We know what we’re getting when we watch a Game Of Thrones episode, right? We’re getting some beautifully shot scenes, certainly; this has been one of the best-looking shows on television since its premiere. We know that the actors will be good, if not great. We know that we’ll see a wide variety of different, possibly intersecting plots, divided by geography. And we know that while there might be some action, it’ll be parceled out for more drama, more cliffhangers, but probably not catharsis. It’s a decent structure. It’s served the show well, as well as working for other HBO shows like The Wire, Treme, and Boardwalk Empire.

Except that’s not what happened in “Blackwater.”

It takes confidence to alter the formal structure of a television show, but it’s also often the best thing a show can do. Shows like The Sopranos and Buffy The Vampire Slayer changed television dramatically while relying on a series of formal experiments: “College” and “Pine Barrens” from The Sopranos, or “Band Candy” and “The Body” from Buffy. The way you think the show should work, the way television normally works? That’s not what happens. If done competently, these experiments can be fun episodes. If done well? They’re among the best television can do.

“Blackwater” was an experiment done well.

I was partially wrong about last week’s episode. I assumed that everything was leading up to a climactic ninth episode of the season. We’d see Theon defending Winterfell; we’d see Dany chasing her dragons; we’d see a culmination of Robb’s romance; we’d see Jon trying to survive his capture by the wildlings; we’d see Arya, having escaped into the wilderness; we’d see the battle of Blackwater, with Stannis’ forces attacking Tyrion and the Lannisters at King’s Landing.

What we got was only the last of those. The climactic battle of the season turned out to be the entirety of the episode. Stannis attacks King’s Landing, and Tyrion defends it. Nothing else happens this episode. It is, unlike any other of the 18 episodes preceding it, entirely focused on a single story, focused only on the characters in one specific locale.

And that’s just what Game Of Thrones needed.

There are still issues. My complaints about Arya and Cat losing agency last week are still valid. There’s still a great deal of ground to cover next week. I don’t know that there’s going to be enough time left to tie it all together. The season has had issues of thematic coherence roughly equivalent to the difficulties with coherence in the novel A Clash Of Kings. Yet, while those things can be argued about the season as a whole, they don’t take away from the achievement of “Blackwater.”

“Blackwater” derives its power from its relative simplicity. It removes the extra plots, focusing on the overarching climax of the Clash Of Kings that gave the story its name in book form. Stannis, with the former Targaryen lands plus the Baratheon vassals, attacks King Joffrey in King’s Landing, with the power of the capital and the Lannisters behind him. As presented, these are the two most powerful forces in the southlands (with Robb Stark leading an equally powerful army from the north).

Yet while that simplicity increases the drama of the episode for the characters we care about—Tyrion primarily—it also demonstrates one of the biggest problems of the season: in the Stannis versus Joffrey confrontation, we have many reasons to cheer against Joff, but no particular reason to cheer for Stannis. That makes it necessary for “Blackwater” to build that drama via the few characters who will be affected. This means Davos and his son, preparing for the battle. This means the Hound and Bronn, whose stress makes them competitors, while battle makes them friends. This means Tyrion with Varys, with Sansa, with Joffrey, and with Shae. This means Sansa Stark, who finally gets the chance to shine, first by sarcastically undermining Joffrey, then by cleaning up the mess left by a drunken Cersei Lannister.

The action in “Blackwater” is very good. It’s fantastic, given the constraints of television. I, along with many other online commenters, compared it to the attack on Helm’s Deep from Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers. Some of the individual pieces of action aren’t quite film-level, but in terms of building then releasing tension, the episode is great.

First, Stannis has an overwhelming advantage in numbers, which Tyrion lessens with his wildfire attack. This is a loaded sequence for a variety of reasons. First, there’s the simple technology of it: this is what HBO has been saving their CGI for, and it’s worth it. The green fire and the explosion look great. Beyond that, the number of extras involved in the action sequences give an epic feeling beyond the computer technology.

Tyrion’s surprise fire attack also links him to great strategists in literary history as well. His plan, to me, is reminiscent of the Zhou Yu/Zhuge Liang plot in the Three Kingdoms novel, most recently portrayed visually in John Woo’s uneven but fascinating 2008 film Red Cliff. The idea that a lone brilliant man can use surprise and the elements, particularly fire, in order to even out incredibly uneven odds is a common conceit of literature. Tyrion here is Odysseus, creating the Trojan Horse, or Caesar at Pharsalus, surprising Pompey’s cavalry, as well as Zhuge Liang, the near-deified strategist of the Three Kingdoms. Lord Varys even makes this clear early in the episode, saying that Stannis has allied with dark forces, and Tyrion is “the only man who can stop him.” There’s also the straightforward historical precedent of Byzantine “Greek fire,” the secret weapon of that famous fleet.

Yet Tyrion’s (and Peter Dinklage’s) greatest triumph isn’t his strategy, it’s that when the battle hangs in the balance, he builds his courage and makes a speech to save King’s Landing. His speech isn’t an appeal to the ideals of the Seven Kingdoms. Instead, it’s an appeal to the darkness of the series. He specifically tells his men not to fight for honor. He tells them to fight for their own survival, and for the survival of the people they care about. I don’t know that there’s a better encapsulation of the series’ themes than this speech.

Who is the bad guy here? Tyrion is defending Cersei and Joffrey, the biggest villains of the show so far, but we want him to survive. We want his people to survive. We want King’s Landing to avoid being sacked; we want the noble ladies not to be raped. We want Westeros to not go to hell, despite the “honorable” intentions of its leaders. There’s no good resolution here. There’s only survival. Tyrion gets that. And Dinklage nails the speech where he demonstrates that. “Those are brave men knocking on our door. Let’s go kill them!”

