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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 three episodes, such illumination will be needed.
It is known.
Episode 208: "The Prince of Winterfell"
Game of Thrones is comprised of many big plot twists: the beheading of Lord Eddard Stark, Daenerys Targaryen’s birth of long-extinct dragons, Theon Greyjoy’s betrayal and subsequent occupation of Winterfell (plus more already visited and many more yet to come). Yet for all these big revelations and game changers and cliffhangers, the focus of the story remains solidly on character moments, whether quiet or large, internal or external.
And the biggest of all these characters is, ironically enough, Tyrion Lannister, the outcast member of the realm’s most powerful family. It is he who shines the most regularly in the course of the season, thanks to interactions with everyone from Mord (the gaoler of the Eyrie) to Jon Snow to Bronn the Sellsword, but he rarely shines as brightly and as multifacetedly as he does in “The Prince of Winterfell”: fighting tedium with Bronn, threatening Queen Regent Cersei Baratheon, parlaying with Lord Varys (including some little nuggets of characterization and exposition, in a very delicate balance that a lesser actor would easily topple and destroy), and reaching tenderly out to the women in his life, whether they are real (Shae) or imagined (Ros). It is a rare thing for one single episode of television to provide such a gamut of tones and tenors, shades and shadings, and it’s even rarer for someone to pull it off as cohesively and intimately as did Peter Dinklage.
Indeed, this is the chief excitement for the remaining seasons, whether they end up being just one more or all (theoretically) remaining eight – seeing Peter Dinklage, along with Richard Madden and Alfie Allen and all the rest of the majors, soar with material that pulls the actors in divergent directions as it, at the same time, pulls the story in ever-grander territories.
The Differences between the Novel and the Episode:
The story of Jon Snow’s journey beyond the Wall, up until a very certain point, is handled faithfully enough by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. He, Lord Commander Jeor Mormont, and the rest of their 200-man force set out from Castle Black (which was moved to the end of the first season, to get a jumpstart on momentum and save that most precious of commodities in the filmmaking world, screen time), scout several abandoned wildling villages (omitted from but referenced in the show), stay briefly at Craster’s Keep (where extra dramatic happenings were added, in the form of White Walkers and Jon getting roughed up by both Mormont and Craster), and their arrival at the Fist of the First Men (which is where Jon finds a buried cache of dragonglass in the forest around the outcropping, though this was, obviously, transferred to Sam, Grenn, and Dolorous Ed).
The arrival of Qhorin Halfhand – called so because of a wildling’s axe taking off all but one finger and a thumb of his good hand – is the real start of the divergence. A small council between the elder ranger and the Lord Commander is held immediately in the novel, discussing the gathering might of Mance Rayder and how a scouting expedition (not a hit squad to take out the King-beyond-the-wall) should be sent even further north to investigate matters, particularly since Qhorin has interrogated a wildling chieftain and found out that Mance and his people are attempting to locate some kind of magic to breach the Wall. When Mormont reluctantly agrees, the Halfhand names the men he wants in his search party immediately – including, of course, Jon Snow.
Upon entering the Frostfang Mountains, they spot a campfire set up by wildling sentries. Stonesnake, a newly introduced character who can climb mountains like a billy goat, is assigned to scale the side of the mountain in pitch black, and Jon, of course, is eager to volunteer for the mission, as well (an eagerness which was moved to signing up for Qhorin’s mission in the first place in the series). It takes several hours, but the pair manages to sneak up on and take out all of the sentries – except for a wildlng woman named Ygritte, whom Jon simply isn’t able to kill. When the Halfhand and the rest of his party arrive at dawn, he takes pity on Jon’s notion to take the spearwife captive but presses on him the impossibility of handling a prisoner on such a long and perilous trek in the wild – particularly since the wildlings wouldn’t think twice of executing a captured crow. They leave, thinking it will be easier for Jon to do the deed if he’s by himself.
Instead, he lets Ygritte go, finding himself incapable of murdering her in cold blood. He catches up with the others and, that night around the fire, tells Qhorin what happened. The ranger isn’t angry, nor is he even surprised. “If I had needed her dead, I would have left her with Ebben, or done the thing myself,” he says. When Jon asks why he had commanded him to do it, he replies:
“I did not command it. I told you to do what needed to be done, and left you to decide what that would be. [...] To lead men, you must know them, Jon Snow. I know more of you now than I did this morning.”
“And if I had slain her?” asked Jon.
“She would be dead, and I would know you better than I had before.”
It is a nice exchange, an intriguing glimpse into the mind of Qhorin Halfhand, and some subtle foreshadowing in the ways of leadership for Jon (which was instead routed, in a somewhat mutated form, to Lord Commander Mormont chastising his young steward in “The North Remembers” [episode 201], probably because of its exclusion here), but it is all cut out more than likely to the aforementioned element of time. The books, across some 5,000 pages (and counting), have an ample supply of the resource, but the television producers are always fighting against and scrounging around and sacrificing for it.
That the incredibly slow mountain-climbing sequence would be gone is a no-brainer, but so is, it turns out, most of what follows it – the spotting and inexorable hunting down of the Night’s Watch brothers by the wildlings, until, finally, it is just Qhorin and Jon Snow, cornered and defeated, with the only options available to them being death or captivity. If, say, the vast bulk of Arya Stark’s (mis)adventures marching north up the Kingsroad have been deleted, or if Lady Melisandre only births one shadow-baby assassin instead of the two needed in A Clash of Kings, then it only makes sense to similarly slice and dice Jon’s narrative.
Except there is so much more material with Ygritte now than there is at this point in the novel – telling Jon of life in the great white beyond, flirting with him, mocking him. It is not too much of a surprise to say that most, if not all, of these elements are included later on in Martin’s telling, even if the information and characterization they contain are delivered in slightly different (and, of course, more literary) methods. Their inclusion now, so early in the show, might be a further way of compacting the hundreds and hundreds of pages Martin spends on these characters in these situations, but it may also have to do with finding a more organic way to convey such exposition and other forms of worldbuildling in the visual medium. Think of this, then, as as a primer on wildling societal leanings, as opposed to the Wildling Cultural Anthropology class delivered in the novels.
(And speaking of scenes that have been shuffled forward from the beginning of book three to the end of season two, a brief aside: including the storyline of Brienne the Beauty and Jaime the Kingslayer travelling southward to King’s Landing now is a deft move by the showrunners, as Martin is wont to intermix the timelines of his books at their openings and closings [or for the entirety of book five, as it turns out]. Such chronological footwork can be a very tedious, if not confounding, practice for the television audience, of whom much is already being asked in the way of the sheer number of characters or the variety of intercut storyarcs. Additionally, it gives Weiss and Benioff the extra opportunity to make more natural cut-off points, as already mentioned in regards to the setting off of the Night’s Watch expedition [“Fire and Blood,” 110].)
Expanding the Story
Care to see what Wired, the Huffington Post, and Realms of Fantasy have to say about Game of Thrones’s second season thus far? Then you should check out the new roundtable that Marc N. Kleinhenz put together for this here very site. It’s long but very informative, and it contains some little nuggets of insight that should prove enriching to your Thrones viewing experience.
The Lore behind the Iron Throne
- A Game of Characterization: Roundtabling Game of Thrones’s Second Season (Thus Far)
- What Has Been Known
- Game of Thrones: A Primer
- Season Two Roundtable
Previous It Is Known Installments
- Episode 17: A Man Without Honor
- Episode 16: The Old Gods and the New
- Episode 15: The Ghost of Harrenhal
- Episode 14: Garden of Bones
- Episode 13: What Is Dead May Never Die
- 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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