Game of Thrones: “The Kingsroad”

Game of Thrones

HBO, Sundays, 9 PM

The Kingsroad

Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Tim Van Patten

“Life is full of possibilities.” – Tyrion

When you start off with a dwarf quoting Mr. Spock, you know you’re in for some fun. I’m getting to know this new world of Game of Thrones, and while I still loathe and despise the stories that depend on rape for character development, I’m beginning to see the attraction of the rest of it. Take, for example, Queen Cersei (Lena Headey, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). She shares more than a name with the witch of The Odyssey; in one scene she deftly turns one member of the Stark family against another, and then rewards her puppet by sacrificing the puppet’s beloved pet. You have to respect – although not admire – so Machiavellian a turn, so wicked a gift for manipulation. It’s much more subtle than the decapitations and disembowelments to which the men of this series are prone. The characters, so confusing a jumble at first, are beginning to emerge as individuals, although I still cannot for the life of me tell one Stark boy from the next. But Cat Stark (Michelle Fairley, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) is emerging as a strong woman prone to neurotic obsession, King Robert (Mark Addy, Robin Hood) is revealed as a weakling hiding behind a warrior’s beard, and young Arya (Maisie Williams, in her first role) delights as the feisty warrioress who defies a powerful queen. These are characters I’ll come back to watch.

“First lesson: stick ’em with the pointy end.” — Jon

We ended last week with a fall; the beautiful yet slimy Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, New Amsterdam) pushed young Bran (Isaac Hempstead-Wright, The Awakening) off a tower. He has survived but is in a coma; his anxious mother watches over him, tying fetishes and charms, pretty much snarling at anyone who comes in. Lady Stark especially snarls at her husband’s bastard, Jon (Kit Harington, Silent Hill: Revelation 3D) who comes to say farewell as he journeys with his uncle Benjen (Joseph Mawle, Merlin)) to the Wall, where he plans to join the Night’s Guard. I was prepared to hate Cat for her treatment of the hapless Jon, but then she fought off an assassin come to kill her and Bran with the ferocity of a mother, uh, cat. At the last moment, she and Bran are saved by Bran’s dire wolf, who tears out the assassin’s throat. The attack rouses Cat’s deepest suspicions and she goes sleuthing around the tower. Discovery of a single blonde hair persuades her the Lannisters were behind her son’s fall, and she calls a secret council. Frankly, I didn’t find the hair convincing, and I felt she was rushing things. The attack in and of itself is proof enough of the Lannisters’ probable involvement (who else was recently visiting Winterfell?), and Ser Rodrik Cassel (Ron Donachie, The Deep), the master at arms of Winterfell, offers to accompany her to the capital to notify Ned.

“It’s a great crime to lie to a King.” – King Robert

Ned has gone south with his king to become his right Hand, and has brought with him his daughters and their dire wolves. Before they even reach the capital, Arya has embroiled herself in a fight with the young Prince, which escalates in no time to a major crisis between the King and his new lieutenant. The queen adroitly influences Sansa into testifying against her own sister, then maneuvers King Robert into ordering the death of her pet dire wolf. I would like to think this will open Sansa’s eyes to the true nature of the Prince, but she looks and acts stupid enough to be taken in by Cersei’s plots, and turn against her own family. By the end of this episode, I was wishing someone would set up a cross-over story pitting Cersei against Rodrigo Borgia of The Borgias, or even Tony Soprano. My money would back the lady against either of those operators. Unfortunately, it’s made abundantly clear that Ned Stark is unequal to this lady. He insists on acting with honor in a crowd to whom it is a stranger, insists on adhering to a set of rules among people who play by none. I have not read the books on which this series is based, but I’m willing to bet Lord Ned Stark will not survive his stint at court. He’s outnumbered by my lady Cersei’s wits.

“I swear if I weren’t your king you’d have hit me already.” – King Robert

Mark Addy’s King Robert really stood out for me in this episode. He seems at first to be modeled on Falstaff: a roisterer, wencher, with no more conscience than a tomcat. But in his roadside conversation with Ned, he shows a jealous side, a side that tells us he resents Ned’s upright moral character because it reflects badly on himself. He needles Ned, bringing up youthful escapades, trying to embarrass him by recasting their memories as wenching and drinking. Ned refuses to be drawn down to his level, and we can see the resentment building in the King. It festers in him until the end of the episode, when he allows his bile to show when he passes unjust sentence on his friend’s family. Addy is superb as the weak and blustery king, a bloated shadow of the hero he once was, tied to his queen’s apron strings and jerked about by his own stiff-necked pride. He’s the classic Greek tragic failure, a man who will be brought down in classic fashion, I predict, by his own faults and foibles. It will not be an enemy who vanquishes him, but himself. And I’m willing to bet that the architect of that fall will be Cersei Lannister.

