Monday, April 25, 2011

Game of Thrones – Episode 2, “The Kingsroad”

Casting can make or break you. I mentioned this last week, but the sheer casting of Joffrey does a lot of work all in and of itself. Jack Gleeson, the young man who plays him, may well be an absolute sweetheart of a human being, but he looks like an unbelievably smarmy prick. So before we had heard a single word from the young prince we distrusted him and had some faint dislike for him. Now, hopefully this doesn’t happen to young Master Gleeson in real life (although, to abandon political correctness for just a moment, I must suspect that it does—try as we like to avoid it, we as humans do a lot of snap judging, and I would wager that Gleeson gets judged on that face quite a bit), but on film, his casting works as a sort of wonderful shorthand.

Here in Episode 2, however, we do get to hear him speak, and judge him as a character, not just a face, and the effect is pitch-perfect. For the character of Joffrey is a spoiled, entitled, arrogant young man. We get a sense of this in his insolent mocking of his uncle at the start of the episode. But we also get a sense of the terrified, helpless coward that lurks beneath the surface of this preening kid when he is challenged and attacked by his uncle and has no recourse but to threaten to tell his Mommy.

It is this threat of telling Mommy that ends up anchoring the scene, or sequence, I want to focus on this week, that of the execution of a pet. First off, let’s acknowledge the faint absurdity that this is what seems to be getting the most play as demonstrating that perhaps HBO has gone too far with this program. Rape, incest, the attempted murder of a child—all are deemed worthwhile subjects for fictional treatment. But the (merciful!) execution of a wolf (that we see as a domesticated pet dog like our very own Fidos and Spots)? Unforgivable.

But before the dog is killed we must back up to Joffrey and the smitten Sansa taking a walk in the woods during a stopover as they journey to King’s Landing. They hear the sound of wood clacking on wood and investigate, only to find Arya play-fencing (with wooden sticks—not, it is important to note, with the very real sword given her by her half-brother as a going-away present) with a somewhat larger boy, who turns out to be the “butcher’s boy,” Micah.

This is a fascinating scene, in that we see the larger world of men and power played out by children who, for the most part, are aping the parts they have seen their elders model. So Joffrey revels in and is quick to demonstrate his power over this lower-class laborer’s son, behaviors we can intuit he learned from his mother and uncle, and certainly to a degree from his father. Micah, no fool, shows quick and eager deference, agreeing to whatever Joffrey says and apologizing for whatever he is thought to have done. And Sansa takes the passive seat she has no doubt seen countless court ladies take when disputes present themselves.

But Arya, the rebellious tomboy who we have already seen chafe at the role she is supposed to play, cannot stomach seeing her playmate hurt. It’s important to remember that Joffrey promises not to hurt him, "much," and while that is most certainly the cruel taunt of a cruel child it is also in its sick way honest—we have no reason to believe that Micah’s life is actually in danger. A situation Arya changes when, unable to stomach the cowardly act of Joffrey slowly slicing the boy’s face, she attacks the prince she knows she cannot. It’s a thrilling moment in the traditional sense of “yay, the bully is getting beat,” but a sickening one in retrospect when you realize that her action results in no real triumph beyond the satisfaction of seeing Joffrey shamed and beat. For the consequences are quick and hard—not only is the boy Micah hunted down and slaughtered by Joffrey’s brutal protector The Hound, but when Arya’s direwolf (who had attacked the prince to save his master, just as Bran’s wolf does for him) cannot be found, a cruel and clearly embarrassed Cersei demands that Sansa’s hound pay the price in his stead.

A quick, further word on casting. Maisie Williams gets more to do here as Arya, and she proves herself a wonderful young actress. Witness the way she tosses Joffrey’s sword into the water, and the way that we can see in the action how heavy this sword is for such a small girl, and how she must use her entire body to hurl it into the river. It’s a small detail, but a wonderful one.

Arya’ sister hates her, her wolf is gone, her sister’s murdered, her friend murdered, and Joffrey only wounded, in both spirit and flesh. And what I find fascinating is how Arya did the right thing. And got nothing for it. In the pilot last week, we heard Ned tell Bran that “he who passes the sentence must yield the sword.” It’s a noble, right sentiment, and I think one of Martin’s primary themes throughout the series. The notion--that when men, leaders especially, insert too many proxies between the decisions they make and the impact they have on the real world, disastrous results ensue--is one we will see in multiple guises. Here, we see it with Cersei and Robert. Robert refuses to take responsibility for a decision—first passing on any kind of judgment, and ready to accept a “kids will be kids” defense, and then, when Cersei presses the issue and demands that Lady be sacrificed, as he refuses to even pass the sentence himself, much less yield the blade.

It’s a chilling moment, as Ned calls after his friend, asking him if his is indeed his ruling, and getting a cold shoulder and silence in return.

And yet the actual execution is, again, not something Ned will allow another to carry out, even though this was not his sentence. So it is that he must destroy his daughter’s pet himself. Robert refuses to shunt off the distasteful duties of being a father and ruler to another. As a man of the North, he believes in owning his actions, and not passing them down the line. It’s a lesson that we learn almost at the very beginning of the series, and one we will see more of as the story progresses.

Until Whenever

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