Sansa says too much; Shae asks Tyrion for a favor; Jaime finds a way to pass the time; Arya encounters the Brotherhood Without Banners.
“Dark Wings, Dark Words” is a curious episode. It shares, with the first episode, something of its languid pacing and its large amounts of exposition. And yet somehow it feels just a bit more vibrant and lively, even as it’s forced to make some awkward storytelling compromises to try and hurriedly move pieces into place. Perhaps that greater sense of vibrancy has to do with revisiting characters we’ve not seen since last season’s finale, characters who are in rather different situations than we’ve become accustomed to. At the same time, there’s one scene in this episode that some fans of the novels—and, more specifically, the character of Catelyn Stark—will have reason to take umbrage at. Jace Lacob, writing for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, called it “character assassination; I can’t quite go that far, but the moment certainy elicited a strong reaction that I’ll explore further on.
Lets start with the positives. The return of Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, as well as the return of Arya Stark with Gendry and Hot Pie, reintroduces some of the most entertaining characters in the series. But it’s not just them, precisely: both sets of storylines introduce new characters, and if these introductions are very brief in the case of Noah Taylor’s Locke, in the case of our first glimpse at the Brotherhood without Banners it proves very intriguing. Paul Kaye’s Thoros of Myr combines, in a way, the character of Tom o’ Sevens—a womanizing, glib singer in the novels—with the red priest Thoros of Myr, and in so doing the writers have created a character that Kaye somehow brings to vibrant life. There’s something magnetic and charming about Kaye’s performance, something that I don’t think many would have expected going into this season, and we’ve the feeling he’s likely to become a favorite secondary character for TV viewers in the way that Thoros has not been with readers in the books (don’t get me wrong; he’s not unpopular, but the character doesn’t have a devoted fanbase). The quandry that Arya and her companions find themselves in—not knowing where they are, exactly, and contemplating banditry as a means to survive—follows naturally enough on their escape from Harrenhal. It might have been interesting, for thematic reasons, to explore that possibility of their joining the ranks of “broken men”—victims, survivors, and deserters who turned to outlawry as the only way to survive—but understandably the story is taking them in a different direction.
The Jaime and Brienne scenes, on the other hand, continue to highlight the special quality of the antagonistic relationship between these characters, and in so doing showing that Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau have a great deal of chemistry as their characters trade insults and argue incessantly. While the first scene has a distinctly crude jest at Renly’s proclivities, it very nicely segues into a point Jaime wants to make: you don’t choose who you love. He’s refering to Brienne’s love for Renly, despite Renly’s lack of interest in women… but he’s also clearly refering to his own illicit love for his twin, Queen Cersei. It’s a well-done turn, and if it deviates somewhat from the novel—Jaime Lannister is not really at the confessional stage with Brienne at this point in the books—it keeps in focus the importance of relationships in the lives of these characters. And the end, when they’re found by Locke and his companions (replacing the Bloody Mummers of the novel, these seem clearly to be men-at-arms in Bolton’s service rather than sellswords; Bolton referred to Locke in the previous episode when he said he had his “best hunter” after Jaime Lannister), the scene ends on an appropriate cliffhanger that should keep viewers wanting to come back for more.
Relationships are rather central in King’s Landing, as well: what kind of relationship Littlefinger wants with Sansa is a worrying question, one that has Shae using her relationship with Tyrion to try and make sure Sansa is safe (and discovering, in the bargain, the fact that Tyrion isn’t immune to Sansa’s beauty), as is the interest of the Tyrells in Sansa. The introduction of Lady Olenna—the Queen of Thorns, as she’s known in the novels, but I don’t believe that’s been mentioned yet on the show—was something that our early impressions I admit I was disappointed by. On further reflection, and a second viewing, I’ll have to pull back somewhat on this. It’s absolutely true that Mance Rayder and Tormund Giantsbane seem less vivid and larger than life than in the novel. Olenna is different, however: she’s fundamentally the same character as in the books, just with the eccentric, madcap energy turned down a few notches. It’s a milder change than what has, so far, been done with Mance Rayder. Does she leap vividly off the screen? Perhaps she will, for many. Certainly, Riggs’s performance can’t be faulted.
