‘Game of Thrones’ – ‘The Kingsroad: Lie down with dogs

A review of episode 2 of “Game of Thrones” coming up just as soon as I speak for the grotesques…

“If I’d been born a peasant, they might have left me in the woods to die.” -Tyrion

In our contemporary, real world, the identity of your parents can play a large role in the shape your life takes, but it doesn’t have to. In the world of Westeros, lineage is everything, a fact illustrated time and again in the events of “The Kingsroad.”

Take Jon Snow. He has been raised alongside Robb, Bran, Sansa and the others, but because he doesn’t share their family name, and because his mother’s identity is unknown to him (but not to Ned and King Robert), he doesn’t matter. He doesn’t matter so much, in fact, that he chooses to go further north and sign the rest of his life away to the Night’s Watch, a military organization whose ranks are revealed to be largely made up of criminals and other misbegotten souls with no matter option. A young man brought up in aristocratic surroundings like Snow shouldn’t have to view this as his best option, but because he shares a father and not a mother with the Stark children, he is no aristocrat, and so to the Wall he goes.

Or take Tyrion Lannister. As he tells his spiritual counterpart Snow, were he to have been born into a poor family, he’d have likely been left in the cold to die as a baby. As a son of the wealthy, prestigious Lannister family, he’s been allowed to live and thrive and indulge his many appetites, both carnal and intellectual.

Or take Prince Joffrey. He’s a preening, smug, cowardly little punk, but the circumstances of his birth make him next in line for the throne and a monster who can largely act with impunity, doing bad things and lying about them later, because who would dare challenge the prince? He tells a lie about the butchers’ boy, and Sansa is afraid to contradict her future mate, so the boy is killed, Ned has to execute Sansa’s direwolf (a stand-in for Arya’s, which ran away), and the lie seems to do Sansa very little good, because Joffrey hates that she saw him crying and acting vulnerable.

Throughout “The Kingsroad,” there is talk of parents and children. Catelyn sits a vigil over Bran, who was gravely injured but not killed in his fall. Cersei visits them both, at first to gather intelligence about the boy who could reveal her incestuous infidelity to the world, but then to bond with Catelyn over the pain of seeing a son suffer.(*) When Arya and Joffrey’s account of what happened by the river differs, Robert ultimately decides it’s a matter where the two fathers should implement the discipline, even though it’s clear that Joffrey will get no punishment, and that Sansa winds up being hurt more than Arya.

(*) The comments here and elsewhere suggest that thus far, Lena Headey and the production team have made Cersei a far more complicated, at least somewhat sympathetic character in the show than she was on the page. I went into that scene assuming Cersei was going to try to find a way to coax Catelyn into pulling the plug on Bran (or whatever the Westeros equivalent is), but the grief the two women shared seemed genuine. I’m wondering if that part of the scene was invented for the show or if it was merely tweaked just enough so that Cersei doesn’t come across as a two-dimensional monster.

“The Kingsroad” is something of a transition episode, and therefore not as likely to excite as the premiere or some of the season’s later episodes. We’ve already plunged into this world and met most of the key players. Now it’s time to start moving some important pieces into place – to get Ned and the royal family on their way back to King’s Landing, to send Jon Snow up to the Wall, to get Catelyn moving on her attempt to prove the Lannisters are up to no good, and for Dany to start learning how to make the best of her new living situation (more on that in a bit).

But if there’s a lot of logistics work going on, there’s also two different Stark family direwolves kicking ass, taking names and proving themselves to be fierce and loyal protectors of their new masters. Bran’s wolf leaping on to the bed and sitting docile after tearing out the assassin’s throat was a particularly bad-ass moment, and more than made up for any time spent watching Sansa moon over bonnie prince blondie. And while Ned executing Sansa’s wolf at the exact moment Bran woke up wasn’t quite as stunning a cliffhanger as Bran’s fall last week, it was still an awfully effective end for show #2.

Some other thoughts:

• While Ned and company are heading off to King’s Landing, Dany spends the hour going deeper into Dothraki territory, both physically and emotionally. We see how empty she looks early on – how much she hates this life and particularly how much she hates the rough, dehumanized sex with Drogo – but a few conversations with her slave girls and some crucial sex ed lessons allow her to seize some control over her situation, and to realize that there are some pleasures to be had from taking charge. It’s still an uncomfortable situation, but I don’t think the show loses sight of that even as it’s allowing Dany to find ways to not be completely miserable.

• Peter Dinklage = awesome, unsurprisingly. Loved Tyrion slapping around his obnoxious nephew, knowing what he’s about – and perhaps knowing quite a bit about what his own siblings are up to.

• In case you missed it, HBO renewed the show on Tuesday, not long after the good-but-not-great premiere ratings came in. This was not a shock. First, HBO has set a recent pattern with its dramas, also renewing “Boardwalk Empire” (high-rated premiere) and “Treme” (low-rated premiere) the Tuesday after. It’s just something the channel is doing right now. Besides that, the production costs for the first season were so exorbitant that the show would only make financial sense to HBO if they could spread that money out over multiple seasons. So a second season was a lock, short of a complete ratings catastrophe (and maybe not even then). Whether there will be a third season and beyond depends, I think, on how much the audience grows.

• I continue to love Maisie Williams’ work as Arya, particularly the joy and pride she displays after Jon Snow gives her a custom-made sword as his farewell gift. He may not share his half-sister’s name, but he knows her very well.

• Though Dany’s story is thus far taking place across the Narrow Sea from everyone else’s, the narrative makes sure to keep her tied in with the action back in Westeros. Robert again expresses his utter hatred of her family, and it turns out that Jorah Mormont, her guide to the exotic ways of the Dothraki, is only living here as a fugitive after Ned caught him selling people (bandits, he claims) into slavery.

• One thing the show never manages to do a good job of is explaining why Catelyn and the other kids can’t go to King’s Landing with Ned. People who have read the books tell me the idea is that somebody has to run Winterfell, that Robb (who’s several years younger in the books than on the show) isn’t old enough to do it himself, and that the only reason the girls are going at all is because Sansa’s betrothed to Joffrey, and where one sister goes, the other follows or somesuch. While the one thing the show doesn’t need is even more exposition, there are enough scenes of Catelyn being upset that Ned is leaving her behind that I feel they could have done more in this one area.

• My eyebrows raised quite a bit at the revelation that Jaime Lannister was the one who killed the mad king. I would have guessed – based both on Robert’s position as the new ruler, and Jaime’s characterization thus far as a schemer who lets other people get dirty – that Robert would’ve been the one to put a sword through Viserys and Dany’s crazy father. That’s definitely one piece of backstory I was very excited to learn more about in future episodes.

And speaking of which, let me remind you again of the No Spoilers rule around here, particularly as it stands to an adapted work like this. Many of you have read the books; many of you have not. For the sake of the latter group – which includes me – there will be absolutely no discussion of plot details from the books that come after the events depicted in each episode. I opened up a few book-vs-show discussion points above, and if there are other ways in which you want to contrast how something was presented on the page with how the show chose to depict it, that’s fair. Anything involving stuff the show hasn’t gotten around to yet, though, is 100% off-limits, and will be deleted immediately.

With that in mind, what did everybody else think?