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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 four episodes, such illumination will be needed.
It is known.
Episode 307: “The Bear and the Maiden Fair”
More than any other episode thus far, it seems, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” is dependent upon and devoted to the various relationships that have flowered amongst the show’s giant cast of characters: Tyrion and Bronn, Sansa and Margaery, Tywin and Joffrey, Jon and Ygritte, Tyrion and Shae.
It’s a powerful reminder that not only do television shows live and die based on the rapport, both on the page and on the screen, of their characters, but also that different series often have wildly divergent approaches to these (inter) relationships. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a series that is prominently – and fondly – remembered for the incredibly strong bonds that developed between the seven regular cast members (well, nine, if one wants to be technical, even though the additional two were only in the first half [or so] of the run); stories here, as such, often revolved around the crew of the USS Enterprise on a gestalt level, depicting them as a family dealing with familial-esque difficulties or breaches from the outside world.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, on the other hand, is a series that was overwhelmingly devoted to the specific ties between specific characters (which is a result, more than likely, of the writing staff instead of the cast having a strong sense of camaraderie). The friendship of Miles O’Brien and Julian Bashir, the rivalry between Odo and Quark, and the actual familial ties of Captain Sisko, his son, and his father all unite to make an overarching tapestry of strong individual threads; it is individuals as opposed to community that drives this story forward, making it the polar opposite of Next Gen (and the vast swath of television up until this point, as well).
Where does Game of Thrones fall on this continuum? Due simply to the dispersed nature of its cast of characters and the highly serialized telling of their individual story threads, it decisively lands in DS9 territory (itself the most serialized of all the Trek productions). Despite its emphasis on house loyalty and politicking, Thrones is less about, say, House Stark as a whole and more dedicated to Arya as an individual piecing together a new family – consisting of Gendry and Hot Pie – to help assure her survival in a cruel and wanton world. And even House Lannister, which has been far less geographically challenged than the Starks, revolves largely around characters that are splintered in their devotions: Tyrion is more dedicated to either Bronn or Shae than to his sister or his father, while Lord Tywin seems more interested in confiding with Arya than any of his own progeny.
Indeed, if there is any type of giant, sweeping narrative force that binds all of the characters and narrative elements together, it would have to be necessity instead of family, survival instead of devotion.
Call it Star Trek: The Anti-Generation.
The Differences between the Episode and the Novel
Most of the characters in Game of Thrones, despite a number of differences from the source material, are still within arm’s reach of their literary counterparts. Osha, however, is not one of these; everything from her demeanor to her appearance go far beyond what is depicted in George Martin’s novels (although, to be fair, she is a character with only a minimal amount of “screen time” on the page – and Martin has repeatedly said that Natalia Tena’s performance in the HBO series has already influenced his characterization of her for the upcoming sixth book).
Osha’s disclosure about her past – how her wildling significant other was assimilated by the White Walkers and made into a wight – is a revealing anecdote emotionally delivered by Tena, but it further cements this gulf between the written and visual character. It also just so happens to deepen two of the series’s most deeply-held trends: it takes what is only subtly or indirectly alluded to on the page and makes it vividly blatant, and it’s a complete fabrication.
It’s this second point that is, by far, the most interesting, as written-Osha’s history is never even hinted at, let alone divulged. Since the books are only told through a select handful of characters’ perspectives, the vast majority of the cast is left more-or-less blank in the backstory department. (The really interesting thing here is that the reader rarely seems to notice this; one gets so wrapped up in, say, Jaime Lannister’s suddenly-revealed and unexpectedly-more-nuanced history [and psychology], she never even stops to think of the other, literally dozens of characters milling about in the background.) One of the more interesting developments of the show, with its equalizing force on the roster of characters, has been to have these holes in content filled in.
And, indeed, it’s been a consistent practice. The sellsword-turned-knight Bronn gets to glancingly refer to his home life (“Blackwater,” episode 209), providing a tantalizing clue as to how his personality was formed, while Gendry gets to find out about his royal parentage (“The Bear and the Maiden Fair”), a development which has already started to alter his character arc in some rather substantial ways. But it’s the characters who have been POVs at one time or another, and, thus, already have reams of backstory already collected, that really stand out. As previously mentioned, the revelation about Cersei Baratheon’s miscarriage – her one and only child with King Robert – is an event that is wildly divergent from the novels, which feature a Cersei who had never let the drunken oaf ejaculate inside her. And the same is strangely, similarly true for Catelyn Stark, who never would’ve spared even a stray thought for the well-being of Jon Snow, the living embodiment of Ned Stark’s single dark deed – yet in “Dark Wings, Dark Words” (302), we learn that she had made a Westerosi version of a prayer wheel when she feared that Jon’s life was literally hanging in the balance.
As the writer-producers slowly get Bran’s storyarc back on track with A Storm of Swords’s – Osha never stepped foot north with the crippled boy, to the Wall or any other destination – it’ll be very telling just how heavily this transition relies upon the further creation of new, filling-in-the-blanks material.
Season Three Reviews:
- 301: Valar Dohaeris
- 302: Dark Wings, Dark Words
- 303: Walk of Punishment
- 304: And Now His Watch Is Ended
- 305: Kissed By Fire
- 306: The Climb
Season Two Reviews:
- 210: Valar Morghulis
- 209: Blackwater
- 208: The Prince of Winterfell
- 207: A Man without Honor
- 206: The Old Gods and the New
- 205: The Ghost of Harrenhal
- 204: Garden of Bones
- 203: What Is Dead May Never Die
- 202: The Night Lands
- 201: The North Remembers
Season One Reviews:
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