Meditations on Adaptation and Dramatic Pacing in a Lovesick Thrones
By Tyler Davis
“The Bear and the Maiden Fair” has proven controversial. From the cacophony of competing voices sounding forth from the halls of internet fandom, refrains like “too slow” or “too exploitative” have dominated. I think the generally strong episode has a few weaknesses, but these overused statements don’t indicate why. I once made the argument that Thrones is novelized television, and not a televised novel (or series of novels). If this is true, it’s worth understanding how HBO’s juggernaut is positioned in the context of television dramas historically, what makes it unique, and how the adaptation challenges it faces modify our appreciation of the episode, its constituent scenes, and its thematic statements.
With origins in radio, serialized television has a history extending back to the cliffhanger-heavy series of old: narrative glue serving as the link to the following week’s episode would be generously smothered just before the running time expired, and the next episode would pick up where this one left off. And so it went each week – a string of episodes hanging together through ceaseless, sticky forward momentum. Presently, soap operas are the most popular form of this brand of “pure” serialization, and what they lack in character depth, they make up for in narrative movement. Characters in these stories tend to be sufficiently reactive to changing plot dynamics, but are unlikely to grow in psychologically meaningful ways, rarely stepping beyond the constraints of audience expectation. The dastardly character will always wind up doing dastardly things (though he may take a detour or two), and the innocent “good girl” will remain so – at least at heart. When drastic changes do occur, they tend to be externally motivated – someone has planted a bomb, someone has been kidnapped, someone has been possessed by a demon, someone has decided to become an astronaut, and so forth.
This method of storytelling can be contrasted with more straightforward episodic television where arcs are contained within individual episodes; with episodic television, cross-episode arcs are rare pleasures generally reserved for end-of-season specials or inter-seasonal fan service. Extended viewership isn’t necessarily rewarded. The audience is initially given a context, characters are introduced, and subsequent enjoyment comes not so much from understanding how characters develop and change, but rather through how our familiarity with their personalities allows us to comfortably experience how they react to a variety of separable situations within their environment over an arbitrary and typically undefined period of time in their lives. This is, after all, the very essence of situational comedy–the sitcom. George might be getting married but he’ll never be changed by it, and Kramer is nothing without his trademark sliding entrances (just give him a doorway and he’ll show you the magic). The same principle holds true for episodic dramas that depend on the standard cast of police investigators or emergency room surgeons. In most episodic television, character development is secondary to routinized character expression.
From the halcyon days of three-channel black and white Pleasantville-brand programming until the recent explosion of reality shows, we’ve been tuning into serialized or episodic television in one form or another. But where soap operatic serialization has always felt like rearranging preexisting character pieces to more melodramatically produce sparks within a perpetually speeding plot, and where episodic television has always felt like an elaborate game of Mad Libs starring beloved, yet static characters, hybrid series really paved the way for shows like Thrones. Consider a series like The X-Files: gradually developing, overarching narrative threads persisted despite more localized episodic resolutions being handed out each episode. But it wasn’t until HBO’s achievements with series like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and The Wire that deeply serialized, truly novelistic television came to prominence. HBO’s subscription-based revenue model afforded it the opportunity to take these dramatic risks. Traditional episodic television is factory-made ripe for syndication (and repeat viewings), and the low production costs of soap-television make it readily producible if not repeatedly viewable. It took the promise of “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” to achieve something more demanding.
Involved story arcs typically prohibit new audience members from joining midway through the show’s lifespan, and they reduce the intelligibility of individual episodes selected at random. But in an environment where revenue wasn’t completely dependent on the number of viewers tuning in during each initial airing, things could and did change. When viewers watched The Sopranos, they were routinely enriched by their explorations of a psychologically complex Tony Soprano who visibly evolved, reacted, and acted due to plausible variables in his experience. These viewers were confronting a show with a working internal memory. Tony didn’t just change over time, but from episode to episode. Six Feet Under applied this depth to an entire family, and The Wire brought it to an entire, internally complex city. Thrones is doing it to a brand new world.
As with novels, these shows began to explore themes and employ motifs, but they remained filmic, playing to the strengths of a visual medium (consider The Wire’s stunning use of montage). But unlike its peers, with their broad arcs that may have been outlined in advance but rarely mapped out in detail, Thrones is an adaptation of novels. The hyper-complex source material determines the basic scope of the story, and honoring this story’s spirit is a noted creative goal. So it’s specifically in the process of adaptation that the greatest challenges must be faced: consider that each episode must be independently interesting (with smaller, self-contained resolutions, satisfying beats, and miniature arcs), must work within the context of a seasonal arc (which must reward the audience in a significant way), must work within the context of an interseasonal arc (where seasons themselves represent broad swaths of change taking place between the boundaries of an overarching story), must honor the complexities of Martin’s writing, and must succeed in visual terms. There’s no mathematical approach to this kind of work, and the difficulty is in balancing the countless spinning plates.
