DAVID KINNEY: OH OH IT’S MAGIC: GAME OF THRONES GETS WEIRD
One of the most oft-remarked things about the world in which Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire takes place is how much it is like our own. In a genre crowded with mythical and supernatural elements, the plotlines of Martin’s story largely involve humans doing human things like falling in love, lusting for power, killing each other, eating and drinking. Instead of an epic struggle between good and evil, this world, like ours, is characterized by realpolitik and moral relativism. There are moments where the operative suspension of disbelief required of the viewer is only that Earth, or a planet quite like it, has a different geography. Martin has built a possible world not far from our own.
However, as we were sharply reminded at the end of the forth episode of this season, and again at the beginning of the fifth, supernatural elements do exist within the series, even if most of the characters doubt their existence. I’m referring, of course to Melissandre’s shadow-baby, which is born at the end of the fourth episode, and slays Renly Baratheon at the beginning of the fifth. In my opinion, I think Renly’s death should have ended the fifth episode, as I feel a strong conclusion is often better than an ominous cliffhanger. Regardless, other than Jon Snow’s brief encounter with whatever is taking Craster’s sons, this is our first glimpse of the supernatural in this season (besides dragons, of course).
The supernatural elements of the series serve two narrative purposes. At a more superficial level, as I’ve noted before, there is the dramatic irony that comes from possessing knowledge that the characters do not, e.g. that dragons are not all dead, that white walkers exist.
Simultaneously, there is a deeper mystery at the heart of the series’ supernatural elements. There is an intense, brooding mystery at the heart of the goings-on in George R.R. Martin’s world, one that neither character, nor reader/viewer is able to solve. We know that strange things are happening, but we don’t quite know how or why, and we get the feeling that the answers to those questions are ultimately important. This mystery is part of the enduring intrigue of the series, and one that I really hope the television series continues to flesh out. As I go character-group by character-group through last week’s episode, I’ll try and highlight the role that the supernatural is playing at times.
Renly Baratheon/Margaery Tyrell/Loras Tyrell/Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish: As mentioned above, Renly has been killed by a shadow monster conjured by Melissandre. However, since Southerners in Westeros tend to be resolutely rational, the growing consensus is that some combination of Catelyn Stark and Brienne of Tarth had something to do with it. This raises an obvious question: why not blame Stannis, their presumptive enemy?
The answer lies largely in the political geography of the Seven Kingdoms. The two most powerful Southern families are House Tyrell of Highgarden, in the Southwestern Reach, and House Baratheon, in the Southeastern stormlands (the Lannisters, while south of the Neck, identify as Westermen and not Southerners). Having any Baratheon on the throne is probably good for most Southerners, thus the very quick reversal of loyalties from most of the Southern lords. Again, a lot ofrealpolitik going on in Westeros.
The only people keeping Stannis from drastically tipping the power scales in Westeros are the Tyrells. Standing over the body of their husband and lover, the reactions of Maergery and Loras Tyrell are quiet interesting. Loras is understandably angsty, convinced as he was that he and Renly had a love that would conquer the world. Maergery, who for very understandable reasons could never really love Renly, casually remarks on how handsome he was and seems to be at something of a loss for her next move.
Which is why it’s all the more impressive that the best power broker in the Seven Kingdoms, Petyr Baelish, is standing in the room with Maergery Tyrell. “Do you want to be a Queen?” he asks, to which she replies with a deftly-placed definite article “I want to be the Queen.” Your move, Cersei Lannister.
Theon Greyjoy/Yara Greyjoy: Man I love these Greyjoys. Now that Theon’s chosen his heritage over this upbringing, he still can’t get a break, as both his sister and the crew of his new ship, the Sea Bitch, tease him about his mainland affectations. His mission, to harass fishermen along the Stony Shore, is also a deliberate source of embarrassment. Finally, his first mate turns him on to what, in retrospect, should be obvious. His father is never going to give him the sort of job that would earn him respect. In keeping with the culture of the Iron Islands, he is going to have to take it. Instead of the Stony Shore, he is going to strike at the heart of the North, at a castle called Torrhen’s Square, not far from Winterfell. Later, we see ten-year-old cripple Bran Stark, acting Lord of Winterfell, get the news that the North is under attack.
Jon Snow/The Night’s Watch: The men in black have found their way to the Fist of the First Men, a location far north of the Wall (and shot in drop-dead gorgeous Iceland). Jon eventually goes off with the legendary ranger Qhorin Halfhand to raid a wildling camp.
Okay, now it’s time for a little pre-history of Westeros. Prior to about 12,000 years ago The Children of the Forest were the only humanoids in Westeros (they weren’t really humans). The First Men crossed over on an ancient land bridge from Essos, and immediately began conquering the Children of the Forest. When the Others invaded from the North, the Children and the First Men joined together to fight them, and ended up building the Wall to keep them out. As part of the compromise, the First Men agreed to adopt the gods of the Children of the Forest, still worshipped in the North as the Old Gods.
The Fist of the First Men was an earthen fort that the First Men built while fighting the Others. When Sam asks Jon Snow what he the First Men were thinking when they stood there thousands of years ago, Jon replies with characteristic mystery and stoicism. “I think that there was something here they were trying to get away from,” he says. Here is where the supernatural elements of the narrative become less about dramatic irony and more about genuine mystery. There have been allusions throughout the series that something very bad is coming from the far North, in light of which the political conflict in the Seven Kingdoms seems extremely petty. This is the mysterious, supernatural kernel at the heart of the series.
Stannis Baratheon/Davos Seaworth: The main plot development here is that Stannis names Davos, the former smuggler, to lead his fleet when he attacks King’s Landing by sea. Thematically, however, this is a very important scene. Davos knows that Melissandre’s shadow baby killed Renly, and he is profoundly troubled by it. As a man of the world, Davos has enough of an open mind to believe that supernatural influence is possible for people like Melissandre, but he believes that righteous people ought to avoid such sorcery. Loyalty to Stannis is Davos’ primary moral compass, but he is growing increasingly worried that Melissandre is leading them all down a dangerous path. Here, Davos is evincing another prevailing attitude towards the supernatural held within the series: it exists, but good men who believe in the Seven do not trust it. The interplay between the Faustian Stannis, doing whatever it takes to achieve his ends, and the more metaphysically humble, yet fiercely loyal Davos is one of the more intricate character relationships in the series.
Brienne of Tarth/Catelyn Stark: After a smoke monster kills the most popular guy in the Seven Kingdoms, Brienne and Cat need to get the fuck out of the Reach. These two are quite a pair. In Brienne, we have the full-on gender queer, a woman playing a man’s role whose one weakness is her love for a dead, gay man. In Cat, we have the archetype of womanly stoicism, a quietly suffering widow and a mother of soldiers. Brienne recognizes this “woman’s courage” and swears her loyalty to Cat in a decidedly cheesy scene. It was intended to show the extent to which Brienne takes knightly chivalry seriously, but it came up a little lame, in my opinion.
Arya Stark/Jaqen H’gar/Tywin Lannister: Meanwhile, at Harrenhal, Arya is teaching a seriously beefy Gendry better swordfighting technique (recall her lessons with Syrio Forel from last season). Jaqen H’gar, the mysterious foreigner who slept through the syntax unit of his English lessons, has offered her three deaths in exchange for the three lives she saved from a burning cage. She first names the Tickler, he of the gruesome rat-torture scenes from last episode. Soon, we find him fallen from a bridge, with Jaqen smiling slyly in the corner, eating an apple.
Later, we find Tywin Lannister growing increasingly impatient with his war councils as they discuss ways to try and defeat Robb Stark. It’s clear that the elder Lannister does not suffer fools, and a little back-story elucidates this even more clearly. Tywin’s father Tytos was something of a buffoon who liked entertaining, who never called in his loans and nearly brought Westeros’ proudest house to its knees. Tywin is trying to be everything his father wasn’t, which means he won’t tolerate any kind of descent. He discerns that his cupbearer is a Northern girl, and asks her opinion of Robb Stark. Arya smartly responds using hyperbole, claiming that it is said of her brother that he can’t be killed. Asked if she believes it, she replies that she doesn’t, because “anyone can be killed.”
Arya has seen more of death than any highborn girl can expect to, and at times it seems as though her entire existence is coated in a veneer of mortality. The list of names in her nightly prayer is growing longer, but it appears that Jaqen can help with this. It is unclear at this point how he is arranging these deaths, but his methods definitely have a touch of the uncanny; it is even alluded to that Jaqen believes in the same “red god” as Melissandre. Arya, for her part believes only in the God of Death. And what do we say to the God of Death? Not. Today.
Tyrion Lannister: I imagine we’ll see Peter Dinklage in every episode, but he doesn’t get a lot of screen time this week. Mostly, we see him further turning his cousin Lacel into his spy against Cersei. Then, he discovers the secret war weapon that Cersei has been hiding from him. It’s keg after keg of wildfire, a liquid substance made by the eccentric pyromancer’s guild. After the dragons died, the fire-worshipping Targaryens continued to commission the production wilfire, this mysterious subsatance might just be the secret to holding the city against the approaching Baratheon onslaught. Having just seen a street preacher call him a “deformed monkey,” he decides he is going to co-opt Cersei’s arms race so that he, not her, can be the savior of Kings Landing.
Danaerys Targaryen: So far, all we’ve seen of Essos, the larger continent to the east of Westeros, is the “savage” world of the Dothraki (after a brief initial scene in Pentos in the first episode). But Essos is home to a myriad of cultures and cities, most of which are far older than Westorosi civilization. On the one hand, you could say that crossing the narrow sea, from the viewers perspective, is like a journey back in time. Where Westeros is decidedly medieval in it’s tropes, Essos has the trappings of Meditteranean, Near Eastern, and Asiatic antiquity. It is more ethnically and politically diverse, and the citizens of the great cities of Essos consider themselves far more civilized than the Westerosi. At the same time, though, some of these cities and societies are in an awkward state of decay.
