(Caution for those who read below – for the web is dark, and full of spoilers. If you haven’t read the books, stop what you are doing and read them.)
“Dark wings, dark words” intone the characters of Game of Thrones, as they know when a raven beings a message, the black birds are rarely delivering joyful tidings. Or, as a media critic Marshall McLuhan put it, “The medium is the message.” Though author George R. R. Martin has created a fantastically detailed alternate universe, there is only so much television can show. Season 2 of Game of Thrones was a far more drastic departure from the books than the relatively faithful first season. However, more important than story changes were the tone of those changes. Season 2 marked the transformation from A Song of Ice and Fire to A Soap Opera With Little Attire. The changes from the source material were more than cosmetic – they removed what elements of Tradition existed within the saga and transformed it into a Renaissance Faire, with modern men and women running around in suits of armor.
Certainly, some change is inevitable when books are brought to the screen. As Martin himself observed, his world is simply too big for a television show or a film to show everything. There have to be cuts and changes. The result is what Martin calls a “butterfly” effect, where small changes such as the absence of a small character in Season One becomes a gaping hole in the story by Season Two, requiring a whole new series of characters and plot twists. This does not necessarily mean that the story must be destroyed. Sometimes it can even by enhanced, as when Game of Thrones Season One created a wholly original dialogue between King Robert Baratheon and Cercei Lannister that gave us more insight into the characters and their relationship than dozens of pages. At its best, film and television can create something genuinely brilliant and superior to a book by showing us the truth as opposed to just describing its features.
Of course, such moments are rare. Television has to appeal to appeal to a mass audience and because of that, there is the temptation to make changes that go beyond the details of plot. A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a fantasy world, but the morality and ethics of Martin’s characters are far removed from the hysterical and hypocritical egalitarianism of Generation Gawker. Nonetheless, for it even to be comprehensible to modern readers, the actions and motivations of characters were so utterly changed that the meaning of the story was lost.
George R. R. Martin is, of course, no Traditionalist. He was a pacifist during the Vietnam War, is a supporter of Barack Obama, and most recently made headlines by bashing the Republican Party with hysterical charges of “voter suppression.” Any man who thinks one of the key problems of the modern age is that not enough people are voting is hardly someone we can put in the same camp as Julius Evola.
Nonetheless, Martin is far underrated as an artist. Besides the staggering achievement of the detailed world that he has created, A Song of Ice and Fire contains hints of some of the Traditionalist themes that mark the great works of Western literature and culture. Some of these cannot fully be explored until his saga is complete – and we all join in the prayers to the Old Gods and the New that Martin will live to finish his life’s work. But we can see some of them already – the link between the legitimate, royal line and the fertility of the land, the Eternal Recurrence, the remembrance of a lost Golden Age, the power of sacred blood, the return of the gods, and the existence of fate. By the Dance of Dragons, book five of a Song of Ice and Fire, we begin to see the hidden patterns behind the actions of the characters we care so much about. Careful readers will find that as the series continues, one can’t help but appreciate the brilliance of the holistic story that Martin is bequeathing us.
The television show utterly sabotages this. It can’t help but be entertaining because of the richness of the source material. However, to appeal to a modern audience, it substitutes sex and liberal sentimentality in place of sophisticated and oftentimes tragic motivations behind characters. The show is still worth seeing – but it gives us cheap thrills, rather than awe. It becomes an entertaining TV show, rather than art.
The Overall Story
Game of Thrones Season 2 is based on A Clash of Kings, book two of A Song of Ice and Fire. At the conclusion of Season 1/A Game of Thrones, the king Robert Baratheon is dead. His best friend and former Hand of the King Ned Stark has been executed, and the Iron Throne is in the possession of Joffrey Lannister, secretly the product of treasonous incest between the Queen Cercei Lannister and her twin brother Jamie Lannister, the Kingslayer. Meanwhile, in the far North, the Others, a band of demonic creatures that seek to eliminate all life are rising again, and only the undermanned forces of the Night’s Watch can stop them. Finally, Daenerys Targaryen, last confirmed scion of the Targaryen line that forged the seven kingdoms, is alone in the Red Waste after the death of her horse lord husband, Khal Drogo of the Dothraki. However, through blood magic, Daenerys unleashes something thought impossible – three dragons, the first seen in centuries.
