There are only two episodes left in Season 2 and, much like King’s Landing itself, Episode 8 (“The Prince of Winterfell”) spends most of its time preparing for a decisive battle on the Blackwater Bay. Each storyline moves the pieces a step closer to Stannis Baratheon’s siege on the iron throne, but for now, all is (mostly) quiet in Westeros. There is very little violence and a lot of subtle conversations that shift the gears of war imperceptibility, as of yet. But by the season finale, “The Prince of Winterfell” will likely prove a critical set piece in the arc of Season 2.
Several changes occur that are so slight, it would be understandable to miss them (in fact, many have already written this episode off as “boring”). Perhaps the biggest changes are among the Stark camp. Catelyn and Robb both betray their honor in very profound ways. Though, for now, it may seem like a drop in an already-tumultuous bucket, the political ramifications of their two major decisions could ripple out for episodes – and potentially seasons – to come.
First, Catelyn lets Jaime Lannister go without consulting her son and lands herself under house (tent) arrest. Robb is furious when he finds out what she has done. He believes that she has failed to understand the imbalance between the life of two girls and the life of a great military commander. What Robb fails to understand is that his mother has willfully decided not to care about this imbalanced trade, especially not when faced with the volatile and vengeful attitudes among the Karstark portion of the camp. Would Jaime even have lasted another week in captivity? And what, then, would have happened to the Stark girls (or at least the only one remaining in Lannister hands)? As the male king and commander, this is a risk Robb has to be willing to endure: no matter how much he may love his sisters, in the world of Westeros they are not worth the cost of having the Kingslayer back in charge of Lannister men. Moreover, as he confides in Talisa, Robb believes strongly in justice above all else. To him and the men who follow him, there can be no justice in letting Jaime go.
Catelyn, on the other hand, has always been more politically-minded. As she sees the door closing fast on the opportunity for a more diplomatic solution to their feud with the Lannisters, Cat makes a unilateral decision that will clearly affect the geopolitics of the kingdom for a long time to come (regardless of whether Brienne is actually successful in delivering Jaime to King’s Landing, when the odds are obviously stacked against her).
For all of his love of justice, oaths, and honor, Robb finds himself compromising his hitherto-unmovable integrity by sleeping with Talisa (a decision no one could be surprised by, at this point). Though he is quick to see the effects of his mother’s choice to release Jaime (“You’ve weakened our position, you’ve brought discord into our camp, and you did it all behind my back.”), he is unable or unwilling to see the similar consequences of his own actions. After all, he admits earlier to Talisa that his betrothal to an unnamed daughter of Walder Frey is for not just any bridge, but an important one: the Freys hold the key to the South from the North and vice-versa. Without the Freys, it would have been impossible for Robb to march south with such speed after his father’s murder. Likewise, without the Freys, Robb could be cut off from the North, from his brothers and bannermen, and pinned against the Twins like a wall as Lannister loyals attack up through the Riverlands. The implications of this decision, though not yet realized, portend dark times ahead for the Starks. These scenes – both Catelyn and Robb’s decisions to breech their own codes of honor – will surely be looked back upon as critical turning points.
North of the Wall, Qhorin Halfhand begins to position Jon Snow as a traitor to the Night’s Watch in the eyes of the wildlings, a deception that Ygritte falls for a little too easily, (perhaps in her desire for the bastard Stark). It is still unclear why such a strong, feisty freewoman would want such a prudish, bumbling crow (besides, you know, his luscious locks and full-lipped pout). After all, Jon has blundered his way into getting most of his fellow rangers killed and the legendary Qhorin captured. By thinking with something other than his head (somewhere between his foolhardy honor and childish lust), he has endangered a critical mission and all of Westeros, as it happens, since the King Beyond the Wall means to march on it. It will take the mentorship of a great tactician like Qhorin for Jon to learn valuable lessons of strategy, leadership and worthy sacrifice. Jon has a lot of growing to do, and fast. But at least this week marked the start.
Meanwhile, back down south, Arya finally escapes Harrenhal after out-witting Jaqen H’ghar at his own game, though only after the opportunity to kill Tywin Lannister passes before her. In lieu of Tywin, Arya cleverly names Jaqen himself as her third kill when he refuses to help her friends and her escape. “A girl lacks honor,” he says begrudgingly. Arya merely shrugs her shoulders. She has already determined that she is willing to kill and lie to stay alive (starting with the young farmhand that tries to stop her initial escape from King’s Landing in Season 1). She, like Jaqen himself, is developing her own sense of honor.
