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A Clash of Perspectives: Roundtabling Season Two of Game of Thrones (Part 1)

Posted by msunyata on Sunday, June 24, 2012

Winterfell has been burnt to the ground, the Imp has been stripped of power, and Stannis has been defeated – but there’s so much more that didn’t make the final cut, and more still to discuss and debate, regardless of its inclusion or omission.

There’s so much to wrap one’s head around, in fact, that a tidy little roundtable I had planned tripled in size and had to be split in two halves.  For this first part, a crack panel of George R.R. Martin stalkers and TV critics tackled the inherent quality of the source material, A Clash of Kings; the filmmaking chops of Game of Thrones showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff; and the dopiness – or lack thereof – of the average HBO viewer.

Dramatis personae:
 

 

Marc N. Kleinhenz:

Doug, I think you're absolutely right.  The first time viewing this season, I was surprised by Robb's new bride, shocked at Bran having to go through his story arc with only Osha, and outraged at Daenerys's dragons being stolen.  But upon second viewing over these past few weeks, I've been able to enjoy the story for what it is and even appreciate the way that Benioff and Weiss were able to condense so much material into one cohesive whole (though I still think they really dropped the ball with Dany this year).

Anyone else have any similar responses?  Any extreme reactions?  Still in denial?  =)

 

Elio García, co-founder and editor of Westeros:

The things that worried me going into the season seemed to have largely been borne out.  The “season of romance” is a wash, for the most part (except for the intriguing Tyrion-Shae relationship), and the actioning up of Dany's storyline led to something that failed on several levels (like, you know, logic!).  Was I happy with the season overall?  Well, I suppose, but it was a touch-and-go thing... and if it hadn't been for Alfie Allen, Peter Dinklage, and “Blackwater,” the season would have been disastrous (I'm not saying there weren't other bright spots, but that episode and the stories of those two actors' characters were the anchor to the entire season).

Re-watching doesn't really help me, I'm afraid.  I get more frustrated now, knowing what's coming, than when I didn't know.  Case in point:  I went pretty easy on the Jon-Ygritte chase ending their part of episode six because I assumed – wrongly, as it turned out – that they'd somehow steer the course back to the most memorable and iconic moments from the dénouement of Jon's story.  And... then they simply didn't.  Episode seven for Jon and Ygritte was a repetitive, predictable “battle of the sexes” sort of thing, with Ygritte coming on to him and then insulting him and then repeating that until his capture.  Now, I think the two actors have great chemistry, and I look forward to seeing them together next year, but... that material, however entertaining, was fairly empty, dramatically speaking – it's marking time, and it's stuff we're going to be seeing next year again, anyways.  There wasn't a lot of drama in that drama, whereas the chase, the self-sacrifice, the fireside talk as the end draws near (in the book)... all that stuff seemed tailor-made for adaptation on the screen, for action beats and tension and tragedy.

Benioff and Weiss apparently disagreed.  Or they agreed, but thought their Ygritte-Jon scenes were going to be better.

Another example:  Harrenhal.

I knew coming in that there'd be changes, that it'd be compressed.  I fully expected we wouldn't see the Bloody Mummers or the seizure of Harrenhal or “weasel soup.”  But I had no idea that the core thematic thread of it – the way the meanness and brutality of the war begins to alter Arya – would be dropped.  Yes, we all enjoyed those Tywin-Arya scenes, especially the first one.  But the producers over-indulged, and each additional scene became increasingly empty of stakes.  Those scenes detracted from Arya's character development – as in, she has none from somewhere around episode four (when we first see her recite her list) to the final episode.  Oh, she moves around, she gets out of Harrenhal – but her character stays flat; her experience in Harrenhal seems to do nothing to advance her, because on the face of it, she has it pretty easy.

Readers of the books know, of course, how massively important the experiences at Harrenhal were for her character development.  To drop them entirely – not slowing them down, as Bryan Cogman [a writer for the series] seems to contend, but literally coming to a screeching halt after episode four – was a nasty surprise, to say the least, and re-watching merely reminds me of how pointless those additional Tywin-Arya scenes ultimately were, besides being entertaining, because the actors worked well and the writing was all right.  There's really no call to leave characters sitting and spinning their wheels, especially with one of the key “kid” characters, whose whole story is, basically, about their development.  Even Sansa sees much more character development than Arya this year, which is weird.

This season's frustrating for me because there's a number of places where you know they could have held onto the character development that's so integral to making these characters what they are – characters, one notes, which Benioff and Weiss have cited as the primary reason they wanted to adapt this series – without blowing the budget, without adding a lot more time, without losing the audience.  They seemed to understand it for characters like Tyrion and Theon, but failed to apply that understanding for other narratives.

 

David Barr Kirtley, writer for Wired:

I'll take your word for it that season two gets better with repeated viewings, but, frankly, I found it such a slog just watching it once that I can't imagine doing it again.  (In contrast to the novel A Clash of Kings, which I read five times.)  I actually turned the show off during the buildup to Robb and Talisa's love scene because I was just too bored to keep watching.  I never did that in season one.

I thought this season was a mixed bag up until the part where Jon takes Ygritte prisoner, and, at that point, it just totally jumped the shark for me and became embarrassing to watch.  I did really enjoy the “Blackwater” episode, and I enjoyed how the season closed with an army of wights marching on the Fist of the First Men, but my motivation to keep watching is pretty minimal at this point.

In general, I'd prefer they stick as close to the books as possible, but I'm hardly fanatical about it.  There are actually two episodes in the books that I'm not crazy about and would have been happy to see improved.  One is the way that the wildlings accept Jon as a turncloak, which I just find a little hard to swallow.  The other is the way Catelyn frees Jaime Lannister, which is just rage-inducingly foolish.  The show changes both these incidents substantially, but for the worse in both cases.  In the show, Jon kills Qhorin in apparent self-defense, so it's anyone's guess why the wildlings would trust him now.  And in the show, Catelyn isn't grieving for Bran and Rickon when she frees Jaime, which removes the main factor that explains her actions.  (The show introduces the idea that Catelyn had to free Jaime to protect him from Robb's men, which is potentially workable, but it's pretty muddled in the execution.)  In the end, virtually all of the notable changes from the books were disastrous, and most were also completely unnecessary.

Also, I agree 100% with everything Elio said.

 

James Poniewozik, writer for Time:

I should preface my comments by saying that I read A Clash of Kings three years ago and purposely did not re-read it or compare it during the run of season two.  I think this gave me a good memory for the broad outlines while not bogging me down in details – if I couldn't remember that something was changed, to me that was a good sign that it worked.

Rather than hit everything in one post, I want to speak up for the season's Dany arc.  It was not the strongest portion of season two, but, from my memory, it was easily the weakest part of ACOK.  Further, there was little in it that would translate to the very different needs of a visual narrative:  a lot of wandering in the East, a waylay in Qarth, and a very long, Dharma-orientation-film of a vision.  What precisely is the part of this that was so good we want to retain it?  The House of the Undying vision does provide a lot of tantalizing mythology and prophecy, but it would have required considerable explanation/footnoting for the audience that had not read the books (Rhaegar?).  And honestly?  I think the amount of prophecies, visions, and foreshadowing GRRM dumps on Dany is more of a narrative burden than anything.  I can't say I loved Qarth in season two, but beyond missing the manticore, I can't think of much that suffered from translation.

 

Doug Cohen, author:

I generally agree with James's thoughts on Dany's story arc in season two.  The only thing that was really difficult for me to swallow was the reworking of the character of Xaro Xhoan Daxos.  They kept the name and his position as a member of the Thirteen, but everything else regarding his character was essentially tossed out the window.  With just about all of the other characters, even if they look different from how they're portrayed in the books, I can at the very least detect a kernel of who they are in their behaviors.  That was pretty absent with Xaro, which was disappointing.  I understand why the changes were made, but as someone who's been following the books since they were first published, this bothered me.

As to the show as a whole this year, there's no question season one was better than season two.  But that's hardly surprising.  Most people will agree the first book was better than the second (I say this as someone who immensely enjoyed A Clash of Kings), so it stands to reason the first season would be tighter than the second (though I think a legitimate argument can be made for “Blackwater” being the best singular episode to date).  Fans who haven't read the books might have a different take, but as someone who's read this series four times, that's an impossibility for me. 

But if I try to be objective about it, A Game of Thrones was a more complete and focused story than A Clash of Kings (again, I loved Clash).  It's definitely easier to adhere to that story when translating it to another medium.  ACOK grows exponentially, which makes it a lot harder to keep the adaption quite as close to the books.  Throw in the hard truth that the writers for HBO need to keep in mind the needs of a viewing audience unfamiliar with the books, and just the demands of a viewing audience in general versus a reading audience, and changes become inevitable.  I suspect viewers unfamiliar with the books would have a tough time swallowing Robb's being so absent during the season if you keep things true to the books, so that necessitates creating more of a story for him.  Since I'm supposed to not drop spoilers beyond season two, I'll add that, for this reason, I believe a certain prominent character who is absent in book three will be part of the HBO story next season (I hope that's vague enough).  I know the producers said that they wanted more of a story for Robb this season because of his strong performance in season one, but I doubt it was their only motivation.