When Season 2 begins, the realm is in chaos. Stannis Baratheon, the dead king’s oldest brother, claims the Iron Throne “by right.” He is challenged by his younger brother Renly, who has support from the powerful Tyrell family in the South (partially because of his homosexual relationship with Loras Tyrell). Robb Stark has taken up the ancient title of “King in the North” by acclaim of his bannermen, and holds Jamie Lannister captive. Finally, Balon Greyjoy, Lord Reaper of the Iron Islands, has his own plans to reclaim independence, but the Starks hold his last son, Theon. Desperately trying to hold the realm together, the powerful Tywin Lannister has sent his dwarf son Tyrion to rule from King’s Landing as Hand of the King, even if that means bringing to heel the sadistic boy-king Joffrey and his ambitious mother Cercei.
Halfman Within Time
Peter Dinklage receives top billing this season as Tyrion Lannister has become America’s favorite character (as well as Martin’s). This alone signifies Martin’s intended subversion of the fantasy genre, as the “Halfman” of A Song of Ice and Fire is an unusual hero for fantasy. Stunted, hideous to look upon, and cynical, he contrasts with the handsome princes or warriors we’ve come to expect. “The Imp” is a long way from Aragorn.
Still, the television series makes important changes to Tyrion Lannister. Peter Dinklage may be short, but he’s not an ugly man – he’s better looking than most and has won his own internet following. The television character lacks the mismatched eyes and disgusting features of the character casually described by people throughout the books as a “monster.”
The Tyrion of the books is also (incredibly) rather a skilled warrior, quite capable of riding into battle and even defeating knights. In Season One, the idea of Tyrion in battle is used for comedic effect and we don’t see Tyrion’s prowess at the Battle of the Green Fork.
This season, we do see him blindside an enemy at one point and face physical danger, but we don’t see him leading cavalry charges and hacking away at his foes like he does in the book. When he is wounded at the end of the season, he receives a rather cool looking scar, as opposed to having his nose chopped off. The Tyrion of the book is, physically speaking, an almost unspeakably hideous creature and quite capable of inflicting violence himself. The Tyrion of the television series, is, well, short.
These changes seem subtle but feed into a larger transformation of Tyrion Lannister. A television audience will simply find it difficult to sympathize with a character that is physically repulsive. However, more importantly, the Tyrion of the television show is a thoroughly modern man trapped in a feudal world. Though he does not shrink at violence, the audience is rarely forced to confront their favorite character killing people in brutal combat. Tyrion’s japes are often amusing, but they are the sort of jokes modern audiences understand and make themselves. When his sister Cercei mocks that the “little worm” between his legs does the thinking for him, he shoots back, “It’s not that little.”
The main story of season 2 is Tyrion’s consolidation of power as Hand of the King and his efforts to save Cercei and King Joffrey from the consequences of their own stupidity. Unfortunately for him, most of his time and energy is spent conspiring against his own sister, who sees him as a threat to her own position. Tyrion also forms an uneasy partnership with “the spider,” Lord Varys, the master of whisperers. Both the eunuch and the dwarf lack important things in this masculine society, but this gives them a curious advantage. Like a blind man who develops superior hearing, the physical disadvantages of the two men give them superior insight into the intricacies of politics and power.
Cercei also lacks something, uh, essential in a patriarchal society, much to her own bitterness. However, unlike Tyrion, she wields power crudely, pronouncing that “power is power.” Lacking masculinity, she tries to compensate with an overly masculine temperament. Though she was able to outwit Lord Stark (hardly difficult) and has a certain cunning, Cercei fundamentally shares the same view of power as Joffrey, who thinks being king means he can do however he likes.
The message of Season One was that political skill defeats physical courage and honorable behavior. This season, Tyrion wields power like an artist wields a paintbrush, playing the different power bases in King’s Landing against each other and removing his opponents one by one. The television show makes this seem amusing and almost lighthearted, in contrast to the deadly serious stakes of the books. The British version of House of Cards is far more grim than anything taking place in the Red Keep of Maegor the Cruel.
As for Joffrey, he contents himself with brutalizing everyone around him, especially Sansa Stark, his supposed betrothed. Poor Sansa is put through some of the horror that is not removed from the book with frequent threats of sexual humiliation, rape, and physical violence. Tyrion intervenes as best he can to restrain him, further winning the support of the audience. He also gets to slap the king again, reenacting a favorite moment from the first season. Tyrion is the “good” Lannister, serving his family because he must but trying to do justice where he can.
The climax of the first season is the invasion of Stannis Baratheon, Robert’s oldest brother and technically the lawful claimant to the throne. It falls to Tyrion to plan the defense of the city, reading books on strategy and siege-craft to come up with a defense. In an odd (but amusing) scene not in the books, Tyrion inexplicably mispronounces “archmaester” and an author’s name, and is corrected by his sell-sword Bronn. The television series reduces the complicated scheme of a heavy chain and a trap on the Blackwater into Tyrion simply using a ship filled with wildfire, the Westerosi equivalent of a tactical nuke. While Joffrey and the pyromancer grin at the destruction unleashed, Tyrion looks ill. Tyrion eventually leads an attack himself, though he only strikes one blow before being cut down by someone supposedly on his own side.
Tyrion’s better appearance, relative restraint from battle, and discomfort with even necessary violence make him a more appropriate modern hero for an American audience. Combined with his vulgar sense of humor and role as a (relative) protector of Sansa, modern audiences can love Tyrion without reservation. Even his mistress Shae (a prostitute) is transformed into a tough as nails independent womyn who carries a knife and takes serious risks in order to protect Sansa, a wild departure from the book. The show even invents a flat pronouncement that Tyrion and Shae are in love.
The danger here of course is that readers know what happens to Shae, that Tyrion is far more willing to get his hands dirty than is suggested, and that the power players of King’s Landing cannot be so easily divided into “good guys” and “bad guys.” The charming and sinister Petyr Baelish, for example, is poorly served in the series, as the show compensates for his furtiveness by having him baldly state his intentions and vastly simplifying his plots. Instead of a detailed political drama with an amoral hero like FU (in either his American or British incarnations), we’re getting a morality play.
“We Do Not Sow.” Or Think, Apparently
If the first season could be described in a single word, the word would be “power.” For the second season, the word would be “identity.” From Tyrion’s questionable possession of the office of Hand of the King, to Jon Snow’s divided loyalties, to Arya Stark’s changing identities as she flees King’s Landing, and to the very question of which king holds the right to the Iron Throne, characters fight with each other (and themselves) about who they are and what rights they possess.
No character exemplifies this more this season that Theon Greyjoy, last son of Balon. Theon was in the custody of Ned Stark, brought to Winterfell as a “ward.” In reality, he was a hostage meant to guarantee the good behavior of his father, who had rebelled against the Iron Throne after Robert took it. While in the book Theon retains his ambition and confidence, the Theon of the show is a more child-like and innocent character. He notably swears to Robb Stark in the first season that “My sword is yours, in victory and defeat, from this day until my last day,” a vow notably absent from A Song of Ice and Fire.
Robb Stark makes the ill-advised choice to send Theon back to his father in order to form an alliance against the Lannisters. Once his son has returned, Balon reveals that he is planning to attack the North while bulk of the Stark forces are in the south fighting the Lannisters. Theon is thus forced to make a choice between betraying his friend Robb and his real family. He chooses his family, is rededicated to the Drowned God, and prepares to do his father’s will.
The problem is that the television show makes Theon into a truly pitiable character. In the book, Theon feels a conflict but adjusts quickly and comes up with his own plans to win glory. He displays at least rudimentary political skill in manipulating the men beneath him to carry out his own strategy of capturing Winterfell through a skillful diversionary attack. He shows a willingness to kill some of his own men for political ends, with the help of a servant he knows only as Reek. He bungles the occupation, but his sister credits him with a conquest that could have won the war at a stroke, had he not screwed it up by (supposedly) killing Brandon and Rickon Stark. In the end, despite his errors, Theon retains the support of most of his men and together they prepare to die heroically in a final defense of Winterfell. Theon is only defeated after he opens the gates to “Reek,” who reveals himself as the bastard of Bolton and slaughters the entire Ironborn garrison.
In the television show, Theon Greyjoy is petulant, weak, and easily deceived. Instead of coming up with the idea to attack Winterfell by himself, he is essentially dared into it by one of his subordinates. His men openly laugh at him and he is compelled into acts of cruelty in order to keep their respect. While the Theon of the book casually executes a man for disobeying his orders, this Theon seems frightened of his own men.
The entire Ironborn culture comes off as simultaneously weak and depraved, cowardly and cruel. In the book, Balon has at least some strategic reasons for attacking the North instead of the Lannisters. Here, Balon seems to do it just out of pride. In the end, Theon is casually betrayed by his own men out of cowardice for their own skins.
His father and sister also both despise Theon. While Theon came up with the name “Sea Bitch” for his ship in the book, a reflection of his affected devil may care attitude, in the show he is taunted by his sister who says, “We thought [the Sea Bitch] would be perfect for you.” It tells you what you are dealing with that Theon’s sister Asha was renamed Yara in the television series, because otherwise the audience might confuse her with a different character.
This is not to say that the show fails as drama. The television show’s Theon is a compelling character, torn between his desire to be Ned Stark (even to the point of conquering Winterfell and sleeping in his former master’s bed) and his pride in being one of the Ironborn, who hold themselves apart from the rest of the realm. The slow descent of Theon from a callow youth into a tragic figure associated with infamous crimes and betrayals is television at its best. When Theon cries, “It’s all just a game” before chasing after two Starks that have escaped him, he is trying so hard to be charismatic and debonair that it is heartbreaking.
The problem is that Theon is only compelling to a modern audience as a victim. In the television series, he is forced into his negative choices from the minute he sides with his father. Even when his sister opens up to him, she doesn’t appeal to him as a comrade but tells a story about how he was a weak and crying baby. Theon is eventually betrayed by his own men just after giving a passionate speech about how they will all be heroes. Instead of being presented with a complicated character hailing from a proud but idiosyncratic culture, we’re given someone we are supposed to feel bad for, trapped by his kinship to a gang of seeming psychopaths.
It works as drama, but fails as part of the story. Once again, the driving motivation behind a character is transformed so as to fit with modern morality. An ambitious youth grasping for glory with complicated motivations and willing to use violence is too much for a mass audience. A tragic figure pulled into failure and disgrace against his will is weaker, and therefore more sympathetic. As for a culture that proudly boasts “We do not sow,” there simply no way for dollar chasing Americans to even understand that ethos, let alone sympathize with it.
The Baratheon Brothers
Renly Baratheon is the early favorite to take the Iron Throne. The Renly of the book is described as almost a ghost of the young Robert Baratheon – handsome, strong, and capable. His claim to the throne is the second coming of the crowned stag.
Renly’s homosexuality in the books is canon, but he’s not effeminate (aside from a certain flair in dress). Besides, this isn’t Christian Medieval Europe, so why would anyone care? Other characters (like Oberyn Martell) have male lovers in the books, and no one seems terribly upset. Though the Renly of both the television series and the books is a capable leader who actually cares about the peace and prosperity of the realm, HBO’s Renly doesn’t look anything like the young Robert Baratheon, the towering hero who destroyed an entire dynasty with his warhammer.
Instead of a strong character who happens to be homosexual, we get the gay king prancing about. The Renly Baratheon of the series looks like an extra from Portlandia. He’s a paranoid closet case who denies his homosexuality even to his wife – the sister of his male lover. HBO continues the annoying tradition of spelling out what Martin only hints it. Season 1 treated us all to a slurpy homosexual encounter between Ser Loras Tyrell and Renly Baratheon, and this one gives us utterly unnecessary talk about Marjorie Tyrell offering to get her brother to “get [Renly] started.” It’s unclear why the Tyrells and other powerful families are so willing to casually dismiss legality to back such an unimpressive pretender, unless Mace Tyrell determines his political decisions based on who his son is hooking up with.
Stannis Baratheon meanwhile is supposed to be a man with an iron sense of justice and duty. However, HBO’s nudity quotient kicks in just after he is introduced, and we are treated to him ravishing the priestess Melisandre on top of a map of the seven kingdoms. Stannis and Melisandre also speak about how he has “nothing” because his wife (who disgusts him) has given him no sons.
However, in the books, it is Stannis’s wife who brought the fire priestess Melisandre and her Red God to Stannis’s headquarters on Dragonstone. Stannis also has a daughter, Shireen, whom Stannis goes so far as to designate as heir to the Iron Throne if he is killed. Neither of these characters appear in the second season. I’ll even guess that Shireen takes over the role of Edric Storm in Season 3, and Stannis will be pressured to have her killed as part of a magic ritual.
Martin describes Stannis as a capable, experienced, and brave commander, but one who leads from the rear. The television show turns him into what fans have called “Stannis the Mannis,” an action hero king who leads from the front. After watching half his fleet (and Ser Davos, his Onion Knight) blown apart by a hellish green fireball, Stannis barely hesitates.
