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.
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.
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.
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.
I, too, thought the Tywin-Olenna cage match between highborn plotters was terrific. In the book, Ser Loras had already joined the Kingsguard following the Battle of the Blackwater, so Sansa was promised engagement to a different Tyrell. The way Benioff and Weiss altered this plotline has not only streamlined it, but has now also given us a nice example of Tywin's mastery of political chess. His threat to disinherit the Tyrells' beloved Loras by giving him what is (ostensibly) a great honor is made all the more acute by the fact that (as close observers may remember) this is exactly what King Aerys did to him when he made Jaime a White Cloak. I'd also add one thought, Spencer, to your discussion of how the scene dealt with homosexuality, which is that it suggests that Tywin and Olenna's disdain is in part a practical one: In a world in which a family's fate relies on its production of heirs, any trait that could complicate that goal is sure to be disparaged. (Indeed, as the scene makes clear, if there's one thing less valued than a gay son, it's a daughter whose remaining years of fertility are numbered.)
I was also a fan of the Tyrion-Cersei commiseration (two scheming, enemy siblings briefly united in the recognition that their father has out-schemed them both); of Tyrion's supremely awkward effort to inform Sansa of their betrothal (rendered doubly awkward by the fact that Shae is her handmaiden, another change from the books); and of Littlefinger's proto-capitalist "Chaos is not a pit; chaos is a ladder" speech. It's common trope of the fantasy genre (yes, I was that teenage boy) that in addition to good vs. evil, there exists a separate moral axis of order vs. chaos. It's fascinating to watch the show develop Varys and Littlefinger as avatars of those diametric principles.
I was not such a fan, however, of the scene between Theon and his torturer, which resolved approximately nothing. He's a sadist: got it! As noted before, I'll have more to say about this unpleasant fellow when his identity is (finally) revealed—perhaps, if one can judge from this episode, by process of elimination (not an Umber, not a Karstark...).
Benioff and Weiss's most interesting deviation from Martin's script last night, though, was also perhaps the riskiest: specifically, Melisandre's meeting with Thoros and Beric and her subsequent acquisition of Gendry. (None of this happens in the book.) I wasn't completely sold on the scene (though this is perhaps in part because I continue not to be sold on Carice van Houten's portrayal of Melisandre), and time will tell how this new storyline progresses. But if it works, it's an ingenious play on several levels: It places side by side the two versions of the Lord of Light to whom we've been introduced (Melisandre's evidently evil one, defined by death; and Thoros/Beric's evidently good one, defined by resurrection); it makes more explicit, as you noted, Spencer, the idea that magic is only now returning to Westeros; and it presumably trims another subsidiary character (Edric Storm, for those of you scoring at home) from the plot and replaces him with someone we know well enough to care about. A neat hat trick, if they can pull it off.
Finally, I feel I should offer last rites for poor Ros, whose death-by-crossbow-bolts taught us a bit more about the respective depravities of Joffrey and Littlefinger. She was the rare character invented entirely by Benioff and Weiss, so I suppose her demise arguably constitutes either a further deviation from Martin's vision or a restoration of it. Still, it seems a bit cruel that she was ushered into the hereafter so hurriedly. If nothing else, her fate offers yet more evidence that an observation made by Theon's tormentor could easily serve as tagline for the entire series: "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention."
Douthat: First off, thanks for welcoming me back after my travel-related hiatus last week. (Internet service is spotty north of the Wall, alas.) I was sorry to miss recapping last week's episode, which I thought was one of the best hours of the season. This week's episode, though, I liked a little less than you both did. Watching it, I had exactly the same thought as Chris: There was more Benioff and Weiss in this episode, and less Martin, than in any installment I can remember. And good for them: It's their show, not his, and the middle of the season is exactly the kind of space where they should be experimenting and embellishing, before the constraints of a 10-episode season force them back to his basic narrative and the material that book readers know is coming.
But their embellishments tend to have consistent strengths and consistent weaknesses, and both were on display this week. As you both point out, their casting choices and skill at writing repartee consistently elevate the scenes with "highborn plotters," and their ability to break away from Martin's point-of-view writing style (which limits our access to scenes in which his point-of-view characters don't appear) lets them give us great encounters that the books only hint at—whether it's Margaery seducing Joffrey in past episodes, or Charles Dance's Tywin negotiating with Diana Rigg's Lady Olenna this week. From Season One onward, the best of these encounters have featured Varys and Littlefinger, the two ambiguous schemers of King's Landing, trading barbs in the shadow of the Iron Throne, and this week we got to listen to them argue political philosophy—with the eunuch defending a kind of "noble lie" statesmanship in the service of order, stability, and the common good, and Petyr Baelish countering with a will-to-power case for his own preference for chaos. His "chaos is a ladder" monologue played over one of HBO's previews for the season, and deservedly so: The saga is ultimately on Varys's side, I think—it's a story about a kingdom in desperate need of wise rulers, and its true heroes are the people (Daenerys, Tyrion, Jon Snow) who might ultimately fill that role. But the story is interesting precisely because those rulers are absent at the moment, and everyone is living in Baelish's world instead.
So that's what I liked about this episode—the banter, the scheming, the extra space for master thespians like Dance and Riggs to strut their stuff. What I didn't like was the way that Benioff and Weiss always seem to reach for levels of exploitation beyond what's already in Martin's bloody, sexy text. Sometimes this exploitation is sexual. This week, it was sadistic—an extra heaping of torture and cruelty, inevitably shown and lingered over rather than suggested. Theon's torture at the hands of Mr. Mysterious Northman is in the books, yes—but it's all offstage, and for good reason: The endless, "not this AGAIN" scenes between him and his nameless torturer this season have managed the difficult feat of being boring and sickening at once. Likewise the untimely death of Ros, a character who was invented mostly to up the nudity quotient, and who then became an excuse to up the cruelty quotient as well—first by making her the target of Joffrey's torture games last season, and then by making her a victim of his crossbow. Again, I prefer the Joffrey of the novels, whose sadism is sketched in a few broad strokes rather than lingered over: I tend to think that killing Ned Stark and beating Sansa made the boy-king sufficiently repellent; I really don't see what making him a murderer of prostitutes adds to the story, except a little more shock and gore and torture porn.
Your complaint, Spencer, about how crudely the show depicts Loras's homosexuality, seems like a variation on this problem. In the books, Loras and Renly's relationship is clear enough to a careful reader without being fully depicted or explored. It makes sense, for a variety of reasons, that Benioff and Weiss would want to make that homosexuality more overt, and when they're writing dialogue for other characters—Jaime a few episodes back, Tywin and Olenna this week—they do a good job of portraying the complexities of how a society like Westeros would have approached this issue: Sometimes cruelly or puritanically, sometimes forgivingly, and sometimes (as in Lady Olenna's "boys will be boys" disquisition) with a more nuanced, worldly wise attitude toward human sexuality in general. But the gay characters themselves have been much more clichéd, and Loras's "Queer Eye For the Straight Guy" reverie about weddings and fabrics felt particularly over-the-top. This is a man who's one of the realm's most fearsome warriors, and he and Renly together had enough Kennedy-esque "vigah" to summon up an entire rebel army last season. Are we really supposed to believe he has the soul of an interior decorator? It felt of a piece with Joffrey being not only evil but SUPER-MEGA-evil: A case where Benioff and Weiss weren't confident enough in the nuance that they otherwise do well, and felt compelled to slug us over the head with stereotypes.
But that last scene on the Wall was pretty excellent. So I'll end there, as they did, and note that for all my carping I can't wait for next week.