Joffrey punishes Sansa for Robb’s victories, while Tyrion and Bronn scramble to temper the king’s cruelty. Catelyn entreats Stannis and Renly to forego their ambitions and unite against the Lannisters. Dany and her exhausted khalasar arrive at the gates of Qarth, a prosperous city with strong walls and rulers who greet her outside them. Tyrion coerces a queen’s man into being his eyes and ears. Arya and Gendry are taken to Harrenhal, where their lives rest in the hands of “The Mountain,” Gregor Clegane. Davos must revert to his old ways and smuggle Melisandre into a secret cove.
“Garden of Bones” is an episode of firsts, in a number of ways.
It is, most obviously, the very first episode written by Vanessa Taylor, a new member of the writing team. A veteran of past HBO series Tell Me You Love Me, Taylor is the second woman writer for the series (for those who keep score; last season, Jane Espenson wrote “A Golden Crown”), and the first to be part of the writing staff. How does she do as a writer? After initial viewing, this episode struck Linda and I as being the best episode of the series to date. We still think that. But when examining it scene by scene while discussing our review of it, we realized that unlike “What is Dead May Never Die”, the best scenes in this episode are all drawn straight from the book, and it’s those scenes that stray away from it which come off a little weaker. Overall, this is a better episode we think, but by just a little bit—and it’s better because it’s a skilled adaptation of a number of Martin’s best scenes in A Clash of Kings rather than because Taylor’s invented scenes work exceptionally well.
To dive straight into the topic of invented scenes, lets touch on another first: a new character—a brand new character, not one from the novels—who is actually integral to a significant storyline in the show, at least by all accounts. The introduction of Oona Chaplin’s Talisa comes after months of speculation, from the very first time that we learned her casting only to be told that “Jeyne” (as she was then) did not have a last name, and none was being provided. The end result? All the speculation as to how they’ve modified Jeyne Westerling appears to be largely moot: she’s not Jeyne Westerling, a young and innocent maiden of an old, proud, but impoverished house. We rather dreaded what they were going to make of this, especially as reports from the set began to hint at her claiming to be from a Free City. Were they playing up the fact that Jeyne’s grandmother was from the East? Was it all a sham, something she’d reveal later? It seemed strange.
To discover that in the end the producers seem to have decided to have decouple Chaplin’s character from the Jeyne Westerling in the novel was, on one hand, a relief. While this does mean something of a radical change to Robb’s story from the novels—the only real similarity left is that Robb strikes up a relationship that he probably shouldn’t—it feels to us that it’s generally better to completely jettison a storyline if it doesn’t work for the needs of the show, rather than twist it so out of shape that it works poorly and makes us pine for the textual version. At the same time, after our initial relief, our disappointment began to return.
It’s no fault of the actors—who both did well with the material they had—but the fact is that the scene we saw playing out on screen is a hoary old cliche: the doctor who speaks truth to power, who doesn’t give a damn about rank or station, who whacks people over the head with unsubtle social commentary that doesn’t feel remotely like a part of the novels? It may be one thing to have Septon Meribald share his experience of the War of the Ninepenny Kings to a small group of people wandering with him, but for a random character to lay into the king makes us groan. Have we not watched enough episodes of ER, that we need something like this encroaching in the narrative? It’s a staple of certain kinds of fantasy, as well, the kind where there are clerics and healers who find any excuse to talk down to those who make the wounds they try to heal. How often does this genuinely work in a narrative? In fantasy literature, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Jehane from The Lions of Al-Rassan comes perilously close, but of course, Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the finest writers working today in any genre and it works.
Does this scene work? Well, it raises a useful point or two (useful mainly to viewers who are just carried along for the ride and don’t give much thought to themes unless signs are posted), but everything is couched very firmly in cliche, and within a couple of lines you can readily predict the entire conversation. It’s not as if unpredictability is a criteria for quality in any art, but this scene sadly felt rote. Indeed, reviewing it now, it simply falls in my estimation. And again, it has nothing to do with Chaplin, with Madden, with the introduction of a new character to take over the seed of a plotline from the novels. It’s just… not a very good scene, because we’ve seen it before, and often better. And sadly, we’re concerned about the future of the whole storyline, about whether it, too, will seem very cliche when Martin’s own choices regarding this part of Robb Stark’s life were anything but.
To counter-balance it, lets touch on another new scene, one that contains a kernel of an idea embedded within A Clash of Kings... and what’s been turned into one of the most terrifying scene in an episode filled with some of the most brutal torture ever depicted on a television screen. In the novel, at one point Tyrion Lannister considers whether introducing Joffrey to a prostitute might sweeten him. Of course, Joffrey is all of thirteen at the time, and Tyrion knows he’d have to get the Hound out of the way, and with that and the fact that other matters intrude, it never happens. But here, Joffrey is older, and the Hound is written as a willing abettor of the introduction, and so it happens. It’s a reasonable-enough supposition that at a couple of years older, Joffrey might be likelier to be pushed in that direction by someone.
