Game of Thrones, Ep. 1.02: Of dire-wolves and men

Game of Thrones, Episode 2: ‘The Kingsroad’
Written by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss
Directed by Tim Van Patten

I’ll be reviewing Game of Thrones every Monday for the length of the season; please keep in mind that I’ve not read George R. R. Martin’s book series, and I’m watching the episodes weekly as they air, so kindly refrain from spoilers in correspondence and in the comments. Thanks!

After last week’s heavy lifting in terms of establishing its universe, “The Kingsroad” – the first episode to be aired since HBO announced it’s renewing the series for a second season – works to deepen our understanding of the series’ characters, especially in relation to one another. That’s a mixed blessing; the more intimate scale provides a few intriguing new wrinkles, but also works to intensify some of the problems from last week’s pilot.

The episode’s best scenes belong almost exclusively to Tyrion and Jon, the respective black sheep of the houses of Lannister and Stark, who begin to bond over their shared second-caste status as they journey to the North to join the Black Watch, a sort of Westeros equivalent to the Legionnaires, except with more dying. Besides the fact that Peter Dinklage can act circles around much of the principal cast, Tyrion is one of the only figures on the show who’s neither gravely serious nor one-dimensionally good or evil. It’s refreshing to spend time with characters whose goals aren’t to rule or defend kingdoms, put simply prove their worth in a hugely cruel world that has all but cast them aside. The bawdy talk between Eddard Stark and his old friend the King (Mark Addy) adds a little debauched color, but doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t learn last week, beyond Eddard’s still-lit torch for Jon’s estranged mother.

As with last week’s installment, the show’s biggest thorn-in-the-side remains the Targaryen plot. Thrones still oscillates uncomfortably whenever scenes involving Daenerys and her hulking Dothraki husband Khal arise; the sex scenes are artlessly conceived, comically brusque and generally reek of soft-porn wish fulfillment, particularly the sequence in which one of Daenerys’s young female aides – who speaks of her ability to please men starting from the age of twelve – “provocatively” coaches Daenerys on how to take control of her husband’s desires. This subplot feels neither clever, nor daring, or even titillating – just unworthy of the nuanced storytelling the show has already proven itself capable of, as well as being fodder for those who suspect that fantasy fare necessarily services the fertile imaginations of young men.

‘Kingsroad’ also proves that the show’s trickiest character so far might well be Queen Cersei, played by Lena Headey, whose lament over the injured Bran (secretly pushed from a high tower at her behest) seemed to be laced with genuine regret over her own lost son. It might later prove to be a ruse – further obfuscated by Headey’s reliance on the same cocked-brow expression for any number of emotional states – but for now it’s a welcome bit of character detail, considering the one-note detestability of her brother/lover Jaime, played with sleazy relish by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The fallout from Bran’s “accident” also gives the episode its most brutal and unexpected twist, when an assassin nearly overtakes Catelyn and the dormant Bran, until a fierce intervention by one of the family’s adopted – and now grown – dire-wolves saves both of them, before tenderly laying beside the injured boy. Actually, the wolves are the episode’s strongest catalysts for change; another of the pack saves young Arya from the cruel prince Joffrey, sadly not tearing the little Aryan shithead limb from limb.

The dire-wolves serve as an emblem of Thrones‘ interest in the downtrodden of Westeros; narrowly rescued from the blade at birth, they shortly become instrumental in keeping the Starks alive. That ought to be foreshadowing enough that the similarly nearly-discarded Jon and Tyrion are not to be underestimated. While we wait for the cracks in the show’s heroes and villains to widen and complicate affairs – from Eddard’s infidelity, to Cersei’s possible conscience, to elder Stark daughter Sansa’s flirtation with the vile young prince – this thematic through-line is the most compelling aspect of Thrones so far.

Simon Howell

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