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Game of Thrones Watch: Snow Job

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Before you read this post, have your valet being you many, many cups of wine, then settle in to watch last night’s Game of Thrones:

“Winter is coming.” We know that. We’ve seen the ads, we’ve read the posters, we’ve had HBO repeat the tagline to us constantly for months. Winteriscomingwinteriscoming.

And yet, when I watched the first two episodes of Game of Thrones, sometime in February, one little thing bothered me: they never did explain why the hell we should care that winter was coming. I’ve read the source books, but to a new viewer—especially one who had not read a lot of advance coverage—I would think it would be confusing. Is it metaphorical? Literal? If the latter, who cares? Do I need to get a new parka at Land’s End?

“Lord Snow” gave us a sense of why the phrase holds such import, why winters in Westeros are not like other winters, and, with the arrival of Jon Snow at The Wall, just what kind of culture has emerged in response to them.

Seasons in Westeros, it turns out, last years, decades even. In a medieval society, a long winter is physically frightening enough,* but as we hear from Bran’s nurse, there are far bigger reasons to fear: ages ago, in a long winter with no sun, the White Walkers came from the North and terrorized the land, riding dead horses and hunting with giant spiders. The implication is that many, many winters have passed since, but the cultural memory of the horror is still deep.

*(A question, by the way, to people who know more about the books than I: how does surviving a years-long winter work? Do you preserve and dry a hell of a lot of food? Can the provisions actually keep that long? Why does summer fauna not just die off for lack of food—and with them the rest of the foodchain? Do bears hibernate for a decade? Have plants and seeds evolved to adapt? I’m a gardener—I think about these things.)

Or so she says, anyway. I like that Game of Thrones allows us some room to doubt how much of these magical tales are true. We have a baseline of knowledge: the first minutes of the series showed us the Walkers are real and have something to do with the reanimation of corpses, so the dead horses are plausible. But this is not a typical fantasy: not all ancient tales are believed, and they may not necessarily be entirely true. Who knows how much of this story was embroidered over the ages? Even in the north, at Winterfell, we see that these stories are thought to be at least partly children’s bogeyman tales.

Somebody, though, once thought enough of them to erect a 700-foot wall across the entire continent. (How, I would like to know as much as I wanted to know where Lost’s four-toed statue came from.) And it’s to that Wall that Jon Snow arrives, committing to a service that is either utterly misguided or extistentially important (and yet mostly believed to be misguided). The summer has been long and the Walkers absent much longer; Westeros no longer sees it necessary to pay up to provision the Wall well with equipment or men.

Whatever the Wall’s mission and state, though, we also see it serves a more immediate practical purpose to the men there: it is a last chance to make something of themselves in a world that will not have them—be it because they are bastards, rejects or rapists. And where Jon may have been a poor bastard in Winterfell, here he’s a privileged noble. (With the sword training to boot, which makes him not just better but humiliatingly better than his fellow recruits.) Outclassing his fellows on the sparring field will be easy enough. Living with them will be harder, and as his castle-bred nobility clashes with the hard ways of the Wall, soulful-eyed Kit Harington shows us Jon realizing the enormity of his new (lifetime) job.

Jon, however, is not the only one acquiring sparring partners in “Lord Snow.” No sooner does Ned get settled in King’s Landing than he crossed swords (metaphorically) with Jaime, whom we see he has not liked or respected for a long time. This stems from Jaime’s having stabbed the last King in the back, literally, while serving as a member of his Kingsguard, an act, in this culture, of ignominious betrayal to an oath. (And Ned, we know, is a guy who takes his oaths seriously.)

It’s not so simple, of course: Jaime reminds Ned (and us) how awful Aerys Targaryen was, having tortured many of his subjects to death, including Ned’s own kin. But on the other other hand, Ned reminds Jaime, the Lannister only changed his sympathies when it was clear who was winning the war: “You served him well–when serving was safe.” Jaime sees his treacherous but expedient act as havng removed a sadist from the throne. Ned sees it as proof that, should it become convenient, Jaime would gladly find another back to bury his sword in.

Though it seems that in King’s Landing, the preferred weapon is the dagger. Again metaphorical—mostly. He meets Littlefinger (Aiden Gillan), an unctuous aide to the King who was once a rival for Catelyn, and who now seems like a wily figure of uncertain allegiance. The more pressing concern for the Hand now, though, is a topical one to us: debt. The Crown is millions in the hole, and Robert wants to throw an expensive tournament. Ned, with a certainty that might endear GoT to Tea Party viewers, declares, “This tournament is an extravangance we cannot afford.”

Hedonism, though, is about the only perk of the job left that appeals to Robert—if not tournaments and whores, then drinking, and we find him deep in his cups. (The debt, we see, is another way his wealthy in-laws the Lannisters have a hold over him, in turn yet another reason to drink.) This is a fabulous scene for Mark Addy. In my walk-up review, I discussed his monologue about the romanticization of battle—”They never tell you know they all shit themselves. They don’t put that part in the songs”—but just as impressive is the loathing, self- and externally directed, that Addy puts across here. The high point of his life was the second he won the Iron Throne with his war hammer, and now he’s angry, petulant and embittered by success. He’s a medieval king here, but he could just as well be a self-destructive rock star, slowly killing himself in a hotel room at the Chateau Marmont.

Across the sea, Daenerys’ story gets less time but takes a significant turn, as she spars with Viserys directly—albeit via the whip of one of Khal Drogo’s riders. See Dany gain confidence is not exactly a surprising turn, but what I like about the scene is that Emilia Clarke shows us that it is not easy for her. Though she asserts dominance, as the new khalessi, she’s spent her life being dominated by Viserys, and, presumably, been raised to believe in her loyalty to her family: when the rider brings her brother down for his insolence, she asks him to free Viserys, in a way that suggests that, while she is beginning to feel her power, she is also still frightened for him and herself.

The episode ends, finally, with literal sparring, as Arya—the screen just lights up whenever Maisie Williams has a scene—begins learning swordsmanship from her fencing instructor, Syrio. It’s preceded by a fine scene between her and Sean Bean; to this point, we haven’t really seen Ned and Arya interact much as father and daughter, and it’s interesting that, though it may seem odd to Ned that a girl should take up a sword, he also recognizes on some level that it’s the right thing for Arya.

The implications of his child taking up a weapon are also disturbing, though, as we see in a great last scene, where Ned grows unsettled as the clacking of practice swords changes to the hiss of steel on steel. He’s a father watching his daughter learn, but he’s also a former soldier, getting deeper into a world where the sparring cannot be counted on to remain only metaphorical.