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State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Eddard Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark,
Stags of King’s Landing: Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon
Lions of King’s Landing: Jaime Lannister, Cersei Lannister
Direwolves of the Eyrie: Catelyn Stark,
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Direwolves of Winterfell: Bran Stark
Dogs of Kings Landing: Sandor Clegane
And the Lion of the Eyrie, Tyrion Lannister
Vaes Dothrak lies abandoned. The Wall is unmanned.
The episode is in eight parts. The first runs eight minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the opening shot is an establishing shot of the city over a bridge, which Ned Stark is walking across.
The second runs three minutes and is set on the road to the Eyrie; the transition is by hard cut, from Ser Loras sharing his victory with the Hound to one of Lady Stark’s men gathering water, and by family, the previous scene having featured Sansa. It features numerous deaths in a small battle, including a hill tribesman killed by Tyrion, who smashes his head with a shield repeatedly.
The third runs four minutes and is set in Winterfell; the transition is by family and into dialogue, from Catelyn to Bran, who brings her up in conversation.
The fourth runs fifteen minutes long and in three sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is mere seconds long; the transition is by hard cut, from Theon and Ros to a cat being chased by Arya. The second is eleven minutes long; the transition is by family, from Arya to Ned. The last is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Varys addressing Littlefinger to Arya exiting the catacombs. At the episode’s halfway point, Arya is trying to warn her father about what she overheard in the dungeons just before Yorren arrives to warn him of what Catelyn has done.
The fifth part run one minute and is set in the Eyrie; the transition is by family and dialogue, from Ned Stark learning that Catelyn has taken Tyrion to Catelyn and Tyrion.
The sixth runs five minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family, from Catelyn to Ned.
The seventh runs three minutes and is set in the Eyrie; the transition is by family, from Ned and Littlefinger to Catelyn and Lyssa Arryn.
The eighth run fifteen minutes and is in three sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion shivering in his skycell to Renly and Loras. The second is six minutes long; the transition is by family, from Renly to Robert. The third is five minutes long; the transition is by family, from Robert to one of his bastards. It features the death of Jory, stabbed in the eye by Jaime Lannister. The final shot is Lord Eddard Stark, collapsing after being grievously injured by Jaime Lannister, who demands that his brother be freed from Mornington Crescent.
Even a casual comparison of the state of play to previous rounds will reveal the extent to which this round is different from previous ones. The previous three episodes were in eleven, fourteen, and twelve parts; “The Wolf and the Lion” is in eight. Not since “Winter is Coming” has an episode been in as few parts as this, and there the entire cast save for the Targaryen contingent was sharing a single location. Here there is no equivalent reason. The Stark diaspora has well and truly happened, and indeed, this episode marks the expansion of the board to include a fifth location in the form of the Eyrie. Instead we have what will increasingly become a common stratagem, whereby gameplay only actually progresses at some of the board’s locations and with some of the available pieces. Again, numbers are worth citing: there are eighteen main cast members for the first season. Respectively, the first four episodes featured seventeen, seventeen, sixteen, and eighteen of them. “The Wolf and the Lion” features thirteen, dropping not just the casts of Vaes Dothrak and the Wall, but also omitting Robb from Winterfell.
The point, in other words, is that “The Wolf and the Lion” is fundamentally shaped differently than the episodes before it. It has the closest thing the series has yet done to a straightforward A-plot/B-plot, with King’s Landing intrigue making up forty-three minutes over half of the eight parts, Tyrion’s captivity making seven minutes in three parts, and Winterfell getting a four minute cameo in a single part early on. And it’s worth noting that the two primary plots are closely intertwined, with their convergence serving to aggressively rework the status quo in King’s Landing, to say the least. This is fitting, especially given the structure of “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” which emphasized the weight of Tyrion’s capture, and goes a long way towards illustrating the way in which storytelling is going to work in the broader sense, as the consequences of events roll outwards from where they take place.
And yet all of this is, as ever, profoundly misleading, as, indeed, is the title of the episode, which suggests that the political situation of Westeros is as dualistic as the magical one. In reality, however, the entire structure of the episode screams otherwise. Catelyn’s capture of Tyrion shifts the balance of power, but it is only the confluence of it and Jorah’s betrayal of Daenerys that really dooms Ned. Had either event not taken place, or, more accurately, had news of either event not reached King’s Landing at the same time, Ned would almost certainly have been fine, either because he would have escaped the city without encountering Jaime or because he would have still been Hand of the King and thus more or less untouchable to Jaime. Which means that for all the episode pretends that its central dualism is between Stark and Lannister, Wolf and Lion, it ultimately serves to reveal the dragon looming over both.
This fact is literalized in the episode’s most fascinating sequence, the one in which Arya overhears the conversation between Varys and Illyrio, or, more precisely, the moment immediately before it. Here the camera does an unusually large amount of storytelling work. The sequence begins with the camera aimed up a flight of stairs, down which runs a cat, and, shortly thereafter, Arya Stark. As Arya reaches the bottom of the stairs the camera begins to push in towards her, centering on her face as she reacts in shock to something unseen. Then comes the reverse shot of a massive dragon’s skull, but the camera continues its push seamlessly between them, so that the effect is of a zoom in on Arya’s face suddenly changing into a zoom-in on the dragon skull. Through all of this, the music holds the dramatic chord used to respond to the closing line of the previous scene (Varys’s “he started asking questions”), sustaining it for nearly fifteen seconds, though allowing it to fade to behind the sound of Arya’s footsteps as she runs, coming back up in the mix as the camera pushes in towards Arya before finally resolving into a second dramatic chord, slightly lower-pitched, for the shot of the skull.
The result is to highlight the skull as an object of wonder and terror – to make it conspicuous and unusual against the backdrop of the Red Keep, and to establish that this is a magical object. A similar effect happens shortly thereafter, as a low-to-the-ground tracking shot that emphasizes the sheer scale of the skull resolves into a POV shot of Arya as she approaches it, dwarfed completely by it, before she hears voices and quickly takes refuge within the skull. The subsequent dialogue, from which the episode title is taken, is heard from within a dragon, structurally mirroring the way in which the Lannister/Stark conflict and the Targaryens briefly and coincidentally coincide a few minutes later in the episode.
This scene is also interesting for the way in which it is forced by adaptation to reveal information very differently from the book. In the book, the figures Arya overhears are difficult to identify, as Arya does not herself recognize them. Accordingly, there’s only a hazy description such that even attentive readers will at best be able to have a good guess as to who they are at this stage of the game. (It is, for comparison’s sake, wildly more subtle than Jon Snow’s parentage.) On television, however, the narrative techniques that allow the characters’ identities to remain obscured are simply not present. The scene must take place between two actors, and so the audience is told outright that the conversation takes place between Varys and Illyrio. In comparison, it is not until A Dance with Dragons that Varys’s true loyalties are established.
It is also worth looking at the larger structure of this part of the episode. The second and largest section of it, which, at eleven minutes, is longer than either the B or C plots of the entire episode, consists of three distinct scenes. This is not uncommon – the show will follow characters from scene to scene where it can manage it. But the unifying character for the three scenes is Varys, a character who has essentially no major scenes prior to his conversation with Ned at the start of the section. But in rapid succession the audience sees Varys plays opposite three separate people, shifting his strategy significantly with each turn. To give Varys such an anchoring role in the episode is unusual, and immediately sets him at an odd remove from the rest of the board.
And so in many ways the most significant words of the episode are his last council to Illyrio before the pair of them move out of Arya’s hearing, in which he notes that “this is no longer a game for two players,” a statement that is entirely untrue, as Illyrio is quick to point out: it never was.