Beginning this week, Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson will team up to review each new episode of Game of Thrones. Ryan writes for Grantland as well as Paste, and Jackson is Paste’s co-founder and editor-in-chief.
First, let me say that it’s an honor to be discussing the Greatest Show Currently On Television (GSCOT) here on Paste. I’ll leave my introduction at that, but rest assured that if I was a Game of Thrones character, this paragraph would be filled with poetic flattery, ribald humor, and subtle hints of malice to make you wonder if a weird shadow-assassin was about to appear at your computer desk with a smoke dagger. But I’m not a Game of Thrones character—I’m a dude who just ate a Greek yogurt at 11:30 pm and sort of hates himself for cheering on Tywin Lannister each time he proves that he’s either 1) evil or 2) a pretty godawful father. So I’ll keep it simple.
Okay, Episode 5: “Kissed By Fire.” I’m giving it the official House Ryan seal of approval despite the fact that we didn’t make too many huge leaps forward in terms of plot. But before I speak broadly about the narrative arc, I want to isolate two moments that show GoT at its best—as a brilliant study of human psychology. Because it’s that element that raises the show above something like…oh, I don’t know, The Tudors. Or Rome. Or any other war-based drama set in a specific period (even if that period happens to be fictional) (as far as we know) (George R.R. Martin might just be an alien relating the history of his home planet) (never mind, aliens would write faster). The intuitive sense of character, and the logic of which traits lead to triumph or tragedy, is where GoT just kills it.
Moment One: Rickard Karstark, justifiably angry that two of his sons died at the hands of the Lannisters, decides to murder the young Lannister cousins in their cell. It’s one of those horrendous, conceptual acts of revenge, where you kill someone innocent to make someone vaguely connected to them feel the pain you experienced before. (As if Tywin Lannister will lose a wink of sleep, right?) For his treason, Karstark is brought before the king, and Robb has to decide whether to execute him or keep him as a captive. His mother and wife advise him that he’ll lose the rest of the Karstarks if he goes through with an execution—apparently murdering someone’s father is a poor way to maintain loyalty—and the loss of men would make winning his war very, very difficult. He can even use Karstark as a bargaining chip—if the rest of his clan stays loyal, he won’t be harmed. So everyone pleads their case, Robb thinks on it, the camera hones in on his face, and—
Cut to a rainy scene in a courtyard, and Karstark is doomed. I don’t know about you, Josh, but at that particular moment I wanted to scream at the TV. I might have, actually; my wife seems seems vaguely annoyed with me in a way that’s hard to define, but may well be related to GoT and screaming. I’m not saying I reacted like this guy, but GAH, you knew Robb Stark was making the wrong decision. He’s just like his dad—great in battle, loyal, smart in a straightforward way, carries out his own judgments, severs heads in one fell blow of the sword, and has NO sense of politics or diplomacy. ZERO. I mean, he’s not even dealing with Varys or Littlefinger yet, and he can’t make the easy decisions that keep people happy. Karstark curses him just before he loses his head, but I don’t even think we needed that—Robb is cursed by his blood. And because he couldn’t stop seeing the world in black and white, just as his dad couldn’t navigate the delicate nuances of King’s Landing politics, he’s now dependent on Walder Frey—the guy he screwed by reneging on a pact to marry his daughter—to supply men for a desperation raid on Casterly Rock. Does anyone think this is going to end well? Anyone??? Why couldn’t he just be smart and let Karstark live? DAMN YOU, HEADSTRONG STARKS!
Moment Two: Far more subtle. Back in King’s Landing, Lord Baelish, aka Petyr, aka Littlefinger, aka the gravel-voiced fella who runs the brothel and played Carcetti on The Wire, recruits a pleasing young lad to seduce Ser Loras and figure out what’s happening with the savvy Tyrells. He learns that Ser Loras is set to marry Sansa Stark, which throws a wrench into his plans to take her away on his ship, so he has to seek her out and see where things stand. And that meeting, I thought, gave us a glorious GoT moment—at the beginning of the conversation, Baelish notices that she’s wearing her hair like Margaery Tyrell, Ser Loras’ sister. That’s all. He just notices a hairstyle. But that tiny observation is enough to tell him that Sansa is under Margaery’s sway, and there’s no way in hell she’s sailing off to the creepy Eyrie when she has a new best friend and is about to marry the handsomest dude in the kingdom.
Again, all this from a hairstyle. I mean, that’s one of those moments that’s so smart that it made me feel smart. GoT respects us, Josh. Anyway, Baelish had a couple choices there. He could’ve tried to implore Sansa, or reveal that Ser Loras was gay and demolish her dream, or scare her, or whatever, but he knew that would just lead to disaster. So he conceded a minor defeat. No Sansa for Lord Baelish, at least for now. And it’s because unlike the King of the North, he’s not playing checkers. He’s playing chess, and he’s playing it by slow, correspondence mail. And sure, he might be cornered by his own ambition one day—we all remember the moment when he looks longingly at the iron throne in season one—but until then, he’ll be making all the right moves.
I have so much more to say about this episode. How great was Jaime’s bathtub monologue? What does it say about me that most of my favorite actors are Lannisters? How creepy is this week’s new character, Queen Selise? Are you as sick as I am of Stannis Baratheon and the f***ing Lord of Light? Did you have the same vague satisfaction I had when Jon Snow and Ygritte finally sealed the deal in a convenient cave that also had a hot tub? Do you experience an empty feeling when a whole episode passes without a Lord Varys appearance? But I’m rambling, so I’ll table those thoughts for now and turn it over to you.
I’m so glad you’re not a Game of Thrones character because, even though you’d make a hell of a Tournament correspondent, giving us the lowdown on this year’s crop of rookie lancers, odds are that by now you’d either be disfigured or dead (or worse, undead—though we learn in this episode, that option now comes in different shapes and sizes.)
“Kissed By Fire” was indeed a fantastic psychological study (how about Jon Snow’s struggles to remain loyal to the Night’s Watch while falling for the enemy and sympathizing with their plight?), but it also touched on another thing that separates the source material of Martin’s books (which I finally read before this season began) from the typical fantasy series—the subtlety and complexity of its mythology. So far we’ve only gotten bits and pieces (even in the books) because the story is revealed through characters who only understand whatever faith has been handed down to them. The zombies we’ve seen are the armies of the White Walkers terrorizing the north, but last night we saw Thoros, Robert’s old drinking buddy, bring Beric Dondarrion back from death in the name of the Lord of Light.
Dondarrion is the leader of The Brotherhood Without Banners—Robin Hood to his Merry Men—fighting for justice in a land where that’s as foreign as premium cable channels. But if the Lord of Light is good to the White Walkers’ evil, how do you reconcile another scene in last night’s episode, where could-not-be-creepier Queen Selise plays the crazy religious zealot. What’s up with the baby jars? Or Melisandre’s crazy smoke-monster baby who killed off Stannis’ brother Renly in Season Two? Dondarrion’s and Thoros’ newfound faith has led them towards goodness, but it also aligns them with them with the kind of people you wouldn’t even want to sit next to on a plane. Or is Martin making the point that it’s less about what gods one serves and more about how one goes about serving those gods?
Absent any certainties about good and evil, we’re left to empathize with individual characters despite their flaws and sometimes conflicting objectives. The best characters—Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, the Stark children—all stand in direct opposition with each other, but we’re rooting them all on. All it takes is an awesome bathtub monologue from Jaime about how he became “Kingslayer” and the presence of a monster like his captor Roose Bolton and we start to forget he’s the same man who pushed Bran off the window ledge.
My favorite moment of the episode, though, comes courtesy of Diana Rigg, who’s Olenna Redwyne makes Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess seem warm and bubbly. It takes a lot to make Tyrion speechless, but her casual recitation of her house’s contributions to the war effort has the ever-cunning Imp realizing he’s out of his depth. As you said with Lord Baelish, Game of Thrones respects us enough to grant us characters this sharp.
What you just wrote produced a medium-sized epiphany in my brain. (Thanks?) I think I now understand what appeals to me about certain GoT characters more than others. You’re completely right that the show (and books) excel at blurring the line between good and evil, which, again, shows that the creators respect our intelligence. We’re forced to align ourselves with specific characters, and what I just realized is that we can separate most of them into two classifications: “Rigid Thinkers” and “Fluid Thinkers.” Those categories need better names—it sounds like something you’d hear at a seminar for aspiring motivational speakers—but it’s a good starting point. The rigid thinkers basically just obey simple values (good or evil, depending on the case) and have trouble making smart decisions when things get complicated, while the fluid thinkers are better able to adapt when the political landscape gets tricky. It’d be pretty easy to break everyone down. A few notable examples:
Rigid Thinkers: All the Starks, Cersei and Joffrey, Brienne of Tarth, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon (RIP), Viserys Targaryen (RIP), Theon Greyjoy
Fluid Thinkers: Jaime Lannister, Tyrion Lannister, Tywin Lannister, Lord Varys, Lady Olenna, Littlefinger, Margaery (I think), Theon’s crazy sister
In terms of liking individual characters, I tend to gravitate to the fluid thinkers (who also happen to be way funnier). As you said, I can almost forget that Jaime shoved Bran Stark off the tower at Winterfell because of the complexities that come later. But I think the characters that are in flux between rigid and fluid thinking—the ones that are proving mentally adaptable despite rigid beginnings, but who are too value-based to ever become completely cynical or selfish—will define how Westeros looks when it’s all over. The three that come to mind are Daenerys Stormborn, Jon Snow, and Bran Stark.
Like you, I LOVED Lady Olenna’s swift and thorough smackdown of Tyrion. She also had a classic GoT Offhand Insult—one of the show’s specialties—when Podrick Payne, the superlative lover, came back too late with the figs she requested: “Where did you go for them, Volantis?” BURNNNNN.
I hadn’t thought of that dichotomy before, but you’re right that the most interesting characters are the most fluid. One exception is Arya Stark, but maybe it’s just easier to forgive the kids for being rigid thinkers, especially kids who’ve watched their father get beheaded by a rigidly evil king.
You started out by calling this the Greatest Show Currently on Television, and I think you’re getting into what it has in common with the Greatest Show of All Time (GSOAT), The Wire—the fluidity of the characters. We want them to choose the right path, but it’s never a given—there’s BOTH the hope for redemption AND a fear that they’ll fail and fall. What’s on the line isn’t just some overarching goal—or in this case war—it’s the soul of each character. It’s also why Breaking Bad is the Greatest Show Currently Taking a Mid-Season Break (GSCTAMSB)—we’re watching our protagonist lose that battle.
But it’s as much about wisdom vs. folly as it is good vs. evil. Robb’s wife (or was it his mother?) cautions him about executing Lord Karstark, reminding him that the execution very well may lead to the deaths of the many young men who are fighting for him, but Robb refuses to consider. Barristan Selmy continued to fight for the Mad King because it was his duty and honor, while Jaime turned traitor to save the lives of innocents in King’s Landing, along with his father. Who was right? Arguments could be made for both. But Jaime’s fluidity certainly feels more “right.”
Oh, and add The Onion Knight to your fluid thinkers. How great was it seeing Stannis’ daughter teaching him how to read?
Great call on the Onion Knight. He’s one of my favorites, and that interaction with him and Stannis’ daughter was the only thing that redeemed the Dragonstone segment. I mean…Queen Selise with the preserved fetuses. I just…I don’t know. I don’t know what to say or think about that. I felt super creeped out by her, but also super sad when she justified her husband’s affair as some kind of holy communion with the Lord of Light. But hey, maybe she’s cool with herself. Maybe preserved fetuses—which reminded me of the Governor’s weird Room of Heads in The Walking Dead, by the way—are her version of owning 25 cats. Either way, I hope the HBO writers somehow get her in a room with Lysa Tully from the Eyrie, just so we can have the ultimate creep-off. I think Lysa’s son Robin would get along famously with the fetuses.
One last thing I’ll add to your idea about hoping our characters choose the path of redemption—if I’m being honest with myself, I often hope they choose against redemption. I justify it by saying that it’s a television show and I’m allowed to root for drama, but if Walter White ever decided to give up the drug game and go back to being a henpecked husband, I would be annoyed and the show would be worse. It’s the same reason I was glad that Don Draper started cheating on his wife again at the end of the last season of Mad Men...it brings back the drama! It’s quite possible that this makes me a bad person. I can own that. In my defense, I will say that once a character is morally bankrupt, I root for them to come around to the good side, like with Jaime Lannister. It’s not interesting for Robb Stark to be “good,” since he was born that way, but it would be fascinating to see what Jaime’s path to morality looks like. Again, I’m rooting for drama.
Pleasure exchanging thoughts with you sir. Until next week, please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.
Ahh…and there’s the rub between rooting for a CHARACTER to choose redemption and rooting for the SHOW’S WRITERS to offer a character the path of redemption. Just because I’m wanting Walter White or Don Draper or Lord Verys to choose good doesn’t necessarily mean that when I step back I hope the writers keep them on the straight-and-narrow. I wish more TV production companies just understood the difference between giving an audience what it wants in the moment of watching (ANSWERS! HAPPY ENDINGS! QUICK AND EASY REDEMPTION!) and what actually makes for great television (QUESTIONS! OBSTACLES! MORAL FAILINGS!).
Fortunately that’s not a problem that this show has. Nobody wanted that axe to fall upon Ned Stark’s neck in Season One, but the tension of knowing that no one is safe in Westeros (from death or their own mistakes) has made for some compelling television. If other shows are House Tyrell (The rose “growing strong”), Game of Thrones is the much more interesting House Stark (“Winter is coming.”).
And Shane, the pleasure is mine.