A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.02: The Night Lands

(27 comments)

State of Play

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

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
Dragons of the Dothraki Sea: Daenerys Targaryen
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Bears of the Dothraki Sea: Jorah Mormont
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Ships of Dragonstone: Davos Seaworth
Kraken of Pyke: Theon Greyjoy
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
Burning Hearts of Dragonstone: Stannis Baratheon, Melisandre
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae

Winterfell lies empty.

The episode is in twelve parts. The first part runs four minutes and is set on the Kingsroad north of King’s Landing. The opening image is of Arya pissing by a stream. 

The second runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by hard cut, from Arya and Gendry looking nervous to Tyrion whistling “The Rains of Castamere.”

The third runs four minutes and is set at Craster’s Keep north of the Wall; the transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion talking about the Night’s Watch to the Night’s Watch.

The fourth runs three minutes and is set in the Red Waste east of the Dothraki Sea; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen. 

The fifth runs two minutes and is set in Pyke; the transition is by hard cut, from a wide shot of the Red Waste to Theon Greyjoy’s ship.

The sixth runs eight minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is four minutes long; the transition is by image, from Theon having sex to prostitutes having sex. The other is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Ros to Podrick’s hand pouring wine for Tyrion. 

The seventh runs four minutes and is set on the Kingsroad north of King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion and Bronn talking about killing Robert’s bastards to Gendry.

The eighth runs seven minuets and is set in Pyke. The transition is from hard cut, from Gendry lying on the ground to Theon arriving in Pyke.

The ninth runs four minutes and is set in Dragonstone. The transition is by dialogue, from the Greyjoys talking about ships to Davos on the shore.

The tenth runs three minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Davos riding off to Tyrion and Cersei. 

The eleventh runs four minutes and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion and Cersei discussing Stannis, among other things, to Stannis.

The last runs two minutes and is set at Craster’s Keep north of the Wall. The transition is by theme, from Melisandre working her magic with Stannis to Craster working his with his son. The final image is of Craster clubbing Jon Snow for sneaking about the camp looking for the answer to a riddle whose answer is chess. 

Analysis

It is not by any means the first time that the title of an episode has come from a relatively small portion of the episode. “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” for instance, refers to a section in the lone five minute Winterfell scene that episode has, spoken by a character, Tyrion, who has one other scene. “The Pointy End” refers to Arya in an episode she’s barely in. But although Tyrion is only in a small portion of “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” he structurally bookends the episode. Likewise, Arya may be a small bit of “The Pointy End,” but the title refers to a huge character moment for her.

“The Night Lands,” on the other hand, refers to a three minute chunk of the episode, in position four of twelve, in which nothing of any particular significance happens. Indeed, the incident that prompts the title, the death and mutilation of Daenerys’s bloodrider Rakharo, does not occur in the books at all, and has few consequences. The scene amounts to little more than a reminder that Daenerys exists, which the show admittedly needs, since it does not actually give her any plot until the fourth episode this season. (She’s in a grand total of seven minutes across the first three.)

This makes two episodes in a row with odd titles, although at least “The Night Lands” is a title that can be connected to the events of the episode without strenuous thematic contortions, it being, at least, an explicit piece of dialogue. And like “The North Remembers,” there is a fundamental messiness to the episode. Its major purpose, simply put, is to introduce all the bits that didn’t get introduced in the first episode. Arya, who had only a few seconds in “Winter is Coming,” gets eight minutes here, while Theon and the new location of Pyke get nine minutes. Also coming in for a sizeable chunk is Stannis, who got seven minutes last episode and gets eight here, but, crucially, eight minutes actually focusing on people who are characters going forward instead of on the doomed Maester Cressen. 

If the title can be understood as anything other than a faintly desperate grab at a cool-sounding phrase, it is this dynamic that would seem the most promising. “The Night Lands” suggests a shadow realm - something that exists just outside what might be called the board or the realm of play. And in a season defined in part by the gradual and inevitable resurgence of magic, this has non-trivial significance. Tellingly the episode ends with two consecutive scenes of lurking magic - Stannis taking Mellisandre upon the Painted Table and Craster sacrificing one of his sons, both acts with magical consequences that are not yet revealed. Elsewhere, Jaqen H’ghar makes his first appearance, another character with significant mystical resonances that are not yet revealed.

