SF & Fantasy

Reviewing Game of Thrones: “The Prince of Winterfell”


“The Prince of Winterfell” seemed to be — from previews and title — an episode that was going to focus rather more on Theon Greyjoy in Winterfell. This had been, up to now, one of the brightest spots in the season, and certainly led to some expectations… and those expectations were largely wrong. It’s that dissonance — the fact that Winterfell occupies a much lesser place in the episode than it first seemed, and the fact that what was focused on proved to often have some niggling little problems that detracted from full-fledged enjoyment — that seems to have left the episode as being considered one of the lesser episodes of a sophmore season that has not proved to be full up to match the season that came before it. It’s a solid episode, in many ways, but also one where craftmanship occasionally seemed lacking, to its detriment.

A fine example lies with Winterfell. As a showcase for Alfie Allen, it couldn’t have been better. As a chance for Yara Greyjoy, played by Gemma Whelan, to also show another side of her character, it worked very well as well; she’s never going to be the character from the novel, exactly, but the fact that she has a certain familial interest in Theon’s well-being is an interesting turn. But it’s marred by the inexplicable decision to ham-handedly reveal where Bran and Rickon had gotten to by way of having Osha “sneaking” in broad daylight in the castle. This is a change from the novel, suffice it to say, and it seems to greatly undermine — for no obvious reason whatsoever — the poignancy of holding that information until later, as in the novel. Moreover, not only have they reduced the potential payoff of the revelation, they’ve done so in such a clumsy way that it is, quite literally, inexplicable. Why not have the character approach Luwin in secret by night? Why broad day light with Theon Greyjoy and the unscrupulous Dagmer yards away, only needing to glance over their shoulder to spot her? It was a strange lapse, indeed.

Almost no plotline this episode was left untouched by strange moments. None of them are fundamental problems that destroy the episode, but as a whole it feels almost that, eight episodes in, the production is threatening to come apart at the seams if these decisions — either on the day of the shoot or afterward, in editing and post production — are happening because they’re overwhelmed by deadlines and the amount of work that goes into it. It’s something to worry about, especially as we come up to the penultimate episode which is, outside the original first episode, the most complicated and difficult shoot that the show has head to date. Meticulous attention to detail is something that this detail-laden production must always maintain.

Even in some places, perfectly minor moments are flummoxed by sloppiness. How is the name “Cy’Vyalthan” (a terrible, fantasy cliche name if ever I saw one) pronounced ‘Ch’Valthis’? Yet Tyrion puts forward that, or something like that, as one pronunciation. So, too, does Bronn. Understandably, it’s a ridiculous name and no doubt a matter of conjecture as to how it’s pronounced… but when directing the actors to come up with variants in pronunciation, why were they not asked to come up with plausible variations? Or, at least, made to reshoot after offering their implausible pronunciations. And yet without that silliness, the scene is quite strong as Bronn lays down an argument for why he has led the gold cloaks into “extreme measures” (as Varys delicately puts it), rounding up and killing all known thieves to reduce the chance that they’ll contribute to the woes of the city as it lies under siege from King Stannis. The interaction between Bronn, Varys, and Tyrion works quite well, with Jerome Flynn’s Bronn being particularly interesting to watch as he inhabits the pragmatic, dangerous sellsword.

And yet… as noted on our forum, this scene also reveals something else that is more a long-term concern: Tyrion’s objection to the extreme measures Bronn has taken is not, exactly, part of the character in the novel. It’s true that he’s not callous about the lives of others, but he lives under no illusions when it comes to their value. The Tyrion of the novels can be quite mean-spirited or ruthless — crushing Marillion’s hand with a deliberatly-placed foot, slapping Shae when she needles him too far, ordering the deaths of alleged traitors and allowing those deaths to involve their being flinged live by trebuchets, and more — and it seems the Tyrion of the show has been made much less ambiguous at this time. On the show, Tyrion has shown himself much less willing to use brutal methods to punish or to achieve his aims, which does take something away from the complexity of his story; after all, his use of casual violence might be read as yet another exercise of power, and power has been a central theme of this particular season.

Still, Tyrion’s scenes are exceptional, because Peter Dinklage has been giving the role his all, episode after episode. His scene with Lena Headey is pivotal in some ways, taking a scene from then novels and breathing life to it. In particular, his promise to Cersei — or threat — seems to move him from simply being a “good guy” to making him quite conlicted, and not necessarily lovable without reservations. Doubtless there’ll be fans who’ll appreciate the way Tyrion deals with Cersei, but for me it’s a warning sign that could lead to a fatal rift with his family… and could bring about an end to his role in “the game of thrones” which he finds himself so caught up in, as he tells Varys. Cersei’s downfall could well be the downfall of House Lannister, and all of Tyrion’s hopes and desires as well. There’s a danger to vengeance, as the series seems intent on showing us, and yet Tyrion has (at the moment) committed himself to getting that vengeance.

Other scenes work well for quite different reasons. While some feel that the Davos and Stannis scene was misplaced — providing background detail that some would have preferred much earleir on — it did allow for an important moment of characterization for Stannis and Davos in their relationship. It was, also, a showcase for Stephen Dillane, who’s recitation of the animals the besieged garrison of Storm’s End went through to stave off starvation showed just the slightest glimmer of humor and an unexpected pragmatism that went a long way to providing the show’s Stannis much more dimension. Would the Stannis in the novel ever remark on hating cats and liking dogs in quite the same way? Perhaps, perhaps not; he’s not utterly incapable of humor, it’s simply very rare in the character, but it doesn’t really matter — that moment worked very well indeed. It also reminds us from one episode to the next that the distance to King’s Landing is closing, preparing the way for “Blackwater”.

If there’s any major complaint for this episode, it’s about character development: or in this case, the lack of it. Arya Stark has been in stasis from episode four and on, which is a sharp contrast to her narrative in the novel. Though those scenes with Tywin Lannister were always interesting, they never truly achieved anything except, tangentially, flesh out Tywin’s character rather than Arya’s. I had expected that the story of Harrenhal was going to be significantly changed in its particulars, but I admit I never imagined that that would include completely putting the character’s development to a halt for most of a season. Presumably they mean to move this material into the later seasons, but it feels like a missed opportunity to highlight the growing brutality and ugliness of the war if it more directly impacted Arya. Robb Stark’s affair with Talisa Maegyr does, on the other hand, develop his character… but it does so in ways that are starting to strain credulity, and makes me wonder whether the writers have made a serious mis-step in trying to make this the “season of romance”, since it also seems to be the reason for why Jon’s story has been altered in otherwise inexplicable ways.

Again, it’s a solid episode, despite the various small problems that seem to plague it. The actors really are, on the whole, doing fine work. The writing can be quite sharp. But in the course of adaptation, the writers seem to have taken some inexplicable steps, dropping character development for no apparent reason, over-simplifying some aspects of the storyline, or scanting parts of the story which are among the strongest scenes in the novels (Jon Snow’s storyline has been gutted of moments that seemed tailor-made for turning into cinema). Why? No idea. Surely they had reasons, and surely some of them were good, but the sheer amount of choices that seem to weaken the potential drama of this season are baffling when production time and budget don’t seem to be a factor.

Or perhaps it was. Certainly, “Blackwater” looks like – and was – a budget buster, in the sense that HBO gave the production extra money above and beyond their regular budget to be able to afford it. Maybe the logistics and sheer scope of this episode pulled the producers away from being as careful over every detail of the other episodes? Hard to say, but I for one am certainly looking forward to this George R.R. Martin-written, Neil Marshal-directed episode… and you should be too: it’ll be epic.


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