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'Game of Thrones,' Season 1, Episode 4 Recap

by Maureen Ryan, posted May 8th 2011 10:00PM
['Game of Thrones' - 'Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things']

Undoubtedly those who have stuck with 'Game of Thrones' have favorite story lines at this point. Generally speaking there are four threads at the moment: the Wall, King's Landing, the Dothraki and finally the doings at Winterfell (and along the Kingsroad).

For me, an entire hour at the Wall would be time well spent.

There's good reason the Wall story line has been so successful: It's an able and well-acted rendition of a story that has been told many times in many different mediums. It's the tale of a crop of raw recruits, most of them orphaned or abandoned, being transformed into not just a fighting force but an ad hoc family.

Of course there's a crusty old salt giving them a hard time. Of course they find their only respite from their loneliness and fear in each other. We'd feel cheated if the story didn't contain those old standbys.

What's happening at the Wall is what's happened in a million war movies and in hundreds of stories of young people in search of themselves or on a quest of some kind. Jon and his friends are (like the protagonists in 'Lord of the Rings') taking us through group version of the Hero's Journey. This story has such resonance because, when it's done with reasonable facility and energy, we identify with the hero or heroes, whether they're hobbits, Colonial Marines or Hogwarts students. The characters in these stories face great danger and some of them wonder if they're up to the task at hand, but at least they have each other.

Maybe I'm really enjoying the Wall scenes because that rough, self-contained world is the setting for that kind of familiar, satisfying bildungsroman. Then again, maybe I'm enjoying those scenes because they're exceptionally well acted and written. John Bradley is a great addition as Samwell Tarley, and I continue to be very impressed with Kit Harington's quietly charismatic performance as Jon. The affinity I had for his story in the books is only deepened by being able to see the formidable, unforgiving world in which he finds himself.

Having said all that, those scenes may be working well for me because they're mercifully free of the exposition-heavy dialogue that sometimes afflicts the rest of the series. We know what's going on at the Wall and who the main players are, we don't have to have it explained to us repeatedly.

Given that we know the shape and direction of this story, these scenes can focus more deeply on the characters, whether it's Ser Alliser Thorne terrifying his recruits or Jon and Sam becoming firm friends. Sam's story about being expelled from his own family after his own father threatened to murder him was heartbreaking, as was Jon's silent reaction. The look on his face said he felt every bit as abandoned as Sam did.

Though he's very good at conveying Jon's inner struggles even when he's silent, Harington proved his adeptness with more dialogue-heavy scenes when he and his new friend were cleaning the common room. In telling the story of how he couldn't quite seal the deal with Roz the prostitute, Jon showed how heavily his status as a bastard weighed on him all his life. It was terrific stuff and it made me invest in these characters deeply, which is the whole point of this story. As I said, it made me wish we'd spent the entire hour at the Wall.

The story lines set in the Dothraki world were moderately effective as well, although some of the exposition about the Targaryens' dragon-taming history and about the past of Daenerys' retainer, Jorah Mormont, was a bit clunkily shoehorned in.

Still, Emilia Clarke continues to be effective in the scenes that depict her realizing just what a liability her lunatic brother is. I first saw the scene in which she admitted to Mormont that she had no faith in Viserys in January, in the clip reel HBO showed to the media, and that's the scene that made me excited about seeing what Clarke would do with this challenging role. So far she's proven she's very much up to the task of making Daenerys a compelling part of this world.

I found the King's Landing scenes more problematic, especially the ones that were full of exposition and explanations. One of the things hindering the momentum of this series is the endless scenes of people talking about things that happened in the past, things that could be happening in the present and things that might happen in the future. Especially in King's Landing, there's a lot of telling, not enough showing.