The way I look at it, because the books are so complex and because the story is being adapted into another medium, all these little changes add up, which can lead to frustration for some people who are very familiar with the books.  I know Benioff and Weiss have said more than once that certain important characters we meet in book two will be appearing in season three instead, because introducing too many characters will confuse viewers unfamiliar with the books.  The fallout is that lots of minor characters never make it into the HBO series at all.  In my eyes, this explains a lot concerning Arya's time in Harrenhal.  I mean, the first two names she whispers to Jaqen H'ghar are completely different names in the book.  The stories behind her decisions to whispering these names are integral to Arya's development in the book, but I've spoken to people unfamiliar with the books who are watching the HBO adaptation and are currently struggling to follow all the characters.  So adding characters like Weese and Chiswyck becomes impossible when you take in the needs of the audience as a whole – but it becomes impossible for Arya's story to carry the same resonance it does in the book.  The producers have not been shy about shifting things around as needed as the story grows, so a lot of the inner changes Arya undergoes can certainly be tackled next season, thematically speaking, especially when they're planning on breaking the third book into two seasons.

At the end of the day, I think I've just accepted that the HBO series will never be as good as the books.  Try to plug one “leak” by remaining true to the books and another one will inevitably start.  So with this in mind, I do my best to enjoy the ride.  As an avid fan of the books, there are still things that bother me, but this overall approach makes it a lot easier for me to digest and accept the HBO series.  How the main characters get from A to B in their storylines may be somewhat different, but, in the end, it's still been A to B.  The path is just somewhat different because of the changes in mediums and other considerations.

With this said, I do agree that the reinventions of Jon's storyline this season were a definite downgrade.  Qhorin Halfhand in particular became watered down when you compare his character to the one in the books.  I'd imagine Benioff and Weiss felt some of the changes were necessary because season three will once again grow exponentially, meaning certain relationships (like Jon and Ygritte) needed to be explored in more detail now.  It's unfortunate, but source materials are almost always better than adaptations; I'm not sure why it should be much different here.  I'm just glad something this complex is being adapted at all.  HBO is clearly doing its best, even if isn't perfect.  But you're never going to please everyone.

I do want to address one point Dave made:  I expect the wildlings accepted Jon in the HBO series because Qhorin kept saying Jon was a traitor, to the point that Qhorin put on a good show of trying to kill him.  Then Jon killed Qhorin, a man greatly hated but also respected among the wildings.  I can see this turn of events somewhat changing the perceptions of the wildlings.    

I could also go on at length about my disgust/hopes/theories regarding Lady Jeyne and her HBO counterpart in Lady Talisa, but I've definitely gone on long enough!

 

David Barr Kirtley, writer for Wired:

I think a big problem with the show is that the producers are enamored with their (admittedly fine) actors and are trying to give them bigger parts, even when it doesn't serve the needs of the story.  Ros the prostitute apparently became a recurring character because the producers were impressed by the actress.  She may in fact be a fine actress, but she definitely doesn't improve the story.  Same thing in season two with Littlefinger, Tywin, Dany, and Robb, all of whose parts were massively expanded from the book, apparently just because the producers liked or wanted to show off the actors.  But since the overall plot developments are fixed by what happens in the book, this left nothing for these characters to do on a scene-by-scene level but waste time.  Lots and lots of time.

I disagree that Arya couldn't have killed Weese and Chiswyck in Harrenhal.  It seems to me that any viewers who couldn't track who Weese and Chiswyck are probably couldn't track who the Tickler and Amory Lorch are, either, so what's gained by changing it?  (And changing it does result in the loss of a great scene from book three.)

 

Elio García, co-founder and editor of Westeros:

The thing about Dany's story is that, right up to the end of episode six, it is essentially the same as the novel.  Where they deviate comes after this point, beginning with the dragon theft.  Why the theft?  More action.  But... then there's this Xaro-as-king business which I've argued is an underdeveloped mess:  Qarth is far too sketchy to suddenly make something so very real as a political coup (“real” in the sense that the whole business on the other side of the ocean, about who is and isn't king, is played out in far more detail and with a far greater sense of reality) seem similarly real.  And from what I can see, there's really no one who paid it any mind, who was concerned or interested in the political dynamics of Qarth, the history of Xaro, etc.  A look at reviews from a number of critics over the weeks of the show showed similarly little interest in Xaro or what he was doing.  I think it's fair to say that this is a problem.

