“We don’t choose who we love.” Jaime Lannister
It’s probably foolish to compare Game of Thrones to Mad Men for obvious reasons: one features unknowable and occasionally unlikable protagonists in a fantasy setting as they all vie for power and the other is Game of Thrones. But both shows are back to airing simultaneously on Sunday nights and both shows are in the Pantheon of TV Greats (TM) so it’s worth at least considering how their respective networks present them.
Mad Men aired it’s season six premiere last night as a two-hour episode. Technically it was two episodes aired back to back but there weren’t many differences between the two hours. Financially, airing one two-hour premiere must work out for AMC since they tried it out last season and are presumably not in the business of losing money (renewal of The Killing aside). But creatively it takes a little bit of the punch out of the show’s first two episodes. Mad Men is an awesome show but a dense one as well. It’s one of the few TV Greats (TM) that doesn’t lend itself to Netflix Marathon-watching and two episodes back-to-back on a April Sunday night is kind of like being treated to a rich steak dinner, thanking the waiter and then having said waiter grab the back of your head and try to push another steak in your mouth while you cry and cry and cry.
Game of Thrones, on the other hand is a much friendlier binge-watching option. And this week’s second episode, “Dark Wings, Dark Words” would have been much more appropriate as the second hour of the season premiere. Sadly, HBO probably can’t afford to cut a 10-week season down to nine and “Dark Wings, Dark Words” had to go it alone.
Despite a handful of scenes in King’s Landing, “Dark Wings, Dark Words” feels like the Westeros’ B-Team’s season tune-up. Game of Thrones is just as effective when checking in on the women, children, prisoners, and wargs of Westeros as it is with the Tywin Lannisters of the world.
Notably, this is the first episode in God knows how long that features every living Stark. Hell, even a dead Stark’s voice can be heard during Bran’s most recent creepy kid dream. It’s another reason this should have been folded into the season three premiere, as the Stark-scattered presence across Westeros serves as a stark (hehe) reminder of where the series began and what it has done to its characters since then.
Robb is still very good at war but it now there are fewer battles to fight. With the Tyrells and the Stormlands back in the fold and the Iron Islands too far away to pose a real problem yet, the Lannisters are content to just let the North tire itself out winning back Winterfell and scaling the country for meaningful battles to fight. Robb is clearly not as well suited for this part of his Kingly duties where the hell of war has been replaced by the grind of war. At least his wife remains just cute as a damned button (she loves her grim, bearded, stinking barbarian King), but even she is going to pose a problem somewhere down the road, as Robb’s bannerman are all too happy to point out.
Talisa finally gets the chance to log in some time with Mama Stark, who while not bearded, stinking or a barbarian is clearly quite grim. Catelyn receives news that her father is dead and two more of her children are missing so she goes back to making a pair of those creepy dreamcatcher things. Catelyn is an excellent example of how much people are bound into circumstance in Westeros and how little control they wield over their own lives. When she tells Talisa the story of wishing Jon Snow dead and then immediately regretting her decision, calling herself the world’s worst mother she is really calling herself the world’s worst person. Because of her sex and social status, the only position Catelyn ever really had open to her is mother so she dug into the role with relish because nothing else was an option. And now that all of her children are missing, all she can do is offer the Gods more arts and crafts.
While Bran and Rickon may be “missing,” they were easy enough to find for the Game of Thrones two new inductees into the canon of precocious children. Jojen Reed is able to use his dreaming abilities (if I am to understand what he told Bran, both he and Bran can view the future, past and present of anywhere in the world in dreams, so it’s not strictly a predictive superpower) to bring he and his sister, Meera, into contact with Bran, Rickon, Osha Hodor, Summer and Shaggydog.
Jojen and Meera are a welcome addition for a few reasons. Meera is yet another badass female warrior, which Westeros always needs (“My sister carries the weapons.”). Season three has already proved itself to be more interested in explaining certain magical powers than season two ever was. It was never entirely clear what Pyat Pree’s abilities were, which made Qarth more confusing and inconsequential than it needed to be. And it means that all of these disparate groups of characters across the map are finally starting to grow, rather than shrink. It’s hard enough to cram in character’s storylines as it is without them branching off into even more.
Speaking of groups consolidating: who should Arya run into in the Riverlands, but her old buddy the Hound? We all love Arya for her stubborn refusal of gender norms, impetuous attitude, and just all-around awesomeness, but her best unsung quality is her ability to operate as a magnate for badassery. Pretty much every major character that gets roped into Arya’s life is one of Westeros’ (or just as frequently: Essos’) coolest characters. Arya’s season one badass was Syrio Forel, season two was Yoren and Jaqen H’ghar and now season three has the Hound, Thoros of Myr and Anguy, who has a finer understanding of ballistics trajectory than any physics major. The Brotherhood without Banners should be fun to explore more closely as their apparent desire to serve the realm over any self-styled king is fairly novel.
The final and least-loved Stark, Jon Snow (we’ll get to Sansa later), continues his adventures North of the Wall in bits and spurts. The most interesting tidbit from his talk with Mance is the King Beyond the Wall quantifying just how difficult it was to unite Wildlings. Sure, it’s impressive that Robb, Stannis, Renly and Balon were all able to raise up new kingdoms in rebellion to the Iron Throne, but Westerosi are culturally-conditioned to bend the knee. Mance, on the other hand had to unite 90 clans who spoke seven different languages shared only a steady hate for authority under one banner. And how he did so, really isn’t that much different from how the original kings of Westeros must have: promised safety.
Between Mance’s self-aggrandizing and Talisa’s playful jabs at her stinky husband, it was a solid week for getting an outsider’s view of Westeros. Viewers are conditioned to see Eastern societies like Astapor and Qarth or tribal societies like North of the Wall, and the Dothraki as foreign. But when members of those societies point out Westerosi obsession with subservience, pomp and meaningless tradition, the viewer has a “yeah, that is weird” moment too. Game of Thrones may not do so frequently but it is still capable at any moment of using Westeros as a mirror for modern Western society, so all of those “yeah, that is weird” moments can add up. Daenerys would have been a welcome presence in this episode for more of this outsider’s view, especially since she is somehow both a Westerosi native and an outsider.
Daenerys also would have fit in very well with the show of female dominance on display in “Dark Wings, Dark Words.” Brienne is able to display some physical dominance in a duel with Jaime. Sure, the man is tired and has his hands tied but it’s hard to view their melee as anything but a decisive win for the lady from Tarth. The Brienne and Jaime buddy-cop dynamic is very clearly never going to get old. The sight of potential enemies or allies (the men on horses are House Bolton’s bannermen, which is sworn to House Stark. But with Catelyn and Robb at odds and even Robb’s right-hand dude Roose Bolton being a little bitchy, we’ll see how that resolves itself) at the end of their story is still welcome as it gives their walk a direction. The Brienne-Jaime couldn’t have just been a long uniterrupted walk to King’s Landing while they chatted with each other.
We also get to meet Margaery’s grandmother, Lady Olenna, who is a dominating female in a way unfamiliar to us thus far. We’ve gotten the physicality of Brienne, the skill and fortitude of Arya and the sexual guile of…well, everyone else. But Olenna Tyrell’s presence is like the producers looked down at their checklist and realized “oh shit! We haven’t done badass old chick yet.” Olenna has Loras invite Sansa to dine with her and Margaery. Despite all she’s been through, Sansa still gets the butterflies at the sight of Loras, which is a pleasant reminder that there is still a teenage girl somewhere inside that tortured frame. Olenna wants to know what her granddaughter is getting herself into, marrying this Joffrey fellow. Sansa’s admission that her ex-fiance is a “monster” is probably the bravest thing she has done since her father died. Sure, Olenna and Margaery seem like good people what with Margaery’s charitable services and all. But the Tyrells are now aligned with the Lannisters and Sansa doesn’t get to see how comfortable Margaery is holding that crossbow. But thankfully Olenna responds “that’s a pity.” Her understatement is a welcome relief. She clearly doesn’t view the King of the Seven Kingdoms as anything more than an unfortunate pest.
As for Theon…ehhh let’s give that another week.
“Dark Wings, Dark Words” was ultimately a slight improvement over the premiere, but I suspect every subsequent episode of the show will be an improvement over the preceding. Game of Thrones is almost all-plot and that plot is just designed to get more exciting as it goes along. If you were to chart out both Mad Men and Game of Thrones’ quality, Mad Men would look like an EKG (with a sharp spike upwards last night when Don puked into an umbrella stand at a funeral), while Game of Thrones would look like Stannis’ sword pointed at 45 degrees in anticipation and impaling someone’s face. Thank Gods.
BULLET POINTS FROM HERE ON OUT:
– Not a lot of Tyrion in this episode but I do love his desperate backpeddling after admitting to Shae that Sansa is objectively attractive. Been there, bro. Also: Peter Drunklage.
– THIS WEEK IN JOFFREY IS THE WORST: Of course Joffrey is a homophobe. If there is anyone watching Game of Thrones who was against marriage equality, that just convinced them otherwise.
– So who owns “throneofcocks.com?” I’m asking for a friend.
– Gendry is confused as to why Arya didn’t ask Jaqen H’har to kill King Joffrey. Good question, Gendry.
– “The subtleties of politics are often lost on me.” LOL NO, THEY’RE NOT. YOU’RE THE BEST MARGAERY.
– “There’s no story so good a drink won’t make it better.” I’m gonna like this Thoros of Myr fellow. He even sings a mean “Rains of Castamere.”
– Not a good week for fatties in Westeros. Sam has trouble walking and Hot Pie is accused of causing a country-wide famine.
(photo via Collider)