Recently, two fine television critics from House Ryan (their sigil is a Comfy Ottoman) took to their keyboards to write thought-provoking essays on the declining importance of the single episode. Both pieces are worth reading, and more or less share a thesis: HBO, and the cadre of high-minded auteurs on their payroll, are increasingly less and less interested in producing individual dramatic hours that can stand on their own; that episodes of The Wire, for example, are more akin to chapters in a larger story than singular experiences worthy of being judged on their own merits. Obviously, television as a whole has become more serialized of late, but this disappointing point rings true. One of the great joys of the medium comes from seeing storytellers take advantage of the capsulized format to deliver something coherent and thematically sound every seven days. (Take last week’s episode of Mad Men, for example: It advanced the serialized plot and engaged with series-long tropes about human nature and infidelity, but did so in a contained, fascinating hour that played with elements of slasher flicks and psychological horror. Next week will most likely feel different, but it will still be the same show.) By privileging the season over the episode, HBO has produced some undoubtedly great art. But, as the network loves to brag in its commercials, it’s not quite television. At least not as it was traditionally understood.
This came to mind more than once during “What Is Dead May Never Die,” the third episode of this highly enjoyable second season of Game of Thrones. Spanning the length of an already quite lengthy continent, it was a compelling and rich hour: Alliances were threatened, bruised pectorals were massaged, and familiar characters were shish-kebabbed like so many hunks of wine-drunk, bearded shawarma. Yet those looking for an overarching motif on which to hang their critical hat — or bull’s head helmet — will be disappointed. Whether you choose to consider its slow and exacting work artful and subtle, like the throne room machinations of Varys and Pycelle, or stolid and stubborn, like the labor of Gendry’s former boss in the blacksmithy, the takeaway was the same: The episode was a means to an end. Sure, some blood was spilled in the final act, but as even poor Yoren (alas, we knew him well) would have told you, crossbow bolts can be effective, but damn if they don’t take an awful long time to load.
Of course, if any show has earned this sort of pacing and structure, it’s Game of Thrones. Reducing hundreds of pages of densely plotted prose to 10 hours of television is no easy feat; further breaking it down into thematically aligned installments would be impossible: There’s simply too much ground to cover, literally and otherwise. Furthermore, Game of Thrones’s most interesting narrative trick, to my mind, is its lack of a core protagonist. There are certainly a half-dozen characters we spend a majority of the time with, but what the show is actually about is power: those who broker it, those who seek it, and those who wander too close to its fatal purview. This lack of centrality is a good match for the HBO model of storytelling, where even the smallest thing is part of a larger whole. But it makes recapping — at least traditional recapping — a challenge.
Still, if there was one thing to focus on last night, it was Varys’s lesson wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in an Emmy-submission monologue. “Power resides where men believe it resides,” he purrs. “It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” The man in question is sitting across from him and, in fact, does not meet the minimum height requirements for most of the rides over at Six Flags: Seven Kingdoms. In much the same way that it’s a delight to see a talented athlete finally figure it all out on the field, so, too, has the greatest pleasure of this season derived from seeing Tyrion Lannister take to backrooms of power like he’d been preparing for them his whole life. And, in a way, he had: An outcast from birth, he’s a master observer of human nature. But as a dedicated hedonist, it’s not as if he’s afraid to get his hands dirty. Only someone without an inflated sense of self like Tyrion could have pulled off the remarkable leak-repair job he orchestrated among his fellow council members. For too long, everything at King’s Landing has oozed along beneath a fraudulent scrim of decorum and dignity. The lesson Tyrion teaches to his sister, to Littlefinger, to a suddenly admiring Varys, and, most unfortunately, to tattling, beardless Pycelle is that it’s very hard to play a game with someone who refuses to acknowledge the rules. (The second lesson is, of course, never give an imp anti-constipation medicine unless you want to find yourself in a world of shit.)
Varys’s speech, while showy, could have been easily boiled down to a koan fumbling teenagers have been repeating to themselves for generations: It’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the ocean. Arya stands about as tall as Tyrion, but the shadow she casts is equally large. Both have experience passing for something they’re not — Tyrion as either a freak or a nihilistic sybarite; Arya as both a boy and, prior to that, as a high-class lady meant to marry a nobleman, not stab one in the gut — and this experience seems to have provided them both with a deeper well of emotion than most of the live-hard-die-harder sellswords in Westeros. It wasn’t Arya’s clever, neck-saving claim that the towhead who had just suffered an unpleasant field tracheotomy was Gendry (thus buying her and the other survivors a forced holiday with Tywin Lannister at the haunted Harrenhal) that once again hinted at the depths of her intelligence. It was the fact that she remains troubled by her father’s execution: “How do you sleep?” she asks Yoren. I don’t think therapy has been invented yet in the world of Game of Thrones — couches are for bending comely lasses over, not working through daddy issues — but it seems to me that Arya’s lack of closure, and an absence of an all-encompassing fixation on revenge, will do her well. Like Tyrion with the memory of Tysha (the whore Jaime Lannister hired to love his brother, who was later raped and exiled on orders from Tywin), Arya’s experiences have shaped her, but haven’t consumed her. They’re both small, but they contain multitudes.
In comparison to these two — and perhaps Jon Snow, whose noble pursuit of the truth earns him a beating from the morally bankrupt Craster and a stern dressing-down from the compromised realist Mormont — the rest of the characters are a mess. After flirting with his sister last week, Theon is now flirting with the idea of betraying his father’s invasion plans to Robb Stark. After all, he didn’t leave the Iron Isles by choice — although, let’s be honest, that would be a very reasonable thing to do! — but rather was given away when his father bowed to dead King Robert. But an old desire to please outweighs new grudges: the letter gets burned in the fire and Theon gets rebaptized in the freezing saltwater. His father may have ripped off his fancy chain, but Theon is still bound to old-fashioned familial duty — even if it means waging war on some hapless fishermen from the helm of “the Seabitch” (which, ironically, is also the name of Joe Francis’s yacht) while his sister does all the heavy lifting. (Quick question: Is it for budgetary reasons that the Greyjoy Castle only has three people in it? Or are the Iron People just big DIY-ers?) Meanwhile, Bran is still bedbound, dreaming in furry Doggyvision, while trying to convince Leighton Meester Luwin that magic is real. As for Robb and Daenarys, neither appeared last night, but it’s safe to assume both are stuck in neutral, camped out in a forest or lost in the desert.
Thank goodness, at least, for the return of Gay King Renly! Whether he’s shattering the iron ceiling by letting Tilda Swinton become a member of his royal guard, or just displaying his loud and proud house sigil (which to my mind suggests Bullwinkle in Provincetown), this guy is the best. But it’s not all horny crowns and catty banter with Catelyn Stark in Renly’s world: To boost his legitimacy, he’s got to put a son in his new wife. (This intrusive phrasing has got to stop, by the way. Is Tracy Morgan in the writers’ room?) This is a problem, as Renly can’t stop putting himself into his brother-in-law. Luckily, the Tyrells are as liberal about sibling intimacy as the Lannisters: Margaery offers her embarrassed King a two-for-one to get himself back in the saddle and ready to joust. Remind me why these liberated kooks want to take King’s Landing again? They should hook up with Salladhar The Sex Pirate and devote themselves to having a high time on the high seas instead. Tyrion and Arya might survive longer by bending the rules, but it’d be much safer — not to mention more fun — not to play at all.
Note on these recaps: I have not read the books and I have no intention to do so. My goal is to analyze and enjoy Game of Thrones strictly as a television show. So please, no spoilers or “I told you so”s in the comments, OK? OK!