If they had to pad the story out, I would have cut the King Xaro subplot entirely.  Personally, I'd have dropped the dragon theft, too, but even allowing that – just say Pyat Pree has it stolen, or maybe Xaro himself arranges their theft and tries to lay the blame at the feet of the warlocks, who, in turn, are willing to go along with that charade because it'll bring Dany to them, and she's the one that they want. Then when she kills Pyat and there’s no dragons, she thinks... and grabs Xaro, opens the vault, and there finds Doreah with the three dragons, keeping them fed and all, while Xaro was waiting (and hoping) for the Undying to finish off Dany for him.  I'm sure there's other approaches – maybe an assassination attempt that Xaro “foils,” leading him to pressing Dany to marry him still more, and then growing agitated as she delays and resists and talking about ending her stay as a guest, driving her to the warlocks...

But in any case, the political angle was nonsense, poorly considered.  It should have been canned simply for its shoddiness.

As to the House of the Undying, I think you could naturally select only some of the more obscure and symbolic details – you can't and shouldn't use the whole thing.  I've written extensively about the way Martin – and many successful shows – are able to use mysteries, puzzles, and enigmas to entice viewers... and how I've been amazed at the show's utter failure to do so.  You don't have to explain anything when, say, you have a blue rose growing out of the base of the Wall; it's an intriguing image, and there's a value to doing this sort of thing.  People will notice it and wonder what it means.  Some will start trying to figure it out. Others will just wonder and wait.  But what it does is give them something that goes beyond what they've seen, and that's incredibly valuable.  Where Game of Thrones could surpass shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files – and other such shows that built at least part of their story around mysterious prophecies and enigmatic secrets – is that they know exactly what all those mysterious things in the House of the Undying mean, or have the means of knowing:  just ask GRRM.  None of this stuff from network TV where nothing is planned more than a year out, where things are thrown against a wall and either discarded or eventually altered; all these mysteries have actual answers now, and will be revealed in time.

In other words, Game of Thrones really could be the show that can lay down details that won't be revisited for two years, that won't be answered for four or five... but there will be answers if the show gets that far, and viewers will realize this and, I think, be impressed.  I think it's a tremendous position to be in, a real advantage borne out by the way that book fans are absolutely mad for trying to ferret out these secrets (just as Losties wanted to figure out what was going on with Dharma), and the writers seem to have been blind to it.  I have a suspicion that Benioff and Weiss aren't particular fans of the concept of enigma and mystery as a driving force of viewer engagement, and that's a shame, because it's part of what makes the novels as popular as they are.  It really would have cost nothing to have Daenerys glimpse that blue rose before getting distracted by the tent in the distance.  Nothing.  That they didn't do it makes me feel uneasy about their approach to adapting the series, since they seem to be casually dropping a significant aspect of it.

As to Harrenhal, for me it's less about who gets killed (though, really, I'd have killed the Polliver fellow instead of the Tickler...) and more about what actually happens to Arya.  She has it pretty easy in Harrenhal.  She doesn't develop after episode four.  She’s static.  That's just not a good story, to my mind.

 

Doug Cohen, author:

I think a lot of this comes back something I mentioned before: plug one leak and another starts.  Make the three deaths with Arya actually include Weese and Chyswick, and something else will have to be rearranged.  It's all interconnected, and you once pull at one thread, other things become rearranged. 

As to the lack of changes with Arya, the producers are being forced to make tough decisions.  If they had more than ten episodes to work with, they could easily have stretched out the season.  But they have to deal with the realities of a budget in addition to everything else.  To make “Blackwater” happen, they were forced to cut Arya from that episode entirely, and in the final episode, there were a ton of threads to wrap up, even with the extra minutes.  So after episode four, we're discussing another four episodes for Arya before her one scene in the extended finale.

I'm really not sure how much more they could've done with Arya in the grand scheme of things, nice as it would have been for it to be otherwise (she's my favorite character in the books).  Jaqen's storyline is an absolute necessity once she reaches Harrenhal no matter which names Arya gives him, so it's not as though they could sacrifice that.  The theme they seemed to exploring with Arya in HBO's season two was how a young girl in this brutal world is honing her survival instincts, whether it was the quick thinking with Gendry's helmet to save her friend's life, knowing what to say to Tywin each time he asks a piercing question, using H'ghar to kill Lorch, etc.  The theme of Arya's change in the book was certainly more powerful, but this is one more reason why the books are better and will always be better.  No matter how much HBO packs in, they'll never, ever manage to capture everything from the books.

