Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Game of Thrones Season 1: Episode 2: "The Kingsroad" review

We're back for the second installment of my return to the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, watching all of Season 1 of "Game of Thrones" and seeing if I can figure out why it worked for so many people but not me. At least, not me the first time around. (If you missed the introduce and the review of the pilot, they're both right here.) Once again, I would be remiss if I did not include a spoiler warning:

WARNING: I fully intend to spoil each episode along the way as I go. This blog is designed for people who have (1) seen "Game of Thrones" Season 1 already or (2) intend to watch along with me as I go. So from now on, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

OK, on with Episode 2, "The Kingsroad," which on the whole, I found much more interesting and dramatically satisfying than the first episode. It's, naturally, still bogged down with exposition and backstory, and I noticed something else about the way the show handles all the odds and ends and details that fill in the corners of George R. R. Martin's world: It's clunky.

To put it another way, the show is obvious and sort of plodding about getting as much of the history and custom of this place in to each hour-long episode as possible. Worse yet, for all the copious detail that gets brought up and explained during the episodes, there's a ton of vital information that's simply left out. This is one of the first series I've seen that absolutely requires Wikipedia to follow everything, unless you have already read and digested the source material. (But don't read TOO MUCH Wikipedia, as there's spoilers-a-plenty.) Even the OPENING CREDIT SEQUENCE is complicated and requires some backstory.

I know this is high fantasy and the crazy worldbuilding detail is part of the charm... but the show sort of had to choose between just being dull for those unfamiliar with the world but faithful to the books, or disappointing hardcore Martin fans but keeping us n00bs in the loop. It's pretty obvious which decision was made.

The episode itself begins with the Dothraki horde on the move. I now know they're headed for their hometown of Vaes Dothrak, but it's not very well established where they're going at this point, and I only know their final destination because I'm a few episodes ahead of this by now. The new Queen (known as a Khaleesi) is still a bit sore - literally and figuratively - after the whole "being sold by her brother into sexual slavery and then repeatedly raped by a guy who looks like The Rock starring in 'Aladdin on Ice'" thing. What a Drama Khaleesi she is.

Beginning with this episode, it starts to become clear that the show is kind of getting off on watching this fair-haired, very pretty actress being repeatedly raped on camera. The plot excuse is that she begins to distance herself from the experience by fantasizing about dragons, leading to a conversation about dragons with her new lady-in-waiting, Doreah (Roxanne McKee), who just happens to be a former prostitute. Hence, Khaleesi learns to better please her new husband, thus encouraging him to treat her more tenderly, like a wife, rather than a slave. Symbolized by turning her around to look at her during sex, and also by buying Raisin Bran at the local Horde Mart, even though he personally prefers Frosted Flakes.


Some dragon eggs, a little butter, maybe a piece of rye toast or something... Not bad. Just because we're riding with a barbarian horde doesn't make us SAVAGES.

The subtext here is genuinely creepy, and not particularly sexy at all, though the scenario unfolds with the sort of dewy, overripe premium cable eroticism you'd expect from a title like "The Busty Cops Go Hawaiian Part 3." At least the sex scenes from this point on (at least, as far as this couple goes) can get away from the ickiness of Emilia Clarke being tormented and softly weeping, which was kind of killing my buzz.

But it's not all braids and dragon eggs and abrupt doggy style-to-missionary conversions in "The Kingsroad." This is also the episode where Peter Dinklage's Tyrion Lannister, the cynical, blunt dwarf brother of Queen Cersei, became everyone's favorite character, providing a sardonic and significantly more modern take on the events than the rest of the stuffy, defiantly Medieval-minded characters.

We find out early on that Bran, the youngest Stark who was shoved out an open window at the end of the previous episode, has lived, though he will most likely never walk again. The Queen - whose twin brother/lover was responsible for the crippling - shows up at the boy's bedside to offer her condolences, and actually seems to reveal a bit of genuine grief over her own lost child to Lady Stark. It's arguably the most interesting scene in the entire series to this point, because we know enough about the scenario and the characters to start asking questions and thinking more deeply about the subtext and the character's motives. Is the Queen genuinely opening up to Lady Stark, mother-to-mother, or is this all a fake show of sympathy to deflect any suspicions that she might be responsible? Is she just using it as a pretext to start a conversation, and get more information about what the boy remembers and what exactly he saw? Usually, I'm too busy trying to connect all the pieces and figure out who's who to even look for this kind of thing, so it's refreshing to get a scene that plays more straight-ahead as drama and less like a history lesson about a fake universe.

There's also an fun sequence in which Ned and King Robert first learn about the unification of the House of Targaryen with the Dothraki horsemen, and debate the severity of the threat to the throne. One peculiar bit of dialogue, though... Just as the two finish discussing the threat that may be growing across the Narrow Sea, the King says “There’s a war coming, Ned. I don’t know when, and I don’t know who we’ll be fighting, but it’s coming.” Which is odd because they've only really been discussing ONE threat this whole time. From the Targaryens, who still feel they have a justifiable claim to the throne and who now have the power of a massive army on horseback on their side. Why would The King feel the need to add in another bit about not knowing who he's going to be fighting?

Meanwhile, Jon Snow - the bastard son of Ned Stark - is preparing to head off to The Wall to dedicate the rest of his life to protecting the Seven Kingdoms from the monsters that live on the other side. Snow is arguably the series protagonist, and yet I find it hard to really take a strong interest in his fate. He's not really COMPELLING, and though it's not entirely the fault of actor Kit Harington, he's not really helping matters. The character, after two full episodes, remains almost entirely defined by his bastardy. He doesn't have much of an inner life. Other characters will occasionally challenge him about his decision-making, and he always demurs. I sense this was meant to express his mysterious, unknowable nature, but it comes off like he doesn't know why he's doing what he does, and just isn't particularly introspective. (In future episodes, this trend continues, and he basically seems to act heroic at times because it is required of him due to his role in the story, not because he's actually brave or heroic by nature.)


Needs no education nor thought control.

Finally, this episode makes the case both for and against the whole "give a wild dire wolf as a gift to each Stark child" scheme from Episode 1. When young Arya Stark and her commoner friend are play-fighting with wooden swords, the foppish Prince Joffrey decides to teach them a lesson and ends up getting mauled by one of the aforementioned wolves, only to see the beast escape and its brother executed for its crimes. Oooooh, that Prince Joffrey! So, anyway, one anti-wolf point. But then, an assassin attacks Lady Stark and tries to kill young Bran, before being thwarted (and gruesomely murdered) by another wolf. So, one point in favor. The jury's still out on this particular parenting maneuver.

So, all in all, a far superior effort to Episode 1, but I don't know... I remain unconvinced. There's far more incident and dramatic heft this time around, which makes the proceedings far more entertaining. But I'm still not really loving any of the characters, save possibly the witty Tyrion Lannister. Even the Arya Stark character - who's played in lively, spirited fashion by Maisie Williams and who clearly is one of the more likable characters in the novels - comes off as more of a "type" (the headstrong girl who wants to be a hero, not a wife) than a three-dimensional person.

I will naturally continue to press on, but I was really hoping this episode would sell me on the show this second time around, as I remember it being the highlight of my initial "Game of Thrones" experience. We shall soon find out...

Posted via email from Lon Harris

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