The specter of history overshadows everything in “Cripples, Bastards, And Broken Things”, an episode whose direct engagement with the recent past of the Seven Kingdoms was probably necessary, although maybe not entirely welcome. After all, the core problem for most viewers who hadn’t read the novels was that they had no idea what the history of Westeros was, so beyond simply not knowing who characters were, they didn’t have strong ideas of the history that grounded those relationships.
Therefore we get an episode filled primarily with exposition to fill these gaps. “Cripples, Bastards, And Broken Things” isn’t anywhere near as boring as the book Ned Stark receives about the history of Westeros, but it fills a similar role of being an exposition-filled introduction with hidden, crucial clues.
The first subject of the “Who the hell is that guy?” is Theon Greyjoy, who’s been hanging around the periphery so far. This is probably the least effective part of the episode; Tyrion’s banter with Theon is amusing (“Your loyalty to your captors is indeed admirable”) and conveys that Theon may have multiple forces motivating him, but it isn’t clear why this is important. Nor is the scene between Jaime and Jory Cassel, about their meeting at the Battle Of Pyke, connected well enough to Theon’s story to make it clear that this is a relevant part of the recent history of the Seven Kingdoms. This may well be because other than the “who’s that guy?” aspect of it, it isn’t all that relevant until Season 2—Game Of Thrones definitely struggles with the proper level of foreshadowing here.
With that said, I do enjoy Jaime’s scene with Jory, for the sheer casual disdain Jaime has about, well, everything. What comes across in Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance here is that Jaime Lannister is a man desperate for conversation, but unable to maintain interest in other people. Also, it seems like Coster-Waldau’s native accent creeps in, but it actually helps, I think, in that it gives him a slight sneer. The scene is also aided by the irony of knowing what happens in just a couple of episodes, making their fleeting human connection that much more tragic. However, as a history lesson, it announces little more than “yes, history exists!”
It just keeps coming, too. Littlefinger spends the tournament regaling Sansa with the history of the Clegane brothers. This is important, but it’s a change from the books, where it’s Sandor who tells the story and in so doing, gives that history a far more personal element. And Grand Maester Pycelle is an exposition machine with Ned Stark, although that fits his character perfectly.
The more successful major expository scene involves Viserys and Doreah, as she pumps him for information about dragons and his family’s history. Viserys Targaryen is a cardboard cutout of a villain before this point, throwing temper tantrums and demanding his birthright. “The brave men didn’t kill dragons. The brave men rode them.” As he discusses the fall of the dragons, we can see the sadness that undergirds his patheticness. The scene also serves Doreah well with the idea that she wants to be a dragon to fly away from anything, as well as killing her enemies. It establishes these two characters as the broken things. It also continues to establish magic, or at least rumor of magic, as something part-and-parcel of the show world, even as we don’t see much.
It’s absolutely critical for Game Of Thrones to engage with its history at this point in the show. This is not a complaint. There were many changes made from show to screen, but the biggest gap is that huge amounts of the history of the land and the individual characters were cut—like 90% of it. Almost all of these characters are defined by their roles in Robert’s Rebellion or its immediate aftermath, but those roles trail off behind them, instead of being woven into a coherent story. There are metaphorical advantages to presenting these characters as their individual histories—it gives all of them at least perceived depth—but the array of names and places is confusing without the overall context. (At the time, I suggested that HBO should have done some kind of special on Robert’s Rebellion to put it all into context, but I have no idea how that could have been done with the same excellent attention to detail as the show had.)
The other way to get around this issue: have events occur that give the show’s story its own history. As long as it’s entertaining or notable, there’s reason to work through the confusion. Some of that is plot-based—there’s a reason the episode ends with the first major public political act, instead of rumors and innuendo. From here on, we can know we’ll be dealing with the ramifications of Cat arresting Tyrion.
Another way that Game Of Thrones breaks free from the oppressive weight of its history is by being, well, fun. The characters most directly referenced by the title who are the standouts of the episode. Chief among them: Jon Snow, and that’s a relatively rare thing to say. Turning the Night’s Watch into a sort of high school drama, where the new kid gets harassed by the bullies until the hero stands up for him is a good way to have us learn who these previously personality-free characters are. It’s not a high school drama, though, and the ending monologue by Owen Teale about the actual dangers of the Watch is a fantastic way to subvert the good humor of the section, while also, again humanizing a previously petty bully. “You’re boys still. And come the winter, you’ll die. Like flies.”
The real star of this section is John Bradley as Sam Tarly. Again, he fits in a certain set of cliches: the bumbling sidekick, the cowardly boy who has to learn to become a man—but Bradley inhabits the role with such enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to like Sam. He also brings out the best in Jon. “You can’t fight. You can’t see. You’re afraid of heights and probably everything else. What are you doing here, Sam?” I’m not sure there’s any other episode where the Night’s Watch storyline is my favorite, but it’s true here.
Finally, one of the oddest things about rewatching these early episodes is how much they hinge on a certain other kind of history: people trying to figure out what happened in the recent past. Both Cat and Ned have been shown working to uncover the truth about what happened to Bran Stark and Jon Arryn. These are treated as legit mysteries, which take time and patience to uncover. Most of the rest of the series is comprised characters acting and reacting, which makes Ned taking the time to do his sleuthing seem out-of-place now.
Yet this engagement with history is also stage-setting for what’s next. Yes, this episode is still awkward, but on almost every front, the story is moving forward and clearly moving forward and standing on its own. Game Of Thrones is building momentum as well as moments.
Notes And Quotes:
- “I’m not a cripple!” “ Then I’m not a dwarf. My father will be delighted!” Tyrion delivering the saddle plans is a great moment for his character, especially as, from here until Season 4, he’s tied to being a Lannister.
- They talk Roz up more than Rhaegar Targaryen in this episode. “Your next tumble with Roz is on me. I’ll try not to wear her out.”
- The Doreah-Viserys scene is also the show’s first use of “sexposition,” which I suppose we’ll have to talk about at some point.
- “That’s very sad.” “Yes it is. Why did I buy you? To make you sad?” There’s a clever touch here where Viserys having sex with Doreah seems like he’d bought her for himself, but an oblique meaning of her being hired to train Dany for his own Targaryen coupling with her later. I hadn’t noticed that before.
- Another sneaky thing: Viserys reacting to the candle wax.
- Ned basically gets a copy of Westerosi Wikipedia from Pycelle.
- Speaking of, I love the Grand Maester’s room. That’s a great little set.
- Ned tells Arya she’ll marry a high lord. “No. That’s not me.”
- “Distrusting me was the wisest thing you’ve done since you climbed off your horse.” Mmm, yes.
- “Theon? He’s a good lad.” “I doubt that.” Foreshadowing alert!
- “The next time you raise a hand to me will be the last time you have hands.”
- “I was also trained to kill my enemies. Your Grace.” “As was I.” Cersei, too, refuses to be one of the broken things.
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