Tywin plans strategic unions for the Lannisters. Melisandre pays a visit to the Riverlands. Robb weighs a compromise to repair his alliance with House Frey. Roose Bolton decides what to do with Jaime Lannister. Jon, Ygritte and the Wildlings face a daunting climb.
The title of this episode, “The Climb”, really refers to two particular elements. One, the obvious one, is the wildlings scaling the Wall. These sections beyond the Wall most strongly highlight the amazing talent that is director Alik Sakharov, whose praises we cannot sing enough of. With the expert help of director of photography David Katznelson (a veteran of the first season of Downton Abbey, another show known for its lush cinematography). The segments here—including Samwell’s fireside moment with Gilly and her infant, a moment of sweetness amidst the terrifying and desolate forest, is often lit frostily, especially by day when the light becomes ambient. It makes things seem just this side of other-worldly. The show emphasizes this at the end, as the chill gives way to the warmer sunlight of the lands to the south… although here, we do have to find a little fault in Sakharov’s directorial choices (otherwise, we have nothing but praise). The final moment, the romantic clench and passionate kiss as the score swells and the camera pulls back seemed out of place, a Hollywood cornball cliche that seemed to diminish the impact of what came before. It’s technically quite beautiful, we won’t deny it, but we would have preferred more restraint rather than saccharine sweetness. But then again, on the writing side, cliches seemed to be the name of the game for this episode.
One of the major departures in characterization of a relationship came in the wildling story, when Ygritte revealed that she knew Jon Snow had not truly given up the Watch when he claimed he had. More significantly, however, Ygritte dismisses that and instead turns their narrative into one of “us versus them,” Jon and Ygritte against the whole world. This trope is starting to feel well-worn on television these days, and it’s strange to see it introduced into a show that has in some many ways drawn from source material that often deliberately avoids such clichés. Does it add something? One supposes it makes Jon’s conflicted feelings more obvious, now that he has this injuction from Ygritte that his loyalty is to her. But it doesn’t change the cliché, nor the fact that it’s an example of the show often moving what could be subtext into open and overt narrative; subtlety is often a rare thing on the show. Even in some little details, deviations away from the novels seem to just fulfill more clichées—in the novel, the climb up the Wall is terrifying, and Ygritte is weeping at the top, sure that the Wall was trying to shake her off and throw her to her death. Was the change, and her dream of standing atop it (in the novels, she absolutely hates it) done merely to serve the cornball final shot? Or was it out of some notion that tears would instantly render her no longer “tough”? It’s hard to say, but it’s a trifle annoying given the trends of the show.
The title of the episode, after all, ends up receiving an even-more-obvious meaning by the end when we hear Littlefinger reveal how he thrives on chaos, how he sees it as a ladder one can climb. As a long-time reader of the series, it feels very odd to see this character speak so nakedly and openly about his ambitions and his philosophy; I recall arguments on the forums not long after A Clash of Kings came out in which my argument was that Littlefinger deliberately fomented and encouraged chaos so he could profit from it was somewhat controversial at the time, as I pointed out how he was surely behind Lysa Arryn’s warning to the Starks (this was correct), lied about the ownership of the dagger in a dangerous game of keeping tensions high (also correct), and that the same agent that delivered Lysa’s message was surely behind the attempt on Bran’s life (wrong, wrong, wrong). At no point in the novels to date has Littlefinger been so plainspoken of his intentions as he has been on the show. Of course, the show has veered far away from that Littlefinger—Martin himself keeps citing the show’s Petyr Baelish as being markedly different from his own character—and in theory this is all right. But the thumping obviousness of everything he does has, alas, begun to grow tiresome; he’s not far from the mustache-twirling cartoon villain or, if we’re kind, a James Bondian villain. The Varys-Littlefinger colliquies were something to look forward to in the first two seasons, but it’s becoming a tiresome device when it explains everything in an overt way as if viewers would miss something if they weren’t guided straight to it. Is it a well-written speech? Sure. But it would have been a much more interesting moment had the show been able to obscure the depths of Littlefinger’s duplicitousness until that particular moment, but it seems a luxury that the novels have and, for some reason, the television show doesn’t.
(Briefly, an aside to address the fate of Ros, as played by Esmé Bianco. She has been a controversial figure for many fans, but I have personally never had an issue with her role in the story, as a means to consolidate the myriad of prostitutes in the novels into one figure. Her rise and fall seems poignant enough, as she believed she had climbed to a position off her back and on her feet… only to become target practice for the sadistic young king. I do think it was time for the character’s story to come to a close, and this was an appropriate way to do it… but I wonder if there’ll ever be a reference to her and her fate again?)
