Incensed over news of Daenerys’ alliance with the Dothrakis, Robert orders a preemptive strike on the Targaryens that drives a wedge in his relationship with Ned. A captive Tyrion helps Catelyn, but receives a cold reception at the Eyrie from her sister, John Arryn’s widow Lysa (Kate Dickie). Sansa is charmed by the dashing Ser Loras Tyrell (Finn Jones), aka the Knight of Flowers. Arya overhears a plot against her father.
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At the halfway point of the series, “The Wolf and the Lion” is the first episode where the sense that foundation-laying is no longer the priority, and it’s time for the plot to kick into high gear. And it does just that, as Benioff & Weiss, along with director Brian Kirk, let loose. This is a wonderfully paced episode, lingering for long stretches in King’s Landing, which is very much the focus of this episode. The first 8 minutes and the first 14 or so are focused there exclusively, and there are additional long stretches in the course of the rest of the episode. Winterfell is glimpsed briefly twice, and the Vale is definitely the “B” story this time around, but has enough space to feel substantial as it introduces one of the last areas where significant action will take place. In large part, the show can afford this because—as viewers doubtless noticed—they made the decision to leave Jon Snow and Dany out of this episode. It makes a great deal of sense, given that they’ve stayed on-pace (and, especially in Dany’s case, well above pace).
The acting is strong all around, and of particular note are some of the newer faces—Kate Dickie as Lysa is frightening (helped along by that prosthetic breast on display for her son to to suckle at), with Lion Facioli being suitably annoying as Robin (a name change from the books, where he’s named Robert, apparently because of concern from the executive producers or HBO executives that it would be confusing); Jerome Flynn as Bronn (whose name hasn’t actually been given as of yet) is terrific as a scum-of-the-earth type who happens to know his business around killing; and both Gethin Anthony and Finn Jones get to stretch themselves in a unique and intimate scene which ... well, isn’t what some fans expected, to say the least, when we first heard of it!
The fact that Renly and Loras are lovers is likely to be a great shock to even some readers, who seem to have completely missed George’s clues in most of the novels, but we think it’s a good choice by the executive producers to just come out with it and let us see the relationship directly. It is, of course, all somewhat changed. The characters are, of course, older. And this episode, unlike earlier ones, shows that Renly’s been changed somewhat. In the novels, he’s a mediocre knight, perhaps, but still a knight, who takes part in jousting with gusto, as he loves displays of chivalry and the pagentary of it all. He is very popular, in fact. Here, he is not any kind of warrior, indeed having an active aversion to the sight of blood, but the fact that being able and willing to swing a sword and kill people is some sort of criteria for manhood rankles at him. He’s intelligent and charming, able to make friends and win admirers, but it doesn’t seem to matter when men like Robert only care about the wars you’ve fought in. This leads Loras to prompt Renly towards the idea that he ought to be king.
It’s unclear when Renly and Loras began their plotting, but the plot in the novels is substantially different. Renly doesn’t aim to be king at this time—he means to displace Cersei, somehow getting Robert to put her aside in favor of Loras’s sister, Margaery. So the motivations and the plan are different, but the basic essence of it, that Renly and Loras think they know what’s best for the realm, remains. It’s a pleasure to really get such an intimate look at the two characters.
It’s not really an episode for the new characters, though. It’s really Ned’s episode, more than anything else.. Eddard digs deeper and deeper, and what he’s discovering makes no sense, but it also seems portentious and frightening. These children Lord Arryn was looking into are the king’s bastards, and he was killed because of his looking into them. Why? It makes no sense to Ned ... but others seem to have a hint of it, as Arya witnessed (and poorly explained). There’s a sense of confusion, of discovering things aren’t what you think—but still not really understanding it. Catelyn certain parallels this, when she finds the first inklings of reason to doubt Tyrion’s involvement in the attempt on Bran’s life ... and realizes that he was speaking the truth about one thing: Lysa’s unstable. Her certainty that she can trust in family is shaken.
The highlight of the episode for us, despite the focus on Ned, was a scene that didn’t feature Ned at all: Littlefinger and Varys, fencing verbally. What a marvellously written scene, and how well-acted! Aidan Gillen and Conleth Hill sparkle with malicious wit, trading cutting words, tit-for-tat, which one imagines they must have done many times before. The show captures the novel’s sense that these two men don’t trust one another, but occasionally find reason to work together, to share information, and they do so with veiled hostility and smirking attitudes. The way Varys seems to relish his hidden threats makes one wonder how truthful he really is when he tells Ned that he’s an honorable man; could an honorable man be so deeply enmeshed in intrigues? And when Littlefinger reveals he knows about Illyrio—that’s a shock, to say the least, for the Spider! This is a detail not from the books, but it seems an entirely plausible explanation for a claim Littlefinger makes at one point, that he has some hold over Varys to keep him in check. It’s a great addition to the show, that reminds us that whatever else is going on, Littlefinger and Varys are two of the leading puppetmasters.
But turning back to Ned, this is an episode that really shows Sean Bean’s gift both for the physical side of acting and the emotional side. His Eddard is being crushed under the weight of his disappointments at court—all because of Robert, really—and by his need to try and do his duty. His earnest grief at what Robert’s decided to do with Daenerys comes across well, and Mark Addy helps heighten it with his outraged, petulant threat to have Ned killed as he walks out on him. We know from the books that Robert’s rages came like a storm, and like a storm were quickly gone; but even in the book, Ned isn’t sure that this is the case with his break with Robert. And then the brothel scene… We miss some details, we admit, largely internal. Ned thinks of Robert’s first bastard, an infant girl when they were in the Vale—that’s Mya Stone, who makes no appearance in the series, so far as we know—and then afterward, he thinks to himself about whether Rhaegar ever visited brothels, and he doubted that he did…
And the rain, and the fact that it’s night, we miss that as well. In the novel, the atmosphere to this scene—dark and a little claustrophobic—is nicely portrayed. The dark deeds, the murder of Ned’s men, Ned’s desperate attempt to save them, Jory’s fearless rush back to help… It comes off very well. Here? It’s different, to say the least. Even though Littlefinger’s line to Ned suggested he’d take him to the brothel when it was night, they head off immediately, and it’s still daylight when they leave the brothel. No rain, as well. And no horses—other than Jaime arriving on horseback, all the action is on foot. In truth, the logistics of it doesn’t really work quite as well as in the book… but that’s in large part because Jaime and Ned square off directly. This is, manifestly, not in the books.
We’re going to be geeks here, and complain about this a bit. GRRM has indicated that Ned is not a great swordsman—he can’t beat Bronze Yohn Royce, fighting him two-on-one, he says Arthur Dayne would have killed him if Howland Reed hadn’t intervened—and that it was his brother, Brandon, who was the real swordsman of the family. Ned was a capable man, of course, with all the training you can imagine, but his talents lay elsewhere (commanding men, leading troops). This changing of him into a man who could concievably fight toe-to-toe against Jaime Lannister—a man who shockingly, brutally, dispatches Jory Cassel, the captain of the Stark guard—seems to pander a bit to expected kinds of conflict, that “the good guy” needs to be a genuine badass when it comes to action. We wish they hadn’t gone this route, but so it goes. We can praise Bean and Coster-Waldau for their performance here; NCW especially carries off Jaime’s cockiness… and his seething rage when a fair single combat is disrupted by one of his own.
Strangely, even as they give Ned much more capability for violence, they take it away from Catelyn. It’s a detail some may not remember, but after Tyrion leaps to her defense (wieldling a ax, not a shield, by the way), she actually cuts the throat of one of the clansmen when he turns to face the Imp. Here, she merely hides against a low wall and hopes, a more typical damsel in distress. It’s a shame, really. And on top of that ... we do love Isaac Hempstead-Wright as Bran, who quite reasonably misses his mother. It’s a great scene, as far as acting. But .... the audience is primed to be very sympathetic to Bran. Was it really wise to have him question Catelyn going south? Isn’t it going to lead at least some of the audience to simply go with what he says and dislike her? If the idea was to avoid some of the dislike engendered by her not being a typical homebody, this scene seems to undermine it. Luwin defends Catelyn quite ably… but when Bran asks about how his mother can protect the family when she’s not with the family, Luwin basically gives up trying to explain rather than continue the argument.
Okay, enough quibble—
No, wait, the things above are really just nitpicks, in the end; little regrets about some changes to characters and scenes.
But we really do need to emphasize that while we loved aspects of the Robert-Cersei scene, we hated its foundation in the radical change of Cersei’s character. A Cersei who for even a moment doubts the effiacy of killing Daenerys Targaryen? Who actually seems to think Ned did all right? Who seems to have decided that, after all, Jaime’s not suitable as Hand? It’s… it’s a lot to swallow; even if it’s mostly a show, to lull Robert into confiding in her, it feels wrong from a perspective of Cersei’s actual character as in the books. And we’ll just come out and say it: Lena Headey’s performance is too controlled, too chilly, too inert. It’s as if she’s been directed by someone that all she needs to do is furrow her brow to convey depth. Headey is a fine actress—her performance in Aberdeen was fierce and uncompromising, to name my favorite of her roles—but her Cersei simply doesn’t work for us. And to some degree, the fault must be with the writers; they cut out the fire and venom of Cersei Lannister, and made her too subtle and restrained. She doesn’t have the spark, the glow, that lights up a room when she wants it to, and we’re sure Headey could manage that if given the chance. As it is, there’s really only one or two scenes in the first six episodes that feel anything like the Cersei from the novel to us.
But Mark Addy? Brilliant acting on his part. This is a scene that never in a million years could be considered a “deleted scene” from the novels (unlike the wonderful Littlefinger-Varys scene), but what he was given, he did very well indeed. Oh, Robert probably would not have thought the Dothraki threat through so very well, but at least it was an interesting line of reasoning, taking the solution proposed in the novel (that Ned and Tywin would counsel sticking to strongholds) and critiquing it. Of course, the critique only really makes sense because the show’s version of the Seven Kingdoms is depicted as much more fragile than it is in the book, with Robert’s reign much more tenuous…
All in all, this episode is one that earns (almost) unmitigated love. Cut out the Robert-Cersei scene and it would very likely have been our favorite episode of the six we’ve seen. But as it happens, it’s the sixth episode which has that honor. So that’s something to look forward to, fellow fans!
[The executive producers and direct Brian Kirk provide an inside look into the episode.
This episode covers the following chapters of the novel: Eddard VII, Tyrion III, Arya IV, Eddard VIII, Catelyn V, Eddard IX
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter: