|“Huh. I don’t want to casually torture her. That’s never happened before.”|
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 Lanniser
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Harrenhal: The King in the North Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark
Roses of King’s Landing: Margery Tyrell
The Direwolf, Bran Stark
Stags of King’s Landing: King Joffrey Baratheon
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
The Kraken, Theon Greyjoy
Tigers of Harrenhal: Talia Stark
The Stag, Gendry
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
Archers of the Wall: Samwell Tarly
Bears of the Wall: Lord Commander Jeor Mormont
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
Winterfell is in ruins and abandoned, Astapor is empty, Dragonstone has been vacated.
The episode is in thirteen parts. The first runs three minutes and is set in the North; the opening image is of Brandon Stark running with a bow in a dream.
The second runs two minutes and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by family, from Bran to Robb Stark.
The third runs one minute and is set in the Dreadfort, though this is not made clear. The transition is by dialogue, from Robb and Catelyn talking about Theon to Theon.
The fourth runs four minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by image, from Theon bound on a cross to Jaime walking in chains with Brienne.
The fifth runs nine minutes and is sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is two minutes long; the transition is by family, from Jaime Lannister to Cersei Lannister and Joffrey Baratheon. The second section is seven minutes long. The transition is by theme, from Cersei and Joffrey talking about love to Shae and Sansa talking about the same.
The sixth part runs five minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Sansa to Robb Stark.
The seventh runs five minutes and is in sections; it is set north of the Wall. The first section is two minutes long. The transition is by dialogue, from Catelyn telling a story of Jon Snow to Jon Snow. The second section is three minutes long; the transition is by dialogue, from Sixskins talking about dead Crows at the Fist of the First Men to the survivors.
The eighth part runs three minutes and is set in the North. The transition is by family, once removed, from Jon Snow to Bran Stark.
The ninth runs four minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by family, from Bran to Arya Stark.
The tenth runs eight minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing. The first section is three minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Arya and company walking to Tyrion entering his chambers. The second section is five minutes long; the transition is by family, from Tyrion Lannister to Joffrey Baratheon.
The eleventh part runs two minutes and is set in the Dreadfort, though this is not made clear. The transition is by theme, from Joffrey and Margery flirting over brutality to Theon being tortured.
The twelfth runs three and is set in the North. The transition is by location, remaining within the North.
The thirteenth runs seven minutes and is in sections; it is set in the Riverlands. The first section is three minutes long; transition is by family, from Bran to Arya Stark. The second section is four minutes long; the transition is by image, from a captured Sandor Clegane to a chained Jaime. The final image is of Locke taking Brienne and Jaime prisoner as Jaime fails to complete a Full Web.
“Dark Wings, Dark Words” is in most regards a mess, a problem that will recur several times throughout this thoroughly uneven season. But it introduces what will become a key concept going forward; what we might call the “second premiere.” To some extent the first season did this, holding back the extensive King’s Landing cast until its third episode, but this is at best a prototypical version of the technique. No, the real contrast is with Season Two; “The North Remembers” opened with updates on all of its existing characters; twenty-three of the twenty-five credited regulars appear, and one of the two who doesn’t is Margery, who’s not been introduced yet. (The other is Tywin) “Valar Dohaeris” features only twenty-one of its twenty-eight credited regulars – 75% versus Season Two’s 92% – and doesn’t introduce any new regulars later in the season. Instead Jaime, Bran, Arya, and Theon – four major characters who date all the way back to “Winter is Coming” – are held back for the second episode (along with Gendry and the Hound, with Varys waiting another episode to debut).
The difference is striking, at least in terms of pace, which is where this episode really falters. Simply put, there is not even the barest trace of urgency here, a fact emphasized as the early sequences cut from Bran having thoroughly contentless dreams to Robb deciding that he’ll be putting his war on hold to attend a funeral to Theon getting tortured, a triptych of scenes in which it is difficult to find much of a toehold for even the barest investment. It’s not just that these are three overwhelmingly weak characters – although none are going to be challenging the upper echelons of a favorite characters poll any time soon. It’s that in all three cases the plots are simply dull. Indeed, the truth is that the four plots delayed from “Valar Dohaeris” are basically the three most obvious one along with Arya, more about whom in a moment.
Theon is obviously the worst offender – a plot that is infamous in its general awfulness this season, and this isn’t even the worst bit. Theon was, charitably, not the highlight of Season Two, through no fault of Alfie Allen, who made sublime work of scenes in which he was given not even the remotest chance of becoming an audience favorite. This, however, reduces him to being the subject of drab torture porn without any larger context to enliven it. But under the hood things are more interesting, simply because Theon isn’t even in A Storm of Swords. He disappears at the end of A Clash of Kings, and resurfaces having been psychologically broken by Ramsey and under the name of Reek in A Dance with Dragons. Since completely sidelining a major character for two seasons was understandably not considered a viable option, however, the show finds itself essentially inventing a plotline wholesale for the first time. But while this is a production milestone, it’s also terrible television; the gap the show has to fill in simply isn’t something that can sustain an extended plot.
But this is in many ways just an extreme case of a problem that persists throughout the adaptation of A Storm of Swords. Bran, for instance, has four chapters over the entirety of the book, the last one chapter fifty-six of eighty-one. This obviously poses very fundamental problems when adapting those eighty-one chapters over two years and twenty episodes. (And indeed, eventually leads to the exact opposite situation as Theon, with Ian Hempstead Wright getting Season Five off because his plots got too far ahead from everyone else’s.) Here the solution is actually to scavenge material from A Clash of Kings, holding back the introduction of Jojen and Meera to the start of this episode instead of last season where it would have gone in a more direct adaptation. But the result is that much of the meat of these characters is gone. In the books, they are tied inexorably to Winterfell and the history of the North, a connection that is nodded at in the brief discussion of Howland and Eddard’s friendship, but that is fundamentally muted when Jojen and Meera are just two guys who show up on the road.
Jaime’s problems are similarly challenges of adaptation. A Storm of Swords opens with a Jaime chapter, his first one in the entire series. This is a compelling start that the show has no equivalent to, since Jaime is a well-established character at this point. On top of that, he’s one of the characters who ended Season Two already into their Storm of Swords plots, the cliffhanger of his survival already resolved; the events of his first chapter were all the way back in “The Prince of Winterfell.” And so he slips to the second episode and does little more than recap his current state of affairs, which is to say the same thing he’d been doing in each of his previous appearances. And the decision to give him the cliffhanger for getting recaptured (a twist that ends up having interesting implications, but in terms of this episode looks like a straight reversal of his escape) instead of the nominally much more interesting moment of the Hound recognizing Arya is baffling.
Ah yes. Arya. The degree to which her plot appears to settle into “new season, new captors, same concept” is disheartening. But more disheartening is simply the degree to which she’s just not satisfying to watch in this episode, failing to respond to any situation with something more interesting than drawing her sword and threatening people, generally prompting laughter. In some ways this is the most galling failure of the episode; plenty of characters, over the first two seasons, have found themselves stuck with relatively boring plotlines. But managing to make Maisie Williams unpleasant to watch is an unprecedented accomplishment.
And yet for all of the flaws there is a lot that’s genuinely subtle. The episode as a whole is cleverly structured, with almost everything focusing on the Starks. Where Valar Dohaeris reprised the ice-to-fire meta-structure, here we have one that is grounded in the family with which we started, focusing on their fall and diaspora. It’s a good, thoughtful approach to an episode – a case of making sure that there’s an overall point to the week’s installment instead of the often shapeless hopping around of Season Two.
Also, Natalie Dormer’s turn as Margery here is phenomenal, with the potential the character displayed in her handful of appearances last season finally blossoming into something genuinely compelling. The Sansa/Olenna/Margery scene is the best material Sophie Turner has had since “Fire and Blood,” but in many ways the real highlight is her scene with Joffrey, in which she becomes the first character ever to successfully play him, a phenomenon that both makes her more compelling and offers enormous promise for King’s Landing going forward.
And then there are the wealth of small moments. Michael McElhatton is delightfully impassive as Roose Bolton. Jeor forbidding Samwell to die is sheer charm. Even the initial dream sequence, for all that starting in a Bran dream sequence is the very definition of a weak episode opening, is tightly shot and lush; compare it to the flat “soap opera in a forest” tone of early Season One and it becomes immediately clear just how much this show has learned about its basic grammar and mechanics over the course of two years. In many ways, then, this exemplifies Game of Thrones in its third season – an absolute and godawful mess on the macro level that is nevertheless getting incredibly smart about how it’s made and what it does.