Game of Thrones, Season 2, Television

Season 2, Episode 4: “A Clash of Kings”

King Joffrey took things to a whole new level of disturbing during this week's episode of Game of Thrones.

King Joffrey took things to a whole new level of disturbing during this week’s episode of Game of Thrones.

Much has been made of the violence and sex on Game of Thrones, and if it was possible for the writers to push the envelope even further, they succeeded in doing just that this week. Torture, twisted sexual violence, heads nailed on spikes, rat buckets and the graphic birth of a shadow monster are just a few of the things we were treated to on Sunday night during “Garden of Bones,” the first episode of Season 2 to be written by a woman.

The theme of this chapter was the lack of honor among these would-be kings, and in no king is this more obvious than Joffrey Baratheon. After last night’s episode, even Ned Starks’s spontaneous beheading seemed rational by comparison to the Joffrey we see now. His crossbow has become an extension of his arm. I felt a chill watching him as he held Sansa in its sight for far too long and commanded her clothes be ripped off in court. This scene is downright haunting after what follows, a highly disturbing scene of sexual violence in Joffrey’s bedroom that I hardly wish to recap here (all I can say is prostitutes have had it rough this season). It becomes clear that this is a teenage boy with no apparent sexual desires, who lusts only for violence and control. He did not want to see Sansa stripped naked for any pleasure other than the violence and degradation she would experience, exposed before the whole court. Does everyone finally sympathize with her?

Sansa’s brother Robb, ever the humanist, is the least obvious example of the dishonor among these kings (he is a Stark, after all). Like it was with his father, you really get the sense that Robb takes the title of lord and protector seriously. Many noblemen in this series forget that last part, but not Robb. If any one side commands true loyalty from their people, it is the Northmen, and for good reason.

On the battlefield, it seems that Robb is the only lord who sees the devastation and destruction inherent in war. It has always been with a heavy heart that he has claimed his victories. In the ninth episode of Season 1 (“Baelor”), after the historic defeat and capture of Jaime Lannister, Robb remarks privately to Theon, “I sent two thousand men to their graves today.” Theon replies, “The bards will sing songs of their sacrifice.” “Aye,” Robb says, “but the dead won’t hear them.” In the start of “Garden of Bones,” we see the same Robb in horrified awe over the destruction he has wrought. He even shows a clear sensitivity towards the maimed and wounded of his enemy camp, and resists Roose Bolton’s cool insistence on torturing prisoners.

Despite this, Robb shows a real naivety when he declares that he would win the war against the Lannisters and then retreat simply to be King of the North. Perhaps his mother could tell him a thing or two about what might happen in the power vacuum he’d leave behind, and the suffering he would perpetuate.

Though we have seen relatively little of Stannis, it is clear that he was at one time a man who was honorable almost to a fault. As Renly makes clear, the eldest Baratheon has been corrupted by the red priestess. In the end, Stannis’ only friend, Davos, quietly pleads with him to remember his honor as he moves against his own brother. “Surely there are other ways,” he says. “Cleaner ways.”

Stannis replies coolly, with not a shred of sympathy for his own blood. “Cleaner ways don’t end wars,” he says. We have only a brief, albeit grotesque view of Stannis’ dishonor come to life in the form of a menacing shadow delivered by a suddenly-pregnant Melisandre, and we’ll have to wait an agonizing week to see the effects of this sorcery. Truly, the night is dark and full of terrors.

Other thoughts from “Garden of Bones”:

  • We had our first real shot of the derelict and soulless Harrenhal: a castle so cursed and wretched that it’s no wonder the kind of men that set up shop there. From what looks to be ruinous material found around the castle, a makeshift torture chair and now-infamous rat bucket device are rigged for the prisoner interrogation. “Where’s the Brotherhood?” they ask, over and over. Clearly, if the Mountain’s rapists and torturers are so concerned about it, this Brotherhood is something we could get behind.
  • Did you recognize that really tall guy with the bat-wing helmet picking out prisoners? That was the new Mountain That Rides, Gregor Clegane. Admittedly, I had no idea who that character was during the show. It was only after that I remembered they recast the part, with Ian Whyte in place of Conan Stevens (who fought that memorable duel against his brother, the Hound, in Season 1). While I am no purist, this is one of the few of the showrunners’ divergent choices that I disapprove of. If the Mountain is anything, he is defined by his great size: not just in height, but also in muscle. He is supposed to be unnaturally strong, which makes his inhumane character all the more menacing. Time will tell if Whyte can pull that off.
  • Arya as cup bearer for Tywin Lannister? That is a fairly significant departure from the text, but is likely due to the necessary economy of the show.
  • Who noticed that The Hound is the first to cover Sansa up? Remember, this is the guy who refuses to be knighted because he feels unworthy of it.
  • Margaery continues to be the character who has benefited the most from her on-screen adaptation. “My husband is my king, and my king is my husband.” The Renly-Margaery-Loras triple power play has become a force to reckon with.
  • Littlefinger’s love for Catelyn is a strange one. He preys upon her maternal instincts by claiming that the Lannisters have both her girls to trade, if only she would release Jaime. Just as it seems she is strong enough to resist the temptation of the unequal trade, Littlefinger presents her with Ned’s remains. It’s a cruelly clever ploy: how much longer can she keep sacrificing her family to this war?
Game of Thrones, Season 2, Television

Season 2, Episode 3: “A Shadow on the Wall”

Sunday’s Game of Thrones continued to question one of the more pervasive storylines of the series: what is power?

“What is Dead May Never Die,” the third episode of an already fantastic Season 2 of Game of Thrones, takes its title from a prayer of the Ironborn to their Drowned God. The Iron Islands fittingly play a prominent role in the heart of this episode, hosting some of its most efficient and effective scenes and delivering to us yet another king bidding for power in Westeros.

We are treated to a number of gorgeous, minimalist shots as we see Theon turn his back on his adoptive brother to be reborn into iron, salt water and wind (visually represented by a ritual baptism). In one wordless shot, we see Theon burn a letter he had written to Robb warning him of Balon Greyjoy’s plans for the Stark’s northern lands. This one scene does what the books never could. In one shot, we see the real conflict that Theon feels as he is pulled between his true family – the one he hardly knew – and his adoptive one. In the books, Theon protests his father’s plan in one chapter, but by the next time we visit him (several chapters later), he is actively involved in the Greyjoy attack. As much as Theon may be a sleazy scumbag, his ready turn-cloak never made much sense as it read in the books. This scene, filmed with take after take until perfection, is just that – perfection.

One of my favorite scenes comes courtesy of Varys and Tyrion. This scene is almost identical to the one found in the book, but Conleth Hill (Varys) and Peter Dinklage (Tyrion) have developed such an interesting chemistry on screen that the familiar dialogue snapped between them with a new spark. As they sit in Kings Landing, the Eunuch shares a riddle with the Imp, essentially asking who holds the key to power: a king, a priest, or a rich man? Eventually, Varys declares: “Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall, and a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”

This quote stood out to me when I read it and has stuck in my mind since. When I watched this scene, I felt as if I had scene it a dozen times before (perhaps that was just because HBO wisely chose to highlight this quote within its Season 2 promotional videos). Clearly, this conversation is loaded. It represents some of the major themes of this series. What is power? Who holds power? How do they keep it, and for how long? The characters all clearly have different perceptions on this (earlier this season, Cersei bluntly asserted “Power is power”), and that is exactly the point Varys is making: power is perception.

Arya Stark, stripped of all visible signals to her family, wealth, and even gender, is without power. However, without her former trappings of authority, she has evaded capture by the Gold Cloaks. Gendry loses the power inherent in his protective helmet, but this, too, ends up saving his life. Power is perception, and after her conversation with Yoren (one of my favorite scenes yet), Arya is beginning to see the power she may wield from the shadows. You can see it in her eyes at the end of the episode. With a new confidence, she lies about who owned the bull’s helmet (claiming that Lommy, who was already dead and fortuitously lying beside the thing, was the boy they were looking for), throwing the Gold Cloaks off Gendry’s scent and starting a new thread in Arya’s already fascinating storyline.

By now, we know that Littlefinger believes that knowledge is power. In this episode, we are treated to his indignation when his cunning is outdone by Tyrion, who positions himself as the most powerful man in the realm by sniffing out the small council’s mole. In a wonderfully condensed scene (in the book, it carries on for several pages), the brilliance of Tyrion’s plan is clear in the simplicity of the medium’s efficient structure. We’ve seen all three men wheel and deal since Season 1, but in this episode, none could match the power of the Imp. Tyrion’s power is made plain.

Power is perception to Margaery Tyrell, a newcomer this episode from the lands of Highgarden. On the page, her character is one of the few that falls flat. On screen, the writers have made her motivations clear and, in doing so, crafted an infinitely more intriguing character. From the start, it is clear that Margaery is as much a power player as the rest of the characters. In order to achieve her goal (to become queen, at least as it stands now), she knows that her husband Renly will need to battle the growing suspicions of his sexuality (or, at least, Margaery’s continued – supposed – virginity). She even goes so far as to suggest that her brother, Renly’s lover Loras, participate in helping the king get her with child  in order to secure the strategic alliance between the Baratheons and the Tyrells. This relationship is a crucial one if Renly hopes to take King’s Landing, because the Tyrells have men and resources in plenty supply.

Brienne, another new addition to the show (and one of my favorite characters of the book series) is perceived to be powerful so long as she is masked in a suit of armor. In a tournament of hand-to-hand combat among the knights in Renly’s camp, she is able to defeat even the storied knight and jouster, Ser Loras (who is also the head of Renly’s new “Rainbow guard.” Hello, who is Renly fooling?). When she removes her helm and requests that her reward be a place on the Kingsguard, most scoff at her. Loras is put off by the idea of a woman on the guard, and makes his feelings known to Renly. What was once a triumphant victory is now a joke. The perception of the mysterious knight’s power is lost when the mask comes off and the gender is revealed.

We are often reminded that women should not hold power in this alternate universe. Yet again and again, we as viewers are treated to the many ways in which these women are still able to wield influence. This, to me, is one of the most interesting aspects of this series. Westeros exists as an amalgamation of medieval Western Europe and, by all rights, women should be relatively powerless. They, like Tyrion, might not outwardly match the physical prerequisites of power. But, significantly, they can cast large shadows.