Game of Thrones: “Fire and Blood”

Hic Sunt Dracones

“Fire and Blood”

Game of Thrones

HBO, Sundays, 9 PM

Written by Daniel Benioff & D. B. Weiss

Directed by Alan Taylor

“Heads. Spikes. Walls.” — Tyrion Lannister

As a metaphor for the entire series Game of Thrones, the dragons are perfect: they took their time getting here, they are not impressive, but they have enormous long-range potential. I guess that the drawn-out pace of this series was required to introduce audiences to an entire new fantasy world,  to set us up for the heavily complicated politics of medieval warfare, to present a very large cast of complicated characters. I like complicated, up to a point. I like politics, up to a point. And I have a soft spot for gorgeous scenery and costumes, no question. But I wanted something a little more than a mirror of Lord of the Rings, or all of its imitators. Until this, the final episode of the first season, I was still waiting. Now the dragons have arrived, and it feels that the real story is beginning — just as the series goes into hiatus until next year.

“We have to get the girls back. And then we will kill them all.” — Catelyn Stark

We pick up where we left off, with the execution of Ned Stark before the horrified eyes of his daughters. Well, one daughter: Arya is spared that sight by Yoren (Francis Magee, House of Anubis), the kindly recruiter for the Night Watch, who smuggles her out of the city passing as a boy. Sansa faints, and when she revives Joffrey leads his intended bride on a stroll along the castle walls, the better to point out to her the piked heads of her father and her nurse. When she offers the tiniest bit of sullen rebellion, he has her struck, not deigning to do the deed himself. For the first time, I was glad Sansa was engaged to this repellent king; maybe karma is catching up to her after all. The mistress of machinations, Queen Cersei, is hardly onscreen for this episode. She stands next to Sansa when Ned dies, she stands next to Joffrey as he “rules”. We see one shot of her refusing the consolations of a young and nubile Lancelle Lannister, King Robert’s page, but nothing of her undoubted involvement in plots and plans. She’s far more interesting than Joffrey, in the way that a cobra is more interesting than a cockroach.

“There are no men like me. Only me.” — Jaime Lannister

As the other members of the Stark clan learn of Ned’s death, they react in typical manner. The helpless and powerless rely on magic: Bran and Rickon, the youngest Starks seek a vision of their father in the cellars. Robb destroys his own sword, hacking at a tree. Sansa retreats inside herself. Arya makes a bold escape. And Catelyn assaults Jaime Lannister while he is powerless. How utterly believable it is that this woman, whose adherence to a “code of honor” she shared with her husband led to his death, now breaks it by hitting a helpless, tied prisoner with a rock. Even then, Jaime is more than a match for her dull wit; he can freely admit to Catelyn that he tried to kill her son, and still come off as an embittered and angry man propped up by pride and accomplishment. Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, throughout the series, has shown us a multi-layered and fascinating villain, one with more depth than 90% of the simple caricatures that make up the dramatis personae. The only one of Ned’s sons to react with maturity and wisdom is Ned’s bastard, the one most like him, Jon Snow. When Jon leaves the Night Guard to join his brother Robb, his mates convince him to go back, in a moving scene where they surround him in the snow and recite the Oath in unison. As he rides out on a recon mission north of the Wall, however, it’s clear Jon is still mulling over his duty in this matter, and has not yet decided what he will ultimately do. I am persuaded, however, that no matter what he chooses, Ned would have approved.

“Why shouldn’t we rule ourselves?” — Greatjon

Yes, why not? But no, it seems that Robb (now Lord) Stark’s chief bannerman Greatjon (Clive Mantle, Into the Storm) is not actually calling for democracy. Instead, after a victory, the capture of Jaime Lannister, and the shocking news of their lord’s death, the bannermen refuse to support the candidate for King that Robb backs, the yet-unseen Stannis Baratheon. Why not revert to the old ways, the old gods, the local family? They raise a cry for Robb, calling him King in the North. Looking to his mommy for approval, Robb gets only an enigmatic stare from her. Between Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister Baratheon, I’m not sure which queen mother is the more conniving — and stupid. Robb cannot hope to command the loyalty of anyone outside his family’s sphere of influence, and his youth and inexperience will give even them pause. I don’t have to be an expert in military history to know that a young King Arthur comes along only once a millennium — and Robb is no Arthur. He’s not even Sir Kay. This is not the beginning of an independent North, but the beginning of its downfall.

