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.
For the record, there are some thin throughlines connecting most of the scenes this week, but they're largely an extension of themes I've discussed plenty of times before: parents and children, and what it means for characters to be forging their own identities in (or out of) the shadows of their families. ("You're nothing without your daddy," Jaime [Nikolaj Coster-Waldau] is told, and for Brienne [Gwednoline Christie], too, her value turns out to depend on her father. Meanwhile, Dany [Emilia Clarke] is finding her own identity outside the legend of her late brother Rhaegar: "I wish I had known him, but he was not the last dragon," she says. Arya [Maisie Williams] has to travel with the Brotherhood without Banners because "these woods aren't safe for Ned Stark's daughter," while other characters, like Hot Pie [Ben Hawkey], are safe exactly because they have no family connections: "My brother ain't no king," he tells Arya, choosing to stay behind as a baker's boy at the very same inn where Arya's friend, the butcher's boy, was killed because he knew her.)
But these are threads that are going to carry through all season, I suspect, as all these disconnected characters make their way in the new world order. So this week, I'm going to take a little break from analysis, and approach "Walk of Punishment" as an excuse for some general appreciation and a long overdue geek-out. Because damn this show is good.
One of the things that impresses me most about this show—and this is an excellent episode to discuss it—is how well it balances its various elements. I don't mean simply the many characters and storylines (though god knows that's got to be an incredible challenge), but also its tonal elements. This is something I think is easy to take for granted, until you realize how badly other shows do it. (I still watch The Walking Dead, for example, but one of the reasons I stopped reviewing it is because it has always been so depressingly monotone: it started to feel like an unremitting slog, each episode of every season—and each scene of every episode—the same as every other, humorless and dire, with no variation in tone or touch or emotional weight. Other shows that I've otherwise admired—Battlestar Galactica comes to mind—often fell into the same trap.)
Game of Thrones has some built-in advantages that those other shows don't have, of course, like an incredible diversity of locations and storylines to bounce back and forth between. I enjoy following Jon Snow and the Night's Watch, for example, but an entire program set North of the Wall would be a stultifyingly oppressive prospect. Here, after spending some time with stern men in furs trudging dourly across a frozen wasteland, it is a pleasure and a relief to head back to the city for the comedy stylings of Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) and Bronn (Jerome Flynn), and then to skip over the Narrow Sea to see what Dany and her pretty handmaidens are getting up to in the glorious sunshine. We never stay anywhere long enough to get bored, visually or narratively.
But what struck me this week is a different sort of tonal balance: the deft way Mssrs. Benioff and Weiss interweave humor with horror. "Walk of Punishment" is an episode that features death, torture, grieving, mutilation, and not one but two attempted rapes—yet I don't remember an episode recently that made me laugh out loud as this one did.
The opening scene is a good example: we are attending the funeral of Hoster Tully, Lord of Riverrun and father to Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley). The scene of the funeral barge being launched, and the gathered men and women on the dock in dark armor and mourning robes, is sombre, even pretentious, full of the sort of overly ritualized gravitas that could make people who don't like genre shows roll their eyes at the costumed pomp and circumstance of it all.
But of course we never met Hoster Tully, so it's not really a sad occasion for the viewer, and—realizing this—the show takes this opportunity to play the scene for comedy. Cat's brother Edmure Tully (Tobias Menzies), tasked with setting the funeral barge alight with a flaming arrow, has some performance problems: arrow after arrow lands with a fizzle into the river, as the onlookers—Catelyn and Robb (Richard Madden) among them—struggle to keep a straight face. Finally, Catelyn's uncle, Brynden the Blackfish (the great character actor Clive Russell) takes the bow from him in frustration and shoots a single arrow, not even bothering to watch it come down on the floating coffin.
In my very first review of Game of Thrones I worried that the show took itself too seriously, but Benioff and Weiss are nimble about doing this sort of thing often enough to puncture the gravity and austerity of the show without actually undermining the reality of its world. It's a lightness of touch that doesn't make fun of the fantasy trappings, exactly, but just makes it all more bearable and more endearingly human.
This scene accomplishes something else: it tells us, in a few wordless moments, most everything we need to know about these two new family members of Catelyn's. In a show with a cast list that grows as fast as this one, this kind of efficiency with character is impressive and necessary. The following scene, in which Robb and the Blackfish dress Edmure down for a tactical blunder on the battlefield, reinforces our impressions of the two men, but the bit with the bow almost speaks more about their respective personalities and capacities.
(A similar funny scene—also completely silent—takes place a little later in the episode, as the members of the Small Council vie for position around Tywin Lannister's table. I'm not going to discuss that scene, except to say that I think a new viewer to the show could watch the maneuvering of chairs and understand a great deal about every one of those characters, without their ever having spoken a word.)
Or (for some comedy that is, admittedly, a bit broader), consider the Strange Tale of Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman). This could arguably be seen as wasted screen-time—I don't remember if anything like this scene is in the novels, and I seriously doubt it's going to have any greater significance for the overall plot—but Jesus, did I love this whole diversion. The first part of this sub-plot, in which Tyrion introduces Podrick to three whores as thanks for his loyal service, creeps right up to edge of self-parody. (Certainly, it is rife with self-awareness: the ceremonial unveiling of each naked woman in turn seemed like HBO's long-rumored "CEO of Tits" deliberately making his presence known with gusto.)
But the real payoff comes later, as Podrick reveals to Bronn and Tyrion that the whores wouldn't accept any money: suddenly, all concerns of state—and the new Master of Coin's stress about the financial woes of the kingdom—fall to the wayside so these two old sensualists can get to the bottom of this mystery, and perhaps learn a trick or two from the young prodigy. ("We're going to need details," Tyrion says. "Copious details.") It's a gloriously funny scene—totally unnecessary, except that scenes like this are necessary: to allow Dinklage and Flynn to practice their crack comic timing, and to keep the show from drowning under the weight of its darker material.
For certainly, "Walk of Punishment" doesn't lack for dark material. To me, the master of straddling the fine line between lightness and darkness—and the show's most underrated weapon—is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Jaime Lannister. Last season, we saw a wonderful scene where he got to navigate the two sides of his character with dexterity, charming and befriending his own cousin right up until the moment he ruthlessly beat the young man to death. Last episode, he was dancing around similar ground, bantering playfully with Brienne even as tried to kill her: we could tell he was having fun, we could tell he had developed some respect and affection for her, and we could tell that he'd kill her given half a chance. Jaime is a fabulous character: he seems to be perfectly shallow and obvious, as though he is all surface, but there's a complexity and unpredictability about him: he is capable of anything, and that makes him fascinating to watch. He seems, at times, like a reverse of the Beast from Beauty and the Beast: like a monster trapped in the body of handsome prince. At other times, however, there's a tragic undertone to him, as though he is a hero trapped in the role of a callous villain. Those contradictions are on the page—Jaime is one of G.R.R. Martin's finest creations—but Coster-Waldau brings incredible wit and a surprising pathos to the role.
Here, the contradictions inherent in Jaime Lannister prove a potent mix, and ultimately prove devastating and transformative. Captured by some of Roose Bolton's men, Jaime and Brienne at first are continuing their bantering, almost sibling rivalry—arguing over who would have won the fight, if they'd not been interrupted—but Jaime suddenly changes the subject. "When we make camp tonight, you'll be raped," he warns her. "More than once." That kind of turning on a dime is something Coster-Waldau excels at, and here he layers it with ambiguity: at first it seems like he's being intentionally cruel (because he lost the fight, and the argument about the fight), but it quickly becomes clear he's acting out of actual concern. "If you fight them, they will kill you, do you understand? I'm the prisoner of value, not you."
The remarkable thing about this scene is that he really has no motivation for trying to protect her: she's the closest thing he has to an ally right now, I suppose, but he's not trying to plot an escape with her or curry her favor: he just likes her, and doesn't want to see her hurt. (Have we ever seen him express concern about anyone, apart from his siblings?) And, later in the episode, when he interrupts Locke (Noah Taylor) in the act of having Brienne beaten, and convinces them not to rape her—invoking her father's wealth and making her, suddenly, a "prisoner of value"—it may be the first truly compassionate act we've ever seen from him.
And, in consistent Game of Thrones fashion, no good deed goes unpunished: his attempt to save Brienne is followed by his attempt to ingratiate himself to Locke—by invoking his own father's wealth—and it backfires. Had he left well enough alone, Brienne would have been beaten and raped—and perhaps killed—but he himself might have been fine; now, Locke turns his wrath on Jaime instead, and cuts off the Kingslayer's sword-hand. ("You're nothing without your daddy," Locke says. "And your daddy ain't here.")
Jaime's concern for Brienne is surprising, a sign that he—who once seemed so two-dimensional—can change, and grow; so, too, is his sudden mutilation, a shocking symbolic castration that instantly redefines the character. This entire sequence, which moves so quickly and so deftly between sly humor, surprising compassion, and sudden horror, is a good example of why Game of Thrones is so addictive: it seems silly to call a fantasy series realistic, but the storytelling has an unpredictability of incident, and a changeable complexity of character, that elevates the show far above the usual forumlae of genre fiction and gives it a strange (and compellingly watchable) verisimilitude. Characters are never just one thing—the best are capable of stupid decisions, and the worst are capable of surprising kindness—and they are never on a predictable path for very long: that's rare for any genre. (In this regard—as in others—this show reminds me of Deadwood, and my longtime readers will know that's about the highest praise as I can give.)