Dave, I can't dismiss what you're saying about the producers falling in love with their actors.  The addition of Ros might be my biggest disappointment.  I'm very much opposed to the idea of creating a character and inserting her into this story to the point that she's impacting the plot – they're already having trouble fitting everyone in as it is, and, if anything, her final scene indicates her role is going to grow.  I now find myself hoping that Baelish removes her from the equation in the near future.  :)

 

Marc N. Kleinhenz:

Given all of the good – really good – points made, I keep finding myself thinking of an exchange I had with a buddy of mine who is a book virgin but an HBO slut.

He wanted to know how Jon Snow's joining up with the wildlings was different in the novel.  So I told him about the characters who didn't make the cut, about the Night's Watch brothers being picked off one by one by the advancing wildling horde, about how Jon and the Halfhand make a good go of it and how they ultimately get cornered, thanks in no small part to the presence of a warg on their side (which is meant to mirror Jon's [slowly] growing sense of skinchanging, which, of course, is meant to complement with/contrast against Bran's).

When I was done, he looked at me and simply said, "Huh.  Sounds convoluted."  (To which my wife agreed – she thinks A Song of Ice and Fire is extremely, not to mention unnecessarily, involved, with too many twists spinning off of too many turns.)

The truth of the matter is that my friend preferred the more economical and – to his mind, at least – more forceful way that Benioff and Weiss pulled off the arc.  And as he heard about all the other characters and throughlines that got cut, particularly at Winterfell, he became happier and happier that the television series diverted the way it did.

Now, of course, I think a great deal of this simply boils down to your first love always being the sweetest.  If you picked up the books first, the series is woefully, ineptly barebones; if you watched the show first, the novels are mercilessly, mindboggingly complicated or scattershot.  But, above and beyond all this... do you think there is a real, honest-to-God point to my friend's feelings?  Is he able to pick up something that we're all simply blind to?

Or, on the other hand, he's just a dolt.  =)

 

James Poniewozik, writer for Time:

We are not supposed to get into spoilers, so I will just say this:  by the time the series gets up to A Feast for Crows [book four], it may prove to be a very good thing that Benioff and Weiss are so willing to cut and condense.

 

Doug Cohen, author:

Agreed.  The fan in me who has read these books over and over might think otherwise, but without cutting and condensing, the series will become a logistical nightmare.  All these little changes add up.  Could they have sacrificed some little things and added other little things instead to give us an even better product?  It's a fair argument, one we'll never have an answer to.  But there's no question they have to scale this back to make it coherent for non-readers (and even some readers) and to keep the HBO series from getting bogged down in the sheer and overwhelming immensity of scope in the books.

 

David Barr Kirtley, writer for Wired:

As I said, the way Jon ends up joining the wildlings in A Clash of Kings has always seemed a bit off to me, so I'd have no problem seeing that part rewritten.  And, obviously, it needs to be streamlined for television – fewer characters, locations, complications, etc.  But if your friend honestly thinks it was good writing for Jon to take Ygritte prisoner and then get captured by wildlings, only to meet up with prisoner Qhorin Halfhand when it was just established in a previous episode that the wildlings would never take Qhorin prisoner, and then have Qhorin attack and be killed by Jon in a staggeringly transparent ploy, then, yes, your friend is 100% Grade A dolt.

 

 

The Lore Behind the Iron Throne:

Season 2:

     

    Season 1:

[Marc N. Kleinhenz is the author of It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I and a freelancer for some 18 sites, including ToweroftheHand.com and Westeros.org.]
 

Quasar
Location:
Posts: 7588
Posted: 7 years 24 weeks ago

Is Ipsy the dolt in question?

Also I agree with David about the show being a slog, though I'd disagree with him about the Tywin/Arya scenes being enjoyable in the slightest.

Faster and faster, a nightmare we ride. Who'll take the reins when the miracle dies? Faster and faster till everything dies. Killing is our way of keeping alive. - Virgin Steele, Blood and Gasoline
Ipsilon
Location:
Posts: 565
Posted: 7 years 24 weeks ago

Yes, Ipsy is, in fact, the dolt in question.

"Good writing" is often a subjective thing, and I'll have to go back and watch again to pick up some of the points that Mr. Kirtley mentions (because, honestly, some of the accents are so thick in those Beyond-the-Wall scenes, I couldn't keep up with what they were saying -- blame it on my mom, who has the same problem with Doctor Who), but I will stick to my claim that it is more efficient writing.

Efficiency is the name of the game in television, even on HBO.  In fact, based on what Marc has told me about the Jon stuff and the Winterfell stuff, I'm pretty sure that book would be half as long as it is, were it done as efficiently as in the show.

I guess I'm just a fan of efficiency.  I'm also a fan of the Law of Conservation of Characters.

 

Also, I loved this season thoroughly.  Ignorance is bliss, I guess.

That happened and we all let it happen.