Yet all this doesn’t work without the formal changes of the episode. Only a handful of cast members are present, but almost every single one of them has some of their best moments. Sophie Turner gets many of her best moments as the rapidly maturing Sansa Stark, yes, but she’s matched by Sibel Kekilli, as Shae, whose fiery personality has been increasingly prominent recently. Lena Headey is also making a strong claim for “most improved” actress—her increasing desperation, combined with her rigid control over her emotions, makes her scenes some of the best of an already fantastic episode. Finally Sandor Clegane, Joffrey’s Hound, has been a background character for so long that his scenes here are something of a surprise, and a welcome one at that. It’s an odd thing for Joffrey’s right hand to say, straight up, “fuck the king,” but Rory McCann takes this, his most important line, and makes it sting.

Because Game Of Thrones focuses on the climactic event of the season, it can do this. It can make most of the characters at their most interesting. It can slowly build up the battle, and then get the battle right. I worry that this intense focus on the battle of the Blackwater will make the finale too busy. But for now, I think it’s worth basking in the glory that a single change in structure can achieve. There are many great moments to come in Game Of Thrones. An intense focus on them can break up the show’s rhythm in a remarkably positive way.


George R.R. Martin wrote this episode, so even if I wanted to, it would be hard to say that “Blackwater” got anything in particular wrong. The lack of specificity to the Tyrell army's inclusion in the Lannister reinforcements is a bit of an issue—Loras in Tywin’s entourage could be missed easily, in part because it’s a surprise—but I assume this will be cleared up next week. While this season has had many issues of adaptation, “Blackwater”  is as ideal as any fan could expect.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.




Game Of Thrones is getting exciting again.

nullOne of the show’s defining features has always been its class system, which boils over in The Old Gods and the New. It’s painful for the people who live in that system. A butcher’s boy, like Micah, Arya’s friend from early in the first season, can be slaughtered at the whim of a prince. There’s not much room for class mobility, either. This has led to a focus on the most powerful in the Seven Kingdoms, since they’re the ones who drive the story, which makes the show seem to have a blind spot surrounding any character who doesn’t have a title. That all changes in this episode.

First, Theon Greyjoy captures Bran Stark and Winterfell, betraying the family that raised him for half his life as well as a king he swore allegiance to. Why? Theon’s torn between his blood father and his adopted brother: “I’m a Greyjoy. I can’t fight for Robb and your father at the same time.” He chooses his father, now-King Balon Greyjoy, because that way gives him the opportunity to become a prince, even a king, as long as he impresses his father. If he stays with Robb, he’s unlikely to rise above his current means.

Theon’s ambition makes him look pathetic, which Game Of Thrones plays up. A quick attack with his ironborn takes Winterfell while its troops are away, and Theon comes in expecting to be treated as a conquering prince. Instead, Bran Stark can’t believe that someone he grew up with, someone who saved his life recently, would turn into an enemy. Alfie Allen plays Theon’s confused posturing well, first in the scene with Bran, then in a scene where he tries to force Maester Luwin, then Ser Rodrik to acknowledge him as the lord of the castle. When the latter goes poorly, Theon’s entertainingly pathetic attempts at macho posturing turn horrifying, as he beheads Ser Rodrik in front of everyone.

While Theon may be trying to make his life as a noble better, Danaerys negotiates with the merchants of Qarth for ships to conquer the Seven Kingdoms with, more specifically addressing the issue of class mobility. Her ally, Xaro Xhaon Daxos, argues with his rival, the Spice King, about their origins. The Spice King’s grandfather was poor, his family having worked its way into wealth, while Xaro did the work himself. Meanwhile, Dany’s prime claim to power is her bloodline, and she justifies her entitlement by declaring that her dreams become reality, as they did with her dragons.

Oddly, the arguments used in this scene, particularly by the Spice King, seem particularly anachronistic. He claims that he’s ruled by logic, and he says “I make my trades based on the merits.” These entirely modern arguments stand out from most justifications used by other characters, like Ned Stark’s honor, or Cersei Lannister’s naked grabs at power. Nicholas Blane’s scenery-chewing performance as the Spice King is a delight, yes, but the scene’s attachment to modern tropes gets in the way of its drama.

The Old Gods And The New takes on class envy more directly in King’s Landing. The court sees Princess Myrcella off to Dorne, but on the way back, the people of the city get angry, with one of them throwing trash that hits Joffrey, who immediately escalates the situation into violence. Sansa Stark gets dragged away before being rescued by The Hound. As her handmaiden Shae cleans her, Sansa wonders why one of the men hates her so much. Shae responds: “Your horse eats better than his children.”

We’ve seen Game Of Thrones deal with the effects of war and chaos on its families and individual characters, but it hasn’t depicted those effects on the commoners very well. To be fair, a great deal of this has to do with issues of adaptation. There are only so many actors to hire, and only so many sets or locations to film on. Depicting the burnt-out farmlands of the Riverlands is far easier on a printed page or two than on an expensive show, and it doesn’t literally advance the story. This is part of the reason Littlefinger’s brothel has been used so prominently. Roz’s emotional collapse after the murder of the baby a few episodes back wasn’t just another way to demonstrate how nasty Littlefinger is, but also a way to show how ugly the city becomes as the nobles play their violent games.

That, combined with the appearance of the anti-Joffrey preacher last week, helps set up tonight’s riot as an organic development. The war isn’t just a game of nobles—it creates refugees and burns the crops they need to eat. This was, if you’ll recall, the Lannister strategy when the conflict began, late in the first season. But there are unintended consequences.

North of The Wall, Jon Snow has his first encounter with one of the “free folk,” as his new friend Ygritte calls herself. Yet as free as she may claim to be, she still follows the King-Beyond-The-Wall, wich also makes her an enemy of the Watch. The Watch is one of the few groups in Westeros that looks even slightly egalitarian, with promotions by merit, but still, Jon is somewhat tempted by Ygritte’s promises of freedom. Well, he’s probably more tempted by other charms—Rose Leslie as Ygritte is both dangerous and flirtatious, and it’s fun to watch.

Less fun: Jon’s brother Robb discovers girls as well. His romance with Tylisa remains as stilted as it was a few episodes ago, not surprising since it’s so detached from everything else going on (although the arrival of Catelyn and Brienna may change that). A bigger surprise: the episode’s weakest scene involves Arya, Tywin, and Littlefinger. Since Lord Baelish can recognize her, Arya tries to hide her identity, resulting in a farcical scene where she moves repeatedly to point her face away from his line of sight.

