|It was a hairy bear. It was a scary bear. Brienne and Jaime beat a hasty retreat from its lair, and described it with adjectives.|
State of Play
The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:
Lions of King’s Landing: Tyrion Lannister, the Hand of the King Tywin Lannister
Lions of Harrenhal: Jaime Lannister
Dragons of Yunkai: Daenerys Targaryen
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Riverrun: Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark
Bears of Yunkai: Jorah Mormont
Roses of King’s Landing: Margaery Tyrell
Burning Hearts of King’s Landing: Melisandre
The Direwolf, Bran Stark
The Direwolf, Arya Stark
Direwolves of King’s Landing: Sansa Stark
The Kraken, Theon Greyjoy
Tigers of Riverrun: Talisa Stark
Stags of King’s Landing: King Joffrey Baratheon, Gendry
Flowers of King’s Landing: Shae
Bows of the Wall: Ygritte
Chains of King’s Landing: Bronn
The Dogs, Sandor Clegane
The episode is in twelve parts. The first part runs two minutes and is set on the far side of the Wall. The first image is of the open sky.
The second runs four minutes and is set in the Stark camp between Riverrun and the Twins. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Robb Stark.
The third runs two minutes and is set in the woods beneath the Wall. The transition is by family, from Robb Stark to Jon Snow.
The fourth runs eight minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Sansa Stark.
The fifth runs seven minutes and is set outside Yunkai. The transition is by dialogue, from Joffrey and Tywin talking about Daenerys to her.
The seventh runs four 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 Daenerys stroking Drogon to Shae looking at her golden chains. The second section is one minute long; the transition is by dialogue, from Tyrion saying he would take care of his bastards to Gendry.
The eighth part runs two minutes and is set in the Riverlands. The transition is by dialogue, from Mellisandre to Arya talking about her with Thoros and Berric.
The ninth runs three minutes and is set in Harrenhal. The transition is by region, remaining in the Riverlands.
The tenth runs five minutes and is set in the Dreadfort. The transition is by family, from Roose Bolton to Ramsey Snow.
The eleventh runs eight minutes and is set in the North along the Wall. The transition is by hard cut, from Theon about to have his cock cut off to Jon and Ygritte. The second section is 44:30; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Bran Stark.
The twelfth runs eight minutes and is set in the Riverlands south of Harrenhal. The transition is by hard cut, from Osha to horses standing on a hill. The final shot is of Jaime and Brienne walking out of Harrenhal having prevented a bear from completing a Full Web.
The phenomenon of Martin writing for Game of Thrones is reliably interesting. In the first season his episode was effective but slightly atypical; an intriguing relic of the process of learning to adapt the books to a new medium. In the second he penned the obvious high point of the season, with the obvious caveat that its triumph owes much to its direction. Here he gets what can only be described as a “light” episode; a relatively uneventful one dominated by character pieces. Even more intriguingly, he gets an episode comprised heavily of scenes that are not in the books.
This is complicated by the fact that the episode acquires a thematic unity of the sort that are in vogue this season. (See also “Kissed by Fire” and “The Climb.”) Or, more accurately, it’s complicated by the fact that the overarching theme of this one is relationships between men and women. Which is, unsurprisingly, an awkward topic. This is not some major feminist objection to the game, to be clear. As we have noted before, these are problems that are baked into the basic nature of the game. The problematic status of women is the point; even the episode title highlights this. In many ways, it’s supposed to be awkward. Nevertheless, there are genuine flaws.
The worst part is a tricky and complicated business, namely the Theon scene. On one level, its flaws are simply those of Theon in Season Three, which is to say that it’s five minutes of unwatchable torture porn. These things are not particular to this episode; indeed, you pretty much have to point out that Martin did this better in the books by not covering Theon in A Storm of Swords. On another level, however, the scene is on theme, adding a sexual element to Theon’s torture. Indeed, this scene is the main “gratuitous nudity” scene of the week, and the mixture of naked women and torture porn is less chilling than simply gross.
Also high on gratuitous nudity and tremendously weak is the Robb/Talisa scene. Again, this is mostly bad in ways that have nothing to do with this episode. Robb/Talisa scenes are always tedium punctuated by nipples. But there is something particularly cringeworthy about this one. Part of it is that, like the Theon scene, it’s fairly lengthy, and lengthy without actually doing much. It’s stuff Martin hasn’t really gotten to write – indeed, in the case of Talisa an entirely new character, and it’s telling that Martin revels in the worldbuilding of her backstory a bit. But the overall point remains – Martin’s approach to writing this new material is indulgent, and ends up being the extreme version of whatever set of characters it is.
But when those characters are ones that comparatively work, the result is solid. The theme-contrived conversion of the Jon/Ygritte/Orell relationship to a love triangle is so sudden as to require lampshading in the script, but the wildlings, despite not having anything like enough plot to justify their screen time this season, have been a reliably compelling bunch of characters, and the resultant scenes work. Indeed, Martin elevates Orell from a well-acted character defined entirely by his antagonism to Jon Snow to someone who feels motivated by human drives, his suspicion of and disdain for Jon turning to sexual jealousy. And Rose Leslie plays the reaction to the unwanted advance with characteristic nuance. (Also great is the scene of Ygritte in awe at a windmill, with Kit Harrington getting to be charming and funny in a way that he doesn’t get to be often enough.)
Martin also manages to get a Shae/Tyrion scene to work, a feat nobody else has managed in some time. Here Martin is addressing one of the most subtle and profound distinctions between versions of the tale. Broadly speaking, Tyrion is a much more straightforwardly sympathetic character in the show. Martin’s Tyrion is still clever and funny, and has the same moral center, but is much more jealous and embittered, nursing grudges and obsessions that don’t feature as obviously on the show. Shae, meanwhile, by dint of only really being described through Tyrion, becomes much more objectified, but, crucially, this is largely the point of the exercise; she is used to demonstrate Tyrion’s failings. But by dint of television Shae has become a fairly straightforward romantic plot. Here, Martin wisely gives her explicit acknowledgment of how contingent and precarious her status is, and the degree her relationship with Tyrion is defined by power, mainly his.
Martin’s best addition, however, is the Margaery/Sansa scene, which is only able to happen because of a change on the show to make Sansa aware of her impending nuptials. The show’s Margaery, a far more fleshed out and active character, is one of its greatest creations, bolstered by a bit of casting that punched ludicrously above the role’s apparent weight based on the books. The scene’s basic premise – a highlighting of the fact that there’s actually very little reason Sansa and Tyrion couldn’t be reasonably happy together – is of course going to go as unfulfilled as its hints at how Margaery and Joffrey’s relationship might play out, but it’s a fun scene capped by an exquisite comic beat at Sansa’s expense.
But of course attention is naturally drawn to the title scene, Jaime’s rescue of Brienne. Again one is tempted to start with the comparisons to the book, where this is not nearly as straightforwardly heroic a moment for Jaime. Here it is a straightforward turning point for the character – a clear marker that he is no longer the villain he was presented as in the first season but a sympathetic lead. It works at this, and is indeed even a good scene. But it highlights what is perhaps the fundamental problem with an episode of the show that’s largely about male/female relationships. The problem is not that the show depicts some deeply fucked up relationships, nor even that it shows off a lot of breasts while doing so. That this is the sort of world where Brienne would casually be fed to a bear so that some drunken killers can be less bored is the point. This is a world where violent male cruelty is systemic. But in the books Martin can show the perverse normalization of this cruelty by highlighting the ways it distorts his characters’ perceptions, so that Jaime’s seeming heroism is tempered by the ways in which he is compliant with the system he rescues Brienne from. In the show, as with everything, we may only look at the characters, all placed on roughly equal footing. And from that angle, it can too easily just look like a lot of casual cruelty.