Speaking of the show's ability to surprise, I want to mention briefly that I am thoroughly enjoying the fact that—even having read the books—I have virtually no idea what it happening around Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen). At the end of last season, we saw him get knocked unconscious by his own men at Winterfell; now, this season, he woke up strapped to a rack, being tortured by unknown men for unknown reasons. This week he is set free by a mysterious figure (Iwan Rheon), and makes his escape, only to be re-captured (and nearly raped) before being rescued, again, by the same young man.
I don't provide any spoilers from the books in my reviews, but I think I can safely say that they've changed this story enough that I couldn't spoil it accurately if I tried. I do know who the mysterious young man is—only because I heard the casting news—but just what exactly is happening here is wonderfully obscure. I'm sure these changes from the novel are largely made out of necessity, but there's an added side-effect of making some elements of the series fresh and intriguing even for those of us who've read the books. (And bonus points to this sequence for including one of the show's rare fast-moving action scenes: unless there's some impressive CGI trickery at work, that Alfie Allen can really ride a horse.)
Finally, let's talk about Daenerys Stormborn. Last season, hers was my least favorite storyline, and I don't think I was alone in that: Dany spent a lot of last season whining ineffectually, with very little forward momentum. But the show redeemed her entire plotline in a kick-ass finale, and Dany has a new strength and confidence this season that is awesome to behold.
The slave-lord Greizhen mo Ullhor (Cliff Barry) thinks she's just an ignorant slut with a shapely ass, and her advisers Jorah Mormont (Iain Glen) and Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney) think she's an innocent child to be protected, but Dany won't be bullied, she won't be patronized, and she won't be second-guessed. ("I value your advice," she tells her knights. "But if you ever question me in front of strangers again, you'll be advising someone else. Is that understood?")
The show is teasing out Dany's play in Astapor brilliantly—she's playing her cards close to her chest—but for the first time we get the feeling that Mother of Dragons knows exactly what she's doing. Once again I'll point out that Emilia Clarke has perhaps the hardest character arc to play on this show, and she's playing the hell out of it. In retrospect, Dany's tremulous posturing last season in Qarth was just a believable and necessary step in the evolution of her character: it is realistic that she would have been uncertain and over-confident in her first attempts at leadership, but now she's learned from her experiences, her encounters in the House of the Undying have matured her, and she's looking more and more like a queen every moment.
Game of Thrones is so consistent—and so consistently good—that it's easy to forget just what a high-wire act this show really is. Forget for a moment the considerable challenges of building this kind of fantasy world for television in way that makes it both believable and relatable (though I can't think of any fantasy series that has done it nearly so well). Consider, instead, the challenges of interweaving what is, in essence, five or six different shows—each shot in a different location around the globe with its own plotline, cast, and crew—into a single, comprehensible narrative each week. It's hard to think of any series that has even attempted something on this scale, let alone one that executes it as flawlessly as this one does. As the source material grows more and more unwieldy, I go into each episode—and each season—holding my breath to see if Benioff and Weiss can possibly maintain the quality of storytelling and cohesion of narrative: so far, at least, it looks like we needn't worry.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- For the second week in a row, we only check in very briefly North of the Wall: Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) is preparing to attack the wall, and we learn that the White Walkers are "Always the artists," as they arrange a very pretty spiral pattern out of dead horses. Also, Sam (John Bradley) witnesses Gilly (Hannah Murray) have her baby, which (unfortunately for everyone concerned) has a penis. Since next week's episode is entitled "And Now His Watch Is Ended"—the words spoken when a Brother of the Night's Watch dies—I suspect we'll be spending some long overdue quality time with the fur-lined folk.
- We also check in very briefly with Stannis (Stephen Dillane), who is trying to convince Melisandre (Carice van Houten) to birth several more inky crotch monsters to take care of Robb, Joffrey, and Balon Greyjoy: no good can come of this.
- Another light scene that I enjoyed: Talisa (Oona Chaplin) explaining to some young Lannister hostages how her husband can turn into a wolf, and does devour his enemies, but only eats children during a full moon. (I like this character so much more than the non-entity she replaces from the books.)
- Bronn, in a throw-away joke, gets the line of the episode when he refers to Baelish (Aidan Gillen) as "Lord Twatbeard." I may have to start calling him that from now on as well.
- Something else I don't mention often enough—and you'd think I'd have gotten to it in this post, wouldn't you?—is how great this show looks. The production design really is fantastic: Dany's scenes are always the prettiest—the titular Walk of Punishment and that giant golden sphinx atop Astapor were suitably impressive—but I also couldn't help but picture an entire workshop of artisans making hundreds of dismembered horsey bits for the White Walkers' creepy tableau: that's craftsmanship.