Based largely off of the first half of George R.R. Martin’s behemoth of a book, A Storm of Swords (which is longer than the entirety of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy!), the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones brings all of the plot lines, character beats, and thematic developments from the first two years to a climatic head.
And as the show’s lingering questions are answered and bombshell revelations are dropped, this column (It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones) will help wade viewers and book-lovers both through the narrative overload that will be at hand. What it won’t do, however, is spoil the story; the hope and intent is elucidation, not ruination.
Given the death, destruction, and – gasp – hope that await in the next five episodes, such illumination will be needed.
It is known.
Episode 306: “The Climb”
The execution of the Wall-climbing sequence was a daunting prospect for the (in-the-know) audience, let alone for the cast and crew, given just how difficult it would be to realize the action in a grounded, believable fashion – one of <b>Game of Thrones</b>’s greater strengths, but also one of its biggest weaknesses, as its high standard acts as an ever-more-difficult-to-cross threshold for each subsequent sequence of each subsequent episode. When certain elements fail to pass this test, it can provide a distracting – if not ruinous – experience, which is precisely why the Stark brood’s famous direwolves are rarely, if ever, seen (as compared to the novels or even the comic book adaptation, which features them in nearly every scene).
The climb, fortunately for all involved, passed with flying colors. By opting to actually construct the Wall as a physical set instead of relying exclusively on visual effects, the cast and crew created a visceral sequence that easily serves as a hallmark of production design, placing it right alongside the Battle of Blackwater Bay (“Blackwater,” episode 209) and earning Game of Thrones a top spot in the annals of television history. And lest the decision to build a 50-foot wall and to use real ropes to actually hoist the actors up in real space seems a no-brainer in hindsight, the sheer expense – and extra shooting time – of the sequence would have been more than enough to scare off nearly every other series.
(Which is not to say that the climb is utterly flawless: the shots that do feature virtual extensions of the impeccable set, particularly those looking down upon the actors as they laboriously work their way up, stick out like a sore thumb. But even here, there is a golden lining, as the action set-piece of the crack and subsequent fall of several of the climbers is nothing short of stunning, special and visual effects included.)
The best part of the entire sequence, however, has little to do with its contents and more with how it transcends to mesh with the larger episode. Although it starts as a “simple” action scene, played to the hilt with cutting ropes and cracked ice and death-defying swings, it ends by becoming a framing device for the entire installment. “The climb is all there is,” Lord Petyr Baelish intones. The character means to use it to handicap – both figuratively as well as literally – all those currently playing the game of thrones, but the writers use it as a means of adding a resonant depth that would otherwise be entirely absent.
It will be most intriguing to see how this metaphor is extended in coming seasons.
The Differences between the Episode and the Novel:
On the page, Thoros of Myr and Lady Melisandre couldn’t be any more different. The former is a slovenly drunk who, by the time readers catch back up with him in A Storm of Swords (he was initially introduced in the first book, A Game of Thrones), has become a lean, mean, religiously pure fighting machine (with these two extremes being blended for the television version); the latter, an unfailingly self-serious devotee who is interested in nothing less than making kings, commanding armies, and fighting the good fight against the darkness. Thoros retains a palpable humility even after performing what can be described as miracles, believing himself to be nothing more than a (temporary) shell for the execution of God’s great work; Melisandre can only make a dramatic show of what visions she sees in the flames, and these mostly revolve around danger to her own person. (Oh, she’s good at seducing morally rigid would-be monarchs, as well.)
What makes the two even more striking in their polar-opposite relationship is the simple fact that they never meet; they both function as vassals for their respective liege lords, the individuals they would see installed as some type of leader over the misbegotten land of Westeros, and these missions continually prevent their paths from crossing. That Weiss and Benioff would concoct new material to feature the two of them together is, on the surface, imminently understandable, given the reflections in character, plot, and theme they engender with(in) one another – seeing Melisandre respond firsthand to Thoros’s magical workings is an intriguing what-if that the writing duo has said repeatedly over the years was a big draw in adapting the material for the small screen (and one can’t help but [largely] feel that George Martin himself would have written Melisandre’s reactions almost exactly the same).
There’s another reason for the deviation, however, and one that is extremely well-known by this point in the game. In the novels, there is a bastard of King Robert Baratheon’s named Edric Storm, who was apprehended by King Stannis after Storm’s End, the seat of House Baratheon, was taken from the late King Renly’s forces (it is here, in the books, where Ser Davos Seaworth sneaks in Lady Melisandre under the cover of darkness to give birth to a shadow baby, killing the castle’s castellan and allowing their men to nab Edric). It was believed by Davos and a number of others that Melisandre wanted the lad to burn him alive, to better bring about Stannis’s victory against Joffrey in King’s Landing, but it transpires that Stannis wanted the boy safely in his custody in order to prove the truth of his assertion that Joff is, indeed, a bastard born of incest – until the Battle of the Blackwater is lost, that is, and the war effort seems doomed. All of a sudden, Edric’s martyr status seems all but sealed.
This particular plot thread can only be described as minor in a book that has nearly 1,150 pages’ worth of varying narrative strands, but it is important to the characters of Stannis and Melisandre – and, most importantly of all, to the development of Davos, a character who spends a great deal of his time in this installment in Dragonstone’s dungeons. Cutting it from the current season would have been a serious omission (particularly for a group of individuals that has a smaller presence in the text), but the introduction of a new character in the form of young Edric was something that the showrunners clearly were less than enthused about. The solution was to yet again double-down on the already-established cast, and, thus, Gendry became the stand-in.
But by playing this latest game of switcheroo, Benioff and Weiss are also tossing more balls into the grand juggling act that is the series’s overarching narrative. This nudges Arya’s and Gendry’s character arcs into a slightly different direction, given the betrayal at the hands of a fellowship that both have grown to rely upon to some degree or another, but it does much more to change the perception and, indeed, the standing of Beric Dondarrion, a man who is meant to be the underdog ruler of and for the underdogs that span across all seven kingdoms. Just as Thoros was meant to function as a distant thematic counterweight to Melisandre, Dondarrion performs the same task with the likes of Lord Tywin and, even, Eddard Stark; call him the Hand of the People instead of the Hand of the King.
Now, however, he’s just another creaky cog in a larger, corrupt machine that relentlessly churns away in the game of thrones.
Season Three Reviews:
Season Two Reviews:
Season One Reviews: