Editorial Season 4

Anatomy of a Throne: “Breaker of Chains”

HBO’s Game of Thrones brandishes a consistent and high degree of fidelity to the nearly 5,000-page-long source material of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, but there still, of course, are differences. While most of these gaps from the page to the screen are small and detail-oriented, it is nonetheless the case that the most subtle discrepancies often hold the biggest insight into the adaptation process, into the demands of filmmaking, and into the rigors of the literary narrative.

This, then, is the anatomy of a key scene of Thrones – not because of its dramatic importance or visual effects whizbangery, but because of the telling nature of its realization.

Episode: “Breaker of Chains” (403)
Scene: Meereen’s champion

By the time Daenerys Targaryen and her motley crew of Dothraki bloodriders, eunuch soldiers, and freed slaves get to the massive city of Meereen, the Great Masters have withdrawn behind the city’s walls, scorched the fields and poisoned the wells for scores all around them, and prepared a special surprise for the khaleesi: Meereen’s hero, Oznak zo Pahl, the nephew of the richest man in Meereen and the son of the city guard’s commander, is dispatched almost immediately, dressed lavishly and itching for a fight against the would-be conquerors’ own champion.

“This man is a buzzing fly, no more. Ignore him – he will soon be gone,” Dany tells her attendants. Ser Jorah Mormont is quick to agree, but Lord Commander Barristan Selmy emphatically objects:

”Wars are not won with swords and spears alone, ser. Two hosts of equal strength may come together, but one will break and run whilst the other stands. This hero builds courage in the hearts of his own men and plants the seeds of doubt in ours.”

Ser Jorah snorted. “And if our champion were to lose, what sort of seed would that plant?”

“A man who fears battle wins no victories, ser.”

“We’re not speaking of battle. Meereen’s gates will not open if that fool falls. Why risk a life for naught?”

“For honor, I would say.”

In this way, Meereen’s champion is used as a plot device to not only engage the reader, but to also educate him in the medieval conceptualizations of honor and combat and, in addition, to further the growing divide between Dany’s two greatest advisors (a throughline that is aided by Selmy’s hitherto concealed identity – he is known only as Arstan Whitebeard since his arrival at Daenerys’s khalasar at the end of book two – and that is paid off later in the chapter, when he finally unmasks himself). That’s a lot of narrative birds to kill with just one stone, and George R.R. Martin does it seemingly effortlessly.

He does it again just a few short paragraphs later. After an hour of Oznak endlessly riding back and forth under the city’s walls, taunting the besiegers’ manhood, mothers, wives, and gods while the Meereenese cheer him on, the hero finally outdoes himself: he dismounts, undoes his robes, pulls out his “manhood,” and directs “a stream of urine in the general direction of the olive grove where Dany’s gold pavilion stood among the burnt trees.” It starts something of a trend, with several hundred of his fellow citizens following his lead, pissing down through the ramparts at the invaders. It is enough to finally move Daenerys to action, and, in so doing, Martin skillfully lays out the intricacies of strategy, loyalty, and motivation that bind the disparate – and, at times, mutually exclusive – elements of her army together: her bloodriders are too precious to her, as members of her Queensguard and as the lynchpins of her meager Dothraki horde both; Ser Jorah, her most trusted advisor, is too irreplaceable; and Daario Naharis is too necessary, as he is her only means of keeping a hold on the various sellsword companies (yes, in the novel, there are multiple ones) currently in her service.

The answer, then, is Strong Belwas, an eunuch bodyguard sent by Magister Illyrio Mopatis (the wealthy patron of the Targaryens most heavily featured in the series premiere, “Winter Is Coming” [episode 101]) in the previous book who just so happens to also be a former slave from Meereen’s fighting pits. When all the others around her rage at her choice, Dany’s response crystalizes the precarious tightrope she has to constantly walk as a would-be ruler:

“Strong Belwas was a slave here in the fighting pits. If this highborn Ozank should fall to such, the Great Masters will be shamed, while if he wins… well, it is a poor victory for one so noble, one that Meereen can take no pride in.” And unlike Ser Jorah, Daario, […] and her three bloodriders, the eunuch did not lead troops, plan battles, or give her counsel. He does nothing but eat and boast and bellow at Arstan. Belwas was the man she could most easily spare. And it was time she learned what sort of protector Magister Illyrio had sent her.

Belwas does not disappoint, though not without drawing the match out and making it something of a spectacle – exactly what he was trained to do for all his years as a slave fighter. He dodges the hero’s 14-foot-long lance during the first two charges (“A chivalrous man would dismount,” Barristan the Bold comments), and then, on the third, he slices through the horse’s legs, forcing Oznak to fight on foot. There is a brief but intense swordfight, which results in Belwas planting his blade right in the center of the Meereen champion’s forehead. Oznak zo Pahl’s head is subsequently severed from his body and held aloft by Belwas for all of Meereen to see. And when the defenders on the walls shoot their crossbows at the former slave in anger, he merely turns around, pulls down his trousers, and shits in the direction of the city, using the former hero’s striped cloak to wipe himself. The jubilation from Dany’s ranks is long and raucous, and then the queen and her councilors begin strategizing how best to take the city.

What’s interesting in the television show’s rendition of this scene is not what was cut – having the city’s hero strut about and hurtle epithets for an hour is, obviously, out of the question, and reducing the fight to just one vicious sword slash saves on both shooting as well as screen time – but in what was changed: it is Barristan who is dismissive of the challenge, while Jorah is the one who is attuned to its propagandistic benefits. The switch is not as inconsequential as it might initially seem; it is fully within Selmy’s character to view any situation initially and fundamentally through the prism of honor, having been a member of the Kingsguard for nearly all his life, while Mormont, being a disillusioned pragmatist, has had to concentrate on nothing but his survival through his many years of exile.

The only immediately apparent explanation for the change-up is the showrunners wishing to continue Dany’s reliance on the ultimate wisdom and guidance of Ser Jorah – though past experience warns us to wait until the end of the season, if not longer, before making any final educated guesses, as alterations of this type are usually setup for a television payoff down the road. (Not having Ser Loras Tyrell be named into King Joffrey Baratheon’s Kingsguard at the end of season two [“Valar Morghulis,” 210], a seemingly inexplicable mistake, was to allow the knight to be made into Queen Regent Cersei’s betrothed the following year [“Kissed by Fire,” 305], a part which was played by Loras’s older brother in the novels.)

Another change that is immediately explained is Daenerys’s instant interest in engaging Oznak, which is, somewhat surprisingly, for a rather utilitarian purpose: “I have something to say to the people of Meereen,” she says, but “first I will need this one to be quiet.” The khaleesi of Game of Thrones is a slightly more dramatic character, one more willing to engage in theatrical spectacle for the benefit of her followers and enemies alike, so it comes as no great surprise that she has a stirring speech to make when arriving at the site of her next conquest. (Similarly, it also isn’t a surprise that executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss wished to add a bit more visual heft to her monologue by catapulting slaves’ manacles into the city, another deviation from the source material that is wholly invented.) And, ultimately, of course, the long, drawn-out process of siegecraft may be appropriate for a 1,125-page novel, but it’s less than ideal for a nine-hour season of television.

There are two more adaptive modifications that are worth pointing out, and both are ultimately for the benefit of Daario Naharis. In the show, Dany’s interior decision-making as to who to send as her own champion is made verbal, and by having it be an actual back-and-forth dialogue with her attendants, it avoids coming off as the stilted monologue that it otherwise could have been (see Lord Petyr Baelish’s lengthy “sexposition” speech in “You Win or You Die” [107]) and also serves to help deepen Daario’s characterization – not to mention help further his relationship with Daenerys Stormborn along.

Furthermore, the way that Daario dispatches Oznak zo Pahl may be quite different from Strong Belwas’s methodology in the book, but it is equally revealing of their respective personalities: the sellsword is ingratiating, funny, and shockingly, brutally efficient, making short work of whatever obstacle may be in his path. In this way, Weiss and Benioff come remarkably close to the same level of bird-slaying that Martin pulls off with the scene, even if it is in the service of an ultimately different effect.

Previous Installments

Episode 201: “The North Remembers”
Episode 203: “What Is Dead May Never Die”
Episode 207: “A Man without Honor”
Episode 209: “Blackwater”
Episode 210: “Valar Morghulis”
Episode 304: “And Now His Watch Is Ended”
Episode 305: “Kissed by Fire”Episode 309: “The Rains of Castamere”
Episode 401: “Two Swords”
Episode 402: “The Lion and the Rose”

Marc N. Kleinhenz is the features editor for Tower of the Hand and the publisher of Dr. Steven Attewell’s remarkably in-depth Race for the Iron Throne: Historical and Political Analysis of A Game of Thrones. He has written for The Huffington Post, co-created and -hosted two podcasts, and has even taught English in Japan.


  • I thought this was done about as well as it could be handled, and this is a very nice rendering of it, and I appreciated the way the show turned it into an Indiana Jones type situation. Sure, Belwas made it drawn-out, but that’s not Daario.

    I really do hope for more of Jacob Anderson as Grey Worm; I think he’s handling that part nicely.

  • I think we all know that full city sackings and sieges are just not possible on a TV show budget. They did the best they could and still gave a great scene.

  • Hail Babyfinger.

    Great post, I really enjoyed re-familiarizing myself with the ASOS version of the scene here. Love what they did with it in the show too.

  • I loved the scene, if for no other reason than to add back some of the bookDaario swagger that has been missing or seemingly mishandled (holding up swords scene, I’m looking at you). The device of launching the slave collars made me shout, “Yes!” while watching. Great addition! Thanks for the thoughtful analysis!

  • Catapulting the collars and chains into the city was one of my favourite changes so far this season, even though I can’t help but wonder why we’re only just now seeing these siege engines and how they were able to build them with very little good timber between Yunkai and Meereen and only 1 ship taking Dany to Slaver’s Bay instead of 3 (I’m hoping we’re still getting a good look at Joso’s Cock though, hurdee-hur-hur).

    It reminded me a little of primitive biological warfare; hurling plague corpses over the walls. This time it was more like psychological warfare though; showing the slaves the true extent of their masters cruelty and provoking them into an uprising – as we’ll no doubt be seeing in the next episode.

  • This just reminds me how much I wish Belwas had made it into the show… they handled it well and it was nice to see Daario re-establish his badassery but with Belwas it was just such a awesome moment. And I agree with Greatjon of Slumber, Grey Worm really does need more screentime and some action. I think the show needs to better demonstrate just how deadly and efficient the Unsullied are

  • There is a shot in the trailers from the champion’s perspective as he charges Daario where Daario is spinning his knife. It appears that shot was cut from the final scene, which is a shame as I thought it was a pretty cool shot.

  • Is it just me or does any1 else think we’re not gonna be seeing danys dragons till episode 10 after which I doubt we’ll get more than only Drogon … Makes me wonder if we’ll even see the other 2 at all ever again …

  • Valyrian Plastic:
    I can’t help but wonder why we’re only just now seeing these siege engines and how they were able to build them with very little good timber between Yunkai and Meereen

    She probably gained them from the Second Sons when Daario crossed over, or she raided the armories at Yunkai.

  • Carl Drago,

    Your statements are contradictory!
    How could they give more screen time with even more characters? Dany already has all these characters around her who we have only seen for few seconds interacting after 3 episodes!

  • Valyrian Plastic:
    It reminded me a little of primitive biological warfare; hurling plague corpses over the walls.

    Just wait…Diseased corpses launched via phallically-named trebuchets are coming soon!

  • The attitude switch of Jorah/Selmy is the most interesting to me in this scene. How do people theorize the show will reveal Jorah as a traitor and have him sent away? For some reason I have it in my head it will tie into a return of Quaithe, but wtf do I know? :)

  • Daniellica:
    The attitude switch of Jorah/Selmy is the most interesting to me in this scene. How do people theorize the show will reveal Jorah as a traitor and have him sent away? For some reason I have it in my head it will tie into a return of Quaithe, but wtf do I know? :)

    Perhaps Dany really doesn’t like the bawdy sing-along “The Bear & the Maiden Fair” and tosses the bear?

    I really don’t understand the “bro-code” between Selmy and Jorah. Something has got to give.

  • the costumes can be really hit and miss. Usually it’s the armor and darker stuff that works. I hate how they dress the Meereen people (slaver owners especially). What’s with the Star Trek vibe (like when the go on another planet or encounter new Earth-like civilizations)

    That slaver next to Hizdahr and the rich folk with face jewelry. Ugh!

  • Hodor’s Bastard,

    It certainly looks like they’re getting inside the city in the promos for 404, maybe in the form of a huge montage. I just hope they’ve left enough over for the giants riding mammoths.

  • Thanks again, Marc.

    Poor Selmy! He is such a background character in the show. I’m sure it is time-constricted but (as they implied when he volunteered to fight the Meereen champion) I wish he would be the one to provide more wisdom and historical/tactical insight to Team Dany. Maybe we’ll see him step-forward with his insight more in coming episodes especially as Jorah is alienated.

    I miss Strong Belwas. He was such a huge, imposing, cartoon-like character. Yeah, the others in Team Dany are fine and the story can be retooled without him, but I would have liked to seen how the showrunners interpreted and integrated him. His snacking/chomping on honey-locusts and mono-syllabic announcements would have been a fun balance between Dany-Selmy-Jorah-Daario-GreyWorm-Missandei-Drogon-Rhaegal-Viserion. As if another distraction was possible…

    New Daario hasn’t grown on me yet. Don’t mind the bravado, although the champion of Meereen didn’t have to succumb so easily! An extra minute of combat would have been appreciated. This is the city where international slave/non-slave champions have fought for centuries. Think he could have put up more of a fight. Talking about the bark being worse than the bite!

  • Daniellica,

    Excellent idea! I had totally forgotten about Quaithe (sp?) and the fact that Ser Barristan revealed his perfidy in the book! Did they give us the impression that she would be back? If so, the original actress had her face covered, so they won’t have to worry about consistency in who plays the role now. However, Barristan could still reveal Jorah’s double agent status, maybe after an argument of some kind…

  • Hodor’s Bastard,

    I really don’t understand the “bro-code” between Selmy and Jorah. Something has got to give.

    Me neither. I think they’re walking on thin ice and odds are, they’ll argue about something they want Dany to do and then we’ll see Barristan break down and tell her the truth.

  • jwal,

    That slaver next to Hizdahr and the rich folk with face jewelry. Ugh!

    Was that Hizdahr? I didn’t picture him that old, yikes! I was hoping the younger master with the fro would end up being Hizdahr. Does anyone know if Hizdahr was officially identified as being in those scenes?

  • In the books Selmy was on the Small Council and knew about Jora being a trader. He wasn’t there in the show so they might be spinning it as Selmy is clueless to the fact. Just my thoughts.

  • Mrs. D. Ranged in AZ:
    Hodor’s Bastard,
    Me neither.I think they’re walking on thin ice and odds are, they’ll argue about something they want Dany to do and then we’ll see Barristan break down and tell her the truth.

    I’m having trouble with that scenario. If Dany get’s the info from Selmy now, wouldn’t she be pissed that Selmy held it from her for so long? Then again, in ASoS she had a chance to banish them both for their “regrettable” secret actions. Perhaps it will play out as you say, but it seems like the showrunners will need to concoct some additional rationale for the banishment.

    Regarding Hizdahr…it is the “younger” fro guy. Let the Daario-Jorah-Hizdhar tension begin!