Game of Thrones Ditches the Book

Magic, homosexuality, and departures from the novels: Our roundtable discusses "The Climb," the sixth episode of the HBO series' 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.


Kornhaber: If last week's duel-, death-, and devirginization-packed episode showed Thrones at its most hectic, last night's installment offered a rare chance for viewers to catch their breath. Having summited the treacherous surface of the season's first half, we can now make like Jon and Ygritte and look back at where we came from, look ahead to where we're going, and swap spit like furs-swaddled teenagers.

Scratch that last part, and apologies. My social IQ's out of whack after an hour of watching odd couples couple oddly: Sam and Gilly camping, Jon and Ygritte scaling, Osha and Meera bickering, Theon and his captor "playing", Jaime and Brienne dining, Olenna and Tywin negotiating, and Westeros' many newly bethrothed—Tyrion, Sansa, Cersei, Loras, and Edmure—squirming as if having their fingers flayed. Each union came from unhappy circumstances, but the episode's intrigue came from how these pairs adapted: a truce on the road with Bran, a greater-good rationalization in Riverrun, a furtive alliance at the foot of the Wall.

I found it all to be pretty damn righteous—even though, as mentioned up top, "The Climb" advanced the overall plot only an inch or two. The sole purpose of that opening campfire, for example, was to remind us that Sam carries a talisman of still-unknown importance, and that both he and his travelmate share a primal awkwardness. But that's ok; showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss & co. are just so, so good at commanding attention via dialogue. Sometimes it's by coaxing out indelible performances: Cersei's resigned "probably" to Tyrion asking whether his life's in danger proves again that Lena Headey's among the show's greatest assets. Sometimes it's by punctuating with physical comedy (Brienne forking Jaime's roast) and well-constructed quipping ("I don't care what people believe and neither do you" / "As an authority on myself I must disagree"). And when they do deliver action, they deliver: Anyone else feel as vertiginous as Jon Snow during those climbing scenes?

That's not to say they don't also resort to lesser forms manipulation. A skeptic might roll eyes at the clouds-parting, music-swelling, closing montage set to Petyr Baelish's grandiose disquisition on ambition. But I'm so invested in this world, I don't mind being bludgeoned into chills from time to time. And for however grating/inconsistent/Nicholas Brody-esque Little Finger's accent can be, his "chaos-is-a-ladder" spiel nicely summed up one of Thrones' guiding philosophies.

As a bonus, two lingering questions about the series came closer to resolution. Last week, I wondered why the Lord of Light's minions hadn't already conquered the Seven Kingdoms if equipped with powers of resurrection. As some readers pointed out, and Thoros's come-to-fiery-Jesus confession confirmed, magic's only recently been returning to Westeros. As Melisandre's wonder at Beric's scars showed, it can be a finicky, unpredictable thing.

Intentionally or not, the show has been propagating a cliché about there being only one kind of gay person.

Second: A few episodes back, I puzzled over Benioff and Weiss shoehorning in a few offhanded references to homosexuality. Last night, they further fleshed out their and Thrones's thoughts on sexuality. I loved that the Tywin/Olenna tête-à-tête—among the best-written and acted encounters yet—demonstrated that a repressive society like this wouldn't have lingo to talk about gayness, so people resort to euphemisms ("nocturnal activities") and confused pathologizing (Loras has an "affliction"). Moreover, it suggested that sexual condemnation stems less from actual revulsion than from the self interest of the powerful: Tywin's only as disgusted as is convenient to cudgel the Tyrells in negotiation.

But another aspect of the episode's portrayals of sexuality was less cool. The show's two major gay characters have now both been loudly and explicitly associated with stereotypical fashion obsession. Which, to an extent, is fine: A lot of gay guys like clothes and that's completely OK. But between Loras's interest in Sansa's fringed sleeves, Renly's much-discussed vanity, and their first-season chest-shaving scene, Thrones intentionally or not has been propagating a cliché about there being only one kind of gay person. Here's hoping for more diversity of depiction going forward.

Anyways, that's merely a political quibble with an otherwise wonderful episode. What did you guys think?


Orr: I completely agree about last night's leisurely pace, Spencer, which was especially striking after the breakneck developments of the previous episode. This whole season has been a bit like riding in a car that's driven by somebody (we all know at least one) who alternates without pause between the gas and the brake.

That said, what was in some ways most notable to me—as someone who's read the books—is how much of "The Climb" was made up of new material added by Benioff and Weiss. With a few significant exceptions, most of the showrunners' alterations to the George R. R. Martin's source material have been necessary compressions: trimming out a few wildlings here and a few Tyrells there, adding the occasional conversation to convey information succinctly, and skipping the occasional scene that would strain the show's budget.

Last night Benioff and Weiss struck out on their own from the books to an uncommon degree. Who cares? If they can come up with material as strong as this on a regular basis, let them go for it.

But last night Benioff and Weiss struck out on their own to an uncommon degree. I didn't have the time to make a direct comparison, but of the dozen or so segments in the episode I can recall only two—the opening scene with Sam and Gilly and the dinner conversation between Jaime and Roose Bolton—that play more or less the same way they did in Martin's third book, A Storm of Swords.

So my initial response to the episode, especially considered in conjunction with the previous one, "Kissed by Fire" (the script of which was delegated to another writer and was extremely faithful to the novel), was: Uh-oh, Benioff and Weiss have started speeding through Martin's material so they have more time to explore their own variations on his theme.

But my second response, which registered seconds after the first, was: Who cares? If Benioff and Weiss can come up with material as strong as this on a regular basis, let them go for it. While a straight page-to-screen translation of Storm of Swords would make for terrific television (it's the best of the novels by a significant margin), in future seasons the showrunners' ability to save Martin from his own excesses will become evermore crucial.

On to the particulars: Rose Leslie, who plays Ygritte, unequivocally joined the ranks of the performers who've made their characters on the show substantially more interesting than they were in the books. Her speech to Jon Snow, revealing that she knows he's still loyal to the crows and not Mance Rayder, but demanding that he be loyal to her above all, was the high point of this storyline to date, lending it a new gravity and urgency. Their closing kiss atop the Wall made official that they're one of the very few couples we've met in Westeros worth actively rooting for.

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