Certainly this reading works well given that, for all Arya, Stannis, and Theon get needed screentime here, the episode is still clearly anchored in King’s Landing, which provides seventeen minutes of material, the largest single chunk, most of it focused on Tyrion. Within King’s Landing, notably, the looming threat of the White Walkers is acknowledged, furthering this dynamic of magical forces at the margins of the board slowly encroaching inwards and starting to affect actual gameplay.

As for gameplay, most of what there is concerns Tyrion, who takes his first decisive action as Hand of the King by ousting Janos Slynt from his position. Slynt is, to be sure, a minor character - his scene with Tyrion is really his first significant one in the course of the story. Nevertheless, his comeuppance is a moment of genuine delight, and the first real demonstration of how Tyrion’s presence as Hand of the King will make the game more interesting. Also satisfying is Tyrion’s sparring with Varys, the first step in a relationship that will prove one of the most satisfying. Meanwhile, Littlefinger gets the one non-Tyrion scene in King’s Landing, which is mostly a bit of filler to show his ruthlessness, but does contain the episode’s most wryly funny line in “that was poorly handled.”


Finally it is worth remarking briefly upon Theon, whose curious importance in the first season finally finds itself justified as he ends up with his own plot. As gameplay continues Theon will be an almost continual source of difficulty, both in the literal sense of causing no end of trouble for other characters and in a more figurative sense. Simply put, he is never a character who works as a televisual presence. (Nor, indeed, as a literary one.) Nevertheless, this is in many ways his best scene, if only because the interplay between him and Yara and the subsequent twist is wonderfully, cruelly funny. Nevertheless, the fundamental problem with Theon as television rapidly emerges here: the toxic mixture of arrogance and cowardice that makes him an interesting force within the narrative also makes him almost viscerally unpleasant to actually spend time watching. The result is that the major import of “The Night Lands” is, in hindsight, the introduction of what will end up being the most chronically underperforming plot within the series. 

Comments

Aylwin 2 years ago

Slitting up Slynt is a good choice as the first real demonstration of Tyrion's not-Nedness, a comparison that gets made a lot this season, and makes his plot to a significant extent a commentary on Ned's plot - another of the ways in which Ned continues to hang over the story.

It shows that he's grasped the basic point that the very first order of business for a new regime, where the relevant institutions exist and political violence is to be expected, is to put people you can rely on in charge of metropolitan security (well, and the field army*, but his dad has that one covered). If Ned had had any idea at all of how to play the game, he would have had Jory Cassel sworn in as Commander of the City Watch before they had finished rubbing down his horse. Perhaps a little unlikely that he didn't, since as a soldier-type you would think the importance of muscle would be the aspect of the game he would grasp best (or least worst), but plot dictates.

Actually, if he had only got that one right, it's possible that he could have made all his other mistakes and still come out on top, or at least got enough warning that he'd been shafted to commandeer a boat to Dragonstone and get away with his head. Littlefinger could still have been able to buy off the Watch by suborning more junior officers, but that might have been tricky to do at such short notice, at least without anyone giving the game away, whereas Slynt was a discreet one-stop shop.

*I smiled at a news story this week about the new President of Nigeria, on the BBC website I think, which showed either a charming naivety or diplomatic disingenuous on the part of Our West Africa Correspondent. It reported that he had announced he would be making changes to the military high command, ostensibly to enhance efforts against Boko Haram, and expressed apparent surprise that this was being done despite the army having done rather well lately. Well, he's a former dictator who came to power last time through a military coup and went out the same way, and that's just two of several such coups in Nigeria since independence. Why do you think he wants his own appointees running the army?

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Alex Antonijevic 2 years ago

I do enjoy that Tyrion kicked off Janos Slynt's downfall and then Jon Snow finished him off a few seasons (and books) later.

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Aylwin 2 years ago

Perhaps a little unlikely that he didn't

Actually, the more I think about it, the more implausible it seems. He knows from the start that the shit is liable to get real at some point, and "the City Watch has 2,000 men under arms". It's as plain as the nose on your face (or off it, in some cases).

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Daru 2 years ago

"“The Night Lands” suggests a shadow realm - something that exists just outside what might be called the board or the realm of play. And in a season defined in part by the gradual and inevitable resurgence of magic, this has non-trivial significance."