The results, of course, are wholly unexpected by Tyrion: the horrifying, sexually-charged abuse of two women. For those who have complained about the screen time that Esmé Bianco has had, I do hope they eat crow: the presence of familiar figures, in the form of Ros and newcomer Daisy (that must have been a harrowing scene indeed for Maisie Dee), makes this much more terrifying than if they were simply random prostitutes. Jack Gleeson outdoes himself, the wild-eyed look at the end capturing Joffrey’s desire awakening thanks to the sounds of screams and the heavy, terrifying sound of a wooden club slamming into flesh. It’s the show’s most sadistic moment yet, and it illuminates with inexorable clarity what sort of monster Joffrey is.
That has, of course, been repeatedly hinted at—his attack on Arya, his ordering Meryn to beat Sansa last season—but it’s the way this scene is connected to the beating and partially, forced stripping of Sansa that really makes sense. After all, Joffrey’s desire to humiliate Sansa immediately takes on a sexual component when he tries to have her stripped. Bronn makes the connection, and Tyrion agrees, and what follows is something that is, in many ways, many times worse. If any hope existed among some viewers that Joffrey might “grow out of it”, this should put paid to that: Joffrey is mad, bad, and dangerous to know (and isn’t a poet worth remarking on, so there’s not even that as a saving grace).
The scene does raise a question, however, about the intentions behind the scene. Is it solely to shine a spotlight on the darkest recesses of Joffrey’s psyche… or is it taking the opportunity to address the criticisms from last year regarding the use of sex and the depiction of prostitution? If the latter is a factor, our look at some early reactions to this scene (based on reports and reviews and speculation) suggest that they may actually have failed to hit the mark, that by turning prostitutes into objects of abuse they’re now being exploited in an equally-sexual way, but one tinged with attitudes that might be called “regressive”. While Linda and I believe the scene is pretty strong and it certainly stands on its own, it does seem that without the defense of “adapting the book” to fall back on, they seem much more aware of criticisms along the lines of gender and sex in the series, and it may affect their decisions for what to depict and how to depict it. If they hadn’t received criticism last year about the vaguely “glamorous” depiction of prostitution, would this scene still have recommended themselves to them instead of some alternative way of illuminating this aspect of Joffrey’s character?
To move to a more far-flung corner of the narrative, we finally come to Qarth, “the greatest city that ever was or ever will be”. The geography around Qarth is, of course, rather unrelated to the geography in the novels—George very recently changed that region of the east quite significantly in the course of preparing The Lands of Ice and Fire—but more significant are changes the writers opted to make. As we feared, the complexity of Qartheen society is dispensed with: it is insular, but not so insular that an outsider can’t be accepted and rise to power; it has something like a division of power, but now it’s simply a ruling council called the Thirteen rather than the Byzantine interaction between rival guilds, the Pureborn, and the Warlocks. Not great losses, in the grander scheme of things, and given that they might have dispensed with Qarth entirely if they didn’t care for it, we won’t complain very much. We will say that the casting of Nicholas Blane as “the Spice King” was quite brilliant, as one of our favorite moments is his imperious, schoolmaster-like correction of the pronunciation of Qarth—brilliantly funny. But of course, rather than Blane, the attention will surely be on Nonso Anozie, cast as Xaro Xhaon Daxos.
What to say? There’s not a great deal to say about his performance, as he’s just been introduced and there’s no real meat on that bone as of yet. But his actions, the way he carries himself, his origins as a Summer Islander, and the fact that he carries a sword—the only one of “the Thirteen” to do so, we notice—tells us all we need to know: this is a new character, essentially, who simply happens to share a name and a place with a a character from the book. The effeminate, unctuous aesthete of the novel has been replaced with a man of action, and I can’t help but wonder if at some point Shakespeare’s Othello—the great Moorish captain in the hire of Venice—didn’t cross the mind of the writers as a similar kind of character, a proud and courageous man who climbs to a high place in a foreign society. Not to say the story will follow along similar lines, not at all, but if this “prince of Qarth” turns out to be a warrior and soldier…
But this again raises the question: why not change his name, if he’s so different, when they changed Jeyne to Talisa once her character deviated as far as it did? We doubt there’s any particular criteria for when they decide to move a character from the “adapted” to “brand new” category, that it’s just what feels right at the moment, but it’s hard to read the tea leaves. Book purists we may be, but when the show signals it’s deliberately moving away from the books, it’d help if they did their best to cut extraneous ties to the books (such as completely different characters receiving the names of characters from the novels that are nothing like them).
At least we can take his accent as a Summer Islander to prove that the show’s Salladhor Saan—with a similar accent, though delivered with much more zest as befits the character—is also a Summer Islander. Of course, another component of the scene is Daenerys. Emilia Clarke does well, but it does feel like rather forced drama to have her standing outside the walls, yelling her threats, when she’s really quite impotent. Although we see an inkling of a plotline here: did she refuse to show the dragons because they’re emaciated and on the verge of dying, as she hasn’t yet figured out how to make them eat?
