Thursday, 9 June 2011

War Games

If comparisons between a TV show and its literary source are inevitable (and you have to figure that they are), then the phenomenon is going to be amplified by orders of magnitude when the original writer has a crack at a teleplay for the series (The Walking Dead's creator being one recent and partially successful example).

This is even more of an issue as regards Game of Thrones, because the density of the novel and the rabid devotion of its fans (not without reason, I love it myself) has left the show less room to forge its own identity than something like, for example, True Blood [1].  That, combined with my reasonably thorough knowledge of the book (though as Jamie pointed out after my episode 7 write up, not perfect), and - if we're being honest - some rather prosaic installments in the season's first half, has led to me spending a lot of my energy considering the scenes added in, rather than the interpretations of what the book contained (the opening minutes of the pilot episode remain an obvious but lonely exception). 

For people like me, turning these scenes over in our heads is an opportunity for entertainment of a different sort, as we attempt to work out why scenes have been added, deleted, chopped around, etc.  All of which is brought to a head by an episode penned by Martin himself, because at that point, what he leaves in, what he cuts out, and what he simply invents for the screen, takes on a great deal of importance.

(Spoilers follow)

An example, then - and if you don't want to know anything about Syrio's off-screen fate, then look away now - involves the questions Martin got about that scene in the book.

Many people flat-out refused to believe Syrio was dead.  It's not surprising, anyone with any experience of genre fiction, or indeed of soap opera, quickly learns that an off-camera demise can only mean one of three things: the actor has died, the actor has been fired, or the character either isn't dead, or the writers aren't ready to rule out the possibility they might resurface.

This position is a little harder to justify in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire in general, and as regards Syrio in particular.  It makes absolute narrative sense for Syrio to order Arya to leave (not much point in a desperate last stand to protect someone if she refuses to piss off), and just as much sense that Arya obeyed.  Given the POV nature of the book, there was never any real chance that Arya - or anyone else we follow - would see exactly what would happen to the First Sword of Braavos.

In any event, the constant questioning drove Martin mad.  So mad, in fact, that I wondered whether he would deliberately tweak the scene (now that the POV idea has been significantly relaxed) so as to avoid another barrage of enquiries.

It's a tribute to either how subtle a writer Martin is or how knackered (and slightly drunk) I was as I watched the episode that it took me a full three days to realise that he had.

The easy way out, of course, would be to allow Syrio to die on-screen. Martin is cleverer than that.  He took a look at what was already there, and thought of the one addition he needed to make that would make Syrio's fate clear-cut: "The First Sword of Braavos does not run."

And there we have it.  He won't run from a duel, and as we see later in the episode, his opponent is alive and (seemingly) unharmed.

This is indicative of the changes Martin has made throughout the episode.  Khal Drogo is no longer  lightly wounded fighting another Khal, almost certainly for budget reasons, and instead Martin ties his duel into the larger context of the state of his marriage to Danaerys, but just as importantly, into an overarching theme of the consequences of mercy.

To linger in Essos for a moment, Daenerys saved some women from rape at the cost of her husband entering into a duel to the death.  Sure, he survived almost unharmed, and we had good reason to believe he would, but still, mortal combat is not generally something we are happy to discover we've forced our spouses into.  What other consequences, good or bad, will Danys mercy have?

Ned Stark, of course, is already well aware of what his mercy has cost, especially since Varys (perhaps not unreasonably thinking Ned might be too dense to have worked it out alone) takes great pains to point it out.  Still haunted by what happened to the Targaryen children at the conclusion of the war he fought for so long, Ned chose to ensure the offspring of his enemy would have a chance to escape.  But to paraphrase Saavik: how many have paid for his lack of cold-bloodedness?  How many have died?

And how many will die?  The Stark chess-piece is a square or two away from the two Lannister ones, and I'm nor sure if even BigHead could get out of this one.  Given the obvious disaster spilling from Ned's mercy, the near-miss that took place in Lhazareen, and the uncomfortable and aggravating truth that Joffrey, it would be tempting to assume that Robb's act of kindness is another mis-step, and possibly a fatal one.

Indeed, it's genuinely surprising how few people online have grasped what really took place in the Stark tent.  Letting that Lannister spy go was only merciful in the sense that killing him certainly wouldn't have been.  Beyond that, though, and it's all tactics.  Hapless Enemy Spy #1 isn't going to be the only spy in the hills, but now not only has he handed Robb an extra two thousand warriors, he's had that number confirmed by the enemy general himself.

In other words, mercy can be a wise policy, or a foolish one.  Or something to be ignored, or something to feign in the more general scheme of things (as evidenced by the Small Council hold its possibility in front of Sansa like a baited hook).  I've noted before - as have many others - that the overall theme of this season is power; its acquisition, its retention, and its application.  Who deserves power, who can sensibly wield it, and the degree to which those two things coincide.

And mercy, of course, is an appliance of power like anything else.  As usual, Martin has no intention of commenting on the morality, wisdom or pragmatism of any one choice over any other.  Once again, what is, is.

So no.  I don't think his script was really all that different from his book at all.

Update: Gah! I got out my copy of A Game Of Thrones yesterday to check through Syrio's fight with the Lannisters, but I still managed to miss the fact that the line about not running is in there!  I don't think that mistake really makes a difference to my overall point, but it's bloody annoying.

[1] In fairness, I haven't read any of the original books, so I'm relying on the reports of others for this one.


Jamie said...

A very interesting post, with (and I really hate to do this to you again) one possibly major flaw in your thesis, and another considerable point of disputation.

[Note: There will most definitely be spoilers in this comment for any careless non-readers of the books]

First things first, Syrio did utter that line in the novel. I suspected this was true, but had to check to be sure. Of course, you could argue that this only makes Syrio's fate more clear, so this may not change your argument a great deal. However, the point is that it was not a tweak to the original scene in order to emphasise anything, but a faithful retelling.

Of course, thinking about the line more has made me reassess some of the alternative theories regarding Syrio that were otherwise somewhat appealing - need I say, Jaquen H'ghar? But ultimately, none of the substance of what we received was different.

The point of disputation I would raise concerns Robb's reaction to the Lannister spy; and this is a more interesting addition, as a completely new scene. Obviously, I'm not disputing that there were a whole load of tactics at play here, just what their nature might have been. Like you, the idea that he is amping up his numbers purposefully was the first thing that occurred to me. However, the more I thought about it, the less it made sense; in what possible way could making an opposing general (who is, moreover, known to be particularly canny and cautious) overestimate your numbers by a comparatively minuscule amount? Surely that would simply cause him to be better prepared for their actual numbers? An underestimate, on the other hand: I can see how misinformation of that sort would be useful to disseminate.

An alternative explanation regards what we know is coming for Robb's troops following their intended negotiations at the Twins - the splitting of his forces into the horse-based troops crossing over to the west side of the Green Fork under his command, and the moving south of the majority of his foot troops, under the leadership of Roose Bolton.

I believe Robb made a sound tactical decision to misdirect Lord Tywin, by playing into the plausible role of a rash and impetuous young wolf, taunting, goading, and spoiling for battle; and all the while obscuring his real objective, of taking Jaime Lannister's troops around Riverrun by surprise.

Just my two penn'orth :)

Overall though, a good analysis, and you're obviously correct: the theme of mercy - in all its aspects - is pervasive and interestingly handled in a variety of different ways in this episode.

SpaceSquid said...

Oh, for fuck's sake. I went and checked the scene myself before I posted, and I didn't find the line. I'm not having the best of weeks...

In that case, yes, my thesis changes from "Martin changed it to make it clear" to "Martin always made it clear". Of course, the get-out clause here is whether he actually was the First Sword...