The Tyrell storyline also highlights the king and the two women who want influence over him: Cersei and Margaery. It’s an interesting deviation from the novels, necessitated in part by the fact that Joffrey is simply older on the TV show and so more ready to stand on his own and have his own opinions. Cersei’s attempt to warn her son of Margaery having ulterior motives in all her actions leads him to shut her down by the suggestion that she does only what she’s told, as all intelligent women should do; it’s yet another stab at his own mother. It’s easy to imagine that the Joffrey of the novels, given a few years time, might well act like this, and Cersei would surely have problems with it. Margaery, of course, is a rather more explicitly political character, one who determines her own course than the character in the novel. We still can’t say very much in favor of Natalie Dormer—sometimes an actor just rubs you the wrong way, and that’s how it is—but the scene with Joffrey is actually rather interesting as it plays on the notion of Joffrey as having a deviant sexuality, his lusts awakened by sadism rather than erotic arousal.
We should mention the return of Bran and company as they travel north. After a second viewing, I have to admit that I’m not sure the introduction of the Reeds is very successful. So very little is explained about them—where they come from, for one thing—that they just seem to pop out of the misty woods and have no existence before their appearance in the series. This is, doubtless, a time constraint, though not a necessary one; there’s a couple of scenes, such as Shae and Tyrion, which might easily have been trimmed. At least there’s an opening toward a sense of their place, through the hint of another relationship: that of the late Eddard Stark with their father, Howland Reed. Deeply invested in the novels as I am, it was a bit of a thrill to hear them note that Howland saved Ned in the rebellion. (For those who are wondering, the Reeds are crannogmen, from the Neck which joins the North and the southern reaches.
They’re descendants of the First Men, and dwell in swamps. The Reeds live on Greywater Watch, which ravens can’t find because “it moves”—it’s built on a floating crannog—and Howland Reed was one of seven men who fought the three Kingsguard at the tower of joy; leading them was Lord Eddard, and it was on this occasion that Howland saved Ned’s life. The tower of joy is a lynchpin moment in the background of the novels, and this is the first indirect reference to that event so far). Thomas Brodie-Sangster is perfectly fine as Jojen, though he doesn’t really carry himself across the same as the character in the novels (who, despite being rather younger, is called “little grandfather” because he’s so serious). Ellie Kendrick, on the other hand, seems like a brilliant choice to play Meera Reed based on what little we’ve seen of her. The casting on the show continues to be top notch.
So, the bad. Despite all these relationship loosely providing a kind of bridging theme across this episode, is still does feel rather oddly paced. Truth be told, this is largely because of the fact that there simply aren’t any surprises, no real shocks. The closest we come to it is the reveal that the brotherhood has captured the Hound, and that Bolton’s men have captured Jaime, and while these will provide interesting story fodder they’re not exactly big surprises or shocks. Again, as we discussed with the first episode, the choice to put most of those surprising moments at the end of the second season rather than leaving something for the start of the first season has come back to bite them a bit. This is a perfectly solid episode, with some fine performances and moments, but it’s never going to be classed among the best episodes of the show. I do wonder if some of the reason for this lack of feeling of movement has to do with the addition of the Theon Greyjoy storyline—a pretty strong deviation from the novels, where Greyjoy is no longer seen after A Clash of Kings—and the fact that this takes up time that might be devoted to fleshing out other parts of the story, whether it’s giving Olenna her terrific line about wishing she were a common woman with a big wooden spoon (I’m a bit surprised the writers didn’t figure out how to keep it in there). The silver-lining, at least, is that the torture scenes are not as gruesome as I feared they would be, but I remain rather apprehensive as to whether there’ll be any real payoff to these scenes. We’ll see what we’ll see.
And then… Catelyn. Where to begin? In many ways, the writers have so simplified the setting, and so altered some of Catelyn’s basic motivations, that we probably should not have been surprised by the scene with Talisa. She’s not really the same character any longer, reduced mainly to the trope of protective mother and losing some of the qualities that complicated and made her one of the most realistically-depicted, fully-fleshed out characters in a series bursting with memorable characters. But for those who harbored some hope that this season would at least hew close to the novel when it came to Catelyn, would veer away from some of the infelicitous changes and bring back the Catelyn they know and love… that isn’t happening. In that scene with Talisa, Catelyn reveals a few things. Among them: she made a votive figure for Jon Snow (a figure that she says only a mother can make for her children), that she prayed for his death, then for his life in return for promises to love him and even see Ned legitimize him and give him the Stark name, that she failed to live to those promises, that she thinks those broken promises may be the reason all this tragedy has befallen her family.
