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A Game of Thrones – “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” Review
Four episodes in, and “Thrones” has yet to stumble. It’s finally taking a relaxed and confident stance in itself, and it’s clear that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss became braver as they dispensed with more chunks of place setting and character biography. Each episode has offered a subtle deviation from the source, and the plotting is generally better for it. There’s only one or two exceptions to the rule so far, and it’s a trend I’m hoping is nipped in the bud before we get deeper into the saga.
Let me be crude and just jump right into one of those exceptions: I’m tired of characters never getting to share their own revelations. Last week, it was Daenerys and her pregnancy, and this week it’s Sandor Clegane and his burned face. Sandor is defined by his scars and how he obtained them, and it’s a story he hasn’t told anyone. Ever. Ironically, the recipient is the same in both show and book – Sansa – but the delivery, the timing, the reason, it’s all different, vicious, and wonderfully nasty. It was one of the moments I was waiting for, and now feel cheated of. Given that it’s happened twice in short succession, I’m concerned it’s going to happen with bigger and better things as Benioff and Weiss feel they need to shorten it all up a bit.
I wonder if Sandor is suffering from a reshoot, though. I’m a little underwhelmed with any post-”Kingsroads” scenes involving Sansa, who seems to react to everything with a renewed pout. Are the writers going back and omitting some of her darker scenes – like that with Sandor – because the actress is unable to handle them? Are they just bored by her character, and shortening her arc in order to concentrate elsewhere? Could be either. Sansa is boring, but her naiveté (and I’m not spoiling anything – this is all evident in the first two episodes) is tragic. The audience knows Joffrey and Cersei are monsters, but Sansa is beguiled by them and is desperate to please. The Lannisters are happy to let her. I’m mystified why the show is shrugging, and saying “Eh, Joffrey is evil, audience knows it, we can just let her sit there in a scene and be talked to.” To be honest, that’s all Sansa did in the book too, but she reacted, and Martin seemed to take joy in throwing characters like Sandor at her to startle her out of her reveries. It’s disappointing the show hasn’t found that kind of glee, but maybe Sophie Turner just isn’t reacting…?
I’ve thought all of that out as I started writing about the scene with Sansa and Septa Mordane, and how much I liked its addition before realizing it wasn’t that great. Really, what did we learn? Nothing that Ned and Jaime hadn’t said better, and it was just another chance for Sansa to mope, though we do know she’s still mad at her father. Still, it seems like there could have been a more innovative way to tell this, even if I do think it’s important to continue to stress the Targaryens’ lingering horror. Especially since two of them are alive and kicking across the Narrow Sea!
Viserys’ interlude with lady maid / prostitute Doreah was a “new” scene, and a welcome one, as I know the Targaryens are still a misty and confusing subject. It also linked nicely with Sansa’s history lesson – oh, a Mad King, I see no evidence of that in this bloodline – and gave Viserys something to do beyond…oh, well, nothing. He’s still a jerk, greedy for a crown, though now we know it isn’t just directed at Daenerys. For a show that has done wonders proving that images can encompass a thousand of George R.R. Martin’s words, it’s baffling why they deliver exciting visuals – the dragon skulls – in monologues. Was Viserys’ chat with Doreah priming us for these set pieces, or does it mean we’ll never get to see them? I think suspect the latter (the scene screamed “Mind the budget!”), and I’m as sad as Doreah we won’t see them. Come on, dragon skulls can’t be that expensive to make, can they? And while I love “Thrones” embrace of long, one-shot exposition, how cool would it have been to see this segue into a short flashback of little Viserys? I’m a little annoyed at the “Let’s deliver exposition with naked girls to keep the eyes interested” technique that seems glibly ripped off Rome or its lesser cousin, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Come on, “Thrones.” I think you’re better than that, and if you’re going to show us Jon Arryn and tread over old character ground, you might as well show us some Targeryen ghosts. (Though, I can see why they don’t. The past is the past in the book, never glimpsed, only described. But there is a lot to be said for mixing it up, especially since audiences are having to digest so many family trees and sigils.)
In stark contrast to the “Hey, isn’t Viserys nasty?” underscoring, I continue to love what Benioff and Weiss do with Jaime’s character. He begins each scene insufferable, but once anyone spends time chatting with him, he relaxes and becomes human. He’s a man chafing at his exalted but dull position, one that comes with an extra dollop of humiliation thanks to Robert’s wenching, and it all makes him relatable. He’s never quite likeable, but he seems like a guy who might need a friend. Unfortunately, we know he has a secret one, and it makes his edginess about his sister (a fine virtue otherwise) repulsive, so there’s that. Still, he’s got some warmth, which is more than we can say for Cersei, who still is as cold and inscrutable as she is in the books. (Fine by me. If they made her friendly, I’d accuse them of pandering.)
Tyrion is a favorite of readers and quickly becoming one of viewers, so I give him short shrift here simply because there’s nothing to say. But this is one of the rare occasions where an actor improves the character, perhaps slightly to the detriment of the tension of the series. They’re setting him up as a character we can trust – which isn’t wrong, per say – which is surprising and welcome. Peter Dinklage infuses the Imp with such warmth, humor, and frankness that the writers are clearly making use of it, and unveiling his truth a little earlier. Like Sansa, he’s being used as a bit of a Basil Exposition (last week it was the Wall and the Black Watch, this week it was Theon Greyjoy’s background), but unlike her, it’s all completely within his character and a pleasure to watch. Tyrion knows a lot. He likes to tell people what he knows. It makes us identify with him – like us, he’s often an outsider to events, so why not talk about them? – and respect him.
I may have felt cheated about Sandor, but I’m delighted to see Ned and Arya get their moments. Again, these were my favorite moments of the book, and Sean Bean and Maisie Williams couldn’t do better reenacting them. Funny enough, Arya delivered the show’s second “A character’s inner thoughts” moment, though I didn’t mind as much because she was echoing Bran in the book. But why isn’t Bran being allowed to tell us these things too? Sure, he was shown having a weird dream, but that’s it. Williams’ relaxed and lengthy screen time is what makes me suspicious – like Sansa and Bran — are cut because they don’t shine as strongly.
The Stark siblings can’t be a question of time, as the show has also done what I hoped it would do, which is to sharpen Ned’s wits, and shorten his investigation into Arryn’s death. They’re not bandying about with the suspicious glances, warnings, and conversations with Cersei and it’s a relief. There’s more interesting plotting to come, and a simple story should be kept simple.
I also love Jon’s trials at the Wall. He’s a character that had a rocky start, adaptation wise, but he’s finding his feet. (It mirrors Snow’s actual training!) Jon’s bastard status was a constant refrain in the books, and was always poignant, but it’s doubly so when we get to see the melancholy behind his eyes. Kit Harington says so much with a look that much of his “It sucks being a bastard and out here!” dialogue is perfunctory. He is his father’s son, with Ned’s instincts towards kindness, and a natural bent towards leadership. He should be ruling Winterfell, and he knows it as well as we do. But with the introduction of Samwell Tarly (a character twice as tragic as Jon, and played with the right warmth, humility, and sympathy by John Bradley) we begin to realize he’s exactly where he’s meant to be.
Unlike Ned. And Catelyn. And now Tyrion. I suspect this episode is the calm before the storm, and the last push of the pieces. It’s been fun, heady, and maddening to watch them come together. Can they make them clash satisfyingly from here? Or are unrelated characters just going to casually tell us how it happens? Please, please, please let us hear (or see) it from the horse’s mouth. Or the wolf’s. I’ll take either.