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'Game of Thrones' Season 1, Episode 3 Recap

by Maureen Ryan, posted May 1st 2011 10:00PM
['Game of Thrones' - 'Lord Snow']

Excitement swirled around HBO's 'Game of Thrones' well before the network even green-lit the series. Casting speculation and announcements were greeted with waves of online commentary and even grainy bystander photos from the set could get pre-existing fans of George R.R. Martin's book series all worked up into a lather.

In my opinion, though the TV show has a fine cast and faithfully renders the story related in Martin's first 'Song of Ice and Fire' book, it has only occasionally warranted that excitement in its early episodes.

But in this episode, for the first time, I felt truly thrilled by a scene I saw in 'Game of Thrones.' It took three hours for 'Game of Thrones' to reach me on that level -- to get me into "wow" mode for more than a few seconds at a time -- but the scene that ended episode 3 had a real spark.

Without a doubt, the scene between Arya and her "dancing master," Syrio Forel, is my favorite scene of the series so far (or perhaps I should say it's my favorite scene with people; the shots of the Wall are also very impressive). The scene was satisfying in any number of ways, but it can be summarized with the following phrase: It achieved liftoff.

That last phrase has been rolling around in my head as I've watched the first three episodes of the show. My basic feeling has been, apart from a few moments here and there, that it's been difficult for 'GoT' to achieve liftoff. Let me try to be very clear about what I mean by that.

I think the show is still trying to find itself, and there are some pacing issues that keep arising as it tries to weave together the various story strands, some of which are clunkier than others. I have some problems with aesthetic and performance choices (more on that below), but, generally speaking, the cast has been excellent and the show has been competent (if sometimes ploddingly so) in many arenas.

But I don't want competence. I want more than that. I want scenes and moments that make me forget the books ever existed. I want moments that make me forget I'm watching a TV show. I want to be so absorbed in the characters' worlds and their lives and the situations in which they find themselves that I forget everything else. I want the analytic side of my brain to be completely shut down by the immersive nature of what I'm seeing. I want to feel the characters' joys and their sorrows, or, in one case, a character's absolute delight in learning how to "dance" with a sword.

Maybe wanting all that makes me greedy. And I want to make it clear that I don't expect to be transported with joy or fear or empathy every moment of every episode. That would be insane and unfair. But the more a show like 'GoT' can achieve liftoff and ascend beyond mere competence, the more loyalty it'll have from me.

As a critic, seeing a show achieve liftoff is what I live for, so I'm glad that it happened at least once in this episode. Let's hope what we saw in that "dancing scene" portends good things to come.

The way the scene was shot by director Brian Kirk was just right -- the swirling movement of the camera gave the scene energy and reflected the kind of slippery agility a great swordfighter needs. Miltos Yerolemou appears to be perfect casting as Syrio, and throughout the first three episodes we've seen how promising Maisie Williams has been as Arya. She's one of the most important anchors of the show at this stage.

And just as Syrio begins to teach Arya how to balance her weapon properly, the joy of this scene was gracefully balanced by the worried look on Ned's face at the end. His face says all we need to know about his fears for the future.

It's clear by now that Bean is truly the lynchpin of this entire series: He's just right as Ned, a man who is difficult to know but whose face and blunt actions tell us much. Even if Ned hates administration and the kind of petty politics he had to sit through in the Small Council meeting (and it was clear that he hated every second of that), he's not as dumb as Littlefinger thinks, and he's certainly capable of finesse. He not only calmed an angry Arya down, he saw what she needed -- an occupation for her active mind and growing body -- and he found Syrio for her.

I don't know if it's editing, direction or some elusive quality that I can't quite put my finger on, but the first half of this episode just didn't quite flow the way it should have, and that flow problem has affected previous episodes as well. It's probably difficult to get these various narrative strands to fold into each other gracefully, but the show has yet to settle into a satisfying rhythm throughout an entire hour. In this episode, there were some abrupt, even jarring transitions from one story to another (for example, when the episode switched from the Wall to Ned in the throne room).

Yet there was also a growing sense of familiarity with some of these worlds, as we saw Jon settle in to his new life on the Wall and Daenerys begin to assert her will as Khaleesi. It was also interesting to see the parents begin to instruct their children in how to survive in a world in which the weather -- and the political climate -- are likely to turn brutal very soon.

There is a sense of settling in and getting to know the characters a bit more deeply, and it's interesting to note that the scene of King Robert and Ser Barristan Selmy talking about their first kills was not in the book (that's according to a recent conference call with executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss). As I said last week, this is exactly the sort of scene that 'GoT' needs -- a scene that not only synthesizes a lot of background and character information in clever ways, but which hooks in deeply to the themes of Martin's story.

