Game of Thrones: “The Wolf and the Lion”


Game of Thrones

HBO, Sundays, 9 PM

The Wolf and the Lion

Written by David Benioff & D.B. Weiss
Directed by Brian Kirk

“That’s all the realm is now: backstabbing and scheming and ass-licking and money-grubbing.” – King Robert Baratheon

This show is like an ice sculpture: beautiful, sharp, shiny and cold, cold, cold. After five episodes I have seen anger, ambition, lust, greed, and hatred. I have seen no love, except for the love Ned Stark has for his children. And it’s clear as ice that he does not understand his children. Everyone else is as cruel as winter and as heartless as stone, so far as I can tell. Most of the stories revolve around politics, as stale a topic as one could ask for in fiction, and involve backstabbing, betrayal and shifty alliances. I don’t like these characters very much. Would it kill the writers to give us one romance, one genuine love story, to inject a little warmth into this bleak winter?

“Speak sense to this honorable fool.” – King Robert Baratheon

Ned has followed Robert Baratheon into battle many times, has gone through two wars with him, and still does not  understand him. Ned is described to us, over and over, as a man of honor, presented to us as a man who holds to honor when others do not. In this episode, he just looks naïve. He shows moral courage in resisting the King’s decision to assassinate a pregnant woman just because her child might pose a threat; but then rashly resigns, leaving the field and the decisions to his enemies. He does not take his daughter’s report of eavesdropping on spies seriously, and then rashly claims responsibility for Tyrion’s arrest to Jaime Lannister’s face, an act which costs him a foster son. I’m all for honor, but I honor intelligence as well, and Ned acts like an oblivious bull in a china shop. It’s hard to root for someone whose good intentions are paving the way to hell. He acts as if everyone else will hold to the same standards he does, which is just plain stupid. And he acts as if Robert will act like a king if he’s only reminded of it often enough, which after seventeen years of watching Robert deteriorate is just plain stupid. I find it hard to root for a stupid hero, too.

“If the King got what he wanted all the time, he’d still be fighting a damned rebellion.” – Ned Stark

We are reminded, once again, that Robert’s slide into ignominy started when his beloved was killed. She left “a hole that seven kingdoms could not fill”. Sad, to be sure, but not an excuse for retiring from one’s responsibilities. I could not help but contrast Robert with Michael Corleone, from The Godfather. Like Robert, Michael falls in love at a young age (with Apollonia); like Robert’s beloved, she is murdered and leaves him heartbroken. Like Robert, Michael becomes closed off, unable to really love anyone again, refusing to move past the pain and allow himself to heal. He becomes a man of ice. But there the resemblance ends. Michael is ruthless but strong; his every action is aimed at protecting his family and moving them out of the crime business eventually. He was once an upright war hero; now he sacrifices that sense of honor and self in order to become a crime boss, in order to protect his family. He bends to the time, to circumstance, to necessity, but only to serve the needs of others. We may not like him, but we can respect him.

“I thought being king meant I could do whatever I wanted.” – King Robert Baratheon

Robert, however, is full of blubbering self-pity. He cares for no one, not his wife, his (bastard) children, his alleged children, his friends or his kingdom. He is a weak man, who has allowed his broken heart to break the rest of him. He has lost the sense of justice and honor that made him launch a revolution, to take the throne from a madman to protect the Kingdoms from his madness. Now he doesn’t give a damn about the people he rescued. He may grace his queen with a noble rationale for not holing up like a coward, but in the end he does nothing for them but bewail their inevitable fate. His solution to a looming crisis is not the manly confrontation of armies, but an assassination in the night. I cannot like or respect Robert Baratheon, and no longer have much pity for him.

“The wolf and the lion will be at each others’ throats soon.” – Lord Varys

Recent years have brought us wonderful historical costume dramas like Rome and The Tudors, shows with as much gore and sex as any episode of Game of Thrones. All of these shows highlight one glaring flaw in historical fiction: political history is boring. While it was, for a bit, amusing to see Henry VIII’s maneuverings against the European powers, in the long run what we really want to see is the marriages. It was fun to see ancient Rome brought to life, with all its pagan glory, but ultimately the infighting among the Senate was mere background to the bedroom intrigues. Yesterday’s politics is the oldest of old news; we’re here for the costumes, the action, the sex. So watching an extended argument between Baelish and Lord Varys on who has the better intelligence service, or a lengthy council meeting, is about as interesting as watching paint dry. The problem with these sorts of costume dramas is that, by the time you’ve paid for elaborate sets and costumes, it’s damned expensive to mount a cavalry charge or a pageant. You wind up with endless interior scenes, talking heads, and so forth to trim the budget. To its credit, Game of Thrones is still showing us plenty of pageantry, but there is too much emphasis on the politics. And everyone talks too much about their “Houses”. It’s supposed to make them sound noble, but only makes them sound pompous.

“I think you’re mistaking business with pleasure.” – Lord Varys

Of course we get the usual quota of steamy sex. Theon Greyjoy brags about his House to a prostitute in a scene which confirms that shaving is a popular hygienic activity in King’s Landing. The king’s brother is revealed to be openly gay, and also given to shaving. Tyrion even eyes Lady Stark speculatively after a bloody fight. So far, though, as noted, there isn’t one single love scene in this story. For all the nudity, for all the loud sex noises, for all the gratuitous humping, there is not one single scene of genuine, honest passion, sensuality or love. These people are pretty and highly photogenic, but none of them seem to be actually enjoying themselves. This is the coldest, most joyless and loveless society I’ve seen onscreen sinceOz debuted.

“Am I starting to make sense?” – Tyrion

As before, Tyrion steals every scene he is in. Alone of this set of characters, Tyrion possesses the bleak irony and bitter wisdom of someone who has earned his scars. Self-aware beyond anyone else in this cast, he knows he is outcast and despised, and has come to terms with it. He may also be the only intelligent person in this story. When accused of planning the assassination of Bran, he goes right to the heart of the evidence: “What imbecile arms an assassin with his own dagger?” This should have occurred to Catelyn Stark or her chief advisor, but they’re too busy striking righteous poses to actually consider the implications of their find. Again – stupid people hiding behind honor. Not a winning combination for an audience. But Tyrion makes up for a host of problems: his doughty defense of Lady Stark during the ambush, his guarded self-loathing when he kills his first man, his warnings about Lysa Aryn all add depth to the character and the scenes he is in. Peter Dinklage continues to show this little man with the big mind to us as a sympathetic yet not pathetic character. I love him not because he has overcome his stature, but because he doesn’t notice it.

“Mommy, is that the bad man?” – Robert Aryn

Oh, goody. Another vicious brat with Mommy issues. We are introduced to Lady Stark’s sister Lysa, who has not yet weaned her seven year old son. Tyrion warns Lady Stark that her sister is touched, and she ignores him, as usual. Obviously unstable, she is outraged when Catelyn brings Tyrion to her for trial. She orders him sent to a dungeon, which turns out to be one of the more creative and imaginative locales in the show so far. The cell is actually open on one side to the air, and a terrifying drop to the valley below. Robert’s bit onscreen is brief, but sufficient to show multiple emotional problems, from dependency to a flaming temper, shielded by his overprotective mother. I’m beginning to wonder if his real father isn’t Jaime Lannister, seeing as how both Robert Aryn and Joffrey Baratheon share the same repulsive personality. What really is starting to annoy me is Catelyn Stark’s arrogance: Tyrion saved her life, and honestly warned her about her sister, but she still pursues a trial, still believes him an assassin? Like her husband, she is beginning to look honest, moral and stupid as a box of rocks.

“I’m a girl!” — Arya

Fortunately, the one kid in this show that I like finally stumbles across the dragons. While chasing a cat, Arya finds herself in a crypt-like basement, where a huge skull taller than a man lies against a wall. She hides in it and overhears two conspirators plotting her father’s downfall. She is canny enough not only to avoid being caught (which happens in 90% of the cases where a child is eavesdropping onscreen) but to escape after being locked in.  I like her intelligence and her creativity; I only hope Arya is wise enough to take her father’s ideals with a grain of salt. And I hope she goes back to the dragon museum. What’s the point of a fantasy show with no magic in it? I wanted dragons, I got a taste of them this week, but I’d also like to see some ghouls or wights or white walkers, something to send a chill down my back other than the acting.

“Take him alive. Kill his man.” – Jaime Lannister

On the point of fleeing back to Winterfell, Ned detours to meet yet another of Robert’s bastards. As he leaves this pointless exercise, Jaime Lannister accosts him over Tyrion’s arrest. Foolishly, Ned takes responsibility, and in the ensuing fight his guard captain, Jory Cassel, is slain. That’s too bad, since I liked what I saw of the loyal Jory, but it does make one less dark-haired soldier to try to distinguish from the Stark brood. It also reinforces our perception of Jaime as a ruthless killer, albeit one with a little more dash and flair than most.

“Family, duty, honor. Is that the right order?” – Bran Stark

Too many talking heads telling one another things they already know, too few dragons, and a lot of loveless, mechanical sex. Not much to love in this episode. I’m looking forward to next week mainly to see how Tyrion fares in the hands of his enemies, and in hopes that we’ll see some more magical critters. Something needs to liven up this show, which is becoming a political soap opera with swords.