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Review: Game of Thrones, Season 2 Episode 5

Posted by msunyata on Tuesday, May 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 six episodes, such illumination will be needed.

It is known.

 

Episode 205: “The Ghost of Harrenhal”

For all the show’s many and varied accomplishments in terms of production design, musical score, and performance, it seems that the one area that is still largely hit-or-miss for the production staff is, sadly enough, visual effects (VFX being those elements added in post-production, almost exclusively via digital technologies; special effects, on the other hand, are any wizardry captured in-camera on-set).  Daenerys’s dragons are typically rendered with much love and detail – as is witnessed in this week’s episode, aided and abetted by the lovely Doreah – but the Stark children’s direwolves oftentimes look like the (comparative) equivalent of Ray Harryhausen-era stop-motion animation (an effect, it must be said, that is probably strengthened by the viewer’s familiarity with wolves and complete lack of experience with mythical creatures).

In the case of the magical assassination of King Renly Baratheon, unfortunately, it is more miss rather than hit.  In the source material, a medium that is confined by no budgetary boundary, the sequence is much simpler and, perhaps surprisingly, much more effective:  a shadow on the wall appears next to Renly’s as he is being dressed for battle by Brienne the Beauty and slits open his throat.  There is no three-dimensional creature, no matter how interestingly designed, prancing about the room and blatantly impaling the would-be king through the chest.  There is no over-the-top dissolution of the being as Brienne and Catelyn rush forward (replete with cheesy sound effects that are on-par with the White Walkers’ horrid vocalizations); there is no chance for the subconscious mind to take in flesh-and-blood bodies standing shoulder-to-shoulder with CG cartoons.  There is just the ancient craft of shadow puppetry, a wizened storyteller’s masterful slight-of-hand.

And there is also subtlety, which is, once more, a problem that comes back to haunt the production time and again.

 

The Differences between the Novel and the Episode:

In addition to compressing the books’ expansive number of characters to a regular television roster – which happens again this ep when Ser Davos Seaworth is made the admiral of King Stannis Baratheon’s fleet, as opposed to the honor going to yet another new character – the other predominant adaptive tool that showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss have consistently employed so far this season is, shall we say, the reassignment of motivations.

The list is long and already, at this early stage in what may very well turn out to be a decade-long series, seemingly never-ending.  In “The North Remembers” (episode 201), Queen Regent Cersei Baratheon’s desire to rid the land of the late King Robert’s baseborn bastards is transferred over to her son, King Joffrey Baratheon (a man who is already in no shortage of vicious scenes).  In “What Is Dead May Never Die” (203), Arya’s newfound practice of saying a nightly prayer that is comprised of those individuals she wishes to kill is ascribed to Yoren, the ill-fated black brother who helped her escape King’s Landing.  And in this week’s episode, the idea for defying Lord Balon’s war plans by invading and conquering inland Northern cities is plopped into Theon Greyjoy’s head by Dagmer (called the Cleftjaw in the novel thanks to an accident with an axe, and a longtime friend of the Greyjoy family instead of a just-met stranger) instead of it being the other way around.  (We even see some preliminary movements in this direction in the first season, as the genesis of Lord Renly’s desire to be king was attributed to Ser Loras Tyrell, his illicit lover [“The Wolf and the Lion,” 105].)

The motivation behind most of these changes is – for the most part, at least – eminently understandable.  It may be a bit too oblique to simply have Arya start spouting people’s names as she lies her head down at night, for instance (which is not to mention the added benefit of getting Yoren’s backstory, a non-existent element in the novels), or too unbelievable to a television audience to have leal Theon Greyjoy turn his allegiance seemingly on the drop of a dime (indeed, by adding the letter-writing [and, subsequently, -burning] and baptism-by-sea scenes, both of which were wholly conceived by the writer-producers, much is done to expand and reinforce Theon’s character development – a not-too-shabby achievement, to say the least).

But then there’s Tyrion Lannister.  The entirety of the second season thus far has been a process of stripping his character of plots, subterfuges, strategies, and, even, relationships with nearly all save for Bronn the sellsword and, now, Ser Lancel Lannister.  (The lack, to date, of a Varys-Tyrion friendship is easily one of the series’s single biggest omissions.)  Given that the bulk of A Clash of Kings was given over to these very machinations, it makes for a more passive and reactive protagonist, something much more akin to Lord Eddard Stark for the majority of season one, than the wheeling-and-dealing dwarf who literally has the weight of the world on his shoulders but who can never overcome its discriminations to fully become a part of it.  (Though there certainly is the [small] attempt on behalf of the showrunners to counteract this:  the ploy of placing Shae as a handmaiden in the Red Keep is moved from Lord Varys to Tyrion directly.)

The biggest and, so far, most egregious of these alterations is Tyrion’s discovery of King Joffrey and Queen Cersei’s plan to use the highly dangerous substance known as wildfire to defend against King Stannis’s impending naval assault.  Yes, Tyrion is seen as being devious and, perhaps, even underhanded in his methodology of first discovering and then subsuming the plan, but this is a far cry from being the one to systematically conceive and implement the controversial line of defense in the first place.  It reads more of desperation borne of his family’s halfwitted desperation rather than a borderline ingenious/suicidal strategy.  The disparity in effect is remarkable.

It also has the simultaneous effect of continuing to alter Cersei’s character.  The showrunners have nearly bent over backwards to soften the cunning and ruthless queen regent, even as far back as the second episode (“The Kingsroad,” 102), when she tells Lady Catelyn Stark about the death of her just-for-TV firstborn.  By moving the wildfire conspiracy over to her camp, perhaps Weiss and Benioff have decided that her on-screen presence could, at long last, stand some of the fundamental spite that so peppers Martin’s rendition; it was just two weeks ago that we finally saw Cersei’s infamous line against her brother – “Ned Stark had a piece of paper, too” – which, in the book, of course, is literally the first or second thing out of her mouth when presented with the Imp as hand of the king.

How this (apparent) balancing act of not letting the Lannisters be too unlikeable continues to play out in future seasons bears a considerable amount of pondering for the showrunners – and (apparently) a significant amount of concern for viewers.

 

Expanding the Story

Care to read more about the divergence in characterization and, even, intent between the printed page and the realized production?  Then check out It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I (16,000 words, $1.99), which contains a number of Marc N. Kleinhenz’s essays from the past year on both flavors of Game of Thrones and also picks the minds of various Song of Ice and Fire experts, including Elio Garcia from Westeros.org and James Poniewozik from a little outfit called Time.
 

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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