By Rowan Kaiser | Press Play April 22, 2012 at 9:55PM
Garden Of Bones was perhaps my least favorite episode of Game Of Thrones, period. The show has been such a success that seeing it struggle so much is a surprise. It’s still competent and watchable, but Garden Of Bones was frayed at the edges.
The novel this season of Game Of Thrones is based on is called A Clash Of Kings, which makes the story clear: that of the civil war that followed Cersei’s coup and Ned’s execution. Despite the presence of multiple kings, none of them have “clashed” directly, either with blades or with words. Ever since the trailer showed bits and pieces of Stannis’ confrontation with Renly, I’ve been waiting for this scene, prepared to do an in-depth analysis of how it demonstrated the show’s themes surrounding power and legitimacy. Instead, what I got was an example of what’s wrong with Garden Of Bones, which could also make bigger problems for the show in the future.
Watch the scene here:
Two narrative questions arise immediately with the scene: why are Stannis and Renly fighting each other, and where are they fighting? Game Of Thrones’ issues with geography are highlighted here: we don’t know where Renly’s camp is, so we don’t know why this confrontation is meaningful. Shouldn’t Renly be surprised that his brother is attacking him, instead of the Lannisters? But there’s no buildup in either case—previous scenes from Renly’s camp are about the presence of Littlefinger, and it’s the first time in the episode we see Stannis at all. The stakes of this meeting are as high as any we’ve seen in the show, and instead, it’s confusing.
Clarity has been lost in the translation from the page to the screen. In the novel, location questions are clearly answered. Renly has the strength of two of the Seven Kingdoms, Stannis, one weak kingdom. So Stannis launches a surprise attack against Renly’s capital, which makes Renly stop his march against Joffrey in the capital. There are both strategic and character-based reasons for the confrontation. The location is unclear, which tends to be when Game Of Thrones is at its weakest. (This is worsened in the episode’s final scene, when Davos smuggles Melisandre . . . somewhere?)
Once the characters start speaking, the confrontation becomes more he-said-she-said than tense and meaningful. Stannis makes small talk with Catelyn, she responds. Renly teases Stannis, he responds. More teasing, and Melisandre responds. It sounds a little bit like a radio play, where the actors record their lines in a studio at different times. This may be an intentional choice by the director: the Baratheon brothers have never gone to war with one another, so perhaps Game Of Thrones is portraying their internal struggle as externally stilted.
And it rings falsely. The worst offender is Cat Stark, whose “Listen to yourselves. If you were sons of mine I would knock your heads together until you remembered that you were brothers” is monumentally misguided (though the line is from the novel, it’s taken almost entirely out of context here). So far this season, Catelyn has been the voice of reason, telling Robb that sending Theon to Pyke was a bad idea, and recognizing Renly’s “summer knights” last week. Here she comes across as peevish and undiplomatic, ruining whatever tiny chance this meeting had at being good for the realm.
Stephen Dillane’s performance as Stannis also leaves something to be desired. He’s supposed to be rigid, so certain of his claim to the throne that he doesn’t comprehend anything else. But what comes across is confusion and boredom. He tells Renly, “You think a few bolts of cloth will make you king?” and tilts his head like a cat. There’s no anger here, nor really anywhere in the entire scene, which would help it make more sense.
Some drama is salvaged at the end, after Stannis delivers an ultimatum. Melisandre turns to Renly and says, “Look to your sins, Lord Renly. The night is dark and full of terrors.” This is the first thing that gives any of the four characters speaking in the scene any pause, as Renly finally realizes the implications of the civil war he’s engaging in.
This scene isn’t the only weak one in Garden Of Bones. Robb Stark returns to our screen, winning a battle and then dealing with the aftermath. First he meets with one of his bannermen, a flaying-happy Lord Roose Bolton, then he meets a woman aiding the injured. I suppose we’re supposed to see some romantic chemistry here, but it comes across as just one more thing to keep track of.
Littlefinger’s visit to King Renly’s camp was dull as well. Why he’s there is never made clear—is he upset at Tyrion’s withdrawn promise of a new lordship? And how long did it take him to get to the camp? Is Renly so close to the capital? His scene with Margaery Tyrell frustrates as well. He bothers her about Renly’s sexuality, but this is such an ill-kept secret that Lannister soldiers were joking about it at the start of the episode. And there’s no real conclusion to the episode, simply Melisandre giving “birth” to something supernatural. It’s ominous, but detached from the story. Garden Of Bones has no narrative arc.
The other half of the episode does far better. Dany’s introduction to the city of Qarth, “the greatest city that ever was and ever will be,” gives it an immediate sense of place. Tyrion’s attempts to combat the worst impulses of Cersei and Joffrey are as entertaining and tense as ever, and he gets the line of the night with, “That was a threat. See the difference!” And Arya’s introduction to the Lannister stronghold of Harrenhal is ominous enough before she gets invited to be Lord Tywin Lannister’s cup-bearer. Garden Of Bones lays the groundwork for dramatic things to happen later with Robb Stark, Danaerys discovering Qarth, and Arya in the belly of the Lannister beast, but it’s worrying that the episode botches the most important scene of the season .
Littlefinger’s presence in Renly’s camp at this point is a huge deviation from the novels, possibly the biggest of the series to date. It’s also an entirely negative deviation. The scene with Margaery was unpleasant. It’s his explicit offer to Cat from Tyrion that changes things the most, although most of that will take place in the future.
On the brighter side, I’m all for Arya interacting with Tywin Lannister, something that didn’t happen in A Clash Of Kings. And the depiction of Joffrey’s sociopathy, forcing prostitutes hired by Tyrion to beat each other for his pleasure, was different from the page in a way that was fairly necessary, since it had been shown previously via memory.
Still, I can’t help but compare the Stannis/Renly confrontation and shake my head at the missed opportunity. In the book, Renly eats a peach in the middle of it, adding an air of symbolic ambiguity that haunts Stannis afterward. There’s no peach on-screen, even though it probably would be better visually. And poor Cat looking like an idiot compared to lines like this:
“This is folly,” Catelyn said sharply. “Lord Tywin sits at Harrenhal with twenty thousand swords. The remnants of the Kingslayer’s army have regrouped at the Golden Tooth, another Lannister host gathers beneath the shadow of Casterly Rock, and Cersei and her son hold King’s Landing and your precious Iron Throne. You each name yourself king, yet the kingdom bleeds, and no one lifts a sword to defend it but my son.”
Where was this depth on the screen?
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance pop culture critic currently living in the Bay Area. He is a staff writer at The A.V. Club, covering television and literature. He also writes about video games for several different publications, including Joystiq and Paste Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser for unimportant musings on media and extremely important kitten photographs.