We learned a lot about Robert in this scene: Bitter and unhappy with his present situation, he's prone to nostalgia about his sword-wielding past; he likes to needle the Lannisters that surround him in at every turn; he's more thoughtful than many might guess but also, in his cups, he can be a bully. As was the case with last week's Catelyn-Cersei scene, this scene had a flow and and intensity that isn't always apparent in this show; it simply had more fire than other scenes that feel like faithful (yet mildly clunky) renditions of scenes and moments in the books.

A commenter on my recap of last week's episode hit upon some points that I thought were worth repeating here. SinisterInfant wrote:

"The best part of ... the books are the hard choices and unfortunate circumstances that the characters find themselves in. It's my biggest concern with this incarnation of the story. All of the characters need to be both lovable and hate-able at any moment, and their true motivations [are] hidden almost at all times."

Exactly. The show has to spend so much time on moving the story forward and setting up the world that some of the moral and personal complexities are taking a back seat at this point. As things move forward, however, I'm hoping that'll change. But there are times that the page-to-screen adaptation has its work cut out for it: These are people who frequently keep their thoughts and desires to themselves. What can be explored at great length in the book often has to be rendered in words here, and it's not always easy for the show to do that gracefully.

Even if the pace was a little off in the Red Keep and Catelyn scenes, I was impressed with the casting of the King's Landing characters. In particular, Conleth Hill struck me as the perfect choice to play the spymaster Varys. Even though the character wasn't onscreen for long, Hill perfectly captured Varys' false sincerity (or is it sincere falseness?). You can never tell what this ambiguous character's agenda truly is, and thanks to his job, he tends to make people uncomfortable. They never know what he knows about them, underneath all the polite small talk.

There was progress on other fronts: Dany's growing ability to stand up to Viserys was interesting to witness, and even if Viserys isn't the most nuanced character of the series, Harry Lloyd gives great Crazy Eyes whenever someone has "woken the dragon," as it were.

The scene between Jorah Mormont and young man in Dany's retinue was more casual but also effective; Iain Glen has real presence in the role and I enjoyed his easy chat with Dany's guard. Another small detail I really quite enjoyed for some reason was the attitude thrown off by Dany's servant girl when she came to ask for something other than horse. She may be a small fry in the Dothraki horde, but that servant girl has backbone and a real confidence about her.

I've said several times that the show's child actors are pretty great, but the older actors have been impressive as well. Old Nan's ghost stories about the White Walkers were suitably chilling, and the scene with Jeor Mormont and Maester Aemon at the Wall was terrific. Then again, the scenes set in the North have been the most compelling ones of the show, for my money. There's very little about the aesthetics, the acting or the writing of the Castle Black scenes that I can take issue with. The Night's Watch stories may well be the strongest element of the series, at this point.

Now, everything positive I said up to this point doesn't really count, I suppose, because here comes the "but." But ... I don't like the look of much of the Red Keep. The overall shape of the castle itself is all right, I suppose -- I can see myself coming to like it eventually, maybe. But I disliked the design of the Stark's living area, and I positively loathed the design of Cersei's room. (Wonder of wonders, I found something that bothers me even more than Cersei's wig.)

In my opinion, the personal living quarters of the have the flavor of an upmarket chain hotel that's going for a vaguely exotic vibe. The throne room is not a problem for me (though I much prefer a similar room at the Eyrie, which we'll see in Episode 6). But holy mother, Cersei's bedroom looked like the honeymoon suite at an "exotic" themed Vegas hotel in Las Vegas. Straight out of the '80s. Too many curves, too many frills, too much fake-looking greenery, too much salmon-pink and beige. I wouldn't have been surprised to see a pink marble hot tub in the corner. The design of these personal spaces just screams Mediterranean Marriott, as far as I'm concerned. I don't love the look, as you may have gathered.

In general, the Red Keep's exterior sets remind me of Universal's Islands of Adventure, a theme park I've been to in Orlando. There's a faux Middle Eastern marketplace that you walk through in the first section of the park, and that's what King's Landing recalls. It's not just that it doesn't look like what I pictured in my head (though that's part of it; I certainly didn't picture KL being quite as sun-baked as it is here). It's just that I'm not really a fan of the theme-park-ish aesthetic choices on display in those scenes, though I suppose I'll learn to live with them if the story is absorbing enough.

As for one other ongoing issue I have with the show, I still find it hard to get beyond Tyrion's accent. I've realized it's not just the over-posh accent that I have a problem with, it's the way that Peter Dinklage over-enunciates every syllable of every word. When Tyrion is in repose, I like the thoughtful qualities that Dinklage gives the man. Tyrion may play the fool but he's incredibly smart and savvy -- that's the only way he has survived this long. Dinklage is giving him those qualities in his performance, but I really, really wish the problematic aspects of his overdone accent weren't so damned distracting for me.

