"The First Men called us The Children, but we were born long before them." The line that gives the Season Four finale of Game of Thrones its title comes from my least favorite storyline in all of George R.R. Martin's sprawling epic (which we will get to in due course). But, nestled as it is in this episode, something about that image also strikes me as terrifically resonant, and terribly sad. These people are called "children," but they are not: they are old, older than we would think by looking at them, older than we can possibly know. Continue reading
Game of Thrones
The tricky thing about the whole concept of a "trial-by-combat" is that it presupposes the existence—and willful intervention—of a just god. That, to me, is a big leap of faith. I could be as innocent as a newborn baby, but if you put me in a ring with The Mountain (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) I'm going to have about as much chance of winning as a newborn baby would. Unless "the gods" see fit to strike Gregor Clegane down with a thunderbolt—or, more likely, a laughter-induced choking fit—that trial is going to end in a guilty verdict, whether I'm innocent or not. Continue reading
We all have a vision of the world the way it should be. It's a place where we all grow up in happy families (who care for us as they should), and we all go on adventures (which work out just the way they're supposed to), and we all fall in love and live happily after (with the person who will love us back forever). It sounds like a nice place, that world.
"But," as Littlefinger (Aidan Gillen) reminds us this week, "we don't live in that world." We're stuck in…well, the world. In this world, things are not so rosy, and not so fair, and not so reliable. They fuck us up, our mums and dads, and things often go to shit, and the people we love lie, and die, and let us down, and stubbornly refuse to love us back. Looking at our world, it feels sometimes like anything—or nothing—might be preferable. Continue reading
"The Laws of Gods and Men"
Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) is put on trial, wrongfully accused of plotting to murder a child. He says he wants to confess, and then—in a fantastic monologue—confesses to everything but the crime with which he's charged. Finally, seeing no hope of justice, he demands a trial by combat.
Elsewhere, peasants petition their ruler for relief after a vicious attack. The ruler says they cannot restore the dead, they can only offer justice for the loss.
Meanwhile, the rightful king of Westeros, deposed and in exile, has been reduced to begging foreigners for gold.
Does this all sound familiar? Continue reading
"First of His Name"
One doesn't need to look too closely to find the unifying theme of this week's Game of Thrones, since Cersei (Lena Headley) more or less announces it in her conversation with Prince Oberyn (Pedro Pascal): "Everywhere in the world they hurt little girls," she says. It's also hard not to notice the absence in this episode of most of the major male characters: Tyrion, Jaime, Davos, Stannis, Theon, Sam, and most of the other men are conspicuously absent from "First of His Name." Instead, the episode is largely centered around five women: Cersei, Sansa (Sophie Turner), Arya (Maisie Williams), Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), and Dany (Emilia Clarke). Continue reading
The world of Game of Thrones is not exactly an environment that encourages people to reinvent themselves. This is a world, after all, in which every single person is defined, from birth, by their house, their family, their nation, their class, their gender, and their allegiances. In the strictly stratified world of Westeros, people never get to be merely themselves: they are also everyone who came before them for generations, and everyone to whom they are allied. It doesn't leave a lot of room for flexibility and self-direction. Continue reading
"Breaker of Chains"
"Do I have a champion?" Dany (Emilia Clarke) asks towards the end of "Breaker of Chains." It's a question that a lot of people—particularly, but not exclusively, women—ask in one form or another throughout the episode. Will someone stand up for me? Will someone protect me? Is there someone I can count on to do the right thing? Continue reading
"The Lion and the Rose"
Yes, I know: all anyone really wants to do after viewing "The Lion and the Rose" is celebrate the fact that—for just about the first time since Game of Thrones went on the air—someone we didn't like actually died. I mean, there have been a few other reprehensible characters who have met ugly ends along the way, but those were mostly minor-league sadists: soldiers and slaveholders and torturers and the like. (I'd argue that the last time a major character got what was coming to him was in Season One's "A Golden Crown," and even there Viserys had a pathetic humanity that made his murder rather more tragic than triumphant.) For nearly thirty-two episodes, we've seen the good suffer, and we've seen the bad prosper, and we've seen very little evidence of anything resembling justice. Continue reading