The advantage of filmed entertainment is that characters can reveal themselves by doing things, but long stretches of these early episodes feature characters telling each other what they've done or might do. While I intellectually understand the reasons for that -- we need to be familiarized with people and relationships quickly -- it gets tiresome at times, and I just wish the season had had more episodes in which to do these complex situations and people justice. (Sidebar: I'll reiterate my fear that, if HBO and the producers attempt to do season 2 in 10 episodes, which is their apparent intent, even more depth and complexity will have to be jettisoned in favor of incident and plot. That would be a real shame, because thematic ambiguity and the richness of the characters and their relationships are what set George R.R. Martin's 'Song of Ice and Fire' books apart.)

Again, it's not that I mind the fact that the show has to introduce people and relationships, but we're four episodes in, and there's still a whole lot of set up going on, and some of the exposition is clumsily inserted. For instance, all that stuff about the Greyjoys came more or less out of nowhere; it was quite obvious that this was the "let's set up the Greyjoys' history" episode.

One thing the show does a lot is try to disguise the exposition in a scene, but it doesn't always do it well. Take Sansa's impromptu history lesson: That was like trying to disguise a pregnancy with a baby-doll T-shirt. The light covering doesn't for a minute disguise what's really going on. If we knew these characters more deeply, it might not matter, but they are, in many cases, still somewhat unknown to us, so when the dialogue is dry and functional, the show loses the fluidity and momentum it has in other scenes.

If there's one scene that exemplifies what I'm talking about, it's the conversation between Littlefinger and Sansa at the tournament. Here's one character we don't know well talking to another character we don't know well talking about a third character we barely know at all.

We didn't see any payoff to that scene, we don't know the full effect it had on Sansa or why Littlefinger chose to tell a girl he barely knows the grisly tale behind the Hound's scars. The episode quickly moved on, rather inexplicably. The show either needed to go more deeply into that interaction and those characters, or find a different way to get us that information.

I was not left pondering tantalizing new clues and intriguing knowledge; the Sansa-Littlefinger scene left me thinking, "What was the point of that, exactly?" It didn't shed meaningful light on any of those characters, though it may partially explain the Hound's less-than-perky demeanor. The scene was simply inserted because the writers wanted us to have that knowledge. We've never seen Sansa and Littlefinger interact before, and we may never see them interact again. This is the kind of information that is much, much more compellingly conveyed in the books, where it has all the context and character depth it needs to make the information about the Hound resonant and interesting.

When 'Game of Thrones' tries to have it both ways, or, more accurately, goes only halfway -- giving us incidents from the novel but without stopping to give us full and rich contexts for those incidents -- that's when the show is at its weakest. There was a similarly unsatisfying feeling after the scene between Ned Stark and Cersei. We know these two don't like each other, and we had that confirmed in that scene, but, well, so what? I suppose we have to wait for what comes next, but the scene just sort of petered out without offering us compelling new information about their relationship or clues about where they go from there.

This is what happens when the narrative is not more aggressively shaped and molded to fit into the television format. Books function differently than television does, and as I said in my overall review, each episode of 'GoT' has to be narratively satisfying on its own, it can't just faithfully render one-tenth of an 807-page story. I think the TV show is most successful when it focuses on fewer characters at a time, but right now we've got the potpourri approach, which works some weeks better than others.

Still, generally speaking, this episode had some good scenes and moments, and it was generally OK, but it did significantly disappoint me in one respect.

The tournament, which was lovingly described for pages and pages in the books, was underwhelming on screen. The crowd wasn't big enough, the setting wasn't impressive enough, the action wasn't all that exciting and it just didn't feel like enough of an Big Event. I'd been looking forward to this set piece, which is a key sequence in the novel. This was one of those cases in which what transpired on the scene left a lot to be desired, compared to the world George R.R. Martin conjured on the page.

Hail of bullets (or arrows):

• For an in-depth interview with Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys, go here.

• We got our first glimpse at Hodor, who, in this version of the story, is much older than I'd pictured him to be. Never mind, I don't think age is really a factor when it comes to this role. I look forward to seeing how he fits in with the rest of the Stark family and its retainers.

• Any scene involving Ned Stark and Arya is just golden, in my humble opinion.

• While Michelle Fairley was excellent in the arrest-of-Tyrion scene at the inn, the direction of that moment left something to be desired. Call me crazy, but if she could see the sigils or house crests of the men around her in the inn, then shouldn't we have seen them as well?

• I think Rory McCann has tremendous presence as the Hound, which is a good thing, given how little the character speaks.

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 two 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 four 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 four.)

• 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 producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, we've got loads of stories here.

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

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Maureen, having just discovered this site and without reading the books first, gives me a different view of this series with everything being 'the first time'. So I know your opinions would differ had you not known the book first. Therefore what the director does with the novel, is first rate, esp. with limitations on time. What also becomes apparent after the first two shows, is a birdseye view on the writers feelings in regards to the female gender. But he more than makes up for that with his characters of Dany & Arya. Anyway, I am writing this opinion 2 wks after this episode and therefore no one would be able to relate to or read my personal viewpoints...so, oh well! Looking forward to episode 7.

May 28 2011 at 9:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hi Mo.

I'm a week behind, and have only seen up to this episode. Just wanted to say that as someone who hasn't read the books, I don't mind the exposition. Partly because in almost every instance (except the Viserys scene), it felt like there was a point being made about the relationship between the speaker and the listener. It seems like the characters in the TV series wield history like a weapon, using it to mock or goad, or to reaffirm ties and stir people to arms.

Tyrion's recounting of the fate of the Greyjoy's to Theon, for example, didn't feel like exposition. It felt like an attack. And a surprising one, given how sympathetic both Theon and Tyrion have been up to this point. Which leaves me wondering how much I should trust Tyrion, and wondering how Theon's loyalties to the House Stark will come into play in the future. This didn't feel like simple exposition to me.

Even Littlefinger's conversation with Sansa felt like Littlefinger was up to something, messing with Ned's family to keep it off balance. (To what purpose, I don't know, but the season isn't over yet.) It reinforces the ambiguity of that character. And it ties into one of what seems to be the major themes of the TV series, innocence corrupted. Just as the various instances of exposition in general reminds us of another theme, the weight of history.

I can see where someone more familiar with the books would have less patience for this kind of thing, if the characters don't do this in the books. And if as someone on the comments says, moving the information about the Hound and his brother here short-circuits the start of the relationship between the Hound and Sansa, I can see being disappointed.

At the same time, however, I disagree with the truism that "Show, Don't Tell" is always the way to go. Yes, it often works well, but I also enjoy a well-told story within a film or an episode of television, watching a character tell a story, and these little moments of exposition have, for the most part, achieved this in a satisfactory and engaging manner, for me at least. Particularly the stories about how terrible the winters can be.

Here's a bit on the virtues of telling rather than showing that's more eloquent than anything I can put together:

Anyways, thanks for the thoughtful reviews, on this and other shows. You're the only TV critic I read regularly outside of the crew at the AV Club. Keep up the good work.

May 17 2011 at 8:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

So another who has read the books and now whine about how its not the books, and how there is too much exposition. Its only exposition if you haven't read the damn books! Its interesting stories from interesting people. If you've read the damn books then stay way from the series!

May 17 2011 at 6:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks for another helpful writeup, Mo! I'm one of the people who has not read the books, and who decided to watch the series cold. 4 episodes in, and it isn't getting any easier following, not so much the currently active plots, but all the background information being sandwiched into the dialog. And trying to suss out character names! Yeesh! I know there are other places to go for background information, but I really want to experience the show as is to see how well it works on its own. (And to avoid spoilers.) I do intend to read the first book once the season is over, to fill in the blanks.

Despite my somewhat negative tone, I am enjoying the series. I am quite impressed with the overall look of the show. And the pacing is extraordinary; I'm always amazed at how quickly the hour passes. So far my favorite characters/storylines are Daenerys and Jon Snow with honorary mention to Ned's younger daughter. (Names! I can't remember names! )

Is Hodor the servant who was carrying the Starks' youngest son? (Another intriguing story line. Love the dire wolves.)

May 10 2011 at 5:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to buster44's comment

Arya. Her name is Arya. Trust me, you are never going to forget her. She's one of the two best characters in the series.

May 12 2011 at 1:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My view of the scene between Cersei and Ned is that she was basically warning him that she knows he is sniffing around and won't hesitate to kill him if necessary. The scene was happening contemporaneously with the death of Sir Hugh. I think people who have read the books view a lot of these type of scenes as unnecessary because they are already well aware of the relationships between all the characters. For example, you say we already knew the characters don't like each other. And yes, while it's clear there's no love lost between the Lannisters and Starks - we have not scene Ned really butt heads with Cersei before. Obviously you are already of how things end up between the characters - but I don't a view who hasn't read the books would necessarily understand that. I think for new people tuning in it is important to establish that Ned and Cersei are antagonistic towards each other. Yes, the groundwork was laid with Cersei ordering the death of Lady - but it's one thing for her to be a bitch and quite another for her to basically threaten to kill Ned. That takes it a new level and one that is important to establish.

May 10 2011 at 3:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thanks for another great (and slightly sobering) review. I get so carried away watching this that it's good to go back and get some cold-blooded reviewing. ;)

I still don't agree completely with you though. For me the episodes are working quite well. People need to have an idea about certain things. Why not have Viserys telling Doreah about it, looking superior about his heritage and then acting like an ass. The Sansa/Mordane scene was worse but it's still good to remember than Septa Mordane is a teacher as well as a nanny and chaperone. I liked the Tyrion/Theon scene. Tyrion was needling Theon because his pride was wounded by Robb, and Theon was reacting exactly how I would expect him to. Dunno why his hair keeps changing colour though.

About the tourney scene, it was definitely a bit odd, and felt cut short. There is obviously more coming as we've seen from previews, but why divide it between two episodes? Loved the way Hugh died though. Poor guy, coming up against the Mountain in his first tilt as a knight.

The Littlefinger/Sansa scene. Well... I guess they wanted to establish Petyr's slightly creepy attention to Sansa (partly failed), introduce Gregor as a villain to make sure people would immediately suspect him of killing Hugh on purpose (success), make us pity the Hound (success) and cut down the SanSan conversation that is sure to come next episode. It's too bad though. That conversation is so vividly written, it would be a shame if they botched it.

May 10 2011 at 9:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Poe to the Pulps

I agree with you Christian M, there isn't any real flair in the storytelling thus far. It just plods along.

I keep thinking about the scene in The Walking Dead premiere that cuts between Rick Grimes and Morgan, both trying to basically conduct a mercy execution. Part of that scene is in the story, but is unremarkable. In the tv series, it's one of the most beautiful and stirring scenes I have ever watched and gave all the insight you need into both characters to understand who they are and what they will and will not do.

There were a few moments in GoT, scenes from the book that were in the the show where it could have really lifted off, if the show-runners had the ambition to do it. But their not, for some odd reason.

But I also want to say thank you to Mo Ryan, I started reading/listening to you, intently, during the last season of LOST. I would listen to you and Ryan Mcgee while washing dishes in my eatery. And you got me to stick with Spartacus, which I will always be grateful to you for. The Season One finale of that show is one of the highlights of my television watching experience, thus far. Salutes you!

Also, it is rather difficult to not go into the books and start arguing about what you feel are mistakes being made that will effect future events/characters that the show hasn't introduced yet, but is trying :D.

