive a blizzard. He may be wrongheaded and needlessly cruel, but we see that he came to this worldview through experiences that are still painful to recall, and while he may not be sympathetic, his contempt for Jon’s moralizing is at least understandable: “”They’ll call you Men of the Night’s Watch. But you’d be fools to believe it. Come the winter, you’ll die like flies.”
Can a good man make it in this world? That’s the question Ned faces, albeit in much warmer climes. The first few episodes of Game of Thrones have been on the talky side: a lot of scenes with two people having Socratic dialogues about family trees and Westeros history. In King’s Landing, however, events started rolling forward this week, as the political intrigue developed into something else: a mystery, and possibly a murder mystery. Leading, in this case, to another bastard: Gendry, Robert’s illegitimate son, working as a blacksmith’s apprentice. (To my eye, by the way, he looked a bit old for a character who, if my math is right, would be around twenty.)
Ned gets there with a little help from not-necessarily-his-friend Littlefinger—though why he wants to help Ned is a mystery itself. There are a lot of parties interested in this question, and Littlefinger hints to Ned that he’s playing a dangerous game, as the capital is infested with spies. This, of course, is not Ned’s style. He is a sword that slashes straight and in one direction—warned that he is exposing himself by visiting the blacksmith personally, he says, “Let them look.” There are a lot of interested parties who might be watching: Cersei, Varys, Pycelle and Littlefinger himself. Is he helping Ned for the right reasons? Does it matter? Here, as on the Wall and with Tyrion at Winterfell, the episode makes the point that self-interestedness does not automatically mean evil, nor is righteousness automatically the best guide.
Nor, necessarily, is loyalty, a conclusion that Dany finally reaches after another confrontation with her brother in Vaes Dothrak. Viserys is another metaphorical bastard—she already knew this. What has changed is yes, partly that Dany is newly confident in her role as khalessi. But more than that, for the first time in her life, having been raised a royal child in exile, she has been exposed to actual rather than nominal leadership and power—and she sees that Viserys doesn’t have it. His cruelty she might have been able to tolerate, if not for the fact that she now sees it embodies a weakness: he will never be able to motivate people to follow him. If the Dothraki will never be his army, can she make them hers?
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Because I’m traveling, I had to write this review well in advance, on a screener missing a lot of FX shots—in particular, the panorama of the Dothraki capital Vaes Dothrak. How did it look in the finished version?
* The Viserys bathtub speech made for a-guy-giving-exposition-with-a-prostitute scene number two so far (after Tyrion in the Winterfell whorehouse). But I’ll listen to someone talk about dragons pretty much endlessly, and the backstory performs a more important purpose: it reminds us that the fallen world that we are seeing used to be much different. The dragons weren’t just metaphorical; a few hundred years ago the Targaryens used them as mounts and weapons of war. One thing that distinguishes Game of Thrones as a series is that it’s about a world whose magic is in the past (true in a sense of The Lord of the Rings, but the elves and wizards were still on the scene).
* For all that, I still find the Dothraki scenes the weakest in execution, though often fascinating in content. And I have to wonder if part of the problem, though this may sound shallow, is simple aesthetics: the design (the Pier One Imports vibe is especially strong in Vaes Dothrak), the mishmash of cultural signifiers and little things like introducing each scene with kitschy drum music. It’s not the acting, I think—Harry Lloyd makes Viserys a more appealing villain than I recall from the books, and Emilia Clarke is strong in scenes like the confrontation with Viserys. But the dialogue across the Narrow Sea is more stilted and humorless than that in the Westeros scenes, and it all has an alienating effect.
* Hodor! Those of you who’ve read the books, I know, have been dying to see Bran’s mentally-impaired, giant bodyguard / human conveyance. I hope he was all that you imagined.
* So, hope no one bet on Ser Hugh in the joust. The first time I watched this screener, the lingering on his blood-spurting last wheezes seemed excessive. The second time, though, I noticed that Sansa and Arya were in the stands almost directly on top of where he lay; the point was not to show us a horrible thing, but to show us the Stark children being shown a horrible thing.
One more thing—the usual rule about spoilers from the books applies. Feel free to discuss anything from the book that covers the events to date in the series, but please: absolutely no discussion of future events or scenes from the books (or of past revelations covered in the books but not revealed yet in the series). I’m trusting you on this one.