I had a real problem with The Kingsroad, and it all came from me. This episode, one that is all about the characters taking the first steps on the paths that they will follow the rest of the series, felt inert to me on my first viewing. A second viewing revealed the truth - while there is some inert staging in this episode, the real trouble was me, and the way I was ticking off items on a list of scenes from the book. For whatever reason the first time through I got hung up on comparing the book to the show, and not just watching the show.
So it wasn’t until the second viewing that I realized how great the scene between Cersei and Cat was. I’m actually not even sure it’s in the book, but it should be. It’s a scene that lays out at least partially where Cersei is coming from - she’s a mother, and a fiercely protective one at that. The first two episodes of the season have taken opportunities to compare and contrast these two women, and I think that’s smart. George RR Martin’s novels have a remarkable way of making you reconsider characters you initially thought villainous, and the show is getting a head start on that.
Which isn’t to say that Cersei is a ‘good guy’ by any measure. Trying to kill Bran was one thing, but her demanding the death of Lady was something altogether more horrible. In that hasty trial Sean Bean fully sells Ned’s sense of ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into here,’ as he really realizes how hostile the Lannisters will be to him.
There is a Lannister who might not be such a dick. Tyrion travels north to the Wall with Jon Snow, who has begun to see that the Night’s Watch ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. When Jaime confronted Tyrion about his loyalties, my girlfriend wished that he would betray his family - this is a likable, reasonable character, one who just did the audience a favor by slapping that little shit Joffrey. Peter Dinklage is doing an incredible job of playing the subtle battle between self-loathing and pride in Tyrion.
Speaking of Joffrey, I don’t know that he could have been portrayed better. Young Jack Gleeson plays the role exactly right - Joffrey thinks he’s a big suave hero when he tries to impress Sansa by cutting the butcher’s boy. The important thing about playing a coward like Joffrey is understanding how his bluster works, and the way that he thinks he’s tough shit because everyone has told him he is for so long.
The Kingsroad does have problems; some of the frames feel crowded and some of the staging of scenes is lifeless. The battle between Cat and Bran’s would-be assassin was stiff, and the last minute direwolf save was clumsily edited. Even a scene as small as Jory, Ned’s right hand man, pushing past the silent Ilyn Payne to take away the children had the feel of people being cramped into frame and afraid to step off their marks.
It also suffers from a narrative problem inherent in the material: not enough Ned Stark. Sean Bean is already the heart of the series, and the viewer just instinctively wants more of him. He was reduced to mostly popping in and out this episode, and I felt his absence.
The other inherent narrative problem is that The Kingsroad is a story set completely travel; nobody arrives anyplace this episode. There was a little too much set up in the first episode, and the second follows that with even more set up. The story hasn’t quite ‘started’ yet.
Even still, a second viewing allowed me to really get into the show’s peformances. They’re the strongest part of Game of Thrones, and more than the production design or the script it’s the actors who are elevating the series. Especially exciting is Emilia Clarke, whose Daenerys is just starting her story arc. Clarke is asked to play a lot of difficult, contradictory and frankly hard to understand from a modern point of view emotions in this episode, and I think she’s terrific. Daenerys is figuring out how to gain control of her new husband, and she starts in the bedroom. I hope newbies to the material will give this story time to play out - it doesn’t stick to standard conventions, and Daenerys becomes, for my money, one of the most intriguing characters in the saga. I’m excited to see what Clarke, who gets across so much in her eyes, does in the future.
One thing that’s interesting is how little exposition there is in the series. I’m not sure if anyone has even called Theon Greyjoy by his name, let alone explained who he is/what he does (for those who haven’t read the books, he’s the guy who pledged to follow Robb into battle). I’ve been using my girlfriend as a test subject and she has no problem following the relationships and the larger aspects of the plot points, but she did find some minor things confusing. For instance she didn’t understand that the inn where everybody camped wasn’t the capitol city. The show also doesn’t give a lot of clues as to the passage of time - how long has everybody been on the road? It’s actually quite a while, but you might guess that they leave Winterfell, stop for a bite of lunch and talk about Daenerys and what to do with her, and then come to the inn with enough time for Arya to go play by the river before dinner. There are subtle hints to time passage - Cat mentions she’s been praying over Bran for a month - but it might not hurt the show to try and include a better indicator of time and geography. Even someone saying ‘We’re halfway to King’s Landing’ in passing would have helped with the scene at the inn.
I remain very faithful, although I’m trying to be less so. It’s my faithfulness to the books that made it hard for me to sink into this episode, and for the first time in my life I was one of those guys who obsessively compares the adaptation to the source. The changes that have been made have all been for the best, and I think that the actors are doing amazing jobs of bringing these characters to life. I have to just let them do it and leave my checklist behind.
PLEASE: No spoilers for future events in the comments! If enough people want it, we can set up a spoiler discussion thread.