Game of Thrones's Problem With Quests

Our roundtable discusses "Walk of Punishment," the mostly excellent third episode of the HBO show's third season.
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Every week for the third season of HBO's 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.


Douthat: Okay, this was a bit more like it. Movement, development, momentum, a climactic mutilation—everything that Episode 2's slow-motion stage setting conspicuously lacked, Episode 3 delivered. True, until Jaime Lannister was severed from his swordhand and Theon's pursuers were turned into pincushions, this episode was still longer on setup than on payoffs. But more than last week it gave us a feeling for where this season's action is going, and what the payoffs might ultimately be.

Start with Riverrun, where we were (finally) introduced to Catelyn's family—her uncle Brynden, alias "Blackfish," and her headstrong brother Edmure (played by Tobias Menzies, whom I placed, finally, as Brutus from HBO's Rome). More importantly, we were given a better sense of the military situation, and how Robb Stark can be winning every battle but, like many an outmanned general before him, still find himself losing the war. On the other side of the battle lines, meanwhile, the new Hand of the King finally got around to giving some marching orders: Littlefinger was dispatched to court Catelyn's sister Lysa and bring her into the war on King Joffrey's side (no easy task: Viewers who remember her Season One appearance will remember how she feels about the Lannisters), and Tyrion was boosted into Littlefinger's position as Master of Coin, and put in charge of figuring out how to pay the throne's ample debts.

So our favorite schemers have actual schemes to pursue, thankfully, and up north so does the fake-turncloak Jon Snow, who's dispatched by his new king on a mission to climb the Wall and fall on his fellow Night's Watchmen from behind. Momentum! Likewise his old friend Sam and the rest of the bedraggled survivors of the Night's Watch's encounter with the Others: Last week it was just tromp, tromp, whine, whine, but this week they finally limped back into Craster's Keep, whose "godly" host didn't seem all that happy to see them. And can you blame him? When you're running a one-man polygamist compound where you marry your daughters and sacrifice your sons to ice demons, inviting in a band of desperate, starving, semi-mutinous soldiers is a recipe for ... well, we'll find out next week, I hope.

The table-setting up north was matched by table-setting off to the east in Astapor, where Daenerys made the fateful choice to purchase a slave army—and the even more fateful choice to offer one of her dragons in exchange for the 8,000. Again, the payoff from those choices will have to wait another week—but the important thing was that her storyline for this season began to actually move forward, toward what promises to be a more interesting destination than anything that befell her in Qarth.

Not every plotline saw the momentum pick up, alas. Stannis's whining to Melisandre and her opaque replies probably set Spencer's teeth on edge, Arya didn't do much except part ways with Hot Pie, and I'm afraid that "On the Road with Jojen and Bran" promises to be this season's weakest thread. Theon's scenes moved at a (literal) gallop, but since the audience hasn't yet been clued in to who his mysterious benefactor really is, where he's actually headed, or how it connects to the stories unfolding north and south of him, I imagine that they're mostly a source of frustration for non-book readers at this point.

For a show that otherwise has done an impressive job deepening Martin's sometimes-cardboard female characters, the way Game of Thrones uses its whorehouse excursions often feels worthy of a Seth MacFarlane monologue.

The episode's comic relief was supplied by Podrick Payne's brothel ménage a quatre—paid for by Tyrion as a show of gratitude for his squire's life-saving battlefield work last season—in which he apparently conducted himself so, er, manfully that the professional women decided not to charge. I like Pod, but I smiled less than I should have, maybe, at this business—mostly because I find the way the show uses prostitute "characters" to double or triple Martin's already-ample nudity quotient to be irritatingly exploitative. (Imagine if The Sopranos had a sex scene set in the back room at the Bada Bing *every single episode* ... ) It's nice, I suppose, that Ros the madam has graduated from "supplyer of each episode's T&A quotient" to "fully clothed deliverer of hard-earned wisdom," but there's always a new supply of nubile working girls to remind us that this is cable and they can show whatever they want, heh-heh, nudge-nudge. I would respect Game of Thrones' sex scenes more if the leads were disrobing as often as the extras, or if the men were exposed half as often as the women. (Insert your "Podrick" joke here.) But for a show that otherwise has done an impressive job deepening Martin's sometimes-cardboard female characters, the way Game of Thrones uses its whorehouse excursions often feels worthy of a Seth MacFarlane monologue.

Finally, I'll leave it you gentlemen to discuss the implications of the shocking ending, and just say that I've been very, very happy with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's work as Jaime Lannister to date, and I'm looking forward to seeing where he takes the role now that Jaime has been parted from the best part of himself.


Kornhaber: Ross, you're right. Hands down, the best episode so far this season. Or should I say hand down? Cuz... like... Jaime... hand... down... get it?

Sorry for the loopiness. I'm still buzzing from what was one of the funnier, more kinetic, more cleverly constructed Thrones installments yet—where the plot not only started to move in interesting ways, but the camera as well. The change of pace might be credited to this being the first and only episode to be directed by showrunner David Benioff (his copilot D.B. Weiss still has yet to direct). We've discussed how the series largely occupies itself with talk, but it appears the guy in charge has a flare for the nonverbal, too.

The opening two minutes set the agenda: No words, just the sublime choreography of Edmure failing to alight his father's pyre. I was giggling nervously along with the rest of the funeral party, and the grimly comic tone lasted through the three scenes that followed. Robb, in what may be Richard Madden's best moment yet, laconically struggled to contain his anger as he told off his condescending and disobedient uncle. Then we saw the small council awkwardly and silently selecting its own seating arrangement. The next sequence opened with a slow pan down on Jaime and Brienne's captors, paying musical homage to a homo sapien/ursine relationship.

The rest of the episode delivered as cinema, as well. Theon's chase offered a bona fide, will-he-die-slash-get-raped-or-won't-he thrill. The hour's other instance of threatened sexual violence was even more tense and horrifying, although the action—and Brienne's screams—came from off screen. I loosed a cackle when the tension was cut at the same time as Jaime's wrist and the episode itself, leaving the Hold Steady's punk-rocking version of aforementioned drinking song to play us out. All in all, Benioff, nice job.

Deprived of his physical ability and with his over-famous name exposed as a liability, I'll be fascinated to see Jaime need to resort to his not-inconsiderable remaining asset: his wits.

And even though the showrunner is, as I pointed out last week, on record as anti-theme, over and over in "Walk of Punishment" characters were met with the limits of familial privilege. Dynasty matters in Westeros, but how much? Not enough to give Hoster Tully a dignified funeral—his son's ineptitude prevents that. Not enough to prepare Tyrion to be master of coin—"a lifetime of outrageous wealth hasn't taught me much about managing it." Probably not enough for Theon to make good on his promise of lordship to his rescuer, who reminds him that "we're not in the Iron Islands." Not enough for Lady Brienne of Tarth herself to convince her would-be rapists that she's anything but a "a big dumb bitch from who cares where."

And, of course, not enough to prevent Jaime from dismemberment. In fact, it was his smarmily displayed privilege that endangered his hand in the first place—that made his tormentor want to brand Jaime with a lifetime reminder of just how little his parentage matters to the wider world. Already, we'd seen the gap between reputation and reality interrogated by Brienne: "All my life, I've been hearing Jaime Lannister, what a brilliant swordsman ... Maybe people just love to praise an over-famous name." Now, deprived of his physical ability and with his over-famous name exposed as a liability, I'll be fascinated to see Jaime need to resort to his not-inconsiderable remaining asset: his wits.

But I'm with you, Ross, on the episode's strangest subplot: the deflowering of Podrick. To be sure, Benioff's flair for pacing and camerawork again showed itself in Tyrion's circus-master introduction of his squire's companions for the afternoon, but yes, the old exploitative vibes are back. Worse, though, I just didn't get the point. My terrible working theory is that this is the introduction of a supernatural storyline—is Podrick, like, the unrealized, soon-to-be-world-conquering avatar of the Lord of Libido or something?—but it could have been just the writers attempt to lighten the mood. Chris, you've read the books. Any way to illuminate just what was going on here, without spoiling what's ahead? And we still haven't talked about the surprising flash of humanity we saw from Jaime when he spoke up for Brienne. Psychoanalyze away.


Orr: Well, since you've already guessed it, Spencer, I suppose it doesn't count as a spoiler. I happen to have gotten my hands on an early draft of Martin's not-yet-published sixth tome, in which it is revealed that Melisandre did misread what she saw in the flames. Remember that scene early in Season Two, when she had Stannis pull the burning sword, Lightbringer, from the pyre as proof that he was truly the reincarnation of Azor Ahai and chosen vessel of the Lord of Light? Well, she was wrong. It turns out that the divine vessel is actually Podrick, and Lightbringer is his penis.

If there's one type of storyline that 'Thrones' has had trouble with, it's that staple of the fantasy genre: the quest. Throughout books and show alike, a high proportion of the duller narrative segments occur when some character sets off in search of someone or something.

Gives new meaning to the whole "the night is dark and full of terrors" bit, doesn't it?

But returning to the episode itself, I agree with almost everything you guys have written. As in Season One, the show seems to be gathering momentum, gradually but (I hope) inexorably. And Benioff's rookie outing as director was indeed excellent.

The opening scene that introduced Edmure and the Blackfish was a tour de force—much more vivid and memorable than in the book. (And thank you, Ross, for reminding me why Tobias Menzies, who plays Edmure, was so familiar. Now that he and Ciaran Hinds have joined the cast, maybe HBO should bring aboard a few more refugees from Rome? I imagine that Kevin McKidd would be delighted to be rescued from the televisual purgatory of Grey's Anatomy...)

I also couldn't agree more that Richard Madden's Robb grows more kingly with every episode, and that his dressing-down of Edmure was his best scene yet. If only Kit Harrington were making comparable strides as Jon Snow; rather, he seems headed in the opposite direction, growing ever more listless as winter approaches.

The bit of physical comedy with the small council table was deftly handled, and is another great example of Benioff and Weiss taking something implicit in the book (there's some vague jockeying for seats, as I recall) and expanding it into a genuine scene. I felt the same way about the farewell to Hot Pie: It's a minor moment, of course, but the showrunners gave it room to breathe, and I found it unexpectedly endearing, clumsily sculpted wolf-loaf and all.

The aforementioned joke about Pod's carnal precocity, by contrast (no, it's not actually in the books), fell a bit flat for me; here's hoping it's a one-off gag. And I agree with everything you both wrote about the nudity quotient—or perhaps I should say "quota." In the show's early days, I presumed that its frequent recourse to sex was a borderline-defensive advertisement of its adultness. (Just because we're a fantasy show, it doesn't mean we're for kids!) But honestly, aren't we beyond that by now?

Regarding the episode's main event, the behanding of Jaime, I have a few thoughts. First, yes, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has been, and continues to be, absolutely terrific—even better than he was at hawking salami on German television. The evolution of Jaime as a character is one of the best threads in Martin's novels—remember, this is a guy whom we first met throwing an innocent child to his presumed death—and far be it from me, Spencer, to offer any hints of where that evolution is headed.

I was disappointed, though, with the decision to make Jaime's maimer some semi-anonymous (or perhaps literally anonymous: do we even learn his name?) vassal of House Bolton. The character(s) responsible in the books have been mostly written out of the show, which is fine. But this felt to me like too momentous an event to be delegated to a complete nobody. (We had the same problem last season, in which Theon was persuaded to kill the two farm boys—and thus crossed a moral threshold from which he could never return—by some generic Ironborn named "Dagmer"; in the books, he was ushered into damnation by ... well, by someone that viewers of the show will get to know soon enough.)

Moreover, I didn't buy the motivation of the nameless hand-hacker. Would some mid-level (at best) flunky really mutilate such an important captive, on his own authority, just because he didn't like being condescended to? His lord, Roose Bolton—sigil: The Flayed Man—doesn't strike me as the kind of boss you'd want to risk displeasing. And remember, his boss is Robb Stark: Hard to imagine he'd be pleased to get back only 90 percent of the Kingslayer his mother set free. (Plus, is it just me, or is does our anonymous new friend bear a unsettling resemblance to Christopher Guest in The Princess Bride? Quick: Count his fingers!)

Regarding the episode's multiple iterations of the song "The Bear and the Maiden Fair": It's a recurring leitmotif for multiple relationships in the story, notably Ser Jorah and Danaerys, and, in an ironic reversal, Brienne and Jaime (he's the "maiden fair"). It's also the title of Episode 7 of this season, which is exciting news for fans of the books—though not as exciting as the fact that Episode 9 is named after another easy-listening Westeros favorite, "The Rains of Castamere."

One final observation: You note, Ross, that the Bran storyline is likely to be a bit of a dud, and I agree (though I still think the casting of Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Jojen Reed will help mediate the dud-ness). But it occurs to me that this isn't just a weakness of "On the Road with Jojen and Bran"; it's a weakness of "On the Road with Anyone." If there's one type of storyline that George R.R. Martin (and, as a consequence, Benioff and Weiss) has had trouble with, it's that staple of the fantasy genre: the quest. Throughout books and show alike, a high proportion of the duller narrative segments occur when some character—be it Bran or Brienne, Danaerys or Arya, Jon Snow or Samwell Tarley—sets off in search of someone or something. By contrast, it's when we return to the central plots and counter-plots, alliances and betrayals, open machinations and secret motivations that the story really gets humming. In this way, Game of Thrones almost resembles a crime or espionage saga more than a typical fantasy yarn.

It strikes me that this is one reason that the scenes featuring members of House Lannister are almost always good ones: The Lannisters have no interest in going anywhere. They already have pretty much everything they want, and are thus content to stay in King's Landing (or off-screen at Casterly Rock) scheming about how to keep it. Apart from the trip to Winterfell and Tyrion's corollary jaunt to the Wall early in Season One, the only time any Lannisters seem to hit the road at all is when there's a battle that needs immediate fighting or when someone takes one of them captive. Finally, I think this relative mediocrity of Martin's quest storylines also helps explain why the fifth book of the series, A Dance With Dragons, was such a great disappointment: It's not merely that he introduced 47 new characters that we didn't care about; it's that very nearly all of them were undertaking some quest.

In any case, sorry to bring all this up at the end of this week's installment, but if either of you has thoughts on the subject (or any other) I'd love to hear them next week. Until then...

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