Renly’s camp deserves some mention. While we are largely indifferent to the Margaery and Littlefinger scene—we’ve already said our piece in our review of the last episode—the interaction between Renly and Littlefinger was an interesting take on the characters and how they might perceive one another… and it certainly does seem true to form that Littlefinger would be looking out for his own neck (or, perhaps, letting that assumption cloak his true reasons for being present). However, the scene with Catelyn Stark ... oh, there’ll be howls. Are we truly to believe that in the show, it’s only Tyrion Lannister’s direct suggestion that Catelyn release Jaime Lannister on her own say-so? The show is making us believe that they are, indeed, intent on giving original thought in Catelyn’s head to other people. How we wish Michelle Fairley was given the Catelyn of the novels to play, because the Catelyn of the TV series lacks so much of what makes her Martin’s most complex and fascinating women. Fairley’s exceptional, and is able to play that iron core, but they leave her with so very little to do when they decide that others need to be responsible for her ideas.
We’ll leave the best scenes for last. All of them are skillful adaptions from the source material, rather than strictly new scenes, but then that’s a testament to the writer’s skill in its own way.
The parley is quite well-adapted, except for the hitch that there’s no hint whatsoever of Stannis’s approach. We can only assume that this is due to there having been an interim scene revealing that Stannis was sighted that was dropped for one reason or another (possibly due to the high winds which called off shooting for a time and forced rescheduling?) But the interaction between Dillane and Anthony is quite good, as the stern, taciturn Stannis grows angrier and angrier with his glib, confident brother. The only thing we really miss is the fact that Renly doesn’t offer a peach to Stannis, one of the most indelible images related to the character, a thing that will haunt Stannis afterward. A shame. To make up for it, Taylor giving Renly the, “Is he a ham?” question which was quite funny!
The scenes in Harrenhal owe a lot to director David Petrarca’s staging of it, the horror of that pen, the torture happening just a few feet away, the inexorable arrival of the Mountain and his inhumane singling out of another victim. Harrenhal itself is well done, though it’s a far cry from what’s described in the novels, but then this was to be expected—Harrenhal would have been prohibitive to build a set for if they had to take into account walls two hundred feet high surrounding the gigantic yard and the like. But the rain, the mud, the horror… perfect. And did you notice the torturer—the Tickler—asking about “the Brotherhood”? Lord Beric lives! Fingers crossed we’ll be meeting them next season. All in all, this was an excellent piece of adaptation, compressing events so that instead of marching to Harrenhal and witnessing the brutality of Gregor and his men as they march, it’s all in the castle itself… and it’s Lord Tywin, on his arrival, who puts an end to such senseless waste. Not, of course, because he cares very much about the suffering and horror, but because he has a war to fight and slave labor will do in a pinch. Chillingly calculating, but well done. He did seem a little too enthused by Arya’s cleverness at dressing as a boy—not quite how the Tywin in the novel would sound, in our head—but we do appreciate that he remains a man who sees a use for every person, and treats them accordingly.
What is probably the stand out scene (in terms of dialogue) of the episode is nothing epic, nothing harrowing, but simply a brilliant example of Peter Dinklage’s knack for playing Tyrion… and Eugene Simon’s very welcome turn as the affronted, and then terrified, young Lannister knight. Though this scene is largely taken from the books, Taylor’s writing, Petrarca’s direction, and—especially—Dinklage’s and Simon’s performances bring this scene to vivid, hilarious life. “It’s not my fault!” is one we’ll laugh about for a long, long time. Beautifully done, and one could wish every scene could fire on all cylinders like this one did. It reminds us quite a bit of Jane Espenson’s fine writing of Tyrion at the Eyrie, especially in his scenes with Mord, another scene that was elevated by the quality of performance from the two actors involved (no surprise that Dinklage features in both sets of scenes.)
And yet, the very best scene in the episode? There’s not much dialog, but there’s enough. There’s not much scenery, but there’s enough. But what there is is the gruesome, terrible birth as Melisandre conjures forth a shadow from her womb. This scene, taken almost word for word from Martin (though we’ll always wonder why a cavern in the middle of nowhere special in the Stormlands has an iron gate; it made much more sense when it was the grotto beneath Storm’s End that was blocked), reminds us that he’s written horror, as won awards for it, and knows what he’s doing. There’s something grotesque about the act of birth bringing forth death, by something so intrinsically natural producing something so very unnatural. Hat’s off to all involved… but especially Pixomondo, the CG house in charge of effects this season, and who designed that wet, meaty sound as the shadow forms its hands to literally pull itself from her womb. Shocking beyond belief.
All in all, this is a very good episode that—if it had stuck purely to adapting the text—might even have been regarded as exceptional. But the moments where it strays away… they’re not weak, exactly (well, except the cliched Talisa-Robb scene), but they simply don’t match up to what’s around them, with the sole exception of Joffrey’s monstrous abuse of the prostitutes, a scene that effectively illustrates who he is. It’s a good episode, in some places better than the previous episode, but it’s not really a great episode. Perhaps the next episode, “The Ghost of Harrenhal”, will get there.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings: Sansa III, Daenerys I, Arya VI, Catelyn III, Daenerys II, Tyrion VII, and Davos II.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter: