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Game of Thrones Season 2 Tidbits: Building Up Qarth, and Fleshing It Out

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One of the many HBO programming announcements out of the winter TCA tour that I didn’t get around to commenting on was a return date for Game of Thrones‘ season 2: April 1. Information about the second series—and judging only by the source book, A Clash of Kings, it could be a doozy—has been coming out in bits and pieces. And here (via WinterisComing.net) we have an interview with new cast member Nonso Anozie about an aspect of the season that interests me: how the show will deal with Daenerys’ journey on the Eastern continent, especially the powerful nation of Qarth. (The GoT material starts about six minutes in.)

After the jump, a little discussion, which may be of more interest to people who have read the second book but I’ll steer clear of substantive spoilers:

* On plot level, I’m glad to hear that Qarth’s role in the season is going to be expanded. I won’t go into detail for non-readers (and please be considerate about this in the comments), but while Qarth is important in book 2 of the series, its role is dwarfed by many of the goings-on in Westeros, and in many ways involves narrative that doesn’t seem it would translate well to the screen. (No, readers, I don’t mean Qarth-scene-I-am-not-going-to-write-about-toward-the-end here.) Given Daenerys’ role in the story, the show can’t largely shunt her aside for a season. And given that I’m a sucker for the non-Westeros parts of the Song of Ice and Fire universe, and for massively detailed world-building in general, I’m excited to have more–more Qartheen visuals, culture, intrigue. Bring it on!

* Second, on the subject of world-building: OK, so I am going to sound like the most literal-minded, shallow jerk here, but I can’t help notice that Anozie, cast as “prince of Qarth” Xaro Xhoan Daxos (and now I know how to pronounce it!) is apparently of African descent. This is notable because of how George R.R. Martin describes the Qartheen in ACoK: as “milk men,” so described by the Dothraki for their paleness.

This is a perfectly good choice. A screen adaptation can and should make its own decisions about how to visualize a book, for practical reasons (the Targaryens, it turned out, could not practically have violet eyes, nor the Kingsguard white armor) or other ones. And a literal-minded adaption is usually a bad one. To me, it’s not a good or bad idea that Qartheen be “black” or “white” or whatever—particuarly because the series’ world, not being ours, does not have “black” or “white” people as our history has constructed the terms, nor “African,” “European” and whatnot. It has Meereenese and Summer Islanders and Dornishmen and so on, and it’s better not to make each a literal rendering of some equivalent in our world.

But it does make me wonder about the general world-building for Qarth. It could mean that the people of Qarth, on HBO, are generally darker. (Which, for one thing, would balance out the mostly-white lead actors.) Or it could mean they’re multiracial. That does make a difference depending how you do it.

It doesn’t matter that the people of a particular region in GoT look a particular way. It does matter that those regions have a sense of place and of existing as fully formed people and cultures. Dothraki look like Dothraki and have Dothraki ways and clothing. Westeros has its particular architecture and religion and art. It also—and you can question this or not but it’s how the show was made—has a lot of European-looking white people. By which I’m not accusing the series of racism, or anything else, but rather saying that it has made the conscious decision that, in Westeros as in Earth of the medieval era, the people who have settled in certain areas tend to share resemblences.

I would assume that would and should be true of Qarth too. Not for reasons of casting or balance but just because Qarth should seem just as real a place as Westeros does. And it does make sense that the peoples of this world, like the peoples of ours, should look and feel distinct. There might be reasons that Qarth could be a multiracial society, as the few set photos I’ve seen suggest—greater trade and cosmopolitanism in a merchant-based economy?—and that would work as long as it were explained solidly, in a way that made Qarth grounded as a place, rather than just dividing the world between Westeros’ “Europeans” and Essos’ “Assorted Brown People.”  (One of my nitpicks with the first season was that the aesthetic of Westeros seemed very thought-through, while the Dothraki’s seemed like a Trader Vic’s grab-bag.) The other option, of course, is to cast the new characters color-blind, but that would then raise the question, Why not cast Westeros color-blind as well?

Mind you, season one was strongly enough imagined that I’m sure the producers are up to it. And I like the idea that they’re departing from some of GRRM’s choices in narrative and description, because diversity aside, it’s an important way of establishing the show’s voice as its own.

Of course, there’s one attribute of Qarth (mild spoiler coming) that I doubt they’ll change for the screen: the clothing fashions involve a lot of bared single breasts. Something about season one makes me suspect that at least some of those are going to survive the translation.

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