Calmly acknowledging thousands will die, he thunders, “Come with me to take this city” and heroically leads his forces onto the shores of King’s Landing like George Washington from the Trumbull painting. Martin himself wrote this episode, but this dramatically changes the relationship between Stannis and the audience, as Stannis, like King in the North Robb Stark, leads from the front, as opposed to cowering like the loathsome Joffrey “Baratheon.” Of course, this also leads to a problem in the story, as one would expect a stupefyingly courageous soldier king to be worshiped by men, instead of losing them to an effete pretender like his little brother Renly.
Again, both characters are turned into caricatures because of the demands of the medium. It is too much to ask for a modern audience to understand that homosexuality could be incidental to a character, rather than central to his identity as a person. As for Stannis, the subtleties of his relationship with Melisandre and his past as a war hero both have to be spelled out. We have to see him actually having sex with her, which seems a dramatic character departure for a man who in the books wants to go so far as to ban brothels. It’s also not enough that he’s a strategist – he has to be turned into an action hero.
The show’s treatment of Robb Stark is by the far the most serious, perverting the character to the point that it shatters the meaning of his entire arc. Robb Stark, “the Young Wolf,” has won every battle he has fought. However, his power is dependent on an alliance with the Freys, a pact sealed by a marriage agreement.
In the books, Robb receives word that Bran and Rickon have been killed. In his grief, he gives in to temptation with one Jeyne Westerling, a maiden from a minor house allied to Tywin Lannister. Having taken her honor, he makes her his queen. This is a catastrophic political choice, but a personally honorable one. Having made a mistake at a moment of unspeakable sorrow, he takes responsibility for it like a man and a Stark. Later, it is suggested that Westerling may have been sent to Robb Stark precisely for this purpose by Tywin Lannister, making Robb’s fate all the more tragic because it may have been planned.
In the television series, he comes across a young woman who is sawing off the foot of a wounded Lannister soldier. She is Talisa Maegyr, a healer from Volantis, who has spurned her aristocratic background to help people. She and Robb spend more and more time together, to the disgust of his bannermen.
Later, Talisa tells the King in the North her story. Volantis was a slave city and she was brought up in privilege. One day her younger brother drowned and she was powerless to do anything at the moment of death. However, a slave grabbed the boy (which already carries the death penalty) and resuscitated him, saving his life. Talisa concluded that day should never live in a slave city and would abandon frivolous feminine pursuits to do things that really mattered. Robb is so overwhelmed by the story that he confesses he does not want to marry the Frey girl. If you are rolling your eyes at something so cornporne, egalitarian, and braindead that it sounds like it’s coming from The Great Dictator, it’s probably no accident that the actress who played Talisa is Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter.
The whole point of Robb Stark is that he is his father’s son. Ned Stark (it is believed) fathered the bastard Jon Snow while on campaign with Robert, despite his fearsome reputation for honor and integrity. Stark took the unheard of step of bringing the bastard home with him to Winterfell and raising him among his own sons even though it deeply wounded his wife Catelyn. Robb’s choice to marry Jeyne Westerling in order to spare her dishonor has to be seen in that light. Politically it is a foolish choice, but it is the kind of choice his lord father would have made.
By contrast, in the show Robb has no knowledge that Bran and Rickon have supposedly been killed. He simply sleeps with this girl because he wants to. Talisa is a foreigner, who offers no political advantages to the Stark cause. What’s even more remarkable is that Robb goes so far as to marry Talisa – and not only that, he marries her before a septon in “the light of the Seven,” the new gods, not the Old Gods of the North and his father. Robb doesn’t just betray his allies and his cause, he actually betrays the gods of his father and of the Northern realm that he claims to lead. Furthermore, as the Seven are not the faith of Essos (the continent where Talisa’s city of Volantis is located), it’s doubtful Talisa is a member of the Faith either. Essentially, Robb marries a random girl for the hell of it before gods neither of them worship.
It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the producers desperately wanted to introduce a modern rationalization to buttress Robb’s reputation as a “good guy.” As we are learning with the debate over gay marriage and all those red equal signs replacing Facebook icons, modern Americans simply cannot imagine marriage is about anything other than feelings. Of course, traditionally, marriage has been the most public of institutions, symbolizing the union of two family lines and the creation in some sense of a new tribe. The thought that even a knight, let alone a king, would throw all of this away from a girl he just met is far more unlikely than the most elaborate sorcery from the warlocks of Qarth. Robb Stark fails his most basic responsibilities – and it is precisely because of his failure and selfishness in marrying a “modern” woman that he builds his credentials as a “hero” for a modern audience.