“When dead men, and worse, come hunting for us in he night, do you think it matters who sits on the Iron Throne?” — Lord Commander Mormont

I wish we could have seen more of the Wall and what lies behind it. Medieval Western history is full of exciting battles, villains, heroes and quests. What I look for in a fantasy version of it is a little something extra, and by far the White Walkers are something extra. But the producers (or perhaps creator George R. R. Martin) are dealing them out with a stingy hand, teasing us with second-hand tales, rumor, and hints. We’ve seen a couple of zombies, but beyond that stunning opening, no actual Walkers. Perhaps the producers are being chintzy because, as Mormont points out, the threat from beyond the Wall trumps any threat south of it. If the powers that be in Westros truly believed there was a threat headed their way on the order of White Walkers, they would promptly unite, depose and assassinate Joffrey, and start to arm their defenses. Or they would if they were prudent. In the end, however, none of these alliances, shifts and stratagems will be anywhere near as compelling viewing as the dragons. Dragons and Walkers will be so fascinating we will grow impatient with tedious human politics, so I am not surprised the producers are hoarding them.

“I am the blood of the dragon.” — Daenerys

None the characters we met in the pilot remain unchanged, which is a good thing. One of them has changed more than anyone else: Daenerys Targaryen. From a sex puppet under the domination of her mad brother, to the regal Khaleesi of the finale, she has acquired strength and purpose, using the brutal life she has been forced into as a springboard for her own choices, her own life. Her life among the Dothraki started with rape and contempt; along the way she apparently succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome and falls in love with her husband/rapist. But when a witch poisons his wound, then kills her unborn son to keep Khal Drogo alive as a breathing vegetable, something snaps. Her Khal may have deserted her, she may have lost her husband and her son, her status and her future, but she still has that steel spine. She smothers the living corpse of her husband and burns the murderous witch on his pyre; then she takes the dragon eggs with her into the pyre over Ser Jorah Mormont’s heartbroken protests. He is the first to find her the next morning, naked, ash-covered but alive, in the embers of her husband’s pyre. And she is holding three newly-hatched dragons — the size of chickens. Not exactly awe-inspiring in size, but possessing enough potential to bring Jorah literally to his knees.

“A man with great ambition and no morals…” — Lord Varys

Some of the objections I had to this show at the beginning have been addressed: I can now distinguish most of the Stark children (although I still frequently confuse Robb and Theon Greyjoy), the background has been fleshed out considerably. I am glad every week for the opening credits, which give us an animated map and a thirty-second tour of Martin’s world, so we know where the kingdoms lie. We have seen zombies, dire wolves, and, now, dragons. But one of my objections remains: too much pointless, degrading sex. Way, way, way the heck too much gratuitous nudity. Have the producers decided to add a naked woman to every episode, just to keep the fanboys awake? Because they usually add nothing whatsoever to a scene, other than to distract us during long expositions. In tonight’s finale, we are treated to a naked woman decorating a scene in which Grand Master Pycelle (Julian Glover, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) rambles on and on and on, or we get shots of Daenerys rising from the ashes like a naked phoenix, with dragons covering those parts of her which fall under the municipal code. I know that nudity, sex, and even brutal sex may be necessary to tell this story; I know that cruelty and torture are part of a medieval society. But I don’t have to like having it shoved in my face in every episode. And I still, after ten episodes, have yet to see a love scene I believe in (yes, that includes Khal Drogo and Daenerys). In fact, there’s still not a lot of love anywhere; Jorah Mormont may be the only man in this show who is actually in love.

“The thing about kings…” — Grand Master Pycelle

Having said that, there are some brilliant features to this series. The costumes, settings and overall design wow me every week. The scenery is superb, and if sparingly used is still effective. There are no garishly bad performances, and a couple that are Emmy-worthy: Peter Dinklage and Sean Bean. I’ve praised Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister so much I can’t say much more without beginning to sound like Dinklage’s public relations person. As for Bean, it’s amazing enough that a television network actually had the cojonesto kill off the lead character in the first season; it’s even better that Sean Bean, in nine short episodes, made us care deeply for this flawed but admirable man. If I had my druthers, Nicolaj Coster-Waldau would be in the running, for effortlessly bringing a complex and Byzantine a villain so vividly to life onscreen. Even in supporting roles, young actors like Jack Gleeson and Maisie Williams give mature, convincing performances.  Mark Addy and Lena Headey brought strong roles to life with ease and credibility. There isn’t a single performance, nuance of dialog, or artistic value that falls short of first-class. The story may be less than the package it comes in, but it’s a hell of a package.

“You should get some sleep. It’s going to be a long war.” — Jaime Lannister

Game of Thrones averaged 2.4 million viewers per episode over its ten-episode first season, for an average share of about 1.1 in the 18-49 demo. This is not even in the neighborhood of HBO’s True Blood, but then very little on HBO is. HBO is sufficiently happy with viewer and critical response to have renewed it right off the bat, so we can look forward to more of the politics (and dragons) of Westros — in the Spring of 2012, nearly a year from now. That should give all of us just enough time to read the books.