Tuesday, 12 July 2011


Since today saw the fifth book of George R R Martins’ Song of Ice and Fire hit the shelves, it’s probably time I got around to talking about the last episode of Game of Thrones. As one might expect from the season finale, spoilers will abound after the jump.

“Fire and Blood” had two jobs to do, one prosaic, one thematic. On the most obvious level, the show needed to shuffle everyone into place for the start of the second season. This is usually a pretty thankless job in storytelling, and it’s interesting that they chose to do it at all, considering that, for example, Sansa and Arya’s storylines in the first book had reached their conclusions at the end of Episode 9.

But cutting out the implied cliff-hanger in Sansa’s story and the very much explicit one with regards to Arya made perfect sense thematically, and that was the episode’s second job - to make this hour of television about more than making sure the next season can hit the ground running.
In both goals, “Fire and Blood” was partially successful. The episode succeeds in setting up the new board, but with so much to get through, pieces aren’t so much shuffled around as hurled full-tilt. Jeor Mormont’s decision to go to war beyond the Wall, in particular, seemed less like a dramatic scene and more like a man doing his best to sound impressive whilst reading a plot synopsis to a fireplace. Indeed, the only scene that entirely works in terms of plot advancement is the last. Obviously, that was the most important scene to nail, so fair play for them to pulling it off, but in an episode in which everything else seemed unable to pause for breath, it was even more remarkable for its insistence on slowing the pace, both in terms of what preceded it and with regard to the novel itself, which does not wait for daylight to reveal Daenerys new children.

Perhaps part of the problem is that such breakneck speed works against the necessary pauses and reflections one would expect to occur during the sorts of experiences this episode concerns itself with: how we deal with the loss of our safety nets. The entirety of Clan Stark have lost their lord, and either their husband or their father. Daenerys has lost not only her Khal (and much of the Khalassar) but the baby which was prophesied to conquer the world (perhaps a prophecy is a poor substitute for an army, but it’s nice to have one in your favour all the same). Tywin has lost his son and his true hope for his family’s legacy to be ensured, and Jaime likewise has lost his ability to win any battle, or to fight his way clear of any situation. Even Cersei has lost something: the hope that being the mother of the king instead of the wife of the king will afford her any real power. Even Robert, it seems, was more likely to listen to her (or at least give in to her ) than her own son is, which makes her even more useless and redundant than she was before (at least it makes it easier to fuck her relatives, I suppose). It all happens so fast that it’s hard to take in their various responses, which seems contrary to the point.

Or perhaps not, actually. This isn’t just a story about staggering from a body blow more serious than anyone can imagine, it’s about doing so when you know you don’t have time to feel it. Arya is whisked out of King’s Landing before she can say “I don’t wanna look like Faris Badwan!” Sansa is left in no doubt that any attempt to so much as scratch Joffrey’s fantasy of how ruling a kingdom should work will lead to her getting slapped around by Ser Shinyface.  Catelyn and Robb get one brief moment to embrace each other and vent their feelings, and then Robb has to go chair a council of war which ends up getting him crowned king (and the only person who looks less pleased about that idea than Catelyn is Robb himself). Looked at it from that angle, the whole episode is screaming “Shut up whining about us Boromir-ing Bean, we’ve loaded the catapults with shit and a screaming horde of fans just crested the horizon!”

Whether this is the case or not, it’s worth noting that Joffrey, in contrast, is the only person who has had time to come to terms with his loss, that of his (supposed) father, and now he’s going great guns. I’ve not been kind of Jack Gleeson throughout the series, but he’s much better as Joffrey the Fucked-Up King. Nothing in this episode can be as great as Daenerys rising, Venus-like, from the ashes of her husband’s funeral pyre and of her own hopes, her dragons coiled protectively around her, but watching Joffrey slow-clap Marillion is almost as sinister as him disinterestedly complimenting Sansa as Payne rips the singer’s tongue out behind him, and between them they come close to stealing Daenerys’ crown, if that’s not too loaded a metaphor.

But despite his best efforts, the episode belongs to Daenerys Stormborn. The Unburnt. Mother of Dragons. Well, her and Mirri Maz Duur's, whose speech after Dany learns she's lost her unborn child in exchange for a brain-dead husband is probably some of the best dialogue the show has offered so far.  "You wanted Drogo back", she essentially says, "So that more cities like mine can be burned, with their women raped and children killed.  Fuck, if I might say so, the fuck off."  She's right, of course; it wouldn't be nearly so tragic if she wasn't, and Dany realises that too, at least to some extent.  It doesn't stop her burning the bitch, but given how specific Mirri Maz Duur was regarding how little she still valued her own life, I guess Daenerys kind of did her a favour.  A lingering, agonising favour.

No-one reading this blog needs me to point out that rising from the ashes to begin anew isn't a traditional property of dragons, but phoenixes.  And that's exactly what we're seeing here.  Robb goes from heir apparent to Winterfell to King in the North.  Sansa has found a new bravery and awareness.  Tywin has suddenly learned he has another son.  Even Arya looks like she's going to get the chance to live her tomboy fantasies, albeit with less feast days than she was probably expecting.  As has been pointed out so many times before, you cannot truly grow until the shadow of your parents are removed.  Until the safety net is cut away.  This first season has been about many, many things, but high in the mix is the idea that we all have something to which we cling, which we believe (or hope) defines what we are.  These last two episodes have systematically stripped those things from many of the major players, and left them gasping for air as events spiral, not just out of control, but out of comprehension.

Next year, it will be time to see if the children did any better than their fathers.

Update: Jamie points out that it's only Arya who had her cliffhanger resolved in the show but not the book; Sansa got a post-Baelor section in each.  I don't think it alters any of my arguments, but it's certainly worth correcting.


Jamie said...

A very good article, well done. I should point out, however, that the conclusion to Sansa's story played out to exactly the same length as in the book. She had one more chapter following Eddard's death.

SpaceSquid said...

Thanks, Jamie; I've added an update. This one I have no excuse for, other than for being too knackered to go searching for my copy of Game of Thrones. Apologies.