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Weighing in at just over 800 pages, A Game of Thrones is full of plots and sub-plots, primary and secondary (and tertiary and ancillary) characters, major and minor leitmotifs, and foreshadowing of foreshadowing – to say it is a dense narrative is an understatement in the extreme, particularly considering its status as only the inaugural chapter of a much larger tale. This column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) will act as a companion piece to both series, novel and television, analyzing each installment’s character beats and plot points as well as scrutinizing the transition from page to script. What it will not do is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.
With one further episode this season, and a second year already greenlighted (and the much-anticipated and oft-delayed fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, due to release immediately following the season finale), such illumination will be needed.
It is known.
Episode 9: “Baelor”
The death of Lord Eddard Stark is among the first book’s major story beats, pushing the plot of all the subsequent novels irrevocably down one path and maniacally cementing author George R.R. Martin’s penchant for the unpredictable in one fell swoop – no pun intended. And it is handled superbly in the television adaptation, drawing the moment out to cinematic proportions but never crossing the line into cliché territory (a balance that the writer-producers have had a somewhat difficult time with before). It is the silence of the moment that really sells it, that allows the character a breath while the audience loses its own, and it is the ending – jump-cutting to black just after the greatsword Ice slices through Ned’s neck – that seals it, showing that, yes, indeed, the Lord Hand is dead without partaking in a graphic amount of gore. It is a classy exit for the first season’s protagonist, despite its rather inelegant manner.
The scenes of Drogo’s khalasar likewise ring with a vibrancy of performance, cinematography, and production detail that is largely unrivaled in the series to date. The sacrifice of the khal’s horse feels real rather than a staged gimmick (which is no easy feat); the fight between Ser Jorah Mormont and Qotho is short but visceral, simplistic but well-executed. It is unsurprising that cast and crew would be able to perform on so high a level with eight installments already under their belts, particularly given the dramatics of the material right before the story’s climax, but it is still rewarding and encouraging to see everything gel so smoothly. The prospect of Clash of Kings, the second season, is suddenly more exciting.
The Differences Between the Novel and the Episode
The end of A Game of Thrones is, like every other book in the series, dedicated to warfare – and a lot of it. With three battles occurring essentially back-to-back, Martin decided to depict each from a different perspective: the first is told from the point of view of one of its combatants (namely, Tyrion Lannister); the second is witnessed from the sidelines, close to but not part of the fighting (as shown in “Baelor”); and the last is recounted in summary to a third party. It is a clever conceit, and one executed flawlessly on the page, but it is completely lost in the translation to the small screen, as showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss completely removed the opening skirmish of the Stark-Lannister war.
It was, of course, a decision borne of budgetary concerns – this despite cutting corners consistently throughout the season, such as the incessant omission of horses from a world so heavily and intrinsically reliant upon them – and it works well within the context of the episode itself, particularly benefiting from the humorous nature of the cut (and the “homage” to Gladiator in the shot of Tyrion waking up while being dragged across the battlefield), but it still cannot help being what it is: a cop-out. It is a deficiency that will only get worse if the writer-producers decide to skip over the upcoming battle at Riverrun, where Lord Robb’s army takes on what remains of Ser Jaime Lannister’s forces in what is arguably the most striking battle, both visually and conceptually, in the novel.
It is not in excising but in embellishing upon material that constitutes “Baelor’s” other major eyebrow-raiser. The upjumped camp follower Shae, Tyrion’s new paramour, sings to a completely different tune in the episode, speaking defiantly to her little lordling client as opposed to demurely – even her disappointments in the books are masked by simpering and wrapped in tender words – and pronounced with a foreign flair; the character in the novels is never described as having an accent from Essos.
This newfound belligerence can be accounted for in several different ways, starting with the showrunners’ simple desire to add some distinction to a character introduced late in the game of a series literally packed with names and faces. The larger reason, however, was undoubtedly to enliven the rather large exposition scene in which we learn Tyrion’s life secret: his marriage to and gangbang divorce with Tysha, a whore from Lannisport (a scene, it should be mentioned, that is created from scratch to primarily act as a delivery vehicle for the bit of backstory; on the page, the Imp’s admission comes around the campfire with Bronn while still in the Mountains of the Moon, waiting for the savage clansmen to swoop down on them). Given that Shae is one of several minor characters introduced in Thrones to have a much larger part in the upcoming season, it’ll be interesting to see how this divergent performance will continue to color her character and impact her arc, if, indeed, it does at all.
Previous “It Is Known” Installments:
Episode 1: “Winter Is Coming”
Episode 2: “The Kingsroad”
Episode 3: “Lord Snow”
Episode 4: “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
Episode 5: “The Wolf and the Lion”
Episode 6: “A Golden Crown”
Episode 7: “You Win or You Die”
Episode 8: “The Pointy End”
[Marc N. Kleinhenz is a freelance writer and videographer who will be reviewing HBO’s Game of Thrones for us. His latest short story, “All the Pantheon,” is free to read for the month of June.]