“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.