State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, Cersei Lannister
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
Kraken of Pyke: Theon Greyjoy
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
Burning Hearts of Dragonstone: Stannis Baratheon, Melisandre
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Winterfell lies empty.
The episode is in twelve parts. The first part runs four minutes and is set on the Kingsroad north of King’s Landing. The opening image is of Arya pissing by a stream.
The second runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by hard cut, from Arya and Gendry looking nervous to Tyrion whistling “The Rains of Castamere.”
The third runs four minutes and is set at Craster’s Keep north of the Wall; the transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion talking about the Night’s Watch to the Night’s Watch.
The fourth runs three minutes and is set in the Red Waste east of the Dothraki Sea; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen.
The fifth runs two minutes and is set in Pyke; the transition is by hard cut, from a wide shot of the Red Waste to Theon Greyjoy’s ship.
The sixth runs eight minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is four minutes long; the transition is by image, from Theon having sex to prostitutes having sex. The other is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Ros to Podrick’s hand pouring wine for Tyrion.
The seventh runs four minutes and is set on the Kingsroad north of King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion and Bronn talking about killing Robert’s bastards to Gendry.
The eighth runs seven minuets and is set in Pyke. The transition is from hard cut, from Gendry lying on the ground to Theon arriving in Pyke.
The ninth runs four minutes and is set in Dragonstone. The transition is by dialogue, from the Greyjoys talking about ships to Davos on the shore.
The tenth runs three minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Davos riding off to Tyrion and Cersei.
The eleventh runs four minutes and is set on Dragonstone. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion and Cersei discussing Stannis, among other things, to Stannis.
The last runs two minutes and is set at Craster’s Keep north of the Wall. The transition is by theme, from Melisandre working her magic with Stannis to Craster working his with his son. The final image is of Craster clubbing Jon Snow for sneaking about the camp looking for the answer to a riddle whose answer is chess.
It is not by any means the first time that the title of an episode has come from a relatively small portion of the episode. “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” for instance, refers to a section in the lone five minute Winterfell scene that episode has, spoken by a character, Tyrion, who has one other scene. “The Pointy End” refers to Arya in an episode she’s barely in. But although Tyrion is only in a small portion of “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things,” he structurally bookends the episode. Likewise, Arya may be a small bit of “The Pointy End,” but the title refers to a huge character moment for her.
“The Night Lands,” on the other hand, refers to a three minute chunk of the episode, in position four of twelve, in which nothing of any particular significance happens. Indeed, the incident that prompts the title, the death and mutilation of Daenerys’s bloodrider Rakharo, does not occur in the books at all, and has few consequences. The scene amounts to little more than a reminder that Daenerys exists, which the show admittedly needs, since it does not actually give her any plot until the fourth episode this season. (She’s in a grand total of seven minutes across the first three.)
This makes two episodes in a row with odd titles, although at least “The Night Lands” is a title that can be connected to the events of the episode without strenuous thematic contortions, it being, at least, an explicit piece of dialogue. And like “The North Remembers,” there is a fundamental messiness to the episode. Its major purpose, simply put, is to introduce all the bits that didn’t get introduced in the first episode. Arya, who had only a few seconds in “Winter is Coming,” gets eight minutes here, while Theon and the new location of Pyke get nine minutes. Also coming in for a sizeable chunk is Stannis, who got seven minutes last episode and gets eight here, but, crucially, eight minutes actually focusing on people who are characters going forward instead of on the doomed Maester Cressen.
If the title can be understood as anything other than a faintly desperate grab at a cool-sounding phrase, it is this dynamic that would seem the most promising. “The Night Lands” suggests a shadow realm – something that exists just outside what might be called the board or the realm of play. And in a season defined in part by the gradual and inevitable resurgence of magic, this has non-trivial significance. Tellingly the episode ends with two consecutive scenes of lurking magic – Stannis taking Mellisandre upon the Painted Table and Craster sacrificing one of his sons, both acts with magical consequences that are not yet revealed. Elsewhere, Jaqen H’ghar makes his first appearance, another character with significant mystical resonances that are not yet revealed.
Certainly this reading works well given that, for all Arya, Stannis, and Theon get needed screentime here, the episode is still clearly anchored in King’s Landing, which provides seventeen minutes of material, the largest single chunk, most of it focused on Tyrion. Within King’s Landing, notably, the looming threat of the White Walkers is acknowledged, furthering this dynamic of magical forces at the margins of the board slowly encroaching inwards and starting to affect actual gameplay.
As for gameplay, most of what there is concerns Tyrion, who takes his first decisive action as Hand of the King by ousting Janos Slynt from his position. Slynt is, to be sure, a minor character – his scene with Tyrion is really his first significant one in the course of the story. Nevertheless, his comeuppance is a moment of genuine delight, and the first real demonstration of how Tyrion’s presence as Hand of the King will make the game more interesting. Also satisfying is Tyrion’s sparring with Varys, the first step in a relationship that will prove one of the most satisfying. Meanwhile, Littlefinger gets the one non-Tyrion scene in King’s Landing, which is mostly a bit of filler to show his ruthlessness, but does contain the episode’s most wryly funny line in “that was poorly handled.”
Finally it is worth remarking briefly upon Theon, whose curious importance in the first season finally finds itself justified as he ends up with his own plot. As gameplay continues Theon will be an almost continual source of difficulty, both in the literal sense of causing no end of trouble for other characters and in a more figurative sense. Simply put, he is never a character who works as a televisual presence. (Nor, indeed, as a literary one.) Nevertheless, this is in many ways his best scene, if only because the interplay between him and Yara and the subsequent twist is wonderfully, cruelly funny. Nevertheless, the fundamental problem with Theon as television rapidly emerges here: the toxic mixture of arrogance and cowardice that makes him an interesting force within the narrative also makes him almost viscerally unpleasant to actually spend time watching. The result is that the major import of “The Night Lands” is, in hindsight, the introduction of what will end up being the most chronically underperforming plot within the series.