Arriving at King’s Landing after his long journey, Ned (Sean Bean) is shocked to learn of the Crown’s profligacy from his new advisors. At Castle Black, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) impresses Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) at the expense of greener recruits. Suspicious that the Lannisters had a hand in Bran’s fall, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) covertly follows her husband to King’s Landing, where she is intercepted by Petyr Baelish (Aidan Gillen), aka “Littlefinger,” a shrewd longtime ally and brothel owner. Cersei (Lena Headey) and Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) ponder the implications of Bran’s (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) recovery; Arya (Maisie Williams) studies swordsmanship. On the road to Vaes Dothrak, Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) finds herself at odds with Viserys (Harry Lloyd).
Rewatching this episode this week led me to realize something: it’s probably the weakest of the six episodes Linda and I have seen. Between King’s Landing and the Wall, we have a dozen new characters introduced (Old Nan—the late, great Margaret John—and Rakharo make an even fourteen). While they file onto the stage, the momentum of the plot largely grinds to a halt. Despite there being fewer chapters being covered than either of the previous episodes (my count places it at about 6 and a quarter chapters), the sense that there’s a rush to move from scene to scene seems clearest of all. Some scenes feel too brief, leaving you with a sense of wanting something more. This is not to say it’s a bad episode—I don’t believe there’s a bad one in the bunch—but it seems like it may be the episode that could be the least satisfying to those who haven’t read the books, who won’t get a thrill from seeing Varys, Ser Barristan the Bold, Littlefinger, the Old Bear, and more for the first time. It’s a lot to digest.
Of all the characters in this episode, Cersei seems the most changed. When she’s speaking with Joffrey, it’s an ... interesting scene. Cersei tutors him, and… she seems much cleverer than she was in the books, suffice it to say; some of what she says sounds like they could come from Tywin or Tyrion. This scene, again more than any other, highlights how different she is from the Cersei of the novels.While for dramatic purposes it makes sense, I can’t help but think that they’re going to have difficulty keeping her narrative in the show along the same path as in the novels, if she’s quite so clever as she’s being depicted. A purist part of me sort of wishes this scene was never shown—those 2.5 minutes could have been useful with some of the later scenes.Similarly, when she’s with Jaime later on, Linda leapt on the fact that Cersei seem to have been genuinely upset at Jaime for having pushed a 10-year-old boy out the window, and this is a very good point: in the novels, Cersei was upset only because she thought it was precipitous to do, not that it was wrong to do it at all. This casts her earlier conversation with Catelyn in a new light, suggesting she was sincere in her remarks concerning Lady Stark’s loss. In other ways, the scene plays very well for us, with a flash of temper from Cersei, and a show of Jaime’s intense devotion. Interestingly, the writers again mine the later books when it comes Jaime – his quip about “the War for Cersei’s Cunt” is straight out of A Storm of Swords.
Jaime, of course, also changes a bit in these scenes. He’s more fleshed out. When Eddard enters the throne room (the first look many viewers will have of both the throne room and the Iron Throne ... while readers will doubtless get the resonance of Eddard Stark coming down the hall as Jaime Lannister is, well, Jaime Lannister. He’s not seated on the Iron Throne this time with the body of a king at his feet, but instead he’s casually seated on the dais. It’s another verbal fencing match between the two lords, and it’s one that fleshes out Jaime quite a bit. This scene, perhaps more than any other, borrows heavily to date from the later books to give us a more nuanced, layered Kingslayer. In some senses, he feels more muted because of this—the character of the first novel was very simply but memorably defined by his relations with his family, his arrogance, his infamous act. We get more of the same in the terrific scene with Mark Addy and Ian McElhinney—it’s really Addy’s scene, all considered, but all three actors do well, interacting as men who’ve fought and killed and have seen a lot ... and have each responded differently to their fates: drunken sot Robert, arrogant disillusioned Jaime, honorable and dutiful Barristan.
As for Ned, the thing that leaps out is how grumpy he is as soon as he arrives: the glare at the poor steward who suggested he might want to wear something more appropriate, the reminder to Grand Maester Pycelle that he once served another king. It’s true that in the novel, Eddard’s temper was short and he was unhappy where he was ... but he wasn’t quite so demonstrative, especially in ways that would seem rude. Part of it is fuelled by Sansa nursing her angerover Lady’s death; she practically refuses to speak with him. The scene with the doll was a nice touch. But a key scene for this episode is what he says to Arya, and how they spend their time together. Maisie Williams is showcased, and is predictably fantastic… but for the book reader, it also has its little disappointments. Ned doesn’t use one of his most well-known lines (“the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives”; I blame Jack Shepherd), nor does he make the comparison to Lyanna (note: three episodes, and Lyanna’s name has not yet been mentioned). But otherwise, it’s quite well-done, and Maisie seems capable of great chemistry with Sean Bean and, indeed, everyone else she acts with so far.
What to say about the brief Winterfell scene? For the fan of the series, it’s a beautiful start… but does the line about crows lying make quite as much sense as it did in the books, where Old Nan immediately says it to a bitter Bran who complains that the (three-eyed) crow in his dream lied, that he’s neither able to fly nor run? Hard to say. It’d be nice to think that perhaps that line was said just before the scene started. It’s such a shame that Margret John passed away after the first season was completed, because she’s wonderful as she tells her story to Bran… and then quite funny when Robb comes in, asking her if she’s scaring Bran, and she innocently tells him she’s only being telling the “little lord” what he wanted to hear.
This scene gives Richard Madden his most extended scene so far, and suffice it to say, he’s very capable; if there’s anything to fault him for, it may be that his native Scottish accent often seems to slip out … and who can fault him, when it sounds so pleasant? But the real star of this particular scene is Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran. When Bran tells Robb, “I wish I were dead,” it’s said with a plain, unadorned conviction … and becomes defiant when Robb angrily tells him never to say such a thing, but he does so, repeating it.