“Everything’s better with some wine in the belly.” — Tyrion

The one character most likely to stand up to Cersei’s schemes is her brother Tyrion. I wanted to stand up and applaud virtually every scene Peter Dinklage (Threshold) appeared in. This is a magnificent character, full of charm and smarm, by turns avuncular and aloof, with wits as keen as his sister but a heart marginally warmer. He has a spirit of adventure and a dose of chutzpah several times larger than his body. Combining the bitter wit of Ambrose Bierce with the cynical wisdom of Oscar Wilde, he is a fount of witty observation and intelligent commentary. I would come back for his sake alone. I absolutely adored the scene where he disciplined his “repulsive nephew” Joffrey with a few well-deserved slaps and a stern lecture, once again demonstrating that size does not make the man. He shows sympathy for Jon Snow but is compassionate enough to debunk the boy’s illusions by pointing out that his much-admired Night’s Guard is recruited from among criminals and rapists.

“Love comes in at the eyes.” – Dothraki Slave Girl

And speaking of rapists, I am really, really tired of them. Yes, I know this is HBO and yes, I know George R. R. Martin writes some pretty rough scenes into his stories. It doesn’t make them believable or acceptable. We get to see fourteen-year-old Daenerys Targaryen once again raped by her Klingon husband (come to think of it, even Klingons might find that scene dishonorable). In the blink of an eye, she then turns to a former child prostitute for lessons in how to make him happy. The cliché of the rape victim who comes to love her abuser is as offensive as the stereotype of the Stepin Fetchit black man, or the mute and bloodthirsty red man. I recognize that this is a matter of survival not seduction, but it would be nice to have seen past that opaque expression to share Daenerys’ thoughts in this matter. From her questions and demeanor, Daenerys would not strike me as someone crafty enough to think of turning the tables, so to speak, on her brute of a husband. I’m glad to see her doing it, and I hope she guts the sumbitch down the road, but I would like to have seen more of a buildup to her sudden change of tactics. This sudden 180-degree turn is yet more evidence to me that the material from the book is being forced into a space too small to encompass it, that the pace and development natural to the books is off because it must now meet the strictures of television. In adaptations, sometimes it is better to simply delete some storylines; if that cannot be done, one must highlight the most important points. In Daenerys’ case, we absolutely needed to see why she changed her tactics, even if it was only her native tendency as a Targaryen to betray and deceive.

“It’ll get easier.” – Ser Jorah Mormont

Pacing and adaptation issues aside, this continues to be one of the most visually stunning series launched by HBO to date. The landscapes are breathtaking and chilly; I need a blanket to watch these scenes set in cold stone castles. I can almost smell the filth, the mud, the open sewers, the markets. The costumes and armor are different enough to be intriguing and familiar enough to be comfortable. The music does what epic music is supposed to do. And no one could quarrel with the casting, from Sean Bean’s weary Ned to magnificently muscled Jason Momoa’s Khal Drogo (who uttered not one single syllable in his entire screen time) to Jack Gleeson’s (Batman Begins) repulsive Joffrey. Every character is thoughtfully cast and wonderfully played. The characters have now been separated into different groups – Winterfell, the Wall, King’s Landing – so it will be a little easier to start to sort them out. I hope before the season is over I will actually be able to differentiate among the Stark progeny.

“You’re not supposed to be here.” — Assassin

HBO lost no time recognizing the popularity of this show, and picked up Game of Thrones for a second season probably before the credits for the premiere stopped rolling. If the writers and producers can resist the temptation to lay on the gore and sex so heavily that this becomes a self-parody, they may have a long-running hit on their hands. The intricate and interrelated families, conspiracies, plots and surprises are enough to sustain a long-term interest from viewers; the thrill of constant sex and gore will, in the long run, bore viewers if they figure out that’s all that is on offer. With this splendid medieval soap opera, however, there’s a good chance we’ll be watching Game of Thrones in 2020.