The series similarly butchers the experiences of Jon Snow. After a crisis of conscience in the first season, Snow accepts his role as a man of the Night’s Watch, the Order that guards the realm from “what lies beyond” the Wall. The audience knows that the threat presented by the Others and the wights (essentially zombies) is terrifyingly real. Jon even gets a glimpse of the Others at Craster’s Keep, when he witnesses the deranged man sacrificing his own children to these demons of the North.
Later, Snow accompanies the legendary ranger Qhorin Halfhand on a mission. They ambush a group of wildlings, but Jon Snow hesitates when he sees he has captured a woman. Halfhand prepares to execute the girl, Ygritte, but Snow says he will do it. Halfhand leaves them to it, but Snow finds he cannot kill a captured woman. Ygritte runs away and leads Snow far away from the others before being recaptured. She spends the next night and day taunting Snow sexually and challenging his commitment to the Night’s Watch. When she escapes again, Snow is captured by the wildlings in the pursuit, and finds that Halfhand is also a prisoner. His actions have led to the deaths of his comrades.
Again, the series utterly annihilates the meaning of this story, not just the plot details. Halfhand is a quasi-legendary figure in the Watch, a man who knows better than anyone else the true spirit of the far north. In the book, when Snow offers to accompany him, he agrees, noting that Snow has the blood of the First Men and commands a direwolf. The “old powers are rising,” he intones. The Halfhand knows the cyclical pattern of history, and sees that a new age is about to break upon Westeros, marked by the return of ancient evils.
When Snow fails to execute Ygritte, the Halfhand is fatalistic. To a certain extent, he doesn’t even think it was a bad idea. As a believer in the “old powers,” Halfhand seems to have an almost mystical belief in fate and a knowledge of magic. When Snow and the others are fleeing from the wildlings, the other rangers sacrifice themselves one by one in order to buy the others even a few hours’ worth of time in an astonishing testimony to an iron creed of duty. In the end, he essentially orders Snow to kill him so the wildlings will accept Snow into their ranks. The price of an infiltrator among the wildlings is the Halfhand’s own death.
In contrast, the Halfhand here seems completely unaware of any larger significance to what his happening beyond the Wall other than the wildlings are more active than usual. He gives Jon a passionate speech about living your life for the realm, and then mocking it (and Jon) when Jon says he understands. Rather than a man dedicated to his duty, HBO’s Halfhand is a cynic. He does sacrifice himself so Jon can be accepted into the wildling ranks, but in such a brusque and almost flippant manner that viewers who haven’t read the books might be utterly confused about what is going on.
Instead of a detailed treatment of Halfhand’s last ranging, HBO viewers get a tedious dialogue between Jon Snow and Ygritte. Ygritte tiresomely mocks the Night’s Watch’s pledges of celibacy, accusing them of homosexuality, bestiality, and chronic masturbation. She proudly claims she is a free woman, to which Jon fires back that if she’s his prisoner, she’s not a free woman. “That’s what prisoner means!” Eventually, Ygritte charges that Snow and the other “crows” of the Night’s Watch are thieves, because they just “built a wall” and claimed everything south of it. Snow is speechless and we are quickly meant to sympathize with the “free folk” as opposed to the repressed, hierarchical crows with their rules and their kings.
The problem is that the Wall has existed for thousands of years, and was not something simply put up to defend some conquered land. It was designed to defend against the existential threat of the Others, which the viewers know actually exists. The fact that the Watch has forgotten its true purpose simply supports the Traditionalist theme of a lost wisdom buried in a tide of materialism that will one day re-emerge.
However, the show even manages to screw this up. A cache of dragonglass (obsidian) left by the Children of the Forest (the ancient race that once populated the continent) is found by Ghost (Snow’s direwolf) in the book. This shows the mysterious connection between the Children, the Others, the direwolves, and the return of the old powers. Only dragonglass can slay the Others, so it is a weapon for the final conflict fraught with mystical purpose. Here, it’s just randomly dug up by some Night’s Watch rangers.
