A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 2.06: The Old Gods and the New

(49 comments)

State of Play

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

Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Direwolf, Catelynn Stark
Dragons of Qarth: Daenerys Targaryen
Mockingbirds of Harrenhal: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Lions of Harrenhal: Tywin Lannister
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
The Direwolf, Robb Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark, Joffrey Baratheon [sic]
Direwolves of Harrenhal: Arya Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane

Pyke is abandoned.

The episode is in fourteen parts. The first is eight minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The first image is of Maester Luwin running into his chamber. It features the death of Roderick Cassell, beheaded poorly by Theon Greyjoy.

The second is three minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Bran and Rickon Stark to Jon Snow. 

The third is four minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Arya Stark. 

The fourth is six minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya to Jon Snow. It features the death of several unnamed wildlings.

The fifth is six minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Sansa Stark. It features the death of Jocrassa Fel Fotch Pasameer-Day-Slitheen, torn apart by an angry mob.

The sixth is four minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by theme, with both scenes featuring monarchs who cannot control things.

The seventh is four minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by dialogue, from Daenerys discussing conquest of the Iron Throne to Tywin’s battle maps. 

The eighth is tjree minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Arya to Robb. 

The ninth is three minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Robb Stark to Jon Snow, and by the theme of inadvisable sex.

The tenth is two minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Robb Stark.

The eleventh is two minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from talking about Theon to Theon.

The twelfth is one minute long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by theme, from Osha’s use of sex to Shae.

The thirteenth is one minute long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from Shae telling Sansa to trust nobody to Osha demonstrating the point to Theon.

The fourteenth is two minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by dialogue, with Daenerys talking about whoring herself for a boat after Bran and Rickon’s escape. It features a significant depletion in the number of Dothraki in the series. The final image is of a man carrying Daenerys’s dragons towards a tower, his identity a riddle whose answer is chess. 

Analysis

A bad move, to be sure. They happen. It is easy enough to enumerate the flaws. What’s troubling is how deep-seated they are. Most obviously, the title is rubbish. Despite being a perfectly common phrase in the series, there’s no title drop. It is not about the gods. The only scene with any religious content is the High Septon being torn to pieces, which makes an interesting point about the lack of any magic in the official faith, but which ends up amounting to nothing because, bafflingly, this is the first episode this season to largely ignore the issue of magic accreting at the edges of the board, meaning that there’s no actual “old gods” to balance the impotent new ones within the episode.

There are also larger frustrations in terms of the season. It is difficult to come up with any compelling reason why Tyrion’s plot here should not be exchanged with “The Ghost of Harrenhal,” a switch that would keep Stannis more present in the mix, given that he’s not in this episode. Instead King’s Landing idly drops the sense of impending doom it was building last week to go back to pointing out how awful Joffrey is. 

Beyond that, it is completely disjointed in structure. Fourteen parts is a ludicrous excess, and results in some bewildering cuts. The worst is the one minute Sansa scene pointlessly injected into the middle of two Winterfell scenes, which almost gives the sense of just being a real time cutaway from Theon having sex. The Arya scene interjected between the first two Jon Snow scenes is similarly disruptive, not least because it inadvertently highlights the fact that Jon Snow’s best scene this episode is the one in which Qhorin is just whittering on about nothing.

Or, rather, it highlights the fact that Kit Harrington has certain… limitations as an actor. His innate stuffiness will serve him well in later play, but he is tragically unable to play youthful lust in a way that does not look more like constipation. His non-execution of Ygritte borders on outright unwatchability. But it is the transition from Robb Stark and Talisa to Ygritte’s grinding against Jon Snow that plunges the episode into outright bathos. Certainly it’s (ironically) not hard to believe the two are brothers, but pretty men being woodenly stupid about sex is, perhaps, not where Game of Thrones wants to be putting its emphasis. 

This, in turn, is part of a larger problem in which nearly everybody’s plot hinges on their appalling stupidity, with these scenes coinciding with Arya’s bewilderingly stupid decision to steal a random set of battle plans that she cannot possibly do anything with, as opposed to doing the obvious thing and naming Tywin or Joffrey. Robb and Jon’s bad decisions are at least motivated, albeit clumsily, but Arya is simply making bad decisions for the sake of it, a fact that’s all the more frustrating when contrasted with her clever interrogations of Tywin. 

