A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 1.10: Fire and Blood

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In case you missed it, I reviewed "The Wars to Come" last night.  I'll do "The House of Black and White" if the Patreon is at $280 by the time it airs - it's currently at $275.

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

The Direwolves, Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark
The Lions, Jaime Lannister and Tyrion Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of the Dothraki Sea: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of the Dothraki Sea: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark, Arya Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane

The episode is in fifteen parts. The first is one minute long and is set in King’s Landing. The opening shot is of Ice dripping with the blood of Lord Eddard Stark. 

The second is three minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Arya to Bran. 

The third is two minutes long and is set in the Stark camp. The transition is by family, from Bran to Catelyn and Robb. 

The fourth is five minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family and dialogue, from Catelyn telling Robb they have to get his sisters back to Sansa at Joffrey’s court. 

The fifth is five minutes long and is set in the Stark camp. The transition is by family, from Sansa to Robb. 

The sixth is seconds long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jaime to Cersei. 

The seventh is three minutes long and is set in the Lannister camp. The transition is by family, from Cersei to Tywin and Tyrion. 

The eighth is five minutes long and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion to an establishing shot of the Dothraki camp. 

The ninth is one minute long and is set on the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Jon Snow. 

The tenth is one minute long and is set in the Lannister camp. The transition is by hard cut, from the open gate of Castle Black to Shae helping Tyrion pack.

The eleventh is two minutes long and is set on the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, to Shae climbing onto Tyrion to Jon riding south.

The twelfth is three minutes long and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen. 

The thirteenth is eight minutes long and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is three minutes long; the transition is by image, from a shot through the door of Daenerys’s tent to a shot of Grandmaester Pycelle sitting in a doorway, and by dialogue, with Pycelle talking about the Mad King. The second is two minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Pycelle’s door to Littlefinger standing, staring at the Iron Throne. The third section is three minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Joffrey walking into the throne room to Arya and Yoren walking through the streets of King’s Landing. 

The fourteenth is three minutes long and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, from Arya to Jon Snow, and by dialogue, from Yoren announcing that they are riding for the Wall to the Wall.


The last is seven minutes long and is set in the Dothraki Sea; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen. The final shot is of Daenerys with her dragons perched upon her, named Drogo, Morningtono, and Crescento. 

Analysis

Perhaps the most striking thing about “Fire and Blood” is the strangely relaxed tone it takes throughout. This is a sense inherited from the novels. In both cases, the broad sweep of the board, with characters in, at this point, six separate locations, two of them not even represented in the opening credits, requires this sort of approach. With Ned Stark’s death (which occurs in Arya’s fifth and final chapter in the book), there are still six remaining viewpoint characters, all of them requiring some sort of resolution in order for the book to actually feel like a book. The result is that the ending of the novel, and indeed of all of Martin’s novels, is an extended event, with about seventy-five pages of the book - a solid 11% of it - spent on “last chapters” as it were. 

And in many ways the show has an even more significant task. Where the book needs to resolve six characters, the show has fifteen credited main characters in this episode, with somewhere around eleven distinct resolutions to depict (since there are several characters who can be dealt with simultaneously - most obviously Robb, Catelyn, and Theon). Some of these need not be more than fleeting - a seconds long scene of Cersei with a naked Lancel Lannister in her bed, for instance, serves as her resolution for the season, and does the job perfectly well, in that it serves as a statement of where her gamesmanship has gotten her over the course of ten episodes. Still, the result is a sequence of statements of the new status quo - a methodical tour of the board that serves to establish where everyone is in the wake of Ned Stark’s death. 

But what is truly surprising is the amount of space the episode finds for small resolutions it could easily have gotten away with skipping. The most notable, of course, is the three minute Grandmaester Pycelle scene, a rare instance of the show serving up a scene with no credited regulars in it, and a frankly delightful bit of characterization that goes considerably further than anything the character ever gets in prose while simultaneously remaining utterly faithful to the spirit of the character. But to even have this scene take place in the season finale requires a sense of quiet and stillness that is difficult to cultivate, especially when darting amongst major events like the Night’s Watch riding in force against the White Walkers and Robb Stark being crowned King in the North. 

