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.
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.