Given this monumental task, I’d like to consider the principle of exchange which should guide every adaptation choice. One controversial scene among book fans was the House of the Undying portrayal in season two. In the novels, this chapter is a rich tapestry of vision, magic, and fear conveyed in evocative prose. Characters living and dead, past and present appear before Dany’s eyes as she traverses the many rooms of the ancient structure, the entire experience mutating into a web of prophecy which links disparate facets of the story together. Five novels into the series, many of Dany’s visions still haven’t been realized or explained.
In Thrones, Benioff and Weiss elected to streamline the experience: Dany encounters the Iron Throne incongruously dusted in snow, she finds herself at the Wall, and she has a final encounter with her beloved Khal Drogo. Lacking the hallucinatory intensity of the novel’s chapter, this encounter works in the show because it draws upon visual motifs the audience is familiar with. We know the throne room of the Red Keep – we’ve spent time there! – but we also know that something is amiss if it’s torn apart and chilled by frost. Is this prophetic? We know that Dany has never been to the Wall–but we have. Perhaps her destiny involves this frozen place which seems so far removed from the heat of her experience? And we know that Khal Drogo once represented a real dream that Dany took for herself over the course of season one–a dream she had to sacrifice in order to become the Mother of Dragons. In this final temptation, will she stay or will she let her love go in order to pursue her destiny?
What we lose in the Thrones version of these events is a wealth of detailed prophecy in exchange for broad, suggestive strokes which immediately resonate in visual terms. We give up an overwhelming level of information density for a moment of real characterization that’s instantly relevant to Dany’s position in the story. I contend that changes like this should be praised, and not condemned because they fail to mirror the books. A strong adaptation choice takes into account the sensitivities which must be tended to in the context of a television series; the new audience Thrones has captured would be able to do very little with splendors of wizards and cloth dragons at this point in the tale. Instead, they’re given something they can digest and interpret presently. While the prophetic material drawn from the chapter may or may not make it into Thrones at a later point, it’s less essential that events unfold precisely as they do in Martin’s chronology, and more essential that the moments we encounter are effective without sacrificing the spirit of their source.
And this, I think, is where the most recent episode stumbled–not because the vast majority of its scenes weren’t good, or even that it’s “bad scenes” were poorly crafted, but because these lesser scenes are not establishing themselves as contextually meaningful within the broader arcs currently in play. Even when they’re adaptations of events which weren’t explicitly described in the novels, they feel too literal.
To put it plainly, Theon and Bran are the odd ducklings of season three, and people have been kept guessing for too long in either storyline. This has everything to do with the demands of Martin’s story, and very little to do with the acting or writing on display in the scenes themselves. The arcs may very well pay off by the season’s close or when the show is viewed in its entirety; let’s not forget that Benioff and Weiss have admitted that the optimal viewing experience will be a marathon from start to finish. But we don’t have that luxury yet, and as a result the scenes feel more burdensome than they should; we need more from both, while the running time of either feels unearned.
Considering Theon first, I have to underscore something that many of you already know: this material was never present in the novels. It was implied, of course, but only through recollection and brief snippets of dialogue. And yet a show’s production is besieged on all sides by such considerations as actor contracts, limited audience memory, and unbroken character continuity. We’re seeing something happen to Theon which may well reap dividends, but this payoff cannot outpace the story broadly writ. As such, Theon’s arc – which achieved its richest season three moment in his regretful confession three episodes ago – seems destined to remain idling in torture gear until the plot bondage allows it to move again. What’s problematic about this has everything to do with what made Theon’s confession interesting: it conveyed the stakes of Theon’s arc in Theon’s own words. But we’ve now lost any window into Theon’s interiority, and are merely watching him break from an external vantage.
Of course, this week’s scene is undoubtedly effective at showing Theon broken by his captor (as opposed to just almost utterly broken, as we saw last week, or just mostly broken, like the week before), and I actually applaud its use of nudity toward this end. It’s a harrowing, gut-wrenching depiction. The show often comes under fire by detractors claiming that it mindlessly seeks to meet an unspecified “nudity quota” or that it otherwise resembles “softcore pornography” (one must wonder if these people have actually seen softcore pornography), but there was very little in the way of titillation here, and I’d argue that the show uses nudity more creatively – and toward a wider variety of ends – than most of its peers. The women sent to undo Theon’s britches were aiming to undo the man; in Theon’s reduction to a shaky bundle of sexual drive even while in a state of abject fear, he’s rendered little more than an animal completely beyond even personal control.
So when the unnamed torturer reappears blowing his horn, it’s a viscerally disgusting moment made worse by the complicity of the women forcing Theon’s body to physically remember a different world and time (before the promise of a “happy ending” is permanently removed). There’s little argument to be had: what happens to Theon is awful. But there is no cathartic release because Theon seems out of time and out of place–floating on the periphery of the show’s naturally webbing narrative. What happens to Theon seems consequential only to Theon, but there’s less of Theon remaining with each passing week.
Far be it for me to make specific writing recommendations, but I can’t help but feel as if one of the torture sequences would have been better served by characterizing Theon in his present state as opposed to teaching us more about the boy torturing him. Some visual device – even just the power of juxtaposition – which would draw clearly, and with vicious finality, everything Theon has lost. Imagine a moment of respite while Theon hangs alone in the dungeon: establish a shot where the camera slowly tracks in on him suspended from his torture device, lit by flickering torch, and alternate between this shot and intercuts of brief moments – in the present – of what he has touched and lost: his room in the smoldering ruins of Winterfell, Balon looking out over the ocean, and so on. It’s quite a challenge to make a character being psychologically destroyed seem internally present in one torture sequence after another, but it’s the responsibility of the creators to ensure that Theon remains an object of pathos. I have confidence that they can.
Bran also feels removed from everything “that matters”. Within the scope of season three, what once was an intriguing introduction of two new characters has now become a somewhat mystifying exercise in cryptic information doled out in tiny increments. It’s not that Bran, Jojen, Meera, Osha and company are intrinsically uninteresting – quite the contrary – but that their story feels severed from the events unfolding elsewhere and sapped of interdependent consequence as a result. Bran’s story seems to suffer more than Theon’s, because what time we have had with him has been occupied with tensions over rabbit skinning or monologues – well-acted monologues – reminding us of the threat to the far north. Moreover, Bran didn’t have Theon’s tremendous season two arc to descend from, so his season three adventures feel even thinner.
If there’s a saving grace, it’s that Bran – with his visions – seems uniquely suited to being capable of connection with other plot lines in lieu of physical contact with them. But this seems to be a missed opportunity, because the one character who has an active prophetic link – a kind of walking, talking House of the Undying episode on autopilot – so rarely experiences anything which might elucidate the show’s underlying myths, or mystically draw parallels between events happening around the world. With Jojen’s help, Bran has the opportunity to be the show’s orphic guide. If his character is going to continue a much broader, more slowly moving arc than others, that’s more than okay. But it’s quickly becoming essential that he also serve some secondary purpose, even if only as a source of cleverly veiled exposition to develop our understanding of the show’s big picture.
I want to reiterate that neither of these storylines are necessarily failures, because a show like this is capable of redefining what came before by recontextualizing information in later episodes. Many people were upset by Arya’s lack of badassery in season two, but I felt that a direct adaptation of her escape from Harrenhal wouldn’t have worked on screen, and that her ferocious qualities should be more gradually developed. Similarly, Jon’s intelligence and self-confidence have been slow to return from season two’s somewhat bumbling passivity, but I think this is necessary in order to shape his arc to fit the demands of the show. It’s often the case that audiences will complain about a detail not being present only to find it addressed by the showrunners in a creative way episodes later. All of this and more may be in store for both Bran and Theon, but as of right now, they’re problematically detached from the narrative body for the reasons given.
Generally speaking, I take issue with the claims that “nothing happened” or that the episode was merely filler. Consider that not long ago we watched the Night’s Watch mutiny, Jaime lose his hand, the Hound fight a flaming sword-wielding Beric, Dany sack a city and win her army, and more. Thrones is not without big moments, and season three is filled with them. As such, I have zero complaints about an episode which slows down the pace and dramatically raises the stakes by highlighting character relationships as they sail into tumultuous seas. This usually works, because there’s a recurring trend where these big moments result in dramatic resetting. Dany arrives in Astapor, her momentum builds, and – shock and awe – she makes her move. Now Dany travels to Yunkai, her momentum builds, and – you get the idea. Dramatic weight is earned through characterization taking place during scenes of forward momentum, and then this currency is spent in a moments of catharsis which clear the stage for the next forward thrust. The character is more richly developed with each successive instance of dramatic resetting, so the stakes never feel stagnant.
Thrones succeeds admirably when employing this method of storytelling in the majority of its character arcs, as it’s an alternate solution to the lack of episodic climaxes; rather than try to shoehorn a thrilling or deeply personal moment for each character each episode, the showrunners attempt to give each character a few at natural moments throughout the season. But it’s precisely because Theon and Bran feel so removed that they’re unable to spend the currency they’ve accrued. This is almost definitely because they’re building up to even greater adventures, explorations and moments of resolution, but none of this is immediately obvious to the audience.
To return to my earlier explanation of why I felt the House of the Undying interpretation worked on-screen: you might say that Bran and Theon have storylines which are currently playing out the same way cryptic prophecy would have played out had the House of the Undying scene been a direct adaptation: all build-up, and no satisfying integration driving the story to a new expressive phase in the short term. Theon is actually losing his character (given his perpetual state of agony), and we’re learning little about how Bran feels or reacts to the newfound powers he’s discovering, to say nothing of how those powers sit within the world’s mythological backdrop (why they exist, what they mean, why some people have them and others don’t). Could either story have been adapted differently – as the House of the Undying scene was – to avoid these issues? I’m not sure. But these storytelling difficulties aren’t present elsewhere; the episode’s thematic focus on how love and friendship influence the fraught cast of characters was successful because the other storylines have been spending themselves to great effect, and at wiser intervals.
Marriage has been a season-wide theme, dominating the narrative in both King’s Landing and Riverrun; the past two episodes have been exceptional at depicting how characters navigate unions they’ve claimed for themselves, or which others expect of them. What I most liked about Robb’s scene this week was its effectiveness in letting his blunder of a decision to marry Talisa feel purposeful. In another instance of tasteful nudity (there’s little problem in a young, loving couple remaining visible to one another), the marriage not only changed the stakes of the game by introducing the possibility of a son and heir, but also by gently and convincingly reminding us that these characters are actually in love. Love is a force which demands to be taken on its own terms. Many of the Robb-Talisa interactions have been decidedly less intimate, whereas this softly-lit scene offered a convincing depiction why the King in the North broke his promise to Walder Frey, further humanizing Robb and Talisa and underlining Robb’s youth.
(An aside: this is the second time I’ve mentioned nudity in this write-up, and I must admit that I’ve had very little problem with its use in the show thus far (both as compared to the novels, and as compared to competing shows on premium cable). At some point – if I have time – I’d love to ass-ess every bare-assed scene Thrones has provided thus far. Suffice it to say that my view is most similar to the one Matt Zoller Seitz offered in “In Defense of HBO’s ‘Unnecessary’ Nudity”.)
But if Bronn’s warning to Tyrion – “you waste time trying to get people to love you, you’ll end up the most popular dead guy in town” – may not apply directly to Robb and the new life he’s helped create, the consequences of that love are more immediately felt by people like Edmure, forced to atone for his nephew’s sin. As the consort travels through rain en route to the The Twins, where Edmure is to be married off, we’re reminded that Robb’s love cannot exist in a vacuum. Robb is obligated to be a king first and foremost. So if it’s true that his love feels more plausible than ever when it’s nursed within the protective confines of his tent, it’s also true that the consequences of his love for others are no less real or persistent if he chooses to ignore them for an evening. Nor does it change the fact that leaving the war “for one night” is exactly what Robb cannot afford to do, as turning aside for one night is what led him to all this dark and all this rain in the first place.
Love threatens to exact a similar cost elsewhere, as Jon and Ygritte stave off what feels like doomed irreconcilability while traversing a complex landscape of competing affiliations south of the wall. If their moment atop the wall was an answer offered in response to Littlefinger’s dismissal of human bonding as mere illusion, the balance holding it aloft has seemingly tipped: we’re now privy to gloomy chidings from Orell, and moments of consternation as Jon warns that the Wildlings will not succeed. History backs him up, but this dour business really puts a damper on Ygritte’s flame-kissed attitude.
Ygritte’s response that if they die, they die – but first they’ll live – seems to restate the terms of their relationship rather unambiguously, but it’s hard to shake the sense that more difficult decisions await them both. Ygritte knows who Jon Snow really is, rendering Orell’s warnings redundant. But she also seems to know who she really is, and that’s a big part of the problem. Being a wildling–being free–is the only real way their relationship can exist. The freedom the relationship depends upon is more essential than the affiliations themselves; choosing the black isn’t just choosing a worldview–it’s also choosing loyalty – honor – duty in place of love. Littlefinger would see this as swapping one illusion for another, and Ygritte would see this as swapping something real for an illusion.
Elsewhere, difficult decisions are finally catching up with characters who must’ve first anticipated them long ago. Tyrion and Shae appear to have reached a breaking point, but it’s hard to imagine either of them being unaware that this was a looming possibility: Shae, for all of her faults, is a worldly, wise character, and she knew that Tyrion could not legitimize their relationship regardless of the intensity of his ardor. Similarly, Tyrion knows that he’s nothing outside his position as the least-loved Lannister, and that the world beyond Westeros would have him juggling to entertain audiences–nothing more than an especially handsome oddity. Shae seems to project her self-resentment onto Tyrion; never before, as far as we know, has she allowed herself to be taken in by someone’s sincere protestations of love, and now she’s suffering for it. It’s easier to blame Tyrion for the realization of a fate she already knew might come, and that neither of them can change.
Margaery’s talk with Sansa is deeply relevant to Tyrion’s talk with Shae because it underscores the extent to which all characters involved in this triangle are condemned to dissatisfaction on account of their personal hopes being constrained by external obligations. Despite the fact that Tyrion is a healthier match for Sansa than Joffrey ever was, at the end of the day he’s still a dwarf. And despite everything that has happened to her, there’s still a part of Sansa that cannot help but cling to the idea that her knight in painted armor – her Loras – is waiting for her. Tyrion is no such knight, but he’s a kind man who would do her no harm while actively protecting her from the forces seeking to manipulate her. Under the circumstances, Sansa would prefer to hold onto her hope.
Tyrion’s illusion is that Shae could love and share him while being condemned to a lesser, illegitimate position. Shae’s illusion is that love would ever be enough to extricate herself from the position in which she’s remained on Tyrion’s behalf, and that Tyrion would sacrifice his identity for their shared freedom. Sansa’s illusion is that aspirations of true love are still worth one’s concern when confronted with life and death; perhaps those aspirations make life worth living to a bird in a cage. Love that’s compatible with self-direction is what each of these characters wish for, and love (or a lack of it) is also what prevents each of them from pursuing their destinies while contending with the cards they’ve been dealt.
Relationships can be seen as lenses through which values are made clear; how we protect or abandon our bonds when they’re strained is one of the truest revelations of character we can undergo. For this reason, the episode’s most striking pairing involved characters not in deep love, but deep respect. The rehabilitation of Jaime’s character on Thrones has been nothing if not astounding, and much of it has come from lessons about his past offered to Brienne. What we know about Jaime is that he, perhaps more than any other, is the character who has been most significantly motivated by love. Even Ned favored honor over his romantic bond. Jaime has never been with a woman other than Cersei; he’s directed his life on her account. He has, self-loathing at a fever pitch, pushed Bran Stark out of a window to cover up the crime which would undo his family if it came to light.
But behind all of this, he was once the knight who tried to do the right thing by saving King’s Landing, honor be damned. And somewhere along the line – somewhere in the midst of all the hatred he encountered since that fated day – Jaime began to believe that he really was a bad, bad man. Until Brienne came along. One of the most powerful moments of the season, Brienne’s “Goodbye, Ser Jaime” – uttered as if it would be the last thing she told him – was a direct refusal of the man Jaime has allowed himself to become, and a full embrace of the man he once aspired to be. Jaime’s return to Harrenhal to save Brienne secures his redemption for the audience in dramatically visible terms; Brienne has upset Jaime’s entire worldview, and the trust she offers him is immediately validated. But the even greater moment occurred during their private goodbye, when he promised he’d honor Brienne’s duty to Catelyn by returning Arya and Sansa to the Starks. He isn’t just Jaime – he’s Ser Jaime. He can choose to be something other than what he’s known to be.
If the episode makes one truth clear, it’s that every one of its characters has, outside of the dictates of the game, some personal ideal they wish to see satisfied. Robb never wanted to be King in the North, and the joy on his face when he learns that he might be father to a little prince or princess reveals his quiet hopes. In a different world, we can imagine him inheriting Winterfell after Ned dies of old age, his sons trained by Jory in the courtyard, as Catelyn, her hair white, watches on. When Tyrion offers Shae his golden chain, we know that there’s no part of him that doesn’t love her–indeed, everything he’s doing which she finds insulting is, to him, an ugly necessity which will allow him to remain beside her in some fashion, which is better than not at all. And we know that Shae truly does wish the man she loves could have left with her, so that she might be free to direct her own life without being trapped by the limitations of her lot. Jaime desperately wants to be seen as someone capable of good, and Brienne wants to know that her honor isn’t one lonely flame in a black world. There’s a part of Jon who would shut it all out if only he could–opening his eyes to find a world without crows or wildlings, but only his love. Ygritte’s affirmation is the most important response of all: all that matters is the living part. In a world suffused with choking rules, obligations, and the perpetual threat of death, it’s not what people are forced to undergo, but what they want, that defines them.