Turning Arya’s disguise into a sitcom trope is a misstep. Fortunately, the rest of the episode works around its few minor errors: the scenes at Winterfell and King’s Landing are particularly strong. The show gets better as its characters start to reach the point of no return. Theon Greyjoy has passed that point, and the other characters are approaching it.


My belief that many of the show’s best scenes were invented for the show takes a beating tonight. The Spice King was specifically invented for the show, making his anachronistic conversation even more baffling. The problematic scenes with Dany, Arya, and Robb were all fabrications. Some of the better scenes, it turns out, were those that were adapted. (A more amusing anachronism: Jaime Lannister is dyslexic, but Tywin forced him learn to read conventionally anyway.)

The thing I’m most concerned about is the show’s altering of events to change motivations. In the novel, Qhorin Halfhand deliberately allows Jon to let Ygritte go, and Jon immediately returns—there’s no chase scene, no initial seduction. This has happened several times, like with Littlefinger offering to exchange Jaime for Cat’s daughters. In many cases, in attempting to be simpler, Game Of Thrones makes its story more confusing.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.



One of the most appealing things about Game Of Thrones as a fantasy narrative is the lack of magic at the core of its story. Magic exists on the outskirts of the world—Danaerys in the Dothraki Sea with her dragons, Jon Snow and the Others beyond, at the wall—but the bulk of the story, taking place in the Seven Kingdoms, has entirely revolved around human concerns. “Fantasy” as a genre usually means Tolkien-esque heroic quests, filled with prophecies, gods, and wizards, making Game Of Thrones’ focus on entirely human-scale drama a breath of fresh air. All that disappears in tonight’s episode, when Melisandre’s shadow Stannis assassinates King Renly.

nullThe increased importance of Stannis and Renly as characters had built up dramatic potential in previous episodes. Both opposed the Lannisters, and both were sympathetic in many respects. But they also disdained Robb Stark’s claim as King In The North, and were more than willing to fight one another, proving that petty ambition mixed with righteous certainty could be a poisonous combination. That balance is gone, thanks to Melisandre, whose magical ability shattered the rules that govern Game Of Thrones’ world. It feels disappointing, more like a narrative cheat than a fascinating narrative twist. Out of nowhere, an interesting, major character like Renly is simply removed from the board. It feels like it breaks the rules of this world, which is negative, as opposed to Ned’s death, which was positive (if shocking) because it violated the expectations of narrative.

Despite the problematic nature of Renly’s death, it does help tie “Ghost Of Harrenhal” together. Arya Stark puts it best, if a little bit too blatantly: “Anyone can be killed.” The episode’s title comes from an alliance between Arya and Jaqen H’ghar, the odd foreign man she rescued from chains in the midst of a battle two episodes ago. Jaqen promises Arya three deaths for the three lives she saved. With her first, she asks for the torturer known as “The Tickler” to die, which happens. “The Ghost Of Harrenhal” is a pre-pubescent girl, acquainted with violence well beyond her years.

The chaos unleashed by the war and intrigue of Game Of Thrones doesn’t kill just “anyone,” though. It’s primarily the men that die. In some cases, it turns women into warriors. Arya Stark has killed before, stabbing a stable boy who attempted to capture her in the first season. Now she’s a righteous ghost, assassinating the most evil men when they hold too much power.

Brienne of Tarth, the show’s other female warrior, gets the spotlight in this episode. Serving as Renly’s guard when he gets assassinated by Melisandre’s shadow, she is instantly blamed for Renly’s death and is forced to kill two knights. She and Catelyn flee, and eventually, Brienne, confused about her future and shocked by Renly’s death, swears her allegiance to her fellow fugitive. It’s a wonderful little scene, about how war destroys the social order. The patriarchs—Renly and Ned, in this case—are dead, so these two women re-enact one of the strongest bonds of Westerosi patriarchy, the knighthood ceremony. Brienne’s confusion, and her immediate attachment to Cat’s strength, are more over the top than Gwendolyn Christie, but it works in the end: she really was that loyal to Renly, and that shaken up by his death. That scene appears below.

Two other women are thrust into power by death during this episode. Margaery Tyrell, with her husband dead and many of his lords transferring their loyalty to Stannis, has choices to make. Littlefinger approaches her and asks: “Do you want to be a queen?” “No. I want to be the queen.” His sly smile suggests a plan, and with Margaery embodying the powerful, wealthy House Tyrell on Game Of Thrones, this could be interesting as it develops.

There’s also Dany, a woman thrust into power by the deaths of two patriarchs: her brother Viserys, the former heir to the Targaryen crown, and her husband Drogo, the Dothraki Khal. Dany’s name, connections, and dragons maintain some level of power for her. But with only the power of influence, she has to negotiate constantly to maintain it, while increasing her more direct forms of power. I like where the show is going with Danaerys in Qarth. The city and its people are off-putting: her host proposes marriage, a warlock performs apparent magic for her, and a strange woman with her face almost entirely covered by a scaled mask talks to Ser Jorah. There’s a strong connection between the oddness of Dany’s surroundings and the precariousness of her situation. The foreign nature of Dany’s location of the story acts as an interesting balance to the more conventional culture of the Seven Kingdoms.

Anyone can be killed in the world of Game Of Thrones for any reason now, including magic. And while I may dislike the magical assassination that drives “The Ghost Of Harrenhal,” this is a story about the effects of war and death. If anyone can die, then anyone can pick up the pieces. And if it’s always the men who die, the pieces are left for the women.


Many of the best scenes in “The Ghost Of Harrenhal” were actually taken primarily from the novels, like Catelyn and Brienne’s exchange, instead of being created for the show. There were a few minor changes, but seeing Littlefinger start negotiating with Margaery and demonstrating the specificity of her ambition to become queen was the only major change.

The most successfully adapted scene, though, was in Winterfell, as Bran filled in as lord with more confidence, quickly responding to petitioners with apparently beneficial effects, as when he sent two orphans to help an overburdened shepherd. Bran is probably the character who has been treated the worst in the adaptation from page to screen, as most of his chapters were primarily internal monologues, as he comes to terms with his injury as well as his connection to his direwolf. It may be a little late, but it’s a demonstration that Game Of Thrones remembers that there are important characters and places away from the front lines.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.




Garden Of Bones was perhaps my least favorite episode of Game Of Thrones, period. The show has been such a success that seeing it struggle so much is a surprise. It’s still competent and watchable, but Garden Of Bones was frayed at the edges.

nullThe novel this season of Game Of Thrones is based on is called A Clash Of Kings, which makes the story clear: that of the civil war that followed Cersei’s coup and Ned’s execution. Despite the presence of multiple kings, none of them have “clashed” directly, either with blades or with words. Ever since the trailer showed bits and pieces of Stannis’ confrontation with Renly, I’ve been waiting for this scene, prepared to do an in-depth analysis of how it demonstrated the show’s themes surrounding power and legitimacy. Instead, what I got was an example of what’s wrong with Garden Of Bones, which could also make bigger problems for the show in the future.

Watch the scene here:

Two narrative questions arise immediately with the scene: why are Stannis and Renly fighting each other, and where are they fighting? Game Of Thrones’ issues with geography are highlighted here: we don’t know where Renly’s camp is, so we don’t know why this confrontation is meaningful. Shouldn’t Renly be surprised that his brother is attacking him, instead of the Lannisters? But there’s no buildup in either case—previous scenes from Renly’s camp are about the presence of Littlefinger, and it’s the first time in the episode we see Stannis at all. The stakes of this meeting are as high as any we’ve seen in the show, and instead, it’s confusing. 

Clarity has been lost in the translation from the page to the screen. In the novel, location questions are clearly answered. Renly has the strength of two of the Seven Kingdoms, Stannis, one weak kingdom. So Stannis launches a surprise attack against Renly’s capital, which makes Renly stop his march against Joffrey in the capital. There are both strategic and character-based reasons for the confrontation. The location is unclear, which tends to be when Game Of Thrones is at its weakest. (This is worsened in the episode’s final scene, when Davos smuggles Melisandre . . . somewhere?)

Once the characters start speaking, the confrontation becomes more he-said-she-said than tense and meaningful. Stannis makes small talk with Catelyn, she responds. Renly teases Stannis, he responds. More teasing, and Melisandre responds. It sounds a little bit like a radio play, where the actors record their lines in a studio at different times. This may be an intentional choice by the director: the Baratheon brothers have never gone to war with one another, so perhaps Game Of Thrones is portraying their internal struggle as externally stilted.

And it rings falsely. The worst offender is Cat Stark, whose “Listen to yourselves. If you were sons of mine I would knock your heads together until you remembered that you were brothers” is monumentally misguided (though the line is from the novel, it’s taken almost entirely out of context here). So far this season, Catelyn has been the voice of reason, telling Robb that sending Theon to Pyke was a bad idea, and recognizing Renly’s “summer knights” last week.  Here she comes across as peevish and undiplomatic, ruining whatever tiny chance this meeting had at being good for the realm.

Stephen Dillane’s performance as Stannis also leaves something to be desired. He’s supposed to be rigid, so certain of his claim to the throne that he doesn’t comprehend anything else. But what comes across is confusion and boredom. He tells Renly, “You think a few bolts of cloth will make you king?” and tilts his head like a cat. There’s no anger here, nor really anywhere in the entire scene, which would help it make more sense.

Some drama is salvaged at the end, after Stannis delivers an ultimatum. Melisandre turns to Renly and says, “Look to your sins, Lord Renly. The night is dark and full of terrors.” This is the first thing that gives any of the four characters speaking in the scene any pause, as Renly finally realizes the implications of the civil war he’s engaging in.

This scene isn’t the only weak one in Garden Of Bones. Robb Stark returns to our screen, winning a battle and then dealing with the aftermath. First he meets with one of his bannermen, a flaying-happy Lord Roose Bolton, then he meets a woman aiding the injured. I suppose we’re supposed to see some romantic chemistry here, but it comes across as just one more thing to keep track of.

Littlefinger’s visit to King Renly’s camp was dull as well. Why he’s there is never made clear—is he upset at Tyrion’s withdrawn promise of a new lordship? And how long did it take him to get to the camp? Is Renly so close to the capital? His scene with Margaery Tyrell frustrates as well. He bothers her about Renly’s sexuality, but this is such an ill-kept secret that Lannister soldiers were joking about it at the start of the episode. And there’s no real conclusion to the episode, simply Melisandre giving “birth” to something supernatural. It’s ominous, but detached from the story. Garden Of Bones has no narrative arc.

The other half of the episode does far better. Dany’s introduction to the city of Qarth, “the greatest city that ever was and ever will be,” gives it an immediate sense of place. Tyrion’s attempts to combat the worst impulses of Cersei and Joffrey are as entertaining and tense as ever, and he gets the line of the night with, “That was a threat. See the difference!” And Arya’s introduction to the Lannister stronghold of Harrenhal is ominous enough before she gets invited to be Lord Tywin Lannister’s cup-bearer. Garden Of Bones lays the groundwork for dramatic things to happen later with Robb Stark, Danaerys discovering Qarth, and Arya in the belly of the Lannister beast, but it’s worrying that the episode botches the most important scene of the season .


Littlefinger’s presence in Renly’s camp at this point is a huge deviation from the novels, possibly the biggest of the series to date. It’s also an entirely negative deviation. The scene with Margaery was unpleasant. It’s his explicit offer to Cat from Tyrion that changes things the most, although most of that will take place in the future.

On the brighter side, I’m all for Arya interacting with Tywin Lannister, something that didn’t happen in A Clash Of Kings. And the depiction of Joffrey’s sociopathy, forcing prostitutes hired by Tyrion to beat each other for his pleasure, was different from the page in a way that was fairly necessary, since it had been shown previously via memory.

