A Game of Thrones Arya Stark Catelyn Stark Cersei Lannister Daenerys Targaryen Editorial General Jon Snow Recap Reviews Sansa Stark Season 1

“The Kingsroad”: WiC Remembers Season 1, episode 2


“The Kingsroad” has three interconnected themes running through it, making it arguably the most fascinating and pleasantly difficult episode of the early run of Game Of Thrones for experts, although it wasn’t for many of the newbies I knew watching at the time. It’s an episode about children and how they use stories to grow up; it’s an episode about how small decisions can have huge impacts; and it’s an episode about the show struggling to work out how to move out of the shadow of the novels it’s based on. Almost all of these themes are worked through simultaneously, leading to an episode that’s great to discuss and criticize, if not quite coherent as an hour of television.

In terms of overall emotional impact, the final scene of “The Kingsroad” is the most important. In order to soothe the king and especially the queen, Ned is forced to let the Lannisters kill Sansa’s direwolf pup, or do it himself (which of course he chooses). The end of the pilot was essential for Game Of Thrones to demonstrate that it was a show where bad things could happen to even the most conventionally good characters; the end of “The Kingsroad” shows that no matter how noble a character’s intentions, the nature of power in the world of Game Of Thrones will still force even the him or her to compromise. And that’s critical: this story not just good versus evil, it’s good and evil all jumbled together.

Yet that final moment where Ned kills Lady is unlike any other scene in the episode save one, in that it’s focused on Ned—an adult—instead of the children of Westeros. (The other scene is that fantastic breakfast between Robert and Ned, and even that involves discussion of Jon’s parentage and reminiscing about the men’s youth.)

Every other scene in the episode directly involves the children of the story in some way….

“The Kingsroad” opens with our first real encounter with Joffrey, as he acts snotty toward Tyrion while the Imp has none of it. What follows is a sequence of young people in various stages of immaturity being forced to confront the fact that the world won’t let them be immature. Viserys Targaryen may be older than most of the other focal characters here, but his blithe disdain for Ser Jorah’s careful suggestion that he return to Pentos to wait for his army indicates a childish belief that his expectations will become reality. Or then there’s Jon Snow, slowly discovering that his certainty in joining the Night’s Watch will inevitably be tempered by reality.

At the heart of the episode’s discussion of childishness and maturity is Daenerys Targaryen, who makes the switch from passive pawn in her brother’s game of thrones to active participant in her own life. The shift in how Emilia Clarke plays Dany during her scenes in this episode is tremendously well-done. First, she’s an unhappy new wife, with her husband, to put it charitably, not tending to her sexual needs. Less charitably, he may be committing marital rape, which makes those early scenes extremely difficult to watch.

This is one of the areas where the adaptation of A Song Of Ice And Fire gets in the way of the show being clear. There is a certain expectation throughout “The Kingsroad” that the end effects of its events will justify their initial difficulty. For a reader, who knows that Dany’s story is one of increasing power and confidence over her world, these scenes are a means to an ending we want to see; but that wasn’t the case for everyone at the time. Dany telling Drogo “no” and seizing sexual agency is something that in retrospect, we understand as the first step toward her rise to power, but without that context, it’s more titillation than character development. Great things may start in this episode, but at times, it’s hard to tell, and the show may be assuming too much.

Yet the show cleverly juxtaposes the adult nature of Dany’s increasing understanding of her sexuality with her wide-eyed love of mythology. Crucially this is done in a way that suggests that Dany is sheltered instead of simply young. She is still someone who loves stories, and is willing to let that love of stories guide her. But that love of stories, while “childish,” also comes with a pragmatism that foreshadows what Dany will become. Dany seems to intuitively recognize that Doreah, in telling her the stories she wants to hear and knowing about the wider world, is someone that she can work with to better her own position.

Sansa Stark shares the same love of stories as Daenerys Targaryen, but has nothing like Dany’s pragmatism yet. She’s only able to comprehend Joffrey through the lens of her stories of handsome princes courting beautiful ladies, which shows up most obviously when she moves to console him. “My prince, my poor prince, look what they’ve done to you!” she says, fully engaging in the artifice of the moment, as Joffrey writhes in pain. He shows his true colors as he snarls at her, but Sansa doesn’t notice.

One of the most common and often best-used themes of modern serialized television is how things that are harmless when characters are children can quickly turn into life-or-death situations. The most famous example of this is The Wire’s fourth season, often cited as the greatest TV season ever, where kids who start the season playing fun water balloon wars end pawns in real gang wars over the course of a semester. Alternately, teen-based supernatural shows like Buffy or The Vampire Diaries use magic and monsters as metaphors for the emotional drama teenagers face. In Buffy’s most famous second season, for example, a nasty breakup with a boyfriend is turned into, literally, the end of the world.

So this is a medium with an expectation that these are the sorts of stories being told, while the fantasy setting suggests a Campbellian Hero’s Journey, which are often built around teenagers traveling the world and becoming heroes. In a sense, our expectations as an audience are tied to Sansa’s. She’s theoretically genre-savvy, knowing the sort of story she thinks she’s in. Problem is, she’s got the wrong genre. Being aged enough to be betrothed to the prince of the realm means that her every action or inaction could ruin lives. In this case, her direwolf pays the price, as does Arya’s friend Micah. Sansa doesn’t learn the right lesson immediately, but it’s there for the viewers: these may be children, but they’re children with a position that doesn’t allow them to play.

Yet while Sansa’s lesson is apparent, she’s not the only Stark child who thinks she’s in a story. Jon Snow gets disabused of his ideals of the Night’s Watch by not one but two Lannisters, for example. But it’s Robb Stark who’s sneakily trying to continue to play. He’s the oldest of the children in the episode, which has some benefits, as when he takes responsibility for Winterfell’s day-to-day operations. But it’s a later scene, when Cat reveals that she believes the Lannisters attempted to kill Bran, where Robb’s childishness is revealed. His initial impulse is to rush to war, with Theon keen to jump in alongside, before Maester Luwin shuts them down with a bit of wisdom: “Words of war turn to acts of war.”

Back when Game Of Thrones started airing, one of the common complaints was how masculine it was. Given the importance of women to the story overall, this was a difficult criticism for readers like myself to take, but it’s an understandable one. “The Kingsroad” demonstrated that Sansa’s girlish fantasies would lead to pain, shoving her back immediately for daring to try. Meanwhile, Robb and Theon’s boyish fantasies are treated gently, and, with Robert also declaring that he knows that a war is coming, they’re even treated as arguably more valid than Luwin’s carefulness. (Robert: “There’s a war coming, Ned. I don’t know when, I don’t know who we’ll be fighting. But it’s coming.”)

Yet three years on, we know that the story of Game Of Thrones considers the boyish fantasies of war to be far more destructive than Sansa’s fairytales. Robb buys into his own stories, just like Sansa, and eventually pays for it. Theon gets a choice, just like Ned, and makes it about as badly as he possibly could, ruining himself and his friends’ lives.

But Game Of Thrones isn’t able or willing to show that it’s subverting all kinds of stories at this point. Like the children it focuses on this episode, it’s growing as an adaptation, trying to figure out how its stories can make sense of the world for its audience. Unlike the novels it’s based on, it can’t go into a long historical digression to explain what happened in Robert’s Rebellion, so it relies entirely on relatively short monologues. Using children who themselves are attempting to understand the world is a short-term solution, but the long-term question of “what’s the point of this story?” can’t be answered that way. Yes, Game Of Thrones subverts patriarchal expectations, but how can we know that now?

“Small actions have huge effects” is a major theme of the episode, but it’s biggest example—Bran’s assassin and Tyrion’s dagger precipitating the civil war—isn’t readily apparent until that war starts a few episodes from now. But we do see it with Jon Snow’s gift to Arya, where he tells her to practice her swordsmanship, which leads to her practicing with Micah, the confrontation with Joffrey, and Micah and Lady’s deaths. On its own, that’s just a bunch of stuff that happens, but with knowledge of the rest of the story, we can see the connections.

The big struggle of Game Of Thrones in its first season is how it resolves the issue of being able to get the short-term storytelling right, without the advantages the novels have in pacing and exposition. Over the next few episodes we’ll start to see that take shape. For now, “The Kingsroad” is an episode that works extremely well for readers and viewers in retrospect, but had its fair share of struggles on its own.

Notes and quotes: 

  • “I’ll tell mother!” Joffrey didn’t talk much in the pilot, so his initial scene with Tyrion is his real intro. And what a memorable intro it is.
  • “My dear brother. Sometimes I wonder whose side you’re on.” “My dear brother, you wound me. You know how much I love my family.” Although I’m not certain Jaime is well-written in the first few episodes, possibly intentionally, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is charmingly fantastic.
  • Cersei’s vulnerability with Cat about her dead firstborn is a fantastic scene. I dislike how much of the directing forces Cersei into the head-tilted scowl for this season, but when Headey’s given room to talk, she’s great.
  • “Sansa can keep her sewing needles. I’ve got a needle of my own.”
  • One cinematic choice reflects the episode’s focus on children. During the scene where Jon goes to say goodbye to Bran, the camera sits on the bed in a way that ends up distorting Cat’s face, making the cruel adult feel less real.

  • “I have no choice.” “That’s what men always say.” As cruel as Cat is to Jon, this exchange with Ned is great. Serialized TV shows love to show people—usually men—claiming that they don’t have a choice when they do horrible things. Walter White at the end of Breaking Bad Season 3 is given opportunity after opportunity to go to the police to get himself out of his jam, but instead, he forces a friend to cross a moral line.
  • “The next time we see each other, we’ll talk about your mother, eh? I promise.” Sure, Ned.
  • Another slight issue with this episode: it has no real sense of time. When Cat says “I have prayed to the Seven for more than a month” about Bran, it’s like “oh, it’s been a month? Okay then.”
  • “We have another wolf.” “As you will.” Ouch. OUCH.
  • Thanks to Walter_Eagle in comments for the indirect suggestion for this feature’s name. Also, this feature will generally be scheduled for Tuesdays, moving forward.

 

 

 

15 Comments

  • Another good review. There are two things I would agree/disagree with you on though:

    1- I’m not sure if you’re implying it is a good or bad line, but I really dislike the naming of needle quote. I honestly can’t remember if it’s a direct quote from the book, but if it is, I don’t think it translates well at all into spoken word.

    2- I definitely agree with your qualms about the passage of time. As a book reader, I’m aware of the progression of time on the show, but I feel that they haven’t done a great job conveying it, in any of the seasons thus far. I mean, how many non-readers are aware that as of the end of Season 4, roughly three years have passed?

    Looking forward to ‘Lord Snow’.

  • Matthew:
    I mean, how many non-readers are aware that as of the end of Season 4, roughly three years have passed?

    It’s more like two years (though the measures of time are kind of inconsistent). Sansa was 13 in season 1, she was still 14 in season 3 (if you go by the books, she was about to turn 15, so that’s probably the age she is now, though they haven’t said as much.

    Really, the passage of time on this show is impossible to work out well, and that’s a consequence of the source material. Supposedly Jaime was captive for a year, but I defy you to find space for that year in season 2. You can’t fault the writers for this, though, as the source material is really not set up to allow for the passage of good chunks of time between episodes.

    She’s theoretically genre-savvy, knowing the sort of story she thinks she’s in. Problem is, she’s got the wrong genre.

    On that note, since this is Sansa’s first meaningful material in the series (and, indeed, as it turns out, her only meaningful material in the first half of the season, due to the hatchet-job the show does on her story at the Tourney of the Hand), the show does an absolutely terrible job of developing Sansa’s “genre” worldview. Her romanticism, her love of songs, knightly chivalry, etc. is all absent from the show. She’s just portrayed as snotty (whereas the book character made a point of being the “perfect lady” with courtesy) and dumb. This is a pretty consistent feature of the show’s handling of the character’s journey going forward (see also, in coming seasons, the essentially complete omission of the Hound and Dontos, and what they represent, from her story).

  • The first half of Season 1 has gotten a bum rap, especially eps 2-3-4; many people have said it’s too slow, that the show doesn’t really kick into gear until episode 5 or 6… But on re-watching I was struck by how enjoyable I found all of these episodes. I’m glad the show takes its time establishing Martin’s rich characters and stories.

  • Sean C.

    Yeah, time flows strangely in the books as well. The whole of ACoK is the most interesting case. AGoT ends in January 299. Renly crowns himself around that time, Stannis sends his letters, and Robb is in Riverrun.

    And then, for some reason, almost nothing happens for 5 months. Robb sits around in the Twins, Stannis sits around on Dragonstone and Renly sits around in the Reach when suddenly in June and onwards everything starts happening at breakneck speeds – Renly is killed, Robb attacks Westerlands, Theon takes Winterfell, etc.

    There’s nothing exactly wrong with it, but it is curious.

  • Regarding the passage of time, I found that it was hard to gauge on first viewing, but going back and watching the episodes, I believe there’s enough cues that you can figure it out if you want to. For one thing, you have to take into account the amount of time that passes BETWEEN seasons, not just during them. You can tell that a lot of time passes between season one and two, for example, due to the conversation between Robb and Jaime in the camp, discussing how Robb has dragged Jaime from camp to camp, and that Robb’s won three battles… that tells the viewers that some significant amount of time passed between the seasons.

