The Lannisters press their advantage over the Starks; Robb (Richard Madden) rallies his father’s northern allies and heads south to war.
One of the coolest things about the deal with HBO to launch Game of Thrones was that George R.R. Martin, creator of the series we all know and love, was going to script an episode each season. An experienced Hollywood screenwriter and producer, who was part of award-nominated programs such as The Twilight Zone reboot and Beauty and the Beast, George hadn’t written a script in awhile and noted he had to learn new software that had come up since he last worked in the industry. But this episode gave us a taste of what he could do… and, to say the least, he’s still got the touch! This was an episode dense with plot action, covering more chapters than any previous episode I believe, and though at certain points the seams of it showed, for the most part it held up incredibly well. As many fans of the books noted—just plain readers, and a few critics too—it seemed that some characters had come to life in a way they hadn’t before, which we might well put down to GRRM’s deep, incontestably-superior better acquainted sense of his own characters. Of particular note was Sophie Turner as Sansa and, however briefly, Rory McCann as the Hound, finally getting off his sense of wicked menace, glorying in frightening in his power to frighten Sansa.
If there was any real fault to complain about, we did feel some of the direction and/or editing were not serving the script as well as they could. This is an unpleasant thing to have to point out, because the director Daniel Minahan was bar-none our favorite director of the season to date (the great Alan Taylor is due to handle the last two episodes), with episode 6, “A Golden Crown”, being our very favorite simply in terms of direction. The fluidity of hand-held work in scenes, a well-done use of quick cuts to give a sense of the frenzy of combat, were very impressive. And there certainly were scenes that were very well-shot. But… what happened with the Arya and stableboy scene? We simply don’t understand how that particular edit was made. It happens with a suddeness that doesn’t feel gritty or realistic, but instead came off as contrived, even ... amateurish. We can only assume that something more was intended, but perhaps performance problems, time issues, or something else simply made it not work at all. We’re very sorry for it, but it really just snapped us out of the episode for awhile as we furrowed our brows and tried to make sense of such a poorly-executed scene in the midst of such a very fine episode.
But good stuff? Oh, there was plenty. Minahan’s direction of the fight scenes—especially Syrio and Drogo—was consistently very good. The angle he used to show Syrio taking out the final guard was perfect, as Syrio smoothly slid from a strike to a sliding throw, giving us an exquisite view of the action. And Drogo’s fight with Mago? Amazing in its unflinching brutality, showing Drogo reaching through the slashed throat to tear out a tongue (a move I’ve never seen before, whether on film or television). Interestingly, the motivation for the fight sequence and that particular finish came from Jason Momoa, according to the producers. It was a nice choice. We wonder who had most of the writing chores on the scene? While the whole sequence is notably different in some ways from the novel, it’s an interesting take on things that feels like it could well have happened in the novel; a temperamental warrior attacking the khal, questioning his fitness to rule over allowing Daenerys to have her way, was a clever way to simplify the scene, give Drogo a chance to show his prowess, and underscore a development that will be important in episodes to come.
A number of critics have picked up on the role of mercy in this episode, a thematic detail that underpins several of the scenes: the “madness of mercy” that leads to Ned in his cells, the mercy thay Sansa begs for, the mercy Dany shows to the Lhazreen, the mercy Robb shows to the Lannister scout (a new scene that seems specifically put in place to provide this connection). It’s an interesting subject, mercy… not least because if Ned’s any example, mercy is a danger in the Seven Kingdoms. It seems a lessen at the exact opposite end of the spectrum from the one Tolkien puts in the mouth of Gandalf for Frodo, within the Mines of Moria: “Many who live deserve death, and some that die deserve life - can you give it to them? Do not be so quick to deal out death and judgment. For even the very wisest cannot see all ends.” Ned Stark acted from a place of deep, abiding morality… but one that was shortsighted. Is his son, Robb, making the same mistake? Is Joffrey going to choose the merciful path?
We’re reminded of a line from Renly’s scene with Eddard in the previous episode, used in the novel but not the show, which perhaps give a hint of the opposition between the good and the bad:
Eddard: “Sometimes the gods are merciful.”
Renly: “The Lannisters are not.”
The Wall… the Wall section felt a little hasty and constrained, and like the scene with the stableboy, the confrontation with the wight (as they’re named in the novels) loses a lot of its creepy, horror-tinged atmosphere. We imagine this was due to time, but a lack of music might have played a part—these were scenes that really could have benefitted from something that built tension and fright—and it’s true, it would have been nice to see Ghost involved in the fight, and the hand crawling after Lord Mormont. The strangest addition, of the very few added scenes, was the post-wight burning which omits any details about just what the Jafer Flowers wight did (in the novel, while Jon’s dealing with the Othor wight, the Jafer wight kills the First Ranger Ser Jaremy Rykker and four other men before it can be cut down) but makes it clear it woke, and then gives Samwell a long description of the White Walkers which is pulled from later novels. Is there some reason this catalog of information comes out so quickly? We couldn’t fathom it.
Last but certainly not least, the episode finally really highlights Robb, and it looks like the next episode will do the same. Richard Madden is an appealing presence on the screen, even if occasionally his Scottish accent slips through (though, strangely, it utterly disappeared in his last scene with Bran—which, by the by, was very affecting, especially young Art Parkinson’s role as Rickon). Theon’s expectation that Robb will be afraid if he isn’t stupid was nicely played, as was the gorgeous image of the castle’s ravens fanning out to race to the seats of the scores of landholding lords, knights, and others who owe Winterfell their fealty. Well done! It doesn’t entirely replace the very cool-sounding, extremely expensive-sounding “calling of the banners” scene GRRM apparently wrote in his first draft—that would have been something to see—but it certainly is a decent substitute.
All in all, a terrific episode, and it’s no surprise that the forum is buzzing, rating it the best episode to date, as have many critics. If the show keeps on this trajectory, the final episode is going to be a jaw-dropper!
[HBO has released an inside look at the episode, featuring the executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, as well as director Daniel Minahan.
This episode covers the following chapters of the novel: Tyrion VI, Arya IV, Sansa IV, Jon VII, Bran VI, Catelyn VIII, Tyrion VII, Sansa V, the early part of Eddard XV, and Daenerys VII. At nearly ten full chapters, this is the most jam-packed with chapters of all the episodes in the series.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
- Arya IV: Amazing combat choreography, ramped up a bit. We do miss the exchange in which Ser Meryn Trant (the Kingsguard in question) when he says that Syrio is fast for a dancing master… and Syrio responds that Trant is slow, for a knight. In the novel, the practice sticks are quiet heavy because they have a lead core, and Syrio breaks one man’s hand with it and crushes another’s throat. Here, the practice sword is just wood (though we were told by Miltos in our interview with him that those wooden wasters were as heavy as real swords. Arya’s flight is more or less the same, but the encounter with the stablehand is more menacing and frightening; more importantly, when she stabs the stableboy, it’s entirely deliberate (if fear driven) in the novels, while the way it’s depicted on the show makes it seem like an accident. Finally, she does not leave with various items of clothing and her wooden sword, leaving all those behind as she escapes. In the novel, she recalls how to get back into the passages below the Red Keep, but we do not see her enter them.
- Sansa IV: In the novel, Sansa is captured and held in a room, and later Jeyne Poole is pushed in to the room with her. Here, the Hound seems to seize her almost immediately. We must give Rory McCann kudos here, because for the first time, Sandor has the right sense of menace to him. The scene with Cersei and the councillors plays out almost exactly the same… with one very notable omission. In the novel, it’s revealed here that Sansa had secretly gone to Cersei, begging her to stop her father from spiriting them away on a ship, naively failing to understand the dangers involved. Cersei uses this information to strike when she does. If this has happened on the show, it’s not hinted at. Following the novel, on the other hand, Pycelle really does play the “bad cop” role. Littlefinger does not note that she reminds him of Catelyn at the same age, however. Finally, in the novel Sansa is escorted by and compliments Ser Boros of the Kingsguard, a sign that she is trying to act the courteous lady even when she’s terrified, but that is not present.
- Eddard XV: As you can see, they’re bringing in elements of a much later chapter in at an earlier part of the story. This is in large part due to how eventful events are beforehand. This really only covers a short part of the chapter, however, basically the opening moments. The most notable addition is merely a brief line: “Not today, my lord,” from Varys, which deliberately seems to echo Syrio’s words to Arya. Hrm…
- Jon VII: The chapter really does play out largely the same. Yes, Ghost does bark and is then kept out of the fight, and the wight comes off as quicker and more “Terminator” like, but the broad outline is about right. The only really odd bit is, what was Lord Mormont doing back there? Using the privy, perhaps? In the novel, he comes stumbling out of bed. The whole situation loses some of the dread and eeriness in how it’s depicted. For example, in the novel, the chopped-off arm remains animated and scrabbles towards Mormont.
- Catelyn VIII: Moat Cailin is substantially different here, not the ancient, half-ruined keep in the middle of a swamp that it is in the novels, but the Greatjon’s remark about the Kings in the North having thrown back great armies suggests that this location is still supposed to be along those lines. Catelyn and Rodrik are alone, as well, rather than Catelyn being accompanied by the Manderly host and her uncle the Blackfish (omitted from this, and possibly all, seasons) and Ser Rodrik having gone on from White Harbor to Winterfell to take up his role as castellan. Her interactions with Robb are about right, though of course there’s some changes given that the actor is playing an 18-year-old (but is in fact in his mid-20’s) as compared to a 15-year-old in the novel. We do miss Catelyn’s remark about his beard, something which she notes her brother decided to take up about the same age—so far there have been no references to Ser Edmure. One of the stranger changes in this chapter is the council: the Greatjon is arguing that they should avoid fighting Tywin to go after Jaime, whereas in the novel he’s all for charging straight at Tywin. Rodrik Cassel takes the Greatjon’s novel position, more-or-less, though he wants to choose tactical ground. In the books, it’s the Karstarks and Glovers who urge Robb to avoid battle and make for Riverrun to break the siege. Quite notably, we get no details of what Robb has decided to do, in terms of the disposition of his forces.
- Tyrion VI: In the novel, both have horses. There’s a strange inconsistency in that Bronn refers to the idea of taking Tyrion’s food—a remark from the books—whereas here it’s quite clear that they’re quite without any supplies at all, unless Tyrion’s hidden some beef jerky in his trousers. Tyrion’s whistling may be a nod to a very important song, “The Seasons of My Love”, that holds special meaning to him… but the story that goes with it is never given, which is a real shame. The encounter with the clansmen—generally called tribes—plays out much as in the novel, although compressed thanks to the removal or lack of introduction of some characters such as Conn son of Corat and Gunthor son of Gurn. Shagga is now the leader of the Stone Crows, which we’re not quite sure is correct in the novel, and on the whole he sounds a cleverer fellow than the loud, rather straightforward clansman of the novel, who’s described as being about as big as a boulder.
- Daenerys VII: Notable changes here include the removal of the brutal depiction of the rape of Eroeh (who does not seem introduced at all), and the fact that in the novel Drogo’s khalasar fell upon a rival khalasar that was pillaging the Lhazreen village, and after dealing with those Dothraki, they turned on the Lhazreen themselves to take slaves. Part of the justification is that the Lhazreen, pastoralist herders, had encorached on Dothraki territory, but that’s not mentioned here. The desire to take slaves to sell them on to the slavers is, however, true enough. The other notable change is that in the battle, Drogo killed the rival khal and the khalakka, his heir who became khal after him, taking a wound that left his nipple hanging by a strip of skin. Instead, the warrior Mago questions the khal’s ability to lead, angry at the situation with Daenerys; while the Dothraki complain of her decision to protect the “lamb women”, none dare go against Drogo’s wishes in the novel. The death Mago gets is quite spectacular, and apparnetly all Jason Momoa’s idea. Last but not least, Mirri Maz Duur is introduced, and even speaks Common (when she calls Daenerys “silver lady”), but the extended explanation of her training—especially her having been taught by a maester named Marwyn when she was in Asshai, who taught her the secrets of bodies and ow they work—has been removed.
- Bran VI: The Greatjon’s introduction is amazingly good. Played by Clive Mantel (who, amusingly enough, played Little John on Robin of Sherwood), his boisterous belligerence is just about right. Wouldn’t have minded if he had sucked on the nubs Grey Wind left of his two fingers, we admit. We particularly liked the vague sense of hysterical shock in his laughter there. This chapter in the novel goes into much more detail about the arrival of notable lords, pointing out Karstarks, Glovers, Tallharts, and more, especially in regards to how some of them are angling to take command of the army based on their experience or standing, and how some are even hoping to get Robb to marry one fo their daughters. Robb confides quite a bit to Bran in this novel, but much of that is lost. Bran’s final scenes with Robb and then Rickon change the time and location of the discussion with Robb, and pulls in a detail from the novel in which Rickon refuses to appear to say goodbye to Robb, not wanting his brother to go. Both as in the show, Rickon believes that no one will return from the south. Hats off to young Art Parkinson, who plays Rickon, for being rather eerie. The scene with Osha and Hodor in the godswood is just about spot on—yes, Hodor really does show up in the nude after bathing in one of the pools, prompting Osha’s remark about giants. The novel features a fair bit about Bran not being able to walk, attracting looks, pitying or unkind remarks, and more. This leads him to speak with Luwin about not being able to be a knight, and wanting to learn magic, but this is skipped.
- Tyrion VII: In the novel, Tyrion is first met by outriders and defenders at the picket line, but it’s simplified to their just approaching. The Stone Crows are the only clan initially, and then they collect more tribes to secure Tyrion’s promise, which explains representatives of the Burned Men and Black Ears (other tribes are not mentioned, such as the Moon Brothers). Timmet son of Timmet is not the lean, scary youth of the novel… and Chella doesn’t get her great line about not being a maid, her sons already having taken a number of ears among them, but otherwise, it’s all quite strong and close to the novel. Tywin accepting their service, the agreement to have Tyrion fight beside them, and their calling him Halfman? All from the book, although Tywin does take the time to use some reverse psychology on the clansmen, implying that there’s no shame if they’re frightened to face the northmen, who he says are made of iron and ice and make even his boldest knights frightened. A nice touch is the reference to Ser Addam, referring to the bold heir to Ashemark, Ser Addam Marbrand, who acts as Tywin’s chief leader of outriders. Details of Jaime’s defeating the riverlords beneath the Golden Tooth and besieging Riverrun are correct, although there’s no reference to his having defeated Edmure Tully’s forces beneath the walls of Riverrun (and capturing Ser Edmure) as well.
- Sansa V: Among the notable changes are the fact that the Hound is not inducted into the Kingsguard after Barristan is dismissed, and a singificant detail from that dismissal: Barristan makes no remark suggesting Lord Stannis may cut himself on the melted-down sword, when he sits the Iron Throne. In the novel, this leads Joffrey to command Barristan to be seized after he departs, leading to a daring, characteristically-bold escape. Last but not least, Sansa’s plea to Joffrey is more or less the same, but a detail that has not been mentioned is that Eddard would be allowed to take the black and join the Night’s Watch if he does as Joffrey wishes.
- Sansa with Septa Mordane: A nice way to give Susan Brown, who plays Septa Mordane, a good ending. She protects Sansa, sending her away, and approaches her death with a well-played calm.
- Sansa with the Hound: A new scene showing how the Hound deals with Sansa. Excellent
- Robb with Luwin and Theon: A terrific scene, showcasing Richard Madden’s forcefulness as Robb…. and his fear. What a great touch with his shaking hands, or the fact that Theon realizes it’s not just some game—they ought to be afraid. The image of the ravens flying to all corners of the North was beautifully stirring.
- Catelyn with Lysa and Robin: This scene incorporates conversations and snippets of information from previous chapters, but seems largely a new scene. One important element that seems to have disappeared in all of this is the fact that Lord Arryn did not seem to intend to send little Robin away at any point; this is a matter that frightened Lysa, and leads her to threaten her sister with a trip out the Moon Door if she thinks to take her son away from her.
- Burning the wights: The final scene at Castle Black, with the burning of the bodies, is curious because there’s no sign at all that Jafer Flowers became animated and actually killed several people, including the acting First Ranger, Ser Jaremy Rykker. It’s clear he did wake, given references to “their” eyes being blue as frost, but we know nothing of how that came to happen. Samwell’s extended details about the wights and the White Walkers is not from the book, instead containing some information that’s noted in later novels.
- Robb and the Lannister Scout: Some of the council details are not new, coming from Catelyn’s chapter, but the Lannister scout and Robb’s show of mercy is. It’s a very interesting point for the character, to follow in his father’s footsteps… though his goading message to Tywin Lannister may have some cunning to it, if the story proceeds as in the novel. In the book, Robb counts on Tywin marching north to face him, to allow him to split his forces without Tywin ever realizing it until it’s too late. His bravado might needle Tywin into moving more quickly, or genuinely assuming that Robb will be present when their forces meet. Note that the troop figure—18,000 to 20,000 men—is pretty much exactly as in the novel, even while the Lannister forces seem to be 40-50% stronger than in the novel at this same period.
- Ned in a cell: Just a glimpse of time passing, it seems, serving no other purpose. Except… we knew that at one point, there was to be a delirious dream sequence for Ned. Might this scene have featured our glimpse of it, but it was trimmed for time or aesthetic reasons?
We join Tom and Daniel of MTV Geek in a brief podcast series, discussing each week’s episode after it airs. You can download it directly, or listen to it below: