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The Water Dance: Snow Falls on Game of Thrones

"Everyone who isn't us is an enemy." - Cersei

The brutality of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros--and the vantage point of the Lannister clan--is eloquently summed up in Queen Cersei's words of advice to the young prince Joffrey: it's a paranoid and arrogant declaration of their family's separation from the rest of mankind, a testament to the roar of the Lannister pride and of Cersei's own suspicious nature. Trust no one, she tells her son. This is, after all, a woman involved in an incestuous romance with her twin brother, willing to conspire in the death of a ten-year-old boy in order to protect their dark secret. (It's also a creepy scene in which she instructs her son to sleep with "painted whores" or virtuous virgins if he wishes, in addition to bedding his betrothed when the time comes.)

In this week's episode of Game of Thrones ("Lord Snow"), written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and directed by Brian Kirk, we're given the opportunity to see how war is waged in Westeros: not on the battlefield, but in the bedrooms and throne rooms of this vast united realm. The ancient Game of Thrones is being played once more, pitting Stark against Lannister, family against family.

A boy, on the cusp of manhood, trains as a knight in the far north, taking on anyone who will fight him; a little girl dances the water dance, learning from her master the art of the deadliest dance. And a father sees his daughter playing at war once more, the playful water dance turning into something fierce and savage, the blow of wooden blades transforming into the clash of steel, the cries of war. But is it a flashback or a premonition of dark times to come?

When I first watched this episode a few weeks back, I publicly commented on Twitter that the water dance scene brought tears to my eyes and it did again, on a second viewing, a perfect scene between wee Arya Stark and her "dancing" instructor Syrio Forrel, in which Arya learns to see the sword as an extension of her self, to see herself as water, fluid movement, rather than slashing fury... while her father Ned watches on, at first in amusement and then gravely. The turning point of the scene, transforming it from something playful into something grim, is something that the television version of Game of Thrones manages to capture so effortlessly, the juxtaposition of innocence and brutality, expressed in visual terms.

Never is that more clear than in this installment, which depicts the vast chasm between those two ideas. The younger generation play at being summer soldiers, not knowing the harshness of the long winter. The Starks, we're told by Maester Aemon, are always right in the end: winter does come eventually. Whether you choose to view this as a natural righting of a seasonal imbalance or as the inevitable fall or sin of mankind is up to you, really. But winter does come eventually, just as death does stalk each of us in turn.

Jon Snow's trials at The Wall provide Ned Stark's bastard with some depth and grit; unable to discern why he's so hated by the other recruits of the Night's Watch, he sets himself up as the putative "Lord Snow," a bastard playing at being a highborn lord. He's well-trained in the ways of war but not in the ways of the world. His grace in the training yard makes him an object of derision instantly among recruits who have never held a sword before. Jon sees himself as deserving of accompanying his Uncle Benjen beyond the Wall, but he hasn't earned that right. He hasn't even sworn his sacred oath yet. His innocence is the naivete of youth and inexperience, and it takes Tyrion to teach him the error of his ways. (We see him later offering the benefit of his relative experience to the other recruits, establishing himself more as their leader than their rival.)

Tyrion, meanwhile, makes good on his promise to piss off the edge of the world. He too is a summer lord who doesn't understand the duty and responsibility of the Night's Watch, disbelieving their purpose (he doesn't believe in white walkers or "grumpkins and snapes") and making jest of the paltry remains of their once epic strength. He is an entitled lord, a Lannister through and through. Even offering to accompany Yorek on his way back to the capital, he refuses to travel rough, but instead tells Yorek that they'll stay at the very best castles and taverns along the way. He fails to see the asceticism of the Night's Watch, seeing old men and green boys who believe on faith that what they are doing is worthy. But, for a Lannister, the only thing of worth is gold...

Loved the brief comeuppance that Viserys got this week, when he attempted to put his hand around the throat of his sister, Danerys, now slipping quite comfortably into her role as khalessi. (Even if my wife deemed her Dothraki-style outfit, "Safari Barbie.") A whip around his throat, he's forced to contend with Dany's mercy rather than her rage. And he's further humiliated when his horse is taken from him, a demeaning position among the Dothraki. (After all, it's the slaves who walk alongside the horde rather than upon horseback.) And it's Dany's wishes that Ser Jorah follows, rather than those of his "true king." Be careful what bargains you make, Viserys. You've just given her sister control of a Dothraki horde, after all.

As for Dany, she learns that she is pregnant with Khal Drogo's son, a blessing from the Great Stallion and an omen of the days ahead. A union between these Dothraki and the daughter of the Mad King is a dangerous thing indeed and cements her hold over the horde... and puts Viserys even further on the edges. But just where does Ser Jorah go running off to once he learns of Dany's pregnancy. Hmmm...

I want to say how much I'm enjoyed Aidan Gillen's portrayal of Littlefinger, Lord Baelish, as he manages to perfectly capture this mockingbird's manipulative streak and his haughty demeanor. We learn this week that Littlefinger once loved Lady Catelyn dearly and fought a duel with Ned's brother Brandon for her love. He lost and was cut from belly to throat by Brandon, who spared his life. Traveling secretly to the capital, Catelyn is taken to see Littlefinger ("He's like a little brother to me," she says)--thanks to the whispers of Lord Varys--and learns that it was Littlefinger's knife, lost in a bet to Tyrion Lannister, that the assassin used in his attempt to slay the sleeping Bran.

Which would definitely point the finger of suspicion at Tyrion Lannister, or at the very least the pride of lions currently nesting at King's Landing. A scene between Cersei and Jaime seems to indicate this link, though it's unclear whether the twins are talking about trying to murder Bran in his sleep... or pushing him out the window in the "the things I do for love" scene at the end of the pilot episode. Just how badly did these two want to silence Bran, given that he survived the fall? Did they pay a killer to enter his room and slit his throat before he could wake up? Or did Tyrion act for them, loyal as he says he is to his blood?

As for Bran, our little Stark woke from his slumber at the end of last week's episode but couldn't remember anything about his fall, suffering from a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder-derived short-term memory loss. Will he remember what he saw in the tower that day? Only time will tell... But in the meantime we get a scary story from Old Nan, about the endless winter and the coming of the white walkers. And once again, we're left with the eerie sensation of discordance here: is her story a myth or reality? Does she speak of the past or of the future? And what will our summer soldiers, summer lovers, summer children do when the long winter descends on them once more?

Next week on Game of Thrones ("Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things"), Ned looks to a book for clues to the death of his predecessor, and uncovers one of King Robert’s bastards; Robert and his guests witness a tournament honoring Ned; Jon takes measures to protect Samwell from further abuse at Castle Black; a frustrated Viserys clashes with Daenerys in Vaes Dothrak; Sansa imagines her future as a queen, while Arya envisions a far different future; Catelyn rallies her husband’s allies to make a point, while Tyrion finds himself caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Comments

Bella Spruce said…
I agree about Dany's "Safari Barbie"'outfit but love her storyline, nonetheless! And I also loved the final scene with Arya's training and am happy that Ned not only lets her keep the sword but also arranges for her training (as long as she promises not to use her skills on her sister)!
Richard W. said…
I've been trying to get into this series, but I would have to say that episode 3 was the most boring yet. I don't seem to have a connection to any of the characters.

The perpetually moping Snow, whose brow is constantly knitted in a look of worry or concern, is deadly dull, despite his fighting scenes.

The cynical, randy dwarf is the kind of character most people would love, I guess, but not me.

I don't see much nobility in Ned Stark, considering our introduction to him was his dispassionate beheading of an innocent man who had brought him valuable information.

How much of a stereotype is it when the more blond you are in this story, the more self-centered, ruthless, and cruel you are?

My reaction to the series so far is a shrug. I hope the stories continue to develop and come together into something worth watching, but I can't say I'm looking forward to the next episode with anything resembling anticipation.
Ridolph said…
I somewhat agree with Richard above. It's not yet a compelling story that I think about, or wonder about too much even when I'm watching it. But as the only Fantasy-ish series on TV, I'm not going to stop watching unless it actually gets bad.

But really, its strength and weakness is that it is tracking to the book. It's the first few setup episodes for an epic, so we have to establish characters first. I'm assuming that we're going somewhere...

I do like the Dwarf, unsurprisingly. Yes, Snow's constant moping is getting annoying. Hopefully after everyone else is slaughtered (no spoilers, just my prediction) he'll grow a bit.

It's HBO, so maybe a little more nudity will help.

BTW, on a somewhat different subject. I just saw Miss Marple's 2008 "A Pocketful of Rye", which was fairly good. But what's with all of the totally gratuitous sex? I'm pretty sure that wasn't in the book...

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