This week on Ye Olde Exposition Theater...
I kid Game of Thrones. Episode four, Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things is chock full of characters stopping to deliver lengthy exposition to each other, but it totally works. In fact, this is the best episode yet, recovering from a small stumble in the last two where a stodgy staginess reigned.
Part of what makes Cripples, Etc work is the pacing. After a few episodes where the show cut between locales every two minutes, scenes were given a chance to breathe. What’s more, storylines got a couple of scenes in a row, which reduced the choppy, frantic feeling. There was something about the episode Lord Snow that felt less like a story and more like an hourlong ‘Previously on,’ and Cripples, Etc has lost that.
The exposition works because it all comes from character. It’s silly to have Tyrion explain to Theon Greyjoy who he is, who his family is and why he’s at Winterfell… except that Tyrion is doing it to dress the boy down. Every bit of exposition is presented in that way, where the information the viewer gets isn’t just what’s spoken but is also about the speaker and their relationship to the information and the listener. Exposition is usually a dirty word, but this episode proves it doesn’t always have to be.
The exposition is also helpful because shit’s about to hit the fan; we’re coming to the middle of the season and the story is kicking into gear now. One of the things I liked about George RR Martin’s novel is that stuff happens; too many epic fantasy series spend six novels dithering and setting things up. The second half of Game of Thrones will be full of major moves and major events, and this episode provided some breathing room and some foundation for it all.
This episode was also notable for being filled with so much new stuff; I think ALL of the exposition scenes were new for television, and much of the exposition is taken from later books in the series. It all helps, though, and I think delivering information this way can help streamline a lot of bullshit later on (and Martin’s later books are jam-packed with streamline-needing bullshit). This is what adaptation should do, to take the material and present it accurately but not necessarily faithfully while maintaining the illusion of faithfulness. I’d say Game of Thrones is shaping up to be a master class in how to adapt.
That faithfulness means Samwell Tarley has to enter the series. The worst character in all of A Song of Ice and Fire, Tarly is actually less horrible on TV than on the page (although his intro is just as irritating as his literary version, his later scenes play better). He also brings out a lighter side of Jon Snow, something we’ve really needed. I was surprised at how warm the relationship between the two ended up being, especially considering my ingrained hate for Tarley.
Further south we finally got Hodor being introduced and being all but perfect (I always envisioned him bald). And Littlefinger continues to shape up as a wonderful sleaze; Aiden Gillen is going completely oily in this performance and I love it.
Then there’s the story to the east; after a rough couple of episodes we finally see Daenerys assert herself. There was a real sense of relief when she finally lashed back at her asshole brother, and I think her arc is playing out very, very nicely. Viserys, by the way, continues to be a perfect cretin - and they’ve actually toned him down from the book. I think a straight adaptation of Viserys would have been unbearable.
This episode had the same director as the last, but the sense of crude blocking is gone. Some of the scenes feel like they have multiple cameras on them as opposed to last episode’s sense of one camera, one shot. The training scenes at the Wall especially have an expansive quality, although the Vaes Dothrak stuff was so studio-bound as to be kind of laughable. The tourney was a little disappointing, feeling like a much more primitive set-up than I would have expected at King’s Landing. Still, the scene was about character and plot, not spectacle, and I think it accomplished what it needed. Production value is going to continue to be a struggle for the series, especially as we get to armies clashing, but as long as the character work remains as strong as this episode, I won’t complain too much.