SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, retire to your deck—overlooking a terrifying thousand-foot drop—and watch last night’s Game of Thrones.
The first few episodes of Game of Thrones, because they had such a vast world to establish, involved a lot of talking: characters talking about history, about dragons, about who hates whom for killing whose family.
With “The Wolf and the Lion,” the strongest episode of the season yet, Thrones has put its pieces in place and is ready to start putting them into motion. It began to let its swords do the talking (with unfortunate consequences for at least one poor horse.) And while there were some very significant scenes of talk, the dialogue went beyond Westeros History 101 to take the story in some very interesting directions.
The talk first. The most compelling scene to me, though it contained no bombshell revelations, was the fantastic heart-to-heart between Robert and Cersei, in which they share a laugh at the idea of their marriage—their bitter, convenient marriage—being the one thing that’s keeping Westeros from falling back into civil war: “How long can hate hold a thing together?”
It’s a mature, strangely affecting talk: they don’t love each other and they both know it, but they have a history, and that’s something. (This scene didn’t appear in the source book, which gives me hope that the show’s adapters are gaining confidence in their own voices as the series goes on.)
The other significant conversations transpire at court, where words are the weapon of choice. Some of them are open, as with Robert’s decision, with his council, to order Daenerys’ assassination; as spymaster Varys rationalizes, “It is a terrible thing we consider, a vile thing. But we who presume to rule must sometimes do vile things for the good of the realm.” And some are secret, as when Varys comes to Ned in private to tell him that Jon Arryn was poisoned for asking the wrong questions (presumably, about Robert’s bastard—actually, as it turns out, bastards).
Varys’ counsel seems to advise discretion for Ned, both at court and in his own investigations. But Ned knows only directness, and when he is the one dissenter at the king’s council, rather than play politics he breaks with Robert openly and angrily. Ned is an honorable man, but he’s also a rigid, unsubtle man, in a capital filled with courtiers so morally flexible, they could bend backwards at the waist to lace their boots.
As, in fact is demonstrated by a third interesting conversation of Varys’, who—as Arya overhears while chasing cats as part of her sword-fighting training—is conspiring with Illyrio, the merchant whom we last saw serving as the Targaryens’ sugar daddy. Their aim, in his words, to see “the wolf and the lion”—i.e., the Starks and the Lannisters—at each others’ throats, and the kingdom at war, leaving it ripe for an invading army. Is Varys looking out for Robert’s interests, Ned’s or Viserys’—or does he have yet another design here? (Whether the aims of his quadruple-crosses and intrigues, Conleth Hill plays him as a spellbinding serpent; his sotto voce confrontation with Littlefinger is like a duel between cobras.)
At some point, though, words fail and swords take over—first at the tournament, where the most significant battle is maybe not between Gregor the Mountain and Ser Loras, but Gregor and his brother, The Hound, who steps in to stop his brothers tantrum. (Too late, alas, for his horse.)
It’s a scene that suggests in multiple ways that people are more than they seem here: that the Hound, whom we met as the beast who rode down the butcher’s boy for offending Joffrey, may have actual empathy; that Loras, who presents himself as the flower of chivalry, may have won the tournament through trickery; and further that Loras, though he carries himself as a heartthrob among the ladies—as we see him, though Sansa’s naivete—actually jousts for the other team.
The significant look between Loras and the king’s brother, Renly, leads to the later scene between them—which doesn’t just make their relationship overt (and offer some male eye candy to balance all the female topless scenes) but reveals that it’s not just Robert’s wife’s family who resents him. Renly holds Robert and his brutal impetuousness in contempt (when Robert speaks of killing Dany, he says, “the table rises six inches”) and Loras suggests that Renly would make a better ruler: “Where is it written that power is the sole province of the worst?”
Catelyn and Tyrion’s road trip suggests in another way that people may be more complicated than they seem. On the one hand, Catelyn seems to be entirely right not to trust Tyrion: even tied up, he seems dangerous, trying to use his wiles and the vague hint of bribery to try to wriggle to freedom. On the other hand, does she suspect him in the right way? As he notes, the idea of giving his own expensive dagger to Bran’s assassin seems several factors too stupid for someone of his cleverness.
This is not to say that Tyrion is a good person—as far as we can see, he’s highly self-interested, and is not revealing all his motives or loyalties. But he’s not necessarily the kind of bad person that Catelyn believes, and it seems needs, him to be. She, on the other hand, has understandable motives—but as she drags Tyrion to her sister’s Lynchian freakshow at The Eyrie, the plot seems more about vengeance than justice.
In the center of all this uncertainty and false-facedness—guilty men who may be innocent, advisers who argue the assassination of nobles they secretly support—is Ned, a man who is not just without guile but, maybe more important, seemingly incapable of it. He deals with the Jon Arryn rumors by investigating personally and directly; he airs his moral scruples over the Targaryen assassination bluntly and dramatically; he claims responsibility for Tyrion’s imprisonment to protect Catelyn. And so he finds himself simultaneously in a job he doesn’t want, trying to protect Robert, and yet openly breaking with Robert on principle—thus potentially stripping himself of his power.
It must come as something of a relief when Jaime confronts him in the street over the abduction of Tyrion for Bran’s attempted murder (when, ironically, Jaime knows he himself is guilty of a similar attempt). No subterfuge here: he hates Lannister, always has, and would love finally to sink his sword into him. It’s not just a thrilling climax, but a case of revealing character through action: Jaime fights like Jaime, with flash, glee and slyness, while Ned hacks with grim, patient determination. It ends badly, and inconclusively, with a guard’s spear in the back of Ned’s leg.
But there’s one thing you can say about a spear: at least it’s direct with you.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Robert’s errand boy, Lancel, has scarcely any lines but is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters on the show, simply for his frightened-eyed reaction shots as the Kind toys with him. I do hope he’s not still looking for that “breastplate stretcher.”
* Not all the expository talk was gone, though: Guy Giving Exposition While Screwing A Whore scene of the week goes to Theon Greyjoy!
* “Does someone somewhere keep your balls in a little box? I’ve often wondered.” “Do you know, I have no idea where they are. And we had been so close.” When you’re a eunuch, you use that joke a lot.
* “I’m a girl!”
* Having read the book this series is based on, there were a handful of visuals I was really eager to see rendered. Near the top of the list was the Eyrie, and it didn’t disappoint: the CGI got across the vertiginous height without making the setting look too much like the cover of a Dungeons and Dragons volume.
* Having last watched the episode weeks ago, I was surprised to see that the “Previously” reel included both Jon Snow and Dany, neither of whom were in the episode. But this is something this sprawling series will have to do: make sure all its far-flung characters feel present, even when they’re not.
* Giant. Dragon. Skull. Now that’s what I’m talking about.
Oh, the usual request: if you’ve read the books, it’s fine to discuss them in comparison with the episode itself. But please, no references in the comments to future events or information that has not yet been revealed in the series. Thanks.