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Sunday, 7 of March of 2021

Game of Thrones – “You Win or You Die”

We stand behind you, Lord Stark.

Ned Stark

He of the squinty eyes, very fine beard, and the stupidly noble and honorable heart.

Before I start in on the episode (and I did like it, so breathe easy), we need to talk about that little scene with Ros, the other whore, and Carcetti. For the run of this series so far, and now perhaps reaching the pinnacle of it, Game of Thrones has made sex boring.

Now, and forever, I will only associate sex with Aidan Gillen talking about the lost, unrequited love of Catelyn Stark (those Stark women, be they by blood or by marriage, linger don’t they?). Or Harry Lloyd talking about dragons.

So thank you, Game of Thrones. You’ve been the best form of birth control anyone could ask for. Well done, and kudos to you.

And now to the episode.

So now that things have begun to unravel — or fall into place, depending on who you are (or which character you’re rooting for) — the show is more interesting to watch, and the characters feel more like characters than exposition delivery machines. The show is actually engaging now, though not as much as last week.

And this is the point where you see me step back from earlier criticisms while I also re-position them.  I acknowledge that some of the exposition (though not all of it) helps serve a larger purpose, making not only these events in the past two episodes meaningful, but giving the show some thematic heft.

Like the digression chapters in Moby-Dick, these whorexposition/sexposition sequences do help paint a fuller picture of these characters and their world. My problem lies in that these sequences (regardless of if a whore was involved or not) were never very well done, making the scenes just kind of stagnant (despite the presence of sex (see the stuff before the jump, and below)).

Likewise, for five episodes, it’s been nothing but this sort of slow build, and there’s certainly value and enjoyment to be found in slow builds (I like Rubicon, for Pete’s sake). What Game of Thrones has failed at is providing an episodic payoff so that this parade of “stuff happening” (for lack of a better term) feels valuable. To backload all that at the end, while offering up some much needed relief, creates an uneven viewing experience on a weekly basis.

Petyr gets the drop on NedWhich leads to the next point. After last week’s review, and discussing it on Twitter, Rowan Kaiser proposed the idea that the show should be viewed/treated as 10-hour miniseries. It’s something to mull over, and I don’t want to wade into that debate without having comparable ways to discuss Game of Thrones to the miniseries (mainly because the miniseries, as it existed for decades, seems to be largely dead).

The idea that Thrones should be seen as a miniseries (and that much of HBO’s programming in general should be seen in this same way) leads to larger discussions of narrative format and expectations. Is this an HBO decision to encourage its dramas to work this way? Does True Blood, which I have not watched, function this way? And Boardwalk Empire? What about the cancelled In Treatment? Treme?

(As a side note: I find it amusing that someone decided that a “previously on”, to recap the previous episode, was necessary before this episode. Such an action clues us in to the important actions of a plot so far, and what’s important for an episode that’s about to begin. None of the other episodes warranted either inclusion in this recap or recaps of their own. I’m very curious about the motivations behind this, and if there’s one with this week’s episode.)

Or should would Game of Thrones be one of those shows that “plays better on DVD”? Of course the airing of the episode each week is really, industrially, just an hour-long commercial for the forthcoming (and no doubt ornately packaged) box set (not to mention the books, of course, though HBO doesn’t make any money off of those). If this is the case, should I stop watching HBO programming when it airs? What does that mean for the sense of liveness that characterizes HBO’s particular brand of weekly event programming (I admit that liveness is a very complicated term now, so something to parse out in the comments)?

I realize that I haven’t said much about the episode yet. Apologies. Perhaps you’ll forgive me if use examples to expand on some ideas above? Particularly in regards to exposition-laden scenes?

So let’s take Tywin’s introduction and Petyr’s monologue as examples. Both are talky sequences with not much in the way of movement or dynamic camera work. Neither of those are bad things, and both sequences stride to tell us things about each of the focal points of the scene — Tywin and Petyr, respectively — and and only one of them does it well while the other gets bogged down in gratuitous sex that muddles the metaphor the scene is aiming for.

What I adore about Tywin’s introduction is just how much it tells us about Tywin while he’s talking. It’s not just his words and how he says them that explains this man who has loomed over much of the Lannisters’ conversations (particularly Tyrion’s), but that his actions explain who he is as well. Obviously Tywin Lannister is a powerful man, so why would such a man skin his own stag? He has servants who could do this, but here he is, doing it himself. And with delicate precision, no wasted movements as he delivers a lecture on honor,  political strategy, and a loving condemnation of Jaime to Jaime’s face.

And it tells us everything we need to know about Tywin. He’s a hands-on type of leader, stemming from perhaps both arrogance and mistrust, but also someone who values his own skills. And it’s all summed up in the fact that he skins the kill himself, and with little effort. Here, this scene tells us, is a man who knows what he’s doing, a man to be feared and admired. But the scene also displays an agile mind. He shifts back and forth between condemning Jaime’s actions but also demanding to know why Jaime hasn’t done more to retrieve Tyrion. The quickness of Tywin’s mind is on display here: he sees all the angles, challenges Jaime’s actions and assumptions, and then decides the best course of action for all those involved.

Tywin Lannister - BAMFThere’s a fullness to the scene that the show has struggled to achieve on a regular basis. Part of this stems from the fact that, for my money, no one has really worked a scene like this as Charles Dance did here. There’s an elegance and effortlessness to the performance right off the bat that really only Peter Dinklage can also claim. But then there’s the fact that scene actually has something going on that tells us something about the character beyond the character speaking, and I like when something like this happens (as opposed to explaining important points of a character’s history in a bathtub with a whore).

Which brings us to Petyr. The metaphor that Petyr himself is like his whores, selling an image in such a way that people forget that it is an image, is a nice enough idea, and one ripe with lots character explaining, like Tywin’s scene before it. Except it never reaches that level of coherence because, well, there’s a lot of focus on the sex that doesn’t illustrate or reinforce Petyr’s points. Whereas Tywin’s skinning and gutting of the stag demonstrates his ability to essentially multitask and helping establish this previously off-screen presence, Ros having sex with the other whore doesn’t do anything to enhance Petyr’s points. Ros and her colleague’s actions would help, maybe for an initial moment or two, to illustrate Petyr’s monologue, but Petyr tells us that he’s like the whores performing on his couch, so the visual metaphor becomes extraneous to the scene.

But it also feels lazy and distrustful of its audience to stage the scene this way. Much of the exposition and backstory that has been delivered has had a sexual act in it (or drinking, in Robert’s case), and it makes me feel like the show decides that characters just talking would be boring to viewers. So instead of coming up with something for them to do while talking (like Tywin’s scene), the show decides to throw sex into the sequences in an effort to keep its audience attention. “Yes! Look how liberating HBO is! We can have characters monologue AND let there be some girl-on-girl action! Suck on that, broadcast and basic cable!”

Now, of course, I haven’t read the books. So it could very well be that Tywin’s introduction occurs while skinning a deer and Petyr’s explanation of his motives occurs while Ros fingers another whore.  But when they’ve decided to show flexibility with adaptation (like Renly’s chest shaving scene), it should not be outside the realm of consideration to show flexibility here. Like the Dothraki marriage in the first episode, with its painfully racist text and subtexts, the production staff behind the show should have been aware that some scenes do not just translate well from page to screen, and Petyr’s scene (provided it occurs in the book as it does here), is just another example of this.

If the scene is new to the television series, then it’s just sex for the sake of sex. And while I’m glad that HBO feels comfortable enough to return to its roots, it makes for really boring and, honestly, cheap television.

I’m nearing 2,000 words, so I’m going to end here. I know that I’ve not said a word about Ned, Jon, or Daenerys, but this post kind of got away from me, but hopefully in a productive way. Apologies if it wasn’t productive for you, dear reader, but I do feel it was somewhat productive for me. If this makes me Petyr’s scene instead of Tywin’s, well, I will feel rather bad about myself then.

I’m happy to discuss Ned, Jon, and Daenerys in the comments, and I’ll try and focus on Ned in the review of this week’s episode (assuming he doesn’t die in-between episodes).

FINAL THOUGHTS

  • Don’t think I didn’t notice the complete lack of Arya and Tyrion this week. I’ll let it pass this week, show. But only this week.
  • Happy that Lena Headey decided to wake up this week.
  • Jack Gleeson all sorts of nailed the “thinks he’s so important” 13-year old vibe when he was sitting on the throne. As Joffrey, he didn’t sit as a king would, but as he thinks a king would. Lovely.
  • Man. Greyjoy is a whiny little ass, isn’t he?
  • One thing I can say now, for the exposition sequences, is that they have helped established different generational points on governing the realm, as what people value and acknowledge in the broken monarchical system at work in the series. It’s a point I want to explore further, using Ned as a focal point.
  • Speaking of which: Boy, did I love the forest woman poking holes in Greyjoy’s notions of the world. So good.
  • “Brave man, terrible judgement.”
  • “I miss girls. Not even talking to them. I never talked to them. Just looking at them.”
  • “King Robert Baratheon. Murdered by a pig. … Give me something for the pain and let me die.”
  • “The stallion who mounts the world has no need for iron chairs.”
  • “Here, on the Wall, we are all one house.”
  • “I always wanted to be a Ranger.” “I always wanted to be a wizard.” LINE OF THE SEASON RIGHT THERE.

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