Backstories, Duels, and Great Comeuppance; Journey to the Throne S1E4-6

This is the third post in a series I’m staring on this blog called Journey to the Throne, reviewing previous episodes of the show Game of Thrones before its eighth and final season. To view the previous post, click here: Masterclass Acting: Journey to the Throne S1E2-3

Since the goal of Journey to the Throne is to consider the show as a whole leading up to its end, please be advised that this post will contain SPOILERS up to the end of Season 7.


Game of Thrones, Season 1 Episode 4; “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”

Synopsis: Ned investigates Jon Arryn’s death. Littlefinger tells Ned about all the spies he has in King’s Landing and tells Ned not to trust him – weird flex, but okay. The tournament in Ned’s honor begins, and Jon Arryn’s squire is killed by the Mountain. Jon makes a new friend at the wall: fat and much-bullied Samwell Tarly. Tyrion receives a cold welcome at Winterfell while just trying to give the recently-crippled Bran a cool new harness. Catelyn arrests Tyrion for the attempted murder of Tyrion. Daenerys and company arrive in Vaes Dothrak, and Daenerys stands up to Viserys.

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This episode introduces SO MANY CHARACTERS – most of them aren’t terribly significant now, but will be later. Hodor makes his first appearance, we get to see the Mountain in action, Ned discovers Gendry, and Samwell Tarly shows up at the Wall. Not to mention, this is the first time we get Theon’s backstory as well as Aliser Thorne’s. There are characters who later become tremendously significant but are just passing mentions here, such as Balon Greyjoy, Tywin Lannister, and Walder Frey. And we get the brief debuts of Fan-Favorite Bronn (later Ser Bronn of the Blackwater) and the opposite of a Fan-Favorite in Janos Slynt, appearing in a tavern-inn and a small council meeting respectively. These early episodes show just how well-developed and thorough this universe is – there are scores upon scores of characters.

One thing I’ve realized – especially in this episode – is that every Thrones character has a tragic backstory. (Everyone who hasn’t had one – such as the Stark Children – gets one during the course of the series.) Sam’s father hates him. Varys is a eunuch. Ser Aliser saw some crazy shit North of the Wall. Jorah committed crimes to pay for his wife’s expensive tastes. Theon is kept at Winterfell by a consequence of his father’s war. This includes the characters who seem irredeemably evil – Joffrey’s father doesn’t really love him, Viserys is exiled from King’s Landing that he remembers but cannot rule. One of the last scenes in the episode tells the story of the Hound, and how he was abused and burned by his brother – you start to feel for him, and, hey, wait a minute, didn’t he just murder the butcher’s boy two episodes ago? Game of Thrones and the novels A Song of Ice and Fire teach us that no one is wholly good or wholly evil; everyone knows that, that’s the series’ most obvious lesson. But another lesson of the series that is potentially lost on the audience: those who were evil were probably once innocent and good, and the things that happen to them likely drive them to evil. “You say that as though you were the first man alive to think it!” Obviously, this isn’t a revolutionary notion, but in the presence of the fact that no character is completely good and no character is without a tragic backstory, such a statement does hold more weight.

Also, if you liked the tournament parts of this episode, and wished you could get more of that, might I recommend you read A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which is all about Westerosi knights and chivalry.

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Favorite Moment: Jon, Grenn, and Pyp helping Sam by tossing the duel.

Favorite Line: When Ned says “Perhaps I was wrong to distrust you, Lord Baelish,” and he is met with famous last words – “Distrusting me was the wisest thing you’ve done since you climbed off your horse.”


Season 1, Episode 5; “The Wolf and the Lion”

Synopsis: King’s Landing is where much of this episode’s action is set; There’s a hullabaloo at the Hand’s Jousting tournament when the Mountain tries to murder the Knight of the Flowers, who bested him. The Mountain fights his brother, the Hound. Ned gets closer to finding the secrets Jon Arryn was killed for. King Robert finds out that Daenerys is pregnant and tries to get the Small Council to sanction her murder. Ned quits the small council over this. Loras Tyrell, Knight of the Flowers, explains to Robert’s brother Renly that he’d be a better king than Robert. In the Vale of Arryn, Catelyn brings Tyrion Lannister to her sister Lysa’s court to put him on trial for attempting to murder Bran and allegedly murdering Jon Arryn. Then, back at King’s Landing, Jaime challenges Ned to a duel to take revenge for Tyion’s kidnapping. A guard interferes and injures Ned before Jaime can defeat him in fair combat. Meanwhile in Winterfell, Bran mopes and Theon fucks.

