This season, Flavorwire is recapping Game of Thrones with its geekiest fans in mind — those who have already read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. Everyone else, be warned: you may find some spoilers below.
Game of Thrones has always had a serious problem with explaining itself. Television, while a fantastic medium for sympathetic characters and dynamic plot, has at least one major disadvantage when compared to thousand-page books: it simply can’t provide the context and scope needed to fully flesh out a world as huge and shaded in gray as George R.R. Martin’s. At its best, Game of Thrones allows us to forget this essential shortcoming with clear, snappy dialogue and well-choreographed scenes that trim the books’ narrative fat down to its basic core. But at its weakest, the show is forced to rely on background information it’s only lightly touched on — or worse, condense chapters worth of plot into lengthy exposition scenes that are a chore to watch. Needless to say, “Dark Wings, Dark Words” was Game of Thrones at its weakest.
The biggest “wow” moment of the episode was clearly intended to be the appearance of Jojen and Meera Reed, the two mysterious siblings who’ve come to join Bran and company on their journey north to the Wall. Their first appearance is executed in a way that’s interesting enough: Jojen appears out of nowhere, Meera threatens to cut Osha’s throat, Bran’s direwolf Summer smells Jojen’s hand and gives the all-clear signal. But when Jojen actually explains who they are, it’s filled with references that are almost meaningless to those who haven’t read the books: the friends I watched with had no idea who Howland Reed was, nor should they, and Jojen’s promise that Bran essentially has psychic powers felt cheesy without any explanation of greenseeing or Children of the Forest. It’s an unavoidable creative choice — the show can’t exactly take the time to point out the onetime existence of a mythical, prehistoric humanoid race without getting bogged down — but the scene still felt like a dud.
Meanwhile, “Dark Wings” fared better in its King’s Landing scenes, most of which eschewed explication or even moving the plot forward in favor of checking in on the dynamic between the capital’s central players. Cersei’s gradual loss of control over her son is made even more explicit than in last week’s dinner party scene as badly feigned subtlety (“Her concern for the common people is…interesting”) is discarded in favor of open dislike (“Margaery dresses like a harlot for a reason”). Shae continues to be protective of Sansa, who’s as terrified as she should be but innocent enough to both trust Littlefinger and spill the beans about Joffrey’s terribleness to Margaery and Lady Olenna, a fan favorite from the books who’s done justice many times over by Diana Rigg. What follows is the episode’s best originally written scene: Margaery uses Sansa’s knowledge to her advantage, directly appealing to Joffrey’s sadism instead of hiding for it. Margaery knows sex isn’t really what he wants, so she draws the king in by letting him fantasize about her murdering animals. It’s further proof the Tyrell queen-to-be knows exactly what she’s doing and will do whatever it takes to get ahead, whether it’s feeding the poor or seducing a monster.
Less tiresome than Bran’s storyline but considerably less engaging than the King’s Landing intrigue were perfunctory check-ins with Brienne and Jaime in one lush forest and Arya and friends in another. The dynamic duo bicker with the comic relief that inevitably results from Brienne’s stolid loyalty going up against Jaime’s gleeful amorality. But their scenes together merely function to position them for capture by an unknown but menacing delegation on horseback, after which their real storyline will doubtless begin. Arya’s adventures are similar: Gendry voices what the entire audience was thinking when Jaqen proposed his grand bargain and Arya continues to defy gender roles by waving a sword at some charming free agent warriors. Anguy the archer and Thoros of Myr (sidebar: in the books, Thoros is a born-again red priest, but I guess the series has chosen to keep his old personality as a former drinking companion to King Robert) are nice enough, but as with Jaime and Brienne, the whole episode serves to bring Arya into contact with the Hound, who proceeds to get the ball rolling by revealing Arya’s identity. The writing of these plot-driven exposition scenes is enjoyable, but not quite enjoyable enough to keep the audience from getting bored.
The final piece of the puzzle is Robb and Catelyn, still trying to negotiate that tricky jailer son/prisoner mom relationship. We learn that Robb and Talisa are still very much in boring true love, Catelyn’s father Lord Hoster Tully of Riverrun has died, and that Robb’s bannermen aren’t happy with him for making the tactically stupid decision to marry someone he actually likes as opposed to someone who’s loaded. The mini-arc caps off with a moving monologue from Catelyn that works right up until it doesn’t. Her story of nursing an infant Jon Snow back to health is a much-needed instance of a woman who likes to think of herself as a moral martyr admitting her own human failings. But I hated that she wrapped up her speech by blaming herself for her husband’s, and possibly children’s, deaths — Catelyn’s never been the most dedicated player in the game, but she’s practical enough to know that it’s power-hungry humans, not a vengeful higher power, that started this whole mess. With just one line, she’s transformed from introspective to deluded, an archetypal woman who just doesn’t understand the sophisticated matters of war and politics. And that’s way beneath a show with characters like Cersei and Daenerys.
This may not have been Game of Thrones’ strongest episode, but at least there’s a silver lining: the action of the first two episodes has put nearly all of the major characters in a position to do something a bit more exciting than meet the people with whom they’ll be spending the rest of the season. I’m looking forward to reuniting with Daenerys next week, for example, and Jaime and Brienne’s story has huge potential, if only because they’re such perfect character foils. But an episode of this show shouldn’t feel like a preamble to the next: there are only ten this season, after all, and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are talented enough to make each of them count.