    Another indicator is the characters traveling and then arriving at distant locations from where they were. In the first episode, Cersei states that the trip from King’s Landing to Winterfell took a month. So you can then reason that at least a month has to pass between the time they leave Winterfell in episode 2 and then arrive in King’s Landing at the beginning of episode 3.
    When you start applying that sensibility to gauging the time anytime you see a character go from place to place (like Catelyn travelling all around Westeros, from Winterfell to King’s Landing to the cafe, then to the Eyrie…) combined with Tyrion travelling to and from the Wall, etc… You can start to get a picture of how much time is passing during the season. Once you figure that out, it’s not hard to get a feel for how much time generally tends to pass within an episode, then within a season and finally the whole series overall. You can then recognize that it’s clear that it’s been years since the beginning of the series by the time we get to the end of season 4.

    Throw in lines like Jaime saying he was captive for a year, Sansa stating her age at certain points, etc… it starts to become pretty clear. Although, I do agree that Catelyn stating it’s been a month since Bran’s accident in this episode is a bit surprising and doesn’t really seem to make sense. It does seem like “a month” is the go-to amount of time to state in this season. Catelyn says she’s prayed for more than month, Cersei says they’ve been riding for a month, Ned says he’s been in the capital for a month…

    Ultimately, it’s not really all that important. It’s nice to know to get your bearings, but it doesn’t really affect the storytelling.

    And really, you can judge that a few years have passed in the series just by Bran’s growth alone. Lol.

  • You’ve mentioned the theme of children’s fantasies and naive view of the world and listed Sansa, Jon, Robb as well as Viserys and Dany, as well as Joffrey’s behavior. But you’ve omitted the character who plays a big role in this episode and whose naivete comes across just as much as Sansa’s: Arya.

    It’s kind of funny that, when people talk about early Sansa’s naive worldview, they never mentioned that Arya also has a very naive worldview, too, and if Sansa is punished for it in this episode and forced to confront the reality with the Trident incident, so is Arya. While Sansa has her dreams of handsome gallant princes and brave knights, Arya has her dreams of being a warrior woman (in the books, she looks up to the warrior queen Nymeria). While Sansa is the one who is blinding herself to the reality of what happened and to Joffrey’s personality; Arya is very naive in a different way – she does not realize what kind of world she lives in and the reality of its social structure. She bravely protects her friend from the bully that is Joffrey, and believes that justice means something and that the adults will act according to what is just. Having grown up with a father/lord like Ned Stark, she doesn’t realize that hitting a crown prince was never going to go unpunished, whatever he has done, and that, while she as a great lord’s daughter could escape punishment, things were never going to end well for a butcher’s boy who got caught into the situation, even though he did nothing wrong.

    Thing is, we as readers or viewers are also naive at this point as to how this world works, because we’re watching/reading with a 21st century perspective and aren’t thinking in terms of the medieval class structure. We’re cheering for Arya and don’t see anything wrong with what she does; because what she does is absolutely right from the moral point of view. And we relate to her; I would have done the same thing Arya did, and felt satisfied when she did it. It’s, however, absolutely disastrous from the practical point of view. But our own lack of understanding about this world at this point (which may only change once we get to read more of this series, as well as the Dunk and Egg story “The Hedge Knight”) as well as the fact that Arya’s brand of childish romanticism (yes, it is romanticism, but one of a very different sort than Sansa’s) is deemed more acceptable, admirable and closer to our own 21st century views, heavily colors our perception of the events. Therefore we, at this point, tend to share Arya’s expectation that the king just needs to hear the truth of what happened to make the right decision (particularly since we, at this point, also share Ned’s biased positive view of Robert) and do justice, and blame Sansa for not backing up Arya’s story. While it’s debatable whether this would have influenced Robert’s decision regarding the wolves (which he doesn’t seem to care much about), Cersei had actually given the order for Mycah to be found and killed long before the trial even took place, and Robert never questions this afterwards. (I’m not sure if this can be deduced from the show, but the book makes it clear.) A commoner is expendable, even more so than a highborn girl’s pet wolf.

    The show, however, is often much more anachronistic than the books. This is evident not just in its portrayal of Sansa (who is often portrayed as a snotty, silly girl rather than someone who is trying to be the perfect “lady” and conform to the society’s requirements, someone very aware of the social structure – who would never talk rudely to her septa, for instance; and the importance of songs about chivalry is heavily downplayed in the show), it’s also evident in its portrayal of Arya. From the first episode, she is portrayed as a cool kid, tomboy that everyone loves, and the show viewer would have no idea how insecure book!Arya feels about not being able to conform to the standards of a young lady that are required of her, how much she envies Sansa for it and fears that her mother doesn’t love her/approve of her. The show also didn’t deconstruct the “cool lovable tomboy” cliche until very late in its run, and missed the chance to show Arya having a harsh dose of reality in Harrenhal and feeling like a helpless “mouse” while she’s abused and forced to witness even worse things done to others, painfully aware that she cannot fight the likes of the Mountain and his men with a sword, which makes her learn to keep her mouth shut when she must, and use stealth and cunning to fight and survive (but also makes her a lot more ruthless).

  • Wonderful post, Annara, agree totally. You’re right, Arya’s particular form is naivety is never mentioned! I wonder why, eh!

  • A good piece overall, except for–

    “In a sense, our expectations as an audience are tied to Sansa’s. She’s theoretically genre-savvy, knowing the sort of story she thinks she’s in. Problem is, she’s got the wrong genre. Being aged enough to be betrothed to the prince of the realm means that her every action or inaction could ruin lives.”

    It gets a little confused as to whether Sansa is wrong for thinking she’s in a story, or for thinking it’s the wrong story. Also, her inaction towards the end is understandable, so the above quote rather veers into victim-blaming.

  • AWS:
    For one thing, you have to take into account the amount of time that passes BETWEEN seasons, not just during them. You can tell that a lot of time passes between season one and two, for example, due to the conversation between Robb and Jaime in the camp, discussing how Robb has dragged Jaime from camp to camp, and that Robb’s won three battles… that tells the viewers that some significant amount of time passed between the seasons.

    Thing is, while it may make sense for significant time to have passed between seasons in one particular story strand, there’s always another story strand that is proceeding on a much tighter timeline. The first scene of season 2 is Sansa at Joffrey’s nameday, featuring Tyrion’s arrival in the city, indicating that at most a couple of weeks can have passed between the end of season 1 and the beginning of season 2. Likewise, Arya’s little caravan has made minimal progress in leaving the city (close enough that Goldcloaks sent from King’s Landing can easily catch up to them).

    By the same measure, Season 3 opens with the resumption of the Battle of the Fist of the First Men, indicating (albeit in an extremely confusing and inconsistent manner) that virtually no time has passed between there and Season 2.

    The majority of Season 4 is paced by Tyrion’s arrest and trial, an event that can have taken weeks at most.

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  • I love “The Kingsroad”. I mean, it’s a bottom four or so episode of Season 1, but Season 1 is gold. And for an episode that doesn’t have many huge exciting events, it manages to be shockingly compelling and rewatchable (episode 3 for instance is good, but this one is notably better, particularly in structure). I like how–pretty much until episode 6 or 8–Tyrion is stealth-established as a supporting character in other characters’ stories. Be it Jon, Bran, Catelyn, or even the big Jaime/Cersei vs. Starks thing going on here (while partly told from Tyrion’s perspective), he’s just commenting on the action. We see a lot of him, sometimes without other POVs around, but we don’t know what motivates him yet. Then by the time his bigger, darker story begins, we already love him a lot.

    Similarly, this episode is kinda a pilot part 2 for the main characters who took a bit of a backseat (or were well-established but in very brief ways) in the pilot. Arya, Sansa, Joffrey, Robb, Jorah.

    I also think it’s the best performance of the season for Maisie Williams and Michelle Fairley.

    MVP: Michelle Fairley.

    Line count:

    Ned – 32
    Jon – 24
    Arya – 23
    Catelyn – 22
    Robert – 21
    Tyrion – 20
    Cersei – 19
    Joffrey – 17
    Sansa – 15
    Dany – 13
    Robb – 13
    Doreah – 12
    Jaime – 9
    Jorah – 6
    Luwin – 5
    Jory – 4
    Sandor – 4
    Viserys – 3
    Irri – 3
    Rodrik – 3
    Theon – 2
    Benjen – 2
    Myrcella – 1
    Silent: Tommen, Drogo, Bran, Qotho, Rast, Ilyn.

  • Very insightful Annara, I agree with everything you say. I might also add that Ned at this point also has a romanticised view of Robert and their friendship and even though he can see that Robert has changed a lot – for the worse – he still cant quite accept it. He still expects Robert to do the right thing even though he calls him out on the killing of Lady in the books. I really wished that Ned had defied Robert about Lady, it would have been interesting to see how that narrative thread would have developed.
    Enjoyed the article too.