State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
The Lion, Jaime Lannister
The Direwolves, Catelyn Stark, Robb Stark
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
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
The Kraken, Theon Greyjoy
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
Burning Hearts of Dragonstone: Stannis Baratheon, Mellisandre
Bears of the Wall: Jeor Mormont
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
The episode is in ten parts. The first runs eight minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The opening image is of the Hound fighting another armored man.
The second runs four minutes and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion and Cersei talking about the Starks to Bran.
The third runs four minutes and is set in the Red Waste, east of the Dothraki Sea. The transition is by dialogue, from Bran and Osha talking about dragons to Daenerys and her dragons, and by red comet.
The fourth runs six minutes and is set at Craster’s Keep, north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Daenerys Targaryen to Jon Snow, and by red comet.
The fifth runs seven minutes and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by red comet. At the episode’s halfway point, Stannis is being crowned the Prince that Was Promised as he is reborn amidst salt and smoke in the creation of Lightbringer.
The sixth runs three minutes and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by image, from the flickering fire behind Melisandre to the fires in the Stark camp, and by dialogue, with both Robb Stark and Jaime Lannister being discussed at Stannis Baratheon’s small council meeting.
The seventh runs five minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by family, from Jaime Lannister to Tyrion. The second section is three minutes long; the transition is by family, from Tyrion Lannister to Cersei.
The eighth part runs five minutes and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands; the transition is by family, from Cersei to Alton Lannister.
The ninth runs five minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Catelyn Stark to Cersei walking into the throne room. The second section is two minutes long. The transition is by hard cut, from Cersei to prostitutes having sex, and by consequence, from Joffrey ordering the death of Robert Baratheon’s bastards to one being killed in the brothel. The final section is one minute long; the transition is by event, from the bastard baby being murdered to a montage of bastards being killed.
The final part runs seconds and is set on the Kingsroad north of King’s Landing; the transition is by dialogue, from the smith talking about Gendry and his helm to Gendry. The final image is of Arya and Gendry on the caravan, riding north and pondering a riddle whose answer is chess.
It’s a strange first move; a gambit to be sure.
The first sequence of play moved with deliberateness, driven forward by two breathtakingly beautiful dramatic engines: the transition from ice in the cold open to fire in the closing shot and the death of Eddard Stark. It was an ideal demonstration of how the game is played. This is a much more confusing opening, raising more questions than answers, at least as compared to the previous. It is called “The North Remembers,” but the words appear nowhere within it, and there are but four minutes in Winterfell, and eight in Robb Stark’s camp. More to the point, if the episode can be said to be about any one thing, it is the comet that serves as the episode’s defining transition, stitching together the world via a singular image that unites all the disparate places like Jon Snow’s parentage.
The purpose of the comet, at least, is clear: it is a demonstration of the return of magic to the world. The proximate cause, as explained by Osha (another Ice-Fire suture there), is the birth of Daenerys’s dragons, but within the context of the episode, this serves as a marker for a broader resurgence of magic within the world. Most obviously, of course, there is Mellisandre, who serves as the sharp edge of the larger introduction of Stannis to the plot.
This ends up landing somewhat differently than it does in A Clash of Kings, where Stannis is introduced in the prologue via a one-off chapter narrated by Maester Cressen. Here, however, Stannis makes his first appearance at the episode’s halfway point. This is a significant change. In the book, Stannis’s introduction as a new center of power is presented as the shift that defines A Clash of Kings in contrast with A Game of Thrones. Here, however, it is ultimately a consequence of Daenerys’s rise, with Melisandre’s magic serving as an echo of Daenerys’s awakened dragons.
Instead the series opens with Tyrion’s entrance to King’s Landing; a location it is worth remembering he has never actually been seen in before, despite it being at the time of writing the location Tyrion is most associated with. Certainly this accurately sets the direction of the season – Tyrion will be the only character to appear in every episode, and takes Eddard Stark’s old position, both on the council and in the credits, a literal Lannister usurpation of the Starks.
But if Tyrion is the starting point of the season, he is not shown to have the sort of narrative control of it that the Starks did in “Winter is Coming.” For now he holds a position, as opposed to wielding power. Instead the episode ends with Arya, whose status as the end of the episode is her only appearance within it. In one sense this is practical – her first chapter in A Clash of Kings was subsumed into the first season, and it would be helpful if her character had a break this episode, but there is obvious desire to include her to remind people where she is in the plot.
She does, however, provide the closest thing the episode has to a way of understanding the choice of titles, although she requires that the phrase be altered slightly. While the episode at no point really contains any instances of the North remembering, a fair reading can be constructed in which Arya serves as the North’s memory, or, perhaps more accurately, as a memory that has been forgotten and sits, waiting to be remembered.
Indeed, inasmuch as there is a clear logic to the move as opposed to a simple expression of chaos this would seem to be it. Where the first season depicted a primarily political realm that steadily had its long buried magical roots impose themselves, this season depicts a world of rising magic under which lurks the seemingly buried North. This is fitting for Arya, who serves in some key ways as the purest remnant of her father. Where Robb embodies the North as a political state that Eddard Stark once headed and Bran embodies a broader and subtler spiritual condition, Arya embodies the basic idea of fairness and justice that her father both was defined by and died for. She does not represent a reaction to her father’s execution, but rather a refusal to accept it and a demand for reparation. Except that unlike Bran, Robb, and even Sansa and Jon, Arya does not hold any position of authorized power. She is not the Stark in Winterfell or the King in the North, nor the queen-to-be or a man of the Night’s Watch. She is instead curiously unmoored from the formal structures of power.
But all of this is ultimately looking at this move in terms of the game that plays out. In that regard it is like any other first move – mostly groundlaying. In that regard it’s the same basic move as “Winter is Coming,” only with a focus on the broader board. That episode introduced a stable situation (the Starks’ life in Winterfell) and then made its collapse inevitable. But that was predicated both on the narrative needs of introducing the game and on the narrative need to get the audience to miss how badly Ned is playing until more or less the moment of his death, both of which require the false equation of Winterfell and Westeros.
Here the audience is well aware of the existence of the larger board and of the peculiar relationship between its edges, and so instead of a singular stable situation we are presented with a host of them, each with built-in instabilities. This is the precise dynamic of the first scene: the stable situation of Joffrey’s tyrannical rule in King’s Landing is rendered unstable by the arrival of Tyrion. And every other location in the episode gets a similar treatment: the establishment of an unsustainable status quo, the collapse of which will presumably form subsequent plot. (In this regard, again, the brief coda of Arya is significant in that it renders Arya not as part of any status quo, but rather as an instability haunting the entirety of the board.)
In which case what is truly remarkable is just how different all of these status quos are from those of “Fire and Blood.” Only Robb is left more or less in the same position as at the end of the previous season, and this can be chalked up to the show’s continuing process of understanding the ways in which his story has to change in adaptation away from the “viewpoint character” model. This is most obvious with the Targaryens. Daenerys ended “Fire and Blood” in a position of monumental strength, and opens “The North Remembers” in a position of crushing weakness, slowly dying in the desert. Likewise, Jon ended “Fire and Blood” riding out as part of the Great Ranging, and opens in Craster’s Keep, the shithole to end all shitholes. In neither case has a great deal of time passed for the characters, but the season gap has been used to take both characters from positions of potential to specific status quos.
But all of this is, in the end, the point of a gambit, a move that is defined less by the risk it engenders and more by the fact that it increases the amount of uncertainty in the game. We may have come to understand the rules of Thrones by this point. But it is almost immediately apparent that we still have no idea how the game is actually played.