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Television Collision: Game of Thrones’ Kings Aren’t Clashing (Yet)

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

My undying love for HBO’s fantasy epic Game of Thrones was firmly established last year. During the initial airing of the first season I literally could not shut up about the show, I dedicated this column to a discussion of GoT not once but twice (and podcasted about it a lot too) and wrote a special tribute to Sean Bean, who was the show’s star at the time. So now that we are four episodes into the second season, it is about time I weigh in on its progress, don’t you think?!

As far as situating myself in the context of the general George R.R. Martin/A Song of Ice and Fire-universe, let me once again state that I have not read the books. I started reading the first book a few weeks ago, but I firmly plan not to read ahead of where the show is, because I want to judge the show on its own merits. Meaning I want it first and foremost to be a successful TV show and you won’t find me dissecting where it deviated from the books. Different mediums call for different ways of storytelling and I am going to leave it at that.

Even though I might break out a little bit of criticism of GoT’s second season in the following paragraphs, let me also clearly state that it is my favorite show currently on television (Justified ended its third season a couple weeks ago [on a heartbreaking note that gave me melancholic dreams!], so I feel justified saying this [sorry for the bad pun]).
I am of the conviction that you can love without being blind to the flaws of whom or what you love. If you don’t share this belief, then you can feel free to be offended by any of my criticisms of Season Two of Game of Thrones, based on the book “A Clash of Kings” by George R.R. Martin.

If there is one sentiment I have heard a lot over these past four weeks of Season Two it has been that people are having a hard time keeping track of all the characters and staying clear on exactly who is fighting whom and for what. (Again, readers of the books might have an easier time with this.) It’s a sentiment I can understand very well, even though I thankfully am one of those people who is good with names, faces and remembering things from previous episodes. So while I have managed to be able to keep all the characters apart and remember who is up against what other army, I can share the sentiment that, generally, this second season feels more disjointed than I would like, and yet I see why there is little that can be done about this.

In a book you always have the option of flipping back a couple of pages or looking at the map again. A TV show has to find other means to remind viewers of circumstances and geographic locations and the larger the character ensemble becomes, the harder it gets to accomplish all these tasks within a single episode. Last Sunday’s episode, “Garden of Bones” (Episode 4 of Season 2) is a perfect example of how complicated the storytelling and exposition can become and where the pitfalls lie. In my opinion, “Garden of Bones” was one of the weakest episodes of the entire show so far and I will explain why.

While I, as I said, had been doing alright keeping up with who was fighting whom, the tension of these ongoing battles seemed to be fading rather than being ratcheted up from week to week. As the war between Robb Stark and Tywin Lannister’s army continues to claim lives, Joffrey keeps wreaking havoc in King’s Landing and Renly and Stannis Baratheon are occupied fighting each other while something evil is lurking behind The Wall in the North, the stakes should be rising with each episode. As a viewer, we should be at the edge of our seat, yelling at all these stupid wanna-be kings to get their act together, because something far worse is coming.

Instead we get a flat scene like the one on “Garden of Bones” where Renly and Stannis meet in a field. For what it’s worth, this should have been one of the most tension-filled scenes of the season yet. These are two brothers, who loved each other once, who share a common enemy – the Lannisters – and have a common goal – securing the Iron Throne for the Baratheon family – and yet they are on the verge of destroying each other instead of uniting for the good of the realm. Add to this the fact that the Starks at one point used to support Stannis’ claim to the throne and you should have a powder keg of twists and turns these brothers have to navigate through. Instead we got a short scene of posturing, in which Catelyn Stark made a diplomatic fool of herself and Melisandre (the red-haired priestess) attempts to strike fear into Renly’s heart by delivering one of her vague, oracle-like lines.

The fact that as a “mere” viewer of the TV show we have no idea of where this meeting takes place and how many soldiers each of these brothers actually commands, make the battle between the brothers seem inconsequential. It is unclear what the consequences would be if Stannis and Renly fought it out between each other instead of helping out Robb Stark. For all we know, Robb is doing quite well against Tywin Lannister’s army, so why should we care if these Baratheon boneheads want to kill each other?

A similar problem plagued the final scene of “Garden of Bones”, in which Melisandre gives birth to a Dark Shadow (I refer to that thing as Evil Jesus, but suit yourself). The show does not sufficiently establish where this scene takes place. Just from the action on screen it looks to be an unimpressive sewer tunnel on some deserted island. Why does the magical Shadow Baby have to be born there? And while this is a magical baby and the passing of time has always been a bit vague on Game of Thrones, are we to assume Melisandre was pregnant for a day, a week, a month, or a year? How long exactly has this in-fighting between all the claim-to-be-kings been going on? We don’t know and we can’t know, unless we have read the books. And any TV show that requires you to read a book is a failed TV show.

Having such a huge ensemble is costly, meaning that certain characters are missing from every other episode. “Garden of Bones” saw Cersei Lannister talked about plenty, but she did not appear on screen. Neither did Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly beyond the wall. And Daenerys Targaryan has been a mere token so far, which is partly necessitated by the fact that her storyline moves a lot slower than the warmongering between the claimed kings. Basically, she wanders the desert with her horde for a damn long time.
The show really can’t find many ways around this large ensemble cast and the problems it creates though. Some characters have already been collapsed into one for the show and others have been left out completely. My gripe isn’t at all with the large ensemble at all. Just because I don’t see Jon Snow for an episode does not mean I forget about him.

However, a large ensemble forces the show into a lot of exposition scenes, which have never been a strength of the show, but which it previously handled with more aplomb than in Episode 4 of the second season, where some characters were blatantly name-dropped, while other curiously refused to state their name. And who was not annoyed by the clumsy way Robb Stark’s love interest was introduced?
“Garden of Bones” was written by Vanessa Taylor, who has also joined the ranks of co-executive producer of the show this season. She may have had the bad fortune that her episode aired one week after the excellently written episode “What Is Dead May Never Die”, penned by Bryan Cogman, who can also lay claim to one of Season 1’s best episodes, “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things” (Season 1, Ep 4). So by comparison, Taylor could only lose and she had to contribute a piece of the puzzle that is ultimately important, but just transition from one place of storytelling to another. Because except for the birth of Shadow Baby and Arya becoming Tywin Lannister’s cup-holder, this latest episode contained little more than posturing, negotiations and mental games.

Having said all this though, I am more than confident that Game of Thrones will c(l)ash in on all the conflicts, tensions and dilemmas it has been setting up so far. We have yet to see an all-out battle (we’ve only seen the beginnings and aftermaths so far), or a scene in which some of these wanna-be kings actually meet and dish it out (i.e. clash), and there have been no surprising deaths, but we all know this can’t last for long. And I praise Game of Thrones for this way of storytelling, for patiently building towards a climax (or several thereof) instead of throwing around meaningless antics in every episode just to pull viewers in. Because GoT is set in a fantasy realm, I am willing to suspend my disbelief and go along with storylines that wouldn’t make much sense to me on other shows. I don’t particularly need to know how much time has passed at any given point in the story (though a hint or two would be appreciated) and I have plenty of characters I am rooting for so that every episode features at least one of them.

Complaining about Game of Thrones feels a little icky, like complaining you got an A- instead of an A on an exam. But the fact of the matter is that we have seen Game of Thrones be an overachiever so many times that we have come to expect that kind of quality and emotional pay-off from the show and are left a little disappointed when it doesn’t deliver on it every single week. These are minor transgressions, but they bug us nonetheless, because if there is one thing I don’t want Game of Thrones to have, it’s chinks in the armor. I have enough trouble defending this show to genre snobs as it is, I don’t want those critics to have any more ammunition than all the sexposition and unequally gendered nudity is already giving them.

In conclusion, Season Two of Game of Thrones gets an A- from me so far. But I really, really want it to get an A.