This week I’ve actually found the time to engage my critical faculties as well as just striving to keep us up to date with the latest episode (although there is still some work to do on it I’m satisfied that we’ve achieved the basics). I am pleased to be able to synthesise some of my thoughts and reactions on the latest episode into a review of sorts. I’ve read the books and can’t help comparing so there are some minor spoilers from the books below.
“Garden of Bones” is a pretty grim piece of television between Joffrey’s sadism, the torture of the prisoner’s at Harrenhal and the focus on the realities of war. Of course a similar tone is often found in the source material. I think the adaptation is maintaining its high quality and an appropriate level of faithfulness and continues to deliver enthralling television.
This weeks episode keeps the midseason tighter focus by omitting stories from Beyond the Wall, at Winterfell or on the Iron Islands. I think the show juggling storylines like this is an asset but it requires a lot of skill to decide how long the shorter threads can be left without breaking viewer engagement. I think 2 episodes without any given major character is probably the limit. Of course the serial nature of the source material leaves a lot of room for changes in who is a major character as the story progresses; Jaime Lannister for example is not really there yet in the books but the show gave him an increased presence in the first season including scenes from his point of view while meeting with Tywin or plotting with Cersei. Having dropped him for 3 episodes now is a major break from television convention but I think the writers are adequately keeping viewer interest alive by including plot points relating to negotiating his release.
It was lovely to see both Harrenhal and Qarth added to the opening titles this week. A change from Vaes Dothrak is long overdue. I liked the sweeping camera move over the top of the astrolabe to move so far east to Qarth, it makes it a fine replacement for the camera passing low between the horses at the entrance to Vaes Dothrak. I think Harrenhal looked suitably blackened and grim which helped to build anticipation for Arya’s arrival there. Interesting that Pyke still featured while Dragonstone has now been dropped; I thought we would likely pick up Theon already on his ship but it might indicate that there is at least 1 more scene to come on Pyke. Some indication of where Robb or Renly and Stannis are in this episode might have been nice but is probably asking too much, particularly when there is no major landmark established on screen for either of them to relate the opening sequence to.
I liked the opening scene with the Lannister guards. It serves as a neat prologue with the point of view character (in this case Rennick) being killed at the end of the opening. This mirrors the prologue chapters that open each book in the series and makes a fine introduction. The guards discussion of the best knights in the Seven Kingdoms balanced a self referential nod to fanboy discussions with realistic dialogue for lowly guards. I’m somewhat sad to admit that the fart gag was right on my level and made me laugh! My partner was a little confused about the location of the scene initially but I think it is part of the episodes storytelling that more gets revealed about the ensuing battle in each of the first few scenes and there is enough exposition from Lancel later. The attention to detail in costuming and the line about Jaime being on their side let me identify them as Lannister men on the first viewing. The guards repeating Renly’s rumoured homosexuality is somewhat controversial. I think all sides in the conflict are spreading rumors about one another so it is not unreasonable that this is an open but unconfirmed secret. Sam Mackay (who plays the unnamed guardsman) has posted a funny discussion of his role on Reddit and offered some insight into this which mirrored my interpretation.
I have said frequently when writing about the previews that I hoped we would see some fighting at the Battle of Oxcross as part of Robb’s expanded role but I found that in context I didn’t miss it. The economy of the tension building opening, followed by a brief shot of Robb marshalling a cavalry charge and ending with the gory aftermath worked really well in context. The set dressing of the Battlefield and details like Rennick’s disembowelled corpse, the looting and the Silent Sisters helped to create the sense of a battle having taken place. The sequence felt a lot less jarring than knocking out Tyrion for the Battle of the Green Fork. I’m sure I’ll get my action fix when we reach episode 9 “Blackwater.”
The aftermath scene with Roose Bolton was interesting. I am sad that the production hasn’t retained some of the small parts from last year like Galbart Glover and Maege Mormont but getting a Bolton on screen is a good consolation. Michael McElhatton is a good fit for the quiet menace of the Leech Lord. I thought the wording of the Bolton motto was slightly awkward but I’m glad they had a reference to their practice of flaying anyway.
Contrary to what I’d read beforehand Oona Chaplin’s character introduced herself as Talisa. I’m going to try not to focus on her being announced as playing Jeyne and instead evaluate the scene as presented. Chaplin and Richard Madden certainly have chemistry and her blunt challenges to his actions were interesting. I thought there was a nice parallel established between Talisa and Catelyn providing Robb with difficult to hear counsel. The medieval surgery was appropriately bloody too. Westeros.org were quite critical of the character as being a cliché – a healer who speaks truth to power. I can’t say that occurred to me when watching the episode and I don’t usually find that reductive archetyping helps my enjoyment of a narrative. It might prove to be true but I’m going to hold judgement until I’ve seen more of the character.