But the real problem is that this last bit is immutable. This is pretty much what happens in the books; the first real inkling of what would become Martin’s crushing inability to draw his plot threads into anything resembling Aristotelean unity. This is fairly clearly around the point that Martin’s original plans for a tidy trilogy started to unravel into a tangle of excess characters and shaggy dog plots. And a key component of that is that he starts having characters who are normally completely competent act like complete and utter idiots. Entire books could have been cut if Arya had realized she had the opportunity to kill Tywin, Jon Snow had been willing to execute Ygritte, and Robb didn’t break his promise to Walder Frey. And while the decisions not to take any of these shorter routes have interesting consequences, they also slow down play unsatisfyingly and prove dramatically unsatisfying moments in their own right.

And yet even sloppy play has its pleasures. J’aqen’s frustrated eyeroll when he realizes that Arya has gotten herself in trouble; the “Lord Tywin,” “Baelish” exchange; Arya’s attempts to hide from Littlefinger and Aidan Gillen’s delightful distraction from the conversation with Tywin; the disdain with which Bran asks “why” when he hears that Theon has taken the castle; the perversity of Theon hacking at Ser Roderick’s neck and the grotesquery of his blood-splattered face; literally everything to do with Osha.


Which is to say: a round of bad play salvaged exclusively by the quality of the players. 

Comments

Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

Is that a set photo rather than a still? It doesn't look familiar, costumes are being adjusted, and the Kingsguard on the right seems to be thinking "Seriously, I have to wear this hat?"

Which would be fair enough of course. I'm oddly fascinated by the blingy Kingsguard armour. In isolation it looks quite cool, but the flashiness of it looks ridiculous on anyone at all rough-looking, like Meryn Trant or, spectacularly, the Hound - I think he wears his once, and never again. Really not his look. Selmy gets away with it, but only Jaime is smooth and dashing enough to really make it work for him. But the helmets? No one could make those look good.

No doubt Martin would expound at great length on how the vanes on top are not only silly-looking but impractical. Really, if you don't want to listen to about half an hour of complaints about helmets or the lack thereof, do not listen to Martin's DVD commentary on Blackwater

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Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

Not like you to pick at plotholes. Join us! Joiiiiiiiin usssssssssssss!

Actually, though I'm generally one for making a song and dance about this sort of thing, give or take Arya I don't have a particular problem with the cases here. Robb's hardly the first man to do disastrously stupid things for love, in reality let alone fiction (though it's true the acting doesn't entirely sell us on the idea that Talisa rocks his world). And this is surely one of Martin's most direct lifts from history, namely Edward IV's catastrophic marriage to Elizabeth Woodville. And he was no fool in general, so if that could happen, so could this.

Jon failing to doing the deed didn't really strike me as out of character either. What is entirely ridiculous about that event is Qhorin and co walking off and leaving him to it. Why on earth would they do that? Even if there weren't obvious doubts about trusting a wet-behind-the-ears rookie to kill a pretty young female prisoner in cold blood unsupervised, why? Killing her would only take a moment, if he was actually going to do it, so why not get it done there and then? The only way it would make even the slightest trace of sense would be if there was a discreet rape subtext and they were giving him a chance to have his way with her privately before killing her, but I got no hint of that from the performances, and the risks of it would be even more obvious and extreme than if they were expecting him to just kill her. It's hard to imagine the Halfhand getting such a reputation, or still being alive, if he was in the habit of carrying on like that in the face of the enemy.

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Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

By "this" I mean Robb's reckless marriage as such - obviously the specifics are different in the books.

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SpaceSquid 1 year, 7 months ago

Entire books could have been cut if Arya had realized she had the opportunity to kill Tywin, Jon Snow had been willing to execute Ygritte, and Robb didn’t break his promise to Walder Frey.

