By Rowan Kaiser | Press Play May 21, 2012 at 9:49AM
One of the recurring discussions about this second season of Game Of Thrones concerns how much the television show is changed from the novels. While the merits of the specific changes are debatable, a running theme of both my reviews and those of other critics is that the show is more confident in its adaptation, becoming its own entity.
As obvious as it might sound, we should remember that entity is a television show, and a particular form of a television show, at that: highly serialized with multiple interweaving plots, much like many of the great dramas of the last decade-plus. But the TV show-ness of Game Of Thrones works against it slightly in “The Prince Of Winterfell.” This episode leads towards the climax of the season, so it’s almost all build-up. Episodes like this are traditional in television, but they don't work so well for Game Of Thrones.
The two series associated most with the “build-up” episode are two of the most important for the current form of serialization, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The Wire. Buffy helped develop a model of the standalone episode, with clues in each week's show leading towards a larger finale each season. After a few seasons, the overarching plot became such an important part of the show that the last batch of episodes became a string of heavily serialized “mythology” episodes, barely working by themselves. The Buffy episode “The Prince Of Winterfell” reminded me most of is “The Weight Of The World,” the fifth season's penultimate episode, in which Buffy, having lost all hope and motivation, has to be emotionally wrestled back into heroic shape for the season’s climax—the emotions before the storm. While both of these episodes may be competent, they’re fairly unmemorable out of context.
Game Of Thrones is significantly more complicated than Buffy, though, taking place across multiple geographic regions, with exponentially more major characters; in this sense, it’s more similar to The Wire. The Wire’s serialization was even more focused than Buffy’s, or any other show, really. Each of its seasons was 10-13 episodes, focused generally on a component of the society of Baltimore, and specifically on a drug case worked by the main characters. Most of the season would be build-up, the second-to-last episode would contain the climax of the investigation, and then would come the finale, the denouement. Game Of Thrones mostly followed that model in the first season, and is certainly following it here: several different plotlines are leading to what should be an explosive conclusion.
Here’s the problem: Games Of Thrones is even more scattered and geographically disjointed than The Wire. While The Wire had almost as many characters and motivations to keep track of as this show, all the events were working towards the same climax: the conclusion of the drug investigation, and then the rippling effects of that climax (although, to be fair, the fourth season deviated from this specific form). In Game Of Thrones, each smaller story seems to be moving towards a different climax.
The chief upcoming event we hear discussed is Stannis’ attack on King’s Landing, the capital. This would be the biggest battle of the war so far, and a total Stannis victory might even end that war altogether. Preparing for it makes sense. Jon Snow, now captured by wildlings and being led to their king, is also clearly moving toward a climax of some kind, as is Dany, desperate to get her dragons back. And the tension is clearly escalating in Winterfell, as Theon refuses to leave with his sister, even as a northerner army approaches.
But that’s only half of the show’s stories, maybe fewer. Robb Stark’s romance may be climaxing, but its effects are unclear, as are the actions of his mother, who has released Jaime Lannister in exchange for her children, escorted by Brienne of Tarth. This is a new story thread and an interesting choice for the show to make (these events happened relatively later in the novels than they do here). Samwell Tarly and the rest of the Night’s Watch haven’t been mentioned in several episodes, but their discovery of a cache of obsidian weapons is deemed important enough to show up here. Yes, the show is moving towards something, but the important ones can’t help but be diluted among all the other events taking place.
Three different things make the lack of action in this episode disappointing. First, last week’s episode was also relationship-heavy and event-light. It was so good that this episode pales in comparison, though of course two high points in a row isn’t always wise structurally. Second, the eighth episode of the first season, “The Pointy End,” managed to contain several different momentous events: the death of Arya’s dancing instructor; the undead attack at the Night’s Watch, Robb Stark summoning his bannermen and gaining their respect. Meanwhile, “The Prince Of Winterfell” seems intentionally non-momentous.
Why “intentionally”? The most dramatic moment of the episode occurs when Arya and her friends leave Harrenhal by walking past a bevy of dead men, all killed off-screen by Arya’s murder genie, Jaqen H’ghar. There is craft here: the build-up to this moment involves the Stark girl's desperation and cleverness, telling Jaqen to kill himself, or aid her. When he says, “A girl lacks honor,” Arya gives a quick shrug. Honor is meaningless to her. She’s trying to survive, and win. This is all good.
There’s just one tiny problem with the resolution, though: it’s not what happened in the novels. The changes the show made from the novel end up removing Arya’s agency, the importance of her actions, the intensity of the actions themselves, and not one but two of her most badass moments. There’s still some time for the show to make it up to her, I suppose, but I simply cannot fathom why it would remove arguably the best scenes of the second book . . . unless it was to deliberately rearrange events to fit a Wire-like structural framework. It doesn’t have to work that way. Game Of Thrones has so many different characters, working on a complex enough narrative, that it could have action and preparation in each episode.
Despite a disappointing lack of events and warping of Arya’s story, there was still a lot to like about “The Prince Of Winterfell.” Its theme of finding romance and comfort in the midst of war and intrigue successfully built the emotional tension in advance of the impending climax. Robb Stark’s scene with his new crush Talisa was a major step forward for this storyline. And Peter Dinklage acted the hell out of his romantic scene with Shae, showing a vulnerability only hinted at before. Additionally, Tyrion’s scenes with Varys are among the best the show has done, filled with wit, danger, foreshadowing, and charm. (“We could throw books at his men.” “We don’t have that many books.”) This demonstrates that Game Of Thrones is telling its multiple stories well. The issue is how it’s editing those stories together into a story, and into a series.
In addition to the tremendously disappointing changes in the Arya Stark story, another Stark is ill-served by the adaptation. Arya's mother Cat Stark has had her agency largely removed as well, due to a couple of changes. When Littlefinger made the offer to exchange Jaime for her daughters, her decision to free Jaime was changed from one she made on her own to one she merely accepted. In the novels, Cat also made that decision after receiving the “news” of Bran and Rickon’s death; here, she’s pushed into it by the Karstarks demanding Jaime’s death after his failed escape last week. Cat Stark’s strength made her arguably my favorite character in the novels, but the show regularly weakens her.
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.