The North is the centerpiece of the whole saga, as whatever happens in King’s Landing, the audience knows the Others are real and coming for the whole realm. The last scene of the season consists of the Night’s Watch blowing three blasts of a horn for the first time in thousands of years, signifying that the Others have come. All that can be taken for granted is in ruins, all of life is on the verge of extinction, and all that has been feared in the past pales in comparison to what will be unleashed if the Watch cannot stop them. It is a moment of unspeakable terror.
And yet, the bulk of what the series spent time on was building up the romantic tension between Ygritte and Jon Snow. Instead of slowly building tension, we were given dialogue typical of Two & A Half Men and political debates about equality. As a result, the rise of the “old powers” is hidden from the viewers, and much of the mythic quality of the story is lost.
Daenerys Targaryen, the East, and Race
The first season ended with Daenerys Targaryen emerging as the Unburnt, with dragons clinging to her flesh. After a terrible journey through the Red Waste, she arrives in Qarth a great trading city of the East. There, she is greeted by “The Thirteen,” the governing body of the city, who do not want to let her enter. However, one Xaro Xhoan Daxos invokes “Sumai,” letting her and her dragons into the city. To her horror, Daenerys finds that Xaro’s kind treatment is merely a ploy to use her in a plot to become “King of Qarth” with the help of the warlocks, a sinister guild of magicians. Ultimately, Daenerys uses her small dragons to burn down the warlocks’ House of the Undying, and locks Xaro and a servant who betrayed her in his vault, leaving them to starve.
Daenerys of course is the Aryan exemplar of a “ruling caste” who fell in love with the decidedly non-white Khal Drogo in season one. HBO transforms Xaro from one of the “milkmen” of Qarth with their pale skin into a black man from the “Summer Isles,” an immigrant who has raised himself to greatness. Needless to say, Xaro asks to marry Daenerys, creating the possibility of another race-mixing alliance.
Interestingly though, Xaro’s portrayal is far from positive. It is revealed that not only did he plot to betray Daenerys, but his claims of wealth are exaggerated. His prized vault which cannot be opened actually contains nothing. Like black men in our world, it seems he favored “bling” over substance.
Furthermore, Xaro justifies his action to the other Thirteen on the grounds of cosmopolitanism. When he argues that Daenerys should be admitted, he chides the others that they let in him, “a savage from the Summer Isles, and yet Qarth still stands.” Later of course, he launches a coup against the city that took them in. He lectures them, “those at the margins may find themselves at the center, and those at the center make room.” He then has the warlocks kill all the other members of the Thirteen. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate metaphor of the dangers of admitting racial aliens and how they can never identify with the national community.
One of Daenerys’s white servants is found sleeping with Xaro when the Dragon Queen escapes her imprisonment. She too is sentenced to the vault. White nationalists can take some satisfaction that at least in this episode, the punishment for race treason was starvation in an unlockable vault.
Daenerys also has a new awareness of the limitations of the Dothraki. When she is admitted into Qarth and is saved from starvation in the Red Waste, she is stunned to see that the Dothraki show no gratitude. At a party, she has to order her own men not to steal from their hosts. Disgusted, she even quotes her brother who said that the Dothraki “only know how to steal things that better men had built.” Ser Jorah Mormont answers, “They are also good at killing those better men.”
In the next few seasons, Daenerys will be liberating slave cities in Essos, serving as both egalitarian hero and “strong woman” reliant upon autocracy and blood-right. However, this season at least, Daenerys Targaryen plays against type as a white woman almost brought low by Eastern deceit, and redeemed by an overt Aryan display of confrontation and courage. What is most remarkable is that Xaro’s race change, and his behavior as a character, has no basis in the books. In Martin’s saga, Xaro is alive and well and still a moderately important character even in the latest novel.
There is another race change in the book, that of Salladhor Sahn. Sahn is not black in the books (or, to stay truer to the mythology, the book’s Sahn is not from the Summer Isles). However, for some reason, the pirate has been made black here. He speaks to Ser Davos Seaworth, a faithful aide to Stannis Baratheon. He says he will help Stannis attack King’s Landing, but only if he gets to have sex with the “little blonde queen” upon the sack of the city. Thus, the only two blacks in A Game of Thrones thus far have been a murderous conman and a rape crazed pirate, neither one of which were black in the books.
