One of the struggles of adapting a book to screen is that you tend to lose the interior monologues and thoughts of the characters. You can awkwardly transpose them into dialogue, or you can find a way to have voiceover, but these tactics can backfire as often as they work. The best way to give a sense of what the character is thinking without having them monologue about it is to introduce an object or two that will provide a rough hint as to their thought processes. Game Of Thrones isn't perfect at this yet, but it's doing quite a good job at giving everyone a totem or two that can reflect their innermost desires. Take, for instance, Daenerys' dragon eggs. The series is good at keeping them in frame whenever she's in doubt. No matter if she's talking about where all the dragons have gone to with her servants or having sex with her husband and taking charge, we're looking at those dragon eggs somewhere in the corner of the frame, reminded of everything she had that was lost and all that she stands to gain if she can somehow unite the Dothraki behind her brother. She's someone longing for a long-passed greatness, yet one that's so close she can still feel it just beneath her skin.
“The Kingsroad” is a particularly eventful hour of Game Of Thrones, layering on plot point after plot point in a brisk, fairly economical matter. It's a small step up from the pilot, at least in terms of giving us reasons to care about this world and these people, but there sometimes remains the sense that the show is just plowing through a series of events because that's what happened in the book in these chapters. Still, there are scenes here where the characters are given more room to breathe, and there are scenes where the characters just sit and talk about who they are and what they want. These scenes can be clunky—bare exposition often is—but the series is rapidly gaining a sense of how to tell this story in the television medium.
In particular, tonight's episode seems interested in both the harsh nature of medieval life and the shared past of these characters. Where episode one often darted right by the things that happened to these characters before the series began, tonight's episode takes a chance to luxuriate in things like the loss of the throne by the Targaryens or Jon's choice to go off to the Wall. It also fills in characters who sometimes seemed to be there to add color around the edges last week, like Tyrion, especially. These are all good things, and while there's often an obligatory sense to going forward with the plot—the scenes where Cat is attacked by the man sent to kill Bran, then figures out that Bran must have seen something he wasn't meant to often feel weirdly perfunctory—there's definitely a stronger sense that dark clouds are on the horizon.
If I have a chief complaint with these early episodes (a complaint that may have been sadly necessary with only 10 episodes of story to play around with), it's that we don't get a firmer sense of the bonds between all of the characters from Winterfell. For example, there's a lovely scene where Cat yells at Ned for having left home 17 years ago with Robert to overthrow the Mad King and having returned home with a bastard son, immediately after she bristled at Jon's presence in Bran's recovery room. The relationship between Cat and Ned could be one of the best things in this show (and I'm basing this solely on the prickly chemistry between the actors), but because the story dictates it, Ned is immediately out the door and off to King's Landing. Similarly, the relationship between Sansa and Arya sometimes seems like a sterotypical relationship between sisters, rather than anything real. (That said, I really do like the moment when Sansa yells at Arya for “ruining everything.” It's easy to write off Sansa as kind of a bitch, but in that moment, we get a better sense of what she wants beyond pretty things.)
But if we're going to talk about things the episode does well, we have to start with the strong sense it gives us that when the king wants something, the king pretty much gets it. The strongest section of the episode is at the end, as Sansa and the asshole-ish Joffrey come upon Arya and a butcher's boy mock-swordfighting on the bank of a river, after the king's caravan has stopped for a short while. Joffrey, of course, decides to get involved and tries to fight the butcher's boy himself, but Arya quickly intervenes and Joffrey soon has her on her back. Enter, stage right, Arya's direwolf, who grabs onto Joffrey's hand and rips it to shreds. Joffrey, shrieking, races back to his parents, while Arya and her wolf disappear into the woods and the butcher's boy runs off to parts unknown. Knowing things won't be good for her wolf, Arya begs the creature to race off, which it does (presumably to return in her hour of greatest need).
It's tempting to say “poor Arya” there, but things are only going to get worse for her. She's eventually found and brought before the king and queen, while Ned is still out looking for her. He races to see what's happening, but things have already started to be railroaded against her. It's Joffrey's word against hers, and even though Robert is sympathetic to the daughter of Ned Stark, Joffrey IS the heir apparent. Sansa is called in to give her side of events, and she offers up a weak, “I don't remember” excuse, presumably protecting “her prince” from any further recrimination. Robert, despite Cersei's entreaties (and in this scene, Lena Headey shows just why she was cast in this part, as she's obviously villainous without chewing the scenery about it), decides that kids will be kids and lets Arya go. But since her wolf's run off, Cersei demands that Sansa's direwolf, Lady, be punished. And it falls upon Ned (who gives a nice little speech about how a direwolf is of the North) to perform the task.
As Ned is leaving to perform the nasty deed, however, a party of men rides in with a small body draped across a horse's back: the butcher's boy, who ran (“not very fast”). As Ned stares, realizing that in some small way, his daughter has contributed to the death of a total innocent (though Joffrey is obviously to blame), the series elegantly touches on one of the major things it has going on thematically: The Middle Ages were pretty much shit if you weren't in a position of power. Granted, this is not a revelatory idea, but I like the fact that the series doesn't ever hammer home this point. The butcher's boy was just a peasant's kid, so if he dies because he messed with the prince, so what? Even Ned only gives it a single moment before going off to kill his daughter's pet. This is similar to the way that the series portrays, say, Daenerys, who doesn't have a ton of options in her life and can really only take charge sexually. Again, this is something you've seen before, but I like the way the series is doing all of this in muted fashion, without commenting too heavily on what it's doing.
But at the same time, there were lots of scenes in “The Kingsroad” that touched on things from the book, thus making them touching for me as someone who's read the book and knows how these characters feel about each other there, but felt oddly cursory on screen. As an example, the scene where Ned and Jon part for what will almost certainly be many, many months, with Jon riding off for the Wall (along with Tyrion, Benjen, and a bunch of criminals), had all of the right stuff on the surface—two men, separated by one terrible secret, trying to say the right words before parting for a while—but felt like it didn't have a ton going on beneath that surface. There are places—as with those dragon eggs or the butcher's boy—where the series gains a wonderful sense of subtext in “The Kingsroad.” But there are also places where the series puts everything right there on top and expects those of us who've read the books to fill in the emotional blanks on our own. I'd be curious to know if these moments worked for those of you who are new to the property.
- I really like how the series is indicating the passage of time by showing the direwolves growing. I'm almost sure that there were two different wolves playing Arya's pet (which I'm not even going to try to spell) in tonight's episode.
- This was the second straight Bran-related cliffhanger in a row, and I'm not entirely sure that this one worked as well as last week's. Granted, it wasn't bad or anything, but Bran waking up would have to do a lot to compete with “The things I do for love” (which is just a killer line).
- Weirdly, I got more emotion from the scene where Jon and Robb part than the scene where Ned tells Jon he'll tell the boy all about his mother someday.
- One scene I absolutely loved: Ned and Robert sit beneath a tree and talk about the reasons they went to war with the Targaryens. Sean Bean and Mark Addy are so much fun that you really can't go wrong with whatever you give the two. I had similar feelings about the scene where Tyrion is pretty much describing just how the Lannisters came to power (and Jaime's hand in that movement). The dialogue was clunky, but Peter Dinklage did a great job delivering it, so I didn't really notice until a rewatch.
- I kind of think that Daenerys' sexual tutor is the series' worst character. I vaguely recall her from the book, but she seems to be there entirely to add lesbian subtext. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it would be nice if there were slightly more to her.
- On the other hand, we better get to know a couple of folks from Winterfell—Ser Rodrik Cassel (better known as the guy with the awesome beard) and Maester Luwin (the priest-like guy who always seems worried about war). We also met Ser Ilyn Payne (he was the guy who had his tongue ripped out) and better met Sandor Clegane (he's the big monster of a man in the king's employ who's always around Joffrey; Tyrion calls him a dog in an early scene). All of these characters will be important to one degree or another as the series goes on.
- I know that Rickon exists because the kid who plays him is on Twitter, but damned if I've seen him yet.