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While this is definitely a King’s Landing-heavy episode, there’s a fair amount of action in the Vale of Arryn during this episode. It starts with Tyrion – always the most charismatic and well-spoken person on the show – beginning to convince Catelyn of his innocence. Then, when they are attacked by people from a local hill tribe, we find that Tyrion can actually handle himself in a fight really well.

Also, this episode introduces the craziness that is Lysa and Robin Arryn. I don’t really have anything to say about Lysa, other than the show does a good job of using her idiosyncrazies – like, perhaps, breastfeeding an eight-year-old – to show just how unbalanced this woman is. I have my own theory about Robin, but that will be for later in this series.

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Can I just say that the Eyrie is my favorite castle in the show? I don’t really have that much to say about that, it just looks cool. The Vale is a pretty exciting place next episode, but in this episode just sets up the tension for the next one.

This episode is where things really start to feel like plotlines are coming together. Tyrion is brought to the Vale to wrongly face trial for Bran’s murder. Robert’s discovered Dany’s pregnancy and wants her killed. Ned’s getting close to the answers he’s looking for – too close – regarding Jon Arryn’s murder. Tensions between the Starks and the Lannisters reach a boiling point.

This episode has some neat one-on-one conversations. I remember the first time I watched the conversation between Loras Tyrell and Renly, and while I did appreciate that the show was switching things up and having LGBTQ representation, I just remember thinking “Wait, who are these people?” and I’d missed all the nuances. It took me until this time watching it through to link this scene to the Tyrell Family’s reputation – they’re known as social climbers who try to supplant their superiors. This is evident in the deep lore with their relation to House Gardener, this is evident in the way they stand by ready to supplant the Lannisters in Seasons 3-5, and I think there’s some of that here. While I don’t doubt that Loras loves Renly, I think he does see that staying close to Renly will have some kind of advantage to being with him.

Also, I really like this scene between Robert and Cersei:

It hits a lot of emotional beats – their uproarious laughter when Cersei says that their marriage holds the realm together, the strategy discussion towards the middle, and when Cersei asks about Lyanna. This is the only scene these two actors have together, and they have so much chemistry, I wish they had more screentime together.

Robert: Now we’ve got as many armies as there are men with gold and everybody wants something different. Your father wants to take over the world. Ned Stark wants to run away and bury his head in the snow.

Cersei: And what do you want?

Robert: *Cheerfully holds up glass of wine*

And I could talk about Ned’s poignant and dramatic departure from the Small Council on the refusal to kill Daenerys. But forget all that, this episode has one and only one centerpiece. Right in the title: the Wolf and the Lion.

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The way the show builds tension between Jaime and Ned is excellent. Co-showrunner David Benioff compares it to “two gunslingers in a western who have been circling each other from the beginning of the movie.” In the episodes leading up to this duel, the two have a encounters of verbal sparring, which basically involve Jaime being cocky and chiding Ned for being so holier-than-thou, and Ned taking the high road and questioning Jaime’s honor. It’s the little conversations they have that help build up hype. Consider this dialogue from the first episode:

Jaime: I’m sure we’ll have a tournament to celebrate your new title, if you accept. It will be good to have you in the field. The competition has become a bit stale.

Ned: I don’t fight in tournaments.

Jaime: No? Getting a little old for it?

Ned: I don’t fight in tournaments because when I fight a man for real, I don’t want him to know what I can do.

Or this conversation from the third episode:

Ned: Very handsome armor. Not a scratch on it.

Jaime: I know. People have been swinging for years, but they all seem to miss.

Ned: You’ve chosen your opponents wisely, then.

Jaime: I have a knack for it.

There are few moments where we get to see Ned fight and few moments where we get to see Jaime fight. In fact, consider the fact that the other duel we see with Jaime with (before the loss of his sword hand) is against Brienne, during which time his hands are bound together. This is two of Westeros’ best swordsmen at the top of their game.

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One thing I really love from this duel is the conclusion. You might object, noting that the duel ends with Ned getting stabbed in the leg by an interfering Lannister soldier. But the real conclusion of the episode comes when Jaime refuses to kill the prone and injured Ned. Here is a man who is said to have no honor, but he refuses to claim an easy victory because, as he says later, “it wouldn’t have been clean.” This is the beginning of one of the show’s best character arcs, Jaime’s journey from villain to hero.

And obviously, when you look at scenes from Season 6 (Tower of Joy, Battle of the Bastards) it becomes noticeable that the fight choreography gets better as time goes on. But this remains a high point of the show’s early days, one where the series’ true potential was quite clear.

Which will bring me to my next point, after I pick my favorites from this episode…

Favorite Moment: The duel!