May 09 2011 at 10:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Adapting a book as rich and complex as GoT to ten hours of television is an extremely challenging task. Be glad that it's ten hours and not a 2.5 hour movie! Mo is rightly focusing on the show's balancing act between making compelling television and conveying the necessary information regarding the characters (not just their motivations and relationships, but simply their names) and their world. Mo is wanting more emphasis on compelling television and less on explanation. The early episodes of the series are necessarily familiarizing us with the characters and the world of GoT. Soon enough, big events will occur, and we will get to spend more time to get emotionally invested with the major characters. More compelling episodes are coming! I would be unhappy with a single episode devoted entirely to the wall. I fail to see why focusing on a familiar premise that's been done in a zillion war movies would be a good thing. George RR Martin's series is special because of the richness of its world and the unpredictability of its storylines, so hopefully the TV show will be special in the same way and not retread familiar territory. If you want familiar, there are many boring TV shows you could watch.
I would say that GoT is doing a very good job with the balancing act, about as well as could be expected. I was disappointed not to see more of the tournament, including the Knight of Flowers, who was mentioned in episode 3. Having Littlefinger reveal the story of the Hound to Sansa rather than the Hound himself was a surprise. I have to think that the change was motivated by wanting to spend more time with the important Littlefinger character. I would think that Mo would approve of this change since she seems to want more screentime applied to fewer characters. Of course the relationship between Littlefinger and Sansa is important to the series, as is that between Sansa and the Hound, but we will have the opportunity for interaction between the latter pair soon. To me, the interesting thing about that scene was that Septa Mordane was about to say that Petyr Baelish is called Littlefinger, but he interrupted her, but then Arya asked about the nickname anyway, to which Petyr gave an incomplete explanation.
I appreciated that some time was finally spent on Theon Greyjoy, who will be an important character in season 2.
It's easy to decry the exposition-heavy dialogue, yet I would say that more is actually required. Through four episodes would viewers who have not read the books understand the following, just for starters?:
What a maester is and why they dress the way they do.
Understand very well who Jon Arryn and Lisa Arryn were/are and why the message accusing the Lannisters of killing Jon was important.
Subsequently the importance of the conversation between Cersei and Jaime over Jon's body wondering "if he knew."
That Targaryens traditionally wed sister to brother so that Daenerys and Viserys grew up expecting to marry each other.
Etc., etc.

May 09 2011 at 10:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
christian m

I love the books but I am struggling with the show. The acting is great but I find the exposition stifling at times and if I didn't read the books I don't know how I would keep up. The world is joyless, and other then Castle Black it comes across as sterile and airbrushed. I have certainly enjoyed certain moments but I am still waiting for the show to "lift off" as you said last week.

All that being said the story really starts to move the next few weeks so I am hopeful things will improve.

May 09 2011 at 10:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree with your criticisms, but still really loved the episode.

I smiled when I saw that they included Bran's crow dream, as I was afraid they were cutting those out of the series since they weren't present last week. It was also great to meet Hodor. Glad to see the direwolves, particularly Ghost.

I didn't mind the exposition as I actually learned some things from Sansa's history of Westeros recitation and Viserys' bathtub chit chat.

I was excited to see Ser Gregor's introduction and the backstory of the Clegane brothers even though I don't understand making Littlefinger tell Sansa instead of Sandor himself... I was always intrigued by The Hound and really hope they aren't planning on reducing his role in the series...

As for the Night's Watch, I must say when reading and watching I agree with Alliser Thorne. I don't understand Jon's reason for letting Sam giving up on learning to fight. Or maybe he sees that Sam will never be a good fighter and therefore it's not worth helping him learn?

May 09 2011 at 9:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sareeta's comment

Thorne's arguments about being a soldier would be good if he actually meant them. As it is he didn't really want to teach Sam to fight, he wanted to humiliate him. If Thorne wanted Sam to learn fighting technique, he would teach him or get some of the others to teach him, not have them beat him with swords. You don't learn boxing from being beaten up. Sam will still train with the others, but he won't have to be afraid anymore.

May 10 2011 at 9:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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