I think you're dead wrong about the force numbers issue, though. Obviously, an underestimate would have been better for Robb, but any misinformation is good here, because this is a war, and not just one big battle. If Tywin is facing an extra two thousand troops (and I'm struggling to see how increasing an army size by 11% qualifies as "a miniscule amount"), he may have to pull troops away from elsewhere. Castles, holdfasts, sieges in the Riverlands. Maybe even Jaime's host, which is currently slapping the Riverlords around like no-one's business. All that to build an overly large host in enemy territory and uncertain ground.

Would that make the actual battle harder for the North? Maybe, though I don't think either of us have a sufficient grasp of military tactics to talk about whether X thousand troops will do worse against an army designed to fight X thousand compared with one designed to fight X+2. But as a strategic tactic, its usefulness is very clear.

Jamie said...

Good point about the get-out clause! I suppose it's possible he may have 'become' someone else before the end of the fight...

You've pretty much convinced me regarding the force numbers though; mainly because your analysis folds quite neatly into the possibility I had assumed - it all fits together quite nicely.

'Minuscule' was poorly chosen, I grant; I believe I was trying to emphasise that Tywin's force was already much larger and that 2,000 men wouldn't make a great deal of difference, but a bit of research indicates that I may well be wrong on that point - it looks like he had c. 20,000 men as well.

Dan Edmunds said...

You see I'm not convinced by it being a numbers thing. First up I would suspect that all will come clear come the next episode and you will get a bit of a Eureka - Oh that's why you let him go moment. Second up, I personally think it is a case of giving the enemy the information you want to give him at that particular time.

Basically I think the crucial point here is not if he has 18,000 or 20,000 men, but the fact that all his men are together. Robb in fact wants the Lannisters to know where he is and what he is doing at that particular point in time because that aids in the deception that will come. It the Lannisters don't know where he is or what he is doing they have to guard against all possibilities, which would include attacking either Jamie or his Dad, and or having split his forces. By allowing the information that his army is amassed as one and moving in a certain direction this will lead them to believe that he is doing what he ultimately needs them to think he is doing which is attacking Daddy Lannister head on (as the impetuous boy he hopes them to believe he is).

In essence letting the scout go with that information helps the upcoming deception where he splits his forces and takes out Jamie. It's only when he makes the split that he wants to hide his movements.

SpaceSquid said...

I entirely agree that it isn't just about the numbers. Indeed, you could argue that it isn't even mainly about the numbers and I wouldn't have a problem with it. Your point about a "Eureka!" moment is also a good one. But if we're going to get into storytelling meta-analysis, if the numbers aspect isn't relevent, then why mention it?

I suppose it's possible that come Monday, Cat will say "Oh, I get it; you let him go because of the numbers, right?" and Robb will say "That's fucking stupid, mother, it was only ever about targets", at which point I'll have egg on my face. But while of course both you and Jamie are right about the targetting angle, and the post would have been stronger had I talked about it, I continue to believe that the numbers issue is of relevence, for all the reasons given in my previous comment.

Dan Edmunds said...

It occurs to me that there is of course a far simpler explanation in respect of the numbers thing - they could simply just have more men than they did before. Time has passed since Rob told his mother he has 18,000 men, it is therefore not unreasonable for them to have assembled a bigger army in that time, possibly through additional allies joining them.

SpaceSquid said...

I had considered that possibility, in fact. Again, though, looking at this from the perspective of how fiction is supposed to be done, I'd call foul if they'd added two thousand warriors off-screen.

Martin is a very precise writer, with remarkably few screw-ups that I can recall. If he quotes 18 000 at one point, and 20 000 at another, there'll be a reason why he's done it.

Having said that, it is possible that there's a deleted scene somewhere which might have that info in. That would be kind of a shame, but I have to confess that it's possible.

Dan Edmunds said...

I may have the explanation. In the book Rob says basically the same line in that he has assembled an amy of 18,000 men - this however doesn't seem to include the levies that Catelyn brings with her - While these aren't shown in the series this fits in with the book as Catelyn and a few others ride ahead to go see Rob.

The levies are described as "near fifteen hundred men" so 18,000 + 1,500 gives 19,500 which in the realm of rounding (assuming the other two numbers are rounded) could easily approximate to 20,000 men.