Looked at in complete isolation, it’s a finely wrought acting moment. Looking at it in terms of character, however… you can see, perhaps, how the writers thought this might make her more sympathetic. Who hasn’t wished ill on someone? Who hasn’t been able to live up to a promise? But the scene so fundamentally betrays the character and her relationship to the setting she’s in that it’s hard to see it as anything but a very poor choice by the writers. The whole point of Catelyn Stark refusing to do anything more but tolerate Jon Snow’s presence—and that unwillingly—is that she is not his mother, and in Westeros she does not have a social or moral obligation to be his mother. She is not his step-mother, he is not her step-son—that’s not how things work in the Seven Kingdoms. Might a young Catelyn have prayed for the gods to contrive to send Jon away? Sure. Might she even have prayed for his death? I’m dubious, but in a moment of weakness even the god-fearing might do as much, so lets say it might happen. Would she regret having done so? Absolutely. But would she at any moment have considered herself a mother to Jon and responsible for him in some way? Never. Would she have put the inheritance of her own children at risk by urging Ned to legitimize Jon? Never, ever. The writers have made a fundamental change to her character. She’s still recognizably Catelyn Stark, one supposes, but it’s one who deviates sharply.
And it’s a deviation that both diminishes her, and leaves me baffled. If they were going to make a point of Jon Snow’s bastardy and his uneasy relationship with Catelyn in this episode, why in the world did they fail to use Jon’s real explanation to Mance Rayder for why he wanted to join him? Turning, as it does (and does so memorably), on Jon’s place in the world as a bastard. It seems a baffling missed opportunity, but then the story of Catelyn Stark on Game of Thrones is the story of missed opportunities. Catelyn Stark is bar none my favorite character in A Song of Ice and Fire, and it’s rather gutting to not be able to say that about the TV show’s version. Through no fault of Michelle Fairley’s own, I have to add—the blame rests squarely on the writers. I could write at greater length about all this regarding Catelyn… but I just can’t muster the energy; the disappointment is still too sharp. Year after year, I’m hopeful they’ll recover the Catelyn that s such an exceptional character, and year after year it’s a matter for unhappy rumination on the ways the writers have chosen to undermine the character.
In the end, it remains a solid episode, “character assassination” of Catelyn aside. It’s not perfect, it’s still slow, but I do think it’s safe to say that after these first two episodes, the pace does indeed start to pick up, and there’ll be much, much more to say.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords: Samwell I, Jon I, Davos I, Davos II, Tyrion I, Daenerys I, Davos III, Daenerys II, Daenerys IV (ACoK)
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Robb, Talisa, and Catelyn: In the novels, Robb and Catelyn already at Riverrun when Lord Hoster dies, and already has news that Rickon and Bran have allegedly been killed.
Theon: A Storm of Swords does not feature Theon whatsoever, though later in the novel it’s revealed he is a prisoner of the Boltons and is being tortured for his crimes.
Jaime and Brienne with wayfarer: This scene is a new incident, not from the novel, though it fits the general character of Jaime’s attitude towards Brienne.
Joffrey and Cersei: As noted in our analysis, this is a new scene, but one that does underpin the genuine dislike for and rivalry with Margaery that Cersei feels in the novels.
Shae and Sansa: Shae’s interest in Sansa is not from the novels, not least because (as noted last season) Shae never personally serves Sansa at this early date.
Robb and Rickard: A new scene, it does capture some sense of the problems Robb’s marriage have caused, and of Rickard Karstark’s unhealthy obsession with vengeance for his sons.
Catelyn and Talisa: See the analysis, where we point out the deep deviations from the characterization of Catelyn in the novel.
Tyrion and Shae: As noted above, Shae has no real interest in Sansa in the novels. Moreover, the fact that Tyrion can’t be seen with Shae leads to their meetings being very discrete at this point; one Tyrion chapter involves his asking Varys to arrange a very secretive meeting beneath the Red Keep.
Margaery and Joffrey: As noted above, also a new scene with no real precedent in the novels.
Our appearance on Thronecast:
And our video providing our additional views on the episode: