I went back and forth for a little while about what picture to lead off with, and I finally settled on Viserys, because while he wasn’t exactly central to this episode’s most important storyline, he’s a great example of what I wanted to start by talking about: how the “villains” from the book have translated onto the screen.
I put villains in quotes because it’s not like this is a story where everyone is clearly divided into two camps, good and bad. In fact, what makes Martin’s writing (and by extension, the adaptation by Weiss and Benioff) so compelling is that his characters are painted in shades of gray. That all being said, there are a handful of characters in the books that are very clearly black hats with little to no redeeming traits, Viserys being chief among them. On the page, he was entirely one-dimensional, little more than a foil for us to see Dany’s growth into womanhood and queenhood. Yet the way Harry Lloyd has played him on the show… there is something likeable about his oily charm. I’m not saying that I’m rooting for Viserys, or that he’s not cruel (and probably insane), but the character on the show certainly has a dark humor that wasn’t present in the book, and I think it has added tremendously to his storyline. Rather than being a stock villain, he has become more of a character that we can at least understand his worldview, even if we disagree with it.
The same goes for Ser Alliser Thorne, the master-at-arms at Castle Black. In the book he is unrelentingly cruel and small-minded. We certainly see some of that here, but to me its coming across more has hardness than cruelty. He’s driving the boys to these extremes because he is aware of the danger they face (laid out very explicitly in an excellent monologue that is not in the book), and not simply because he is a cruel man that enjoys visiting misfortune on others weaker than him. One of the biggest surprises for me of the series so far as been my reassessment of this character, as the writers on the show have humanized him to some extent.
Aside from adding some depth to two shallow characters from the book, this was a great episode in terms of exposition and back story, adding depth to viewers understanding of the world of Westeros. We got our first look at several fan-favorite characters (Hodor, Sam, Gendry, and even Jon’s direwolf Ghost) and learned some Westerosi lore. Littlefinger telling Sansa the story of the brothers Clegane (The Hound and The Mountain) filled in why these two men are so terrible and cruel as knights (and it completely stands to reason why they’d both be in service of House Lannister). Viserys takes some time in bath to tell Doreah about the Targaryen conquest of Westeros, on the backs of dragons, and how they forged the Iron Throne from the swords of the fallen lords and kings, using the breath of Balerion the Black Dread himself to fuse them together. Tyrion chats with Theon Greyjoy about whores and Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, giving us the explanation of how Theon is a hostage in Ned Stark’s House. Jory and Jaime futher expound on Balon’s rebellion, discussing the sack of Pyke and the death of Theon’s brothers. Even Sansa gets in on the exposition, being quizzed by Septa Mordane about the Targaryen kings, which reminds her of the death of her grandfather and uncle at the hands of Aerys. I can certainly understand if new viewers found this all a bit overwhelming, but for fans of the book it was gratifying to see many of these details covered.
Ned did much of the work this episode in terms of driving the plot forward, as he uncovers more about the circumstances of the death of Jon Arryn. For a man who died before the series even started, Arryn has certainly cast a long shadow. Ned gets from Maester Pycelle a book of the genealogy of the great Houses (including physical descriptions of offspring), and when Ned asks if Arryn had been poisoned Pycelle goes out of his way to remind Ned that the only people that use poison are “women, cravens and eunuchs,” and oh by the way Ned did you know that Varys has been spayed and neutered? Very subtle on the part of the old healer.
Ned continues to follow Arryn’s trail, and it takes him to a smithy on the Street of Steel, wherein he finds a strapping young blacksmiths apprentice with hair the color of coal. The look on Ned’s face as he talks to Gendry leads us to believe that he’s starting to put some things together, and I’m sure we’ll get more on this topic next week.
The other scene that I specifically wanted to mention was the episode’s last: Catelyn and Tyrion in the Inn at the Crossroads. This was a great episode for Tyrion period (the scene in Winterfell with Robb and Bran was fantastic, as was his conversation with Theon), and I just love the confidence and intelligence that Peter Dinklage imbues this character with. Watching Tyrion’s face as he twigs to what Cat is doing was great. As for Cat herself, I enjoyed seeing her take command of that situation, and got a real rush when she finally shouted for her father’s bannermen to take the Imp, and all the swords came out at once. Perfect cliffhanger to end the episode on.
One final note, in case I haven’t mentioned this yet- the music during the opening credits is stupendous. Every Sunday night I find myself humming it for about an hour after the show.