“Lord Snow” suffers from many of the same problems of the other early episodes of Game Of Thrones, where trying to produce an authentic adaptation of the novels and a coherent television show often clash. But you can start to see the increasing confidence of the production overall in this episode; it’s becoming its own thing. There are three scenes scattered through the episode that demonstrate how Game Of Thrones is becoming its own beast with humor, empathy, and formal emphasis.
The most important scene in this process, for me, is the one with King Robert holding court with his Kingsguard about the first man they killed. None of the characters in the room (Jaime, Robert, Barristan, and Lancel) is a point-of-view character from the books, so this is one of the earliest examples of a totally new scene for the show. In that, it adds depth and sympathy toward Robert and Barristan, two characters who are important for the titles, while the setting is also improved with the mention of the history of these warriors’ battles.
But the thing that stands out to me most about this scene is, I’ve come to believe, the single greatest advantage that the show has over the books:
It’s funny. Most of the greatest scenes on the show are those where two or more larger-than-life characters are placed in the same room, with their own secrets and motives, and try to work with, around, or against their foil. Varys and Littlefinger have had several; Arya and Tywin in Season 2 works as well; and perhaps my personal favorite, the new Small Council shifting their chairs around upon Tywin’s arrival in Season 3.
There are a few similarities between these scenes: the actors are strong, for one thing, which is true for the entire series. That strength allows them to turn their characters’ cleverness on the page into wittiness on the screen. The show also has the advantage of being able to pace its scenes differently, building and releasing tension with time, silence, lingering looks, and so on. That tension is often best released with humor, which is something the great television dramas of the recent past, like Breaking Bad, The Wire, and The Sopranos all succeeded at, while their imitators have fallen short.
Finally, there’s a formal advantage that the show has, in that it can play with perspective. Take a look at this shot, from the middle of Robert’s complaint about being surrounded by Lannisters. As Robert is talking about the Lannister’s “…smug, satisfied faces…” we see Jaime’s mild smirk from Mark Addy’s perspective on his desk. We, the audience also know that Jaime’s just threatened to go to war with Robert, and has obviously killed a king before, so it’s not a simple conversation to us, just as it’s not to him. The shot’s also closed off by the side of Addy’s head, so it looks like the only thing we can see is a Lannister. (Addy, it should be noted, is fantastic here, alternating between taking advantage of his role and being bitter about it, defining his character’s unsuitability for the role well.)
I hesitate to apply too much intentionality to this scene, because the nature of filming out-of-order and the intricacies of writing a show like this make it impossible to know for certain, but it feels like this scene is the realization that they’d hired great actors, and letting them do their work within the story, instead of adapting the words on the page. In other words, this seems like the point where the show started to feel like it was having fun, instead of being as authentic an adaptation as possible.
Using new scenes to illustrate the advantages of HBO’s budget and production values is working at this point, but Game Of Thrones doesn’t handle that so well in a thematic sense. The scene between Joffrey and Cersei, where she tells him what she wants for him and he describes how he’d deal with the North, ends up feeling awkward and didactic (“Why should every lord command his own men, it’s primitive!”). The direct engagement with political history—a future king trying to figure out how to deal to powerful vassals—feels out-of-place on this show that’s happier to deal with character rivalries and metaphor than straightforward connections to real-world history.
But the most awkward scene of the episode is one that’s a more direct adaptation. Cat and Ned saying goodbye to one another, for the last time as it turns out, is a bizarre scene that feels like they’re just going through the motions. When the camera rests on their faces, it’s powerful, but the words just don’t seem to fit, and I think it’s because Martin’s lines “Gods be good, you nearly killed poor Littlefinger yesterday” and the actors’ interpretations just aren’t coming together.
It’s the polar opposite of the second scene that demonstrates the increasing confidence of the show, Jorah and Rakharo comparing weapons. This is another largely invented show, as the POV character from the novels for this part of the world, Dany, is off-screen. This is just a slow, quiet scene to add a budding friendship between these characters and, more importantly, to humanize the Dothraki after their painful introduction in the pilot. It doesn’t have the tense humor of Robert’s scene, but that the show is willing to take a breath and relax is, I think, an important move.
Both the Robert and the Jorah scenes stand apart from those involving Thrones’ most traditional hero types, Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen. For them, “Lord Snow” is little more than a continuation of that. Jon Snow’s pride is punctured, and he has to learn to swallow status and work with others. Dany, meanwhile, moves further away from her controlling brother’s influence. Both of these are, for me, the least interesting parts of the story at this point, though they’re important enough long-term that I’ll get to them in due time.
The final scene of the episode, with Syrio showing up as Arya’s dancing instructor, is also evidence of the show’s increasing confidence. Simply put, for the first time, Game Of Thrones is inspiring here. The novels, and the show, have a not-fully-undeserved reputation of being a slog of bad things happening over and over, but that’s a difficult tone to maintain without shedding audience members exhausted by the negativity. So for it to take a few minutes and show one of its characters having a good thing happen to her, to show Ned as the proud father, to show Syrio being awesome–it’s a scene that inspires a smile, and some of that is absolutely necessary for making Game Of Thrones feel balanced.
Perhaps more importantly, it’s a scene that is deliberately chosen by the producers, writers, and editors to be done in such a way that the smile—combined the the ominous noises of battle Ned seems to hear—is the last thing we remember of the episode as we wait for the next one. “Lord Snow” indicates that there’s more emotional and formal complexity to the show than the first two episodes demonstrated.
Notes and quotes:
- “Shame ye didn’t say a prayer for the butcher’s son.” Ned Stark throws some shade.
- “His Grace has many cares. He trusts some…small matters to us that we might lighten the load.”
- Cersei telling Joffrey about propaganda seems like an intentional reference to a famous profile of the Bush administration. “Someday you’ll sit on the throne, and the truth will be what you make it” compares very directly to “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
- “War was easier than daughters.” I remember the show was often compared to The Sopranos in early reviews, and I suspect this scene was a big reason why.
- “I know a story about a boy who hated stories.” Old Nan sets the stage for the White Walkers, as does Benjen Stark later. This is a continuing reminder of the opening scene of the series, and I think contributed so people’s belief that the show was about the White Walkers.
- Love Michelle Fairley’s reading here: “You take me for some back-alley Sally you can drag into a…!”
- “He’s like a little brother to me, Ned, he would NEVER betray my trust!” Sad trombone.
- “I’ll go to war with him if I have to. They can write a ballad about us. ‘The War For Cersei’s Cunt.’”
- “They never tell ya how they all shit themselves. They don’t put that part in the songs.”