Still, I'm cheered by the fact that the show achieved liftoff in that "dancing" scene. I'm glad that the show is finding its bearings in some of the story lines, even if the dialogue is stiff at times and the pacing is iffy a good deal of the time. By now we've seen that the cast is generally very good, so there are reasons to hope that, as we head toward the middle of the season, 'Game of Thrones' might hit its stride.

One lonely bullet point:

• The show doesn't do a good job of establishing who the Kingsguard are and why it was considered an honor to be a part of this elite group. Ah well. I supposed that's where Westeros can help.

Here are a few housekeeping notes. Please keep in mind that every commenter will be held to the standards set forth below.

• Some background on how I'm writing these weekly reviews of the show. I'm writing this review without having seen the other three that HBO sent to the media. I didn't want to be ahead of you, the viewer, and I didn't want to have to try to forget what I've seen in subsequent episodes when I sat down to write weekly reviews.

So, over the last few weeks, my procedure was this: After I watched an episode twice, I wrote my review of that episode, then I went on to the next one. So at this point, you and I have both seen three episodes of 'Game of Thrones.' (I wrote my non-spoilery overall review of the show after watching all six episodes that HBO sent, and if the tone of that review strikes you as somewhat different from what you read here, remember that review contains my assessment of the show based on half a dozen episodes, not just three. I did, however, add SinisterInfant's comment to my review in recent days.)

• On this site, we observe the Lurkers Rule: The environment here should be so accepting, so calm and so non-screechy that the most timid lurker should feel it's safe to express his or her opinion. If you have a problem with any comment on this site, hit the "report this comment" button or email me at maureen.ryan@teamaol.com.

• If you express yourself in a hostile, repetitive or unpleasant fashion, or if your starting point is that 'Game of Thrones' is not something that should be subjected to thoughtful, rational discussions of its positive and negative aspects, this is not the site for you. If you can't be civil and respect other commenters, your comments will be deleted.

• Please, please don't mention any spoilers about what happens in subsequent episodes. No talking about what happens in the books beyond the story lines we saw here.

• If you're new to the world of 'Game of Thrones,' do check out the fan sites Westeros, Winter is Coming and Tower of the Hand. They've got active message boards and a ton of interviews and intel, and if you want to get deeper into this world, you can't go wrong with those sites. HBO's got an extensive Viewer's Guide here. And of course, if you want to check out our features and interviews with the 'GoT' brain trust, including Martin and executive proucers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, go here.

'Game of Thrones' airs 9PM ET Sundays on HBO.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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I think this entire episode is an example of character development triumphing over plot development. Very little happens plotwise , with the exception of Cat arriving in King's Landing and discovering the ownership of the dagger... and Dany's pregnancy. Mostly we get exposition (as Tyrion finding out just how grim things are on the Wall) and more insight into how each of the main characters thinks. The added scene with King Robert, Ser Barristan, and Jaime is a perfect example of this. Some people have complained about it's length but I would argue that it needed to be there. Having established that the Lannisters pretty much have the Kingdom 'by the balls' as it were, that scene shows that Robert is perfectly aware of that fact, and it's making him desperate and short-tempered-hence the seemingly unwarrented verbal attack on poor Lancel Lannister.

I'm not too worried about the appearance of King's Landing and the Red Keep. Granted, the Mediterranean look of the place caught me off-guard a bit but there's no reason why it should have looked like an English city. Admittedly I don't quite get the criticisms of Cersei's chamber-it looked all right to me but I don't pay all that much attention to most set design anyway. The Wall on the other hand has a fantastic look to it, and I found it to be everything I had imagined while reading the novel.

The new characters introduced are mostly quite interesting. Renley is the only one really leaving me flat. I am not sure what to make of Aiden Gillen's performace as Littlefinger at this point. He seems a bit "restrained" I guess but it's hard to put my finger on it. Syrio Florel's introduction of course was sheer genius and I agree that it is the best scene in the series so far. The late Margaret John absolutely nailed the character of Old Nan and it is a shame that we won't see her after season one. The casting of the Knight's Watch seems to be perfect to me.

Nicolaj Coster-Waldau continues to amaze as Jaime Lannister. In the novel, he's not remotely sympathetic, being a shadowy, vaguely evil character that doesn't come into his own until later books. Here, NCW gives you a real feel for the man-he obviously started out as a great idealist, and his bitterness and anger at not being respected is a palpable thing. That scene between him and Sean Bean was absolutely terrific.

Altogether, despite it's slow, sometimes choppy pace (some of the scenes do abpruptly end while others drag on) I'd rate this as the best episode so far.

May 04 2011 at 12:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Maisie Williams is owning this show. Not only her own acting, but even the old Bean seem young again, when he's around her.

May 03 2011 at 10:45 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Markus Marsaille

I totally have to agree with your feelings about the last scene. It thrilled and catched me... and as you have pointed out very well: it let me forget the books.

I am really glad that they made the show that good.

May 02 2011 at 3:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Tyrion's accent has gotten a lot of flak, but I think it really suits his character. Growing up, he's always had to do everything carefully and deliberately. Think twice, act once. It's what made him who he is today, and his carefully enunciated speech fits very well with that concept of the character.

On another level, if Jaime's weapon is his sword and Tyrion's is hi\s mind, then everything he says needs to be sharp and perfectly placed. This is NOT a character who rambles on, and I don't think he's said anything lazily or without careful thought in his life. Over-enunciation fits this aspect of his character as well.

Also, he's a dwarf, and he's already set apart from everybody else. He's made it his armor, and he doesn't care about being different. His only real friends are authors who have been dead for centuries. Is it any wonder that he would adopt a manner of speaking that sets him apart from everyone around him?

May 02 2011 at 2:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sumiko Keay

I think I have an unreasonable love for this show. I'm not having the same problems that you are with the pacing. I don't even mind Tyrion's accent. (Although, I do wonder why, for example, Ned's accent is so different from his children's.)

But the Dancing Master scene was just wonderful - and I loved watching Ned watch his daughter.

Also, I feel like I'm getting more of a feel for Robb in the tv show than in the books.

May 02 2011 at 1:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am a nubie to this whole GoT series. I came into it blind, without any expectations. My only expectation is that the shows on HBO and Showtime are ususally better than ANYTHING on regular cable.

That being said, I love this show. I am in awe of the costumes, the scenery and writing. I was a little lost in the first two episodes but I watched all the behind the scenes clips and watched the episodes a few times and now I get it.
This is my most anticipated show on my DVR.
All the story lines are interesting, although I am most interested in the nomad group and the blonde queen. I love "the imp" and his bits of wisdom and his connection to Snow.
The strong little girl is curious and I wonder where that is going.
All I can say is, without knowing much, its very interesting.

May 02 2011 at 12:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I didn't as big of a problem with the King's Landing sets as you did. KL definitely was sunnier than I'd imagined and maybe had a bit of an Italianate feel to some parts of some sets, but I realize that in a television production the need to create a visual difference between the northern and southern locales is a bit more important, hence the different styles. I think you need to be a bit more willing to revisualize things you've already visualized in the books.

May 02 2011 at 12:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I very much agree with you over Tyrion's over-enunciation. It's more acceptable when he's deliberately trying to create an effect - "You know how much I love my family" but sticks out like a sore thumb when he's joshing with Yoren.

May 02 2011 at 12:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Dan O'Connor

I've thought since the first ep that it could turn out that those who haven't read any of the books actually enjoy the series more than those who have. We're all comparing scenes in the series with how we'd imagined them, years ago, when we read the books for the first time - and they can't match up, of course. There's just no way to get across in a one-minute scene what might be covered in 20 pages of text.

That's why all the scenes I've enjoyed the most are the ones that are completely made up, that have been created to synthesise information from several different parts of the book into a short bit of live-action story. Like the scene with Ned and Jaime at King's Landing: electric. And not a single word of it comes from the book.

I know you find Dinklage's accent hard to get through, Mo, but a bigger problem for me is how ponderous some of the dialogue sounds. It looks great on the page, but when translated onto the screen it somehow takes you away from the story and feels unnatural. Hope that's something they can deal with more as the story progresses.

Wondering how much the direwolves will be in this. They play a *much* bigger part in the books - especially Ghost, who seems to be with Jon Snow virtually all the time - but very little so far. Also wondering how they're going to show fully grown direwolves, which are supposedly as large as horses. CGI? Camera trickery?

I think the casting of Peter Vaughan as Maester Aemon - or perhaps the way they've told him to essay the character - is the first casting mistake I've noticed. He looks peevish, angry and a bit aggressive. And physically big, too. And none of these things I'd associated with Aemon. Part of it is, I have to admit, the fact that for me Peter Vaughan will always be the gang boss crim "Grouty" from 1970's sitcom "Porridge" (seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xOldHAIXXo#t=01m01s). But I'm sure I won't be the only Brit who feels that way!

May 02 2011 at 11:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Samantha Kacho

Great review again Mo though I didn't have a problem with the transitioning between scenes. I agree that this episode achieved "liftoff." Parts of the the first two lagged for me which I guess is odd considering more action filled those episodes than this one. But this episode made me extemely jealous as an actor because each character had these fantastic (however short) moments. Everyone was devoted to the material and completely sold it. I got more insight to these characters in short scenes than I have in multiple seasons on other shows. And that just higlights the brilliance of GRRM and his ability to invision these people so clearly. I'm disappointed Maisie wasn't submitted for the Emmy race but hopefully she will for the Golden Globes. That last scene with her and Syrio was perfection.

May 02 2011 at 3:55 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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