Speculation on Dorne
Still to come is the arrival of the Dornish in King’s Landing. Dorne is the southernmost section of the Seven Kingdoms and is culturally and racially distinct. The Martells of Dorne entered into the realm through marriage with the Targaryens, as the Martells alone are favored by the Targaryens as spouses (when the Targaryens are not marrying brother to sister.) Interestingly, the show up to this point has actually changed the royal styling. Normally, the monarch is referred to as “King of the Andals, and the Rhoynar, and the First Men.” Here, the “Rhoynar,” the darker skinned people that mostly populate Dorne, are neglected altogether and the monarch is simply “King of the Andals and the First Men.”
This suggests that the Rhoynar will seen as far more distinct from the rest of the realm than they are in the book. Given how the show has approached so many other characters, it is impossible not to see meaning in this seemingly trivial semantic change. Judging from the show’s treatment of the wildlings, we can expect that the Dornish will be portrayed as more egalitarian, sympathetic, and “free” than the palefaces that make up the rest of the Seven Kingdoms. Dorne is known for its more liberal sexuality and spicy food, an obvious nod to Southern European cultures by Martin. If the Dornish are presented as morally superior (by modern liberal standards) to the rest of the realm, it will serve as final proof that the television series is willing to transform core elements of Westerosi culture in order to please modern audiences.
Ayra and Tywin
A final nod to modernity comes with the character of Ayra Stark. The tomboyish Ayra is another fan favorite, but her story is greatly changed this season. While she witnesses torture and death at the hands of Ser Gregor Clegane (the “Mountain That Rides”), she does not suffer the repeated beatings and misery at Harrenhal that she does in the books. Vicious physical abuse of a child that takes place over the course of weeks would be a bit much for HBO.
Instead, the story has a drastic departure by having Tywin Lannister arrive at Harrenhal, where he stops the torture (for pragmatic reasons) and makes Ayra his cupbearer. In the same way the show unnecessarily has the character of Littlefinger explain himself, Tywin forms an outrageously unlikely working relationship with Ayra. The head of house Lannister explains himself to her, invites her to share his food, and even jokes with her. This represents a deliberate effort to “soften” Tywin to the audience and has the unfortunate effect of stripping away the consistency of his character. Why Tywin Lannister, who shows no sentimentality towards his men or even his children would suddenly care about one of his servants is unexplained.
The broader themes of A Song of Ice and Fire are well beyond the scope of this essay, but one is already well established by the time of A Clash of Kings. What Qhorin Halfhand calls the rising of the “Old Powers” is taking place around the world, and the reader can begin to see the threads of the larger tapestry, even if the characters can’t. Magic and sorcery have been fading from the world since the “Doom of Valyria,” a mysterious cataclysm reminiscent to the sinking of Atlantis that destroyed the world’s greatest civilization (and ancestral home of the Targaryens.)
However, the return of Daenerys’s dragons heralds a return to a great and terrible age, with the warlocks of Qarth, the pyromancers of King’s Landing, and the men of the Night’s Watch all beginning to see mysterious forces once thought banished from the world making their return. The problem is that the television show simply ignores all of this. Instead of the characters taking part in a cosmic drama, HBO focuses on sex and sitcom wisecracks.
Perhaps even worse, traditionalist impulses behind the actions of characters, such as Robb Stark honoring his father by marrying Jeyne Westerling, are transformed into liberal and individualist stands for equality and independence. Stripped of a more Traditionalist milieu where unchosen commitments to family, realm, and religion matter deeply, the characters’ actions make no sense. It’s no surprise than when Ygritte questions Jon about the purpose of the Night’s Watch, or the new character of Talisa grills Robb Stark about why he is going to war, the characters don’t really have answers. How can they, if they have been turned into people “just like us” who simply wear armor and sword?
And this is the great secret of the show’s popularity. Modern Americans love the show precisely because it changed the core of the story to fit the modern character. Characters in the show act in ways we find recognizable for goals that we find comprehensible. Even the religious characters seem reasonable because, after all, we see that deities like the Red God have real power. Americans can imagine themselves wearing a sigil with proud words underneath like “Hear me roar” without having to consider or justify the social system and ideological basis aristocracy requires. We get power without responsibility, freedom without consequences, and the feel of superiority while still professing belief in equality.
Game of Thrones gives us these typically modern illusions for one hour a week, letting us live vicariously through the Dragon Queen, the King in the North, or the wisecracking dwarf serving as Hand of the King. Even better, it lets us do this without challenging us or raising uncomfortable questions. In modern America, even our shows let us have it both ways.