The scene of Sansa’s humiliation in front of the court was appropriately harrowing to me. Gleeson continues to excel at showing Joffrey’s arrogant sadism and Sophie Turner did great work showing Sansa’s rapid regaining of her composure. There were some nice quietly heroic moments in the scene too like the Hound ripping off his cloak to cover Sansa and Tyrion helping her up from the floor. Tyrion’s entrance and well defined threat to Ser Meryn were similarly cheering moments. It is nice to see that Joffrey has his crossbow and while we don’t see Jalabhar Xho (who gives him the weapon) in the series it lets me imagine that he is still in this version of the story somewhere.
The scene of Joffrey brutally rejecting Tyrion’s gift was even more difficult to watch. I’m certain that it was supposed to be an unpleasant experience for me as a viewer just as it is horrific for Ros and Daisy. I’ve seen a lot of criticism of this scene, some of which I think is a knee jerk reaction to it featuring Ros and not being from the book. I think some of it stems from the scene making the viewer uncomfortable. Personally, it wasn’t a highlight of the episode but I didn’t dislike it. It serves to further Ros as a character at the same time as giving more insight into the depths of Joffrey’s cruelty. In the books we hear tell of Joffrey murdering and dissecting a pregnant cat to look at her babies and killing animals with the crossbow for fun. I think directing his cruelty at an established character and making it a gesture of defiance aimed at Tyrion is a positive change. With an older Joffrey deepening the conflict between Joffrey and Tyrion is not only sensible but serves to enhance later events that hinge on their antagonism. Losing the inner monologues of the books necessitates showing behaviour that causes Tyrion to hate his nephew. I accept that the scene retreads past ground in this respect e.g. Joffrey’s refusal to offer condolences to the Starks. I am also slightly concerned that the adaptation will omit Joffrey turning the crossbow on starving citizens which is an important plot point for the growing civil unrest in the city.
Littlefinger visiting Renly’s camp is a significant change from the books that I was eager to see after it was revealed in the trailers. I like his scene with Renly. The show had established their uneasy working relationship in the first season and it was interesting to see Renly openly attack Littlefinger’s character now that he has the power. Littlefinger’s offer to betray the Lannisters was interesting; while talking to Eddard he seemed keen to put Renly in power in the first season if Joffrey proved problematic. Certainly things in King’s Landing have not gone well for him so far in season 2 so I suspect he is genuinely considering Renly as a viable alternative despite their mutual dislike. His goals here seem to be to secure his position if Renly is successful in pursuing his claim and to rekindle his relationship with Catelyn. The former is not unreasonable and it is sensible of him to try to become integral to Renly’s victory. The latter seems seriously misguided given the timing. Perhaps he had not anticipated Catelyn deducing his betrayal but that seems remarkably stupid and out of character for him. I can just about buy this version of the character lacking the emotional intelligence to see her point of view but I was not keen on the writing of his approach in their scene together. Their confrontation did draw some excellent work from Michelle Fairley as Catelyn, melting from indignant rage to her moment of sorrow with Eddard’s remains.
I’m not sure what he hopes to gain by harassing Margaery but it was an interesting scene and a good showcase for Natalie Dormer. I’m pleased they established Margaery as having the intelligence to spar with Littlefinger. The “my husband is my king and my king is my husband” line was a tad too obvious though. His line about the marriage of a rich girl breeding interest “if nothing else” was subtly delivered and one of my favourite bits of dialogue in the episode.
Escaping the Red Waste
Daenerys gets a pair of scenes in the episode. The return of Kovarro was all set-up and suitably expedient. I have mixed feelings about the change from her receiving delegates from Qarth while camped in the ruins of Vaes Tolorro to a more dynamic confrontation at the gates. Eliminating the Vaes Tolorro location is a reasonable cost cutting measure for the production. I think it is also necessary to increased the stakes around gaining entry to Qarth. Making this an obstacle to be overcome provides Daenerys with a simple through line for the episode and injects drama into her thread. Nicholas Blane was excellent as the petty authority figure. Daenerys palpable desperation was well played by Emilia Clarke but the audience knowing that her threats are empty weakens the character as does using Xaro invoking Sumai to rescue her. I think it would have better served the adaptation to have her threat succeed more clearly succeed in overturning their decision and for her to have kept the dragons out of their reach, perhaps under Kovarro’s protection. Xaro could be established as a dissenting voice before she delivers her threat so that he is still introduced as sympathetic. I also disliked the pronunciation misstep – she only knows of the city because Kovarro told her its name and she has not seen it written down so it rang false to me. The shot through the gates of Qarth was a beautiful visual.
Similarly well CGI enhanced was Arya’s party arriving at Harrenhal. Their awestruck discussion of the melted stone was paired with a suitably dark and foreboding visual. The courtyard location was well dressed and continued the oppressive decrepit surroundings. The torture was horrific and evoked memories of a similarly disturbing exhibit during a childhood visit to the London dungeon (no heating of the container in that one though). Relocating it to Harrenhal worked well with shortening Arya’s storyline. The Tickler’s disinterested repetition of his questions was suitably callous and I thought it was an enigmatic touch for non-readers to mention the Brotherhood rather than Lord Beric specifically. The shell shocked woman prisoner was a well acted minor role that helped to economically establish the horror the prisoners are being subjected to. Setting up the idea of plotting revenge as a way to suppress bad memories in Yoren’s final scene with Arya last week is very nicely paid off as she begins her list of enemies in the stockade here.
The number of recurring characters in Lannister helms gets a bit confusing during the Harrenhal sequence; having Polliver, Ser Amory and Ser Gregor all appear with their helms on makes it more difficult to distinguish between them. I’m not sure that it was worth including Ser Amory just to save the Mountain’s reintroduction until now. He definitely didn’t have enough material to warrant his inclusion in this episode. I might have merged the two knights, or with the scaling down of the battle in last week’s episode had Polliver leading the group and cut Ser Amory. I think they should have had Ser Gregor in similar Lannister shoulderpads that Jaime and Tywin wear with their family armour but perhaps with the Clegane triple hound sigil embossed instead of a lion’s head. While Ian Whyte’s height is remarkable his frame looked a little too narrow and this would have broadened his silhouette and smoothed over the recasting. It was really interesting that the changes positioned Tywin as a vaguely heroic figure in rescuing Gendry from torture. His keen insight into the value of the prisoners and Arya’s disguise were very much protagonist qualities, unexpected but welcome to see some good on both sides of the conflict between him and Tyrion in this episode. Charles Dance being part of the starring cast is great news and he is fantastic in the role. I am looking forward to the changes giving him more time with Arya as she works as his cup bearer.
Tyrion’s demolishing Lancel’s posturing as an honourable knight was a brilliant bit of adaptation and played to Dinklage’s strengths in the role. His wry smile as he establishes that Lancel has come straight from Cersei’s bedchamber was fantastic. My only criticism was that placing this scene after Joffrey forcing Ros to brutalize Daisy as a message made me wonder what Tyrion’s reaction had been. Moving this scene before Joffrey’s last scene of the episode could have avoided this but would have robbed the episode of a late triumphant moment.
The parley scene itself was well acted by all involved. Gethin Anthony captured Renly’s humor and balanced it with his dislike of Stannis. I thought the line about Stannis being a ham was very funny. Finn Jones got some nice reaction laughs in as Loras despite not having any lines in this episode. Van Houten made Melisandre’s warning to Renly effective and chilling. I loved the scene as it stood (even without the peach) but had serious reservations about the lack of setup. I thought it was a misstep not to set up where it took place and what led up to it; in the book Stannis lays siege to Storm’s End which draws Renly to him for the parley. This lack of explanation at this stage made the setting of the ending seem strange to me. I talked this over with my wife (who is a non-reader) and she said that she was happy to accept that Stannis wanted get Renly’s men so the parley made sense to her without any set-up.
I was pleased to see Stannis aboard his flagship which retroactively explains how he got to the coast of the Stormlands from Dragonstone if not making obvious why he travelled there. The expository questioning of Davos about the pouch he wears around his neck was welcome and helped to explain more of the relationship between the two characters. I think it would have been nice to give a reason why Melisandre must be smuggled ashore but accept that it would have been difficult to do so while keeping Stannis vague about what she is going to do. I can understand the production wanting to cut Storm’s End to save creating a location that will not be used much. However, using the chapter where Davos smuggles Melisandre underneath Storm’s End as the basis for the episode’s closing scene necessitates changing that location. I think the episode failed to adequately explain where Davos was taking her and why to create its cliffhanger moment. My wife was confused about where they were and why the cave was barred and so was I.
Criticism of the set-up aside the final scene itself was beautifully rendered and the effects were breathtaking. The birth of the shadow was suitably disgusting, otherworldly and chilling. The anticipation for what it is going to do for non-readers must be painful. I hope that it is given enough context next week to make sense but love it as a moment to end an episode with.
The structure worked well with the opening sticking to individual characters before the second half allowing more intercutting of scenes. I think the episode had some great moments but that Davos’s line through it felt a little rushed. I loved Harrenhal and the gritty, brutal torture. I was similarly suitably harrowed by the execution of Joffrey’s public humiliation of Sansa and his subsequent dalliance with the prostitutes. Tyrion breaking Lancel and turning into a spy was a great single scene. I think this is a strong episode but it is not without flaws.
Any non-readers care to enlighten me on your perspective?
What did the readers make of the various changes?
Any feedback on the review in general? Would you like to see more of these?