Still, I can’t help but compare the Stannis/Renly confrontation and shake my head at the missed opportunity. In the book, Renly eats a peach in the middle of it, adding an air of symbolic ambiguity that haunts Stannis afterward. There’s no peach on-screen, even though it probably would be better visually. And poor Cat looking like an idiot compared to lines like this:

“This is folly,” Catelyn said sharply. “Lord Tywin sits at Harrenhal with twenty thousand swords. The remnants of the Kingslayer’s army have regrouped at the Golden Tooth, another Lannister host gathers beneath the shadow of Casterly Rock, and Cersei and her son hold King’s Landing and your precious Iron Throne. You each name yourself king, yet the kingdom bleeds, and no one lifts a sword to defend it but my son.”

Where was this depth on the screen?


Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.



Back when Game Of Thrones debuted a year ago, one of the stranger criticisms was that it was made about men, for men. Perhaps in those first few episodes, when it looked like the story of Ned Stark, Viserys Targaryen, Khal Drogo, King Robert, and Jaime Lannister, you could make that argument. Of course, those of us who had read the book knew that it wasn’t about them, not really. Indeed, the characters with the most agency in the first season are women: Danaerys, Cersei, and Catelyn, whose capture of Tyrion triggered the violent confrontation between Lannister and Stark.

nullIn fact, Game Of Thrones deliberately subverts the patriarchal system its characters are stuck in, with a set of strong female characters. In “What Is Dead May Never Die," we meet Brienne Of Tarth, a new member of Renly’s Kingsguard, and Renly’s new wife, Margaery Tyrell. They’ve been joined by Melisandre, the Red Priestess, and Yara Greyjoy. Combine that with the surviving strong women, and the increasingly excellent Arya Stark, and the idea that Game Of Thrones is anti-woman becomes increasingly ridiculous.

Its setting, however, is anti-woman. Westeros is literally built on patriarchy, thanks to its use of agnatic-cognatic primogeniture, in which the oldest male inherits everything, but a female can inherit if no male is in the line—Danaerys Targaryen is the most obvious example here. Therefore these women are officially powerless. But power, as Varys says, resides where men believe it resides, making it entirely possible for women to hold power.

Brienne of Tarth, for instance, introduced as the winner of King Renly’s tournament melee, appropriates the symbols of masculine power—a sword, armor, and so on. Cat tries to call her a “Lady” but Brienne objects, and there’s no feminine form of “Ser.” She appears to be a knight, and has the skills to be a knight, defeating Ser Loras one-on-one (Loras, if you’ll recall, would have won the Hand’s Tourney in the first season). But despite her clear ability, she’ll never be fully accepted, as Loras makes clear when he pushes Renly away for reminding him of his defeat. Brienne will always be fighting on two fronts: one for victory, another for acceptance.This episode did a fine job of introducing her character without making her the entire focus.

If she’d been born ten years earlier, Arya Stark might have been just like Brienne. A younger daughter of a lord, and one far more gifted in martial arts than marital ones. But the patriarchal system sees daughters as wives for alliances, or when things go wrong, as hostages for good behavior. Arya never wanted the former, and used her physical skills to escape from the latter. But that didn’t save her. She’s on the run with a ragtag bunch of Night’s Watch recruits, and the memory of her father’s execution haunts her. When she and the Watch recruiter, Yoren, discuss their dreams of revenge, Yoren talks to her as an equal, albeit a much younger one. But that brief moment of bonding is interrupted by a Lannister attack, leaving Yoren dead and Arya captured:

Princess Myrcella, Joffrey’s rarely-seen younger sister, is a tool of the patriarchy. Beset by enemies in the capital, Tyrion seeks to use her to form an alliance—and use that alliance to figure out who, on the council, is a traitor. He proposes wedding Myrcella to, in order, the neutral and remote House Martell of Dorne (which we’ve never seen), Theon Greyjoy, to sow discontent with the northerners, and Robin Arryn. Myrcella is just a pawn, both for the alliance and for Maester Pycelle to demonstrate that he is the queen’s mole in the Small Council.

Queen Cersei, the biggest villain of the series, takes on new depth when viewed through this lens.Cersei struggles against the sexism of the patriarchal system of the Seven Kingdoms, yes, but she also wants to maintain its power for entirely selfish reasons when she’s on top. She wants to rule like a king (saying that she should be the one “to wear the armor” in the first season), and also be free to keep and protect her children, like Myrcella. Viewed in this fashion, Cersei is less a stereotypical villain than a complex, ambitious, short-sighted woman. Lena Headey was my least favorite actor in the first season, relying far too much on scrunching her face/tilting her up in order to demonstrate every emotion, but given the chance to go bigger with her acting, yelling at and shoving Tyrion, she does well.

But the star turn in the episode comes from Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell. Margaery is, like Myrcella, a pawn in an alliance by marriage between Renly Baratheon and her father, Mace Tyrell, Lord of The Reach (with Dorne, the other of the Seven Kingdoms we’ve seen nothing of). Margaery knows the rules of the game: she exists to make an alliance with the strongest of the kings in the civil war, and that’s an alliance that will only be settled once Renly impregnates her.

This leads to my favorite scene in the episode, where Margaery attempt to seduce the gay King Renly:

He’s unable to perform, so she offers to bring her brother Loras, Renly’s lover, in to help. It’s a statement that could be uncomfortable, much like Theon and Yara’s interlude last week, but Dormer makes the audaciousness of it seem innocent, and makes her ambition seem perfectly reasonable. “Whatever you need to do. You are a king.”

The sprawling cast of characters is one of Game Of Thrones’ biggest potential weaknesses. Keeping track of events in four or five different locations proved one of the bigger barriers to entry for new viewers. Introducing Renly’s court could have been another problem. But, as with the Greyjoys in Pyke, and Stannis’ court at Dragonstone, the important characters are introduced with confidence and style.


Margaery’s portrayal in the show is, in a single scene, deeper than her portrayal in the books, where she’s primarily a cipher. I expected this to happen given how much weight her casting was given in the show’s media between seasons, but it turned out even better than I expected. Yet again, the show does some of its best work when it diverges from the text on the page. Both the Margaery/Renly scene and the Arya/Yoren scene were new.

I’m less certain about accelerating Shae’s storyline to make her Sansa’s maid. The bigger issue is that their dynamic immediately makes Sansa look bad for talking down to her help, even as we should be building sympathy for the Stark hostage. Likewise, Yara/Asha continues to feel more like an extension of Balon Greyjoy than her own character, as she was in the novel.

Finally, no sign of Dany or Robb this week, which may be surprising to viewers, but won’t be to readers. I understand some things have been added or shifted around in order to give these characters more to do this season than they had in the books. Since most of the show’s changes to the text have been more beneficial than detrimental, I’m looking forward to these alterations.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living in the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.



Game Of Thrones uses geography to tie its stories together in a literal sense, but what keeps those stories interesting—or better, relevant—is its commitment to its themes. It’s different from most “quality television” in that its themes aren’t hammered home from the very beginning, as happened with Tony Soprano’s Gary Cooper monologue, or The Wire’s magnificent opening scene. Tony Soprano, in his first therapy session, lays out one of the key themes of The Sopranos: things were better in the old days, when men were men. The dice game gone wrong at the start of The Wire acts as a microcosm for the show’s depiction of Baltimore, where the recurring game self-destructs every week because they can’t turn a thief away.

In its pilot, Game Of Thrones didn’t include any similar scene. Instead it let its themes slowly emerge. This second season did have a moment like that in its premiere, when Cersei confronts Littlefinger, who declared that “Knowledge is power.” Cersei responded by demonstrating, with her guards, that “Power is power.” The advertising also included The second trailer for this season included a brief monologue Varys The Spider about how “Power resides where men think it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.”

But “power” is vague. Taken on its own, the word could probably be called an important theme of any drama. Game Of Thrones focuses on three more specific aspects of power: how power is acquired, how power is distributed, and how power is maintained. Or: war, patriarchy, and honor.

For “The Night Lands,” honor is most important. The word itself is all over Tyrion’s part of the story, as he attempts to consolidate his power in King’s Landing. First, he discovers Varys meeting with his paramour Shae, which he treats as a threat. He tells Varys, “Ned Stark was a man of honor. I am not.” That comes to direct fruition when Tyrion confronts Janos Slynt, the commander of the Gold Cloaks, about both taking a bribe to betray Ned Stark as well as following the orders to kill all of King Robert’s bastards. When Slynt attempts to defend his honor, Tyrion replies: “I’m not questioning your honor. I’m denying its existence.”

In Game Of Thrones, honor is a mechanism for people—men, really—to understand their relationship to the people in power (the patriarchs generally, the feudal system and king specifically). Slynt, a two-faced murdering villain by any account, actually believes that he is an honorable man, having followed orders from the crown in both of the cases Tyrion cites. If everyone were honorable, then following the orders within the patriarchal system would keep a stable system. But there is some serious disagreement about the nature of honor, and the system in Game Of Thrones is clearly not stable.

nullHere are things from Slynt’s perspective: When Littlefinger went to bribe him to take the queen’s side against Ned Stark, he had the option to follow orders of one of the most important powers of the realm, or let Lannister and Stark war in the streets. In the first case, he gets rewarded with a lordship for his loyalty. In the second case, the queen becomes his enemy. It’s not a difficult choice. Then, he’s given an order by his king, to kill Robert’s bastards, again, for the stability of the realm—or lose his head. Honor means following the orders of the patriarch . . .

. . . or, alternately, it means doing the right thing. You could argue that Slynt’s behavior in the first season made the best of an impossible situation, keeping the Hand and the queen from outright war in King’s Landing. But no ethical system would call tearing babies from their mothers’ arms and stabbing them to death “honorable.”

These questions of honor are more subtle through the rest of “The Night Lands” but they’re still very much present. Up north, beyond the wall, Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly are learning more about Craster’s Keep. Sam saves a girl, Gilly, from Jon’s wolf, and discovers that she’s pregnant and scared. Sam wants to help her, against orders, but Jon, following Lord Mormont’s orders, says they can’t. In the end, following the code of personal honor, he ends up chasing Craster and a baby boy into the woods.

On Dragonstone, we see both Davos and Stannis in discussions of honor. Davos is expressing his, convincing the pirate Salladhor Saan to go legit for Stannis. Saan is played with swashbuckling relish by Lucian Msamati. Unlike other characters, he’s actually having fun. Saan wants to know why Davos would be so loyal to Stannis: “Man chops off your fingers and you fall in love with him.” Davos claims Stannis is an most honorable and just man, deserving of loyalty. But Stannis isn’t so honorable later. When discussing his lack of manpower in council, Lady Melisandre convinces him that she has a plan to give him manpower. She just needs his, ah, man power—to have sex with him, despite his married status. When she mentions that he doesn’t have a son, she brings up a patriarchal point which pushes him over to her side, against honor, as he takes her on his strategy table. This is a little bit over the top, though it does fit the “honor” theme of the episode.

In another area of Westeros, Theon Greyjoy returns to his homeland. His father Balon tells him he needs to pay “the iron price” for any jewelry he has, and when Theon says he paid for it in gold instead of from an enemy’s corpse, Balon tears it off of him. He is dishonorable on his homeland. The rules are different there, and he’s lost—a fact hammered home by the prank his sister Yara pulls on him, pretending they’re in a seduction. Theon is left with an apparent choice: the honor of his homeland or the honor of his foster family. This crossroads point works better than I would have expected, given Theon’s difficult characterization in the first season.

Here in our world, we have all kinds of different mechanisms for understanding and categorizing ethical choices. For example, Stannis believes Melisandre’s offer but must decide if the just ends—him taking his rightful crown—are worth the means of sleeping with a woman who is not his wife. Or there’s Tyrion, trying to do the right thing for the populace and maintain his position of power, a utilitarian dilemma. The characters don’t have any terms of this, of course, but it’s to the show’s credit that it manages to portray the concepts as meaningful to both the characters and the viewers. “The Night Lands” is almost all setup, but it’s clever and meaningful setup. The conflicts which define the show’s new, old, and suddenly important characters are clarified, and “The Night Lands” is tense and fast-paced despite its relative lack of event.


We’re getting some increasingly big diversions from the show’s source material, A Clash Of Kings. The most common deviation, elimination of characters, shows up twice here: Aeron Damphair, Theon’s religious uncle, isn’t there to greet him on the docks, and Stannis doesn’t mention the daughter he has in the novels. There’s also one television-based change. Dany’s bloodrider, Rakharo, doesn’t get killed in the books, but apparently that actor got himself another show. It’s a pity, really, as Rakharo had been fairly well established in the first season as an Everyman Dothraki, making their culture sympathetic. Finally, there’s Bronn being given command of the Gold Cloaks, instead of the sympathetic knight in the novel, a change that’s somewhat surprising but makes sense—it gives Bronn more to do.

But Melisandre's active sexual corruption of Stannis is the biggest change, and it’s one I’m not fond of. Melisandre is my least favorite character in the books, and this reinforces that instead of fixing it. It makes a certain kind of logical sense given later events, but the seductress stereotype is just too much for me. There will be much more on this soon; I’m fascinated to see where the show goes with her. Other than Melisandre’s behavior, most of the changes make Game Of Thrones more viewer-friendly. Some may even make the story of A Clash Of Kings, a transitional novel in the series, a superior standalone story in Season Two of Game Of Thrones.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living in the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.




The second season of the densely, intricately plotted fantasy series Game Of Thrones is going to have to attempt something never before done on television. Even the most complex television series, such as David Simon’s The Wire and Treme, with their sprawling casts of characters, focused intently on different aspects of a single city. Game Of Thrones has dozens of major characters, scattered across a fantasy world. Its increasingly fractured and complicated story will, in the second season, have to maintain some level of coherence, even though the structure of Ned Stark’s tale that it used in the first season is largely gone.

Season One of Game Of Thrones was a fairly simple story, told with complex detail. It was the story of Ned Stark, a lord called by his king to maintain the kingdom’s peace, and his failure to achieve that goal, climaxing with his execution. Most of the show’s major characters were tied to Ned somehow. They were primarily his family, but also his advisors, friends, and betrayers. There were two major exceptions: Tyrion Lannister provided a necessary counterpoint to the way the Starks viewed the world. And Daenerys Targaryen, half a world away, still had a significant connection to Ned: her actions triggered a split between Ned and the king.

The novel maintained coherence by labeling each chapter with the name of the character who narrates it. That wasn’t possible for the show, so it attempted (and usually succeeded) at doing this by making its settings distinct. Most of the major players were at the capital, King’s Landing, with Ned and his daughters. Jon Snow was at the Wall, guarding the realm in the north. Dany was growing up in the exotic Dothraki homelands. Robb and Bran remained in Winterfell. Everything of import occurred in these four places, and when it didn’t, there were problems. There was very little sense of place (or time to travel) in “The Kingsroad,” the second episode. The Aerie, where Tyrion was imprisoned and tried, was the most fantastic (and least believable) locale in the series. The final war between the Starks and Lannisters was ill-defined, with apparently meaningful battles taking place entirely off-screen.

I think the show, to its significant credit, understands just how important a sense of place is in this wide-ranging fantasy world. Its credit sequence, one of the most powerful mechanisms for assigning meaning, is all about creating a sense of locale. We see maps, and we see focal points built up before our eyes. Its focus is dragged across Westeros, giving us a feel for each location on the map, as we watch those locations being constructed.

The plot of the first season demanded an increase in scope in the season following it. Ned’s failure to maintain stability in the realm has led to a massive civil war, with several different factions vying for control. On a personal level, many of the characters left their home bases last season: Jon Snow rode beyond the Wall, Arya Stark was dragged away by the Night’s Watch, Dany was forced to leave Dothraki, and Cat and Robb Stark were in the field, at war with the Lannisters. Immediately in the first episode of the new season, we see some of these new locations: Dragonstone, home of Stannis Baratheon, and Craster’s Keep, beyond the Wall.

I’ve never seen a series escalate its ambition as quickly as Game Of Thrones needs to, and I’m very interested in seeing how well the show manages to accomplish it. I’m not entirely certain that A Clash Of Kings, the second novel of the series, managed to succeed in maintaining the coherence established by the first book, and I will be fascinated to see if the second season show follows in the first season’s footsteps, falls apart, or (my guess and hope) improves upon the source material.

So, place-by-place, what is Game Of Thrones doing, and how well is it doing that?

King’s Landing is the heart of the series, ruled by the arch villains Queen Cersei and King Joffrey, and served by minions of various loyalties: Littlefinger, Varys, the Hound, Grand Maester Pycelle, and the guard captain Janos Slynt. The one sympathetic character remaining from the first season is Sansa, the most feminine of the Stark daughters, who discovered far too late that gallantry, handsomeness, and good manners do not prevent a prince from being a sociopath. And the wildcard, Tyrion Lannister, rides in to rule as the Hand, a title given to him by the father he hates, to rein in a king he hates as well. At a social level, King’s Landing is in chaos as well. Refugees are flooding the city, and Cersei demands that the guard keep them out. At the end of the episode, she (or Joffrey) also order the death of all of King Robert’s bastard children, in a real sucker punch of a montage.

Although it is the most important place in the story, I had mixed feelings about King’s Landing in the first season. It felt a little bit too artificial, all beautiful and warm reddish sets. It had memorable aesthetics from room to room, but it never felt like a bustling city or an important castle, only a collection of rooms. In a single moment, the second season dispels that effect to a certain extent—Tyrion’s new favorite prostitute, Shae, is looking over a balcony at the city, which looks cramped with houses, huge, and beautiful. It also looks totally fake, a reminder that no matter the scope and budget of Game Of Thrones, there are some things it just can’t do perfectly. Still, I respect it for trying.

The strongest location in the first season was Winterfell, home of the Starks, in the north, and the place where the whole story (except for Dany’s) started. Winterfell still feels exactly as it should, a place where civilization is scraping by in ramshackle villages, but it is ruled by rugged men in equally rugged castles.

Only one major character is left there now, Bran Stark, left crippled in the events of the pilot. He’s leading as best he can, accompanied by Maester Luwin of Winterfell, a recurring bit character in the first season, as well as Osha, the wildling woman who joined the Starks, and Hodor, his carrier. He’s also dreaming of wolves, or perhaps dreaming as a wolf. The shaky camera used for the wolf sequence was a little jarring, to be honest, but I don’t know how else this could have been done. Bran is seeing through his wolf’s eyes in his dreams, and that can’t feel normal.

Apart from those two locations, the sense of place is less solid in this season. “The North Remembers” ties disparate locations together with the red tail of a comet in the sky. Conveniently enough, everyone can claim the comet is an omen of whatever they wish, serving as a good way for Game Of Thrones to reintroduce characters’ motivations and standings in the world at large.

One theory put forth is that it signals a sign of dragons’ returning to the world (“Stars don’t fall for men”), but Daenerys Targaryen, the woman in possession of those dragons, does not appear powerful as the season begins. Her husband is dead, his power scattered, and her handful of people are stuck fleeing into an unknown wasteland. I enjoyed the constantly-changing grasses of Dany’s story in the first season. This fluid sense of place seemed perfect for the “Dothraki Sea.” The Red Waste, as the show labels her current location, is equally effective. It looks nasty, and if that’s not enough, we see Dany’s silver horse die—an appropriate symbol, as it was her best gift, when she became Drogo’s Khaleesi.

Two other settings on-the-move are less successful. Robb Stark’s Camp is where he, his lords, his mother, and Jaime Lannister are at the moment, but there’s little to be done that can give that a sense of place. Just the inside of a tent here, and a cage at night there: it’s enough to move the plot along, with Robb sending his friend Theon Greyjoy to form an alliance with his people on the Iron Islands, and his mother to treat with Renly Baratheon, the other most powerful rebel king. The characters are powerful—my favorite scene in the episode might have been Robb’s verbal sparring with Jaime Lannister —but it’s hard to grasp the scope of the war.

Likewise, it’s difficult to make much of the Night’s Watch at Craster’s Keep, Beyond The Wall in the far north. Craster is a mean little man, and the show does well to show just unsavory he is. He’s selfish, demands gifts, insults the Watch, and is rumored to have taken all his daughters as wives, but there’s not much else going on in this storyline yet. Jon Snow is still impetuous, and a “King-Beyond-The-Wall,” Mance Rayder, may be gathering his forces. And his keep, well, it’s a little shithole stopover in the middle of nowhere, and I suppose effective for that. But the excitement of being Beyond The Wall isn’t to see Craster’s tiny Keep.

I was, perhaps, most pleased with the new setting, Dragonstone, seat of Stannis Baratheon. It was quickly shown to be a foreboding place, all fire and darkness. Its statues are brown and grim, and our first vision is of scarecrows burning on the beach at night. All of these characters are brand new: Stannis was mentioned by name but never appeared in the first season. We also meet his advisor, Ser Davor Seaworth, but he has little to do other than very effectively force Stannis to reveal his painful rigid modes of thinking, refusing to even call his dead brother, King Robert, “beloved.” But the most important thing here is the imagery, and the introduction of Melisandre, the Red Priestess of the Lord Of Light. She feels alien, and survives a poisoning attempt so ominously that it demonstrates  something is clearly wrong at Dragonstone, and that Stannis is not going to be a hero to sweep in and save the day, even if he is the rightful heir.

Game Of Thrones is going to have a difficult time tying all these different threads together in a meaningful fashion. It might even be impossible. But “The North Remembers” makes a fine case for the show continuing to do what it does, because it does it so damn well—it looks great, its characters are vivid, and there’s a feeling that anything can happen. The sections in King’s Landing, the Stark Camp, and the Red Waste are immediately interesting, and the final shot of Arya is also a reminder that one of the show’s best characters still has her own story ahead of her. Season premieres often have difficulties maintaining the momentum of the end of the last season, but that’s not an issue here. Game Of Thrones is more confident than ever. That’s more than enough to carry the seemingly weaker sections.


I’m a reader of the books, and I like discussing them, although they have too many issues for me to call myself whatever George R.R. Martin super-fans prefer to call themselves. So the show is doubly interesting to me as a subject of criticism and as an adaptation of something that resists adaptation. So I’m going to discuss this (without specific spoilers, although I can’t say that there won’t be thematic discussions overall, or notes of what’s important or not) in a separate section, going forward.

I’m particularly interested in two things: how the show will adapt the books in terms of overall narrative structure, and what new scenes it adds to tell its story. On the first level, this season already seems to be diverting from the source material far more than the first season did. It’s accelerating Jon’s storyline with the Night’s Watch, and seems to be accelerating the story of Jaime Lannister’s captivity, which was the biggest event in the first season. We will be seeing more of this, though—a trailer for the season showed a certain character screaming “But I love her!”, a reference to events of the third book.

I’m always curious to see what the show does outside of the constraints of the characters’ perspectives. A Clash Of Kings loses Ned Stark, of course, but gains Davos Seaworth and Theon Greyjoy. Any scene depicting characters that doesn’t include them or the original POV characters (Tyrion, Dany, Cat, Arya, Sansa, Jon, and Bran) is entirely new to the series. Fascinatingly, in the first season, those were often the best scenes, a trend which continues here in “The North Remembers.” In addition to Robb's confronting Jaime, I also very much enjoyed Cersei’s argument with Joffrey, which depicted the story’s two biggest villains at odds, as Joffrey tried to buck her regency and insulted her to her face. And that final montage of the episode is something that would be impossible in the novel’s usual structure, and is brilliantly done here, demonstrating just how high the stakes are by depicting the murder of innocent children.

Note on spoilers: If your comment includes a spoiler from the novels, please label it SPOILER.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living in the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.