In all of this, however, it is unmistakably Daenerys’s plot that ends up having the most weight, at last revealing the overall structure of the first season/book, which opens with magic in the North in the form of the White Walkers, and ends with magic in the east in the form of Daenerys’s dragons, moving in the process from ice to fire. This dualism has been visible throughout the season, but the use of it as a frame for the season,, and as the only two pieces of overt magic within this fantasy series is haunting and compelling. And its strangeness is consciously given room to breathe - the episode’s other major change to the state of play, Robb Stark’s coronation, occurs quite early in the episode. 

All the same, its impact comes largely from the juxtaposition of this magic frame with virtually everything within, Robb Stark’s coronation included. What is compelling is the fact that we are presented with a world that is framed by an eternal and cyclic struggle between ice and fire, but that is populated by a materialist account of history lovingly ripped off from the Wars of the Roses and the Shakespearean adaptations thereof. More to the point, what’s compelling is that these two forces have distinctly different ethical consequences. A materialist view of history in which the exercise of understandable power drives history. A metaphysical battle between ice and fire, on the other hand, is one in which the chosen drive history, with all the consequences that a word like “chosen” introduces. 

The game, of course, is ultimately about balancing these competing desires, all games being about balance in the end. And within that is the white whale of our tale. At the center of this labyrinth is a throne, upon which sits a king. Perhaps it is the one who will sit upon the Iron Throne when the narrative is finished. Perhaps it is simply some last great implication, a Freudian god of the unspoken. Regardless, it is what the game is played for: an understanding of what legitimate rule formed in a materialist conception of history looks like. Of what a good king is. Or, to put it another way, there is, at some point, the prospect of a winner.

But this is a game in the televisual sense, and worse, in the historical one, both modes in which here is no such thing as an ending, and where victory is a fundamentally transient state. There is always another match, and nobody stays champion forever. That’s how sports work, and all games are sports, just as all games are about balance. This is not the revelation that justifies the exercise. This is nothing more than a sublimely well-executed baiting of the hook - a demonstration of what a full season of Thrones can look like. The nature of the relationship between the mythic frame and the historical center is that the mythic is, ultimately, interesting primarily in how it impacts the center. The arrival of dragons on one end of the board is, just like the death of Ned Stark and the capture of Tyrion, nothing more than another major shift in the state of play. At the end of the day, for all its implications, what is most interesting about it is that it is just another move, and that the game goes on. 

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones will return in just over a month. In the meantime, let’s play a different game. The Super Nintendo Project debuts on April 20th

Comments

J Mairs 2 years, 5 months ago

"At the center of this labyrinth is a throne, upon which sits a king. Perhaps it is the one who will sit upon the Iron Throne when the narrative is finished. Perhaps it is simply some last great implication, a Freudian god of the unspoken. Regardless, it is what the game is played for: an understanding of what legitimate rule formed in a materialist conception of history looks like. Of what a good king is. Or, to put it another way, there is, at some point, the prospect of a winner."

My money is that it will end in democracy, and the abolition of the Iron Throne through dragonfire.

Daenerys/Sansa 2016!!

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Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

A lot depends on who Ramsey was speaking for (and whether they were just baiting us).

"If you think this has a happy ending you haven't been paying attention."

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Daru 2 years, 5 months ago

Really been enjoying game of Thrones Mondays.

Some things that stood out for me in this episode include: The transition within Bran's dream near the beginning where we see him walking whilst seeing the three-eyed raven, moving into him apparently still walking but he is on the shoulders of Hodor and in the waking world. I also really have liked the small moments that Rickon's character brings, even though they are small and there are only a few of them. he often seems to be pretty tuned in and has a pretty clear understanding of events for his young age.

I do really love loads the added scene with Pycelle, as in the scene's last moment we are shown that all we have been shown about his character is actually pretty skilful acting on his part as he adopts from being well poised and upright, the sunken old posture usually seen.

The other transition I really adore though is the last one from the Night's watch as they travel through the ice tunnel in the wall to North, to Dany assisting Drogo to properly pass over. In my mind the tunnel makes me think of that journey through the liminal spaces between worlds - such as from the human world into a region soaked in magic, or between life and death.

The last moment with Dany where after her magical initiation, her eyes show a woman touching the transcendent. Beautiful.

