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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 eight episodes, such illumination will be needed.
It is known.
Episode 203: “What Is Dead May Never Die”
Of all the many new faces that are introduced this season, Brienne, the Maid of Tarth is not only one of the most interesting for the audience, she is also one of the most challenging for the production staff, as well. A hulking figure of brute strength that is more comfortable with arms and armor than conversation and dresses, Brienne the Beauty is a creature pure of intent – one of the true knights from songs and stories that Sansa Stark strives so hard to find – but ugly in appearance.
Imagine the Song of Ice and Fire community’s surprise, then, when Gwendoline Christie was cast in the role. Although the model, at 6’3”, certainly has the (slim) stature to portray George Martin’s most unique female character (outside of the lady Melisandre, of course), her good looks are worlds apart from the quite frankly hideous description of Brienne provided in the books. Gwen’s transformation in the finished episode is nothing short of astounding and is yet another testament – in addition to the detailed nastiness of Craster’s Keep beyond the Wall and the flickering illumination that Theon Greyjoy has crises of personality within – to the Game of Thrones production’s sure hands.
Not so sure, however, are its ongoing difficulties with fight sequences. Clamoring to stand beside the likes of Lord Eddard Stark and Ser Jaime Lannister’s duel (“The Wolf and the Lion,” episode 105) and some of Jon Snow’s training sequences (“Lord Snow,” 103), Yoren’s clash with Ser Amory Lorch’s men, while filmed and lit well, is the epitome of that classic filmic cliché of having a whole slew of enemy combatants stand around in a circle while the protagonist takes them on, one at a time (which, in the decade[!] after The Matrix Reloaded and, to a lesser extent, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is literally inexcusable, on a television budget/schedule or not).
At least Yoren’s death, which happens “off-screen” in the novel, is suitable both to his character and with the show’s overall ethos.
The Differences between the Novel and the Episode
There’s a funny commandment of television writing that can essentially be summed up as Thou Shalt Conserve Thy Resources. Take the reimagined Battlestar Galactica as an example. Early in its run, an episode called for the best sharpshooter in the ragtag fleet to be dispatched to cover Apollo, one of the series regulars, as he goes into a hostile situation. Rather than create a brand-new, (more-than-likely) one-off character for the role, the writer-producers tapped one of their other main cast members, Starbuck, for the position. Fans immediately cried foul: how could one person be the best pilot and the best fighter and the best lay and the best shooter? The truth is it wasn’t that much of a stretch for the beleaguered character, but, in the really-real world, it probably would have been a different individual behind the sniper rifle. (Showrunner Ronald D. Moore, for his part, said that if Starbuck had remained male, as she was in the original series, the chorus of complaining would have been substantially lessened.)
In television, time – and, therefore, money – is the most precious of commodities. Only so much screen time is available each and every week for the audience to identity – and then identity with – the characters on-screen, and production time behind the cameras is even more compressed; for each new actor on set that has a speaking line, more coverage (that is, different types of camera shots – close-ups, two-shots, etc.) has to be in the can, which doesn’t even take into consideration the huge difference in cost when an actor goes from being an extra to becoming a speaking part (which is why, for instance, that Grand Maester Pycelle’s whore never once utters a single word).
Given the constraints of time and viewer participation, and given the not-insignificant chunk of change that is already being spent on the main cast, then, producers are most interested in staying with their regulars, rounding out their characters and deepening their relationships with one another, rather than introducing new faces, especially if they’re not guaranteed to stick around for future episodes.
All of which explains why showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have opted to make the sellsword Bronn the commander of the City Witch instead of Jacelyn Bywater (a character who is introduced – and only appears – in A Clash of Kings) in the previous ep (“The Nightlands,” 202) or have Tyrion's whore Shae become Sansa’s handmaiden (in the novel, she serves Lady Lollys Stokeworth, an incredibly minor character who hasn't even been seen in the television series to date) this week. These are changes that maximize the characters and the screen time they gobble up, thereby allowing the producers to conserve their screenwriting resources as much as possible, all without, it has to be said, significantly altering the storyarcs that will be traversed throughout the remainder of this season and on into the next.
It'll be interesting to see how this narrative streamlining will continue as the show itself continues, particularly as we venture into the dense storytelling thicket that will be seasons four and five…
Expanding the Story
Marc N. Kleinhenz's Anatomy of a Throne column over at Comic Related continues with the biggest disappointment in “What Is Dead May Never Die”: the be-bearding of Grand Maester Pycelle.
And, of course, It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I is your one-stop shop for all expert, in-depth examination of HBO’s series and George Martin's novels.
The Lore behind the Iron Throne
Previous It Is Known Installments
- Episode 12: The Nightlands
- Episode 11: The North Remembers
- Episode 10: Fire and Blood;
- Episode 9: “Baelor”
- Episode 8: “The Pointy End”
- Episode 7: “You Win or You Die”
- Episode 6: “A Golden Crown
- Episode 5: The Wolf and the Lion
- Episode 4: “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
- Episode 3: “Lord Snow”
- Episode 2: “The Kingsroad”
- Episode 1: Winter Is Coming
[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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