That's exactly how I had thought of this title, with it referencing and actual hidden and unspoken otherworldly realm, where the darker aspects of magic (whatever religious banner they fall under) hail from and penetrate into the book/TV show's world.

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Daru 2 years ago

Yes if a military man like Ned was firing on all cylinders it would seem very unlikely. He did though seem to be often off kilter with regards to his instincts that then it appeared affected many of his choices - the main one being coming to Kings Landing at all perhaps.

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Daru 2 years ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Daru 2 years ago

"The fundamental problem with Theon as television rapidly emerges here: the toxic mixture of arrogance and cowardice that makes him an interesting force within the narrative also makes him almost viscerally unpleasant to actually spend time watching."

Yeah, honestly I found him quite unbearable to watch too. There was nothing redeeming I found in the character and the way he was written.

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SpaceSquid 2 years ago

You know, it had somehow completely escaped my notice through all my rewatches that the shot Phil has used up there is blatantly a reference to the colours of House Greyjoy, as well as a visual reminder of how little distance warmth can spread in the miserable dampness of Pyke.

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Aylwin 2 years ago

Having read the preview of the next post as well, I feel like saying "Don't hold back! Tell us what you really think of Theon!"

The funny and somewhat disturbing thing is that having always been revolted by him, I actually found myself warming to him a bit after the gut-wrenching child-murder, an effect that I suspect is intended. The blend of torment and humour in that scene with Luwin in the last episode of the season somehow conspires to induce you to root for him in spite of yourself.

In that way, I agree that it is creatively necessary for him to be the way he is. He could easily have been written as an ostensibly fairly nice but weak man, whose insecurities and moral cowardice lead him by stages into becoming a child-murderer, but if it was done that way your sympathy would simply withdraw from him as he got worse, in a unremarkable sort of way. Making him an obnoxious little scrote who treads that same path encourages this perverse effect where pity for the deepening hideousness of the situation he creates through his increasingly hideous conduct actually makes your sympathy for him increase, because you had virtually none to begin with. Which is more interesting. But yes, it does mean he's not great company.

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Aylwin 2 years ago

And you a fellow cephalopod!

Mind you, Pyke does look fucking cool, from the outside. Who wouldn't want to be able to point at it and say "That's my house that is!"? You just wouldn't want to actually live there.

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Philip Sandifer 2 years ago

Yes, and that is an interesting effect. I agree with you about where it reaches its zenith as well. The dark comedy that is his final speech rallying his men is also fantastic, as is his scene with Yara in which he all but commits suicide. (Though that's mostly amazing for the line "you were a terrible baby, do you know that?")

Equally, the fact that the sight Alfie Allen's face on your television gradually acquires a visceral negative association is, I think, one of the biggest reasons why Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken just doesn't work.

(But that's mostly a Brief Treatise 3.x issue, and there are no immediate plans for 3.x)

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elvwood 2 years ago

"But though 7B is madly gay,
It wouldn't do for every day.
We actually live at 7A:
In the house next door."

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5tephe 2 years ago

It's for that reason that I wasn't too impressed with the whole first season, and find it difficult to understand why so many people were surprised at Need getting his head chopped off.

I've not read the books, but the only thing which surprised me in the whole first season was when Jamie and Cersie a) were having an incestuous relationship, and b) pushed Bran out the window.

Once you've seen that, you think "O.K, it's that dark and ugly a world. Got it." So when Need continued to behave all first season like a naive boy scout, facing up against exactly the kind of people who push small boys out windows, well... what happened to him was less surprising than inevitable.

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5tephe 2 years ago

This comment has been removed by the author.

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Garth Simmons 2 years ago

Theon Greyjoy has become my favourite character in Game of Thrones and started out as my most disliked. His story arc is probably the most Shakespearean... the angry boy with a misplaced identity eventually reduced into Reek. It's really powerful and Alfie Allen is great.

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Aylwin 2 years ago

Yes, the combination of the sense that he is trapped and being herded inevitably towards his doom, with the fact that it's his own fundamental character flaws that actually put him in the trap and prevent him escaping, is pure Shakespearean tragedy.

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Daibhid C 2 years ago

"We're terribly Ice & Fire at no. 7B..."

"Why not collect large metal swords and construct a throne from them? This will give you the sensation of sitting on large metal swords..."

(And there, you will be relieved to hear, my inspiration on this topic ended.)

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