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State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly.
Direwolves of Winterfell: Eddard Stark, Catelyn Stark, Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark, Robb Stark, Bran Stark
Stags of Winterfell: Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon
Lions of Winterfell: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister, Sandor Clegane, and Tyrion Lannister
Dragons of Vaes Dothrak: Daenerys Targaryen, Viserys Targaryen
Fleurs de lis of Vaes Dothrak : Jorah Mormont
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
King’s Landing is empty.
The episode is in eleven parts. The first runs three minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The first shot is a long line of Dothraki marching across the vast grassy plains.
The second runs sixteen minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is via dialogue and image, from Viserys and Jorah talking about Eddard Stark and a shot of horses to a shot of dogs in Winterfell. The cliffhanger is resolved seven minutes in, when Tyrion announces that Bran is expected to survive.
The third runs three minutes and is set along the Kingsroad south of Winterfell. The transition is via character, the previous scene ending with Ned riding off and cutting ahead to Ned and Robert, and by dialogue, with the previous scene ending with Ned and Jon Snow parting for the last time to Robert and Ned talking about Jon’s mother.
The fourth runs one minute and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The transition is via dialogue with Robert and Ned talking about the Dothraki and Targaryens to the Dothraki and Targaryens themselves.
The fifth runs three minutes and is set along the Kingsroad north of Winterfell. The transition is via image and family, from Daenerys looking at her dragon’s eggs surrounded by candles to Jon Snow sitting by a fire. At the episode’s halfway point, Jon Snow and Tyrion converse by the fire.
The sixth runs three minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Bran. It features the death of the would-be assassin, mauled by Summer.
The seventh runs two minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The transition is by visual, the gore upon Summer’s face to the Dothraki butchering animals to eat.
The eighth runs one minute and is set at the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys to Jon Snow.
The ninth runs four minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by family, from Benjen to Catelyn.
The tenth runs four minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea. The transition is by hard cut, from Bran in bed to Daenerys being taught how to please Khal Drogo.
The last runs twelve minutes and is in two sections. The first lasts ten minutes and is set on the Kingsroad south of Winterfell. The transition is by hard cut, from Daenerys and Drogo having torrid sex to Sansa walking through the camp. The second lasts two minutes and is intercut between Winterfell and the first part of the section. It features the death of Lady, Sansa Stark’s direwolf, whose throat is slit by Lord Eddard Stark. The final shot is a hold on Bran’s eyes just after he’s woken up in a hard cut from Lady’s death. “Mornington Crescent,” he thinks.
Initial deceptions made, we proceed to a second episode. Second installments are, as a rule, fascinating specimens. Where premieres have to make a case for what a thing is, second episodes are generally concerned instead with demonstrating what an ordinary use of the premise is going to be like. For Game of Thrones, however, other concerns play in. Huge swaths of the main cast, after all, have barely been introduced. Daenerys got eight lines across the entirety of “Winter is Coming.” Arya got only fourteen words, with her most substantial line being an exposition dump of “That’s Jaime Lannister, the queen’s twin brother.” Joffrey had no dialogue whatsoever. And even characters who were the focuses of scenes were only partially introduced. There is, in other words, quite a lot of groundwork still to lay.
Accordingly, “The Kingsroad” moves slowly. In one sense it is an entire episode spent repeating the premise of the series and delaying the resolution of the cliffhanger. This is clear from the outset, with the decision to open in the Dothraki Sea, which is, at the moment the story opens, as far from the action of the cliffhanger as it is possible to be. Even when the action does cut to Winterfell, it starts with the characters least in any position to tell the audience what’s happened to Bran, and keeps his fate deliberately vague throughout the interaction between Joffrey and Tyrion, holding back the reveal that Bran has survived for as long into the episode as it can manage.
This decision to claim space to flesh out characters is not merely necessary, although it is clearly that – it is also, on the whole, well done. In particular, several of the scenes added from the books are helpful. The exchange between Viserys and Jorah about the reasons for Jorah’s exile, for instance, is revealing in some subtle ways. It is, for instance, not just significant that the scene reiterates Viserys’s fundamental awfulness as he dismisses laws against slavery as “nonsense,” but the altogether subtler point of Jorah clearly being ashamed of his crime, and of him accordingly not being particularly comforted by Viserys’s support.
A bigger added scene is the one between Catelyn and Cersei, which makes one of the earliest major changes to the canon in its revelation that Cersei had a child with Robert who died. This serves as part of a larger effort within the scene to render Cersei a more sympathetic character, a significant move given that it comes in between scenes where Cersei is complicit in the attempted murder of an innocent child and her climactic cruelty to Sansa. But as important as the humanizing of Cersei is the dissonance put on display. Her empathy with Catelyn’s pain is entirely honest and genuine, and is made all the more fascinating by the fact that she’s thoroughly culpable for Bran’s fall.
Much of the importance of this scene comes down to the most basic difference between the books and the television show, which is the fact that the show is not limited to a chosen set of viewpoint characters. In the books, Cersei is denied full interiority until A Feast for Crows, and Jaime until A Storm of Swords. But it’s also interesting that in the show, Jaime continues to be denied interiority. Initially, when the story pretends to be a suspense narrative about Ned Stark trying to solve the murder of Jon Arryn before the Lannisters can contrive to get rid of him, Cersei, Jaime, and Joffrey all appear to be villains. This is ultimately only partially true. But in the long run it is Jaime who is going to have the best claim to not actually be a straightforward villain, which makes it interesting that the show opts to flesh him out the least at this juncture, and indeed ends up fleshing out Cersei earlier than Jaime, instead of later.
This question of interiority also animates one of the easiest to miss things when looking at “The Kingsroad,” which is the importance of Jon Snow’s mother. She comes up twice in rapid succession, which does highlight it, especially given Ned’s pained refusal to talk about her in both cases, but it’s far from the most salient point about the episode. More puzzlingly, this is essentially the only place in the series where the question is really raised, which is striking given how important the fact is to the books as a whole. Like any good deception, the declaration in “Winter is Coming” that the story being told is a mystery is not entirely untrue. It is a mystery. But in the books, the real and biggest mystery is not what happened to Jon Arryn, but the truth of the events of Robert’s Rebellion, and of Jon Snow’s parentage. In the novel, this is largely generated by Ned’s repeated thoughts about the death of his sister and a promise he made her, thoughts that are repeatedly juxtaposed with thoughts about Jon Snow. But the show, lacking the ability to depict Ned’s thoughts, can’t actually go into this.
It’s easy to miss how big a deal this is. When David Benioff and D.B. Weiss were pitching to George R.R. Martin to get the rights to try developing a TV series based on A Song of Ice and Fire, one of the first questions he asked them was the identity of Jon Snow’s mother. His purpose in this question was straightforward – making sure that Benioff and Weiss had enough understanding of the story he was telling to be credible showrunners. Had they failed this test, it would have been obvious to Martin that they did not understand the books well enough to adapt them.
That this was the necessary shibboleth and that Weiss and Benioff got it right is thus confirmation of what every attentive book reader already knows. The circumstances of Robert’s Rebellion came when the crown prince of Westeros, Rhaegar Targaryen, disappeared with Lyanna Stark, Ned Stark’s sister and Robert Baratheon’s betrothed. The final battle of the war came when Ned Stark and six of his men arrived at a tower in Dorne guarded by three of the Kingsguard. Ned and one other of his men, Howland Reed, were the only two survivors. Inside the tower was Lyanna, who lay dying. Her last words were “promise me, Ned.” The proximity of this memory to the question of Jon Snow thus makes it obvious who Jon Snow’s mother is: Lyanna. Contrary to the official narrative of the war, which holds that Rhaegar kidnapped Lyanna, they in fact eloped, and Rhaegar impregnated Lyanna, who died in or shortly after childbirth. Ned’s promise was to raise Lyanna’s son as his own, which he did, claiming that he had sired a bastard.
Very little of the evidence for this makes it into the show, and yet the consequences run rampant. First and foremost, it is the impetus behind one of the show’s most common transitions, which is to move from scenes at the Wall to scenes featuring Daenerys. That this move is secretly an instance of the routine “transition by family” explains much, and it’s telling that the first such move comes in this episode, not long after Ned’s never-fulfilled promise to tell Jon about his mother, with the cut from Daenerys’s dragon eggs to the fire Jon Snow is sitting beside. Second, it is a cornerstone of the entire idea of a dualism between ice and fire, a dualism that gives the entire book series its name, and that defines the shape of the first season (and book).
This dualism is rooted in the fantasy content of the series, which is at once minimal (especially at this stage of the game) and essential. At this end of the season, it is mainly focused on the Starks, although there are still flashes of it around Daenerys, both in the scene in which gazing at the eggs calms Daenerys during her rape and in the way in which Doreah’s tale of the moon being an egg (what a lovely idea) leads directly to Daenerys employing her to teach her to better please Drogo. But this remains an implication, whereas the connection between the Starks and their direwolves is massively highlighted by the end of the episode, which strongly suggests that Bran awakens as a consequence of Lady’s death. This is a significant change from the book in content, but not in substance – there Bran awakens at the end of a prophetic vision, but in both cases the effect is the same: to establish that the Starks are heroes in a mythic sense.
The particulars of this differ from Stark to Stark, and at this point are hazily defined, but the broad strokes are already clear. It is, for instance, significant that Ned does not have a direwolf, or perhaps more accurately, that the nearest figure to Ned has been gored to death by a stag. Jon Snow, for instance, has a fairly straightforward heroic arc forming. Bran, similarly, is already steeped in a sense of mysticism, simply by virtue of how he awakens. Arya is quickly set up as the plucky children’s literature hero, complete with an insistent sense of right and wrong, just as Sansa is very quickly sketched as a more traditional princess. In the books, in fact, there is at this point a relatively explicit sequence that defines the characters in more or less these terms. As he prepares to execute Lady, Ned reflects on the appropriateness of each of his children’s names for their direwolves, save for Bran, who had not named his before his fall. The next chapter is then Bran’s awakening – a lengthy prophetic dream about the White Walkers and the true meaning of the phrase “winter is coming.” And as Bran awakens, he finally names his wolf Summer.
But, of course, there is a deception in all of this as well. The Starks are all defined in terms of fantasy tropes. But that does not mean that these tropes are going to play out normally. And there are already signs of this as well, most obviously in how Robb, the heir to Winterfell and thus, structurally, a seemingly important figure is oddly ignored by the narrative, to the point, in the books, of being conspicuously absent as point of view character. The starting position of the game may be clear, in other words. But the rules most certainly are not.