Game of Thrones, Ep. 1.03: Westeros broadens and deepens

Game of Thrones, Episode 3: ‘Lord Snow’
Written by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss
Directed by Brian Kirk

Apologies for lateness; here in Canada there was an election to track. As before, please refrain from series spoilers in the comments. Thanks!

One of the go-to lines for George R. R. Martin enthusiasts upon learning that the series was making its way to HBO was that Game of Thrones would do for fantasy television what The Wire did for police procedurals; that is, deconstruct tired old genre tropes while creating a richly detailed universe. Those ambitions finally start to manifest themselves this week, in an episode in which seemingly very little actually happens, but we learn a whole lot more about Westeros and the values of its inhabitants – those shared, and those not shared.

The action this week takes place principally at King’s Landing and the bleak North Gate. In the former setting, Ned Stark has arrived with entourage to assume the position of the King’s Hand, crossing paths most notably with head adviser Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillen), whose former acquaintance with Stark’s wife will doubtless be a source of conflict, as well as his general untrustworthiness. (It’s probably no coincidence that Gillen also played The Wire‘s Carcetti with a similar mix of smarm and charm.) Joining the Black Guard at the latter location is the episode’s titular figure Jon, the eternal bastard, who finds himself as one of the few new recruits with any fighting acumen whatsoever thanks to his semi-hallowed social position.

The Stark children get most of this week’s standout scenes, and the best scenes of the series overall so far. As Bran lays newly paralyzed, he begs to hear a scary story, only to hear ghastly details of the coming “winter” the characters are in constant, shared fear of. Despite a total lack of visual aids, our understanding of the severity of the coming days has been bolstered considerably – it’s an astonishingly atmospheric moment. An even better one: feisty young Arya beginning her swordfighting lessons – not only for the wonderfully hammy instruction, but for the deft tonal changes. As Ned watches his youngest daughter learn to fend for herself and wield her “needle,” the sounds of battle – complete with real, clashing steel swords – creep in, and we begin to understand how even these tentative steps are forming Arya’s fate and identity, as well as Ned’s as a father and leader.

Things are improving on the Daenerys front, too, thanks to a shift of emphasis from the Cinemax-style sex scenes to intercultural intrigue, as Daenerys begins to pick up Dothraki language and customs, while beginning to align sympathies against her domineering brother, who gets a well-deserved near-choking; then there’s also the young Dothraki warrior who serves to humanize the formerly vicious clan (a very welcome change of pace from the blank savagery of the first two episodes), as well as the ever-present Jorah (Iain Glen), whose precise narrative function is yet to be determined.

This week’s most-improved player must be Lena Headey, whose exposition dump while sewing up the whining Joffrey clarifies the Targaryen-Lannister conflict timeline a bit, while throwing in a particularly saucy bit of maternal advice (“If you’d rather fuck painted whores, you’ll fuck painted whores!”). She gets some stiff competition from brother/fuck buddy Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, whose delight at his own fanciful take on events – “They can write a ballad about us: The War for Cersei’s Cunt!” – is made palpable.

As before, though, the most dramatically satisfying relationship remains the one between Jon and Tyrion, whose shared outsider status on the literal fringe of their world leaves them as a wonderfully unpretentious pair with an increasingly easy rapport. As the supernatural elements of Game of Thrones remain a matter of rumor and speculation for most of its inhabitants, what’s most intriguing about the series so far is its willingness to develop the seemingly unspectacular aspects of its universe before complicating things with magic and dragons and the like. If it can keep the storytelling as deft as it was this week, those Wire comparisons might just hold up after all.

Simon Howell

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