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 Direwolf, Catelyn Stark
Dragons of Qarth: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of Qarth: Jorah Mormont
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Lions of Harrenhal: Tywin Lannister
The Ship, Davos Seaworth
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Direwolves of Winterfell: Brandon Stark
The Direwolf, Robb Stark
Direwolves of Harrenhal: Arya Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
The Burning Heart, Stannis Baratheon
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
Spiders of King’s Landing: Varys
The episode is in fifteen parts. The first part is four minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The first image is of a man dumping a pile of ravens out.
The second is two minutes long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by dialogue, from Winterfell to Ygritte identifying Jon Snow as the bastard of Winterfell.
The third is six minutes long and is in two parts; set in and around the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The first part is four minutes long; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Robb Stark. The other is two minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Robb Stark sending out more men to capture Jaime to Jaime and Brienne.
The fourth part is three minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by family, from Jaime to Kevan and Tywin Lannister.
The fifth is one minute long and is set north of the Wall. The transition is by family, from Arya Stark to Jon Snow.
The sixth is three minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Ygritte to Bronn playing with a knife.
The seventh is two minutes long and is set at the Fist of the First Men, north of the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion to an establishing shot of the Night’s Watch on the Fist.
The eighth is two minutes long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion saying “pig shit” to Samwell and the others digging latrines.
The ninth is seven minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Arya to Tyrion.
The tenth is seven minutes long and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands. The transition is by the theme of ill-advised sex, from Tyrion and Shae to Robb and Talisa.
The eleventh is one minute long and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by family, from Robb to Arya Stark.
The twelfth is three minutes long and is set on the sea a day outside King’s Landing. The transition is by hard cut, from Arya and her friends leaving Harrenhal to testing a catapult on one of Stannis’s ships.
The thirteenth is three minutes long and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by dialogue, from Stannis making Davos his Hand to Tyrion.
The fourteenth is two minutes long and is set in Qarth. The transition is by dialogue, from Varys and Tyrion talking about Daenerys to Daenerys.
The fifteenth is two minutes long and is set in Winterfell. The transition is by dialogue, from Daenerys talking about her children to the burnt body of fake Bran. The final image is of Bran, anguished that he cannot solve a riddle whose answer is chess.
It is impossible not to approach this particular phase of play proleptically. Everything about “The Prince of Winterfell” must be understood in terms of the fact that the final two episodes of this season are earmarked for a single-location battle episode and a more traditionally conceived finale, with the latter, as per the pattern established in the first season, being as concerned with reeling from the consequences of major events as it is in major events actually taking place.
The result is an episode with some oddly placed climaxes. Jaime, for instance, finds himself already in A Storm of Swords plot-wise, following the quasi-cliffhanger of his ambiguous fate last episode. This is indeed a quasi-cliffhanger – it’s notable that his survival is actually revealed in the Robb/Talisa scene prior to his first appearance in the episode, which makes it clear how unserious the attempt to convey the possibility of his death was. This bit of quasi-suspense is inherited from the books, which similarly downplay the question by having the cliffhanger appear in Chapter 55 of 69 in A Clash of Kings end with a similar cliffhanger, tacitly emphasizing its lack of importance compared to, for instance, the entirety of the Battle of the Blackwater, and revealing Jaime’s survival in the first chapter of A Storm of Swords. But in the context of the series the sense of suspense is drained simply by dint of the fact that the preceding episode is named after Jaime, and by the addition of the scene where Jaime kills Alton Lannister, a scene that would have been impossible in the books, where Jaime is not a POV character until A Storm of Swords, both things that would be dramatically problematic if they followed a six episode absence for the character and preceded his death.
Arya, similarly, makes her escape from Harrenhal, essentially concluding her season plot. This represents another bit of major surgery – the books have Arya escape on her own initiative, with her ruse of naming Jaqen as her third name being used to resolve several plot points that are simply absent on television. There’s still one major event displaced by the reorganization, but for the most part this wraps her up as a character.
But the biggest change comes to Bran, the subject of “A Man Without Honor”’s other fake cliffhanger (the one actually used as the episode ender). Unlike Jaime, Bran’s survival is not casually disclosed in an earlier scene, instead being done quite artfully with a shot of Osha in a crowd scene being used as the means by which Maester Luwin discovers the ruse. (Assuming, of course, the viewer avoided being spoiled by the credits.) This is altogether more interesting, since unlike Jaime, Bran’s death is not particularly thoroughly teased – Chapter 50 ends with Theon telling Luwin he won’t show the boys mercy, and then Theon’s next chapter (56 overall), covering basically the events of this episode, ends with the revelation from Theon’s perspective that the boys aren’t really dead.
That basic structure is retained here, but in doing so a major part of the books, which go from Chapter 46 to 69 without any actual appearances from Bran, is undone. Chapter 69 is also, notably, the end of A Clash of Kings, which ends with Bran looking back at the ruins of Winterfell and reflecting that, like him, it’s not dead, only broken. The scene of Bran hiding in the crypts, the secret and surviving fire at the heart of the burnt out corpse of the North, largely has the same symbolic import as this ending, but it’s moved, essentially, two episodes up.
But it’s a compelling image. Consider the last run of scenes. Once Arya escapes Harrenhal, play jumps from Stannis’s fleet to King’s Landing to Qarth to Winterfell. The only way to emphasize the lurking and growing magic in the world more would be to go north of the Wall, and Jon’s plot isn’t really particularly magic-heavy right now, so the Crypts of Winterfell are largely the sounder location for this theme.
Taken in this order, we see the point where the inevitable collision between Stannis’s magic and Tyrion’s gamesmanship is placed at the brink, clearly and decisively setting up the next episode. This means that not only is there yet another brilliant Tyrion/Varys scene (“I am trying” would be the line of the episode were it not for Yara’s stunning “you were a terrible baby, do you know that” monologue), but that the overall structural theme of the season is finally paid off. (In many ways, this theme is actually de-emphasized – the books have a conversation between Tyrion and Varys in which Varys expresses, in vivid terms, his hatred of magic, while here the weight of their materialist critique of the rhetoric of destiny is left to the third best line in the episode, namely “why are all the gods such vicious cunts?”
In which case it’s telling that this is followed by a Daenerys/Winterfell juxtaposition. Daenerys’s scene borders on being shoehorned in – it’s a classic case of plate-spinning, with its content amounting to Daenerys and Jorah debating whether to advance the plot, although it works, largely because of Iain Glen’s chronic inability not to be brilliant. But it features a crucial moment as Daenerys asks the entirely sensible question: what of my magic? With the Tyrion/Varys dialogue in turn stressing Daenerys as a sort of Westerosi teleology – the historical inevitability that all King’s Landing-based games reach towards – this is a pointed and important question.
But look at this from a broader perspective. The episode ends with a materialist world bracketed by faded but slowly emerging and dualistically opposed sources of magic at the poles of the world. This is simply the setup of the first season. Were it in miniature – a fractal reflection of the larger order – that would be one thing. But it’s not: it’s simply diminished. Daenerys’s power is at the verge of flickering out entirely, and the North is barely surviving. In most regards, far from moving towards any sort of climactic situation, play has moved backwards this season.