Theon completes his master stroke. In King’s Landing, the Lannisters send Myrcella from harm’s way in the nick of time. Arya comes face to face with a surprise visitor; Dany vows to take what is hers; Robb and Catelyn receive crucial news; Qhorin gives Jon a chance to prove himself.
“The Old Gods and the New” is an episode that opens brilliantly—indeed, it probably opens better than any episode since last season—and it set very high hopes. And then… problems developed. Perhaps those problems are more acute when you know what the adaptation changes have been, but at the same time, some of aspects of this episode simply fall down in terms the conceptualization of the writing. There are scenes that are fairly nonsensical, that depend on outrageous stupidity to achieve their goals, that play off incidents for humor that betray the tone of the novels. Almost all of these problems can be found, very specifically, in the section of the story that up to now had been one of the strongest (Arya’s sojourn at Harrenhal)... and we really don’t know who to blame. It’s not the actors at fault. It’s not the director, except perhaps that he should have stepped in and pointed out how one scene in particular fails terribly to take into account the context of the environment.
Is it the writer, Vanessa Taylor? It’s easy to say yes—she put the words to paper (or screen, more likely), and having several scenes in a single episode all turn on “thrilling” tension without really thinking it through in terms of consequences and import. But… the buck stops with the executive producers, who sign off on all scripts, and it seems to me that David Benioff and Dan Weiss demanded too little of this particular episode. Perhaps they were dazzled, as we were, by the opening sequence and with stars in their eyes let a badly conceived scene or two enter the script, scenes that one might expect from mediocre network television but not from one of HBO’s current flagship dramas.
Before we go further, lets enjoy the good parts of it. The opening sequence featuring Theon Greyjoy’s seizing of Winterfell is a beautiful, actually masterful bit of adaptation. The details come from four different chapters, weaving together incidents in a way that feels fresh while still being utterly true to the spirit of the text. Taylor’s very best scenes have generally been the ones where she’s adapting faithfully—she really approaches adapting the text in an interesting way—and this long sequence simply underscores that. The acting from Alfie Allen rises to the occasion, especially when the moment comes for him to take the life of Ser Rodrik Cassel. That is not, directly, from the novel… but it might as well have been, and certainly some of the dialog leading up to it is very much from the text. A particularly clever detail lies in the beheading of Rodrik—which follows, in essence, the beheading of Farlen the kennelmaster in the novel, except for the fact that Theon deals with the last few strips of flesh keeping head connected to neck by the desperate expedience of a kick. That kick is surely meant to echo, in a far darker way, the callousness of the Theon who in Bran’s very first chapter in A Game of Thrones laughs and kicks away the head of the executed Gared after it rolls on his feet. It’s a detail actually missing from the show’s first episode that some fans noticed, so it’s nice to get this dark mirror of it.
Much of Jon Snow’s story beyond the Wall is also excellent, catching the spirit of the novels, and the bleakness of the climb into the Frostfangs and the Skirling Pass. This episode also introduces us to Ygritte, played by Rose Leslie, and she’s excellent in the role with her queer accent (we had expected Scottish, but we’re told that it sounded Mancunian according to some!) and her fierce nature. That shock of red hair in the bleak, white landscape of Iceland was also quite eye-catching—something Kit Harington noted in our interview with him—and that simple fact made it harder to want to see Jon Snow kill execute her. As, in the end, he doesn’t. But…
Then the “action” beat is needed, and instead of Jon Snow telling her to go—an important moment for him—she gives him a kick and runs off with him in hot pursuit. It is a well-done sequence, and you even get a sense of the mechanics of it as you see Jon Snow leaping along the high ground and tracking her, to the moment when he pitches down a hill to knock her down; it’s excellent work by director David Nutter. But what, in the end, does it really do? The whole of that sequence and what followed could have been used to let Jon know her better, perhaps even hear the tale of Bael the Bard and Lord Stark’s stolen daughter (though probably not—such lengthy exposition probably wouldn’t work so well on the screen as it does to read it), but instead it allows us an amusing (but juvenile) bit of sexual tension and the contrivance of Jon Snow somehow having managed to completely disappear from the ability of the other rangers to find him (you’d think Qhorin would know how to track foot steps through snow…) Doubtless this will play a part in what comes in the next episode, whatever it is, but we’re guessing whatever it is is going to be moving away from what’s in the novel. Anyone who’s read the books and Jon Snow’s last two chapters in it will surely meet that with trepidation, because those two chapters are very good indeed.
What to say of the riot in King’s Landing? It’s a testament to the show’s production values that so often it’s compared more to film than to television… but sometimes that’s to its detriment. In a big Hollywood film, the riot would have used three or four times as many extras, more cameras, and much more time to shoot—and it would have looked truly terrifying. The scale here is so much smaller, and the time constraints leave the choreographed moments very obviously choreographed. But we can certainly suspend disbelief at such a thing. What’s important is the acting, and there’s a high point here—one of those fantastic Emmy Award-winning moments—when Tyrion Lannister finally unleashes his rage and anger at his nephew’s monstrous cruelty and stupidity. The scene between Dinklage and Jack Gleeson is perfection itself (am I the only one that thought that Joffrey’s petulant screams sounded not a little like Bruno Garz as Hitler in Downfall?), and not just because it gives us another occasion in which Joffrey is slapped. The interplay between the two, Dinklage’s ability to convey the frustration and anger of Tyrion finally welling up, is something to behold.
Against that, we have the harrowing sequence as Sansa is separated from the rest of the royal company and runs for her life, leading her to be assaulted and then—and this is very much a change from the text, though it’s in keeping with the spirit of that riot where such a thing was very likely to have happened had it gone so far—very nearly raped. It’s a frightening moment, and it’s well done… as is Sandor Clegane’s entry. Finally, I think, we’re really getting the frightening Clegane of the novel—last glimpsed in the George R.R. Martin-written “The Pointy End”. I could have used his laughing as he cut down men—Rory McCann’s Hound is more of a ruthless, efficient killer rather than a man who seems to revel in slaughter—but what we have, especially his words as he carries her away and his reply to Tyrion’s praise, is excellent. We hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of McCann soon.
That’s the good. But what’s the bad? Rightly speaking, Maisie Williams’s scenes with Charles Dance remain very good—the two actors play off one another very well, and it’s amazing seeing such a young actress showing so much confidence with a veteran actor. But everything around these scenes was just problematic. Lets start with something simple: Tywin’s complaint about the misdirected letter. In what world does this scene actually make sense? Amory Lorch somehow “misaddresses” a letter ... but if it was carried by a raven, why didn’t a maester point out the error, since there’s no way he would fail to know where this Lord Marlon of House Dormund (a made up family, by the by) was if he had a raven that could carry a message there. And a courier? Would a courier really have trooped off deep into the North? It makes very little sense. I’m sure that if they wanted to make a point of Arya’s reading, and Amory Lorch’s ignorance, some better way could have been chosen than a contrived point such as this.
But contrivance seems to be a hallmark of this episode’s approach to Harrenhal. Again, the Tywin-Littlefinger scene could have been, in the normal course of things, perfectly interesting (and again, it’d be a new scene, not from the books); I particularly liked Tywin’s puncturing of Littlefinger’s pretension to brilliance by noting that his views on the value of the opportunities that arise in moments of chaos are not exactly the revelations of genius. But there’s a false tension, something that comes from the world of cheap thrillers, with the way it dances around (and, of course, ultimately avoids) the possibility of Littlefinger recognizing Arya. As the show has abandoned the POV structure, it’s not as if they can lean on the fact that Arya “had” to be there for us to see the discussion—her presence there is specifically only to create a false tension. Myles McNutt and Jace Lacob have remarked on Twitter that they thought this scene and one other sell the dangerousness of Arya’s situation. But… there were quite a lot of ways to do this; Martin himself did it just fine in the novel without contriving moments such as Littlefinger’s puzzled staring.
But those scenes, annoying as they are in how they take easy ways out to contriving complications or creating tension, aren’t so bad, for all that. It’s the next “close shave” sequence that dragged me out of the experience of watching Game of Thrones and instead watching any other TV show. Arya sneaks off with a letter—curiosity killed the cat, one supposes—and then rushes off (presumably looking for Jaqen to try and get him to get a warning out of Harrenhal, or perhaps Gendry to share the news) to run into Lorch. Who then attempts to take her to Tywin, leading her to run away, leading to his giving chase and… telling all those Lannister soldiers and guards to get out of his way, rather than, you know, “Grab that girl!” It was such a disappointingly obvious problem to witness on that screen, that we wonder how it missed the producers. Are we to blame the director for staging it wrong, perhaps? If they had been in some empty part of the castle, after all, it would have been ... okay, in any case. But as it is, it fails to engender a sense of genuine reality, that moment of, “Yes, that’s exactly how it would be.”
And then, to add insult to injury, the danger is played off as humor—humor! Jaqen’s initial reply, his comically annoyed glance and not-quite-heard sigh of exasperation, and then… Lorch enters, only to immediately drop stone dead. Just like that. It’s a joke, something meant to get a laugh, and it fits so very uncomfortably with the idea that she’s in danger when it both starts and ends in such an ill-considered way. I really don’t know what anyone in the writers’ room was thinking in the handling of this particular scene. I’m sure a better scene could be concocted that carries the gist—a stolen letter, an suspicious Lorch turning into a dead Lorch—but alas, that’s not what we have on screen. I’m very much baffled. As another critic, Rowan Kaiser, noted on Twitter, to her this segment felt like something out a “hokey sitcom”, and I rather have to agree.
And yet, despite all of this, there’s so much good in this episode: that brilliant opening ten minutes, our first meeting with Ygritte, the scenes featuring Tyrion, Joffrey, Sansa, and the Hound…
But Daenerys. Ah, what to say about Daenerys’s story?
It is difficult to convey just how poorly this action-upped Qarth is coming out in our eyes, when compared to what’s actually in the novels. Yes, many will complain and say that they disliked Dany’s story in Qarth—but I’d argue that, like the writers of the show, those who say this betray a particular lack of understanding of what’s really going on in Qarth, and in Dany’s story. Or, to be fair, perhaps they understand but don’t care, or don’t believe it’s possible to achieve the tone and meaning in Qarth in a meaningful way on television. And yet a world that can give us eerie, fairy tale narratives embedded within Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, or (to pick one example from television) Lynch’s Twin Peaks, would it have truly been so hard to match Martin’s vision? To make Qarth the fae, otherworldly stopping place as Daenerys carries her khalasar through the liminal space the birth of the dragons thrust them into and out the other end to the real world? Qarth isn’t supposed to seem real or to be attached to anything but itself and its self-regard that doesn’t even allow itself to act as if dragons are all that important. They’ve made Qarth a mundane place, they’ve sapped the life out of it, and left in its place a rather standard, not particularly interesting narrative so far.
And did we really, really have to pull the “steal dragons” genie out of the bottle? It undercuts the Qartheen ceremonial, refined culture to simply have someone decide to steal the dragons because, in the end, what can Dany truly do? And it throws into question why we’re not going to see attempts next season, and the season after that, and the season after that. Martin carefully avoids the topic of dragon theft in Essos, using cultural reasons or unique circumstance to avoid it until the time is right. But the writers have pulled the trigger on it, and done it early, and now we’ll wonder throughout the next season why no one else just ups and steals the things when it was, evidently, quite easy to do.
Can they turn it around? Well… at this stage, I’m starting to doubt it. Maybe I just hate excuses for action being thrown at us. It’s a shame, too, because the scene with the Spice King is perfectly enjoyable but Qarth now feels rather common, not much different than what’s going on in King’s Landing or beyond the Wall, and that’s not how it’s supposed to be. It fundamentally weakens Daenerys’s narrative, because the miraculousness of the birth of the dragons is now simply treated as a thing that happened and now they’re just something people want to grab.
And one more sour note, to end it: Robb and Talisa. I don’t have the heart to go on at length about this scene, and how juvenile it feels. Perhaps had both actors actually been 16, it could have worked. But it doesn’t. It’s a meet-cute continuation, made all the more obvious by the Significant Look Robb gives the retreating Talisa… and Catelyn’s Concerned Look when she catches it, suddenly launching into her spiel about his responsibilities, etc., all because of a look. Do they mean Catelyn to look like an awful harridan who jumps to extreme conclusions based on nothing? Or is it supposed to be so “obvious”, in that Hollywood way, that he’s found his eternal infatuation in Talisa Maegyr? It’s an okay scene, but it doesn’t feel like anything in the spirit of the novels, but more like something you’d expect in Beverly Hills 90210 or One Tree Hill.
I could have very much wished for much better from the show at this late stage. As it is, this was the first episode that was a genuine disappointment for me. Perhaps my disappointment is excessive, and it’s all because of how wonderful those first ten minutes were; it’s certainly worth arguing. But still, when looking back on those scenes that trouble me too much, I see too many of the things that rub me the wrong way: contrivances, poorly-considered sequences that conveniently ignore anything that would require more time and effort to achieve, “action” for the sake of action. Martin may deploy his cliffhangers quite liberally, but they’re usually smarter than this, and they’re always keeping in the spirit and tone of the novels. These feel like intrusions from Hollywood, which is so very baffling with Taylor who has revealed herself one of the more adept adapters of the material in the books.
The episode covers the following chapters of A Clash of Kings: Bran VI, elements of Theon IV, V, and VI, Jon VI, Tyrion IX, Daenerys III, and Arya VIII
Changes of note, chapter-by-chapter: