Game of Thrones: A Feminist Episode, a Gay Episode, or a Dull Episode?

Our roundtable on "Dark Wings, Dark Words," the second episode of the HBO show's third season
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Every week for the third season of HBO's acclaimed fantasy series Game of Thrones, our roundtable of Ross Douthat (columnist, The New York Times), Spencer Kornhaber (entertainment editor, TheAtlantic.com), and Christopher Orr (senior editor and film critic, The Atlantic) will discuss the latest happenings in Westeros.


Orr: Ask and ye shall receive, Ross. Last week, you rued the absence of a certain character from the Theon storyline, and lo, this week he appears. As he has yet to identify himself, I won't do the honors. But I expect to have further thoughts on his belated arrival as that storyline progresses.

You also noted the way Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss had tweaked Martin's novels to present Margaery's charity work as, at least in part, a political tactic to exploit the Lannisters' incomprehension of "soft power." And here we have King Joffrey explicitly confirming this blindness. When his mother, Cersei, who senses something afoot, suggests that Margaery's "concern with the wellbeing of common people is interesting, " he replies curtly: "Not to me."

Indeed, this is an episode in which the female characters consistently seem a step ahead of their male counterparts. There's Margaery redirecting Joffrey's confused sexual ire (the angle at which he holds his crossbow when firing will be immediately recognizable to anyone who sat through one of those "subliminal sexual imagery in advertising" movies in school); Meera Reed operating as her brother Jojen's protector; Shae playfully taunting Tyrion; and, most literally, Brienne giving Jaime a lesson in steel at the episode's conclusion.

Perhaps more interesting still is that the earlier intimations of sisterhood (e.g., last episode's scene with Shae and Ros at the port of King's Landing) are becoming more explicit. Shae lectures Sansa that "Men only want one thing from a pretty girl." Catelyn confides in Talisa, her son's potentially costly new bride. And, of course, Lady Olenna, the Queen of Thorns (played beautifully by Dame Diana Rigg) gets Sansa to say what she really thinks of her rotten little ex-fiancé, Joffrey.

Natalie Dormer's Margaery is unfolding delightfully as the season progresses. I'd put her on the short list, with Bronn and Tywin, of the characters who've been most improved in the translation from page to screen.

I have a few more thoughts on these last two scenes, beginning with the sitdown between Olenna, Sansa, and Margaery. This is another early-season scene (we cited a few last week) that is lifted directly—and just about perfectly—from the novel, with little changed apart from the setting. I had worried that the casting of Rigg might be largely a sop to aging fanboys, such as myself, who loved her in The Avengers (the British spy show, not Whedon's cash cow) and On Her Majesty's Secret Service. But she's terrific here, and never more so than when Sansa reveals that her soon-to-be son-in-law is a "monster," and she replies with only mild disappointment: "Hmm. That's a pity." Natalie Dormer's Margaery, too, is unfolding delightfully as the season progresses. I'd put her on the short list, with Bronn and Tywin, of the characters who've been most improved in the translation from page to screen.

I was less thrilled with the scene between Catelyn and Talisa. I understand Benioff and Weiss's desire to make Robb's wife a more prominent character than she is in the book (in which she's a young lady named Jeyne Westerling who barely registers at all), but I fear they may have overshot the mark a bit when it comes to the screen time afforded Talisa. Also, in changing the match from one made for honor—in the book Robb marries Jeyne because he feels duty-bound to do so after sleeping with her in a moment of weakness—to one made for love, they give the relationship a somewhat jarringly modern feel. (She's even a career woman!)

What bothered me in this scene though was not Talisa, but Catelyn, who explains that she blames all the tragedies that have befallen her House on her inability to love her husband's bastard son, Jon Snow, as her own. This is a bit that's been added by Benioff and Weiss, and while it's nicely written, it rings false to my sense of Catelyn, who is pretty much defined by a kind of righteous obstinacy, especially where Jon is concerned. Perhaps more to the point, it seems a little odd to go looking for distant sins that could explain her family's misfortunes when her own recent actions offer explanation enough: Her arrest of Tyrion did, after all, start the war with the Lannisters and lead to her husband getting stabbed through the leg; and her unsanctioned release of Jaime has already sown dissent among Robb's men. Maybe those bear more blame for the family's predicament than her inability "to love a motherless boy?" Now it could be that Benioff and Weiss are planting a seed with this scene that will blossom into something interesting later. But if it's merely a one-off, it's one I think the show could have done without.

There are plenty of other good moments in the episode, including the introductions of Jojen Reed (who seems perfectly cast in Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the voice of Ferb and long-ago moppet of Love Actually) and his sister Meera, as well as that of Thoros of Myr (here evidently combined with the Tom Sevenstrings character of the novels). And Brienne and Jaime have two of their best scenes together to date: his enunciation of a decidedly liberal (and entirely self-serving) philosophy of sexual freedom—straight, gay, twincestual—and her rather persuasive drubbing of him on the bridge. Finally, I'll note that, for the eagle-eyed, there's a subtle clue to be found in one of the banners we see this episode.

But enough from me. What did you guys think?


Douthat: In the run-up to this season of GoT, the talented critic (and fearsome recapper) Alan Sepinwall had a piece in which he mused on how much he loved last season's "Blackwater" episode because it showed how good this show can be when it doesn't have to hopscotch from character to character, setting to setting, but can set all of a week's action in basically the same place. That episode, he wrote, opened up "a host of possibilities" that the showrunners could potentially explore—like, say, concentrating individual characters' adventures and arcs into a few episodes (or even just one) rather than catching up with each cast member for five minutes every week. But he also noted that Benioff and Weiss seem to feel that those possibilities are, well, mostly impossible—that "it simply isn't practical to do a "Blackwater"-style episode focusing on fewer characters more than once a season. There are too many stories and too many characters to keep track of ... and this is the only realistic way to do it."

This reminded me of some of the early episodes in Season One: There was a lot of necessary scene-setting and a few excellent moments, but a palpable lack of momentum as well.

Reading that piece, I thought Benioff and Weiss basically had it right and that Sepinwall's idea wouldn't work. I would be frustrated (and my wife would probably stop watching the show) if Daenerys didn't make an appearance at least every other week, and right now the idea of a Jon Snow-only episode sounds about as fun as a night on sentry duty atop the Wall. Overall, the show's hopscotching approach to its sprawling story is problematic but probably necessary: It reminds us where everyone is from week to week, gives us the fix we need from our favorite characters, and guarantees that even when things get dull (as they do for Spencer when Stannis shows up on screen) we're only a few minutes away from a change of scenery and hopefully a more engaging plotline.

But the approach is problematic, nonetheless, mostly because it means that some episodes just feel like themeless puddings—and though I appreciate your struggle to read a sisterhood motif into this week's installment, Chris, it mostly just felt like a series of disconnected events to me, with too many scenes that existed to bridge us to the next one (that's my interpretation of Catelyn's maunderings about her relationship with Jon—they were there because the writers felt like it would make a nice dissolve to beyond-the-Wall) or ensure that we didn't forget what happened last week (Shae's conversation with Tyrion was mostly just a long reminder about Littlefinger's interest in Sansa). Even the climax had relatively low stakes: The Jaime-Brienne duel was fun, like all their scenes, but since they both want to go to the same place, it wasn't even all that clear how much Jaime would gain from killing her. (Though the men who came galloping onto the bridge at the last should raise the stakes a bit more next week, if they are who I think they are ...)

There was still plenty to like, of course: The welcome return of Arya and the Hound, Diana Rigg (as a child of the '80s, she'll always be the host of Mystery! to me) classing things up as the Queen of Thorns, the continued development of Margaery Tyrell into a full-fledged player of the Game, and yes, the first appearance of Theon's mysterious captor. But overall, this reminded me of some of the early episodes in Season One: There was a lot of necessary scene-setting and a few excellent moments, but a palpable lack of momentum as well.


Kornhaber: You're onto something, Ross, with the "themeless pudding" line. And the showrunners are with you: Benioff recently told Grantland's Andy Greenwald that "Themes are for eighth-grade book reports." But pudding can be quite satisfying, no? When we tune into Game of Thrones, we're looking for a somewhat more primal fix than we get from a lot of prestige TV shows—what Tolkien called "the enchanted state" and Peter Dinklage (on the Daily Show) called "nerd glaze," both of which result from escaping to another universe to binge on glorious plot, plot, plot.

Still, I think that you and Benioff may be underselling the literary aspirations of the show. As it collages together more and more storylines, each Game of Thrones episode usually manages to draw out some underlying truth about its world—a world that shares DNA with our own—without belaboring the point. (Had only the Wachowskis taken notes before filming Cloud Atlas.) So I'd argue Chris is right to sense a girl-power vibe in this latest installment: Nearly every storyline featured women acting as—or at least trying to act as—protectors of one sort or another.

Joffrey says he's considered making Renly's "perversion" punishable by death, which to my ear is the hardest-line statement of sexual intolerance yet offered over the course of the series.

Look: Catelyn fashioning what she hopes is a life-saving talisman for her kids; Margaery and Olenna promising no harm will come to Sansa in exchange for the dirt on Joffrey; Shae telling Tyrion that they need to shield Sansa from Little Finger; Osha leaping to Bran's defense and Meera in turn leaping to Jojen's; Arya defiantly greeting the Brotherhood as her buddies cower; Brienne's continued furtive escort of Jamie; and even (OK, this may be a stretch) the apparent rescue of Theon by an agent of his sister's. The methods, goals, and outcomes in each of these situations vary widely, but they nevertheless prove out one of Game of Thrones' guiding philosophies—that the people on the margins matter more than the people at the center realize.

My favorite example of this came in the Joffrey storyline. We first see Cersei attempting to advise her son, prodding him to be wary of his betrothed: "Margaery Tyrell dotes on filthy urchins for a reason. She dresses like a harlot for a reason. She married a traitor and known degenerate like Renly Baratheon for a reason. " Joffrey, in the grand tradition of teenage petulance, informs his mother that this is "one of the most boring conversations I've ever had," and in the less-grand tradition of patriarchy, says Margaery "married Renly Baretheon because she was told to. That's what intelligent women do: what they're told."

But it turns out the young king had been listening to his mother after all. He summons Margaery to his chambers and questions her about her relationship with Renly, recycling Cersei's exact phrasing: "He was a known degenerate." Margaery handles the situation with characteristic, savvy deference, and soon she's got her finger on Joffrey's crossbow's trigger—an image that can be read as sexual, as Chris pointed out, but also as an expression of the soon-to-be queen getting a grip on the instruments of power.

That "known degenerate" line strikes me as the writers trying, perhaps clumsily, to work another theme into the episode: attitudes about homosexuality. Joffrey says he's considered making Renly's "perversion" punishable by death, which to my ear is the hardest-line statement of sexual intolerance yet offered over the course of the series. Usually, characters have reacted to Renly's proclivities in roughly the same manner as Jaime does in this episode: Wink, make gross jokes, and then look the other way. But Jaime too gets an un-Thrones-y line of dialogue about sexuality. In any other context (say, a Macklemore song?), "we don't get to chose who we love" sounds like equal-rights boilerplate, but coming from a twincest-partaking villain and in a realm where every marriage (other than Robb's, as Chris pointed out) is pre-chosen and unrelated to love, it's ... curious.

Is the show up to anything with these two moments? Not sure. Could just be a few more ingredients in the pudding.

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