Aidan Gillen as Littlefinger? Coneth Hill as Varys? Perfect, perfect. But … there’s a problem, again with some of the writer’s choices. We no longer have Catelyn’s extensive recollection of her relationship to Littlefinger, and how much he loved her. How is it all going to play for those unfamiliar with the books? When she rages – literally rages, throwing a scroll at him, rather than the icy anger of the novel – it suggests a more tempermental Catelyn, as well. This is not coincidence, as later on her temper will be a source of humor between husband and wife. It’s another change to the character, one that feels almost cliché. Linda suggests that other than the Lannister twins – who are more muted – the rest of the characters are more demonstrative of their feelings than in the novel, more extreme in their emotions. Is that true? If so, it’s a deliberate choice by the writers. Perhaps they found so much of the emotion was kept internalized, that ratcheting up emotion was one way to bring it out.
When we go back to the brothel in King’s Landing, everything plays out much as it should … but we have to wince when Catelyn tells Eddard that she trusts Littlefinger absolutely. The line is so earnest, and Aidan Gillen has been so very good at being unctuous, and we’re still lacking any real sense of how much history Catelyn and Littlefinger shared… We can imagine viewers around the world groaning at how obviously wrong Catelyn is. It’s so much less obvious in the novel, when almost everything we know and have seen about Petyr Baelish has been filtered through her perspective and her memory, so that there’s a sense of more layers to him than what he puts on display. Also, the fact is, in the novel she has been hidden away at the brothel for days, possibly even weeks, and doubtless interacted with Baelish a few more times. Here … well, there’s almost no such interaction to speak of. She arrives, they meet, and shortly after Littlefinger brings Ned to her. She has spent much too little time with him to be so decisive in her trust.
As for the Dothraki scenes? Harry Lloyd is terrific… and the supporting cast is quite amazing! These scenes feature the most extensive use of the Dothraki language in the first six episodes (well, technically, episode 6 features a lot, but it’s fairly repetitive phrases). Elyes Gabel and Amrita Acharya speak Dothraki as if they were born to it. Brilliant material, and we’re so pleased that the executive producers went this route with the language. Emilia Clarke features only in the first scene, but she’s able to convey that Dany has grown a lot in the intervening timespan.
But lets turn back to what the problems were, because we think when we look at Tyrion’s and Jon’s scenes, they highlight our problems. The acting is fine (more than fine!), but so much is going on, and chapters are being hacked apart and material condensed or dropped, that they start to feel disjointed. Lord Commander Mormont and Tyrion are watching the training, and some of the information from Tyrion’s corresponding chapter – largely his criticism of Ser Alliser Thorne as the master-at-arms for the Watch – is provided. Mormont reveals there’s news from Winterfell. Tyrion asks if it’s good or bad. And Mormont says, “Bo—” And then we cut…
Well, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. “Both” comes out, but the cut to the new scene comes hard on it, and it really heightens the sense of rushing. I am not so much of a cinemaphile that I often notice errors in editing or the framing of shots (having Tyrion in the shot so we see his reaction to the ambiguous answer would have helped, too), but here it was a mistake, and it stuck with me from there on out. It may have made me hyper-sensitive to awkward scene shifts after that.
A brief return to the Wall, with Jon getting along with the recruits … and a somewhat awkward scene, as Maester Aemon is introduced in a way that, in retrospect, is clumsy. Why is Tyrion just standing around with a cup in hand, while Mormont and Aemon are sitting there in any entirely empty mess hall? This is part of the problem with these scenes, as you realize that in the novel, it was all livelier (and together): Tyrion at dinner with the officers of the Watch, his argument and mocking of Alliser Thorne, and then his remarks about how he shouldn’t be training the recruits, before Mormont and Aemon launch their appeal. We have hardly any information about Aemon at all, in fact. Peter Vaughan, a veteran actor, plays the part well – staring into space, old but wise, determined to see Tyrion see sense. But not having more with him, not having the lighter moments of the scene as in the books, make that whole segment feel much too leaden and portentious.
What’s strange is the fact that this episode covers so few chapters. It ought to have had plenty of room. But the addition of many new scenes takes away from that. And, the thing is, the new scenes? They’re all pretty good (Mark Addy’s scene, and the Dothraki scenes, are especially great fun to watch), so you can’t blame them for having them. It’s true, we probably would have preferred it if we had more of the Cersei from the novels, and skipped the Joffrey scene (even though Jack Gleeson did a very good job, and Headey won Creepy Mother of the Year with her advice that her son could sleep with all the painted whores he wanted). That extra time really could have been useful. But ... that whole Wall section, and the fact that this part of the story does have to introduce a lot of people, is probably the root issue. You get many good individual scenes and performances, but not a lot of movement.
Would it have been better, perhaps, if Renly and Barristan had been introduced in the previous episode? And that the original pilot script idea of introducing Pycelle then, at Jon Arryn’s bedside, had happened? Maybe. That’d be three less characters. Maybe Rakharo could have been shoe-horned in, as well. But you’re still looking at ten new characters being introduced, in a show already dense with characters, It’s a genuine challenge that the production had to deal with, and we can’t blame them if they couldn’t quite swing it. All in all, it remains a good episode—just not as good as what came before, or what will follow after.
[HBO has posted an “inside the episode” featuring the executive producers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss.]
This episode covers the following chapters of the novel: Catelyn IV, Jon III, Eddard IV, Tyrion III, Arya II, the rest of Daenerys III, and the beginning of Bran IV.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter: