At the Red Keep, Tyrion plots three alliances through the promise of marriage. Catelyn arrives in the Stormlands to forge an alliance of her own. But King Renly, his new wife Margaery and her brother Loras Tyrell have other plans. At Winterfell, Luwin tries to decipher Bran’s dreams.
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After the initial episodes did a great deal of heavy lifting as far as introducing new characters and new locations and new storylines, episode 3—“What is Dead May Never Die”—is really the first episode that takes a break from some of these initial stories to focus somewhat more on the stories at hand, and as always, it benefits from it. Perhaps it’s generosity from Benioff and Weiss to the other writers on staff, that they’ve taken the first episodes with their inevitable problems of information density and pacing, but in any case, writer Bryan Cogman and director Alik Sakharov certainly benefit and make this episode the strongest yet. The chance to leave Dany in the red waste and Stannis on Dragonstone for an episode gives a tighter, more focused narrative punch.
The centerpiece of this episode, the thing that gives it its title, is Theon’s story on the Iron Islands. Since last year, all the writers have spoken about how much they’ve looked forward to Theon’s story, and this spare pair of scenes proves why. It has all the hallmarks of great television, of the fledgling show’s most famous moments in such episodes as “Baelor” and “Fire and Blood”. Alfie Allen’s performance—tension written into his every line, in the way his eyes moved, in his carriage—is an excellent example of an actor boiling down an intense internal struggle and expressing it with nothing but silence and movement. Sakharov’s direction—and the work of the director of photography, who helped oversee that exquisite lighting in that chamber—feels like a moment of classic television, an image that we’ll be seeing homages to in the future, pitch black rooms and a lonely figure lit by a single candle in the midst of it. And the music—the music here is powerful, filled with portent. The Iron Islands/Theon theme is, for our money, the best piece of scoring Ramin Djawadi has done for the show with the possible exception of last season’s closing music. It’s difficult to get so many elements to come together.
And what’s interesting, of course, is that it’s all invented: the show has depicted moments we never see, we never even get a hint of. In the novel, Theon Greyjoy feels more detached from Robb, and his decision to join his father’s plans seems to come more easily. I say “seems”, because we don’t really know—a reader has that impression, because his first chapter ends with his learning his father’s plans and the next opens with his admiring his new ship and looking forward to proving himself, because Martin’s novel jumps days, maybe even weeks, between those chapters. One supposes Theon did think through it somewhat, and there was some sort of emotional dynamic—but it’s not seen, and here it is. It’s a terrific way to flesh out the character, to build a connection to him, and to give context to something which we only build up more slowly in the novel as we start to see his internal thoughts begin to show the resentment that propels him to do what he’s done. Martin’s initial approach is to obscure, to show an unreflective Theon Greyjoy, and slowly force him through changing circumstances to reveal that inner turmoil. It’s an approach that works for novels, but becomes expository on the screen; this scene works beautifully as a piece of television.
There are other scenes which take material from the books more explicitly, sometimes following quite closely—Varys’s riddle is almost word for word—and sometimes shaping it to fit the medium in a clever way. The obvious example? Tyrion’s ruse to ferret out which of the three members of the small council was likeliest to be Cersei’s spy. There’s an interesting change of detail, of course—in the novel, Theon Greyjoy is never one of the candidates—but what’s more important is the way that this is all delivered. It’s all compressed, all put together in a single scene, and it’s all explicitly linked by the repeated warning not to tell the queen (Conleth Hill’s repetition of which is perfect; Varys comes to life whenever he speaks). It’s an amusing scene, and works very well, but it does call attention to what’s going on much more directly than in the novel where Tyrion’s meetings with each of the principles is interspersed with other scenes and characters, other strands of the story coming forward for a moment (such as the news that Alliser Thorne is waiting for an audience). That’s been pared away to focus everything on Tyrion’s ruse.
It’s not as if the dropping of some stories means that nothing new gets added, of course: this episode features our first look at King Renly and his camp, and it’s a camp not so much prepared for war, than playing at it. A genuine problem, in retrospect, is that no context is given to just what Renly expects to happen as he seems to be sitting in the stormlands (not the Reach; this location is supposed to be near Storm’s End, apparently). In the novel, Renly’s slow approach with its regular feasting and tourneys and festivities is a triumphal march… very carefully designed to leave Robb Stark and Tywin Lannister plenty of opportunity to batter at one another, so that Renly will find that much less resistance. Here, it truly does seem that he’s just playing, waiting for no reason other than an arrogant certainty that the war is all but over or perhaps hesitation to risk a real battle. He speaks the words about bringing Catelyn Joffrey’s head with conviction, but his actions otherwise suggest he’s not truly that committed, that he’s happy enough wearing a crown. It’s a contrast from the Renly of the novel, and I think I would have preferred it if it had been put into some character’s voice that Renly was thinking strategically.
It seems that the writers, searching for a way to spice up Renly’s camp and provide new opportunities for Tyrell intrigues, decided to raid The Tudors to help out. Natalie Dormer—reliably sly, and reliably topless in her second scene!—brings something of Anne Boleyn (both the good and bad aspects it—we were not the biggest fans of either The Tudors or Dormer’s presence on the show) to the role, a calculating and pragmatic political aspect that’s quite new to the character of Margaery Tyrell. Of course, Dormer is quite a few years older than the character of the novel, a change which evidently meant that certain aspects of Margaery’s existence—such as her apparent innocence—fell by the way side. It certainly adds for some rather tittilating (and perhaps groan-worthy, in that “I can’t believe she said that” way) humor when she suggests that she could pretend to be Loras. But the overtness of her political role is a significant change from the character in the novel, whose actual political will is something that becomes revealed only slowly over the course of the novel. Part of that rests on her age, on playing to a cultural expectation of what a young bride should be, but part of it too is a deliberate act, a choice to take advantage of those expectations and turn them to her benefit. As with many things in the TV series, the subtlety has disappeared, and the slow build—we now know who and what Margaery Tyrell is in the space of two scenes, and it’s a loss one could regret.
Mystery is, in retrospect, not something the television show really plays with very well, and this episode underscores it. Rather than stopping last episode’s scene between Melisandre and Stannis before we see what Stannis decided, they continue to show the choice and the consummation of that choice. Rather than stop at showing Craster leave the child in the wood, we see an Other come to collect it. Rather than leave Littlefinger’s purposes inscrutable, at best only implied, that infamous first season brothel scene, and the equally-problematic scene with Cersei in the first episode, seem to reveal it all. They pull back the curtain very quickly at times, as if they’re afraid that viewers will be confused if something isn’t spelled out. Perhaps only in a novel can a character’s psyche slowly be revealed, built up by layers. Perhaps when a television show does it—as The Sopranos or Deadwood did, as Mad Men does—it’s because the cast is smaller, the story less complicated, the ambition not lesser but perhaps more focused.
Maybe that’s it. But things like Theon’s silent looks, the interplay at the dinner between Sansa and Cersei, seem capable of hinting at volumes without explicitly spelling it out to viewers. I hope that with more space and time as they now start shuffling between storylines, leaving some out to highlight others from episode to episode, that they’ll find more time to do this rather than giving to the easy impulse of making it too easy, of dropping too much of the texture of the novels in the name of clarity. Cogman’s writing hits the right marks, and it’s the direction I wish the show took more often.
Two more points before we wrap this analysis.
First off, this episode not only introduces Renly’s camp, it also introduces “the Maid of Tarth”, Brienne. This is a character many, many fans have been looking forward to, and her all-too-brief presence in this episode are just what we could have hoped for. Her physicality, the spartan cut of her hair, the way the mail standard around her neck pushes up at her throat and broadens her face—everything sells a warrior, a fighter, strong and capable. She’s not a wilting flower, she’s not a delicate lady. The exquisite armor helps add to the bulk, but so much is in the carriage, in the delivery. Gwendoline Christie hits it out of the park, and we’re very much looking forward to her continued presence on the show. Given the changes to Margaery, I at least hope they’ll take the opportunity to have her and Brienne interact, to contrast their different experiences of being a woman, of taking a feminine part or a masculine part, in a way that can illuminate the setting and the characters both.
And finally, the final scenes with Yoren. Francis Magee’s presence on the show brought Yoren to life—a very different Yoren, physically, but in spirit there’s a great similarity to the character in the novel, a lowborn man, sometimes crude, always pragmatic, and more heroic and noble than most. It was an interesting decision to have a part of Yoren live on through his tale of his murderous prayer, but it’s one we approve of. Interestingly, it’s a David and Dan scene they wrote and inserted into the script—and it was a good idea, really, although perhaps in the way of all television the baring of his soul to her was a tip-off that he was not long for the world. I could have done without the very explicit linking of Lommy to Gendry, of course—it’s a “loose end” in the novels, but it’s a very deliberate one, a reminder of the chaos and confusion of the war so that the queen’s brutal command is never executed—but on the whole, it’s a minor flaw.
All in all, this episode was the best of the three we’ve seen so far, and that Theon Greyjoy sequence is—for our part—the best thing in the first four episodes. But, just to you know? We think the fourth episode is—with, perhaps, one glaring exception—even better. “Garden of Bones”, written by Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Nutter, is just a week away.
[HBO has provided a new Inside the Episode.]
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings: Jon III, Bran IV, Catelyn II, Theon II, Tyrion X, Tyrion IV, Tyrion V, Tyrion VI, Tyrion II, and Arya IV, and Arya V. Bran III, featuring a harvest feast and meetings with several significant bannermen, appears to have only been briefly referred to through the first episode and is otherwise gone.
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter:
Below are various videos in which Linda and I contribute thoughts on this episode. The first is our own creation, followed by our contributions to MTV News’ “Watching the Throne” and Sky’s Thronecast: