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Review: Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 1

Posted by msunyata on Sunday, April 8, 2012

Based off of George R.R. Martin’s 1,000-page opus A Clash of Kings, the second season of HBO’s Game of Thrones takes the first year’s intricate plot lines, character shadings, and thematic undercurrents and simultaneously expands and deepens them to a ridiculously exponential degree. Or, at least, it’s supposed to – the actual doing just may prove to be a ways off from the source material’s being.

This column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) acts as a companion piece to both series, novel and television, analyzing the continuing story of the War of the Five Kings – and how it fares in the transition from the page to the screen. What it will not do is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.

Given the twists and turns, betrayals and sacrifices that await in the next 10 episodes, such illumination will be needed.

It is known.

 

Episode 201: The North Remembers

What most distinguishes this episode, apart from extremely solid directing and, as always, spot-on scoring, is its status as, well, an episode of a television show.

George Martin famously, in a tip of the iron helm to J.R.R. Tolkien, started off his literary epic with all of his characters, even those on the other side of the geographical and ideological spectrum, in one location: Winterfell, the seat of House Stark. And by the time that first volume ends, all of his characters have been scattered in the winds to almost literally every corner of the realm – to King’s Landing, the Stormlands, the Riverlands, even beyond the end of the known world, past the Wall. It makes for an extremely difficult television production, as the writers have to keep track of a myriad story threads and character arcs, and the producers have to juggle filming across a gamut of locations (even on different continents, in this particular case).

The second season première handles this in stride, however, with roughly the first half of the episode jumping sequentially from place to place (first, of course, King’s Landing, to see Tyrion’s arrival; then to Winterfell, where Bran plays at being lord; then the Red Waste, the wild North, Dragonstone isle, and the Riverlands, where King Robb is currently making his camp, in quick succession), then, in the latter half, revisiting the locations at will to, as the Hobbits say, help fill in the corners – whether that be dispatching envoys to King Renly Baratheon in the south and Lord Balon Greyjoy on the Iron Islands or butchering a score of bastard children of various ages.

Tying the montage-esque first half together is the red comet hanging ominously above all, a poetic image that weaves all of the characters, throughlines, and geographical areas together superbly – one of the few devices that can cohesively (or coherently) unify all elements at this fractured point in the narrative. The choice of using the comet as a framework is almost perfectly mirrored by the decision of showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss to not try and stuff every last character into this installment; while Sansa, Tyrion, Bran, Daenerys, Jon, Davos, Catelyn, and Theon all get their due – some, of course, more than others – Arya is left out almost completely. Just as it’s important for the exec producers to not literally translate every chapter as-is onto the screen, it’s equally vital that they not simply cut each storyline up into bite-sized chunks by rote and likewise scatter them to the wind.

This is a refreshing start to the new year, as it not only reaffirms the good taste left in the audience’s mouth at the end of the first season, it also bodes well for translating a book that is some 150 pages longer than its predecessor but still has to fit within the same scope of only 10 episodes.

 

The Differences between the Novel and the Episode

The single biggest change from the page to the screen lies not so much in content as it does in format.

As previously stated, each A Song of Ice and Fire novel consists of a series of POV characters, with chapters cycling endlessly through those eight (in the first book, A Game of Thrones) or nine (in A Clash of Kings) individuals. In addition to this panoply, however, Martin employs a prologue, complete with its own one-off protagonist (one-off because of a slight bout of death, at least in the case of the first and second installments), to introduce new characters, storylines, thematic embellishments, and locations. (The major, act-ending books – numbers three, five, and, eventually, seven – also feature epilogues, replete with, yes, their own unique POVs.)

In the first season, this prologue was appended to the pilot episode in the form of a rare-for-HBO teaser: the three sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch making their way to a wildling encampment that, as it transpires, doubles as a recruiting center for the White Walkers. Tackling the material in this way was a sure-footed move, as it not only kept a great deal of fidelity to Martin’s original work, but it additionally set a somber, tension-filled mood that permeated the entirety of that first episode as well as the remainder of the season – just as the chapter operates in the book.

For “The North Remembers,” however, viewers aren’t so lucky. The lengthy, jam-packed sequence – as one leading Song of Ice and Fire expert put it, it’s amazing how much of the overall series this one chapter sets up – takes place on Dragonstone, the Targaryens’ longtime holdfast and, currently, the seat of King Stannis Baratheon, through the perspective of the doomed Maester Cressen as he attempts to talk sense into his lord-turned-king and stop the spreading influence of the Red Woman, the Lady Melisandre (played to great effect by Carice van Houten in the series). As a teaser/prologue, it’s cut entirely from the episode.

Or maybe viewers are lucky at the change in adaptation. Rather than include it as a wholly separate entity that, much like in “Winter Is Coming” (episode 101), unfurls at its own pace, Weiss and Benioff opted instead to disassemble its component parts and string them throughout the première as a whole. Cressen’s assassination attempt is still there, as is his ultimate death and the demonstration of Melisandre’s strange powers that seem to protect her from such trifling concerns as poison (although why in the seven hells would the maester drink first? In the novel, he offers his cup to the red priestess and only drinks himself when she insists that they share the toast. In this version, it is as if Cressen is some sort of a medieval rendition of a suicide bomber).

That the flow of the episode is kept firmly in place is without question, and it unquestionably makes for a strong episode, but it is not without cost. It’s sad, on a purely technical level, that such an important architectural element of the books – and, to a lesser degree, the first season – is being dismantled. And make no mistake about it: a dedicated teaser will almost certainly be omitted from the third season, and more than likely every other year thereafter, as well (the fourth season absolutely won’t have one at all, as it’s simply the latter half of book three). Granted, this is more of an argument of structure over substance, but a great portion of any continuing series – particularly on television – is structural.

 

Expanding the Story

The reworked prologue may feature the biggest divergence from the source material, but it’s not the one, believe it or not, that Marc N. Kleinhenz is the most worked up about – that would be the melee on King Joffrey’s name day, a scene which kicks off his new column for Comic Related, Anatomy of a Throne.

Want to read about other subtle-but-significant changes in Game of Thrones, such as Queen Cersei’s confession to Lady Catelyn (“The Kingsroad,” 102), King Robert’s boar hunt (“A Golden Crown,” 106), and the birth of Daenerys’s dragons (“Fire and Blood,” 110)? It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I has all this and more (such as an afterword by Coming Attractions mastermind Patrick Sauriol).

 

The Lore Behind the Iron Throne

 

Previous It Is Known Installments

[Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 18 sites, including IGN, Gamasutra, and Nintendojo, where he co-hosts the Airship Travelogues podcast. He also likes mittens.]

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