(In which I talk of Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things and The Wolf and the Lion.)
Well, things are picking up quite nicely in the enthralling political and social dramas unfolding in Westeros and the lands across the Narrow Sea, aren’t they? As I said in the last installment, Game of Thrones‘ first few episodes did a spectacular job at laying the groundwork for the meat of the plot and get the ball rolling on its various narrative arcs, and episodes four and five continue with that storytelling inertia with some pretty big character and plot moments. “Never a dull moment” sounds a bit cliche, but it’s totally true– Game of Thrones thus far hasn’t slackened its grip on the tension established in the program’s early episodes, and there’s nary a boring scene to be found to date as stakes are raised, characters begin to die, and the deep mysteries the show presents begin to become much, much less opaque.
Cripples and Wolf both continue the grand juggling act of the series by managing to not only keep each of the plot threads of the series clear and distinct, but also relate them all to one another to solidify that grand over-arching tale being told. We lose sight, slightly, of Daenerys Targaryen and her growth as both a young woman and the queen of the Dothraki horde, true, but much is made of young Jon Snow and his arrival at the Wall in the North, and his “taking the black” as he begins his life anew in the Night’s Watch; and much is made of the brewing rivalry between House Stark and House Lannister as the patriarch of the former, Ned Stark, begins his work as the Hand of the King and the brother-sister team of the latter, Cersei and Jaime Lannister, carry on plotting against him, his family, his friends, the king, and pretty much anybody who either gets in their way or they just plain aren’t tickled by.
As far as that particular conflict goes, Cripple simmers portentously before Wolf ends up boiling over in a number of acts of violence– and some much weirder and more unwholesome things. If any doubt could be drawn over the dynamic between House Lannister and House Stark beforehand, then there should now be none to question their diametric opposition to one another; here, the Lannister’s bid for power and the Stark’s mission to find the culprit behind Bran’s attempted assassination and constant striving to maintain their honorable stature clash head-on. Game of Thrones doesn’t have a traditional protagonist/antagonist sliding scale of morality in which one person is clearly identified as that which is most vile and evil and the other is marked as the just and ardent defender of the good, but with the last two episodes it comes quite close without tempering the delicious ambiguity that has to this point made the series sing.
If I have one bad thing to say about the last two offerings, it’s that the first, Cripples, is clearly meant to act as an info dump, filling in background information for us and clearing up some of the fictional world’s history. But in making that comment, I have to offer a great deal of praise, since Cripples manages to be incredibly engaging despite being totally laden with exposition. There’s a right way, and a wrong way, to use exposition, and Cripples very much gets it right; everyone present in the climactic Inn sequence knows who Catelyn Stark (nee Tully) is and who her family has bonds with, but she’s not dropping names and lecturing on her familial allegiances as a clumsy way of filling us in. Rather, she’s doing so to intimidate poor Tyrion and underscore her own power and authority. It’s a fabulously done scene that builds and builds from the moment the hapless “Imp” steps into the Inn until the credits roll, and a great example of how clever writing can negate the mortal sin of falling back on exposition.
I frankly feel like the first four episodes in total all were tailored to build up to Wolf, in which all of the aggression and anger lingering beneath the surface of the show breaks through in fits of bloody and very well choreographed fighting sequences. Swordplay being such a staple of fantasy, and of any medieval influenced genre, there’s a sense of excitement at seeing the characters of the story show us what they can do with a blade; maybe more than that, there’s gratification felt as well, since we’re finally able to bear witness to the battle prowess of figures such as Jaime and Ned, both of whom are regarded at length and frequently as masterful warriors. There’s a visceral satisfaction in watching the aforementioned plot characters, as well as minor players like the Hound*, swinging swords at their foes, almost like the show fully announcing itself not just as a political period drama but a full-on fantasy story in which matters that cannot be settled in the public court are decided at the end of sharp steel.
Maybe that fantasy element is played up by the introduction and exploration of new locations, namely the Wall and the Vale, where the Lady Stark’s sister (and the widow of the previous Hand of the King) resides. While the previous areas of interest– Winterfell, King’s Landing, Pentos– feel “real” in the sense that they bear resemblance to real world cities and landmarks, there’s nothing quite like the gargantuan Wall which the legendary Night’s Watch defends or like the Eyrie, with its wall-less and open air prison cells and the Lady Arryn’s throne room. We’re not quite in Rings territory yet, but Cripples and Wolves both remind us that we’re not in the real world, but rather Westeros, where the fantastical does exist even if it’s not in our faces at all times.
And that’s not even mentioning the dragon skulls.
Performances continue to be excellent across the board, with Dinklage, Bean, and Coster-Waldau leading the pack; each is given a number of moments to shine, and in particular Dinklage makes the most of every second he’s on screen with his complex and hugely entertaining turn as Tyrion Lannister. I find myself more and more impressed, as well, with Emilia Clarke, who’s doing a splendid job bringing Daenerys up from girlhood to womanhood and making her palatable; she doesn’t figure into Wolf whatsoever (not directly at least), but she has a key moment in Cripples that the next episode likely will follow up on as her relationship with her despicable and laughably ignorant brother comes to a head. I also can’t help but mention Maisie Williams, whose rendition of Arya Stark is impossibly endearing; she’s fast become my favorite television tomboy, spunky and full of verve. But all of this said, it’s Mark Addy and Lena Headey who share the best character moment in both episodes, portraying a surprisingly tender moment between Robert and Cersei that’s emotional and utterly heartbreaking; the scene has no origins in the book (to my understanding), but it feels truly like it belongs, and Addy and Headey do great work together here and make their candid and even slightly tragic back and forth wholly memorable.
Game of Thrones is well on track to becoming one of the best fantasy adaptations of the day, steadily moving toward its inevitable epic and crimson-tinged conclusion. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but the show is solidly written throughout with smart plotting and careful deployment and construction of narrative; the task of translating Martin’s massive and rich novels into a ten-episode season seems Herculean in nature, but Benioff and Weiss have managed that duty with aplomb and immense skill. In short, it’s hard not to gush, especially for a fantasy nut. Next week’s episode, A Golden Crown, promises to up the ante even more as we return to the plains across the sea and the power struggle between the Targaryen siblings (and Khal Drogo), and the aftermath of Wolf‘s conclusion is surveyed. Stay tuned…
*Who earns the first supremely badass moment in the series. “The Hound versus the Mountain” will surely etch itself into the minds of many a viewer.