Favorite Line(s): This Shakespearean back-and-forth between Varys and Littlefinger:

Varys: How have you been since we last saw each other?

Littlefinger: Since you last saw me or since I last saw you?

Varys: Now, the last time I saw you, you were talking to the Hand of the King.

Littlefinger: Saw me with your own eyes?

Varys: Eyes I own.

 


Season 1, Episode 6; “A Golden Crown”

Synopsis: Ned awakes to his injuries and is told he must remain Hand of the King, and must serve while King Robert goes on a hunting trip. Ned demands that Tywin Lannister come to King’s Landing to answer for the crimes of his Bannerman, the Mountain. Joffrey gives Sansa a necklace and the two share a tender moment. Arya practices sword work with Syrio. Tyrion proclaims his innocence, but when no one at the Vale believes him, Bronn fights on his behalf in a trial by combat and wins; they’re free to go. In the east, Viserys tries to steal Daenerys’ dragon eggs, and Jorah stands up to him. Khal Drogo announces that he will go to Westeros and take the throne for his wife and his unborn son, leading to an awesome feast. Viserys later interrupts this feast by drunkenly declaring that the crown should be his – Drogo promises he will have a golden crown, and Viserys gets what might be this show’s most satisfying and cinematic death scene.

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…Now, to the point I was making before; I’ve written before about S1E6’s final scene, which provides the episode with its title. (You can read that post here: 5 (and a half) of My Favorite Game of Thrones Scenes) This was the moment where I truly understood what this show was and it was when I fell in love with the show’s Darwinistic brutality. Here is a bad guy with a clearly fatal flaw that the audience can clearly rally against who gets a shocking death in a satisfying manner.

Before I watched Thrones, I was told it would be all shocking deaths and my favorite characters dying. Nobody told me it was also going to be shocking deaths and my least favorite characters dying. But here is the great and victorious element of Thrones’ overarching story: Planting, payoff, and comeuppance.

Viserys’ angry and drunken intrusion is almost to be expected given what happens in the earlier scenes in Vaes Dothrak. Daenerys takes part in that gross heart-eating ritual that turns out rather favorably for her. In turn, Viserys tries to steal the dragon eggs and leave, but Jorah – whom Viserys had at first thought to be loyal to him – stands in his way. By extension, Viserys reads this as Westeros choosing Daenerys over him.

So Viserys drunkenly comes in to demand that Drogo give his army so he can take the throne. Drogo of course says that Viserys shall have “A golden crown, one that men shall tremble to behold,” before having his men break Viserys’ arm, restrain him, and then he pours molten gold on the punk’s head, killing him.

Everything here is perfect. Viserys’ assumption that just because they don’t have swords (and he does) that he is safe and can’t be killed is one last arrogant move on his part. And that’s what this scene comes down to; Viserys is killed by his arrogance. It’s hard to say exactly when it became clear that Viserys’ partnership with Drogo was no longer an option for him to take back the Iron Throne. Perhaps Drogo never intended to give Viserys an army. Maybe if Viserys had tried harder to integrate himself with the Dothraki or had waited patiently in Pentos with Illyrio (Jorah suggests this in the second episode) he would have gotten his army. If there’s anything to be learned here, it’s clear that Viserys can’t play “the Game.”

This episode has some other very neat moments. Sansa’s and Arya’s discussion which leads to Ned realizing that Joffrey is not Robert’s son is a neat moment of clarity. Ned on the Throne in Robert’s absence is neat to see. There’s a lot going on in the Vale – Tyrion’s trial is amusing, and his trial by combat fought by Bronn is damn fun to watch. One moment thing that occurred to me the first time I watched this episode was how the setting builds anticipation. When you see the way the room is set up, with the moon door in the middle, you start to wonder why there is a slight pit in the middle of the room – and it isn’t until the middle of the scene where you see the gears turn and the floor of the moon door opens, leaving a gaping hole, as well as a potentially dangerous fate for Tyrion.

And while Bronn will later insist that his friendship with Tyrion was purely mercenary, the moment when everyone at the Eyrie is laughing at Tyrion and Bronn comes forward to say, “I’ll stand for the dwarf” certainly feels like friendship.

Favorite Line: After the trial by combat, Lysa Arryn shouts at Bronn: “You don’t fight with honor!” Bronn nods at the man he just bested, killed, and pushed through the moon door; “No, but he did.”

Favorite Moment: Oh come on, what else would it be. “A crown for a king.”

 

Thank you so much for reading – next week, we’ll be talking about Season 1 episodes 7 and 8 – “You Win or You Die” and “The Pointy End”

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