This episode truly is a mixed bag, making it a let down from both of the previous two episodes. There are so many niggling details that seem off, and a few that come off very well indeed to counter-balance, but not enough. There are certainly fine moments outside of the cinematography. Once again, Jaime and Brienne—and now Michael McElhatton’s Roose Bolton, who is beginning to make a real impression on the show as he gets more time on screen—have one of the best moments, a moment of visual comedy when a frustrated Jaime is helped out by an equally-frustrated Brienne when he “fails at dinner”. It’s a fine touch, and the chemistry of the actors remains exceptional in the brief moment they get in this episode. Riverrun finally sees the elusive Freys appear, on the other hand—and again, kudos to the producers to making it plain that one of the two envoys was Lame Lothar—and the scene largely plays out very well (and, as an aside, it, too, is beautifully lit). The one note of discord is that the thuggishness of the Blackfish—we can’t think of another word—is becoming very much overplayed… while at the same time, they seem to have erased one of the more interesting details of the character’s background for no real reason except, perhaps, to emphasize his manliness. The Theon scene…
Horrific? Yes. Well-acted? Yes, absolutely. Necessary? ... We still don’t know. The novels never needed these moments, the novels focused on more significant parts of the grand story. In this episode, Theon has garnered about 10% of the screen time, which is rather extraordinary. For many, that the scenes are well-acted and well-written are enough—there need be no justification beyond that. But one must ask: with such a talented cast, and such a wealth of material and storylines to draw from, would giving that 10% of screen time to some other character and some other story not make some sense? Perhaps the writers have some grand plan, but presently it feels as if the justification is not much beyond presenting the suffering and torture of Theon Greyjoy in all its visceral ugliness. It’s becoming hard to wait and see where they’re going with this.
Speaking of needing more screen time… consider the brotherhood without banners. This sharp veering away from the cause of justice—the selling of Gendry to Melisandre, apparently solely on her word that the Lord of Light has plans for him—that happens in this episode is troubling to us largely because there has been no real counterpoint. They are now religious zealots first, protectors of the weak second. The novels begin to develop a narrative strand that focuses on the suffering of the commoners in the midst of the war, suffering delivered on them by all sides, and shows how they respond—it’s a narrative that gets developed further the later one gets into the story, but in A Storm of Swords one of the fascinating aspects is how the breakdown of the systems that protected the weak led to the “weak” protecting themselves. The commoners aid the brotherhood, they share information, they provide shelter, and they defend themselves as well (in the novel, the Hound is captured by the local defenders of a riverlands town called Stoney Sept, rather than by the brotherhood directly). On the show, though, we have none of these moments, are merely told about them, and it’s easy to see how this betrayal of Gendry will create a much more immediate impression than details only talked about. The nearly-six minutes of Theon torture might have been quite profitably used to provide the brotherhood more of that context, to show how much their creed may be in conflict with their goals.. or, indeed, any number of things.
And what to make of King’s Landing? In many ways, the story of the adaptation this season is the great expansion of the King’s Landing narrative to keep all these characters in play, more so than they are in the first half of A Storm of Swords. That seems fair enough. But some of the details are becoming troublesome. The Queen of Thorn’s meeting with Tywin, for one, fell into juvenile natterings as the Queen of Thorns intimated that boyhood homoeroticism must surely have been part of Tywin’s experiences; this feels jarringly modern and not particularly amusing (others will doubtless disagree, but I can only report our view). Too, this use of the threat to name Loras to the Kingsguard seems to end quite abruptly with capitulation from Olenna. We would have liked another round or two of negotiation—one that featured (to give one possibility) Olenna wondering about what became of the last man who named a lord’s heir to the Kingsguard against that lord’s wishes, a fine call back to the history and an absolutely valid point of argument against Tywin’s intentions—before they somehow resolved it. But no, the story demands Loras and Cersei be betrothed, it seems, and so the implausability of Highgarden simply giving up when it has a position of real strength seems convenient, to say the very least.
Perhaps more telling, however, is the continued white-washing of Tyrion Lannister. The Tyrion of the television show is a much nicer man than the Tyrion of the novels, and that, too, is starting to grow a bit worrisome. Part of Tyrion’s real interest as a character is that he is, in truth, quite flawed; his father’s claim that Tyrion is envious and spiteful is absolutely true about the character in the novel… but it’s becoming rather less true, or at least rather less obvious, on the show. Tyrion protested much more vigorously last episode than he did in the novel, and in this episode he goes out of his way to inform Sansa of the arrangement. It seems a moment of kindness, of sharing mutually unhappy news… but in the novel, it must be said, Tyrion does no such thing. No one does, in fact: Sansa is kept in the dark until the wedding day itself, and not even Tyrion sees fit to inform her (in part due to his ambition taking the better of his morals; he’s ashamed enough—and cowardly enough—to not want to confront Sansa with the truth). It may seem a small change, in the scheme of things, but it’s a continued process of making him… well, a nice guy, there’s nothing else for it. That’s a less complicated, conflicted character, and so a less interesting one to us. One cannot blame Peter Dinklage—he does what the writers give him, and perhaps he himself likes playing a more unambigiously “good” guy—but one wonders how much more fascinating the character would be if he were quite as apt to give in to his demons as he is in the books.
Of course, the earlier scene with Cersei also continues to white-wash her, by explicitly giving to Joffrey the attempt on Tyrion’s life (in the novels, it should be added, this has never been explicitly stated, though it is implied). Like the shift of giving Joffrey the wicked decision to murder his “father’s” illegitimate offspring, this seems designed to make Cersei less of an agent of her own destiny. Perhaps in giving her the role of setting Littlefinger on the path of the Tyrell plans, the writers felt they had done enough to make her a player, and here opted to make her at least somewhat more restrained? But once more, the writers seem to prefer resolving little mysteries rather than leaving them lingering to intrigue viewers. It feels very much like the wrong tack to take, from our perspective; half the fun of the novels are the mysteries.
Next episode will finally bring us to George R.R. Martin’s one episode, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” with direction from the amazing (and new to Game of Thrones) Michelle MacLaren, and this is certainly one of the two most anticipated remaining episodes for us. One hopes it will be able to reintroduce some of the subtlety that the show has let fall by the wayside, or at least provide us more scenes that will remind us of just how good the show can really be when everything—direction, writing, acting—are firing on all engines.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Storm of Swords: a small portion of Samwell III, Jon IV, Catelyn IV, and the latter half of Jaime V.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Bran and Company: Not at all from the novels, in large part because Osha is not with Bran and the Reeds at this point in the story. The idea of Jojen’s visions as being debilitating, epilepsy-like attacks is invented.
Ygritte and Jon: As noted in the analysis, Ygritte never intuits that Jon had still been loyal to the Watch when he walked into Mance’s tent, nor does she characterize their relationship as being “us versus them”, as she does here.
Melisandre and the brotherhood: This is a significant change, not least because of the changed depiction of the brotherhood at this stage that was noted earlier. However, the show has obviously attempted to deal with a need to compress by getting rid of Edric Storm (a child whose existence was originally introduced in A Clash of Kings). Melisandre never meets with Thoros or the brotherhood in the novels, in any case, nor is there any sign that she’s aware that resurrecting men is at all within her power—in the books, Thoros does it by accident, simply repeating the death rites of his faith and he gives no indication that this was a known ability of the red priests when magic was stronger. Another detail, Melisandre’s vision of death in Arya’s eyes, is invented, but draws inspiration from a similar prophetic vision by the ghost of High Heart, who sees too much of death in Arya. Melisandre’s promise that they will meet again is not from the novels, as the two have never met.
Theon and the Boy: As noted in previous episodes, this draws from experiences recounted—but never directly depicted—in A Dance with Dragons. The loss of Theon’s little finger is particularly noted as having been to the skin being flayed from it, infection settling in over time, and the infection growing so painful that he begs that the finger will be amputated. All this time, he is fully aware that the Boy is Ramsay Snow, once Reek.
Tywin and Olenna: In the novels, Tywin proposes that Cersei wed the heir to Highgarden, Willas Tyrell… but Lord Tyrell (who is present in King’s Landing) rejects it out of hand, and there is no suggestion that Tywin believes he could or should force the issue; instead, he looks to marry Cersei elsewhere.
Loras and Sansa: As Loras and Sansa are never betrothed, this scene never happens. We must add, though, that this characterization of Loras is far more clichéd and, frankly, awful than in the novel. He is the perfect courtly knight, on the surface, and should be perfectly capable of carrying on a light, meaningless conversation without having to rever to hemming and hawing, and fawning over dresses. It cheapens the character.
Cersei and Tyrion: Again, a conversation that never really happens, though Cersei’s wondering where her brother is is indeed from the novel, while Tyrion’s passing remark about Cersei’s potential betrothed (Willas Tyrell, at the time) might come down with a case of “sword-through-bowels” is in fact a thought he has when Cersei is told of her father’s plans.
Sansa and Tyrion: As noted earlier, Tyrion never informs Sansa of the fact that she is to marry him.
Varys and Littlefinger: Also as noted in the analysis, this is a scene that never happens in the novels, and reveals far more of Littlefinger’s philosophy and intentions than he ever has in the novels to date. As Ros was an invented character, her fate at the hands of Joffrey are not from the books.