In honor of the faith of the Seven, and to pass the interminable wait for the conclusive episodes of Game Of Thrones, and not at all to scratch a compulsive itch that wouldn't go away once the idea occurred to me, I have decided to list my seven favorite moments from each of the first seven seasons. Videos will be embedded in the headings. Anyway, without further ado...
There are several reasons why season 2 is my favorite of them all. The War of Five Kings in full swing, Jon’s story finally getting going, the simultaneously straightforward and spooky depiction of the warlocks of Qarth, the best material for Theon. But also the best character on the show was at his best when he was acting Hand Of The King, mixing it up with all the schemers in the capital. And this was his masterstroke, flushing out a mole on the Small Council with a fiendishly simple, snappily-edited trap. Especially this early on, the show rarely went in for any fancy cinematics (later seasons would go in for a bit more indulgent cinematography in their bigger-budget battle scenes), and so this bit especially stood out. Often as not, Game Of Thrones can feel like more like a horror movie than high fantasy, but in this bit it evoked a heist movie. And especially since we weren’t especially sympathetic for any of Tyrion’s patsies, the relatively low stakes gave it a very unusual flavor. GOT was, however briefly, a romp.
If this scene suffers, it’s only in direct comparison to Tywin's similar introduction, dressing down his son. Balon is not nearly as interesting a character as his Lannister counterpart, but we have been more sympathetic to Theon, who has always been kind of crappy, but is at least trying to be on the side of the Good Guys. He’s a snide little jerk, but you could empathize with his awkward position being raised as a (relatively pampered) hostage. You empathize with him more when the father that gave him away berates him for having been given away. This is also the best example I can think of how ruthlessly efficient the series plotting can be. In the course of a single scene, it establishes an entire new family dynamic that fleshes out Theon’s character and changes his course drastically but believably in just a few minutes, while also introducing a new antagonist in his father and antihero with his badass sister Yara. And then with Balon’s kiss off line, it drops a great plot twist, that changes the entire direction of Theon’s plotline for the rest of the season and, once again, makes things much, much worse for our Stark heroes.
If there is a single scene to sum up the thematic preoccupations of Game Of Thrones, this is it. Varys congratulates Tyrion on a well played round of the titular game, and poses the skeptical dwarf a riddle without an answer. When a priest, a king, and a rich man all command a swordsman to kill the others, who does he obey? Tyrion tries gamely to outthink the question, saying the sword is the real source of the power, but the Spider points out that the world doesn’t behave as if that’s true.
“Power is a trick. A shadow on the wall. And a very small man can cast a very large shadow.”
What does that mean? Is it even an answer? It is not clear. Which is something the series does not get enough credit for, in my opinion. I’ve seen many and more takes that talk about Game Of Thrones as being distinct from conventional fantasy because it presents a world where honor and morality are punished rather than rewarded. That is not true across the board, though. An inverted form of the Disney version where things always work out for the heroes would be just as simplistic, if infinitely more cynical. The reason why Westeros is a more mature fantasy realm than most is not because the violence is more graphic. It’s because it is not a place where there are simple answers. Honor gets you killed (sometimes). Wanton cruelty is punished (eventually). Speed beats strength (except when it doesn’t). The faithless prosper (to an extent). But loyalty is rewarded (usually).
How do you navigate those waters? There’s no direct roadmap. Simple answers, and simple morals, are a trick. And Varys knows from tricks.
GOT’s sprawling scope is such that it can feel less like a single show than several loosely-knit spin-offs. Especially in the early going, the Dany Show didn’t feel too much closer to the Night’s Watch Show or the King’s Landing Boogaloo than, say, Ant-Man does to Guardians Of The Galaxy. But especially starting in season two, you could see the potential for that scope pay off in how it allows for what are basically crossover episodes. So when Bran or Stannis show up in the Night’s Watch show, it produces what I imagine is the same jolt of excitement that my grandma feels when Jack Hydrant from Chicago Fire makes a cameo on a Very Special Episode of Chicago Animal Control.
Conversely, when Arya’s solo spin off in Braavos sputters out after two seasons, or the backdoor pilot for Snakes Of Sand doesn’t catch on, you can see the less appealing elements of the Shared Universe at work. But this post is focused on the positive, and the first and probably still my favorite “crossover” is when Tywin Lannister unwittingly appointed Arya Stark to be his servant at Harrenhall. One of the show’s most inspired bits of adaptation, it gives us more Tywin (and Charles Dance) than we get on the page, which is a great thing in itself, as he muses about his family and martial legacies. It also raises the stakes immensely when Arya is in the room with the main villain of the entire show rather than the third tier dirtbags she is forced to serve in the books. We also get more history of the Kingdoms with his stories about Harrenhall, and more of the sort of strategizing that I geek out over, as he berates his underlings and, in a roundabout way, builds up Robb as a rival worthy of his respect. And each scene also doubles as a suspense sequence, as he casually unravels that his servant is hiding her true identity, and it is only his disinterest in the whole truth that impedes him from dragging it all out of her.
The tension is thick when “Blackwater” opens with all of King’s Landing bracing for siege. They only get more so when the Hound shows up to sour the atmosphere in the ale hall where Bronn is holding court with a bunch of soldiers and prostitutes. Sandor Clegane’s always been a violent, surly character, so his willingness to kill an ally on the eve of battle out of pure cussedness doesn’t feel as false as this quick standoff should (given that Bronn is a beloved, but not exactly central, figure). But upon rewatch, it’s easier to see the self-loathing eating at the heart of the character driving his dislike for the cutthroat. His little soliloquy about how they are both killers at heart is on one level the hoary old “we aren’t so different, you and I” bit, but since it is two bad(ish) guys instead of a villain razzing a hero, it feels dangerous rather than stale. It’s also the start of a thought the Hound won’t finish until the end of the hour, when he talks to Sansa about getting used to looking at men like him. But in the meantime, the confrontation only avoids a bloody result because the larger conflict comes to a boil just before the smaller one.
“Blackwater”, my favorite episode of the show, is sometimes remembered for being one big action sequence. It’s not really, though the collapse down to a single setting provides increased urgency to even the plentiful scenes of “downtime”. Even with the majority of the characters set aside for the episode, it still manages to convey much of the sweep of the diverse cast by showing us not just the perspectives of the attacking side and the defenders, but a swath of both those on the walls and those holed up waiting to see which way things fall. And the quiet scenes are some of the best, as I always enjoy getting drunk with Cersei, even when she’s stewing in her most rancid juices and harassing Sansa.
Except that it’s also an example of how astutely the show understands its “villains”, such that, especially upon revisiting, you can see Cersei’s antagonism with Sansa (like Jaime’s with Ned or Brienne, and the Hound with Bronn or Arya) as a perverse form of reaching out. That “we aren’t so different, you and I” hokum that corny villains spout? Game Of Thrones understands better than just about any work I’ve encountered the basic truth underlying those platitudes that bad writing has to insist upon. It works it into the bones of the characterization, so that especially after we have seen what rotten relations she has with her own family, we can recognize the twisted maternalism working through her sadism toward Sansa. She is really trying to impart lessons, in what she imagines to be the pitiless manner of her own father, about court politics, about religion (love that line about how Tywin “believes in the gods, he just doesn’t like them very much”), and about war. And she’s tormenting an enemy, the only member of the opposing side she can lay hands on directly. And she’s trying to keep a potential rival and usurper of her place at court cowed and subjugated. And she’s lashing out at the one person that she knows, in spite of all that, might be in the best position to actually understand the perfumed cage that has driven her to such depths of bitterness. As I said in the S1 post, she is long past hoping to be accepted for what she is. But to be understood, even by an enemy, is both something her hardened heart can’t help longing for and the absolute most it will allow her to maybe sort of hope at.
The entire season had been building up to this climax, exploring up the multifaceted nature of the war in such a way that we had allegiances on all sides going into this decisive showdown. The series’ commitment to providing every side with depth and nuance* makes the conflicts more compelling, as they move inexorably towards confrontations whose outcomes we can’t predict but are sure to evoke some measure of both triumph and tragedy, given our divided loyalties. I truly wasn’t sure going into the battle who would win; I think I leaned toward Stannis, because I had a nascent, inaccurate theory that each season/book would see a new claimant take the Iron Throne. Moreover, I wasn’t entirely sure who I wanted to win. Stannis was not nearly as likeable as Tyrion. But if he won, it would mean taking down the execrable Joffrey. But also probably the amiable Podrick…
At its best, Game Of Thrones has multiple conflicts of this nature churning along. It doesn’t mean we don’t still pick our side, but we feel conflicted about it. We want the Starks to take back Winterfell, but feel for Theon in spite of that. We want the Watch to hold the Wall, even though we’re not wishing death upon Ygritte or Mance. And we want the Lannisters to lose the war(s), but we dread seeing them take our favorite character down with them. The tension this builds is potent, but it wasn’t until my latest rewatch that I noticed how deftly “Blackwater” shifts the field of play to position me for this rousing moment.
When the bells start ringing to signal the start of the battle, I still don’t know quite who I’m rooting for. But when Tyrion’s wildfire trick quickly sweeps Davos off the board, and especially when Joffrey (of course) cowardly flees from the walls, you no longer have the most sympathetic character to root for on one side or the most horrible one on the other to root against. And so the scales have subtly been tipped and I’ve been primed to unequivocally root for the Lannisters to triumph (in this instance). Tyrion’s speech is itself a great piece of writing, and thoroughly in character, as he eschews lofty proclamations about glory or moralism while still managing to stir the spirits of his audience. It manages the tricky feat of being rousingly pragmatic, and I actually stood up from my seat the first time I was watching it. The seventh or eighth time, it remains the high water mark for the character, and the series as a whole.
*Okay, not the White Walkers. And the Boltons and Freys are rather “pure” villains. But there are at least 11 major factions (the main houses of 7 kingdoms + Riverlands + Night’s Watch + Wildlings + Targaryens-In-Exile) who are presented in such a way that you can’t really write them off as just The Bad Guys. That’s a lot.