Fair points regarding Arya and Jon, but I’m struggling to see how Robb keeping his word would truncate anything – aside from anything else it seems to me that keeping Robb alive and able to campaign against the Ironborn in the North would extend the tale, if nothing else. In any case, I’d argue that the idea that Walder Frey wouldn't have betrayed Robb if not for him breaking his marriage vow is tremendously shaky. Robb turning down Jeyne Westerling almost certainly wouldn't have saved him from losing the Karstarks (those dominoes started to fall when Winterfell did), and it obviously had nothing to do with the loss of his home, the event which forced Robb to return to the Twins as a staging post to retake the western North. In both book and show those two events seriously weakened Robb to the point where victory was essentially impossible without the Freys, and one of the first things we learn about Frey in the books (if not the first) is that he doesn't even show up to aid those he’s sworn to for battles where victory is even so much as uncertain. We’re supposed to believe Frey would stick with the clearly losing side in a war because he’s been promised his daughter will one day be queen to the king who’s liable to be dead within months at the most? A ruler who is abandoning his lands south of the Neck to be defended by the scattered, exhausted and horrifically outnumbered locals whilst he rides home? If the Freys keep supporting Robb they paint a gigantic grey and blue target on their backs; when the Lannisters and Tyrells roll up the King’s Road to crush the rebels the only real way they can bottle up Robb is to sack the Twins. Which means Robb’s plan is for the Freys to act as ablative armour for his host whilst they reclaim what no competent ruler should ever have lost.

I think a vastly more plausible outcome than Frey keeing faith is that the Red Wedding still goes down, only with Robb being the one who ties the knot minutes before the rain of quarrels. The Lannister offer of the entire Riverlands and revenge on the Tullys who spat on Walder for decades (along the support of Roose Bolton, who was almost certainly working against the King in the North long before Robb’s marriage) beats the hell out of some temporary influence-through-marriage of a brief and dying dynasty. The book makes much of how Robb “won every battle and lost the war in the marriage bed” (I suspect I misquote slightly) but I don’t see a political analysis supporting that.

As always, Steven Attewell has much more on this point over at his wonderful Race for the Iron Throne site.

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Aylwin 1 year, 7 months ago

the fact that Jon Snow’s best scene this episode is the one in which Qhorin is just whittering on about nothing

Good wittering though. For me, that scene single-handedly leads to Qhorin joining Renly in the "we hardly knew ye" class of characters it would have been nice to see more of, though I suppose the fact that he is in such a hurry to expound his philosophy us makes it pretty clear that he is not long for this world.

Regarding the status of King's Landing, Winterfell and the Wall as permanent fixtures of the board, I pondered a notion, which probably doesn't entirely hold up but might have something in it, of them as corresponding to a rather American set of archetypal poles of narrative geography - the Home Town, the Big Bad City and the Frontier. Of course, the Wall is a very un-American kind of frontier, being emphatically defensive rather than offensive from the point of view of the "civilised" folk, but I do get a Western vibe about much of the north-of-the-Wall stuff. The flirtation with a Dances With Direwolves scenario, the squalid "trading post"-type homestead run by a hillbillyish psycho frontiersman*, and the Halfhand, who has an air of some kind of "Indian-hunter", with due adjustments for the more pessimistic attitude encouraged by the overall situation. His combination of familiarity with and grim respect for his enemy and their environment, with bone-deep antipathy to both, and a conviction of their ultimate unfathomability which is dehumanising in the case of the people, seemed like something that could have given us more.

Still, at least it gave us a compelling scene anyway.

*Somehow the idea of Craster as a native-born Wildling, part of the surrounding culture, never rang true to me. He feels more like an outcast from the settled world, making it up as he goes along in an alien environment where he is isolated both from his own society and the one around him. A man who has either gone nuts in the wilderness or went out there because he was nuts to begin with.

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 7 months ago

Possibly, although the guy staring into his helmet frustratedly was also why I picked that photo.

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Philip Sandifer 1 year, 7 months ago

To be clear, it's not so much that these are plot holes so much as that they're just shit storytelling, especially placed back-to-back like this. "Competent character does something dumb in order to make the plot work" is just unsatisfying.

Contrast, notably, with genuinely earned moments of "smart person does dumb thing" such as Ned's confrontation with Cersei, Daenerys's resurrection of Drogo, or Tyrion's decision to go fuck off to the Hand's chamber instead of just escaping, all of which are fantastically ill-advised, but ill-advised in ways that are ruthlessly well set-up.

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Rasal Khan 1 year, 7 months ago

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Daru 1 year, 7 months ago

"And while the decisions not to take any of these shorter routes have interesting consequences, they also slow down play unsatisfyingly and prove dramatically unsatisfying moments in their own right."

Yep there was some pretty unsatisfying storytelling in those plotlines.

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Steve Buckinghamshire 7 months, 1 week ago

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