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Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Old Gods And The New” (for experts)

Illustration for article titled Game Of Thrones (experts): “The Old Gods And The New” (for experts)
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(This Game Of Thrones post is for people who have read at least the first two books in the book series. It is written from the point-of-view of someone who has read those books and for the benefit of fans of the books. All discussion points are valid, up to and including the events of the fifth book. However, we would ask that you clearly mark spoilers from the third, fourth, and fifth books. The review itself will be non-spoilery, and talk of how events here portend future events will be clearly marked with a spoiler warning in the section following Stray Observations. If you would still like to read the review but haven't read the book, thus, you can, but you should proceed with caution after the spoiler warning and in comments. Those of you who haven't read the books can also check out our reviews for newbies.)

All novel-to-screen adaptations engage in the act of condensing narrative. Any book is going to have more room to depict the interior lives of its characters than any film or TV show, and books also aren’t going to be hemmed in by the pesky constraints of budgeting. This usually means that incidents are shorn off from the narrative, or two or three characters are combined into one in the adaptation. The second season of Game Of Thrones has done a fair amount of shifting from the book, A Clash Of Kings, but I haven’t been bothered by almost any of it. Part of it is that I’m forgiving of these sorts of things if the story more or less resembles its original form (as it does here), but another part of it is that no matter what changes showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss have made, the story still maintains the core themes and emotions that motivated the book.

Take the fall of Winterfell, which opens this episode. In the book, it’s a massive event, but it also occupies less space on the page than it probably does in your imagination. (In fact it does; I just checked.) George R.R. Martin hatches Theon’s scheme to take Winterfell, then he shows us the aftermath of it happening, with Bran waking up to find Theon asking him to yield the castle. On the page, it’s mostly plot mechanics, but the sense Martin gives you from Bran’s internal monologue is that one of the few safe spaces the author set up for the characters—Winterfell! Home of the Starks for centures!—is no longer safe. He’s taking away a security blanket and leaving you with no replacement.

On screen, the fall of Winterfell is fairly different in terms of the extraneous plot mechanics. Ser Rodrik Cassel becomes the one who loses his life for daring to stand up to Theon, instead of an ancillary character. Maester Luwin is the first person we see rushing from the Greyjoys. Roughly 500 characters’ arcs have been condensed into Osha’s (that this works at all is sort of amazing). But the sequence evades that part of your brain that’s always thinking, “Hey, this isn’t how it was in the book…” because it so quickly keys into those same key emotional truths. Killing Ser Rodrik accomplishes roughly the same thing as Bran’s inner monologue in the book: We now know that Winterfell is held by a cruel young man who’s desperate to prove something and not sure how to. This is no longer a safe space for Starks—or anyone, maybe. If Bran is going to survive this, he’s going to have to be clever.

When I reread Clash Of Kings, I thought it one of the more exciting novels in the sequence Martin has produced so far. And it certainly is full of setpieces that will make for great TV. Already, we’ve had things like Arya’s deal with Jaqen or the death of Renly, and in this episode alone, we see the fall of Winterfell and the Lannisters’ terrified ride back to the castle after the smallfolk turn riotous. These are exciting events that are largely adapted as written. In fact, the Lannister scene feels almost as if the series has simply laid out what happened on the page on screen, exactly as it was there. But along the way, the writers have been tweaking key storylines. In some cases, this is to give us time with characters who are important to the overall narrative but not so important to this book, characters like Littlefinger or the Tyrells. In other cases, this is to depict events that happen off-page but would make for exciting TV, such as when we’ve seen Robb cutting his way closer and closer to Tywin. But in other cases, what’s happening is that the writers are finding ways to take internal conflict and externalize it.

The best example of this is probably what’s happening with Daenerys. In the book, she wanders the desert for a while, comes across a dead city, then is invited into Qarth without the Qarth population having a second thought. Obviously, you know that things are different in the series, where she’s had to overcome a series of minor obstacles on the way to tonight’s largest obstacle of all: the theft of her dragons (which doesn’t happen in the book, though I suspect I know why the writers have done it here, about which more in the spoilers section). In every case, the series’ writers are smartly choosing to take things that she was struggling with internally—whether she was fit to lead, whether she really wanted to head back to Westeros and take over the Iron Throne—and externalizing them. Her struggle to gain admittance to Qarth was as much about her own path toward being a leader as any of her internal monologues on the page. Her attempts to wind her way through the city’s political structure to gain ships to return to Westeros show us how she’s slowly grappling with the sorts of maneuvering she’d have to do as queen, and how she’s still not sure there’s anyone in Westeros left to have her as queen.


Similar things have happened in nearly every storyline. In some cases, the writers have chosen to enhance things that happened on the page. In the book, Jon just lets Ygritte go because he can’t kill her. Here, he can’t kill her, then she escapes, then they spend an uncomfortable night together. (It’s somewhat similar to the series choosing to depict what happens to Craster’s sons onscreen, a choice that reminded us of the existence of the White Walkers and one that depicted something that would play well onscreen that had been off-page.) It’s longer and more drawn-out than it is in the book, but it tells us more about these characters through action.

That’s the important thing about turning a book into a film or TV series: Even the greatest actor on Earth can only depict what’s happening through his physical form. We don’t have an invitation to his head, and using voiceover is all too often a hackneyed choice that leaves us no room for interpretation. Action and physical choices are the only things we have to go on when trying to figure out what’s happening. In the first season of this show, particularly in the first half, it sometimes felt to me like the writers were leaning too heavily on telling us things, rather than showing them. Remember all of that endless exposition? Granted, in the first act of something, telling rather than showing is sometimes a necessary evil. But as the story has grown more muscular, the series has as well, and nearly every scene now shows, rather than tells. It’s the oldest lesson in cinematic storytelling, but it’s one too many series forget, and I’m glad this one hasn’t. It’s one of the reasons this season has so much more momentum. What tells you more about how Theon’s unfit to rule: Maester Luwin saying he’s unfit to rule or Theon being unable to chop off Rodrik’s head with a single stroke? (Granted, the latter was in the book, too, but it was much more of a throwaway moment than it is here.)


Another choice I really liked in this episode—which I’d rank as one of the season’s strongest—was that all of the events happen over the course of one long shit-ass day in Westeros. Previous episodes have chosen to depict several days or even weeks passing, but this episode situates a bunch of important scenes—the fall of Winterfell, the King’s Landing riot, Robb and Catelyn’s reunion, Dany’s attempt to gain ships, Jon’s inability to kill Ygritte, Arya’s second kill (and a marvelous, invented scene where she has to hide her face from Littlefinger)—so that they’re happening at the same time. As the episode drew to its close, I found myself wondering how the series could possibly depict these events as all happening at once, but then I realized it was playing fair. We really are seeing what amounts to one day in the country, with day and night arriving at roughly the same time everywhere. (Over in Qarth, which is several time zones away, it’s still daylight when it’s night in Westeros, which is how the episode can end with the full-day Dany scene.) In a season with such expansive sweep, it’s a smart move, and it really ties everyone together via a cinematic device. It feels like the cross-cutting stands in for the comet from the season’s first episode.

The mark of a good adaptation is when it takes good source material and figures out ways to depict it cinematically, not faithfully. My wife—who’s an even bigger fan of the books than I am but hasn’t read them in a few years—didn’t watch this episode with me, and when I was explaining roughly where it fell in the book’s chronology, she was surprised when I would say that an event—like the theft of the dragons or Arya wasting her second kill to avoid her secret getting out to Tywin—hadn’t happened like that on the page. The series has so thoroughly digested the book’s essence that it now can suggest scenes—and even complete revisions—that more or less work completely to depict things the book mostly suggested through the characters’ thoughts. That’s one of the things that has marked Game Of Thrones’ sheer confidence in its second season, and it’s one of the things that has marked its ascension to one of TV’s best dramas.


Stray observations:

  • I’m so glad the King’s Landing riot made its way to screen mostly as written. It was one of my favorite scenes in the book, and one that occurred almost entirely via external action. Also, fans of seeing Joffrey get slapped will probably be excited to add another to their YouTube supercuts.
  • That said, Sophie Turner was most likely 15 when that scene was filmed. 15! I know that’s old enough to know about the ugly things of the world, like sexual violence, but it still horrifies me. (Which is the point, granted, but loss of innocence, etc.)
  • Do you think that any of the characters kind of roll their eyes when Dany starts in with the “I AM DAENERYS STORMBORN!” routine? I know I would. And then probably get killed for it.
  • Not a big episode for the season’s lead character Tyrion, but at least he gets in a Joffrey slap. I also liked his little squabble with his sister as Myrcella was drifting away.
  • Oh, hey, Shae is Sansa’s handmaiden! I had almost forgotten about that. Anyway, I like that Shae tells her never to trust anyone, because clearly Sansa shouldn’t be telling Shae that Sansa hates the king more than anyone, given who Shae’s most consistent client is.
  • I’m really enjoying watching Charles Dance and Maisie Williams together, even if Harrenhal seems to consist of exactly two sets. (It very well might.) I like to imagine that Tywin knows very well who Arya is but enjoys her spunk and is keeping her around. Someday, this will all turn into a Punky Brewster-esque spinoff.
  • Interesting parallels: Theon is unable to execute Rodrik with a single blow. Jon just won’t execute Ygritte. Arya has Jaqen kill someone for her. Joffrey demands executions, but he doesn’t have the power to order them, since he’s outnumbered. Write about that in your freshman Poli Sci course!
  • There’s also a lot going on here with ideas of freedom and how the ruling class gains the power to rule. But, to be fair, that’s one of the major themes of the whole season.
  • Backstory corner: Ygritte claims to have the same blood running through her veins as Jon Snow, because at one time, long, long ago, a man named Bael the Bard kidnapped the daughter of the Stark who ruled Winterfell, then had a child with her. That’s how the story goes, at least, and that’s why Stark and Wildling  blood are said to have something in common. (There’s more to it than that, but that’s all you need to know without spoiling other things.)

Here be spoilers!:

  • The scene where Catelyn tells Robb not to dally with any women because of the deal with Walder Frey may as well have a giant flashing “IMPORTANT PLOT POINT FOR ALL OF YOU TO REMEMBER!” sign flashing at the screen’s bottom. That’s probably a good thing to be reminded of from time to time; otherwise, the buildup to the Red Wedding could feel a little more forced.
  • It seems like the story of Reek—aka Ramsay Bolton—has mostly been eliminated, in favor of Osha’s arc. I agree this is a strong choice, since we already know Osha, but I’m not sure what the show is going to do when it needs to fake us out about Bran and Rickon being dead in a couple of weeks. Since Rodrik is already dead (instead of being killed by Reek/Ramsay), I assume that we’re eliminating the character entirely. We’ll… see how this plays out.
  • My assumption is that the dragons were taken to give Dany a stronger motivation to enter the Houses of the Undying (which I’m very excited to see depicted onscreen, even as I suspect it might be sort of awful). We’ll see next week, but that’s my best guess.