Reviewing Game of Thrones: “The Old Gods and the New”


[Note: We’re dispensing with the recaps, because … well, there’s a million of them! That said, there are spoilers for the series below, and occasionally there’ll be hints about things yet to come in the novels, so beware]

To say that this episode is uneven in its quality is, apparently, something that engenders a great deal of angst in some corners of the internet, up to and including disavowal of these reviews as anything worth looking at. That may be as it may be — one reads what one wants and not what one doesn’t — but I think it’d be worthwhile to pause a moment and consider the criteria by which these Unbound Worlds reviews (and my commentary elsewhere) are written. It provides important context.

There’s many approaches to criticism, and literary theory (my native terrain) is rife with duelling methods to analyze works. For many, a work should be seen in isolation of anything else around it, especially the nebulous urges and meanings of the author (or authors). That’s not my own preferred approach. At the same time, it doesn’t make sense to try and judge the adaptation as if George R.R. Martin had created it — he didn’t — and to not take into account the change from one medium to another, the realities of TV production timetables and budgets, the fallibility of actors and directors and producers. A one to one translation of a text to screen is not only impossible, it’s undesirable.

How, then, to review? You could merely judge it on whether you liked it or not, but that’s hardly a basis on which to offer criticism since it’s so purely subjective. So you go further, marshaling reasons for why you did or did not like it, trying to ground it not in objectivity (there’s very little of that in criticism) but in a kind of communal subjectivity that others can assimilate (more or less). The end result? Hopefully you’ve said some things worth thinking about and talking about.

My own marshaled reasons? I have a very particular approach to reviewing this series, and it goes like this: since the executive producers have discussed, at length, why they chose this series to adapt (it moved them as a great story written by a masterful storyteller), and — more importantly — have articulated on numerous occasions that their chief aims are to make great television and be faithful to the spirit and character of the novels, that those two ambitions can serve as axes by which to judge any scene. Is a scene actually good television? Good. Is a good scene also faithful to the spirit of the novels? Excellent — they have succeeded at their own goals, and not only should they be congratulated, but viewers should be very happy indeed.

Note that the above axes do not mean that every trivial detail and line need make it to the show, that every incident and character must correspond to what’s seen on screen. What matters is the character and voice of the novels being accurately translated, not the picayune details. In fact, some of the finest moments of the series — including in this very episode — are the results of streamlining and greatly compressing elements of the story into unique configurations — the details are all shuffled about and changed, perhaps, but the core spirit is there, and fans of the novels can surely applaud that. When I point out a change without any particular comment, that’s simply to point it out — it’s not a complaint. And if I point out a change and comment, well, in the back of my mind I’m concerned that it didn’t work well or that it isn’t true to the spirit of the story, and I’ll explain why.

With that preamble done, lets move into the actual review of “The Old Gods and the New”, an episode that features one of the finest ten minute stretches the series has ever had… and which also features scenes built on some of the laziest writing the show has yet subjected fans to (you can see why I’ve got the long preamble, right?)

The first ten minutes or so of the episode is a sublime example of what happens when everything is firing on all cylinders. Vanessa Taylor builds the episode around the material in a Bran chapter in A Clash of Kings… but then weaves in material from three other chapters, bringing a character death much earlier into the story and giving Theon a direct hand in it rather than a direct hand. These are “substantial” changes, when looked at purely in the details… but it so perfectly captures the spirit of those Theon chapters, and the importance of what he does, that the fact that it’s excellent television merely helps things along. The echoing of his kicking around Gared’s head in his introduction in Bran’s first chapter in A Clash of Kings is particularly clever, given the newer context.

The riot in King’s Landing also plays out very well, although one can see the rough edges of what amounts to a program with a limited (if large) budget and an even more limited shooting schedule. The riot would doubtless have been tremendous and terrifying in a blockbuster film, but as it is, it’s still pretty good for a TV series. More importantly than the production values of the budget, however, was the acting… and Peter Dinklage delivered, yet again, with his furious denunciation of Joffrey, and Jack Gleeson matched him with Joffrey’s petulant protests and screeching.

Moreover, the peril Sansa is placed into — more harrowing than anything in the novel, with its explicit threat of rape (though, it should be noted, the use of “almost rape” as a story point might be argued as being overused in general in film and television) and with the Hound’s swift, brutal assault on those who’d hurt the “little bird”. Rory McCann brings an implacable ferocity to the role of the Hound, very much in keeping with Martin’s character, although it’s true that he doesn’t laugh in the face of those who run from him, a detail that makes his pent-up rage and his apparent joy in killing plainer.

Other segments of the episode were near as good. Jon up to the point where he swings his sword wide of Ygritte is beautifully handled, bringing in in the earlier scenes with Qhorin bits of information and themes that point to the end of Jon’s story this season. Arya’s scenes with Tywin are always a pleasure, as well — Maisie Williams rises to the occasion every time — although that well may be running dry; too many clever conversations with Tywin starts to feel rather safe and ordinary, and it’d make sense to shift her to interacting more with Gendry and Hot Pie rather than pressingg yet another Tywin-Arya scene onto viewers. But those scenes in Harrenhal bring the spectre of a much bigger problem….

Namely, lazy writing. What did Amory Lorch do to the writers, that he features in two of the most ill-considered scenes ever put on camera for the series? We are reintroduced to Harrenhal to hear Tywin Lannister berate Lorch about sending a letter to the wrong lord… but this is Westeros, and there are no envelopes and postage that are done by hand. Lorch might have been tasked with seeing the letter delivered… but if he took it to a maester, the maester would immediately know the recipient wasn’t right, and if he took it to a courier, surely the courier would have noted there must be a mix-up and that he’s not intending to ride into the North? This is a very minor nit to pick, but I’m noting it because it seems part of a pattern with the scenes in Harrenhal surrounding the Tyrion and Arya moments.

Much more egregious is the sequence leading up to Amory Lorch’s darkly comic death. In truth, he dies later and under very different circumstances in the novel, but that’s just a detail and doesn’t really matter. However, the staging of the scene — specifically the chase — was a real problem. Why fill the courtyard with extras in Lannister kit? Why then Arya careen among them, and not a one of them cares or grabs at her, and Lorch — Ser Amory Lorch, I should add, a knight known as one of the fiercest reavers Tywin Lannister has — doesn’t simply yell for them to grab them? One can suspend disbelief only so far, and it beggars the imagination to wonder how the production let this one slide. The scene may be loosely inspired by the moment where Arya steals a horn from a knight and runs away from him… but that’s the man’s personal property, while Lorch — already the victim of Tywin’s wrath — believes Arya’s up to something treasonous, which would surely give him more cause to speak up.

Not only does the comedic approach to the death not fit the tone of the novels or the stone of Arya’s story in Harrenhal as Martin envisioned, but the fact that it was so poorly handled — whether in the writing or direction, I’m not sure — means it couldn’t be good television, either. Had it been staged differently, it might have been something that would befit the tone of the show and the intelligence of its viewers. But this sort of false drama was a hallmark of this episode, tension being concocted out of thin air for no great purpose.

The sophomoric qualities of the Robb and Talisa scenes bear mentioning as well, as the show continues with a rather juvenile and uninspired interaction between them, something that doesn’t really befit the tone that the show itself has tried to establish. There’s a … cuteness, perhaps, that sits ill at ease with everything that surrounds it. And then to have a few exchanged words and a lingering look lead Catelyn Stark into immediately sussing out her son’s infatuation and warning him against it? It felt contrived and sloppy, information being doled out at the writer’s say so rather than because it comes organically from the story. The actors are working as best they can with what they’ve been presented, but so far what they have presents a shallow and unengaging picture that their charm and talent hasn’t been able to imbue with life.

And last, but not least, the Qartheen storyline. It’s interesting that the producers talked of changing it, to give it more “action” and to give Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys more scope. Just as with Robb Stark, they seem unable or unwilling to let any of the ensemble go a season with little or nothing to do, something which feels like a failure of nerve or ambition. This show already treats its cast differently than most other shows — HBO puts the ensemble nature of it forward so much that when it submitted its various Emmy entries, the best actor and best actress categories were blank as far as Game of Thrones went, with only the supporting categories seeing actors and actresses put forward.

Why, then, is the story being made to serve the actors, to keep their faces on the screen, rather than the other way around? Stranger still is the fact that up to the final scene of episode 6… the show was in a very broad sense following Dany’s storyline in the novel. It lost the tone and voice of these sections, the “place of splendors”, the way that Qarth was a world unto itself, the strangeness of the inhabitants such as Xaro Xhoan Daxos… but the basics of a time in the desert, an arrival at Qarth, Xaro’s marriage proposal and her being turned down by various potentates, that all remained.

So this final scene is, after six episodes, the first truly major departure in the plot for Daenerys… and it’s one that we think rather opens all sorts of troublesome issues down the road. Now that someone’s stolen the dragons, what prevents others from stealing them? In the novels, stealing them is never a question for the Qartheen or some of the others Dany encounters — whether it’s because their refined culture demands some means of establishing legal claim, or because they know that a dragon stolen will never obey, it just doesn’t happen… well, not for a long while. But now the trigger is pulled, and you can just imagine some viewers each year wondering why Dany and her khalasar — which is even more greatly diminished — aren’t just filled full of arrows so that the dragons can be taken.

This added action underscores that the writers are at times thinking purely in the short term when it comes to fleshing out Daenerys’s story, replacing what was something of a monomythic trial with something more mundane, more obvious, more a matter of flesh and blood than spirit. It’s strange that, in a show with so much ambition on display, they shied away from the fairy tale structure of Daenerys’s story in A Clash of Kings (more on which later) when dark fairy tales can convert to the screen very well indeed (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Company of Wolves to name two) and would have given Daenerys’s story a distinctness that it does not presently have.

All in all, this is an episode that opened with amazing strength, because of clever adaptation… but it disappointed in the nuts and bolts of it, as we careened from one excellent scene to something that felt sub-par and back to something excellent. At this stage, the show really needs to steady itself and remain consistent, and hopefully the final four episodes to come will achieve that.