One of those ancient cities is Qarth, where Dany finds herself at a very awesome night Bazaar. A warlock invites her to the house of the undying, and then performs a magic trick that Xaro Xhoan Daxos dismisses as “parlor trick” (again, no one wants to believe in magic).
Then comes the big reveal, where Xaro explains to her that he is the richest man in Essos, and would be willing to bankroll her conquest of the Seven Kingdoms in exchange for her hand in marriage. From a twenty-first century standpoint, there’s something appealing about Xaro’s offer: a self-made man from the Summer Islands teams up with a deposed Princess to set the world to order. To Jorah Mormont, however, the idea is ridiculous. All of Westeros would rise up against an army bought with foreign gold. Dany, he believes, will need to win friends within Westeros before she sails back there, and she can’t be susceptible to the opportunists who will inevitably be drawn to her. Oh yeah, and Jorah doesn’t want Dany to get married because he’s obviously in love with her, to the point that he decided not to betray her in season one when it would’ve meant he could go home. Also, they both look great in traditional Qartheen dress.
Ok so that was long, but a lot happened this episode, and there really are a lot layers and folds to pick apart. I’m guessing the next two episodes probably have two of the bigger moments in the whole series,: one with Danaerys, and one with Jon Snow (who are really the two most important characters). I hope Weiss and Benioff have the presence of mind to drop a few storylines for a bit and give these the screen time they deserve, in part so I can give them the recap time they deserve.
 Compare this to the world of Harry Potter. Although that series takes place on Earth, we are forced to drastically forgo our commonsense beliefs regarding physical causation, not to mention moral conflict. I would argue the world of Harry Potter is much farther removed from our own than that of A Song of Ice and Fire.
 Interestingly, for all the supposed lack of superstition among the Southerners, they are perhaps the most ardent defenders of the Faith of the Seven, the predominant institutional religion in Westeros. This contrast between institutional religion and other, “superstitious” beliefs, bares a striking resemblance to the strategies deployed in converting Northern Europe to Christianity during the early Middle Ages.
 Every time Arya comes on screen I have to resist the impulse to yell “myyyy girrrl!” I don’t always succeed.
About David Kinney: David Kinney graduated from Dartmouth College in June 2011 and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He needs to get better at not leaving dishes on his nightstand.
TOM MANDEL: MAD WOMEN
A Review of Mad Men Season 5, Episode 7: “At the Codfish Ball”
For a show called Mad Men, this episode was all about the women. In previous seasons, most of the things that happened were seen through the lens of the men (Joan and Peggy being the obvious exceptions). Roger’s wife, Mona, was just that: Roger’s wife. We explored Betty Draper’s character, but in the end, all of that just served to show what Don had to live with. And ever since that little cancer scare, she’s been invisible to us. Megan Draper nee Calvert was always seen in the same way as Betty: We explored her character, but it was just to see how her character related to Don.
As stated above, Peggy and Joan have always been the exceptions. Greg Harris was always Joan’s husband, and not the other way around. Abe (“Abraham,” if you ask Peggy’s mom) is Peggy’s boyfriend.
But never before has an episode so clearly been about the women. Let’s take a look at what’s going on with all of them.
In the words of Emile Calvert, “One day, your little girl will spread her legs and fly away.” He’s talking about Sally, and he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to women leaving the nest. His daughter, Megan, is whoring herself to the capitalist machine, and his wife is blowing Roger Sterling in the back room. And Sally gets front-row seats to the whole thing. She looks like a woman for the first time in her make-up and go-go boots. It’s a big episode for her.
Joan has transitioned nicely into the role of mother hen, speaking from experience to share her wisdom with the younger ones. “Greg has a piece of paper with the Army that means more than the one he has with me.” On a side note, I’m really glad that she and Peggy have a solid rapport now. Things were rocky between them for a while. Remember when Peggy fired Joey and Joan said she was a frigid bitch who couldn’t take a joke? Ouch.
Marie Calvert is the life of the party. The only sexcapade we see in the episode is her tour de fellatio with Roger, and she’s also the only person we see drink herself into unconsciousness. For the win, Marie. Mona, Roger’s ex-wife, calls him on his shit. “I thought you married Jane because I got old. Turns out it’s because you did.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Peggy’s going through her own little growing-up process. She’s moving in with her boyfriend, not clinging to antiquated notions about marriage and decency, standing up to her mother, and being big about Megan’s big idea by living vicariously through her (“It’s like I’m getting to experience my first time again.”) Which brings us to the woman of the evening…
Megan. Megan, Megan, Megan. How you’ve blossomed. I didn’t personally think your idea was that great, but everybody on the show ate it up, so let’s run with it!
Megan’s performance this episode centers around her big idea, which I’ll call “Beans Through the Ages.” We show a cavewoman serving her child beans, then a medieval woman serving her child beans, an 1800s Parisian woman serving her child beans, and so on until we see beans on a moon colony. The same woman plays all the parts throughout, and we end with the line, “Some things never change.” And she thought of it in the shower. That should be a soap ad in and of itself.
Megan’s idea bewilders Michael Ginsberg and sends Stan Rizzo into a hissy fit. It lights up Don’s creative loins. And then it saves the day.
Megan hears of Heinz’s soon-to-be departure (in the ladies room, no less), and pulls a quick maneuver at the dinner table. She turns Don into her mouthpiece and brings the Heinz business back from the edge. And then she has the idea of fucking in the office because her parents are back at the apartment. I don’t think I remember Don ever bringing a girl back to the office for sex (plenty of times he did it there with secretaries, but did he ever bring a girl in?). Megan, both in creative maneuvering and sexual adventures, has out-Don’ed Don.
So why isn’t Emile happy for her? Because she’s changed? Because she’s skipped the struggle and gone right to the end? Those are things for Joan and Peggy to be upset about, not for Emile to be getting his panties in a twist over. You’re really upset because your daughter has a successful husband, a beautiful home, and a blossoming career? Just goes to show how irrelevant the opinions of men are becoming.
And what do the men do this episode? Don gets an award for something he did last season, which is also going to cost him clients after he “bit the hand”. (This brings me to another things that’s been bothering me about this season: we haven’t seen Don do an ounce of creative work yet. He’s reviewed other people’s work and sat in on meetings, but his half-assed tagline for Heinz was the closest he’s come. Don Draper, Creative Director, I miss you.) Roger gets verbally trounced by his ex, acts as chaperone for Sally Draper, and gets the consolation prize of, well, you know. Third base. Pete Campbell has one line of dialogue, Bert Cooper is absent entirely, Ginsberg and Rizzo are lagging behind Megan, and the most Ken Cosgrove contributes is shushing his wife. Abe can’t muster the funds or foresight to buy a rock, and Emile is out of touch with his daughter and in love with Claudette, one of his students.
So what does this all mean? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m loving every second of it. Until next week! Don’t take your eyes off the women in the meantime.
About Tom Mandel: Tom Mandel lives above a bar, loves that he lives above a bar, and never goes.
DAVID KINNEY: THE SHOW THAT’S ON BEFORE GIRLS: A RECAP OF “WHAT IS DEAD MAY NEVER DIE”
Reality has a way of setting in. Last Sunday I watched Lena Dunham’s new series Girls on HBO. I was very entertained, and I can’t deny that a lot of the dialogue rang true. The Internet, of course, has leapfrogged over itself to talk about what an authentic account of the post-liberal-arts-college, Brooklyn-based lifestyle that Girls supposedly is. Or maybe it isn’t authentic, because the characters on Girls actually have sex and don’t work as paralegals, and because there are a whole lot of people who live in places like Brownsville and are actually broke in Brooklyn. But I am digressing from a digression. Unless I lose my hair, make half a billion dollars and move to Los Angeles (order of likelihood), it’s unlikely that another HBO show will contain so many of the sentiments and situations I encounter in my waking life, albeit from the point of view of, well, girls.
Realism and fantasy are the yin and yang of fiction. Stories supposedly set in the real world can demand a suspension of disbelief (e.g. that any girl would continue seeing a guy after he said “let’s play the quiet game” while taking her from behind ) and make-believe can be poignantly true-to-life. Given that Girls is probably going to dominate the Monday-morning conversation for the rest of this season (and it probably should), I am more appreciative than ever of Game of Thrones. These two shows, separated by a half an hour on the same network, evince the dual roles of the moving image: the screen is at once our mirror and a window into our imagination.
So, ever appreciative, here’s my recap of Sunday’s episode of Game of Thrones, “What Is Dead Cannot Die.” I want to try proceeding geographically this time. I’ll go North-to-South through Westeros (no need to cross the narrow sea to Essos this week, as Emilia Clarke gets the week off).
Beyond the Wall: Since he was made Lord Commander Mormont’s personal steward, John Snow’s character arc has been dominated by the angst of having to endure the Old Bear’s harsh lessons on leadership. Two weeks ago the lesson was about keeping your mouth shut, but this week it’s all about moral relativism. Beyond the Wall you can’t choose your friends, even if the sacrifice their sons to darker powers.
Jon at this point is still something of his father’s son. Eddard Stark was a great warrior with more honor than sense. Then he came to King’s Landing, and his honor cost him his head. Jon came to the wall with a rigid moral compass, but now that he’s beyond the wall, he’s going to need to learn to make compromises to keep himself alive. Ned Stark might have found a way to help Ned save Craster’s pregnant daughter-wife Gilly, whom Samwell Tarly is so taken by, but Jon Snow is learning that he needs to think less about taking principled stands and more about his and his brothers’ survival.
Winterfell: Bran’s been having his wolf dreams again. But it’s not just that he dreams that he is a wolf. He actuallyfeels like a wolf. I’m very glad the show is choosing to focus on this storyline even though it’s not the most action-packed. Wolf-dreams aside, you get the sense that being crippled turned Bran from a fun-loving 10-year-old who loved climbing and dreamt of knighthood to something of a brooding intellectual. It is fitting, therefore, that he is spending most of his time with Maester Cressen.
In the Seven Kingdoms, every major castle has a maester, who is an intellectual jack-of-all-trades. He tends the ravens that deliver messages, practices medicine, acts as a scribe, and tutors highborn children. A maester is identified by his black robes and the chains he wears, each one signifying a different area of expertise.
Bran tells Maester Cressen he’s read about people who can slip into the skins of animals and even other people, and Cressen dismisses it as a myth. His subsequent speech to Bran reflects the way many in Westeros feel about things like magic, dragons, white walkers, and a pre-historic race of people called “The Children of the Forest.” These things may have been existed once upon a time, common knowledge says, but they have vanished from the world by now. As the viewer, of course, we know better concerning some of these supernatural entities, and this bit of dramatic irony is one of the series’ enduring strengths.
The Iron Islands: Back on Pyke, Theon still tries to convince his dad and sister to join forces with the Starks, while Balon and Yara maintain that Theon serves his foster family over his biological one. When he mentions that to his father that the only reason he ever went into fosterage is because the Ironborn got their asses handed to them by Ned Stark, Balon cracks him so hard he falls over.
Where Jon Snow is learning moral relativism, Theon is making a hard choice. We see him burning, rather than sending, a letter he writes Robb Stark warning of his father’s impending attack on the undefended North. In the next scene, we see the approving look of Theon’s father and sister, as he is re-baptized before the Drowned God. His decision is made, and he knows that he’ll live or die by this.
I can’t help but wonder, what if Robb hadn’t let Theon go home and Balon Greyjoy had attacked the North anyway? Would Robb have been willing to kill Theon? Would Balon have let his long-lost son die? I wonder if George R.R. Martin ever thinks about this, and if he bathes in money to put questions like this out of his mind.
North of King’s Landing: Arya’s conversation with Yoren about dealing with the harsh realities of death is my favorite moment in the season so far. It is in this moment of reflection that Arya realizes she’s in for a harsher life than anyone could have expected for her. On the one hand, she always wanted an escape from the expectations of ladyhood. On the other hand, she’s aware that this is going to be very scary, and things quickly gets scarier as the King’s men ambush her party and bring them to Harrenhal (a large castle) as captives, while Yoren goes down fighting in the most badass way possible. As the King’s Men kill Lemmy, a gutter rat from King’s Landing, Arya has enough sense to indentify him as Gendry, keeping the real Gendry safe for another week. Francis McGee (Yoren), take a bow, you were fantastic.
King’s Landing: HBO loves a dysfunctional family, and the Lannisters make the Sopranos look like the Brady Bunch. For a show that’s been rather conservative in its cinematography, the quick-cut style in which Tyrion’s triple-deception of the small council was a welcome, if imperfect, bit of playfulness. By trying to arrange three different marriages for his niece Marcella, and confiding in three different courtesans, he’s able to weed out anyone loyal to his sister, namely Grandmaester Pycelle, who finds his evening with a young lady interrupted, his beard cut, and his ass thrown in a dungeon. It’s interesting to watch Varys’ and Littlefinger’s reactions at being used in Tyrion’s deception. Littlefinger is enraged that Tyrion would trifle with him, but Varys is impressed with the Imp’s cunning.
One person who is definitely not impressed with Tyrion’s rouse is his sister Cersei. The very notion of her daughter being used as a political pawn enrages her. She still carries a lot of baggage vis-a-vis her father and her arranged marriage to Robert Baratheon. Each time Cersei is on screen, we add more complications to an already complicated character. The series is doing a great job portraying her as a woman unable to reconcile the different roles she is expected to play: mother, lady, Lannister, ruler.
There is one role she does know how to play: that of an outright bully to Sansa Stark. It is worth noting that Cersei Lannister once thought she would marry Rheagar Targaryen, the heir apparent to the Mad King. After Rhaegar was killed in Robert’s Rebellion she was married to Robert instead. She now seems determined to force Sansa to live out her own fate of a royal marriage spoiled, and Sansa seems to be breaking. We last see the princess crying while Shae, whom Tyrion has cleverly made her personal handmaiden, brushes her hair (and the ladies of Girls think they have #whitegirlproblems).
The Reach: Finally, we check in with the late King Robert’s youngest brother, Renly Baratheon, himself a claimant to the Iron Throne. Catelyn Stark has come down to make a deal with him on behalf of her son, and she finds his huge army of men having a whole lot of fun. This is partly why Renly has attracted such a large Army: he’s got a great personality and he loves to party. The problem is that he’s never actually been to war, and his entire host seems to think of the whole prospect as some kind of grand adventure.
Catelyn Stark is a woman who knows better. Before she ever lost Ned, she lost his brother Brandon Stark, her original betrothed, to the Mad King. She is acutely aware of the pains of conflict and loss. “They are the knights of summer,” she says of Renly’s jovial retinue, “and winter is coming.” Like any civil war, the conflict in Westeros is partially a matter of culture; Southerners have a different mindset regarding war and chivalry than most Northerners. Even though Cat’s a Riverlands girl, she knows enough of Northern culture to look down on Renly’s attempt to turn war into a party.
Renly has aligned himself with house Tyrell, the most powerful house in the Reach (the southwestern region of Westeros). This alliance is sealed largely through Renly’s marriage to Margaery Tyrell, the daughter of Mace Tyrell, Lord of Highgarden and the most powerful man in the Reach.
Margaery has a brother, Loras Tyrell. Loras is a great tournament knight, though he’s never been in an actual battle. He is arrogant and pretty. He’s effeminate yet masculine in the way that Axl Rose and Mick Jagger were in their prime, and he’s Renly’s lover. Loras is by far the best male character as far as gender issues are concerned because his masculinity derives from his flamboyance and his femininity.
Nevertheless, it is made clear that Renly’s relationship with Loras would definitely be a scandal for both of them. This was an obvious place for HBO to deviate from the books (their sexual relationship is only hinted at) and it continues to work very well.
Loras, knowing that the alliance between his house and Renly isn’t worth a thing until a son shares their blood, is basically withholding sex from Renly until he sleeps with his sister, played by the stunning Natalie Dormer. This proves a problem for Renly, who sheepishly blames his inability to get it up on too much wine. Margaery, however, is no fool, and offers to have her brother get Renly started as long as it ends in such a way so that she can have his child (this, I presume, would be weirder than any sex scene on Girls).
From the moment we meet Margaery Tyrell, it is clear that she rivals Cersei Lannister as a woman whose goal primary goal is to gain and maintain power. As of now, however, she is yet to even consummate her marriage to Renly.
Adding another wrinkle to the gender issues in this series, we get our first look at Brienne of Tarth, the very masculine female knight who is fiercely devoted to Renly. There will be much more to come from her.
Conclusion: On the whole, I thought this episode was good, not great. The plot-development is starting to get a little tedious, even for someone who loves watching things unfold. If the second half of this season really brings the action, I think we can call it an unqualified success, but that puts a lot of pressure on the series beginning in about two or three weeks. Given how good Girls was, if Veep is even marginally watchable, it looks like HBO has a very impressive Sunday line-up locked in for the next few years.
 This actually happens in the first episode of Girls.
About David Kinney: David Kinney graduated from Dartmouth College in June 2011 and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He needs to get better at not leaving dishes on his nightstand.
DAVID KINNEY: GAME OF THRONES — A PIECE BY PIECE REVIEW OF THE FIRST TWO EPISODES
I love television, and my favorite series right now is HBO’s Game of Thrones. I’m not a fantasy enthusiast, but I love awesome things, and I thought that the idea of HBO doing an epic fantasy series without the slightest bit of irony sounded awesome. I started watching and was quickly hooked.
With an hour of commuting to do everyday, I proceeded to devour the five books of the Song of Ice and Fire Series that have been published so far. While Martin’s prose will never be mistaken for Hemingway or DeLillo, and is at times simply bad, I think that he’s written a fantastic set of novels so far.
Now that the second season of the television show has started, I’ve become convinced that there is a gap in the media coverage of the series. Basically, there are two types of recaps being posted online. The first is the recap for people who haven’t read the books, written by people who haven’t read the books. Some of these recaps are very good, (AV Club,Grantland, Huffington Post) but they’re understandably a little shaky as to what’s going on. Then there are recaps for readers that have read the books. These I don’t like as much, as they tend to mostly get into nerdish nit-picking about departures from the text.
So I am going to attempt a unique recap each week. It will not contain plot spoilers, and thus be suitable for anyone who is up to date on the show. However, I will try to elucidate what is going on in the show, and how the onscreen action speaks to the series’ larger themes. That said, I’m not the most devoted fan out there by a long shot, so please let me know if I make any mistakes (other than deliberate ones that conceal spoilers).
So having cleared that ground, here’s a combined recap of the first two episodes: “The North Remembers” and “The Nightlands.” After this, I’ll do one each episode, so they’ll be shorter.
Tyrion: This is Tyrion’s time to shine, and it is obvious from the beginning that Peter Dinklage is knocking it out of the fucking park. We find Tyrion deftly moving into his new role as a smooth, political operator in King’s Landing, quickly gaining the upper hand over his sister Cersei. Dinklage not only steals every scene he’s in, but also seems to elevate Lena Hadley (Cersei Lannister) and Conleth Hill (Lord Varys) to new heights. With Tyrion’s storylines more than any other, the series is doing a good job conveying the thematic significance of each scene. Suffice it to say that the Imp is an obviously complex character, as his place within Westeros’ most powerful family is both his greatest advantage and his curse.
Daenerys Targaryen: We find the last surviving child of the deposed King Aerys Targaryen in dire straights. She can’t figure out how to get her infant dragons to eat. Her small band of true believers are dying of thirst in the Red Waste, and when she sends her bloodriders in search of civilization, someone sends her back one of their heads.
It’s worth explaining here what exactly Dany is trying to avoid. In Dothraki culture, when a Khal dies, his Khaleessi is taken to Vaes Dothrak to live out the rest of her days among the Dash Khaleen, a respected but ultimately powerless order of Dothraki holy women. Drogo wasn’t the only Khal in Essos, and other Khalassars will want to return his wife to her proper place within their culture. Obviously, that will not do for the Mother of Dragons.
It’s also worth noting that she calls Jorah Mormont “[her] strength.” Jorah was informing on Dany in season one, but at this point his loyalty is genuine.
Emilia Clarke remains super hot.
Jon Snow/The Night’s Watch: We join up with the boys in black at Craster’s Keep. The living, breathing humans that live beyond the Wall are generally called “wildings.” Craster is unique in that unlike most wildings, he hasn’t abandoned his village to join Mance Rayder (remember that name!) but has stayed put with his wives/daughters (creepy, even for this show). Also, unlike most wildings, he is not entirely antagonistic towards the Watch, letting them share his roof in exchange for steel and wine.
Jon Snow’s arc gets a little traction when things get testy between him and Lord Commander Mormont, and again when he tells Sam he can’t help Craster’s daughter/wife Gilly. His big moment, however, comes at the end of the second episode, when he follows Craster (and a crying, infant son) into the woods.
Now here is where I need to clarify something. Pretty much everything I’ve read online says that Craster gives an infant son to a “white walker,” but we don’t know that. “White walkers,” which we saw in the first season, are reanimated human corpses with piercing blue eyes, with a seemingly mindless focus on killing anything around them. Whatever shadowy creature takes Craster’s child seems far more deliberate in its movements than the blue-eyed zombies we’ve seen before. I don’t know quite what it is, since this scene isn’t in the books, but Beyond the Wall, you shouldn’t make any assumptions about what’s around the next tree.
Stannis/Melissandre/Davos: The first new plotline to be introduced is that of Stannis Baratheon, the brother of Robert, the fat king with the beard from the first season, and his red priestess, Melissandre. We also get Davos, a smuggler who Stannis caught off of his island keep of Dragonstone (originally the first settlement of the Targaryans before they conquered Westeros). Stannis took the tips of Davos’ fingers for smuggling, but also raised him up into a knight. He is devoted to Stannis and to his own sons, but not to his Melissandre and her red god.
Wow, they did a good job casting Melissandre. When we first meet the lady in red, she is burning the idols of the Faith of the Seven, a Catholicism-esque religion that is predominant in most of Westeros. Instead of the Seven, she worships R’hllor, a figure very similar to that of Ahura Mazda in Zoroastrianism. She obviously has mysterious powers; she calmly sips on poisoned wine in the first episode, thwarting a murder-suicide attempt against her.
It is difficult to imagine how Stannis plans to win the throne while simultaneously converting all of Westeros to a new religion, but the point is that Stannis doesn’t care about what the people of Westeros want. He believes that he is the rightful claimant to the Iron throne, end of story. Meanwhile, Melissandre believes that Stannis is R’hllor’s chosen warrior, and encourages him to fight despite the seemingly long odds against him.
As we leave them, Stannis fucks Melissandre on a huge table shaped like Westeros. Yes, it’s not in the books, but I think it makes sense for the show.
A quick aside: One of the coolest things about the universe Martin has created is the way in which a myriad of different religions and supernatural forces are pitted against each other. Though the series remains agnostic as to the truth of any of the religions, there is an implied metaphysical game being played alongside the terrestrial one.
Robb Stark/Catelyn Stark/Jamie Lannister: This part of the story, which is confined to the first episode, is pretty simple. Robb and his mother bicker over how he ought to proceed, with the major disagreement being whether to trust the Greyjoys as allies, and whether to trade Jamie Lanister for Sansa and Arya. The obvious tension is between Cat’s instincts as a mother and Robb’s duties as a leader of men.
Jamie Lannister, as usual, is defiant in the face of his captor, Robb Stark. I think that Jamie has basically come to see knightly chivalry for the sham that it is. Everyone wanted King Aerys dead, but only someone sworn to protect the mad king could have actually done the job. So Jamie killed Aerys, and despite the whole realm being better off for it, he is still seen as an object of contempt: the Kingslayer. That’s why he’s so cavalier about admitting to Robb that Cersei’s children are all his, and that he pushed Bran off a tower to cover up their incest. He knows he’ll never been seen as entirely honorable, so he’s decided that he basically doesn’t give a fuck, and that’s partially the source of his swagger. That and the fact that he knows he’s still the best sword in the Seven Kingdoms.
All of that having been said, I think it’s clear that he still yearns to be back with Cersei.
Cersei Lannister/King Joffrey: Queen Cersei is a woman besieged on all sides. She is losing her grip on her son, King Joffrey, whom she means to rule through. There is a tense moment when she slaps her son in throne room. While it is clear that Joff doesn’t quite have it in him to kill his mother, it’s also clear he is not her puppet. At the same time, her brother Tyrion is attempting to usurp her control of the powers that be in King’s Landing: the City Watch, Lord Varys, etc.
While he’s not ready to kill his mother, this teenage king really is a sadistic monster. Joffery is so one-dimensional that he functions best as a foil for Cersei’s deepest anxieties. A child born of incest, he is acting like the abomination that so many believe him to be. Nowhere is this clearer than when we learn that it was Joff, not Cersei, who ordered that King Robert’s bastards be hunted and killed. Cersei can’t help but wonder whether this cruel son, who may undo her and her family’s grip on power, is the punishment for her sins.
This episode is also telling as to the Queen’s substantial penis envy. As her brothers and son continue to disappoint her, she can’t help but think that had she only been born a man, she’d be the lion her family truly needs.
I think all of this Freudian drama serves to render Cersei less evil and more relatable. She’s flawed in ways that few people are, and yet she has basically the same motherly motivation as Catelyn Stark: to keep her family safe in a dangerous world.
Petyr Baelish (“Littlefinger”): In a memorable scene from the first episode, the Queen Regent glibly mentions Littlefinger’s unrequited love for Catelyn Stark. When he tries retaliating with an insinuation of incest, Cersei demonstrates that, indeed, “power is power.”
But Baelish’s best scene was by far when he warns the prostitute Roz that she’d better cheer up, or else things can get far worse for her. He tells the story of a girl whose dourness prevented him from recouping his investment in her, and who was therefore sold to a man with “complicated tastes.”
Recall that in the first season, Varys mentions overhearing that a certain lord “has a taste for fresh cadavers.” While such a thing would, “strictly speaking,” be illegal in the Seven Kingdoms, the implication is that Baelish can make this happen. I really think that’s what he’s talking about when he’s talking to Roz, and I think it adds a lovely touch of the macabre to the second episode. Keep an eye on Littlefinger.
Theon Greyjoy/Yara Greyjoy/Balon Greyjoy: So before anything directly depicted in the show or novels happened, Balon Greyjoy, Lord of the Iron Islands, declared his independence from the Seven Kingdoms in what has come to be known as Greyjoy’s Rebellion. Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon put down this rebellion, and as part of the peace terms, Ned Stark fostered Balon Greyjoy’s son Theon at Winterfell.
The Iron Islands are something of a world apart from the rest of Westeros. The Ironborn have their own deity, the Drowned God. They are more at home on the deck of a ship than on horseback. They believe it is a shameful thing to buy treasure with money: they “pay the iron price” and take anything fancy they own off the corpses they make. Their wives at home are for breeding, but they are expected to take “salt-wives,” or sex slaves, from their enemies. Their moral compass is far more fearsome Viking than chivalric knight in its orientation. This was all explained onscreen using the much-maligned “sexposition” technique that the show has made too much use of already.
Now, Theon is coming home to try and get his father to sail for Robb Stark in exchange for independence for the Iron Islands. But Balon sees this bargain as a violation of his values; he’d rather pay the iron price for his independence.
More generally, Balon is worried that the landlubbers have sissified Theon, and he is largely right. Theon has grown up something of a spoiled brat, spending a lot of money on whores and fancy jewelry. His father makes his disappointment in his son quite clear. Add to the equation the fact that Balon clearly favors his wily daughter Yara, (who, in a bizarre but effective bit of sexual trickery lets her aloof, arrogant brother fondle her) and it’s clear that this isn’t the homecoming Theon hoped for.
Arya Stark: Arya doesn’t do much except reveal her identity to Gendry, the only one of Robert’s bastards who escaped Joff’s massacre. Yet Arya remains a badass and the primary example of a female character that flouts the prevailing gender norms of the Seven Kingdoms. Importantly, she has her first encounter with Jaquen H’gar, who has a strange way of speaking and seems all too calm considering he’s locked in a cage with some tough-looking dudes.
Whew. Left out Bran, but he doesn’t really do much yet. I promise in the future these will be much shorter.
About David Kinney: David Kinney graduated from Dartmouth College in June 2011 and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. He needs to get better at not leaving dishes on his nightstand.