Another important change in the narrative occurs when Brienne is dispatched with Jaime, tasked by Catelyn with bringing him safely to King’s Landing in exchange for the Stark girls. This new course should hopefully mean more screen time for both fan-favorites as they try to evade the dozens of Stark troops sent after them in the episodes to come. Both great fighters are literally and figuratively unfettered and beginning an odd couple’s hero quest. The early promise of their banter and the sight of them gliding off in a boat downriver will hopefully prove to be a fun change of pace among the relatively static-setting narratives so far.
Tyrion and Cersei have been trading slights, deceptions and cruelties ever since he arrived in King’s Landing, but it was not until this week that the seriousness of their rivalry became apparent. Cersei has escalated their war of wits, brutally attacking the prostitute Ros, whom she mistakes for Tyrion’s secret whore. There is apparently no love between the two siblings and no end to the pain they will indirectly inflict on one another. The only thing stopping them from harming each other outright is the blood they both share – an odd limitation given the lengths they are both willing to go to torment the loved ones in each other’s orbit. Tyrion promises: “I will hurt you for this. The day will come when you think you’re safe and happy and your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you will know the debt is paid.” This, too, sounds premonitory. The look in his eyes make it clear that, though there is little Tyrion says that isn’t shrouded in sarcasm, this statement could not be more forthright and true.
Finally, the big reveal of two Stark boys hiding in the Winterfell crypts ends the episode with a major, moving twist. Though it was clear early on that George R.R. Martin had no qualms with killing off major and favorite characters, this is one of the few times when he gives us loyal House Stark fans a modicum of hope and relief. The series is an emotional rollercoaster, and some people respond by attempting to shut off to forming favorites or empathizing with certain characters too much. However, both the source and the show make this impossible, and though I knew the eventual outcome of Bran and Rickon, I could not help but fill with excitement to see them alive and well. No matter what we do to try and avoid it, these characters pull us in. What blissful torture this journey will prove to be.
Though there is not much by way of action, this episode foreshadows some incredibly tumultuous and dark times to come. From all their words and deeds throughout this episode, the characters involved have sowed the seeds of profound change within the show’s narrative. We will have to wait until next week to see the first germination of these effects, and likely whole seasons before the implications of this week’s episode truly take root. Surely, “The Prince of Winterfell” will prove to be a pivotal episode in years to come.
Other thoughts on “The Prince of Winterfell”:
- While Jon is not one of my favorite Point of View (POV) characters from Martin’s books, I have never thought he was portrayed so weakly as he has been in the HBO series. Unfortunately, the needs of the medium have apparently dictated that Jon and Qhorin’s capture need to follow Jon’s ineptitude at killing (or releasing) the wildling girl. In the book series, Jon and Qhorin are pursued by the wildlings and try hard to evade capture, and the connection to Jon’s youth and incompetence is less clear. Jon is one of a couple of characters I feel have been weakened by the differing structure of the HBO show. Taking the storyline out of individual characters’ POV’s has changed their portrayal for better (Sam, Tywin, Theon) and for worse (Catelyn, Jon). I love the show for its own merits and try hard never to judge it based on its source text (which could never and should never be exactly replicated). But there are some areas in which I believe the writers of the series could be doing a better job to more faithfully reproduce the true essence of the characters.
- Another sticking point for me with the screen adaptation is the writers’ portrayal of Catelyn Stark, and that has only become clearer with this latest installment. While Michelle Fairley works wonders with the material she is given, imbuing her expressions with true feeling and inner conflict, taking Catelyn out of the POV structure has really harmed her characterization. The show does not seem to understand the Robb/Catelyn dynamic of the books, or is otherwise willfully ignoring it. Robb is not only younger in the books, but also a lot less politically savvy. He is a great commander, but naive when it comes to politics. It’s his mother who helps him play the game. Since the first episode of the season, the show has been rewriting their scenes to put her political strategies in Robb’s mouth (like the idea of mediating peace between the warring Baratheon brothers) and to take her away from the table almost entirely. The show has given her a “woman’s kind of courage” (as Brienne describes it) that is not entirely faithful to her representation on the page.
- I wish Catelyn was portrayed as she ought to be: the brains behind the Stark camp. That would make her decision to release Jaime more ambiguous, as it ought to be seen, and less as a flighty, feminine blunder. After all, Jaime would have likely been murdered by those in Robb’s camp who wanted revenge (which the show does make an attempt at explaining), and what then would happen to Sansa and Arya? The move does not happen in a mother’s moment of weakness. Though her maternal instincts do play a part, Cat makes the decision with reasoning and forethought. Though it is an imbalanced trade in a masculine world (two girls for one knight), Catelyn initiates it when she is faced with losing Jaime – and, therefore, her girls – to the vengeful hands of Rickard Karstark.