It may seem a strange thing to say about a massively successful TV show with three full seasons already under its belt, but this season will be make-it-or-break-it time for HBO's Game of Thrones. Executive Producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have said that when they originally envisioned building a TV series around George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, the event that called to them most strongly was the Red Wedding. ("When we read the books, we knew we just wanted to get to this scene, and do this 'holy shit' moment justice," Weiss has said.) In the penultimate episode of Season Three, "The Rains of Castamere," Benioff and Weiss finally got to do that moment justice, and bring the main storyline that had begun back in Episode One to a shattering, irreversible climax. Continue reading
There are a lot of lofty words bandied about on Game of Thrones, words that define characters, determine behavior, and justify courses of action. Honor is one of those words. Duty is another. Allegiance, justice, and right all get their fair share of play. But, in the rigidly structured Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, perhaps the most important word is family. Family is not an abstract concept, a biological relationship, or a term of affection: it's a political and economic unit, a system of government, a definer of class and custom and code. Bloodlines are borders in Westeros, and who you are is determined by one thing alone: who you are. Continue reading
"The Rains of Castamere"
This week, I'm not going to do as much recapping as I usually do, or spend a lot of time pretending that anyone is thinking about anything but the big surprises in the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I'm not sure this will even count as a "review," per se, but I do have a few thoughts about "The Rains of Castamere." Let's just talk a bit, shall we? Continue reading
Though the episode is book-ended with short, unrelated scenes, the bulk of "Second Sons," is spent on just three storylines: the negotiations between Dany (Emilia Clarke) and the titular sellswords; the nefarious plans Melisandre (Carice van Houten) has for Gendry (Joe Dempsie); and the wedding of Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) to Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner). This sort of focused attention span is rare for Game of Thrones—which more commonly spends each episode running back and forth between seven or eight plates, trying to keep them all spinning at once—and it was a nice change of pace to spend so much time luxuriating in just three places.
And frankly, the simplicity of this episode provides the opportunity for hapless reviewers like myself to have bit of a respite. As I'm trying to catch up with my posts before a holiday weekend, I'm going to take advantage of that opportunity and keep it short this week. There isn't a lot to unpack in this episode, but there are a few threads that connect these seemingly unrelated stories in interesting ways. Continue reading
"The Bear and the Maiden Fair"
Clearly, the theme of this week's Game of Thrones, "The Bear and the Maiden Fair," is the Kierkegaardian paradox of faith: the notion that absolute belief in the divine requires an inexplicable renunciation of duty in the rational, objective, ethical sense—which is to say, a denial of Kant's categorical imperative—and an elevation of the individual above the realm of the universal. As we see in the confounding, divine purity of Hodor's infinite resignation to constant repetition of the single phrase Hodor, this teleological suspension cannot be mediated in ethical terms, but must be recognized—
Nah, I'm just yankin' your chain. Actually, this week's episode is all about fucking. Continue reading
I began my first review of the season with the observation that—for all its kings and queens, princes and princesses, witches and warlocks, dragons and giants and magic—Game of Thrones is no fairy tale. I was mostly being a wise-ass, but I also intended it as a mild, spoiler-free warning to those of you who haven't read all of George R. R. Martin's novels: the further into we get into this epic tale, the more you'll figure out that your romantic, storybook notions will not serve you here. Continue reading
"Kissed by Fire"
The emotional highs and lows of this show are almost too much to take sometimes. Last week's episode left us cheering and pumping our fists in triumph, but this week's episode was more likely to have us weeping copiously in a black fog of sadness and despair.
Don't get me wrong, however: the emotional peaks and valleys are a large part of the appeal of Game of Thrones, and the highs would not seem so high, or the lows so low, if these stories and characters were not so well crafted. I said last week that the pursuit of power was a long game on this show, and it occurs to me now that that's true for the writers and actors as well: they've built these characters so carefully—patiently layering in the histories and personalities, successes and failures, conflicts and contradictions—that every emotional moment is all the more powerful now for being completely earned. Continue reading
"And Now His Watch Is Ended"
So, if I'm honest, all I really want to say about this episode is this:
H O L Y F U C K I N G S H I T T H A T W A S T O T A L L Y A W E S O M E.
However, I foolishly used up my "geek-out" card last week, and anyway I do have a few other things to say about the various themes running throughout "And Now His Watch Is Ended." Fortunately—though the entire episode was good—it's just those last ten minutes or so that put me into the incoherent ecstasy of a total fanboy. So let's leave that for last, and in the meantime I'll try to hold it together, maintain a little dignity, and strap on my critical hat so we can have a mature discussion about the rest of the episode. Continue reading
"Walk of Punishment"
I spend so much time discussing the themes of Game of Thrones—because the show does such a remarkable job of weaving the unwieldy pieces of George R. R. Martin's multi-narrative epic into a cohesive hour each week—that I sometimes forget to just discuss the quality of the show in general. I hope that my approaching the show's themes so seriously—even obsessively—is the sincerest form of flattery, but I've been meaning for a while to just take a step back and appreciate how well Game of Thrones is put together. This week, I'm going to take that opportunity. Continue reading
"Dark Wings, Dark Words"
In my reviews of Game of Thrones, one of my touchstone phrases—which I've used so often you're no doubt sick of it—is "cripples, bastards, and broken things." It was the title of Episode Four of the first season, in which Tyrion expresses his sympathy for the damaged and the outcast among his fellow men. The point I've made (again and again) is that the show's sympathy, too, lies with all the Misfit Toys of Westeros—but also how, in the end, nearly everyone can be seen to fall into one of these categories. It occurred to me this week, however, that there's a fourth category to add to the mix, which is the thin throughline around which "Dark Wings, Dark Words" is structured: orphans. Continue reading
From the very first moments, we can probably guess what kind of season it's going to be. The first shot of the episode is of a barren landscape with a winter storm rolling in: we hear a howling wind, and we see everything obliterated by white. Winter is no longer coming: winter is here. But before that—before the first shot, before the first words, and even before the opening credits—what we hear is the screaming. We hear screaming, and fighting, and dying, and the high-pitched shriek of something unnatural and unimaginable announcing itself from the darkness.
Welcome back to Game of Thrones, and brace yourself. Yes, the show features kings and queens, princes and princesses, witches and warlocks, dragons and giants and magic—but don't let any of that fool you. This is no fairy tale, and the odds of anyone living happily ever after are getting slimmer by the season. Continue reading
The key image in "Valar Morghulis," the second season finale of Game of Thrones, comes early. Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance) is sitting majestically atop his steed, preparing to enter the throne room of King's Landing to be honored as Savior of the City by his grandson King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson). Just before this auspicious event, however, puncturing the austerity and pomp of the occasion, Lord Tywin's horse takes a big steaming dump on the floor.
Yes, after an incredible season in which episodes have focused on concepts like masculinity, femininity, honor, loyalty, and love, we have one more theme to explore: horseshit. And, make no mistake, horseshit is a worthy subject, since it's the foundation and glue and currency of this entire society. Continue reading
It doesn't get much better than that.
There was little doubt that "Blackwater," the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones' sophomore season, would be an exciting hour of television: in fact, expectations were probably too high. Those of us who had read A Clash of Kings knew that this entire season was building up to the Battle of Blackwater, of course, but even viewers who were experiencing this story for the first time must have suspected that Stannis Baratheon's attack on King's Landing would be the thrilling climax of the season. Add to that the presence of a proven film director (Neil Marshall, The Descent), the anticipation of a teleplay by George R. R. Martin himself, and the promise of seeing where HBO had spent the majority of this season's battle-budget, and the hype around "Blackwater" practically guaranteed it would disappoint in one way or another. Continue reading
"The Prince of Winterfell"
One of the main themes of Game of Thrones, as we've discussed many times, is that all politics are personal; last week we looked at the personal motivations that complicate questions of honor, and this week expands on that idea by showing us some reckless choices made not by the head but by the heart. Continue reading
"A Man Without Honor"
If you’re anything like me, at this point in this season of Game of Thrones you are counting the remaining episodes and begrudging every moment that doesn’t feel absolutely necessary. For the love of god(s), we scream at the screen, Stannis is sailing up the river to King’s Landing! Arya still has one murder owed to her! Jon and Robb need to get laid! Theon and Joffrey need to get killed in nasty, unbearably painful ways! There are only three episodes left: stop blathering on about ancient history and meaningless tournaments and bloody well GET ON WITH IT.
But that’s just the Impatient Plot Junkie talking. The IPJ may resent an episode that consists of almost nothing but conversations—most of which do not seem to immediately advance the story—but Messrs. Benioff and Weiss (who wrote this episode) know exactly what they’re doing. Continue reading
"The Old Gods and the New"
One of the essential motifs of Game of Thrones is the equation of people with animals: we have stags and wolves, lions and dragons, krakens and crows and horse lords (oh my). It's been clear from the beginning that the sigils are more than symbols: they are an expression of animal nature, a reminder of the primal forces that live within us all—the instincts, the passions, the inner call of the wild.
The conflict between the impulses of nature and the constraints of civilization are as old as literature itself, of course, and it's not a surprise to see that theme becoming more important in Game of Thrones. There's a reason Westeros maintains a great big wall between itself and the untamed world beyond: those animal natures are often at odds with the responsibilities and requirements of this society. Continue reading
"The Ghost of Harrenhal"
Though far from a weak episode, the midway point of this season of Game of Thrones is rather short on incidence, and doesn't have as strong a thematic structure as most episodes of the series. "The Ghost of Harrenhal" is predominantly occupied with a bit of mid-season shuffling, as the show moves all the players to their necessary places on the board.
"Garden of Bones"
I don't think it has escaped anyone's notice that this season of Game of Thrones has been, on the whole, a good deal darker than last season—and considering that last season was not exactly King Friday's Neighborhood of Make-Believe, that's saying a lot. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros were always troubled, but Good King Robert's reign was, comparatively, an era of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. (Okay, it was also an era of twincest, poisonings, and moon doors, but you take my meaning.) It was—as everyone kept saying all last season—a time of summer, and now winter has come. Continue reading
"What Is Dead May Never Die"
Note: This review may contain spoilers for this and all episodes to date, but it does not contain any spoilers from the books.
Last season's fourth episode, "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things," was a particular favorite of mine, and represented the moment when I understood that Game of Thrones was a much richer show—emotionally and thematically—than I had first suspected. I've probably used that episode's title phrase more often than any other in my subsequent discussions, because the fate of "cripples, bastards, and broken things" is a recurring theme that runs throughout this series. For all its concern with the powerful, prosperous rulers of Westeros, the heart of Game of Thrones is in its misfits: the cast-offs, the odd-balls, the people who don't fit perfectly into the exclusive clans, strict hierarchies, and predetermined social orders of this world. Continue reading
"The Night Lands"
Note: This post may contain spoilers for all episodes to date, but none from the books.
As I tried to argue in my reviews last season, Game of Thrones does a remarkable job of uniting all the unwieldy subplots of each episode into a cohesive thematic whole. The considerable demands of George R. R. Martin's sprawling story set the pace of the telling, but there are consistent themes that run throughout that story, and executive producers Benioff and Weiss are expert at teasing them out at the right moments to give each weekly segment a narrative integrity. It's never perfect—there are usually pieces that don't quite fit—but there is almost always a loose thematic thread that ties each episode together. Continue reading
"The North Remembers"
The old gods are burning, and there's a king in every corner. A red comet streaks the sky, portending ambiguous doom, while a white raven has been sent to the capital, signifying that the long, kind summer is officially over. The wildlings are on the move in the north, armies clash in the south, and across the Narrow Sea the dragons have returned. Winter is coming, and power is power; the night is dark and full of terrors, and a Lannister always, always pays his debts.
In other words, shit is getting real. Welcome back to Game of Thrones: we've got a lot to talk about. Continue reading
"Fire and Blood"
What's past is prologue, Shakespeare says in The Tempest: it informs and drives everything we do in the present, but it is gone, and what's to come is "in yours and my discharge." "Fire and Blood," the 2011 finale of Game of Thrones, and the thrilling conclusion to one of the most extraordinary seasons of television ever produced, gives us a brutal dividing line between the prologue of history and an uncertain future. We begin in blood and we end in fire: both symbols of death, but also symbols of life, of rebirth, of purgation of everything that has come before. In Game of Thrones, as in life, the only certainty is change. Continue reading
Warning: Contains spoilers for episodes that have aired to date, but none from the books.
The things we do for love.
A few weeks ago, in my review of Episode 7, "You Win or You Die," I argued that one of the themes of Game of Thrones is that all politics is personal. Kingdoms fall, armies war, allegiances are formed and shattered, and thousands of people die, all for personal reasons. More than honor, more than justice, more than strategy, what shapes and reshapes the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is emotion.
But is this a bad thing? Would we want it any other way? Given a choice between love and honor, wouldn't we pick love every time? And, by that logic, can something be dishonorable and still be right? Continue reading
"The Pointy End"
I'm writing this review a little later than I normally would—sometimes real life gets in the way of more important things—but it may turn out for the best. I've had a little more time to think about "The Pointy End" than I'd otherwise have taken, and my opinion has changed slightly. Continue reading
"You Win or You Die"
After I speculated about themes in my review of Episode Four, "Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things," a friend of mine (who has read the books) forewarned me that one of the major themes of Game of Thrones is how "individual decisions, carried out because of internal convictions or desires, can cascade uncontrollably into the external world." (Thanks, P.)
I've kept that in mind, and this week we saw the strongest support yet for my friend's thesis. This week, in fact, reminded me of another game of thrones: the one played by the Plantagenets in James Goldman's The Lion in Winter. In that play (and Anthony Harvey's fantastic 1968 film version), Eleanor, Richard, Geoffrey, and John are all jockeying for King Henry's throne—except they're not, really. They're all really scheming, fighting, and backstabbing for Henry's love. They're so desperate for it—and so damaged by its withholding—that they're willing to kill him and each other to get it. As Eleanor tells her children:
"Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history's forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little? That's how peace begins."
Or—to employ an old, old saying—all politics is personal. Continue reading
"A Golden Crown"
The word "justice" gets thrown around a lot on this week's Game of Thrones, and it led me to think a little about the Iron Throne itself. The most iconic image in the series—and its symbolic MacGuffin—the throne is forged from the weapons of warfare that have been transformed into a (literal and figurative) seat of governance. It is the place where the King's Justice is dispensed, the place where words settle conflicts that would previously have been decided only through war. Like Arthur's round table, it represents progress towards order from the chaos of feudal anarchy, the first tentative steps towards what we would think of as a just civilization.
Like all symbols, however, the throne only has power because everyone agrees that it does. The government of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is not a democracy—no one elected King Robert (Mark Addy)—but it exists by consensus; everyone understands how tentative the peace is, how easily any one faction could drive the land back into chaos and tyranny. Continue reading
"The Wolf and the Lion"
Spoiler Level: This review contains spoilers for the episodes that have aired to date, but no spoilers from the books.
Of all the shows on television that could feature a guy getting a knife through the eyeball, a bludgeoning dwarf, a breast-feeding 7-year-old, a spontaneous equine decapitation, and a discussion of the economics of cadaver fucking—all in the same episode—Game of Thrones has definitely become my favorite.
The title of this episode refers to the two central houses—Stark and Lannister, respectively—that have been moving towards open hostility since Game of Thrones began. "The Wolf and the Lion will soon be at each other's throats," says Varys, the Spider (Conleth Hill), and by the end of this episode—the bloodiest of the season so far—he's right. "The Wolf and the Lion" isn't quite as thematically tight as last week's episode, but it makes up for it with sheer story acceleration, finally setting a match to much of the narrative kindling that's been piling up around Game of Thrones.
Or—to throw another metaphor into the mix—shit, meet fan. Continue reading
"Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things"
In my review of the first three episodes of Game of Thrones, I said that the show—while incredibly well made—didn't seem to be about anything but itself. That was clumsy and premature: I should have said, I don't know what the show is really about…yet.
Which is not to say that every show must have deeper symbolic meaning, or come equipped with a handy, Cliff's-Notes-ready theme: God forbid. I can only say that the shows I am drawn to tend to have strong mission statements, and visions that transcend their particular plot-lines or milieus. The Wire, for example, looks like just another show about cops and criminals; what makes it something greater than any number of other well-made police procedurals is that it is also a sociological study of the way institutions interact to form the soul of a city. Deadwood was touted as a revisionist western, but at its core it is about the way civilization itself develops, the formation of social order out of chaos. A television show is a long, slow voyage, with many hands at the helm, many detours on the way, and many, many opportunities to founder or go astray; the shows that are most successful, in any genre—from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Mad Men to (my favorite current sit-com) Community—have strong visions and mission statements that keep them on course. It's the shows that don't know what they're ultimately about—for example, Lost —that tend to lose cohesion and become less than the sum of their parts.
So last week I worried that Game of Thrones might be this latter sort of show, but now I'm not so sure. There may be far more going on here than I gave it credit for. Continue reading
"Winter is Coming," "The King's Road," "Lord Snow"
I really wanted to dislike HBO's Game of Thrones—and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for one meddling kid.
I needed a new television addiction like I needed an ice-cold broadsword up the ass. I haven't read the source material, George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, but I'd heard enough to know that it is an epic, eternally unfinished series of critically acclaimed and cult-worshiped fantasy novels, which apparently weigh about 40 pounds each, and which collectively feature approximately 847,000 major characters—all of whom have swords, silly names, and complicated political allegiances. Every once in a while a friend would recommend A Song of Ice and Fire as "fantasy novels for grown-ups," and rave about the incredibly rich and complicated fictional world they create, the sophisticated narrative structure of alternating points-of-view, and the incredibly dense political intrigue. Frankly, it all sounded positively exhausting. Continue reading