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Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

Not a terribly democratic ticket.

Vote Davos!

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Daru 2 years, 5 months ago

He's a nice guy, I'd vote for him.

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Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

The other transition I really adore though is the last one from the Night's watch as they travel through the ice tunnel in the wall to North, to Dany assisting Drogo to properly pass over. In my mind the tunnel makes me think of that journey through the liminal spaces between worlds - such as from the human world into a region soaked in magic, or between life and death.

Oooh yes. Good point. And of course in her vision at the end of the next season she goes through the same tunnel herself and meets Drogo on the other side.

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Daru 2 years, 5 months ago

Absolutely, that's a great scene too.

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Matt Marshall 2 years, 5 months ago

I suppose my biggest question at this point is "so what?" Or rather, "is there a 'so what'?"

Is there an overall meaning to GOT by this point, or is it, like some sort of soap, a continuing narrative all sound and fury signifying nothing? If it had been cancelled after the first season what would the conceptulation of 'Game of Thrones' by the public have actually been? Is the message just 'life is crap and villains win'?

I imagine you are struggling with the analysis a bit Phil, as it seems to be mostly reduced to an explanation of what is happening on screen rather than some of the more gonzo posts of the TARDIS eruditorium. Maybe GoT is such a different beast that it defies analysis due to its nature as an ongoing narrative?

Don't think of that as a critique your way, more an observation on what GoT /is/ and what can realistically be done with it. I don't know the answer. I'm hoping you do!

That said I am hoping for a good post on the paranoid nature of the fandom (and fandoms in general) in creating insane tinfoil fan theories (and yet at the same time, this being something modern television has explicitly trained us to do).

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Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

Speaking of the number of resolutions required, one thing that distinguishes this episode from the last of the next season is that it's only perhaps the penultimate "ending" that sort of feels like it might be the final climax, before you get to the actual climax. The crescendo works very nicely. Whereas in season 2 it all gets a bit Return of the King. "Is that...no, no, there's another bit".

Mind you, though of course it's all neat and symmetrical having season 2 end with the first proper sight of the White Walkers just as season 1 ends with the first sight of the dragons, part of me would have liked it to finish on Bran and Co setting off with Winterfell smouldering in the background, just because it's such an evocative (and thematically resonant) image.

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Jeff Heikkinen 2 years, 5 months ago

His mistake was adding Melisandre to the ticket to try to capture those red states.

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David Anderson 2 years, 5 months ago

Was the structure of major climax in the penultimate episode, followed by the fallout in the final episode pioneered by the Wire, or was it around before?

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Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

Farscape did it (seasons 2-4), though that only preceded The Wire by a couple of years.

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David Anderson 2 years, 5 months ago

I would be surprised (though pleased) to find Farscape was a major influence on the Wire.

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Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

It doesn't seem that likely to be David Simon's tipple, does it? Still, it was out there.

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Aylwin 2 years, 5 months ago

I believe Phil said in his Shabcast interview that he was planning to write a book on GoT once the series was over, which would take more the kind of approach people might expect from him, in terms of assessing its antecedents, interaction with its cultural context and what-have-you. The Brief Treatise, with its focus on structure and mechanics, is about taking a particular angle on the series, not the last word in PS on GoT.

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BerserkRL 2 years, 5 months ago

Please, no more voting. Anarchy FTW.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years, 5 months ago

Yeah, ultimately what I want to do is something much bigger that looks at the work's span from the obscure depths of sci-fi/fantasy fandom, as a series by a man who's basically the last of the great neckbeards, to being a world-conquering pop culture giant. I want to look at the materialism of that, and the sort of pathological aspects of the series' narratives - the excessive, ludicrous amount of depth and detail. It'll be my "from Tolkien to the Wire" book.

But that'll require A Dream of Spring to exist as a book. So for now, I'm doing something that's very crunchy and based on the storytelling techniques, in part because that's just not an angle I've really taken in my critical work so far.

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Ozy Jones 2 years, 3 months ago

For what it's worth, Buffy TVS did exactly this in Season 4, with the Big Bad being defeated in the penultimate episode and the final episode being a 'dream world' character study and musing on the nature of the slayer.

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