[Note: Spoilers for "Garden of the Bones" and the novels follow.]
Robb Stark wins a victory in the west, only to meet a woman who questions the cost of the victory, the price of which falls upon Sansa in King’s Landing. Tyrion attempts to moderate Joffrey’s cruelty, only to discover that Joffrey is more of a monster than anyone imagined. But there are other monsters in the woods — the Mountain that Rides and his Lannister soldiers brutalize and torture to death the innocent, while nearer to King Renly’s camp we see quite a different kind of monster. All the while, Tyrion continues his maneuvering to seize firmer control of power in the capital, recruiting an unwilling spy, while Daenerys finds herself at the edge of salvation only for it to be denied.
“Garden of Bones” is an episode that surprised me in some ways, especially afterward as I made my initial estimate of its qualities and then, over time, reconsidered the position. I had initially come out of watching that episode and considering it scene-for-scene with the impression that it was just a bit better than the episode before, that it was among the best episodes of the series.
But over time, it began to diminish. Others have pin-pointed a central problem: despite dropping the Jon and Bran and Theon story lines, it’s quite packed with disparate events and feels, perhaps, disjointed. The narrative always flows best when there’s strong connective tissue, either a theme that episodes can be built around a concentrated focus on just a couple of story lines. This episode was in some ways even more disjointed than the difficult, packed first two episodes. And last, while new writer to the series Vanessa Taylor showed an impressive talent with adapting scenes from the books, many of the new scenes she wrote were not as impressive.
A handful of new scenes in the episode have wrung the most attention out of critics and viewers alike: the opening with Robb and the introduction of Talisa, a Volantene healer; Joffrey and the two prostitutes; Littlefinger and Catelyn. Of these scenes, only the middle scene strikes us as particularly strong, as it lets Jack Gleeson unleash the full force of Joffrey’s sadism in a terrifying and comprehensible way. While some might object to the scene in terms of its depiction of women as victims and objects of abuse, it seems important to illuminate how warped and wicked Joffrey is, as his focus in the whole scene is not, exactly, about sex, but about abuse and power and the ecstatic pleasure that he feels when he’s able to carry out his desires.
The scene between Littlefinger and Catelyn, on the other hand, revives concerns we have had with the depictions of the characters thanks to writing choices. As in “The North Remembers”, Littlefinger’s naked avowal of love and devotion is jarring for a character who, in the novels, essentially never reveals his true thoughts, always wearing a glib mask. More centrally, however, the mechanics of the scene suggest an ugly trend: Catelyn’s agency is being stripped away, as each thought or action she originates is generally pushed over to someone else to let them introduce it and then have her be reactive rather than proactive. The end result is that in some ways, Catelyn is traveling a path more like the Cersei of the novels, a reactionary figure who’s focus seems intensely self-centered, and whose actions are often guided by others without her being aware of it, in a way that only a very jaundiced reading of the text can make consistent with the Catelyn of the novel.
Catelyn Stark acts in the interest of family, first and foremost, but within a framework of the rights and duties and prerogatives of a noble woman, rather than a modern day housewife (as many might want to paint her as). To turn that strength into a weakness, to paint her as a home-body rather than a thoughtful and stalwart advocate for her family, is increasingly one of the most lamentable aspects of the show’s adaptation of characters to the screen. It’s especially a shame when Michelle Fairley is perfectly capable of capturing the Catelyn in the novel.
The other scene winning a great deal of discussion relates to Talisa, the healer from Volantis. It’s interesting to note that initially, Oona Chaplin was announced in the role of “Jeyne”, with HBO going out of the way to explicitly note she had no last name. This led to a great deal of speculation as to whether this related to some story point, and to what degree the role was basically that of Jeyne Westerling in the novel. By the time cameras rolled, however, it appears that any connection to Jeyne Westerling were cut for good — she’s now just Talisa of Volantis, with a last name that Richard Madden has indicated is difficult for him to pronounce. What happened, and how does this affect the adaptation? It seems likely that the initial premise was that they were going to introduce Jeyne Westerling sooner than in the novel, since unlike A Clash of Kings they would be following Robb on his campaign. But perhaps as they worked on it and how to explain it and where the drama of it lay, they began to drift further and further from the original character and the original story.
At the end, all that’s left is that she’s a woman who strikes up a dangerous relationship with Robb Stark, and it appears that for the producers that meant there was little reason to try and maintain a facade of adapting the text directly. By dropping the name of Jeyne entirely, I think they’ve actually made the right choice: it clearly indicates that there’s something new here, that readers should not look to the books for guidance, should not become confused. I wish they did this more often, in fact, when they significantly change a character or their role in the story. Decoupling them from their identity in the novel would make a handy signal to expect something different.
But while cutting ties to the original storyline was the right choice, since it was radically altered, the actual scene is … not very good, is it? It’s a warped meet-cute — he’s a king, she’s a healer, they amputate limbs together — which turns very much on her attitude. She acts nothing like any other person on the show towards a king or great lord, which is supposed to be part of her appeal. What follows is a kind of heavy-handed moralizing that provides a kernel of useful information — Robb has no idea what to do if he wins, and no desire to oversee the good rule of the realm if he does — but otherwise just emphasizes how spunky, how capable of speaking truth to power, how … not very much like a George R.R. Martin character she is.
Are the books, in their way, an indictment of war? Sure. Do characters at some points moralize against it, urging peace, providing understanding of its horrors? Sure. But they earn that, it’s something we build towards. To have it thrown into Robb’s face on a first meeting is like a slap in the face to viewers. It was heavy-handed, and it was clumsy, and it reminds us no less than the awful Littlefinger and Cersei scene in the first episode which struck similarly-clumsy notes.
The fault lies not with the actors, of course. They did well with the material they had. But the material they had could have been pulled out of a more serious moment of M*A*S*H, or a Michael Gallant-focused episode of ER, or any number of other shows where medical types chew out those who insist on making wounds and dead bodies, regardless of the reasons. We could have done without it, in Game of Thrones. After all, here’s what GRRM had to say about the way “bad” fantasy authors fail at understanding and using class structure:
And that’s another of my pet peeves about fantasies. The bad authors adopt the class structures of the Middle Ages; where you had the royalty and then you had the nobility and you had the merchant class and then you have the peasants and so forth. But they don’t’ seem to realize what it actually meant. They have scenes where the spunky peasant girl tells off the pretty prince. The pretty prince would have raped the spunky peasant girl. He would have put her in the stocks and then had garbage thrown at her. You know.
Robb’s no rapist or abuser, but the idea that a random strange woman would even consider telling a war-like king from the North off, especially if she’s foreign or from some lower social class, is baffling, and it’s something that unless very carefully explained is a genuine failure of the scene to adhere to its setting.
When the episode was good, though, it was very, very good… and also very, very faithful to the novel. The best scenes — Tyrion’s cutting down of Lancel to size, the horrors of Harrenhal and Gregor Clegane’s men, the monstrous birth at the end — closely followed the novel, and benefited from it. Even the parley, where they failed (to our shock and bemusement) to keep the iconic peach offering, truly captured the dynamics between the brothers, Renly’s glib confidence and Stannis’s grating, unyielding certainty. One can hope that the positive response to scenes like these will convince the writers in the future that sticking a little closer to adapted scenes is often the best choice.